The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria Contents

3The extension of British anti-ISIL airstrikes into Syria

Possible diplomatic and military benefits of extending airstrikes to Syria

14.Government ministers have for some months extended the argument that the current policy of conducting airstrikes in Iraq but not Syria is not logical and impedes the effectiveness of the mission. Their arguments have focused almost exclusively on military efficiency. The Foreign Secretary told us:

there is a military incoherence to carrying out a campaign of air strikes against an enemy on the ground in Iraq whose supply lines originate in the neighbouring country, but being unable to attack those supply lines and control centres in the neighbouring country. There may well be political arguments about that—indeed, there are political arguments, and these were rehearsed in Parliament on 29 August 2013—but, from a military point of view, it is incoherent. It is a single theatre of conflict, and the supply lines run from al-Raqqa, in Syria, into Iraq, where they sustain the ISIL/Daesh forces that are attacking Iraqi forces. 28

15.He has since told the House that “We are already flying reconnaissance missions over Syria, but our Reapers now have to fly over Syria unarmed looking for situations, which they then relay back to call in other allies to carry out strikes. That is not the most efficient way to carry out operations.”29 Our military expert witnesses confirmed that the extension to Syria of the British mandate to conduct airstrikes would be welcomed by our allies in the coalition. It would provide greater flexibility for Coalition commanders as well as the use of another base in Cyprus.30

16.It was also noted that the extension of airstrikes would help the UK to be seen as a ‘good ally’ to the US and its partners in the region (or rather, remove the current diplomatic embarrassment of it appearing not to being fully committed to the coalition plan).31 Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall (retired), felt that symbolic support was a valuable thing at present, and told us that the UK’s non-participation in Syria “sends a strong message to our allies in the Gulf, to the Russians, and to our American friends who have certain concerns about the UK willingness to commit”.32 He compared this to Russia’s actions, which he considered were “very strongly sending a message to a number of listeners in the region about the reliability of Russia as an ally, even for those who don’t like the people he is allied to.”33 We note in this regard that senior figures in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have since reportedly caused disquiet in the US and elsewhere by requesting Russian assistance against ISIL.34

Possible diplomatic, political and military risks of extending airstrikes into Syria

Legal basis

17.Questions about the legality of the UK’s earlier interventions in the Middle East have dogged its actions for over a decade, and the UK risks further reputational damage if the legal basis for airstrikes in Syria is not clear. International law allows the use of force in three circumstances: invitation, UN Security Council authorisation, and self-defence. Humanitarian intervention, as was used by the Government to justify intervention in Kosovo in 1999, is emerging as a fourth justification but is not yet fully established.35

18.The evidence we received indicated that the legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria is more complicated than in Iraq, where it was undertaken at the invitation of the Iraqi government. The Assad regime has not invited airstrikes by the Coalition, though it has so far tolerated those conducted by the Coalition against ISIL on its territory. Even if the Assad regime were to request them, in 2012 the UK Government recognised the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as “the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”.36 There is no consensus, and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council are divided, as Russia and China do not agree.

19.In the absence of an invitation, legality could be most clearly established through a UN Security Council Resolution authorising military action. The impasse between the West and Russia over Syria makes this an extremely difficult goal, because it demands some form of consensus between the permanent members. Though difficult, this requirement for agreement makes a UN Security Council Resolution desirable for more than simply legal reasons, as it would require negotiation between all parties and compromise to achieve an agreed response.

20.The third legal basis for the use of force is self-defence, as set out in Article 51 of the UN Charter. This confirms an inherent right to individual or collective self-defence. In the case of Syria, Coalition members who are taking action in Syria are doing so on the basis of collective self-defence of Iraq. The Foreign Secretary implied but did not state clearly that he considered this might also be the legal basis for airstrikes by the UK. He said:

The Coalition forces that are operating in Syria are doing so on the basis of collective self-defence of Iraq and the challenge that the Iraqi Government are facing from ISIL and its base in Syria.37

He added that “The logic of extending our mandate to cover ISIL targets in Syria would be very clearly a logic in support of the mandate we have in Iraq for the collective self-defence of that country.”38

