UK military operations in Syria and Iraq Contents

4Armed actors in Syria

81.There are a large number of armed actors engaged in the Syrian conflict, including Russian and Iranian troops in theatre, as well as Lebanese Hezbollah and Afghan and Iraqi Shia foreign fighters supporting the Assad regime.107 Most recently, there have been Turkish military incursions, ostensibly against DAESH but most probably focused on the YPG. The international coalition has been supporting the YPG as one of its principal allies within Syria. In opposition to the Assad regime there are numerous opposition groups formed of both Syrian Kurds and Syrian Sunni Arabs. The Syrian Sunni Arab opposition groups have been described by the US-based Institute for the Study of War as ranging from “Moderate Secularists”, through “Political Islamists” to “Syrian Salafi Jihadists” and “Transnational Salafi Jihadists”.108 A number of these groups are supported by members of the International Coalition, and there are avowed US Special Forces109 and, allegedly, some UK Special Forces engaged in helping such opposition groups.110

The ethnic and political composition of the Syrian opposition and UK support for non-state actors

82.Central to the debate on UK air operations in Syria is the effectiveness of the operations in support of local ground forces. In his statement on 26 November 2015, the then Prime Minister told the House that whilst the situation in Syria was “complex,” he believed that there were around “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army” with whom the UK could coordinate attacks. Mr Cameron defined that figure as fighters who did not belong to extremist groups, adding that they included “moderate armed Sunni Arabs who had defended territory north of Aleppo”; and the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army which had “consolidated its control over significant areas and had worked to prevent terrorists from operating”. He also highlighted the Syrian Kurds who had “successfully defended Kurdish areas in northern Syria and retaken territory around the city of Kobane”.111

83.However, Mr Cameron refused to publish a list of those groups constituting the estimated 70,000 moderate opposition fighters, and gave the following reason:

We would effectively be giving President Assad a list of the groups, the people and potentially the areas that he should be targeting. That is not my approach.112

84.On 4 July 2016, we wrote to the Secretary of State requesting a list of those “main armed opposition moderate groups” which UK airstrikes were intended to support. He also refused to provide this information, stating that:

It would not be to the benefit of these non-extremist opposition fighters if we were to make their details public to DAESH and the Syrian regime. My Right Honourable Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces provided two written answers on 22 April 2016 (33816 and 33889) which noted our assessment that non-extremist opposition numbers had held up despite recent pressure and that numbers in groups fighting DAESH were likely to have increased.113

85.This reluctance to identify the groups for fear of helping Assad has not prevented academics and experts outside of government researching and publishing lists of such groups. However, we fully accept that there may be significant differences between the Joint Intelligence Committee’s list of moderate Syrian opposition groups and those published by academics and experts. We also accept that the Government may consider itself to have a duty of care, not only towards both members of the groups it is supporting but also towards any UK Special Forces troops who are assisting those groups.

86.Charles Lister, when at the Brookings Institute, produced his own analysis of what he regards as moderate opposition fighters. When we asked him whether he thought that any of the names on his list would be unknown to the Assad regime, he replied that “Assad knows about the groups, but obviously defines them in a very different way”. He argued that Russia also had this information and that “all the groups together know what each of them represents, who their respective external backers are and what their political positions are”.114 His work—set out below—claims that the following groups would contribute around 65,000 of the stated 70,000 moderate opposition:


Areas of Operation


Southern Front (58 factions)

Deraa, Quneitra, Damascus


Northern Free Syrian Army (14 factions)

Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo


Tajamu Fastaqm Kama Umrat



Thuwar al-sham



Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya

Qalamoun, Homs, Hama, Aleppo


Al-Jabhat al-Shamiya



Kataib Nour al-Din al-Zinki



Faylaq al-Rahman



Faylaq al-Sham

Homs, Hama, Idlib, Aleppo


Al-Ittihad al-Islami Ajnad al-Sham



Source: ‘Yes, there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Here’s what we know about them’ The Spectator, 25 November 2015

