The first anniversary of the chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime on a suburb of Damascus was just two weeks ago. Following that attack that killed at least 1,400 people, the United States and Britain planned to strike regime targets in Syria. The plan was never carried out as it ran into fierce political opposition in both countries. The British government lost a vote in parliament on the operation. The Obama administration didn't even bring it to Congress when it realized that it wouldn't have a majority. The two countries were at the center of the alliance that embarked on the Iraq War in 2003, ostensibly to prevent Saddam Hussein for using his weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
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The Iraq War trauma was the central reason to the opposition from right and left to the operation against Syria a year ago. Despite both Barack Obama and David Cameron having a legal basis to launch strikes, they were reluctant to give the orders to launch missiles at Syria against the will of their publics and political parties.
A year has passed and the situation has turned around. The videos of two American journalists being executed by a masked Islamic State (IS) Jihadist, taunting Obama in London-accented English and threatening next to execute a British hostage, did what the deaths of 1,400 Syrians, far away from the cameras, failed to do.
Obama, who was elected president in a large part due to the fact that he opposed the Iraq War from the start, and fulfilled his promise to withdraw U.S. troops from there, is being forced now to accept he has to order a new aerial campaign on Iraq. So far it has been mainly isolated strikes, aimed at breaking up the Islamic State advance on Kurdish strongholds in Northern Iraq and its attacks on the Yezidi minority who also received airdrops of food. But now, following the filmed executions and as the threat of western Jihadists returning to their countries carrying out attacks grow, Obama, like Cameron, has no choice but to begin preparing public opinion for a much wider operation.
Both leaders met on Thursday at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. If the western powers are going back to war in Iraq, Newport will be the starting point. The U.S. of course will be the country supplying most of the forces and resources in any possible military campaign. But for the purposes of public support, it needs at least to seem as operating as part of an international coalition and within wider western consensus. And once again, Britain is first in line to join America's coalition.
The two governments and with them NATO's leadership have learnt some lessons from the last Iraq war. This time they are much more circumspect about the legal basis for any operations. Both leaders are promising that this time there will be no "boots on the ground," no prospect of soldiers coming back wounded or in coffins. Cameron and NATO Secretary General Ander Fogh Rasmussen both promised on Thursday that any airstrikes on Islamic State targets would only be carried out after an official request from the Iraqi government. Such a request has yet to be made but Iraqi president Fuad Masus already told CNN on Thursday that he is favor of one being made.
In addition to the Iraqi government, the Americans and Europeans are seeking other allies in the region. The first of these are the Iraqi Kurds who are already receiving weapons from the U.S., France and Australia. Britain announced on Thursday that it would also be sending the Kurds arms and a senior officer was on his way to the regional capital of Erbil to act as a military advisor. At the same time, western leaders are pressuring their counterparts in the Persian Gulf, particular the Saudis and the Qataris to shut down every channel of funding to the Jihadists in Syria and Iraq and to publicly denounce them.
The two leaders are also facing major political hurdles unrelated to the Middle East. Obama could well take a major blow in two months when his Democratic party is expected to lose seats in both houses in the midterm elections and possible the majority in the Senate. Two weeks from now, Scotland holds its independence referendum. Those opposing breaking up the United Kingdom are still the majority in the polls but the gap is rapidly closing. Cameron could end up with the worst constitutional crisis in British history. After the referendum, he has general elections in nine months which the polls currently indicate he may well lose. In such a sensitive political period for both of them, neither can embark on a new operation in Iraq without making sure the public is behind them.
This time around, the enraged response to the beheadings of the two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, ensure that Obama won't meet with significant opposition in Congress. In Britain as well, the leader of the Opposition, Labour's Ed Miliband has promised his support for airstrikes against the Islamic State. The BBC reported Thursday that Conservative Party whips have already been sounding out the MPs on a possible vote for military action in Iraq and Syria. The anti-war camp has also weakened. In the past the radical left in Britain has brought massive crowds to its demonstrations against operations in Iraq and Syria, but this week they managed to bring only about 500 people to demonstrate in Newport against another war.
War in Iraq however is still far from inevitable. NATO's leaders have to take into consideration the position of member-state Turkey, a neighbor of Syria and Iraq and also the main transit point for western Jihadist on their way to join the fighting. Turkey is far from pleased with the arms now flowing to the Kurds and it is unclear how they will take part in any campaign. And above all they remain worried about public opinion. Now there may be a rise in support for military action but that could turn around very quickly.
An even larger question mark hovers over the question of airstrikes on the Islamic State's main headquarters and logistics areas in Syria, such a move could put the Americans and the British on a collision course with Iran and Russia, which is confronting NATO also over the Ukrainian crisis. But without strikes in Syria it will be almost impossible to seriously damage the Islamic State.
Where does Israel fit in to this? Very much out of the limelight. An official involved in Israel's strategic alliances with the U.S. and Britain said this week that "If Israel is involved in any way in the western preparations for confronting the Islamic State it will damage the legitimacy of the international coalition. We haven't been attacked and we're not under direct threat so it's better that we are not seen to be intervening. The West has already realized that ISIS must be hit now hard before it grows even larger. They don't need us to convince them of that."