No one in Britain should be under any illusion that the fight against Isis will be a “weekend campaign”, the Defence Secretary has said, as senior Conservatives say they have not given up trying to persuade Labour MPs to back UK air strikes in Syria.
After the first combat sorties by RAF warplanes over Iraq returned to base having failed to locate any suitable targets to strike, Michael Fallon said ultimately Isis – also known as Isil or IS – would have to be defeated in Syria as well as Iraq.
He said the Government would keep open the option of returning to Parliament to seek permission to extend air strikes into that country.
“Isil is based in Syria; it has been attacking Iraq from Syria and it needs to be defeated in Syria as well as Iraq,” he told Sky News on Sunday.
“The Americans are there with their air strikes, the other Gulf nations have come in as well to help them. Obviously we shall have to keep under review whether we should be there too.”
David Cameron also said he had a “lot of sympathy” for the case for extending air strikes. But the Prime Minister added: “I wanted to take to the House of Commons a proposal I could achieve consensus for to make sure Britain was playing her role in this co-ordinated action across both countries.”
Mr Cameron was speaking after Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, who stepped down as chief of the defence staff last year, warned that the militants would not be defeated by air attacks alone and that Western ground troops would be needed.
“Ultimately you need a land army to achieve the objectives we’ve set ourselves – all air will do is destroy elements of IS, it won’t achieve our strategic goal,” he told The Sunday Times.
“The only way to defeat IS is to take back land they are occupying which means a conventional military operation. The only way to do it effectively is to use Western armies, but I understand the political resistance.”
Mr Cameron said any “boots on the ground” had to be Iraqi and Kurdish forces, not British.
“We are part of a large international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy this organisation,” he said. “But it can’t be done unless the countries where this organisation has grown up play their part in destroying it.
“Our strategy here is not some simplistic ‘drop a bomb from 40,000 feet’ and think you can solve the problem. This is one part of a comprehensive strategy to build an Iraq that has a democratic, inclusive government for everyone, and in time, Syria needs exactly the same thing.”
Meanwhile as concern grows for Syrian and Iraqi civilians being affected by Isis and the fight against them, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, writing in The Independent, says refugees forced out of their homes by the violence are best helped by distributing cash for them to use in their own way, rather than being handed conventional aid.
Of those remaining in the conflict zone, however, Mr Cameron rejected criticism that the nature of the IS positions meant many civilians would be killed.
“There have been occasions when Isil are out in the open, threatening Christian communities, Yazidi communities, other Muslim communities, and they can be struck and stopped and that’s exactly what’s happened.”
Asked if he feared Britain could be sucked in to a wider conflict, Mr Cameron said: “That’s an argument for never doing anything.
“When you face a situation with psychopathic terrorist killers in Syria and Iraq, who have already brutally beheaded one of our own citizens, who have already launched and tried to execute plots in our own country to kill and maim innocent people, you have a choice.
Two RAF Tornado GR4 fighter-bombers returned to their base at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus on Sunday night at the end of a seven-hour mission with their weapons payload intact, having failed to identify any suitable targets, the Ministry of Defence said.
An MoD spokesman said: “The intelligence gathered by the Tornados’ highly sophisticated surveillance equipment will be invaluable to the Iraqi authorities and their coalition partners in developing the best possible understanding of IS’s disposition and help acquire potential targets for future operations.”
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