Britain, Belgium and Denmark join coalition fighting Islamic State
The British Parliament voted Friday to carry out airstrikes in Iraq against the extremist group Islamic State in a move that for now keeps the nation’s military out of the conflict next door in Syria.
Lawmakers, who were recalled from recess for the vote, approved the measure 524 to 43 on a day Belgium and Denmark also committed warplanes to the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq.
Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that the intervention was needed to protect Britons.
“The question before the house today is how we keep the British people safe from the threat posed by ISIL, and in particular what role our armed forces should play in the international coalition to dismantle and ultimately destroy what President Obama has rightly called this network of death,” Cameron said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Britain plans to contribute six Tornado fighter aircraft and their crews to the coalition forces, along with surveillance and intelligence capabilities. The aircraft, based in Cyprus, have already begun flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq and were to be ready for combat within hours of the vote.
France was the first European country to carry out airstrikes in Iraq against Islamic State. Belgian lawmakers also voted Friday to join the U.S.-led coalition, contributing six F-16 fighter jets, news reports said.
The Danish government announced Friday that it would contribute seven F-16s along with 250 pilots and support personnel. A parliamentary vote is planned but is considered a formality. The Netherlands has also said it would take part.
None of the European countries plan to operate in Syria, where the U.S. and five Arab allies have conducted 43 airstrikes this week.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference Friday that allies need to make “a long-term commitment” to the expanding military effort in Iraq. “This will not be an easy or brief effort,” he said. “We are at the beginning, not the end, of our effort to degrade and destroy ISIL.”
The U.S. still hopes to enlist Turkey, a NATO ally that so far has refused to join the military operation in either Iraq or Syria. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “to strengthen our coalition’s cooperation against ISIL,” Hagel said.
In making the case for Britain to join the conflict in Iraq, Cameron told lawmakers that Islamic State posed a direct threat to the nation.
“Left unchecked we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven determination to attack our country and our people,” Cameron said. “This is not the stuff of fantasy. It is happening in front of us, and we need to face up to it.”
Although the motion in Parliament passed by a wide margin, the shadow of Britain’s long and costly involvement in the 2003 Iraq war loomed large over Friday’s debate. Several members of Parliament expressed wariness about further military intervention in the Middle East.
Cameron was eager to present a strong legal justification for the airstrikes, citing a request from the Iraqi government to the United Nations Security Council for international support in fighting Islamic State.
The British leader met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and said his Iraqi counterpart reiterated his country’s appeal for assistance.
“The Iraqi prime minister was very frank in his request from me,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “He said, ‘We need your help to drive these people out of our country and indeed out of the world.’”
The question remains whether Britain will join attacks in Syria, which would require a separate vote in Parliament and raise a thornier set of legal problems. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has not requested international help to battle Islamic State, one of scores of groups seeking to overthrow his government — some with the support of the U.S.
Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labor Party, voted in favor of military action in Iraq but said he would prefer to seek a Security Council resolution before supporting similar intervention in Syria.
However, several members of Parliament from across the political spectrum voiced support for British involvement in Syria and warned that a Security Council resolution would face a probable veto by either Russia or China.
“I believe it’s a mistake today not to include Syria in the motion. ISIL operates from Syria,” said Liam Fox, a Conservative and a former British defense minister. “There is a legal — and a clear legal — case to attack ISIL bases in Syria, and I’m afraid that sooner or later we’re going to have to do it.”
The proposal for intervention in Iraq drew protests outside the prime minister’s residence Thursday.
Kenneth Clarke, a senior figure in Cameron’s Conservative Party, said Britain’s contribution of just six fighter jets was largely symbolic.
“The main hope I have is it gives us a positive influence on the diplomacy and the unfolding politics that have to take place [for] … lasting stability and security in what at the moment is a very dangerous region of the world.”
The Obama administration has committed aircraft but not U.S. troops to the conflict in Syria. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who joined Hagel at the news conference, reiterated that the U.S. plans to help train 5,000 “moderate” Syrian rebels over the next year in an effort to create a ground force to fight Islamic State in Syria.
A Pentagon team has arrived in Saudi Arabia, where some of the training will occur, Dempsey said, adding that the goal is to eventually train 12,000 to 15,000 Syrians “to recapture lost territory in eastern Syria.”
U.S. officials have not provided details about how the force will be controlled and how the Americans will ensure that it focuses on fighting Islamic State rather than the Syrian military, which has been the rebels’ main foe in a bitter civil war that began in 2011.
Special correspondent Werth reported from London and Times staff writer Cloud from Washington.
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