21.The UK government has used both individual and collective forms of self-defence as legal justification for action in Syria already. It justified its drone strike against a target in Syria in August 2015 to Parliament as an act of individual self-defence of the UK, but in a letter to the UN Security Council, it argued both that it was “a necessary and proportionate exercise of the individual right of self-defence of the United Kingdom” and that “action against ISIL in Syria is lawful in the collective self-defence of Iraq.”39 We asked Marc Weller, Professor of International Law and International Constitutional Studies, University of Cambridge, about the legal justification for airstrikes in Syria, and he struck a cautious tone. He noted that the French statement to the UN Security Council justifying its intention to join airstrikes in Syria was “ambiguous”, in that it did not make clear if it was referring to self-defence on behalf of Iraq or for itself. He considered that the latter:

stretches our understanding of self-defence a little bit. When you want to involve self-defence in the sense that you, as one state, are defending yourself against the actions of another state, or perhaps the actions of a non-state actor based in another state, you have to demonstrate quite specifically that there exists an instant, overwhelming necessity, leaving no choice of means and no moment of deliberation—in other words, an imminent armed attack is going to happen against you unless you act now. The United Kingdom successfully made that argument in relation to the operation that took place in August, when it argued that there was a terrorist cell engaged directly in an activity that would lead inevitably to an attack on the United Kingdom. France has not made such a specific case as yet, as far as I have seen.40

Former Attorney General, the Rt Hon. Dominic Grieve QC MP, however, was more positive about the potential case for justifying airstrikes:

Is it possible for me as a lawyer to see a legal basis on which you could attack IS in Syria? The answer must be yes. If IS is threatening the national security and the lives of people in the United Kingdom and is operating in ungoverned space, and if the Government have gone through a checklist to decide that what they want to do is necessary and proportionate, and there is no other way of dealing with the problem other than using lethal force, those provide perfectly clear grounds in international law why air strikes could be used.41

Military risks

22.In military terms, we noted that although our witnesses believed that a decision to extend airstrikes into Syria would be welcomed by Coalition allies, some said that it would not have anything other than a marginal effect.42 The experts told us that it would not be likely to involve extra aircraft but would simply re-focus existing assets;43 that the UK was already contributing valuable surveillance in Syria; and that the ability to conduct airstrikes as well would not have a decisive effect.44 Sir Simon Mayall concurred, adding:

There are not that many of them, actually. This is not an air campaign anything remotely like the scale of 1991 or 2003. We need to be very clear about this. This is not a war-winning air campaign, by any stretch of the imagination.45

23.As a result, several witnesses concluded that there was little reason for the UK to change its policy.46 Julien Barnes-Dacey was strongly against the proposal and told us that the airstrikes make the threat from ISIS worse because they “feed a sense of radicalisation”:

Sunnis say, “Look, the West is not helping us against Assad, but they are fighting ISIS.” […] We become direct parties, all the while contributing nothing meaningful, in terms of military numbers or capability. I really fail to see how air strikes against ISIS will not do more harm than good.47

24.Our witnesses also highlighted the need for allies on the ground when conducting airstrikes, and the limitations of any action without them, which was termed “the heart of our problem”.48 We were told that allies on the ground were necessary both to offer information on targeting, as the Kurds have done in northern areas of Syria, and also in order to re-take the territories if and when they are vacated by ISIL. The US campaign to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIL has notoriously met little success and was abandoned last month when the US announced that it would instead focus on providing weapons and ammunition to existing groups, and instructing some rebel leaders on how to call in airstrikes.49

25.We note also that the former Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. Nick Clegg, has recently said that the lack of a “coherent ground campaign in Syria to which air strikes could usefully contribute” was the reason that the Government did not pursue military action against Syria in September 2014, and that he did not consider that to have changed.50 We were concerned by the limited response when we asked the Foreign Secretary about the need for allies on the ground to carry out land operations. He said that “it will require boots on the ground to roll back ISIL on the ground and we have always recognised that fact”,51 but when we pushed him to commit to providing information on this point before any motion was put before Parliament, he refused:

Stephen Gethins: So will you bring something forward to Parliament before we finally approve—on the question of boots on the ground and in training?

