UK air war in Middle East continues with no end in sight

UK aircraft and drones have carried out almost 120 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the fall of ISIS in March 2019

The latest response to our quarterly FoI request to the Ministry of Defence on UK armed air operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria brings us up to two full years since the end of ISIS’ so-called Caliphate in March 2019.

The figures give a glimpse of continuing UK air operations in the Middle East  but with a significant hole in the middle. Although the government has confirmed the RAF Reapers are now also undertaking operations outside of those against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they continue to refuse to give any details of those missions.  All the MoD will say is that “the UK Reaper fleet is currently based in the Middle Eastern Region.”

The latest figures for Operation Shader (we’ve updated our summary here) show that the UK is fast approaching 10,000 armed air missions in Iraq and Syria since the launch of operations in 2014. Of those, just over a fifth (2,203) have taken place since Kurdish forces overran ISIS’ last stronghold – the village of Baghuz in Eastern Syria – in March 2019. Roughly two-thirds of UK armed air missions in Iraq since March 2019 have been conducted by RAF Reapers with a third by Typhoons, while in Syria it almost the exact reverse, with just a third of UK Syria missions being carried out by UK drones. 

There is also a very significant difference in terms of number of air strikes. Only three UK airstrikes (or ‘Weapons Release Events’ as we are now to call them) have been carried out in Syria in the past two years – all occurring in July 2019 – while there have been 115 UK air strikes – firing 131 weapons – in Iraq.

Last month the Ministry of Defence gave details of a sustained bombing campaign on caves said to be being used by ISIS, near Erbil in Northern Iraq. According to the latest FoI response, 10 Storm Shadow Cruise missiles were fired at the area by Typhoons and 42 Hellfire missiles were also fired that month – a huge increase over the number fired in recent months. The Storm Shadow missiles (which costs £800,000 per unit)  carry a 1,000 lb warhead while the Hellfire deliver 500lb of explosives. The MoD was particularly pleased with the operations as it was the first time UK Typhoon jets have fired the Storm Shadow cruise missile in combat.

The MoD have also just announced that the UK’s new F-35 ‘Lightening’ aircraft will take part in operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria when it is deployed next month aboard the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group.

Forever War

Two years after the end of ISIS’ occupation of Iraq and Syria there is no sign of an end to the UK’s military deployment in the Middle East. Air Commodore Simon Strasdin, who currently leads the UK air mission told The Guardian he “could not give an exact timeline” for when the long-running war would end but insisted it would be “winnable through the Iraqis being able to stabilise their country”.

This is all very much in tune with the Government’s recent ‘Integrated Review’ which gave short shrift to the notion of war as being the exception to the norm. We are in, says the review documents,  “a continuum of conflict” which requires “persistent global engagement and constant campaigning.”  UK troops, drones and aircraft “will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become more present and active around the world.”

Such ‘campaigning’ will not only take the form of direct hard power such as the recent period of aerial bombing in Iraq, but will also take place behind the scenes in what is dubbed ‘the grey-zone’. But it should be emphasised that the documents and statements of ministers make clear that this endless war is not about creating security to protect those in the area in which such conflict is take place, but rather to “shape and influence the global landscape to the UK’s advantage.”  Being more “present and active around the world” is not to defend those threated by armed groups such as ISIS or even other bellicose states, but rather to ‘secure our interests’.  As it states in the latest MoD Command Paper ‘Defence in Competitive World

Through a more engaged posture we will increase our influence, promote our values and create the unity which our adversaries fear…

The Armed forces… will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become more present and active around the world, operating below the threshold of open conflict to uphold our values and secure our interests…

With few ‘boots on the ground’ there is almost no domestic pressure now to bring the UK’s air war to an end.  With a government publicly committed to overt and covert warfare as a means of securing its own interests, we are likely to see British aircraft and drones engage endlessly in sporadic bouts of bombing with almost no visibility of the consequences for those on the ground.

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