Nato summit: David Cameron prepares ground for British air strikes against Isis

Whips seek backing from Tory MPs for imminent action as PM reveals Britain will supply lethal arms to Kurdish forces

deputy political editor

David Cameron is preparing the ground for authorising British air strikes against Isis forces in Iraq and Syria within weeks, following talks today with the US President, Barack Obama.

The Prime Minister struck his most hawkish note on combating the growing Isis threat as 35 heads of state and government met in Newport, South Wales, for a Nato summit dominated by the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine.

He said for the first time that there would be no legal obstacle to bombing Isis positions in Syria – and announced Britain would start supplying lethal military equipment to Kurdish forces resisting the Islamist advance.

But although Nato leaders debated how to combat Isis, which now calls itself Islamic State,  Mr Obama has yet to ask other nations to join American bombing missions.

Earlier Mr Cameron and the President held a 40-minute meeting where they expressed their “clear determination to confront the [Isis] threat and how to do that in the long term”, UK sources said.

The President’s failure to spell out his exact intentions frustrates some British ministers as well as his critics in the US, but Mr Cameron ramped up his rhetoric about the danger posed by Isis and is edging towards committing Britain to military involvement in the region.

 

Conservative whips have started taking soundings at Westminster over Tory MPs’ attitude to military action, indicating that the backbench mood was “hardening” on the issue. They are preparing to test the temperature in a Commons debate on the Middle East next Wednesday.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are indicating that they could back bombing missions as long as there was regional support.

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Following the murders of two American journalists and the threat to the British captive, David Haines, Mr Cameron also pleaded with fellow leaders not to cave in to demands from Isis for money for their release. He urged them to stick to previous agreements not to pay ransoms. He said: “It is utterly self-defeating. It is worse than self-defeating. It is actually a risk to us at home.”

The Prime Minister ramped up the case for air strikes when he dismissed suggestions that bombing raids on Isis positions in Syria would need the permission of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“My view is that President Assad is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution,” he said.

Cameron speaks at the Nato summit in Newport, Wales Cameron speaks at the Nato summit in Newport, Wales (PA)
He said it was wrong to believe that air strikes in Syria would be illegal without Assad’s approval.

“I don’t think it’s that complicated because obviously the Iraqi government is a legitimate government… whereas President Assad has committed war crimes on his own people and is therefore illegitimate.”

Mr Cameron signalled that air strikes could not take place until the establishment of a new Iraqi government, which is scheduled to be set up by 12 September.

He repeated that the Islamist extremists sweeping across Syria and northern Iraq posed a direct threat to the UK – and added that strikes against them would be launched if it was considered in the national interest. “I’m certainly not ruling anything out and I will always act in the British national interest,” Mr Cameron said.

He signalled that the UK was ready to send British weapons directly to Kurdistan for the first time and to help train its forces.

Lt-Gen Sir Simon Mayall has been authorised by Mr Cameron to hold talks with Kurdish leaders over what support they need, as well as providing military advice. The Prime Minister said: “We’re prepared to do more and we’re considering actively whether to give them arms ourselves and whether we can more directly to train Kurdish militia, we’re already playing a role there but we can do more.”

Nato leaders at the summit in Wales. (From left): French President Francois Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi Nato leaders at the summit in Wales (Getty Images)
Britain has so far sent non-lethal equipment to Kurdistan, including a consignment of 10 tonnes of body armour and helmets delivered today. The RAF has also transported Albanian ammunition that is compatible with the Kurds’ Soviet-era weapons, as well as carrying out surveillance missions and humanitarian operations.

The decision by Tory whips to canvass opinion among their MPs is fresh evidence that Mr Cameron is moving towards endorsing military action if Britain is asked by the Obama administration to join bombing raids.

The Prime Minister will be desperate to avoid a report of his humiliating Commons defeat in August 2013 over joining military action against the Assad regime in Syria. The party’s whips were taken by surprise by the strength of the hostility among MPs.

Meanwhile, an announcement about sanctions against Russia will be made on Friday in Brussels, following talks at the Newport summit with the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko.

They are likely to include restrictions on Russian energy, hi-tech and aerospace firms, demands that state-owned companies cover their debts more quickly and increasing the number of senior Russians subject to travel bans and asset freezes. One British source said the moves were designed to force Mr Putin “to the negotiating table and off the battlefield” in eastern Ukraine.

Mr Cameron said that existing sanctions were already hurting the Russian economy. “It is making a difference. The Russian economy was growing, it is now shrinking. Russian banks – some of them are getting short of money. The Russian stock market, the rouble, have suffered,” he said. “What Russia needs to understand is that if they continue with this approach in Ukraine, this pressure will be ramped up.

‘‘The Ukrainians know that they have our support and this sanctions pressure is the right way to tell the Russians that what they are doing is unacceptable.”

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