Mr Lister went on to argue that, in addition, there were “roughly 25–30 additional factions that would fall under this ‘moderate’ label” which combined, represented “a further 10,000 fighters”.115

87.The Institute for the Study of War has also carried out an analysis of the opposition groups. Its Report noted that groups affiliated to the Free Syrian Army were “natural American allies”. However, it cautioned that:

Alone, the moderates are an insufficient ally, even if the US could unite them. The US therefore must consider the remainder of the armed groups on the battlefield in order to develop a plan to leverage local forces in a reinvigorated campaign to destroy both ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria.116

88.The composition of the groups referred to, and whether Islamist groups actually constitute part of what the Mr Cameron labelled the “moderate opposition”, has been a key focus of our inquiry. Questioned about the complexion of the armed Syrian opposition, the Secretary of State replied in a Written Answer on 19 October 2015:

There are a number of moderate opposition forces focused on fighting the Assad regime. Many are also fighting ISIL in areas of strategic importance, for example north of Aleppo. The vast majority of these opposition groups are Islamist”.117

In a similar vein, the then Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee, on 12 January 2016, that some of the groups he had identified were Islamist and would not necessarily share the same interpretation of democracy as elected Westminster parliamentarians:

Are all of these people impeccable democrats who would share the view of democracy that you and I have?—no. Some of them do belong to Islamist groups and some of them belong to relatively hard-line Islamist groups. None the less, that is the best estimate of the people that we have potentially to work with.118

89.A number of our witnesses challenged the use of the term ‘moderate’. Dr Afzal Ashraf of RUSI told us that “every single group I have come across, with one possible exception, has a name that alludes to an Islamist ideology”. While he noted that some had been described to him as a “cuddly form of Islamist”, and despite such groups offering the opportunity for cooperation in the short term, he believed that “in the long term you will suffer”. As examples he highlighted Jamaat-e-Islami’s offspring, which he argued were “creating increasing havoc in Pakistan and Bangladesh”, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s offspring, which previously “have led to the formation of al-Qaeda and DAESH”.119

90.Peter Ford, the former UK Ambassador to Syria went further. He described the existence of moderate opposition groups in Syria as “largely a figment of the imagination”.120 It is recognised that the figure quoted by the then Prime Minister came from the Joint Intelligence Committee who would be likely to have greater and more timely information than Mr Ford. Dr Frederick Kagan also argued that “virtually all the opposition is Islamist, one way or another, at this point”. He said that in terms of assessing the opposition forces, the distinction lay between Salafi jihadi groups (for example Jabhat al-Nusra, DAESH, and Ahrar al-Sham) and political Islamist groups121 tied to the Muslim Brotherhood; the latter being “the likeliest source of acceptable allies that we could work with”.122

91.Anthony Loyd also recommended caution:

I challenge anybody, even the most seasoned observer, to look at the Salafi groups on the ground, among the largely Islamist rebel movement, and work out which of them in post-conflict Syria might be good to minorities and have favourable relations with the West, which would be bad to minorities and have an aggressive relationship with the West, who would be with al-Qaeda, or against al-Qaeda, and so on. It is very difficult to work out. Suffice it to say that the majority of the rebel movement is Islamist, whatever that means—Islamist.123

92.By contrast, both General Keane124 and Charles Lister believed that there were genuinely moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Charles Lister explained that the groups he had identified had “committed both publicly and privately” to an “outright rejection of any ethnic, sect or gender-based discrimination and a desire for full, representative Government”. Furthermore, he argued that the “vast majority” of these groups were “desperate for engagement with the West,” and that, despite the fact that many of them might appear to be Islamists, Western states needed to “get behind the simple image to understand fundamentally what they want”.125 Lieutenant General (retd) Sir Simon Mayall cautioned that:

