British Options in Iraq: Capabilities, Strategies, and Risks

Pressure is building for the government to recall parliament over the crisis in Iraq and consider intervening alongside US forces. But what are the options for Britain, and what risks do they carry?

Pressure is building on the government to recall parliament to debate the prospect of British intervention in Iraq – our third Iraq war in under 25 years.

Britain has participated in a small number of humanitarian airdrops of food and water, has sent Tornado fighter jets to Cyprus, ostensibly to reconnoitre airdrop sites, and has said it will ferry military supplies to Kurdish forces. But Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has insisted, ‘we don’t envisage a combat role at this time’. One non-political reason for ministerial reticence is that the question of strategy remains unclear. Action in Iraq would be legal, because the sovereign state of Iraq has asked for it; parliamentary debate gives it no more or less legal sanction. But such a debate might clarify several outstanding questions over Britain’s prospective role.

First, will a British Role Make a Difference? 

A series of 15 American airstrikes involving over 90 missions a day, in conjunction with Kurdish ground forces known as peshmerga and Iraqi government airstrikes, have blocked ISIS’ eastward advance towards the Kurdish capital Erbil. 14 US airdrops of food and water, as well as further Iraqi and Kurdish airdrops, have also relieved civilian suffering.

The US has a large number of forces deployed in the region, including ninety aircraft in nearby states, an assortment of armed drones (e.g., on Kuwaiti airbases), and aircraft carriers (the most recent strikes were conducted from the Nimitz-class USS George H W Bush, which hosts 65 strike and support aircraft). The US also runs a joint operation centres with Iraqi forces in Erbil and Baghdad, and has deployed Apache attack helicopters and around 500 US troops to the capital.

What, therefore, can Britain provide that is not being currently available? Virtually nothing. However, a UK role would serve three functions: an act of moral responsibility, recognising the British role in engendering Iraqi instability after 2003; an act of burden sharing, for instance easing the strain on US pilots if the operational tempo were to quicken; and third, visible support for the UK’s most significant diplomatic and military ally. In addition, ministers might also consider the positive effect on British influence with a Kurdish administration that could, in due course, form an independent state.

Second, What Capabilities Can Britain Provide?

The large-scale use of ground forces is exceptionally improbable. But smaller numbers of British special forces, which played a prominent and significant role in the Libya conflict, and some of whom might be safely assumed to be in Erbil and Baghdad already, could be an important contribution to reconnaissance or even forward air control missions. They have over a quarter-century’s experience of operating in Iraq’s northern areas, strong ties to the peshmerga, and are viewed as especially effective by the US and regional allies. Nor would their deployment invite the same political scrutiny that a more overt and extensive campaign might.

With regard to military assets, Britain could provide refuelling aircraft, further reconnaissance platforms (such as the Sentinel), transport aircraft (Chinook helicopters are being sent), and the use of strike aircraft, including the Tornado fighter jets that have been sent to Cyprus. But the logistical and financial implications could be considerable, potentially requiring an operation equal or larger to that mounted in Libya in 2011, depending on its scale (see the next section).

Britain also enjoys a number of regional bases, including Al-Minhad airbase south of Dubai, the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) in Bahrain’s Salman Naval Base, and a network of military personnel across the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan. These could facilitate any British operations. However, these host governments have been highly sceptical of the Maliki government, viewing it as unduly close to Iran, and are likely to view Iran’s role in supporting Maliki’s would-be successor, Haider al-Abadi, with similar concern. They might therefore oppose any use of their soil. 

Third, What are the Risks?

The first type of risk is military: ISIS possesses some air-defence capabilities, including shoulder-fired SA-7s as well as towed and mounted anti-aircraft guns. The risk to British aircraft would be slight but present, particularly during low-altitude humanitarian airdrops in ISIS-controlled areas and during any close air support missions for Iraqi government or Kurdish forces.

US airdrop missions in the past week, which reportedly spent '15 minutes at a low altitude', have been accompanied by F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets for just this reason. British airdrops do not appear to have taken similar precautions, although the reason for this is unclear. US aircraft have not been targeted by ISIS, although Kurdish helicopters have been struck by small-arms fire and the anti-air threat may have deterred a broader helicopter-based evacuation of Yazidis.

With regard to potential British training missions, a classified US assessment from July suggests that Iraqi security forces are so heavily compromised by Sunni extremists or pro-Iran elements that embedded Western trainers might be at risk. It is unlikely, though, that this is any more severe than that faced by UK trainers and mentors in Afghanistan. 

Fourth, what is Britain’ Strategy?

The US has focused on two objectives: relieving immediate humanitarian suffering and defending Kurdish areas and their environs. The US has made clear, explicitly and repeatedly, that it is not presently aiming to defeat ISIS, target ISIS beyond the Kurdish periphery (let alone across the border in Syria), or to facilitate offensive operations by the moribund Iraqi security forces.

