UK military operations in Syria and Iraq Contents

3The UK military effort


35.On 26 September 2014, the House of Commons voted in favour of the UK Government providing military support to the Government of Iraq. The first British airstrikes took place on 30 September38 and, on 12 October, the Ministry of Defence announced the presence of British military trainers in Iraq.39 Just over a year later, on 2 December 2015, the House of Commons approved a motion which supported “Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against [DAESH] in Syria”.40 Both the 2014 and 2015 resolutions specifically prohibited the deployment of conventional UK troops in ground combat operations.41

36.It should also be noted that the UK military operations in Iraq and Syria are in support of an International Coalition which consists of 67 partner nations.42

Progress so far

37.On 18 May 2016, Colonel Steve Warren of the US Department of Defense gave the following analysis of the International Coalition’s progress in the fight against DAESH. He explained that the Coalition had:

38.In addition, Colonel Warren stated that, in Iraq, DAESH had lost about 45% of the territory it once controlled—amounting to approximately 25,000 square kilometres. In Syria, DAESH had lost about 20% of their territory—amounting to approximately 9,000 square kilometres. He concluded that DAESH had lost up to 35% of the populated area it once had held in Iraq and Syria combined.43

C:\Users\scarnelle\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Word\10 - 29 AUG small banner.jpg

Source: Map produced by the Institute for the Study of War detailing the areas of control on 29 August 201644

39.In oral evidence, the Secretary of State for Defence set out the Coalition’s gains:

We are now well into this campaign to counter DAESH in Iraq, where considerable progress has been made in pushing DAESH back west along the Euphrates and north up the Tigris, and in liberating towns, cities and territory that it formerly held. In Syria, the situation is obviously more complicated, but DAESH has come under some pressure from the Kurdish forces and the moderate Syrian opposition. Overall, the Coalition that we have mobilised—you are right to refer to the United States’ leadership—in which we and other countries are supporting the United States, is making progress.45

He went on to argue that the momentum was now with the Coalition:

Clearly, progress has been made: I think it took eight months to liberate Ramadi, it took eight weeks to liberate Hit and probably just a week or so to liberate al-Rutbah, so there is a real sense of momentum of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces now advancing. That needs to be sustained.46

40.This was in line with evidence from some other witnesses. For instance, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told us that:

To quote a great British statesman I would say we are at the end of the beginning, but it may be just the beginning of the end with DAESH. There is still a long way to go. We are seeing that, as US military officials will point out, [DAESH] have not had a major success since the conquest of Ramadi in May last year.47

41.Charles Lister agreed that progress was being made. He said that in Iraq, “a corner has been turned” and that DAESH were now under pressure from the Coalition’s targeting of financial resources, which had had “a significant impact” both on the organisation’s internal morale and on the ability of DAESH to go on the offensive on the battlefield.48 However, he added the caveat that this alone would not automatically lead to the organisation’s defeat. Rather, he believed that the Coalition’s efforts would “revert them back to something that can be managed”. Charles Lister believed that victory over DAESH was “entirely dependent on local allies” and believed that there was “a significant shortfall” in Syria as well as “significant challenges politically” in Iraq. He concluded that “we cannot do it from the air and, arguably, we cannot do it ourselves by ourselves”.49

42.In similar vein, Anthony Loyd of The Times argued that military victory on the ground would be possible in both Syria and Iraq only when “a specific confluence of circumstances” was achieved, including air power and forward observers, alongside either “a concentration of a semi-coherent group like the Iraqi Army”, or “an ethnic disparity”, for example, a Kurdish area in Syria—from which it would be far easier to drive out DAESH, who are “by and large Sunni Arabs”. Without those conditions, Mr Loyd believed any victory in Syria would be “far more difficult”.50

43.Patrick Cockburn suggested that this reliance on local partners meant that even the perceived successes could be meaningless. In his experience, the Iraqi Army was still limited in its ability to take and hold territory and, as a result, there was an over-reliance on air power. He argued that a consequence of this was the devastation of places like Ramadi and Sinjar which did not represent “a victory in any full sense”. Furthermore, he asserted that DAESH was reverting to “guerrilla tactics”. Therefore, the extent to which the Coalition’s current victories were going to lead to the collapse of DAESH had been “exaggerated”.51

