Glasgow, United Kingdom – As Britain’s politicians return to parliamentary duty on September 7 after summer recess, they will face ever-present questions surrounding the UK’s role in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In July, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that UK air strikes against ISIL fighters in Iraq – endorsed by parliament last year – would continue until 2017.
But fresh from the general election victory in May, the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron has made no secret of its wish to extend its military sorties into Syria – putting it on a potential collision course with parliament, and raising questions about the limits of Britain’s global ambitions.
“The UK finds itself in a difficult position in that it wants to play a leading role in international affairs – it has its permanent seat at the UN Security Council – so it really has to step up and fulfil that obligation,” Neil Quilliam, acting head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“But the shape of the British economy … places it in a difficult situation. It’s got to reconcile wanting two competing things at the same time: that is, making quite severe economic cuts across the country, and at the same time maintaining and extending its global reach.”
Amid reports that the UK government will ask MPs to vote on military action against ISIL in Syria when parliament sits this autumn, speculation has also centred around the wisdom of increased British military involvement in such a conflict-ridden region.
Expanding into Syria
The Ministry of Defence wouldn’t provide an on-the-record comment to Al Jazeera on any impending House of Commons vote, instead referring to the words of Britain’s defence secretary last month, in which he professed it would be “illogical” for Britain to engage ISIL in Iraq – but not Syria.
Quilliam sympathised with such an argument, but maintains the pitfalls of Britain doing so are many.
“From the Syrian population point of view, the Assad regime used chemical weapons and crossed a red line, but there was no [Western] intervention whatsoever,” Quilliam said, noting British MPs rejected military action against the Assad government in Syria two years ago.
“The fact that there was no intervention meant that a lot of Syrians felt let down by the international community – by the US and UK in particular.”
Quilliam added UK government moves towards military operations against ISIL in Syria at this juncture would appear like it was doing so largely because of the June atrocity in the Tunisian city of Sousse, which claimed the lives of 30 British nationals.
“If the UK was willing on the back of Tunisia – and this is how it would be viewed – to extend its operations in Syria distinctly against ISIL, but not the Assad regime, it means that you lose any remaining credibility that you may have had [in the region],” he said.
Much of Britain’s Muslim community has also raised questions about the legitimacy of the UK widening its role in combating ISIL.
Abdullah al-Andalusi, a UK-based Islamic activist, told Al Jazeera that Western intervention in the Middle East has proved to be nothing short of a disaster.
“The people in Syria and Iraq need to be left alone to deal with ISIL themselves,” he said.
“Whenever there are air strikes, attacks, or Western intervention, ISIL claims a moral high ground of being the victims of foreign aggression. And Western intervention has left a sour taste in the mouth of many people in the region – increasing sympathy for ISIL, which they try to capitalise on,” Andalusi explained.
Yet support for extending UK air strikes against ISIL into Syria exists in many quarters of British society, with advocates insisting Britain has a duty to help stop the advance of the hardline fighters in the war-ravaged state, despite question marks surrounding international legality of military action there.
“We have a moral obligation to consider how best we could help the victims of ISIL, and that must include the re-evaluation of the likely impact of military intervention,” Rupert Myers, a UK political commentator, told Al Jazeera.
“Nobody would argue that military intervention is without the risk of civilian casualties or loss of life within our armed forces … [but] the only route to rid ourselves of ISIL involves confronting them, not just talking to those people here in Britain who are tempted to join the ISIL cause,” Myers said.
A July opinion poll for The Independent newspaper put UK public support at 67 percent for striking ISIL fighters in Syria as well as Iraq from the air. A majority opposed the use of UK ground troops, which has also been ruled out by the defence secretary.
Cynicism about the UK’s presence in the Middle East has remained high since its role in the 2003 Iraq war.
While Myers maintained that “faith and trust in our political leadership to pursue Islamic extremism has come a long way since the years of [George W] Bush and [Tony] Blair”, Quilliam said any talk of increased British involvement in the region was still haunted by both the outcome of the invasion of Iraq and the UK’s more recent role in conducting air strikes over Libya to remove then-leader Muammar Gaddafi.
“In the early days when [Britain’s] Libya campaign was seen as a success that, to a large extent, exorcised the ghosts of Iraq,” said Quilliam.
“But we’ve seen what’s happened to Libya subsequently. It wasn’t a failure of the operation but a failure of the political process beyond the operation… So we’re reminded of Iraq because of Libya.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi