Calling the British flag an emblem of freedom, justice, and “standing up for what is right,” Prime Minister David Cameron declared on Tuesday that the United Kingdom cannot opt out of the struggle with the Islamic State.
Insisting at the Conservative Party annual conference that “there is no ‘walk on by’ option,” Cameron was frank. “Unless we deal with ISIL, they will deal with us, bringing terror and murder to our streets. As always with this Party, we will do whatever it takes to keep our country safe.”
The Prime Minister’s comments came on the same day that British Tornado fighters attacked an IS heavy weapons position which had been firing on Turkish forces. British planes, operating from Cyprus, have flown over Iraq every day since Friday, when the House of Commons voted 524-43 in favor of British participation in the international coalition against IS, and have directly engaged IS three times.
Although the Ministry of Defense has said the airstrikes seemed to have been “successful,” others have questioned their utility, with former Prime Minister Tony Blair having said that air strikes alone will not be enough. Cameron has said that there will be troops on the frontline, but he insists these would not be British soldiers; instead, he said at the Birmingham conference, “Iraqis, Kurds, and Syrians” would be “fighting for the safe and democratic future they deserve.”
For Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, this evidently is not enough. The patriarch, who in a joint statement this August with Pope Francis’s special envoy, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, called on those countries and organizations that “take their moral responsibilities seriously,” to liberate the villages and other occupied places “as soon as possible and with a permanent result,” the current campaign is endangering ordinary Iraqis and destroying what’s left of Iraq’s functioning infrastructure.
Speaking to Vatican Insider, the former Archbishop of Kirkuk blamed the rise of IS on the 2003 invasion and the subsequent failure to rebuild the country, but said “the most serious part of it all is that now everyone is saying the war is going to go on for years.”
In Friday’s debate, the Prime Minister had responded to a question about how long the war would last by saying, “This mission will take not just months, but years, and I believe we have to be prepared for that commitment. The reason for that,” he continued, “is that America, Britain and others are not—I think quite rightly—contemplating putting combat troops on the ground.”
When Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh questioned the wisdom of the Prime Minister placing his trust in local troops, pointing out that “having caused this mess in Iraq, we armed the Iraqi army, they ran away and ISIL now has their arms,” Cameron reiterated that defeating IS would take time. “What this problem requires,” he said, “is a comprehensive strategy, including a well-formed Iraqi government and well-formed Iraqi armed forces, because they in the end will be the ones who have to defeat this on the ground.”
Patriarch Sako, however, thinks this slow approach is liable to make the situation worse. “This sends out two different and very dangerous messages simultaneously,” he said. “The message to jihadists is: don’t worry, you have plenty of time to get organized, get more money together and enlist more paid militants. The message to the refugees is: this situation’s going to go on for years, the only future you have is away from here, away from your homes. It’s best if you leave if you can.”
The patriarch’s warnings about the slow war giving jihadists time to get organized seems to be justified by reports of how IS fighters appear to be changing tactics. Witnesses in IS-controlled areas have spoken of IS abandoning large headquarters and checkpoint buildings in favor of dispersing small groups across a wider range of potential targets, while black flags have reportedly been placed on residential homes and other buildings in order to confuse target-spotters.
Long military convoys have reportedly also been abandoned in favor of motorbike use, with cell phone usage having been reduced, according to Tikrit’s police colonel Hassan al-Jabouri, who told Reuters that “our intelligence indicates that they have all changed their cell phones. These are always shut and the batteries are removed unless they need to use them.”
Such tactical shifts were predictable. In the famous Millennium Challenge wargame in 2002, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper was tasked with the role of a Middle Eastern dictator faced with a technically far superior western army. Knowing that radio and cellphone use create an “electronic signature” that would make it easy for western planes to target his forces, he refused to use them. “I said no, no, no — we're going to use motorcycle messengers and make announcements from the mosques," he told the Guardian in 2002, "but they refused to accept that we'd do anything they wouldn't do in the west."
In his Birmingham speech, the Prime Minister said the best moment of his year was on 6 June, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when he was in France with a 91-year-old veteran on the Normandy landings. “I’ll never forget the tears in his eyes as he talked about the comrades he left behind,” said Cameron, “or the pride they all felt in the job they had done. As we walked along the streets he pointed out where he had driven his tank… and all along the roadside there were French children waving flags — Union Jacks — the grandchildren of the people he had liberated.”
Only weeks ago, Patriarch Sako cried out for such a liberation. It remains to be seen whether the current campaign, devoid of trained and well-equipped western troops, will deliver it. He, at any rate, is sceptical, saying that “bombing these jihadists will not make them disappear, that’s for sure.”
In the meantime, he says, Iraq's priests are asking the Lord “to console people, to give them patience and help them not to lose hope.”
In August the Patriarch said that the hope of Iraqi Christians should not be allowed to die, and it is clear that in this he remains unmoved. “This,” he says, “is the most important thing right now.”
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.