Drones in Iraq and Syria: What we know and what we don’t

Over the past 3 months US, UK and other forces have carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria using manned aircraft and drones.  There is little public available information as yet about the impact of these strikes on the ground .  Here’s is what we know – and don’t know – so far.


On August 7, President Obama ordered what he called “limited strikes” against ISIS in order to protect American personnel in Iraq.  At the same time he stated that he would “not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq”.  US airstrikes began that next day and initiated another US military intervention in Iraq that has subsequently been named Operation Inherent Resolve.

One month later, on the eve of the September 11 commemorations, Obama announced that he was broadening the military campaign. No longer would airstrikes only be undertaken to directly protect Americans in Iraq but rather to “destroy ISIL.”  Airstrikes would also be undertaken in Syria and further troops would be deployed in a ‘advice and assistance’ role. Obama said:

“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.

First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq…

In June, I deployed several hundred American service members to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces. Now that those teams have completed their work –- and Iraq has formed a government –- we will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.

As in Afghanistan, the US has been keen to build a coalition against ISIS and by the time of his speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept 24, Obama could announce that 40 nations had agreed to join the military action against ISIS. One of those nations was the UK which agreed to military action against ISIL in Iraq, but not Syria 

It should be noted that there has been no UN resolution on the military action by the US and its partners, casting doubt on the legality of the action, although some insist that as the – hastily assembled and installed – new government in Iraq has consented to military assistance, this gives legal cover under international law.

In the UK, many MPs argued strongly that no military action should take place in Syria without a UN resolution and further parliamentary debate. Indeed the motion passed by MPs directly stated “this motion does not endorse UK air strikes in Syria as part of this campaign, and any proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote in parliament.” However within days of the vote, the Government were arguing that the UK may “need” to intervene in Syria.

For details of US, UK and other nations military airstrikes in Iraq and Syria see the very useful and regularly updated datasets by Chris Woods that are here and here.

Drones over Iraq and Syria

Two months before Obama even initiated air strikes in Iraq, armed US Predator drones were already flying over Iraq on reconnaissance missions and to protect the US troops sent to ‘assist and advise’.

Since the start of the bombing campaign, US drones have undertaken both surveillance and strike missions in Iraq and Syria but military spokespeople have refused to give details about which aircraft are undertaking which strikes repeatedly using the formula “US military forces used attack, fighter, bomber and remotely-piloted aircraft to conduct airstrikes.”

On September 27, two days after MPs gave approval following a parliamentary debate, UK forces began air combat operations in Iraq using Tornado aircraft, with the first UK airstrike taking place on 30 September.  Two weeks later the UK confirmed that it was re-deploying two armed Reaper drones from Afghanistan for operations in Iraq and these have now begun flying missions over Iraq.  On 5 November the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced that the UK was sending more Reapers drones (said by some sources to be another two) to Iraq and Syria.

Where the drones are flying from
Washington Post 8 August 2014
Washington Post 8 August 2014

According to an August 2014 Washington Post piece, US military aircraft undertaking airstrikes in Iraq have been flying from bases in the Gulf as well as from USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Several reports have named the Ali al Salem Air Base in Kuwait as the closest US drone base to Iraq and as the Washington Post pointed out “Predator drones from the Air Force’s 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron have to fly only about 40 miles to the border.”

The US has also confirmed that it using Erbil (sometimes named as Irbil or Arbil) in Iraqi Kurdistan as a base for its military aircraft. Despite persistent rumours, US military spokesperson insists that it not being used by drones. However the base is also being used as a “Joint Operating Center” by US and Iraqi force and there an adjacent CIA facility which is reportedly being expanded.   Possibly then there are drones in Erbil but under CIA rather than US military command.

Four US drones have used Incirlik airbase in Turkey to undertake surveillance flights against the PKK in Iraq since November 2011 (one was shot down in September 2012). Although these unarmed flights appear to have continued, Turkey has been reluctant to join the US coalition in part due to the kidnapping of almost 50 Turkish Consulate staff and children when Mosul was overrun by ISIS in June 2014, and partly due to political differences over the response to ISIS. Even though the hostages have now been released, tensions between the US and Turkey remain. Recent reports appear to confirm that Turkey is allowing unarmed US drones to use Incirlik for surveillance flights over Syria and Iraq only.

While the MoD has been happy to report the location of UK Tornado aircraft flying over Iraq as RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus (with the RAF station commander even giving news conference from the main gate) the MoD is being tight-lipped about the basing of its drones, leading to media reports give several different locations.

The Independent says that the UK Reapers “will be based in Kuwait” while the FT reports that they will “have to be based inside Iraq” with a source suggesting either Balad or Erbil airbases. Conversely Sky News stated they will be based “outside of Iraq” somewhere in the Middle East.