As General William Mayville Jr., Director of Operations for the Joint Staff, put it starkly on Monday: 'these strikes are unlikely to affect ISIL’s overall capabilities or its operation in other areas of Iraq and Syria'; 'I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by [ISIS]'; 'there are no plans to expand the current air campaign beyond the current self-defence activities'. In other words, the US strategy is remarkably unambitious: to restore the July status quo.

The implication of this narrow approach is that ISIS, a resilient group that can defend in considerable depth, will easily be able to consolidate in rear areas and across the border. Even if it stayed away from 'red-lined' territories (the KRG and Baghdad) and even if reinvigorated Kurdish forces counter-attacked along a broad front around the KRG, ISIS could still re-group and re-target minorities and other vulnerable groups farther away, or renew efforts against sensitive Shia cities around Baghdad, or pursue multiple targets at once.

This would force Britain to choose between the three options of defending Kurdish areas or minorities in perpetuity (as it did between 1991 and 2003), expanding the operation to target ISIS across a much broader area, or giving up and relying on indirect approaches, such as strengthening Kurdish and Iraqi government forces.

The dilemma is this: if the aim is to lastingly protect Kurds and other minorities, or to restore Iraqi government control over ISIS’ territories, then it is an intrinsically open-ended mission; if it is to be 'capped' in time and space, then it can only do so much.

British Options

In anticipation of these choices, we should therefore ask – of ourselves, and of ministers – what is Britain’s strategy in any intervention? A non-exhaustive list would include:

  1. One-off degradation of ISIS’ offensive capabilities;
  2. One-off humanitarian relief;
  3. Indirect support to Kurdish forces;
  4. Indirect support to Iraqi government forces;
  5. A longer mission to contain ISIS, until those local forces gain strength;
  6. A direct and sustained aerial campaign to destroy ISIS – or even more broadly, 'the defeat of jihadism';
  7. Some combination thereof.

Each presents difficulties.

One-off missions would present the dilemma described above: if Yazidis were evacuated and ISIS rode out a wave of airstrikes, and the conditions that produced the initial humanitarian threat simply recurred (a likely prospect under options 1 and 2), how would the intervening powers respond? 

Arming and supporting Kurds (option 3), as the US has begun to do, is not without its own challenges – it was a US-designated terrorist group, the PKK, that pushed ISIS from key towns on 10 and 11 August, and a better-armed KRG is also better placed, in the long-term, to mount a destabilising secession from Iraq. Nor will Kurdish forces fight for the central government; they will focus on their own territory and its surroundings.

Greater support for Iraqi government forces (option 4) might undercut the Obama administration’s repeated insistence on political reform as the price of greater support: the nomination of a new prime minister is a start, but much more will have to be done before the Iraqi government can credibly reach out to the aggrieved Sunni minority from which ISIS has drawn some support. But when considered alongside a longer or deeper intervention, qualified arms provision and indirect support to Erbil and Baghdad is likely to appear an attractive option.

A longer mission (options 5 and 6) would not only be considerably more costly, but also potentially politically toxic, particularly if it stretches into an election year. The US and Britain would enjoy few allies – Turkey is risk-averse, concerned about the fate of 49 hostages held by ISIS – and other NATO powers have shown little appetite. Afghanistan and Iraq both demonstrate why the UK ought to be wary of undertaking open-ended commitments, even when the US is by its side, and particularly when vital British interests are far from threatened. If a broader campaign is chosen, a coalition of regional powers – including Saudi Arabia and Turkey – should be involved.

Other Risks

Ministers are also likely to consider whether sustained British participation in strikes could render Britain particularly vulnerable to retaliation, given ISIS’ strong (500+) British contingent. Some in government are concerned that bombing ISIS in Iraq, but failing to support anti-Assad rebels in Syria, would meet with hostility from Britain’s Muslim community, something perceived to have both electoral and security consequences; in truth, these concerns are exaggerated.

Finally, the political risks ought not to be discounted: the memory of last year’s failed parliamentary vote is fresh in the government’s mind. Although a 12 July ComRes poll suggests that 45% of Britons favour British airstrikes with just 37% against, these figures are fluid and do not account for the length of any campaign or other details; the government would be unwise to rely on them. The government would also be wary of relying on cooperation with Labour, given the perception of betrayal by Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband last summer. Any recall of parliament therefore presents its own challenges for the prime minister.

A Highly Circumscribed Intervention

Britain spent sixteen years at war in Iraq through the 1990s and 2000s, first from the air and then, with disappointing results, on the ground. If British forces are to re-commit to action eight years after they departed in unpropitious circumstances, the government will have to convince itself, legislators, and the electorate that its approach is viable and carefully considered. If intervention comes, it can have substantial humanitarian impact; but it will likely be highly circumscribed in time and space, and supplemented with a longer-term indirect effort to strengthen local anti-ISIS forces.


Shashank Joshi

Advisory Board

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