With the U.S.-led coalition now taking military action against Islamic State forces inside Syria, the British government is facing increasing pressure to participate. For four reasons, it is very likely to do so.
1. Prime Minister Cameron wants to take action. The British prime minister is a firm supporter of President Obama. This relationship is encapsulated by Cameron’s U.N. meeting with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, where he’s acting as an American interlocutor to seek Iran’s support for the counter-IS coalition.
But beyond his friendship with President Obama, Cameron believes that the U.K. must play a central role in international security. Consider Cameron’s forceful condemnations of IS. Following the beheading of British citizen David Haines, Cameron described IS as “monsters” and the “embodiment of evil.” Britain, he said, would “hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice no matter how long it takes.” The prime minister is also greatly concerned by the hundreds of British nationals fighting with IS. He fears that these individuals will return to the U.K. with the operational skills and intent to commit terrorist atrocities.
It’s crucial to note how the U.K. political landscape has changed in the last few days. With the Scottish referendum concluded and the existential threat to Cameron’s position now receded (he would have faced calls to resign had Scotland gone independent), he now has the political space to pursue the Islamic State. With another U.K. citizen, Mr. Henning, facing murder as IS’s next Western victim, and President Obama actively seeking British support, Cameron believes he must move from the sidelines. For these reasons, he’s likely to recall Parliament later this week.
2. The British people support military action. In contrast to last August, when Cameron sought parliamentary authority to use force against Bashar al-Assad, polls suggest that the British people support military action against the Islamic State. Seeing IS storm across Iraq and Syria, and fearing the return of U.K. terrorists, a majority of Britons now believe that military action is both justified and necessary. The beheading of David Haines has galvanized U.K. opinion. Most recent polls suggest that over the past month, support for U.K. military action has increased by 17 percent. Today, 54 percent of Britons support action and 25 percent oppose.
These numbers are crucial. As I explained last year, the war in Iraq looms over British politicians. But seeing that the public supports action, parliamentarians are adopting a noticeably tougher tone. Chuka Umunna, a rising star in the opposition Labour party, told the BBC, “I think the public is in a different place. . . . [The Islamic State] need to be eliminated. They are an evil organization.”
3. The Labour-party opposition broadly supports military action. Although Labour MPs are raising caveats for supporting military action, the rhetoric of party leaders rhetoric is clearly different from what it was in August. Then, seeking political advantage from public hesitation, Labour rejected Cameron’s request to use force. Now, however, senior Labour officials are giving clear signals of support for military action. What’s equally important here is that national elections will take place next summer. Labour’s leader, Ed Miliband, wants to build his national-security credibility. After all, he was widely derided for his August 2013 stance against Assad, and his personal-approval ratings remain weak. Facing the beheading of U.K. citizens, he won’t stand against public opinion.
All of this means that while Labour MPs might not, absent a U.N. resolution, support action against IS in Syria, the majority are likely to support Cameron on action in Iraq.
4. President Obama’s coalition consolidates U.K. involvement. While the form and durability of President Obama’s coalition is yet to be established, the overt participation of major Arab states, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, makes U.K. military action much more likely. Witnessing involvement from regional states, Cameron, his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, and his Labour opponents will believe that the U.S.-led coalition now has the Islamic credibility to legitimize counter-IS strikes. British politicians are deeply anxious to avoid any perception of a Western-dominated military excursion in the Middle East. As an extension, concerns surrounding international law and multinational legitimacy are greatly important in British politics.
Over the next few days, expect a tough speech from Cameron at the U.N. General Assembly. There, he’ll likely outline his intent to join President Obama’s coalition and recall Parliament to authorize force. By this time next week, Royal Air Force jets might well be in action against the Islamic State.