Cost of UK air operations in Iraq and Syria tops £2bn with no end to strikes in sight

The long-delayed publication of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) accounts for 2020/21 show that the cost of UK air strikes and operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2014 has now topped £2 billion.  It should be noted that these costs are covered by the Treasury over and above the UK’s defence budget.  The UK carried out 54 air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2021.

Published nine months after the  financial year end, the MoD’s accounts for 2020/21 detail that the ‘net additional cost’ to the UK of air operations against ISIS in the Middle East were £176m – an increase of 20% over 2019/20.  

Both the Iraq and Syrian government declared the military defeat of ISIS after its final territory was overrun in March 2019, while the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, six months later further degraded their capability. While ISIS undoubtedly remains a serious terrorist threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, the continuing presence of US troops and on-going air strikes are also deeply resented by the people of Iraq. 

The drone killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport led to an outpouring of anger and the Iraqi parliament passed a motion demanding the expulsion of US forces from Iraq. When the Iraqi president pushed for a timetable for a withdrawal of forces, the US flatly refused. In December 2021, the US announced that it had ended its ‘combat mission’ in Iraq and was now engaged in an “advise, assist and enable” role.  However, the same number of troops remain on the ground and aircraft remain in the skies, with the US clearly wanting to maintain a military presence in the country. While the air operations of other nations – including Australia , Canada and The Netherlands– have ended,  UK air operations will seemingly continue without end.

Freedom of information responses to Drone Wars UK show that the UK carried out 51 air strikes (or ‘Weapons Release Events’ as the UK MoD now calls them) in Iraq in 2021, and three in Syria, including a suspected drone targeted killing in October.  38 of these strikes occurred in conjunction with a US operation to target a group of caves in northern Iraq where ISIS fighters were said to be hiding.  The UK strikes included the use of 10 Storm Shadow cruise missiles. We have updated our stats on UK air operations in Iraq and Syria since 2014 here.

Forever War

With no UK troops deployed (although there may be special forces deployed covertly), there is little public or parliamentary pressure to bring the UK’s military operations in Iraq and Syria to an end.  While the number of strikes has declined since the height of the war, on-going air strikes get little attention in UK media and even less in the Houses of Parliament. When Stewart McDonald MP asked the Defence Secretary last week about the reported UK drone targeted killing in Syria, the Defence Secretary did not know when the last update had been given to MPs on UK operations in Iraq and Syria (it appears it was March 2021).

The government’s ‘Integrated Review‘ of defence and security policy, published last year, gave short shrift to the notion of war being now the exception to the norm. We are in, claimed the Review documents, “a continuum of conflict” which requires “persistent global engagement and constant campaigning.” UK drones and troops “will no longer be held as a force of last resort, but become more present and active around the world.”

The on-going cost of this government’s forever war in Iraq and Syria will not only being felt by those on the ground where drone and air strikes continue to occur, but also here in the UK as the Treasury continues to funds air strikes rather than help the poorest during a cost of living crisis.

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