Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community. Photo: Getty
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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?

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.