I am afraid that there is a lot of nose-holding to be done […] to get a remotely decent outcome in Syria.126

93.Dr Lina Khatib provided us with a measure of common ground. She stressed the view that the political process in Geneva was enforcing a degree of pragmatism upon groups which had different ideologies. This delivered the benefit of closer working between moderates and political Islamists to the extent that the “hard-liners” were being marginalised. According to Dr Khatib, this had resulted in a more harmonious opposition body with a strong military component and one which offered a better alternative to the Assad regime than the hard-liners.127

94.However, Dr Khatib warned that without military support, the benefits of this cooperation between moderate forces could be lost:

If the Syrian rebels that are moderate are not adequately supported, they are going to disintegrate and their members are going to join Islamist groups. 128

That outcome would only serve to bolster the Assad strategy to eliminate moderate forces which in turn would offer Assad the opportunity to appeal to the international community on the basis of his regime being the only viable alternative to the Islamists.129 However, this has, arguably, happened to a considerable extent already.

95.In oral evidence, the Secretary of State argued that while debate could be held about the “precise definitions of what is a moderate Muslim, what is an Islamist and what is somebody beyond the pale” the key test was whether or not the groups were “prepared to live within a plural political settlement that can in the end be democratic and take Syria towards elections”.130 Dominic Wilson, Director of Operational Policy at the Ministry of Defence also commented:

We are clear that, within the 70,000, there is a rump of non-extremist opposition, which we could imagine buying into a broader political settlement in Syria. That is not to say that all of them are exactly the same. There is a range of them, but essentially they are what we view as non-extremist. […] On the question of moderates or Islamists, it comes down to non-extremists who we believe we can work with, and who we believe will be committed to an enduring political settlement in Syria when it comes.131

96.Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith, however, emphasised the difficulty in assessing and labelling these groups:

At this stage in a very brutal and bloody struggle, a degree of pragmatism characterises the approach of a kaleidoscope of multifaceted organisations that are fighting for their lives, their freedom and their families. Therefore, in the local tactical circumstances in which so many of these individuals and small pockets of organisations find themselves, all sorts of compromises and marriages of necessity are made to survive. Whether they are more or less extreme, I would expect that they all demonstrate a kaleidoscope of loyalties, interests and objectives, some of which converge and some of which are distinct.132

97.Concerns were also raised with us regarding the ethnic make-up of groups supported by the UK. When Lieutenant General (retd) Sir Simon Mayall, former British Army officer and Defence Senior Adviser (Middle East) came before us in February 2016, he told us that:

I have to say that, outside [of] the Kurds—I defer to people in the JIC or whatever about the state of play in the south—I find it difficult to see any really significant, joined-up numbers of people we would put in the “moderate opposition” category in the area where, largely, the major fighting is going on, between Palmyra and Raqqa, and the Euphrates across to the Syrian highlands.133

This was supported by a number of witnesses who labelled the Syrian Kurds as the most effective force fighting DAESH in Syria.134 However, witnesses also stressed the imperative that Sunni Arabs should recapture areas taken by DAESH. Major General Shaw told us that “there needs to be some form of Sunni army—some army that has credibility with the local populace”,135 while Lieutenant General Mayall agreed and noted that:

We have had this awful ambivalence from many of the other Sunni countries in the region, who loathe ISIS and everything it stands for, but see ISIS as Muslim, Sunni and Arab—against the Persian, Shi’a and Russian.136

Dr Kagan reiterated this point, emphasising that the “solution to the problem will be Sunni partners”.137 He suggested that by allying ourselves with the Syrian Kurds (amongst others) the International Coalition were “well on the path collectively towards persuading the Sunnis that we are their mortal enemies and that we seek to assist those who wish to exterminate them”.138

98.Charles Lister raised concerns about the potential for conflict between the YPG (the main Syrian Kurdish fighting forces) and other opposition groups in Syria:

