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What does the US response to stranded refugees in Iraq mean for David Cameron?

As the US reports fewer stranded refugees on Mount Sinjar than expected, how can the PM respond to the decreasing likelihood of a rescue operation?

Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community. Photo: Getty

The Prime Minister cut his holiday one day short to return to the UK to chair a Cobra meeting yesterday. He revealed that “detailed plans” are being put in place for Britain to help in a rescue operation to save stranded Yazidi refugees in Iraq.

Although insisting that it is “unnecessary to recall parliament” in order for the House of Commons to debate military intervention in Iraq, David Cameron did say Britain would be involved in an international mission to rescue the swathes of refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Cameron announced that the UK would play a role in airlifting the refugees, who are trapped by Islamist fighters, from the mountain, and a government official last night added that Downing Street was “not ruling out” sending ground troops to the site, though in a non-combat role. However, in spite of growing calls for Britain to take more of an active role in the situation, the PM was firmly focused on the humanitarian support the UK can provide the trapped refugees.

Yet the news this morning from the US could change those “detailed plans” hinted at by the UK government. The US, which sent a Special Forces team to the mountain to inspect the situation, has said it has found fewer stranded people than first thought, and also that they are in a better situation than expected.

The Pentagon said in a statement:

"The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped… Based on this assessment... an evacuation mission is far less likely."

What does this development mean for Cameron? It’s clear that he was taking the lead from the US so far on his approach to the situation of the stranded Yazidis. A UK government official said last night, referring to potentially sending troops to the area, that it was, “important to remember it is a US-led plan and Kurdish forces are on the ground already”.

But now the US has almost certainly decided against a mission to evacuate the trapped Iraqis, what are Cameron’s options? In spite of the US saying a rescue operation is unlikely, it and Britain are continuing to drop aid to the refugees, which highlights the fact that there remains a substantial number of people in dire need of help from the international community.

However, from International Development Secretary Justine Greening’s interview on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, it seems the UK is reluctant to take a lead on this beyond America’s stance.

Greening admitted to the programme that it, “has been difficult to get the exact facts of what’s happening on the ground,” but accepted that, “the US has given us a more accurate on-the-ground assessment of what their estimate [of the number of people left on the mountain] is”.

She said Britain would continue doing airdrops alongside the US, as “we do know that there are many people left on that mountain in desperate straits”, but suggested that it would only take more direct action if it could follow its international ally: “The PM’s been very clear that if there is a rescue effort, we would be part of that – work alongside international partners, which would mean the Americans.”

Although refusing to say outright that there would be no rescue operation, and also declining to comment on what the UK’s reconnaissance jets, sent in three days ago, have found, Greening did hint that the remaining refugees would be there for some time. “We need to look ahead to the fact that people won’t be going home immediately,” she admitted, adding we need to focus on “how to get them through the winter”.

It seems Cameron’s options are rather limited by America’s actions. Although this restricts the UK government’s response, it could be a relief for the PM, who has been doing his best this week to concentrate on the humanitarian effort over discussions of military intervention.