44.Richard Atwood also argued that, whilst it was important to win back territory from DAESH, until the underlying conditions which had allowed it to arise in Iraq and Syria were addressed (in particular Sunni marginalisation) “any victory would be short-lived”.52

UK military action—airstrikes

45.In ongoing military operations, the number of airstrikes changes as the conflict progresses. Therefore, it is possible to provide only a snapshot of UK activity at any particular date. In statements to both Houses of Parliament on 24 May 2016, the Government revealed that the UK had carried out at least 804 airstrikes (761 in Iraq and 43 in Syria)53 in the campaign against DAESH. This represented the second highest number of airstrikes by a Coalition partner in Iraq and, since it had obtained Parliamentary permission for airstrikes, the second highest number of airstrikes in Syria as well.54 However, although the military operation is against a single enemy, DAESH, there are significant differences in the political and military conditions in Iraq and Syria. These must be acknowledged before any conclusions can be drawn on the effectiveness of the UK operation.

UK assets

46.Prior to the vote on extending military operations to Syria, the RAF had eight Tornado GR4 attack jets and up to ten MQ-9 Reaper Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) available for airstrikes in Iraq, and for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) in Iraq and Syria. The RAF also has at its disposal, the Sentinel R1 surveillance aircraft, the E3-D sentry aircraft and the Airseeker surveillance aircraft operating as part of the ISR effort over Iraq and Syria. During the debate on the extension of airstrikes in to Syria, the then Prime Minister told the House that:

last week, the whole International Coalition had some 26 aircraft available, eight of which were British Tornadoes. Typically, the UK actually represents between a quarter and a third of the International Coalition’s precision bombing capability. We also have about a quarter of the unmanned strike capability flying in the region. Therefore, we have a significant proportion of high-precision strike capability, which is why this decision is so important.55

47.Following the vote on 2 December 2015 to carry out airstrikes in Syria, the Ministry of Defence increased the number of available assets by a further two Tornado GR4 jets and six Typhoon FGR4 jets. The full array of UK assets available to the Coalition is set out in the table below:

UK assets available to the Coalition



Weapons which can be carried

10 Tornado GR4 fast jet aircraft (2 aircraft deployed from 2 December 2015)

ISTAR and ground attack

Brimstone missiles (Dual Mode Seeker and Legacy variants), Paveway II, III and IV, enhanced Paveway II, Stormshadow and ASRAAM missiles

6 Typhoon combat aircraft (from 2 December 2015)

ISTAR and ground attack

Enhanced Paveway II, Paveway IV, ASRAAM and AMRAAM missiles.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air Systems (10 available but no official confirmation of how many are deployed in the Middle East)

ISTAR and ground attack

GBU-12 500lb laser guided bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles

Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft



2 C130 transport aircraft.

Transportation of troops, passengers or freight


Sentinel surveillance aircraft.

Long-range wide area battlefield surveillance


E3-D sentry aircraft

Airborne surveillance and command-and-control role


Airseeker Rivet Joint RC-135W signals intelligence aircraft

Airborne electronic surveillance


Definition of the term ‘airstrike’

48.Although the Government has regularly updated the House of Commons on the number of UK airstrikes carried out, the method of calculating those airstrikes has changed. Since July 2015,56 the UK has used the Coalition’s method of calculating airstrikes. The Government provided the following explanation of that definition:

The Coalition defines a strike as a target and time-based count, not aircraft or weapon-based. Regardless of the number of aircraft or weapons, a strike is an attack against a target within a timeframe consistent with a single engagement. By example, two Tornado aircraft drop two bombs each on the same target. This counts as one strike using the Coalition definition.57

Numbers of airstrikes

49.A monthly breakdown of the targets hit by airstrikes, provided by the Ministry of Defence, is appended to this report. However, for the sake of clarity we have produced a table showing the numbers of airstrikes per month. In answer to a Parliamentary Question on 6 June, the then Minister for Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt MP, cautioned that “strike numbers are constantly reviewed and updated by the Coalition to ensure records are as complete and accurate as possible. As such, there may be minor changes in future statements regarding such statistics”.58

UK Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, December 2015—August 2016


































Source: MoD written evidence [See also Appendix 3]

Comparison of the number of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria

50.The difference between airstrikes carried out in Iraq and those carried out in Syria highlight the difficulty of operating in Syria. The figures above indicate that almost nine times as many airstrikes were being carried out in Iraq as in Syria. Well over half of the very limited total of airstrikes in Syria in the first seven months were carried out in the first two months of the campaign. Between February and August 2016, the numbers of monthly airstrikes in Syria have declined to low single-figure totals.

