Britain mounts belated rescue in Iraq but also reveals limitations

Members of the Yasidi religious minority refugees boarding an aid flight in Sinjar, August 10. EPA/Michel Reimon

The immediate crisis to which the British government is now scrambling to find an appropriate response is the desperate plight of hundreds of refugees stranded on a mountain ridge and surrounded by forces of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq. The difficulty the government is facing in deciding what to do illustrates not only the complexity of the current situation in the region but also the reluctance of the Tory leadership to square with the British public on the paucity of its options.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain is expected to have a policy position on all major international crises. To justify its retention of a leading role in this and other influential bodies on the world stage such as NATO, the EU, the G8, the IMF and World Bank, the British have had to demonstrate enduring military and economic strength plus a sense of purpose and vision befitting a leading international actor.

Now the British have slid down the global pecking order in terms of relative industrial weight, downsized their armed forces and expressed ambivalence about their membership of the EU, they cannot boast a decisive influence when crises emerge. Perhaps more to the point, they seem to be unclear about exactly what they stand for.

Allegedly, when he failed to gain parliamentary backing for intervention in Syria to counter the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people last summer, David Cameron took that set-back as a message that backing would not be forthcoming for any more military interventions in the Middle East and possibly beyond.

In any case, when the Ukraine crisis erupted, the Cameron government showed reluctance to jeopardise the financial advantages of Russian investments in the UK. In the context of the conflict between the Israelis and the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, Cameron and his new foreign secretary Alex Hammond were much clearer about their support for Israel’s “right to defend itself” than about the causes of Palestinian resistance to the seven-year long Israeli blockade of Gaza, latterly reinforced by the Sisi government in Egypt.

Reluctant under pressure

Only under pressure from within the governing coalition and parliament has Cameron’s new cabinet conceded that some British weapons sales to Israel will be suspended – but only, as Vince Cable told reporters: “in the event of resumption of significant hostilities”. With respect to arming Kurdish forces fighting the IS in Iraq, the government’s emergency committee Cobra has agreed to transport Jordanian military trucks to Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Busy first few weeks for Philip Hammond. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

That move came in response to a direct plea from the Kurdish security chief Masrour Barazani. He reminded the British that the UK had the greatest role in defining the borders of Iraq after the First World War and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French. Barazani said the Kurds were the victims of Sykes-Picot and that now is not the time for the British to claim that the current crisis is not their problem.

Whether in relation to the borders of Iraq or the parameters of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of which date from Sykes-Picot, the British government must surely hate to be told it bears historical responsibility. Such reminders are doubly galling in the context of the contemporary British debate about how to teach schoolchildren hailing from different parts of the erstwhile empire about “British values” as if these were always and everywhere about tolerance, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Teaching British values as an antidote to the spectre of radicalisation, especially among British Muslims, in itself carries a nasty reminder that the cause of Islamist militants, the most extreme of which are now grouped under the banner of the IS, is informed by a desire to turn the clock back and unmake the borders instituted by Sykes-Picot. And to single out the Yazidis and Christian minorities as deserving of rescue, in part because they are IS targets simply on the basis of their religion, is to plough yet further into the sectarian agenda of the militant Islamists.

Repercussions at home

Leading Conservatives are even talking about making an exception to their own anti-immigration policies to find room in Britain for Christians and other religious minorities in their hour of need. While the impetus to do something to help these people is entirely defensible, it will have repercussions on the British domestic scene where Islamophobia and rising anti-Semitism are already cause for concern.

The challenge for the British government is to find a way to square its stance on the problems besetting the contemporary Middle East with its policy positions at home. As it stands, the government’s apparent foreign policy position looks to be aligned with that of an emerging compact between the governments of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. All are, to varying degrees, important customers for British exports, with the Saudis and the UAE key consumers of British defence sales.

None can be considered exemplars of the British values the government is touting at home. And herein may lie one of the keys to why the Cameron government is so averse to spelling out what its current approach to the Middle East is. If it is most comfortable in alignment with Israel, the object of criticism for the consequences of its military campaign in Gaza, and a group of Arab dictators who have resisted all efforts by their populations to democratise, how then to sell that to the British public as a position to embrace?

Of course, a limited operation to rescue some of the refugees fleeing the ghastly beheadings and live burials perpetrated by the IS may put the government on the side of right in the eyes of some of the British public. Even so, as the lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya demonstrate, such actions can change the dynamic on the ground, but cannot guarantee that “right intention” is sufficient make the situation better overall.