Memo to British PM: Less talk, more action on Syria

If ISIL poses an existential threat to Britain’s survival, why isn’t the prime minister doing more about it?

A display of Typhoon Aircraft [Getty]
A display of Typhoon aircraft [Getty]

British Prime Minister David Cameron has described ISIL as an “existential threat” to the United Kingdom.

His defence secretary, Michael Fallon, told an audience during a major speech that the Royal Air Force is taking part in “a new Battle of Britain” against ISIL.

Even so, the UK does not conduct air strikes against ISIL in Syria and Cameron’s dithering means that the British Parliament is nowhere close to voting on the matter.

Now that Russian planes are flying over Syria, Cameron’s job of convincing parliament to expand air strikes to Syria has been further complicated, and may be blocked.

Talk to Al Jazeera – The Syrian conflict: Russia vs the West?

The rhetoric coming from Cameron and his ministers neither matches the reality of the threat to the UK nor the reality of the UK’s effort to counter that threat.

Existential threat?

ISIL does pose a serious threat to the UK’s security, but it certainly does not pose an existential threat. Like most Western countries, the most direct threat ISIL poses right now is from terrorism: shooting up a shopping centre or exploding a bomb in the heart of a major city.

Serious stuff – without a doubt – but hardly existential.

But if the prime minister truly believes that ISIL poses an “existential threat” to Britain’s survival, why isn’t he doing more about it?

Also read: Could Syria be Putin’s Afghanistan?

Comparing the modest UK air campaign against ISIL, with the role the Royal Air Force played during the Battle of Britain, would be laughable if it were not for the fact that these words were uttered by the British defence secretary.

Comparing the modest UK air campaign against ISIL, with the role the Royal Air Force played during the Battle of Britain, would be laughable if it were not for the fact that these words were uttered by the British defence secretary.


The Battle of Britain was an example of national survival. Almost 2,000 British and allied airplanes fought the German Luftwaffe in the battle 75 years ago.

By contrast, the UK initially deployed six Tornado fighter jets to strike ISIL in Iraq. With great fanfare a few weeks later, it increased that number to eight. (Yes, you read that correctly: eight jets … not eight squadrons!)

Drop in the ocean

The 250 soldiers the UK has deployed to help train the Kurds is a drop in the ocean – essentially a token force best described as gesture politics – allowing the British government to say they are doing something, when in reality they are doing next to nothing.

If the threat ISIL poses to the UK is as great as we are told, if the terror group really threatens to end Britain’s existence, then surely more national resources should be thrown into the fight.

Another incoherency of the UK’s air campaign against ISIL is the fact that the Royal Air Force will only hit targets in Iraq – even though the terror group’s headquarters, financing centres, logistical hubs, and training grounds are all located in Syria. From a military standpoint, this makes no sense whatsoever.

If Cameron truly believes that ISIL poses an “existential threat” to the UK, then he has failed to show any sense of urgency to get parliament’s approval to expand the air strikes to Syria.

Today the situation is much different than August 2013, when the British Parliament voted down air strikes in Syria targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

British Prime Minister David Cameron [AP]British Prime Minister David Cameron [AP]

The Russian problem

Notwithstanding the recent election of Labour’s anti-war leader Jeremy Corbyn, there is a large amount of cross party support for UK air strikes in Syria against ISIL.

But Cameron’s window of opportunity might now be closed thanks to the Russian intervention.

He has had all summer after his May 2015 election victory to have a vote in parliament to expand air strikes to Syria. If needed, he could have even re-called parliament during its summer recess for a vote.

In the past, parliament has been recalled for lesser events, and if the UK really faces an “existential threat” from ISIL, or if the Royal Air Force is truly engaged in a “new Battle of Britain”, then surely parliamentarians wouldn’t have minded curtailing their summer holidays.

Also read: Will more air strikes in Syria serve any purpose?

Now that Russian warplanes are also flying in the skies of Syria, many parliamentarians who were on the fence about the UK expanding air strikes might see the risk of confrontation with Moscow not worth it.

It is likely that Cameron has waited too long.


On a shoestring

If Cameron has the leadership and political courage to ask parliament to expand air strikes to Syria, it will be harder to convince parliamentarians now that Russia is involved. Even if parliament does approve air strikes in Syria, it doesn’t mean additional airplanes will magically appear from thin air to conduct the strikes.

The reality is that Britain’s eight fighter jets being used in Iraq will also have to be used in Syria.

Unless Britain invests more in its defence capability, air campaigns like the one over Iraq will continue to be done on a shoestring – and will continue to be ineffectual.  

If Cameron believes that Britain’s existence is at stake, then he needs to start acting like it. Go to parliament, get approval for air strikes in Syria, tell the Russians to stand back, and fully fund the defence budget to wage the campaign properly.

If he is unwilling to do so, then he should probably stop hyping the threat.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.