I fear, as a Syria analyst, that we may be watching a new political—not an ethnic—conflict now breaking out in northern Syria that could well outlast the conflict between the opposition and the regime. I cannot understate the hostility between the opposition and the Kurdish YPG, but I must underline that it is a political hostility, not an ethnic one. Vast numbers of Kurds and Christians, and even some Alawites, are fighting for the opposition in northern Syria, and I think that is often ignored. Most of the armed groups in Aleppo—opposition groups who are backed by the CIA—who are currently fighting the YPG have Kurds in their senior command. So it is important that this is not seen as an ethnic conflict; it is a political one about what is right for Syria’s political future.139

He also highlighted his belief that the YPG may not be the most effective force against DAESH, telling us that:

In the second half of 2013 and the first half of 2014, DAESH posed a much more immediate threat to the Syrian opposition. Within this context, what did the opposition do? It declared a unilateral and united war against DAESH across northern and eastern Syria. Within only 8–10 weeks, opposition forces had forced DAESH to withdraw from a combined 4.5 governorates. Please take note of this: DAESH was defeated and forced out of 4.5 governorates in 8–10 weeks by Syria’s opposition, without any foreign support, air strikes or additional equipment. Conversely, our current favored anti-DAESH partners—the Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—have defeated DAESH in approximately a combined 2/3 of a governorate in 21 months, with the full support of the U.S. air force and embedded special operations forces on the ground.140

99.A further complication with the Coalition’s engagement with the YPG is the fact that it is regarded as an extension of the militant Turkish–Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, and therefore has an impact on Turkey’s role in Syria. Charles Lister argued that Turkey’s role in the conflict had been problematic. However, he believed that Turkey is right to have concerns about the YPG:

The Kurdish YPG, which has been our favoured partner in the north-east of Syria, is indisputably the Syrian wing of the PKK. Whatever other interpretation you might read, the YPG was established by Abdullah Öcalan’s brother—Abdullah Öcalan was a founding member, and is today the leader, of the PKK—and five famed PKK commanders. The PKK is seen, rightly or wrongly, as an existential threat to the Turkish state. Turkey has watched the Syrian wing of this existential threat receiving assistance, training and political backing from the West for the last 18 or 20 months, and it has created a very significant threat. Half of YPG casualties in the last 18 months were Turkish, so these are not all Syrians who are fighting for our cause against ISIS in Syria.141

100.Turkey does have a good relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, but this in turn has strained its relationship with the Government in Baghdad. When we visited Baghdad, we were told of Turkish troops entering Iraq in December 2015, without the permission of the Iraqi Government. Despite frequent requests from the Iraqi Government, Turkish troops were still (as of September 2016)142 on Iraqi territory.

101.Towards the end of August, Turkey sent combat troops into Syria in order to challenge DAESH-held positions on its border. The Institute for the Study of War noted that the operation, Operation Euphrates Shield, was a turning point in American-Turkish relations in the war against DAESH and highlighted that it was likely to be equally aimed at preventing the expansion of Kurdish control along the border. As a result of the Turkish operation, the US ordered the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) to withdraw to the east bank of the Euphrates River in order to avoid a conflict between Turkish and Kurdish forces in Syria.143

102.Following the operation, which pushed DAESH back from the Turkish border, Turkey has announced its intention to create a ‘safe zone’ on the Turkish/Syrian border which would be secured by the Turkish-backed rebel groups and repopulated with Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey since the Syrian conflict began. Turkey has requested US air support for the ‘safe zone’ and it is estimated that Turkish support would require “Turkish military and financial backing for the rebels for the rest of the conflict. […] As well as] a force of at least 35,000 fighters and constant support from Turkish artillery and special forces.” 144 Such an effort would constitute a further significant increase in Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. The Institute for the Study of War highlighted the implication that Operation Euphrates Shield could have on any operation to retake Raqqa:

