After a lengthy delay in responding to our FoI requests, the MOD has now provided data on UK air operations in Iraq and Syria for the second half of 2017. For our updated complete set of figures for UK air operations in Iraq and Syria since 2014 see here.
As ISIS collapses in Iraq, Syria becomes UK focus
The newly released figures show just how much the focus of UK air operations switched from Iraq to Syria during 2017. In 2016, 74% of UK armed air missions took place in Iraq with just over a quarter in Syria. In 2017 the numbers were almost the reverse, with 68% of armed missions taking place in Syria and only 32% in Iraq.
The transfer of focus from Iraq to Syria is confirmed by data on weapon launches. Comparing weapons fired by British aircraft during 2017 with 2016 we see a decrease of 52% in Iraq and an increase of 103% in Syria. The last six months of 2017 shows an even more dramatic increase in UK air strikes in Syria with a 220% rise in weapons fired there compared with the same time period in 2016. Overall the number of weapons fired by UK aircraft in 2017 declined by 35% from 1,649 in 2016 to 1,078 in 2017.
Use of Reaper Drones
The number of UK Reaper drone missions flown in 2017 increased very slightly over 2016. In line with the overall trend, the vast majority of these flights (just over 80%) took place in Syria rather than Iraq. However, the number of UK Reaper sorties launching air strikes declined, with only 64 Reaper sorties launching one or more strikes in 2017. In 2016 a quarter of all UK Reaper missions launched a strike, in 2017 this declined to around 10%. This compares with just under a quarter of Tornado/Typhoon sorties in 2017 launching strikes.
The decline in UK drone strikes is likely due to British Reapers being used to undertake prolonged surveillance in and around Mosul and Raqqa and laser-guiding other Coalition aircraft strikes. The ability of Reapers to remain in the air far longer than other aircraft makes them suitable for such tasks. As we have noted previously, Reapers are flying many more hours than other UK armed aircraft.
2018: UK strikes in Iraq at an end, drone strikes on the rise in Syria
From updates released by the MoD since the beginning of the year, it appears that the RAF has ceased undertaking air strikes against ISIS in Iraq although no official statement has been made. Iraq declared final victory over ISIS on 9 December 2017, a fact recognised in the MoD update published on 11 December. Only one UK air strike has taken place in Iraq since then – on 7 January 2018. US Centcom announced on 5 February that Coalition operations in Iraq were shifting from “enabling combat operations to sustaining military gains against Daesh.”
However, UK airstrikes against ISIS and “in support of Syrian Democratic Forces” as the MoD puts it, continue. According to updates posted by the Ministry of Defence, British Reapers launched at least 44 attacks in Syria in January 2018, more than in the whole of the previous three months combined. By comparison, Tornados and Typhoons fired around 24 munitions in the same time period. While it can be difficult to compare these narrative updates with the FoI data, it appears that with the liberation of Raqqa, Reapers are reverting back to their strike role again.
War without end?
In 2015 there was a great deal of public and parliamentary debate about whether the UK should extend operations its operations from Iraq into Syria. It is conspicuous that now UK strike operations in Iraq are over, there is no parliamentary or public debate about whether strikes in Syria should continue or what the ‘endgame’ is. UK forces were deployed to the Middle East, it should be noted, at the request of Iraqi government to help with Iraqi security.
This lack of debate is no doubt because this is a ‘remote war’ in many senses. With virtually no UK troops deployed and therefore no risk to our forces, the war has very much faded into the background. Despite on-going and systematic detailing of civilian casualties from groups like Airwars, the UK’s repeated insistence that there have been no civilian casualties from 1,600 air strikes has also helped to take the air campaign out of the headlines.
Last week (13 February), after a meeting of the Defence ministers from the anti-ISIS Coalition in Rome, Gavin Williamson told reporters:
“We pledged to continue to fight terrorists until their poisonous global network is totally destroyed. Despite Daesh’s diminishing territory, it is hell-bent on directing and inspiring terrorist attacks worldwide – threatening our security at home and abroad. The threat they pose is evolving and intensifying but our resolve to defeat them will not fade.”
There was some reports towards the end of 2017 that the UK was planning to withdraw its fast jets in the Spring while leaving Reaper drones to continue operations, but there has been little news on this since. It seems that the UK will be continuing to undertake air strikes in Syria with no end in sight.