Mr Hammond: No, I can’t commit to bringing something forward to tell you where or how this campaign will play out in the long run. At the moment we are attacking an enemy in Iraq. If we formed the judgment that that air-based military operation would be more efficacious if we were able to attack ISIL targets in Syria as well, we will ask Parliament for authority to do that. That is all that I can say at this stage.52

Political and diplomatic risks

26.The fact that there are few reliable counterparts on the ground is a reflection of the extraordinary complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Our witnesses described a chaotic and complicated political and military scene: After over four years of civil war, there are thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organisations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances.53 We were told that there was interchange between the many groups, as fighters from groups as diverse as al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army were now joining ISIL,54 and also that there was “genuine bad blood” between them all.55 All witnesses agreed that radical Islamist forces now dominate among fighting groups, including those linked to Al Qaeda such as Al Nusra and Al Sham. One witness described how the lengthy fighting had resulted in a “squeezing of the middle ground and radicalisation among the jihadi groups”.56 Another described bleakly how “at this point everyone involved in the war in Syria is, to a certain extent, involved in a project of ethnic cleansing - whether it is the regime, some of the Sunni groups or the Kurds […] unfortunately very few of the middle ground are able to withstand that pressure.”57 When asked recently to estimate the strength of the Free Syrian Army, which had been backed by the West, the Foreign Secretary answered by estimating that the “non-ISIL, non-al-Nusra part of the opposition” (which presumably includes but is not limited to the FSA) “probably” has a fighting strength of about 80,000 soldiers deployed across the country,58 but witnesses told us that there were few “moderates” left and that the FSA was now “very weak”.59 There appeared to be little chance of a legitimate and functioning ally emerging from the chaos soon. The complex nature of the situation makes it hard to guess the consequences of tackling just ISIL, or to predict what group would take their territory if they were defeated.

27.The situation in Syria is complicated still further by the multiple international actors involved, to the extent that many observers now consider it a proxy war as much as an internal conflict.60 These include Russia and Iran (on the Assad side), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the US (on the sides of various different parts of the opposition), creating what one witness called a “multi-layered conflict”.61 Our witnesses described how these actors have conflicting strategic interests, and are prolonging and exacerbating the conflict. Julien Barnes-Dacey described Syria as a theatre for three regional wars: an Iran-Saudi conflict; an intra-Sunni conflict of Saudis and Qataris; and the Turkey-PKK conflict.62 Professor Hinnebusch, Professor of International Relations and Middle East Politics and Director for the Centre of Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews, added that the rise of ISIL, rather than galvanising the international and Syrian actors to work together to oppose it (and perhaps to assist the international Coalition in fighting it), has created a “counter tendency” in which various sides “seem to believe that they can use ISIS for their own purposes, or exploit ISIS’s existence as a bogeyman to get support for themselves.”63

28.The much more substantial Russian intervention on the side of the Assad regime that started at the end of September 2015 has complicated even further any proposed action in Syria by the UK. On 30 September, Russia began to conduct airstrikes in Syria in support of the Assad regime. It has also begun to provide more substantial military support on the ground, as has Iran. The Russian Government states that its efforts are aimed at fighting terrorist groups in Syria, including but not limited to ISIL, but the US has claimed that airstrikes have been largely aimed at groups fighting Assad, including groups affiliated with the FSA that have received support from the US.64 Although international opinion is mixed about the long-term implications of the intervention by Russia, in the short term it has appeared to limit the options available to others. We note fears expressed by our witnesses that

Clearly, there is a genuine issue when we have Russians flying in airspace on a particular agenda and the US-led Coalition flying in the same airspace on a different agenda. 65

Sensibly, Russia and the US have agreed on de-confliction measures to limit the danger of their aircraft becoming involved in hostilities, but fears persist as multiple air forces are now pursuing different agendas in Syria. It also appears to have dampened discussions about potential no-fly areas or safe zones, which would be even harder to agree and enforce.