The recapture of Jarablus and ongoing operations to clear remaining ISIS-held portions of the border west of Jarablus have set the desired conditions for an offensive to retake Raqqa city by eliminating ISIS’s final supply line from Turkey. The YPG’s decision thus far to avoid open war with the Turkish forces indicates that the U.S. may be able to refocus the YPG on the planned Raqqa offensive […] A prolonged clash between the SDF and the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force would derail planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkey may now offer its own military support and that of Turkish-backed opposition forces for an operation in Raqqa as an alternative to the SDF, positioning Turkey as a major power player in northern Syria.145

103.When we sought examples from the Secretary of State of UK support for non-Kurdish forces in Syria, he referred to UK airstrikes in support of the Syrian Defence Forces. When it was put to the Secretary of State that the Syrian Democratic Forces were majority-Kurdish forces, he suggested that he would question such a description.146 However, Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith referred to the Syrian Democratic Forces as having “a tactical ambition, in the first instance, to secure its traditional northern Syrian Kurdish cantons”.147 The Government has also previously referred to the Syrian Democratic Forces as the “the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)” in a written answer in the House of Lords.148

104.When we asked the Secretary of State about whether he thought Kurdish troops would be able to hold Raqqa (a predominantly Sunni area), he told us that he wished to see:

Raqqa return to a legitimate authority in Syria. You say that there are all these different factions that have been doing the fighting. They have been, but they are now starting to do the talking—they are now meeting as part of the forum that we have started slowly to convene—to work Syria towards a new political settlement that is genuinely representative of all opinion in Syria, that does not contain Assad and that can start building the institutions that Syria will need, not least its own moderate Syrian forces.149

He later informed the Committee that he believed that such an outcome was clearly possible:

That is why we are working in the International Syrian Support Group to bring about a better alternative. Syria has had elections before; Iraq has had elections; Afghanistan has had elections. There is no reason why we could not lead Syria, in the fullness of time, after this appalling war, towards a settlement where it has the kind of plural democratic Government that Iraq has.150

105.The Government’s case for extending UK military operations to Syria was based on a strategy of supporting the 70,000 moderate opposition forces identified by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. We have sought to test this figure in terms of both numbers and orientation. We understand why the Government have been unable to provide a list of the groups, since that would risk providing useful intelligence to the Assad regime. However, we have relied upon outside organisations who have published such lists and most, if not all, the individual groups have as a result, already been identified. That information is in the public domain which means that the groups will already be known to the Assad regime.

The threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra

106.In evidence, both Tim Marshall and Anthony Loyd highlighted their concern that the International Coalition’s focus on DAESH may allow the al-Qaeda off-shoot Jabhat al-Nusra to strengthen its role within the Syrian opposition:

Tim Marshall: The UK should also be doing a lot of homework about Jabhat al-Nusra. Once ISIS is defeated, they will spring up elsewhere as ISIS mark 2, but Jabhat al-Nusra is much deeper inside the opposition movement, and I hope that the people who look at these things are up to speed with Jabhat al-Nusra, because it is a longer-term threat to Syria than ISIS.

Anthony Loyd: Jabhat will be a far longer-term entity in Syria, I agree.151

Tom Hardie-Forsyth also agreed, telling us that when DAESH had been defeated Jabhat al-Nusra, and organisations like it “will still be there, because they are older, bolder and cleverer in the end, and we’ll have to deal with that when the time comes”.152

107.A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War analysed the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra suggesting that it is a threat of “similar magnitude” to DAESH and that it was a “sophisticated, intelligent, strategic actor in the region and continues to enjoy a dangerous freedom to operate in Syria”. Despite a similarity in aims, Jabhat al-Nusra is pursuing an Islamic ‘caliphate’ through a “distinct, more patient methodology that is highly threatening despite its low signature” which consists of “fomenting a religious and social revolution by embedding itself within an indigenous insurgency”. The Report stated that Jabhat al-Nusra had:

A flow of foreign fighters and contributes asymmetric “special forces” capabilities to opposition forces, securing prominent victories for rebel campaigns through its contributions to wider military efforts. The significance of this contribution increased in late 2013 and throughout 2014, as a lack of international engagement in Syria increased the relative importance of JN’s contribution to the fighting.153

108.Furthermore, recent reports have suggested that al-Qaeda is considering creating an emirate in Syria. An emirate would differ from the Islamic State ‘caliphate’ in the scale of its ambition, in that a Jabhat al-Nusra emirate would not claim to be a government for all the world’s Muslims. Charles Lister highlighted the implications of the creation of an al-Qaeda emirate in Syria:

The formalization of Nusra Front’s power in northern Syria would harden the group’s stance toward Syria’s moderate opposition. Proclaiming an emirate would require the group to assert overwhelming control—including the imposition of a strict interpretation of sharia—in the territories over which it would be asserting sovereignty. In all likelihood, incidents of capital punishment would dramatically increase, civilian freedoms would be restricted, and Nusra Front’s tolerance of non-religious, nationalist, and civil opposition bodies would decline.154

109.Charles Lister has suggested that the proclamation of an emirate would also have international implications. The existence of an al-Qaeda emirate combined with a “revitalized al-Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand” allowing al-Qaeda to “present itself as the smart, methodical, and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims”. The relative proximity to Europe (when compared to bases in Yemen and Afghanistan) means that an al-Qaeda emirate in Syria would pose a greater threat of attacks instigated in Syria and carried out in the West. However, Charles Lister noted that the proclamation of an emirate has also faced opposition within Jabhat al-Nusra:

Nusra Front seems to have slowed its emirate plans, at least temporarily, during Syria’s recent cessation of hostilities. That had allowed Syrian Islamist opposition groups to express their hostility to the group’s emirate plans. Some even raised the idea that Nusra Front should break its ties to al-Qaeda in order to further integrate into the mainstream “revolutionary opposition.”155

110.At the end of July 2016, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Julani announced its rebranding as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—the Front for the Conquest of Syria and the Levant. It was also severing its links with al-Qaeda, in a split supported by both terrorist organisations.156 Although the US responded by stating there to be no reason to change its view of Jabhat al-Nusra, severing its al-Qaeda link may increase its involvement with and influence within the armed Syrian opposition.157

111.When we raised concerns about the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra, Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith told us that

The Nusra Front is one of the very most extreme, hard-line Salafi jihadi groups. […] It has its stronghold in Idlib province. It is certainly a spoiler in the political process in Syria and might represent a Petri dish that becomes a threat to UK national security. It has refused to sign the cessation of hostilities agreement, but it’s probably not an homogeneous group at the moment. A significant proportion are Syrian-focused, and they provide a wider wrapping to those much more specifically AQ-aligned elements that might harbour ambitions to use Syria as a springboard for international terrorist attack planning. The ratios between the Syrian elements and the external-facing elements probably vary region to region. There is potentially a small element of British foreign fighters associated with it; the specifics remain unclear.158

112.Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith informed us that the UK was not currently carrying out airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nusra, but should it be deemed to be a threat to UK national security then the UK would be able to target it. 159 In the long term, he suggested that:

When one gets to a scenario where there is an enduring and enforceable ceasefire that sets the conditions for a political conversation and transition, the assumption is that a political framework, supported by a security apparatus—including with the international community’s contribution—is afforded sufficient resilience and capacity to be able to target that specific threat, which would only survive if it was left with the space to do so.160

113.As with the DAESH affiliates, the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra must be monitored by the Government. The danger posed by an organisation which has been one of al-Qaeda’s most successful affiliates may well be limited to Syria at present but the potential for it to carry out terrorist attacks globally may increasingly become a reality. Its recent rebranding and formal separation from al-Qaeda, may increase its influence over other elements of Islamist armed opposition in Syria, narrowing the political options for the future still further.

