The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria Contents


1.For some months, the Government has indicated that it might seek to bring before the House proposals to extend into Syria participation by British aircraft in involvement in airstrikes as part of the Global Coalition to counter ISIL. While there is no legal requirement that the Government seek Parliamentary approval for military action, it is now a convention that it does so, wherever possible.1 In July, the Defence Secretary told the new Parliament that Members should “consider carefully how best to tackle ISIL, an evil caliphate that does not respect state boundaries.”2 In October, the Defence Secretary was quoted in the press stating that “ISIL is organised and directed in north-east Syria that is being targeted by America, French and Australian air forces. We are building the case for that. When we’ve got a consensus, we will go to Parliament and have the vote.”3

2.In the light of these developments, we held two evidence sessions on UK policy on Syria with a total of 15 witnesses: the first on 8 September 2015, and the second jointly with the Defence Committee on 8 October 2015. The latter session particularly focused on the possibility of UK involvement in airstrikes against ISIL in Syria. Although we have drawn upon the contribution made by colleagues on the Defence Committee to that joint session, this report represents the opinion of the Foreign Affairs Committee only. However, we note the views of the Chair of the Defence Committee as expressed in an article written in a personal capacity jointly with the former British Ambassador to Syria, Mr Peter Ford, on 21 October.4 We have also questioned the Foreign Secretary on the Government’s policy on ISIL and Syria on two occasions, most recently during his appearance before the Committee on 9 September 2015. The Committee has also launched in September 2015 a broader inquiry into the UK’s role in the fight against ISIL, for which it will soon begin taking evidence.

3.This short report does not attempt to rehearse all of the issues relevant to the debate. In anticipation of a motion requesting Parliamentary approval for airstrikes, its purpose is to inform the Government, and the House, of key issues that we think must be addressed in considering any proposal to extend British airstrikes against ISIL into Syria.


4.In September 2014, the House agreed to a motion authorising airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, on the basis that these would not be extended to Syria without further Parliamentary approval.5 The legacy of the Government’s unexpected failure to win a 2013 parliamentary vote on airstrikes in Syria against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons loomed large over that motion, as it does over the current debate. In September 2015, the Foreign Secretary revealed the Government’s anxiety about bringing proposals for airstrikes in Syria to Parliament again:

We think there are arguments for it, but we are clear that we require parliamentary authority. We will only bring such a proposition to Parliament when we are confident that the circumstances and the evidence that we can bring forward in support of our request are likely to find favour in Parliament. 6

1 In March 2011, Sir Gus O’Donnell, then Cabinet Secretary, wrote to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to acknowledge that a convention existed by which Parliament was given the opportunity to debate decisions to commit troops to armed conflict and, except in emergency situations, that debate would take place before they were committed. See Eighth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2010-12, Advance Parliamentary approval for military action was sought on 18 March 2003, in relation to Iraq; on 29 August 2013, in relation to Syria; and on 26 September 2014, in relation to Iraq.

2 HC Deb, 2 July 2015, col 1671

4The arguments against bombing Syria are compelling” , The Guardian, 21 October 2015,

5 HC Deb, 26 September 2014, Col 1255

6 Oral evidence taken on 9 September 2015, HC 381, Q 67

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 2 November 2015