Eyeing 'fatal blow' against ISIS, Britain lays ground to join U.S. air strikes

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government is preparing the ground to join the United States in launching air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, but is moving cautiously to ensure it avoids a parliamentary defeat and acts as part of a regional coalition.

Britain was quick to join U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago. But a war-weary public and parliament's rejection last year of air strikes on Syria have made Prime Minister David Cameron wary. He has also had to prioritise Scotland's independence vote on Thursday over possible action.

This time, people with direct knowledge of the government's thinking say the plan is to move slowly, to woo parliament, and to only take a final decision to join air strikes once an international coalition has been formed and the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities are onboard.

"Sometimes you deliver a bigger punch, and you deliver a more fatal blow against ISIL by getting all the components right before you do so," Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in Cameron's coalition, said on Wednesday. ISIL is another acronym for ISIS, which now simply calls itself the Islamic State.

Cameron, who has said he backs U.S. air strikes on ISIS is expected to discuss plans to tackle the issue during the United Nations General Assembly next week in New York, but his spokesman has played down expectations of an announcement.

"The U.N. meetings, and meetings around that, are a part of it but it's a strategy over a significant period of time," the spokesman told reporters earlier this week.

Britain, a staunch U.S. ally, is expected to take its lead from Washington which has so far limited itself to conducting defensive rather than offensive air strikes against ISIS while it assembles a coalition of regional powers to try to confer greater legitimacy on its struggle against the militant group.

A YouGov opinion poll on Wednesday showed voters' approval for British involvement in air strikes against ISIS had risen to 25 per cent, up 3 points in 11 days.

A few months ago, the British government was not actively considering air strikes. But the beheading of a British aid worker by an ISIS militant with a British accent has highlighted the danger the group poses to Britain's domestic security.

Faced with the rise of ISIS, Britain has so far confined itself to delivering humanitarian aid, carrying out surveillance, arming Kurdish forces who are fighting ISIS militants, and promising training in Iraq.

But lawmakers say politicians loyal to Cameron have been canvassing opinion in parliament on air strikes and that a consensus has emerged that a majority would vote to back British action against ISIS in Iraq if Baghdad asked for help and it was part of a wider regional effort.

"During the last two weeks the temperature has been taken of virtually all members of parliament," Nick de Bois, a Conservative lawmaker said. "The message is firmly focused on both the inclusive political solution in the area and, significantly, ensuring that we don't go off on our own and (just) with America."

One person with direct knowledge of the government's strategy said Cameron wanted to be sure of parliament's support.

"Parliamentary opinion is not insignificant in this," the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You would have to be sure you could win a vote."

Whether members of parliament would, if asked, back strikes against ISIS across the border in Syria is less certain, lawmakers say, citing concerns about the legal and technical difficulties of taking such action without the blessing of the Syrian authorities, whom Cameron considers illegitimate.

De Bois, one of the Conservatives who rebelled last year to inflict an embarrassing parliamentary defeat on Cameron over plans to bomb Syrian government targets, said he felt the British leader was likely to win parliament's backing this time round because he had taken a different approach.

Sarah Wollaston, another of last year's Conservative rebels, said she too would be ready this time to vote in favour of British action as part of an international coalition.

Cameron would probably not need to rely on the opposition Labour party to win parliament's approval for air strikes. But there are signs it would find cross-party support anyway.

"I think the house (parliament) is certainly more open to the idea of air strikes now in Iraq," Anne Clwyd, a Labour lawmaker, said, noting that the possible participation of regional powers would be key to winning Labour support.