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Analysis: Fate of ISIS Hostage Intensifies Pressure on Britain

Frame grab taken from ISIS video purporting to show beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff

This frame grab taken from ISIS video and mad available by SITE Intel Group purports to show American journalist Steven Sotloff with an ISIS militant moments before he is beheaded on camera. SITE Intel Group

Outside the United States, no country is more shaken by the killing of two American journalists than Britain.

The latest video showing the beheading of Steven Sotloff features the same black-clad – and clearly English - killer who murdered James Foley. Wielding a commando knife, the attacker then displays a third hostage who, like him, is British - and threatens to kill him next.

Britain’s government was focused Wednesday on what on it can do about this deepening crisis.

In Parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed that “a country like ours will not be cowed by barbaric killers”. He said there was no way “to appease” ISIS, but added there would be no “Western-led intervention” against the group.

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Earlier, Cameron chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, Cobra. It doesn’t publish its conclusions - but they might have made grim reading.

It will not have discussed paying a ransom to free the latest British hostage; the U.K., like the U.S., doesn’t do that on principle.

Britain’s next general election is just eight months away, so this is not a good time for Cameron to make an unpopular decision.

Any British or American effort to free him is unlikely, although it is believed the attempted rescue of James Foley by U.S. Special Forces several months ago was aimed at releasing several Western hostages. U.K. intelligence officers may already have identified the killer in the video, but capturing or killing him seems a long way off.

Discussions of air strikes will be similarly fraught with problems for Britain. For weeks, British Tornado warplanes have flown reconnaissance missions over Northern Iraq but they’ve not dropped bombs.

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British planes have delivered nine tons of assault rifle ammunition to Kurdish forces, but it’s not British ammunition. It has sent sleeping bags to fighters and humanitarian aid to religious minorities threatened by ISIS. But it will put no boots on the ground or guns in the air – for now.

Cameron says he'll use the two-day meeting of NATO in Wales, beginning Thursday, to decide if the UK will resort to "military measures" against "barbaric" ISIS.

More than half of Britons polled recently said the U.K. should take some kind of action against ISIS – a number that had risen sharply since Foley’s killing last month. But when a US official told The New York Times that Britain was ready to join a bombing campaign against the militants, the British government quickly discredited the report, saying that strikes were "not under discussion at the moment."

The ghosts of the last Iraq war, which cost 179 British lives, still haunt the UK. So when Cameron argued in Parliament last year for the bombing of Syria after reports that President Assad’s forces had killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, he lost the vote. It was the first time in 150 years lawmakers had refused a prime minister's request for military action.

Britain’s next general election is just eight months away, so this is not a good time for Cameron to make an unpopular decision. Bombing ISIS in Iraq, in support of an Iraqi government is one thing - bombing it in Syria is a quite different choice, pitting the U.K. in a previously unthinkable alliance with President Bashar Assad.

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Obama's admission last week that he has no clear strategy against ISIS in Syria applies equally to the UK. Like the U.S., Britain also knows there is little logic in attacking ISIS in Iraq and not in Syria where it has an even stronger grip. Besides, the terror group is busy erasing the border lines between the two countries.

The debates, in London, Washington and other Western capitals, will rage for weeks – but it is likely already too late to save the lives of the latest British hostage, and many others still in the hands of ISIS.