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15 September 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 10:41am

Is Britain preparing to step up its response to Islamic State?

The Foreign Secretary is meeting foreign leaders today to discuss plans to tackle extremist militants in Iraq and Syria.

By Anoosh Chakelian

In Britain, excitement over the Scottish independence referendum has somewhat distracted the national debate from how to tackle Islamic State (also known as Isis).

David Cameron reacted this weekend to the beheading of a British hostage, aid worker David Haines, by saying the UK would “hunt down” his killers. He concluded: “They are not Muslims, they are monsters”.

Cameron has decided to resist pressure to recall parliament to deal with the issue until after the Scottish referendum on Thursday this week. According to the Telegraph, after the vote, he is expected to lay out detailed plans for dealing with the threat from IS. This could include airstrikes, over which he has been prevaricating for weeks. MPs are likely to be recalled to parliament the day after the UN General Assembly in New York next week to make a decision on how to combat Iraq and Syria’s extremists.

In the meantime, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is today meeting foreign leaders in Paris to make plans for how to tackle the threat. The BBC reports that this summit is expected to concentrate on US plans to target the militant group by giving Iraq military support, stopping foreign fighters travelling to the Middle East to join the group, and cutting the group’s funding.

The killing of Haines, and a warning at the end of the video that another British hostage – Alan Henning – is next to die, steps up the pressure on the British government.

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The footage shows Haines saying Cameron is “entirely responsible for my execution” for entering into “a coalition” with the US. Cameron’s options for dealing with IS are tight. He has said the “menace” of the militants must be destroyed, so he can’t stand back from the situation.

Continuing in Britain’s current role – involving humanitarian action, surveillance, and support for Kurdish fighters – is an option. But as the situation escalates, the PM has more of an obligation to step up the UK’s role. If he does do this, it could include joining the US in airstrikes – which he has been considering for some time – or even British boots on the ground. On the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Tory MP and Colonel Bob Stewart summed up the situation. He said the use of infantry is “feasible” but not desirable:

Until someone goes in, on the ground, and destroys this evil organisation and these evil people who are doing so much filthy work, they will sustain themselves… You can’t win this from the air. Someone has got to go in and do the dirty work. I don’t want it to be us…

Stewart hinted that the best solution would be to find “sufficient forces on the ground”, the ideal of which would be Britain and the west helping to beef up the Iraqi army, which at present isn’t an effective enough challenge to the extremists.

Also speaking on the programme, Labour MP Ann Clwyd, once an opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs and a firm supporter of Tony Blair’s Iraq invasion, suggested that sending troops in is a real likelihood: “It is possible that eventually we’ll be sending ground troops.”

There are reports of a growing group of Tory MPs who, in spite of their opposition to military intervention in Syria last year, are urging Cameron to prepare Britain for military action. These include former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and outspoken 2010-intake Tory Sarah Wollaston.

Fox said:

I think there’s a clear imperative we deal with Isil, deal with the threat, ensure the stability of the region itself. There is a clear need for us to act internationally against this group before it’s too late.

With doubts persisting over whether airstrikes in Syria would be an effective strategy, Cameron will have to seriously consider a role on the ground for the UK.

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