29.Finally, several of our witnesses also suggested that by participating in military action against ISIL in Syria, the UK would actually compromise its diplomatic capability and its capacity to put pressure on its national and international partners to create a route to a solution to the inter-related problems of ISIL and the Syrian civil war. Dr Rim Turkmani and Ammar Waqqaf, presenting different Syrian perspectives, both called for the UK and EU to lead a diplomatic initiative, telling us that the UK is in a good position to do so precisely because it is not part of the “polarisation” at the international (between the US and Russia) and regional (between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran) levels,66 and because “it hasn’t yet prejudiced its position” in Syria.67

30.We consider that the UK’s provision of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees has further strengthened its diplomatic position and moral authority for such negotiations. The Syrian civilian population has suffered enormously from the civil war and from the rise of ISIL: over 250,000 people have been killed and over one million injured. The UN has estimated that 6.5 million people have been internally displaced and that 4.2 million have fled the country.68 The UK has allocated over £1.1 billion (of which over £652 million has been spent) since 2012 to partners such as the United Nations, NGOs and the Red Cross to help meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people in Syria and of refugees in the region. It has also allocated £9.5 million to support local capacity and build longer term stability. The aims of the UK’s funding in Syria include meeting the needs of vulnerable groups, and also strengthening “the moderate opposition’s capacity to provide governance and basic services and thereby provide an alternative to extremist groups such as ISIL and to the Assad regime.”69 We welcome the Government’s commitment to alleviating the suffering of the civilian population and urge the Government to continue providing this vital assistance.

28 Oral evidence taken on 9 September 2015, HC 381, Q32

29 HC Deb, 20 Oct 2015, Col 808

30 See Q 57 [Mayall] and Qq58-59 [Quintana]

31 See Qs 57 & 65 [Mayall] and Professor Michael Clarke (SYR0004)

32 Q 65

33 Q 56

34 See, for example: “Iraq leans towards Russia in war on Islamic State”, Reuters, 7 October 2015; and “Syrian Kurds alarm US with closer ties to Putin”, The Times, 22 October 2015

35 The UK has set out its view of the three requirements for humanitarian intervention in Syria (that is, strong evidence of extreme and large-scale humanitarian distress; no practicable alternative to the use of force; and that the proposed use of force is necessary, proportionate, and the minimum necessary) but these are not yet accepted by the international community as a valid justification for using force in the absence of Security Council authorisation.

36 HC Deb, 20 Nov 2012, Col 445

37 Q 50

38 Q 52

40 Q 63

41 Q 46

42 See Q 53 [Clarke], Q 122 [Lain]

43 Q 63 [Quintana]

44 See Q 58 [Mayall and Quintana], Q 122 [Ehteshami and Lain], Q 53 [Clarke]

45 Q 64

46 See Q 122 [Lain], Q 131 [Turkmani], Q 121 [Ehteshami], Q41 [Rogan]

47 Q 41

48 Q 79 [Mayall]

51 Q 69

52 Q 71

53 See also Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi (SYR0005)

54 See Q 164 [Abdurrahman] and Q 8 [Cockburn]

55 Q 16 [Harkin]

56 Q 106 [Ehteshami]

57 Q 32 [Barnes-Dacey]

58 HC Deb, 20 Oct 2015, Col 814

59 Q 2 [Cockburn]

60 See, for example, ‘Syria: Proxy war, not civil war’, Middle East Monitor, 14 March 2015; ‘We Ask Experts: Has The Situation In Syria Become A Proxy War?’,, 17 October 2015

61 Q 65 [Mayall]

62 Q 32

63 Q 30; See also Q 96 [Ehteshami], Q35 [Rogan]

64 See, for example, ‘ Russian Airstrike in Syria Targeted CIA-Backed Rebels, U.S. Officials Say’, Wall Street Journal, 30 September 2015. See also RUSI Analysis ‘ Russia’s War Plan in Syria’, 2 October 2015, and Q 151 [Abdurrahman]

65 Q 75 [Mayall]; see also Q 75 [Quintana]

66 Q 141 [Turkmani]

67 Q 144 [Waqqaf]

68 UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ‘Syrian Arab Republic: Key figures’ accessed 28 October 2015

69 DFID, “Syria Crisis Response Summary”, 23 September 2015

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 2 November 2015