51.When questioned about these differences, Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith, Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations), Ministry of Defence, told us that there was “a clear distinction” between the Coalition’s contribution in support of the Iraqi Government and what it was able to undertake in Syria. He explained that a key reason was that in Iraq, the Coalition was “supporting the sovereign entity and a unitary military command against a reasonably clearly identifiable military threat” but that those advantages were not present in Syria. As a result, in Syria the UK was “marginally engaged, from the air only, across a much less homogenous battlefield, where the identification of the multifaceted parties, agencies and militias is much more difficult to determine”. Furthermore, he added that harnessing “a significant ground component that might maximise the tactical advantage that Coalition air support might provide” was much more difficult.59

Targets of airstrikes

52.Information provided by the Ministry of Defence in September 2016 shows that the targets of airstrikes differ substantially in Iraq and Syria. For instance, in Iraq, enemy forces constitute 55% of the targets of airstrikes whereas, in Syria, the figure was only 25% until the end of May but this has recently risen to 40%. According to media reports, this recent increase is a result of air support for the campaign to liberate Manbij by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.60 Conversely, buildings, vehicles and oil-related infrastructure accounted for 65% of targets at the end of May but this has recently decreased to 28% of the targets in Syria, whereas they represent only 10% of targets in Iraq. This predominance of largely static targets in Syria explains why the total of 31 airstrikes in Syria in the first two months of the aerial campaign rapidly declined to single-figure monthly totals, once the initial static targets had been hit and destroyed.

53.When pressed on the breakdown of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the Secretary of State told us:

The aim of these missions is not to kill as many DAESH as possible, but to degrade them on occasions by tackling their leadership and in the end to try to undermine their will to fight by attacking their command and control, their infrastructure and so on. It is far too simplistic simply to measure a mission by the number of people killed. As you are implying, many of the missions are to gather intelligence rather than to inflict casualties. The pre-planned missions are usually targeted at infrastructure.61

This echoes the assertion made by the then Prime Minister in the debate on 2 December when he told the House what he believed could be achieved by airstrikes alone:

We do not need ground troops to target the supply of oil which Daesh uses to fund terrorism. We do not need ground troops to hit Daesh’s headquarters, its infrastructure, its supply routes, its training facilities and its weapons supplies.62

54.Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith explained that the campaign against DAESH was focused on a strategy of “Iraq first” in order to ensure a “tactical overmatch” in terms of DAESH in that country. By contrast, in Syria the objective was to “disrupt command and control and to interdict and disrupt lines of communication”.63 That description conforms to the targeting data provided by the Ministry of Defence which suggests that very few airstrikes in Syria are being carried out in support of forces fighting on the ground.

55.In order to cater for his suggestion that the overall total of airstrikes in both countries was too great to permit more detailed analysis,64 we pressed the Secretary of State on the number of airstrikes in direct support of opposition forces fighting on the ground in Syria alone, given that the total number of airstrikes in that country has been so low. The Secretary of State replied that the UK was part of a Coalition and that it was the Coalition which determined the targets. Whilst he asserted that “a significant proportion” of RAF strikes in Syria had been to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)65 he wrote:

I would stress that neither the UK nor the Coalition is undertaking a generalised bombing campaign in Syria in support of moderate armed opposition groups. Rather the Coalition, including the RAF, is giving targeted air support to specific counter-DAESH offensives, in particular in northwest Syria where the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are engaged around Manbij and where other opposition forces have been seeking to push eastwards from the area of Azaaz and Mar’a.66

