Up until mid-afternoon on September 7, it was expected that British prime minister David Cameron would make headlines by announcing that the UK would finally take in a significant number of refugees from Syria’s conflict. What’s more, the chatter in London was that Cameron might try – more than two years after parliament blocked military intervention against the Assad regime – to get authorisation for British air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
However, Cameron had a surprise for MPs, the media, and Syria-watchers alike. While saying that Britain would accept 20,000 refugees over five years, his more dramatic announcement was that the Royal Air Force had carried out its first attack inside Syria – a drone strike on August 21, which killed three Islamic State fighters, including two British nationals.
The prime minister declared this an “act of self-defence” to stop terrorism on British soil. But the announcement raises an array of difficult questions.
Avoiding the hard questions
Before the announcement, Cameron had put himself in a corner over the Syrian refugee question. Only a week earlier, he had said that he was satisfied with a British policy that had taken in only 216 Syrian refugees from outside the UK, although 5,000 other Syrians have been in some form of protection since 2011.
Then the photograph of the drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach and the images of refugees effectively trapped at Hungarian train stations mobilised public opinion in favour of a quick response. Trying to hold the line, Cameron said:
We think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world. I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.
But that raised the obvious question: given that more than 15m people are said to have been displaced from Syria and Iraq, what exactly would Britain do to check this four-and-a-half-year conflict?
Given that a primary cause of displacement has been the Assad regime’s attacks on civilian areas, the logical answer would be to prevent Damascus from launching such attacks in the future. But ever since parliament rejected military intervention following the regime’s chemical attacks in August 2013, the government has shied away from proposing operations inside Syria, even to set up a “safe haven” or “no-fly zone”.
To avoid the challenge of what should be done about Assad, the prime minister and his ministers have long invoked the spectre of Islamic State. They have warned that the “terrorists” must be prevented from attacking inside Britain, and have thereby also shifted the debate away from preventing the group’s attacks within Syria.
In July, British officials tested the waters for operations, leaking to the media that British pilots – but not British warplanes – had been involved in the US-led coalition’s attacks against militants in northern Syria. However, the story receded, apparently because the government assessed that the time was still not right for any military commitment.
Cameron’s statement on Monday was a relatively low-cost diversion – even if the government now faces questions about the legality of the attack in Syria. For now, the focus on the specific drone strike on August 21 will replace attention to the wider question of British participation in the coalition against Islamic State. If the public reaction is not too sharp about the killings, the event could pave the way for an approach to parliament for more operations.
More importantly, the issue of what to do about Assad has been kicked into the long grass once more. Even though that is the central question in the Syrian conflict, it – and the refugee issue – can be replaced with chatter about “what to do about the terrorists?”
“Targeted killings” are by their very nature cloaked in uncertainty. We are unlikely ever to know what reliable information lies behind Cameron’s declaration: “We had no way of preventing planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.”
But the prime minister’s statement skirted around some much greater uncertainties.
What, if anything, will be done about the Syrian crisis? If Britain does take in 20,000 refugees over five years, what happens to the millions of others left out? And how long will the killing be allowed to continue – whoever does it – with no realistic prospect of a “safe haven”?