The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria Contents

2The current anti-ISIL operation in Iraq and Syria

ISIL in Iraq and Syria

5.Formed as an offshoot of Al Qaeda but later disowned by the organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Islamic State, Da’esh or ISIS) emerged as a serious force in 2012–13 and quickly became one of the world’s most notorious and brutal radical jihadi organisations. Based in Raqqa, a city in northern Syria, ISIL initially capitalised on the chaos of the Syrian civil war to grow in strength and territory. It then embarked on a startlingly successful military campaign in the first half of 2014, taking control of swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq and declaring a caliphate under its control. It has imposed severe restrictions and punishments on the population in areas under its control, including persecution of individuals and ethnic/religious groups, ruthless forms of corporal punishment and mass executions.

6.Estimates of ISIL’s size and number are controversial; US officials reportedly recently estimated that Coalition strikes had killed 20,000 fighters over the past year, but that its ability to recruit local and foreign fighters had meant that its numbers had remained relatively steady at around 20,000–30,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.7 Other estimates vary substantially.8 Answering a recent Oral Question, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government estimated that there were around 10–13,000 active ISIL fighters in Iraq, but he did not give figures for Syria.9 What is clear is that ISIL is large enough to expand aggressively and to take control of strategically important territory, including the cities of Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa and Palmyra in Syria.

7.Analytical descriptions of ISIL as an organisation emphasise the multi-faceted nature of the relatively new group. They encompass its military aggression, jihadi ideology, political skill, and practical appeal to local forces and groups that are trying to survive, as well as lurid propaganda and attraction for distant individuals, and its aspirations for a form of statehood. One analysis says that ISIL has four principal manifestations, as “a guerrilla army, Sunni political movement, millenarian cult and administrator of territory”.10 Another has called it a “hybrid of insurgency, separatism, terrorism and criminality” with roots in both its immediate local environment and in broader regional conflicts and geopolitical battles.11 This potent mix is backed up by the ability to take from state forces, and hold, strategic areas and major assets like military weaponry and oil fields, making ISIL a powerfully destabilising force in the region. Its battlefield success and adept propaganda has also inspired individuals across the region and in Europe to join the organisation, including some from the UK.

8.The Prime Minister told Parliament that ISIL was “an evil against which the whole of the world should unite.”12 The British Government has designated ISIL “a clear national threat to the UK, and a global threat to our international partners and the region,” and has said that the UK is working closely with allies to “drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL […] and what it stands for.”13 Our witnesses agreed that ISIL was a major threat to the UK, and one argued that the UK could not avoid involvement, even if it wished: “With Daesh, I do not think we are left with that option, because the fight will come to us, whether or not we want it to. You have to decide what you want to do and how you want to defeat it, but just coming back and having Fortress Britain is not going to be pretty”.14 Preventing further regional instability, indeed, re-establishing regional stability, and defeating the ideology underlying ISIL are plainly British national interests.

The Global Coalition to counter ISIL

9.ISIL’s capacity to conquer and hold territory, its destabilising effect in the region, and its ability to inspire deadly terrorist attacks elsewhere such as those in Tunisia and Turkey, as well as its extremist ideology and astonishingly brutal tactics, has elicited widespread condemnation and an international response. The Global Coalition to counter ISIL was formed in early September 2014 as a grouping of states, now numbering 65, which aims to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy”.15 It does this through targeted military action in Iraq and Syria; as well as work on tackling its financing, flows of fighters, propaganda, and humanitarian issues.

10.A main thrust of the Coalition’s efforts is a US-led campaign of air support and training in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi government, to support it in its fight against ISIL. Nine Coalition partners have provided air operations targeting ISIL in Iraq in support of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, providing reconnaissance, surveillance, and attack capabilities.16 Members of the Coalition are also providing training to Iraqi and Kurdish security forces to build the ground capability to take on ISIL.17 The Coalition’s efforts have helped to “halt and hold” ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq last year and the Government claims that 30% of territory captured by ISIL in Iraq has been reclaimed over the past year.18 Some experts have responded sceptically to this assertion, and other figures suggest about 10-15%.19 The Foreign Secretary told the House that it was a long-term plan:

We always said, at the beginning of the intervention last summer, that it would probably take three years to defeat ISIL militarily. I spoke to General John Allen, the US President’s special envoy on this subject, just a few weeks ago. His view is that that remains correct, and we still have another two years to go to a military solution in Iraq.20

11.Airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria are a major part of the Coalition’s strategy. It has conducted almost 5,000 airstrikes in Iraq and over 2,500 airstrikes in Syria in its campaign to target and attack ISIL.21 Although 13 states have taken part,22 the US has conducted the overwhelming majority of airstrikes: almost 70% in Iraq and 95% in Syria.23 US Central Command, which coordinates Coalition airstrikes against ISIL, has stated that, as of 8 October 2015, Coalition military action had destroyed or damaged over 13,500 ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria.24

UK contribution

12.The UK was a founding member of the Coalition and an active participant in its work. It co-leads the Coalition’s working group on ISIL’s propaganda and it claims to be the second biggest contributor after the US to the military campaign. The UK has deployed eight Tornados and an unconfirmed number of armed and surveillance Reaper RPAS (drones) to support the coalition. It has contributed around 800 personnel, taking part in training and support such as a counter-IED programme, as well as providing weaponry and ammunition. In September 2015, the Government announced that the UK had conducted more than 300 strikes, flown almost a third of Coalition surveillance flights, and trained over 2,000 local troops.25

13.While the US and some other Coalition partners have conducted airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria since September 2014, the UK has restricted its participation in coalition airstrikes to Iraq, though it flies surveillance and intelligence missions in Syria to contribute to the Coalition’s campaign there. The UK has, however, conducted a single airstrike in Syria in August 2015 against a British national that it considered a “direct threat” to the UK.26 British pilots embedded with US and Canadian forces appear to have also flown missions in Syria.27

8 See, for example: “War with Isis: Islamic militants have army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader”, Independent, 16 November 2014; and “Islamic State ‘has 50,000 fighters in Syria”, Al Jazeera, 19 August 2014

9 HC Deb, 20 October 2015, Col 812

10ISIS: The Dubious Paradise of Apocalypse Now”, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, June-July 2015

12 Prime Minister’s speech at the UN General Assembly, 25 September 2014

13 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘ISIL: UK Government Response’, accessed 28 October 2015

14 Q 90 [Quintana]

15 US Department of State, “The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”, accessed 28 October 2015

16 The nine are: United States, United Kingdom, France, Australia, the Netherlands, Jordan, Belgium (withdrawn), Denmark (withdrawn), Canada (whose new government has indicated that it plans to withdraw)

17Operations against ISIL pass one-year mark”, MOD press release, 26 Sept 2015

18 HC Deb, 20 October 2015, Written Question No. 11279

19 See, for example, “How ISIS Territory Has Changed Since the U.S. Bombing Campaign Began”, The Atlantic, 11 September 2015

20 HC Deb, 20 Oct 2015, Col 812

21Special Report: Operation Inherent Resolve”, US Department of Defence, 20 October 2015, accessed 26 October 2015

22 Airstrikes in Iraq: US, UK, Australia, Belgium (withdrawn), Canada (expected to withdraw), Denmark (withdrawn), France, Jordan, The Netherlands (9). Airstrikes in Syria: US, Australia, Bahrain, Canada (expected to withdraw), France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE (9). Total of 13 states overall.

23 Source: Statistics calculated from data on “Special Report: Operation Inherent Resolve”, US Department of Defence, 20 October 2015, accessed 26 October 2015

24Special Report: Operation Inherent Resolve”, US Department of Defence, 20 October 2015, accessed 26 October 2015. See also: HC Deb, 12 October 2015, Written Question No. 11279

25Operations against ISIL pass one-year mark”, MOD press release, 26 Sept 2015

26 Two British nationals were killed in the strike, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan. Reyaad Khan was the target of the strike. A further British national, Junaid Hussain, was killed in an American airstrike on 24 August. See Prime Minister’s statement, HC Deb, 7 September 2015, col 23

27 See, for example, “Syria air strikes conducted by UK military pilots”, BBC News Online, 17 July 2015

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

Prepared 2 November 2015