56.In our final letter to the Secretary of State we suggested that—on the breakdown of weapons releases—it was highly improbable that any significant number of airstrikes in Syria had been mounted in direct support of moderate forces on the ground, apart from airstrikes in support of Kurdish forces. He conceded that:

as you have indicated, the information we have provided in relation to weapon releases, when taken with the additional information on the various categories of target provided in my last letter to you, should allow conclusions to be drawn on the broad order contribution of RAF aircraft against different types of target in Syria.67

Furthermore, beyond the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the Secretary of State has refused to confirm the identity of any of the moderate opposition forces for which the UK is supposed to be providing air support.68 This has further frustrated our attempts to obtain clarity regarding our operations in Syria. We discuss the breakdown of moderate forces in Syria later in our Report.

Comparison of UK airstrikes with those of Coalition partners

57.The change in the definition of airstrikes used by the UK allowed us to calculate the percentage of Coalition airstrikes which are UK airstrikes using data provided by the US Department of Defense.69 Airstrikes against DAESH started in Iraq on 8 August 2014 and in Syria on 22 September 2014. As of 22 May 2016, the Coalition had carried out 8,503 airstrikes in Iraq, 2,723 of which were carried out by non-US forces. Prior to the vote in the House of Commons which allowed UK airstrikes in Iraq, the US had carried out 216 airstrikes70 and the French had carried out 2 airstrikes.71 As the UK were the second partner nation to join the US in airstrikes in Iraq (after France on 19 September 2014), this means that there have been 2,721 non-US airstrikes in Iraq during the period that the UK has been engaged in airstrikes. Between the vote on 26 September 2014 (seven weeks after airstrikes started) and 22 May 2016, the UK is believed to have carried out at least 761 airstrikes.72 According to data published by the US Department of Defense, in Syria the Coalition had carried out 3,950 airstrikes up to 22 May, consisting of 3,715 by the US and 235 by other coalition members.73 There have been 77 non-US airstrikes in Syria between 1 December 2015 and 22 May 2016 of which the UK seemingly carried out 42.74

58.Lieutenant General (retd) Sir Simon Mayall has stated that 75% of Coalition air missions do not drop ordinances, citing intelligence and rules of engagement as primary reasons for this.75 The UK Government has told the House that no UK airstrikes have caused civilian casualties in either Iraq or Syria since the start of combat operations in 2014 and 2015 respectively.76 During our visit to Baghdad we visited the Air Operations Centre where we discussed with both Coalition and Iraqi personnel the targeting criteria that they employ. We were impressed by the care taken to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties which was at the forefront of all targeting decisions.

International Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria during the period the UK was engaged

Airstrikes in Iraq (between 27 September 2014 and 22 May 2016)

Airstrikes in Syria (between 1 December 2015 and 22 May 2016)










UK as % of non-US strikes



UK as % of all strikes



Source: Table prepared by Committee staff using data provided by UK Government and US Department of Defense

UK military action—Training

Training in Iraq

59.The UK has trained a significant number of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), including Kurdish forces. In July 2016, the Ministry of Defence provided briefing showing that the UK had trained over 3,900 Kurdish Peshmerga and contributed to the training of 13,800 other Iraqi Security Forces personnel. To put this in context, on 18 May 2016, Colonel Steve Warren told Pentagon reporters that the Coalition had trained more than 31,000 Iraqi forces.78 UK forces have also provided training in counter-IED and infantry skills, weapons maintenance, bridge-building skills, medical and logistics.79 UK troops are providing training at several locations in Iraq: Al-Asad air base, Irbil, Besmaya and Taji.80

60.In September 2015, it was announced that British troops had trained 2,000 Iraqi personnel.81 More recent figures given in January 2016 stated that 3,000 members of the Peshmerga and 5,000 members of the Iraqi Army had been trained under UK troops as part of Operation SHADER,82 suggesting that 2,000 troops were trained in the first year, 6,000 were trained in the four months to January and a further 6,700 troops had been trained in the six months to July. This shows that there has been an increase in the provision of training towards the latter part of the operation. We have heard from interlocutors that UK Armed Forces are very effective when they train foreign forces as part of an ongoing programme. However, they are thought to be less effective when training for immediate operations.

