David Cameron says “detailed plans are now being put in place” for an international mission to Iraq but will they be enough to help the thousands of Yazidi refugees still stranded on Mount Sinar?
He insisted the UK involvement remained a humanitarian mission as he faced calls to directly arm Kurdish forces or join the US in air strikes against Islamic State (IS) fighters.
Mr Cameron said: “I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are under way and that Britain will play a role in delivering them. The first thing is to deal with this desperate humanitarian situation with people who are exposed, starving and dying of thirst…getting them to a place of safety.”
On the question of arming Kurdish fighters, he said: “Of course we do support the Kurds and we should continue to support the Kurds, and in terms of the ammunition they are getting Britain is playing a role in helping to get that to them.
“What they want is ammunition and weapons like they have been using and so that is what is being delivered to them.”
A small number of Tornado aircraft to be positioned in Cyprus, available to fly over the crisis area at short notice to provide vital intelligence to assist the delivery of the UK aid.
And as part of Britain’s efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Iraq, the MoD sent a small number of Chinook helicopters to the region for further humanitarian relief options if needed.
The prime minister has declined to give any details of the mission – such as whether Chinook helicopters being sent to the region could play a role in any evacuation.
Ian Keddie, Armed Forces analyst in Western Europe at IHS Jane's told Channel 4 News: "The Tornado is fitted with a surveillance pod called a RAPTOR that gives electro-optical and infrared imagery. It won’t deliver aid directly but will support wider aid operations by supplying imagery and information about the disposition of refugees. Further down the line this reconnaissance capability could assist local or foreign forces by pin pointing IS force locations should they be called up to do that.
"The chinook is a heavy lift helicopter, 30 meters long and 12 tonnes when fully loaded, it can carry 10 tonnes of freight or around 50 troops. The aircraft was extremely successful in Afghanistan at performing a battlefield casualty evacuation role where it featured extensive medical facilities on board and had the extended range needed to reach areas inaccessible by road. The aircraft were upgraded with a range of countermeasures and defensive aids for their use in Afghan operations, as well as night vision capabilities, so they are well protected to operate in this environment and the crews will be experienced in carrying out evacuations in mountainous terrain, day or night, considering the experience gained in Afghanistan."
According to the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) a UK role would serve three functions: an act of moral responsibility by recognising the British role in engendering Iraqi instability after 2003; an act of burden sharing, for instance easing the strain on US pilots if the operational tempo were to quicken; visible support for the UK’s most significant diplomatic and military ally.
The large-scale use of ground forces is highly improbable – but smaller numbers of British Special Forces could be an important contribution to reconnaissance or even forward air control missions.
With regard to military assets, Britain could provide refuelling aircraft, further reconnaissance platforms, as well as transport aircraft (Chinook helicopters) and the use of strike aircraft, including the Tornado fighter jets sent to Cyprus.
Britain also enjoys a number of regional bases, including Al-Minhad airbase south of Dubai, the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) in Bahrain’s Salman Naval Base, and a network of military personnel across the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan.
Isis possesses some air-defence capabilities, including shoulder-fired SA-7s as well as towed and mounted anti-aircraft guns.
The risk to British aircraft would be slight but present, particularly during low-altitude humanitarian airdrops in Isis-controlled areas and during any close air support missions for Iraqi government or Kurdish forces.
Some analysts say there is a danger of Britain becoming embroiled in a wider conflict against Isis.
Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at Rusi said: “Isis will easily be able to consolidate in rear areas and across the border.
Even if it stayed away from ‘red-lined’ territories (the KRG and Baghdad) and even if reinvigorated Kurdish forces counter-attacked along a broad front around the KRG, Isis could still re-group and re-target minorities and other vulnerable groups farther away, or renew efforts against sensitive Shia cities around Baghdad, or pursue multiple targets at once.
This would force Britain to choose between the three options of defending Kurdish areas or minorities in perpetuity (as it did between 1991 and 2003), expanding the operation to target Isis across a much broader area, or giving up and relying on indirect approaches, such as strengthening Kurdish and Iraqi government forces.”
The dilemma, Mr Joshi said, “is if the aim is to lastingly protect Kurds and other minorities then it is an intrinsically open-ended mission; if it is to be ‘capped’ in time and space, then it can only do so much”.
“The humanitarian situation in Iraq is catastrophic, and getting worse every day. Hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in the Kurdistan region of Iraq tired, hungry and with nothing but the clothes on their back,” a Save the Children spokesperson told Channel 4 News.
“We welcome the aid drops which are being conducted by the UK government and others, because they offer a lifeline to people who are in a life or death situation. But air drops are a far from-perfect way to get help to everyone who needs it, and will only reach some of those who desperately need assistance.”
Shashwat Saraf, country director for Jordan and Kurdistan Region of Iraq, also told Channel 4 News: “One of the greatest challenges facing our teams and other aid workers in the region right now is security.
“We know that these people stranded in areas we and other aid workers cannot reach desperately need water – many of the people Action Against Hunger are helping in both Dahuk and Erbil are arriving dehydrated – as well as food and medical supplies.”