With the RAF now flying combat missions over Iraq, President Obama’s national security team is breathing a little easier. After all, even as UK participation in the coalition became likely, Parliament’s August 2013 rejection of air strikes against Assad has lingered in Washington memory. The prevailing fear was that Britain could no longer be relied upon.
By joining the coalition, David Cameron has addressed this concern, at least until next year’s general election (Ed Miliband is regarded warily by the White House due to his actions in the 2013 Syria vote).
Nevertheless, there are three specific reasons why the UK’s participation will be welcomed by President Obama.
First off, the UK’s involvement will boost the coalition’s credibility. With the coalition including an increasing number of states and a growing number from the EU, the Pentagon has a major challenge in ensuring effective diplomatic and military co-operation. This difficult task requires command and control orientation, careful management of the various military contributions, and coordinated strategic messaging. Because of the British government’s internationally respected position in these various fields, it can play an instrumental role facilitating the Isil campaign. In short, it can take some of the weight off Pentagon and State Department shoulders.
The UK will also be able to provide an important tactical utility to the campaign. Because of the close relationship between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence, and the many comparable tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of the British and US armed forces, the UK’s role against Isil won’t require the same kind of management that defines most other coalition partners. Instead, the UK can rapidly assert a crucial position on the battlefield. In political terms, the UK’s strong – often Sandhurst Academy-reinforced – relationships with Sunni Arab monarchies will be especially useful.
Additionally, if SIS/MI6 deploys intelligence officers into Syria alongside the CIA and the Jordanian GID, the coalition’s human intelligence will receive a significant boost. This matters, because Isil has learned from its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, to mitigate its vulnerability to signal intelligence (mobile phones etc) monitoring. Indeed, Isil’s ongoing arrests of mobile phone users proves its paranoia in that regard. Correspondingly, in order to defeat Isil, the coalition must recruit agents who can penetrate the group’s strongholds and identify priority targets, leadership structures and evolving plans. British intelligence has a long track record of doing just that, and doing it well.
Finally, the UK’s participation will consolidate Washington’s strategic perception of the UK as America’s closest ally. Be under no illusions, this has been in doubt since last August. In strategic terms, the US government relies upon the UK in two key ways.
First, as a “shared value”-motivated partner for America’s long term international interests. That’s the best kind of ally. Whether in joint naval patrols on (and below) the oceans, or in negotiations in international diplomacy, or military operations, the UK is regarded as an irreplaceable friend.
Second, as an interlocutor – as I noted recently, Mr Cameron’s UN meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani provides a good example here – to assist US policymakers in avenues and areas that would not be politically feasible.
All of this adds up to mean that in both physical and psychological terms, America is breathing a sigh of relief. Britain, after all, is back at America’s side.