61.The Secretary of State told us that UK training was highly valued by both the Iraqi and Kurdish troops. He also emphasised the importance of the UK providing a niche contribution:

We selected IED training right at the beginning as a specialism to offer. I think we have hit on one of the right pieces of niche training, simply because so many IEDs have been seeded by DAESH in the towns from which they have been driven.83

Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith told us that the training was “progressing constructively and positively”.84

Training in the wider Middle East

62.When we visited the region, we were highly impressed by the UK’s training effort in both Jordan and Lebanon. In Lebanon, the UK has funded a training programme (run by the Lebanese Armed Forces) intended to secure the border and this is considered to be working well. Our Lebanese interlocutors did, however, raise concerns with us about the lack of air support available to those securing the border. It was clear that UK air support, from RAF Akrotiri, was being solicited by the Lebanese Armed Forces as a defensive measure. The training provided by UK Short-Term Training Teams (STTTs) for the Jordanian Quick Response Force is also a credible investment and is morale-boosting for those involved, on both the UK and Jordanian side. Such collaboration is an excellent example of Defence Engagement. During our visit to Cyprus, we met UK armed forces personnel who had formed part of the training teams in Iraq. We were very impressed by the training package offered by the Second Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and were told that the engagement had been professionally stimulating and rewarding.

63.The UK had also deployed 86 military personnel to assist the US-led training of Syrian opposition forces regarded as moderates.85 The US-led programme to train and equip Syrian rebels started in Spring 2015. The US had contributed 700 troops to the programme with Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all contributing training grounds.86 In July 2015, the first group of 54 US-trained Syrian rebels returned to Syria. Within days, they had been attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra with some killed and others kidnapped. On 23 September, the US Central Command spokesman said that of the 54: one was confirmed killed; one was being held captive; nine were back in the fight; 11 were available but not in Syria; 14 had returned to Syria but quit the US program and 18 were unaccounted for.87 The number of nine ‘back in the fight’ was higher than the number given to Congress a week earlier by General Lloyd Austin, the US CENTCOM Commander who had stated that “four or five” of the 54 were still fighting.88 At a Congressional hearing on 16 September 2015, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy had confirmed that the train and equip programme was under review, with a number of different options being examined.89 It was reported in October 2015 that the US administration had taken the step of changing the programme to equip, rather than train, the Syrian Arab Coalition.90 Following the October 2015 announcement that the US programme would focus on enabling and assisting these groups (as opposed to training them), the MoD announced that its support would focus on providing “a range of civilian support to help save lives, bolster civil society, counter extremism, promote human rights and accountability, and lay the foundations for a more peaceful and democratic future”. The UK Government committed £55 million to this work in 2015.91

64.When asked about UK support for non-state actors in Syria, the Secretary of State told us:

We have supplied some training outside Syria itself, in camps in Jordan and Turkey. We have supplied some non-lethal equipment to enable them better to look after themselves, for example, in terms of battlefield medicine and some basic equipment that is not lethal, is not interfering with the civil war, just as we provided similar equipment to the Ukrainian army, for example, again not intervening directly in that conflict but helping them better look after themselves.92

UK military action—Gifting of Equipment

65.Only gifts with a value exceeding £300,000 require a Departmental Minute to be laid before Parliament. A list of gifted equipment is also included in the annual report on United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls—published in July—with details of the preceding year’s gifts. The 2014 annual report shows that the UK Government made the following gifts (in excess of £300,000) to the Governments of Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.



Goods Descriptions

Goods Value £


Government of Iraq

Metal Detectors


Ministry of Peshmerga, Iraq

Heavy Machine Guns, Spares, Mortars, Binoculars, Body Armour, Protective Equipment



Jordanian Armed Forces

Armoured Utility Vehicles



Lebanese Armed Forces

Vehicles and Associated Terrain Equipment, Personal Protective Equipment, including Body Armour, Helmets, Gloves, Belts, First Aid Kits, Camouflage Clothing and Protective Glasses


Lebanese Armed Forces

Radio Masts, Antennas, and Antenna Mounting Brackets for Vehicles


United Kingdom Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2014

66. During 2015, the MoD published three Departmental Minutes with details on the gifting of equipment:




Goods Descriptions

Goods Value £

10 February 2015


Government of Iraq

1,000 VALLON Counter-Improvised Explosive Device (C-lEO) metal detectors


12 March 2015


Lebanese Armed Forces

Protected Border Observation Posts and 2 Mobile Observation Platforms, Radio Equipment


22 June 2015


Ministry of Peshmerga, Iraq

Medical Supplies (consisting of items such as tourniquets, bandage kits and dressings for wounds)


12 October 2015


JAF Quick Reaction Force

Body Armour and Integral Load Carrying Solution.

