As British security agencies worked to identify the extremist in the video showing the killing of US journalist James Foley, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Philip Hammond on Friday rejected calls to work with the Syrian government to defeat the larger threat of the Islamic State (IS) group.
Hammond bluntly rebuffed arguments from former senior British officials that while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is an unsavory ally, he should be used against the arguably greater evil of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Former British foreign secretary and defense secretary and current Parliament Intelligence and Security Committee Chairman Malcolm Rifkind said that Foley’s beheading required a response.
The extremists “need to be eliminated and we should not be squeamish about how we do it,” Rifkind told the Financial Times and the BBC.
Referring to the British and US alliance with Joseph Stalin against Adolf Hitler, Rifkind said, “Sometimes you have to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier.”
Ex-British Army commander-in-chief Richard Dannatt made a similar argument on Friday, telling the BBC, “Whether it is above the counter or below the counter, a conversation has got to be held with him,” referring to al-Assad, arguing that any allied airstrikes against the IS in Syria would need that country’s approval so planes were not shot down by its defenses.
However, Washington and London have rejected intervening militarily in Syria. While the US has been carrying out airstrikes against the extremists in Iraq, Britain has talked about supplying military aid to Kurds and other anti-Islamic State forces, but without clarifying what else it might do.
The US and Britain have rejected dealing with al-Assad, whose overthrow they have both supported.
“We may very well find that we are fighting, on some occasions, the same people that he is, but that doesn’t make us his ally,” Hammond said.
“It would not be practical, sensible or helpful to even think about going down that route,” he added. “I do not think that engaging in a dialogue with the al-Assad regime would advance the cause that we are all advocating.”
In response to Dannatt, he said, “One of the first things you learn in the Middle East is that my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend.”
Hammond said that dealing with Assad “would poison what we are trying to achieve in separating moderate Sunni opinion from the poisonous ideology” of the Islamic State.
Hammond said that Britain — with the US — was working hard to identify the masked man, believed to be British, who, in the video, delivers a message to the US, brandishes a knife and appears to begin to behead Foley.
“Our intelligence agencies and the police are studying the material that we have received,” he said.
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