The right response

The murder of David Haines does not make a case for Britain committing itself to air strikes in Iraq and Syria

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The Independent Online

Whenever an atrocity involving a British citizen occurs, there are calls for the government to respond by unveiling a dramatic new course of action – to show that it is not “giving in” to the terrorists. David Cameron faces just such a dilemma following the beheading of David Haines by Isis militants. MPs are restive. Many would like Parliament recalled so that they can discuss and potentially authorise British air strikes against Isis forces in Syria and Iraq.

So far, the Prime Minister has kept his nerve, and has been wise to do so. After chairing an emergency meeting of the Cobra committee yesterday, he made only an open-ended promise to deal with Isis “at home and abroad”, while at the same time making it clear that he was not minded to recall Parliament.

Summoning MPs back to Westminster would not achieve much right now. The murder of Mr Haines was a horrific, despicable act but it was not a surprise. When they murdered the two Americans, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the militants made it clear that the lives of their remaining foreign hostages were on the line. There was nothing that the Americans or British could have done at that stage to save Mr Haines, except abandon all their efforts to offer military assistance to the forces in Syria and Iraq that are resisting the Sunni extremists. Such a craven surrender would have been a tactical disaster, and might not even have saved Mr Haines.

Besides allowing MPs a chance to vent their outrage over Mr Haines’s murder, and to discuss air strikes, the argument for recalling Parliament rests also on a proposition that British policy in Syria and Iraq requires more general clarification.

Of course, ministers need to watch their language. At a time when the public seeks reassurance that the Government knows what it intends to do on Iraq and Syria, it does not help for the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, to rule out British air strikes on Syria, only for No 10 to immediately rule them back in – at least as an option. Beyond this embarrassing evidence of the faulty state of communications between No 10 and the Foreign Office, however, British policy towards the region is arguably as clear as it can be in circumstances that are changing almost daily. Along with other Western nations, Britain has already pledged to train and arm the Kurds, who have proven themselves to be by far the most effective fighting force against Isis in the region.

Critics of this strategy of waging a proxy war via the Kurds may say that it is insufficient, and that we need to engage directly with Isis by joining American air strikes over Syria as well as over Iraq. What they forget is that Washington has at no time indicated that it needs any help at all from Britain in bombing the militants’ positions.

What will ultimately determine events on the ground in the coming months is not sporadic British air strikes but the success of the US-led drive to assemble a coalition of countries in the Middle East against Isis, which includes the Sunni powers that have funded the movement in the past. Britain can do little to assist this process. We can only watch from the sidelines, and hope that the Saudis and Gulf monarchies see sense.

There is no quick fix in Iraq and Syria, and we delude ourselves if we imagine that upping the ante in response to a hideous act, such as the killing of Mr Haines, will change matters. The strategy already in place is, in fact, delivering gains. It has halted the advance of Isis and stabilised defences in the Kurdish region and north of Baghdad. If the Sunni Gulf states abandon these extremists, and if US air strikes continue to degrade their capacity, there is every chance that they can be boxed in and rendered relatively impotent. It is no comfort to the families of the remaining hostages, but it is where the only hope of defeating Isis in the long run lies.