As we have suggested previously it is likely to be either Al Minhad in UAE, RAF Akrotiri or Kuwait but without confirmation from the MoD it is not possible at this stage to be certain. One question about all this of course is, if drones are no different from manned aircraft as the MoD repeatedly insists, why are they happy to give the location for the base of the Tornadoes but not the Reapers?

UK drones operating in Syria

Although MPs have been very clear that UK military force against ISIS has only been approved from Iraq, within one week of the Reapers being deployed, the Defence Secretary announced that they were to be used also for missions in Syria. Although these are to be surveillance missions, as The Telegraph reported, ‘David Cameron has indicated that an exception would be made if urgent action was needed to prevent a humanitarian crisis, or protect a British national interest, such as a hostage.’ Asked by The Guardian why Parliament had not been consulted about the use of UK drones in Syria, Cameron’s deputy official spokesman stated that it was because the flights did not amount to military action,

Impact of airstrikes on the ground

Around 800 airstrikes have taken place in Iraq and Syria over the past three months, the vast majority undertaken by US forces. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that more than 550 people have been killed in airstrikes on Syria including at least 32 civilians. There is little information about casualties from airstrikes in Iraq.  A table of credible claims of civilians casualties compiled by freelance reporter Chris Woods is below, but there are certain to be other incidents.

Credible claims of civilian deaths for airstrikes to date*

Date Location Allegedly caused by Summary Status
Sept 23rd Kafar Daryan, Idlib province, Syria US – cruise missiles Up to 11 civilians, many from one family, reported killed in cruise missile strike on Nusra Front-held village Pentagon continues to deny civcas in attack
Sept 28th/29th Manbij, Syria US – possibly with Jordan and/or UAE Grain silos targeted. 2 civilians allegedly killed NGO has now apparently removed civcas references
Oct 4th/ 5th Hit, Iraq US – fighters Up to 18 civilians ‘mostly women and children’ reported killed according to local hospital ‘No evidence’ of civcas according to Centcom
Oct 8th Mosul, Iraq US – fighter/ attack aircraft First US strike on Mosul city targets ISIL vehicles. Agency stringers report possible civcas. Waiting on further details.
Oct 15/16 Kobane, Syria US fighters, bombers Claims that 6 Kurdish fighters and a civilian accidentally killed in a US strike Source: Kurdish officials
Oct 17th/18th Khesham, Der-Ezzor province, Syria US – type unknown ‘7 civilians killed by coalition air strikes on a gas station near Konico gas factory.’ Reported by SOHR
Oct 17th/18th Kabiba village near al-Shadadi, south of al Hasaka, Syria ‘3 civilians including a child under the age of 18, killed by coalition air strikes targeted oil fields .. it is still unknown whether there were workers in the local oil fields or not.’ Reported by SOHR
Nov 5th Al Qaim, Iraq Unknown allied aircraft 7 civilians killed and 27 injured when 2 missiles hit marketplace in town Reported by National Iraqi News Agency (NINA)
Nov 5th Sarmada, US fighters, bombers and RPAs 2 children claimed killed in strikes on Khorasan Front Local reporter, Nusra Front

* Extensive additional civilian casualties are often caused by other parties to both the Iraq and Syria conflicts.
Compiled by Chris Woods.

In 2013, stung by criticisms of the number of civilian casualties from US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, Obama imposed new restrictions saying that no lethal strike would be authorized without “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”  Even though Obama cited counterterrorism operations in Yemen as a template for military operations in Syria and Iraq, Pentagon officials have confirmed that the ‘near-certainty’ principle does not apply to airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the near-certainty standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action outside areas of active hostilities.”

Robert Naiman, of US advocacy group Just Foreign Policy has pointed to parallels between the military action in Iraq and Syria and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen:

“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the US government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”


Professor Paul Rogers points out in his latest excellent background briefing on the crisis that despite three months of airstrikes, ISIS continues its awful massacres, continues to besiege Kobane, and continues its advances on territory even to the gates of Baghdad itself. Rather than being a solution, airstrikes are a recruiting tool used by ISISI “to present itself as a vanguard in the defence of Islam.”  Professor Rogers continues:

“Thus, current Western policy [of airstrikes] may be just what IS strategists want. Indeed there may be serious attempts to provoke a more intensive air campaign, not least through brutal actions against Western citizens and even attacks in Western states. Much will depend on whether such provocation succeeds.”

Western leaders have warned that the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is likely to be a long one – years of airstrikes are being talked about. The impact of these strikes on the ground must be carefully assessed and this requires real transparency from those carrying them out.

More importantly the danger and damage being done both on the ground and to international security by this air campaign must be acknowledged and the numerous alternatives to airstrikes – see here and here must be properly engaged with.

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