Cameron testing the water on British drone strikes in Syria

David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE (credit Stefan Rousseau/PA)
David Cameron with RAF pilots at Al Minhad Air Base in UAE, 2012 (credit Stefan Rousseau/PA)

With the faltering of the US air war against ISIS in Iraq, the UK and the US are considering ways to increase their military activity against the group in Syria.  “We need to crush ISIL in Iraq and Syria” said Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons this week in a response to the massacre of Western holidaymakers in Tunisia.

This phrase was interpreted by many in the media (possibly after government spin doctor briefings) to mean possible UK air and drone strikes in Syria.

A follow-up story in today’s Times suggests that the Labour party, caught up in leadership elections, may be in no mood to oppose such action. One anonymous Labour source told the Times “The target is ISIS not Assad.  We would need the government to come forward and tell us what they want to do.”

Other commentators are now beginning to wade in, including Sir David Omand, former director of GCHQ and Whitehall’s top security and intelligence adviser, who told the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor:

“The key is information to pre-empt attacks including digital intelligence from bulk access, identifying the active terrorists, their locations, movements, associations, financing and intentions.  To allow such intelligence to be used effectively at source, parliament should authorise British forces including RAF Reaper RPAS [remotely-piloted air systems, commonly called unmanned drones] to operate across the border from Iraq into Syria when necessary.

It is somewhat worrying that Omand doesn’t seem to know that the UK’s Reaper drones are already crossing quite regularly into Syria on surveillance and intelligence gathering missions as this FoI response to us makes clear.  The Government are pretending that such flights do not amount to military action.  This is nonsense, particularly as intelligence from the sorties is being passed to the US to aid with strikes.

Nevertheless, British drone and air strikes would be a serious escalation and one for which there is no legal basis under international law without UN approval.  While the US, and more recently Canada (the other NATO country to carry out strikes in Syria) insist that they have legal authority for strikes as they are being carried out in defence of Iraq, many legal commentators, experts and scholars argue such action is simply unlawful. Even mainstream media opinion, when pressed, acknowledges the air strikes are illegal but somehow are “legitimate”.

While Cameron is making it clear that there would have to be a parliamentary vote on undertaking air strikes in Syria – except if there is a need for ‘urgent action‘ – it feels like the stage is being set for such an escalation.

The attack on innocent civilians by ISIS terrorists in Syria Tunisia, Kuwait and France last week was absolutely awful. 140 civilians including women, children and elderly people were reportedly killed in what was described as a suicide attack in Kobani near the Turkish border on Thursday.  On Friday  ISIS gunmen attacked holiday makers in Tunisia killing 38 people, 30 of whom are reported British citizens; 27 were killed after an ISIS suicide attack on a mosque in Kuwait, while one man was killed in an attack in France.

Such horrific attacks on civilians must be resisted and the pressure to be seen to do something – particular from tabloid newspapers – lies heavy on politicians. We saw last summer, in the aftermath of the on-camera executions of western hostages, many politicians supported the air strikes, albeit with reservations.

A year on and it is far from clear that undertaking illegal air strikes in Syria will prevent such attacks in the future.  ISIS, it must be remembered, was in part created by the devastation and destruction wrought by the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Through killing innocent civilians ISIS wants to give itself a sort of warped legitimacy and attract more recruits by goading the West into further military action. And it seems the West is more than willing to oblige.

In a speech to the Defence industry today Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP stated:

“There is simply no question of the UK riding out the storm when a gunman slaughters innocent tourists on a Tunisian beach, when ISIL continue their murderous rampage across Syria and Iraq, when failing states in Africa fall prey to insurgency triggering large-scale migration, when Russian expansionism threatens our Eastern European backyard.

When the rules-based system under which states live and trade with each other is under increasing strain we must defend it with all our might.”

It is far from clear how breaking that ‘rule-based system’ (!) and reacting as ISIS wants, will prevent ISIS from undertaking further such attacks in the future.



“An illogicality” in UK not dealing with ISIL in Syria – audio of interview with Defence Secretary Michael Fallon on Radio 4 today.  Interviewer does not challenge his assertion that there is no legal reason for UK not to intervene in Syria.



Leave a Reply