Sleeping Systems

Drash Tentage for QRF HQ and Coy Command Posts

Toyota Landcruiser (QRF Training Fleet Pool).

Frequency Planning Software (For instance Spectra)

Command and Information System lnteroperability Gateway.

Ruggedised Laptops.

Encrypted SATCOM and VTC C2 solution.

Phase 4 Infrastructure upgrade to Camp QRF

GPS Units

Deployable Medical Facility

Deployed Power Generation Systems (Power Supply for Deployed HQ).

Deployed Command Post Infrastructure.

Projectors/Smart Screens/Map Boards


Table produced by Committee staff from departmental minutes supplied by the MOD and FCO

67.In 2016, the following gifts of equipment have been made:




Goods Descriptions

Goods Value £

12 January 2016


Lebanese Armed Forces

Personal Protective Equipment


Table produced by Committee staff from departmental minutes supplied by the MoD and FCO

68.In February 2016, Tom Hardie-Forsyth told us that the heavy machine guns which had been gifted to the Iraqi Peshmerga had been without ammunition “for months”.93 In his Statement to the House on 24 May 2016, the Secretary of State said that the Government was planning to provide the Kurdish Regional Government with “more than £1 million worth of further ammunition to equip the Peshmerga” and that he hoped that the ammunition would be with the Peshmerga “in the next few weeks”.94

69.In oral evidence, the Secretary of State confirmed that “a further package” to support the Peshmerga was being considered and that the ambition was for the additional ammunition for weapons previously gifted by the UK Government to be supplied in a matter of weeks95. A departmental minute sent to us on 30 June detailed the intention to supply the Peshmerga with £1.4 million worth of heavy machine gun and sniper ammunition. This could be provided to the Peshmerga five days after the departmental minute was laid before Parliament, so long as no objections were made. A Government press release on 3 August 2016 announced that the UK had “recently delivered around £1.4 million worth of machine gun and sniper ammunition [to] the Kurdish Peshmerga”.96

70.Although the UK Government has stated that it does not directly supply military aid to Syrian groups,97 in February 2016, the then Minister for Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt MP, told the House of Commons that:

In Syria, we have delivered over £4 million of life-saving equipment to moderate opposition groups including communications, medical and logistics equipment, and protection against chemical weapons attacks.98

In an answer to a House of Lords written question in May 2016, it was noted that “the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) receives support from the International Coalition in its efforts to combat DAESH in Northern Syria”.99 Information detailing types of support received by the SDF was not provided by the Government, but the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that UK airstrikes in support of the group have been undertaken.100


71.Military progress has been made in the fight against DAESH, but the decision to have only local combat troops on the ground has meant that the Coalition is reliant on such troops to win the ground war. In Iraq, there is a greater level of integration with partners in the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga. In Syria, there is not the same level of cooperation.101 This was confirmed to us by the Ministry of Defence:

Within Iraq, the presence of Iraqi Security Forces allows good quality intelligence to be gathered from units on the ground as well as from the air. A high percentage of RAF strikes have been against DAESH targets in, or just behind, the front line […] There is a greater challenge in assembling the breadth of intelligence we would wish to have inside Syria, particularly on those aspects of DAESH’s infrastructure where, following early Coalition missions, elements of its rear area operations have been dispersed and better hidden.102

Major General (retd) Jonathan Shaw, former Colonel Commandant of The Parachute Regiment, was clear in his belief that the difference between the two ground forces was the reason that the “majority of territory” re-taken from DAESH had been in Iraq.103

72.Unlike in Iraq, the UK is not gifting any Syrian forces (regime or opposition) lethal equipment104 although, as noted above, non-lethal support is being provided to opposition groups. Some training by UK troops appears to have been provided to Syrian opposition forces, although it is unclear whether that training is ongoing. There have also been several unconfirmed reports of the presence of UK Special Forces. This means that the UK military operation in Syria is based predominantly on air power. In evidence to us, Dr Afzal Ashraf of RUSI and Major General Shaw told us that:

It is now becoming generally accepted that air power alone is incapable of defeating DAESH. DAESH has adapted to airstrikes and only occasionally presents targets that can be safely destroyed. Land forces are the key to exploiting the benefits of air power and to providing sustainable success. DAESH defined itself a state and a ‘caliphate’ only once it captured significant territory in both Iraq and Syria. Territory is central to DAESH’s identity, to its concept of success and to its sources of funding—territory is DAESH’s Centre of Gravity. Sustainable and significant denial of territory to DAESH will lead to its degradation and decline as a global threat.105

73.Richard Atwood acknowledged that air power could “hinder movement, target convoys and do things to make life difficult for an armed movement”, but questioned its effectiveness in defeating DAESH. In particular, he argued that airstrikes alone would not be successful in breaking the connections that DAESH had with the communities under its areas of control. Nor would it be able to “create conditions in which political settlement is more likely”.106

74.It is disappointing that the MoD has been unable to provide us with the full statistical analysis of UK airstrikes in Syria which we requested. Their inability to do so for understandable reasons, nonetheless may tend to undermine the Government’s assertion that the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces (apart from the Kurds) which was one of the key elements of its argument for extending the UK’s campaign against DAESH to that country.

75.If the Government is to continue to justify and validate its policy of airstrikes in Syria, it should provide the necessary detail on what is being targeted. We therefore recommend that the MoD put this information, as far as possible, into the public domain so that realistic judgements on the effectiveness of the UK’s air operations in Syria can be made. At the very least, Government ministers ought to be made aware of such figures.

76.In Iraq it is clear that air operations have been effective in reclaiming territory, despite the adaptation of DAESH tactics to counter that threat. This is because of their role in supporting identifiable local ground forces which are able to take and hold territory. The air operation in Syria is much smaller mainly because of a lack of partners on the ground, other than Kurdish forces, which can benefit from that support.

77.Also in Iraq, the UK training effort appears to be both effective and substantial. Over a third of troops trained by the Coalition have received this training from UK military personnel. The expansion of training offered by UK troops means that the UK now has a presence at all of the Iraqi training bases. In the gifting of equipment, the length of time that it has taken for the UK Government to re-supply Peshmerga forces with ammunition for machine-guns it previously supplied, is of great concern. We recommend that, in future, the Government should ensure that its support to allies and partners is more consistent and timely.

78.We recommend that the Government should provide an assessment of how long it took the UK to get to the position where it was operating at strength within the Coalition and how long it can maintain that position.

79.We also recommend that the Government should provide clarification on the training of Syrian opposition fighters including the number of individuals it has trained, the number of UK military personnel currently engaged with such training, and most importantly the identity of the groups to which the trainees belonged.

80.It is clear that the UK is part of an International Coalition and that the strategy of that Coalition is subject to revision by those involved. However, the reasons for such revisions and the resultant changes in the UK effort ought to be explained. Whilst the discussion, for instance, about modifying the train-and-equip programme in Syria may have taken place in the United States, the UK Government has failed to set out why changes have been made and what impact they have had on UK personnel or those they have been training. The publication of information concerning the UK’s military effort, whilst greater than in some previous operations, ought to demonstrate how UK military actions are supporting the wider strategy.

38 ‘RAF conducts first air strikes of Iraq mission’, Ministry of Defence, 30 September 2014

40 HC Deb, 2 December 2015, col. 323

41 HC Deb, 26 September 2014, col. 1255

42 A full list of partner nations can be found at the US State Department website.

43 Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq, May 18, 2016

44 The Institute of the Study of War, Russian Airstrikes in Syria: July 28–August 29, 30 August 2016

45 Q384

46 Q391

47 Q237

48 Q237

49 Q237

50 Q361

51 Q361

52 Q319

53 There is a slight difference between the statements given in the House of Commons and the House of Lords on this matter. The Defence Secretary’s statement (found here) gives the number as “over 760” in Iraq and 43 in Syria. The House of Lords Hansard records the statement given by Earl Howe (found here) as stating that 761 airstrikes were carried out in Iraq and 42 in Syria. Presuming the Defence Secretary had updated information, this suggests that additional strikes carried out on 23 May were included in the statement made in the House of Commons but not in that made in the House of Lords which appears to have only incorporated strikes up until the 22 May.

54 UK considering further support to fight against Daesh, Ministry of Defence (via U.S. Central Command), 11 May 2015

55 HC Deb, 2 December 2015, col. 329

56 HC Deb, 16 July 2015, col 32WS

57 Ministry of Defence, FOI2015/07034, 2 September 2015

58 PQ 38846 [Syria: Military Intervention] 6 June 2016

59 Q391

60In our name: British air strikes help liberate Manbij”,, 15 August 2016

61 Q394

62 HC Deb, 2 December 2015, col. 332

63 Q394

64 See MoD written evidence in Appendix 3

65 Q397

66 MoD Written Evidence, 9 July 2016 [See Appendix 3]

67 MoD Written Evidence, 9 July 2016 [See Appendix 3]

68 See MoD written evidence in Appendix 3

69 (This page is regularly updated. For full details on the data used to make these calculations, please see Appendix 1)

71 ‘Opération Chammal: deuxième frappe française en Irak’, Ministère de la Défense, 26 September 2014

72 HL Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 271 For further explanation, please see footnote 63

73 See Appendix 2 for the full figures

74 On 24 May, the Secretary of State announced that 43 airstrikes had been carried out in Syria. However, according to, one of these took place on 23 May and therefore outside the timeframe represented by the US DoD data. Later correspondence from the Ministry of Defence (containing the figures shown in Appendix 3) appears to suggest that the number of UK airstrikes was greater than 42 in the period examined here but without exact dates for each of the airstrikes, it is not possible to update the data in this table.

75 Oral evidence taken on 8 October 2015, HC (2015–16) 457, Q57 [Mr Blunt]

76 PQ 43259 [Islamic State] 26 July 2016

77 On 24 May, the Secretary of State announced that 43 airstrikes had been carried out in Syria. However, according to, one of these took place on 23 May and therefore outside the timeframe represented by the US DoD data. Later correspondence from the Ministry of Defence (which is shown in Appendix 3) appears to suggest that the number of UK airstrikes was greater than 42 in the period examined here but without exact dates for each of the airstrikes, it is not possible to update the data in this table.

78 Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Steve Warren, spokesman, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve via teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq, May 18, 2016

79 ‘UK to increase training to Iraqi forces’, Ministry of Defence, 12 March 2016

80 UK considering further support to fight against Daesh, Ministry of Defence (via U.S. Central Command), 11 May 2015

81 ‘Operations against ISIL pass one year mark’, Ministry of Defence, 26 September 2015

82 PQ 23570 [Kurds: Military Aid] 29 January 2016; PQ 23569 [Iraq: Military Aid] 29 January 2016 [Operation SHADER is the British contribution to the Coalition against ISIS].

83 Q417

84 Q417

85 PQ 4763 [Syria: Military Aid] 8 July 2015

86 Kathleen J. McInnis, Coalition Contributions to Countering the Islamic State, Congressional Research Service, August 24, 2016

90 Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS, New York Times, 9 October 2015

91 ‘Defence in the media’, Ministry of Defence, 10 October 2015

92 Q39

93 Q90

94 HC Deb, 24 May 2016, col. 411

95 Q417

96 Defence Secretary praises strikes on Daesh stronghold, 3 August 2016, Ministry of Defence

97 PQ 4763 [Syria: Military Aid] 8 July 2015

98 PQ 25112 [Islamic State] 4 February 2016

99 PQ HL8193 [Islamic State] 11 May 2016

100 Q397

101 Q156; 161

102 Ministry of Defence (UMO0006)

103 Q74

104 Q446

105 Dr Afzal Ashraf and Major General (retd) Jonathon Shaw (UMO0008)

106 Q348

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16 September 2016