114.We recommend that the Government should set out how it is monitoring the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and how it intends to counter that threat.

Russian and Assad regime efforts to combat DAESH

115.The Assad regime and its supporters have largely concentrated on fighting those forces trying to overthrow it. Despite Russia citing DAESH as a reason for engaging in airstrikes, we have been told that the vast majority of its targets have been opposition groups unaffiliated with DAESH.161

116.However, the US-Russia brokered ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria, which started on 27 February 2016, resulted in an increase in military action against DAESH not just by the opposition,162 but also by the Syrian Armed Forces and the regime’s allies. On 27 March, the Syrian Armed Forces—supported by Russia, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi and Afghan Shia foreign fighters—retook Palmyra.163 This was the first time that the Assad regime had regained any territory from DAESH.164

117.The operation against DAESH by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies continued into April. On 13 May, the Institute for the Study of War analysed Russian actions against DAESH:

Russian airstrikes escalated against [DAESH] positions throughout Syria to include areas in Homs, Deir ez-Zour, and Raqqa, following [DAESH’s] resumption of large-scale operations against pro-regime forces in central Homs on May 3. These operations have been primarily focused on seizing strategic gas fields that serve as the regime’s primary source of natural gas for areas in western Syria.165

The Institute for the Study of War also noted that DAESH operations posed a threat to Russia’s own military contingent in Central Homs, including its military base in Palmyra and its reported rotary wing deployment.166

118.One explanation given for this is that, without the need to defend itself against the opposition, the Assad regime is able to focus on the threat posed by DAESH. Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, told reporters on 20 April that before the cessation of hostilities some 80% of Russian airstrikes were against the opposition. Since then, “more than 70% of their strikes were against [DAESH]”.167

119.During other periods of the cessation of hostilities, the Assad regime’s operations and Russian airstrikes have appeared to refocus on the opposition. On 28 May 2016, the Institute for the Study of War reported that despite the International Syria Support Group’s agreement to new measures to reinforce a nationwide cessation of hostilities:

Russian airstrikes continued to primarily target opposition forces in north-western Syria from May 13–26, rather than terrorist organizations such as ISIS. ISW was only able to assess one Russian airstrike against ISIS for the two-week period from May 13–26 with low confidence, despite continued ISIS operations throughout Syria.168

120.When we questioned Lieutenant General Carleton-Smith he accepted that the cessation of hostilities may have allowed the Assad regime and Russia to focus on attacking DAESH. However, he explained that their efforts targeted areas where they had been

confronting competition for the strategic natural resource of the country and where the regime and Russia’s own strategic interests have been threatened by DAESH, not as a net contributor to the wider international effort to defeat DAESH.169

121.Several of our witnesses argued that cooperation with Russia would be necessary in order to defeat DAESH and to end the civil war.170 It was felt that, in return for the relaxation of sanctions171 or the guarantee of their military footprint in Syria,172 Russia might be willing to encourage Assad to step down, albeit in favour of another figure who was similarly acceptable to them. However, not all of our witnesses agreed.173 Lieutenant General Mayall questioned whether it was possible to work with Russia, given the necessity of participating in a collective decision-making process within the International Coalition. He also questioned whether the Russians would be willing to attack DAESH in Syria in cooperation with the International Coalition:

It is a question of whether we collectively have the cohesion to engage Russia. Again, holding our nose—I am afraid that there is a lot of nose-holding to be done, even to get a remotely decent outcome in Syria—it will be interesting to know where the Russians see the next move. Having established that line, I am not entirely sure that the Russians necessarily want to drive on to Raqqa, but they might collectively want to.174

Any cooperation with Russia would probably be further complicated by the Russian view that opposition groups fighting the Assad regime are terrorist groups, a much broader definition than members of the International Coalition would accept.175

122.When we questioned the Secretary of State on the possibility of a co-operative arrangement between Russia and the International Coalition, he told us:

It is perfectly possible and proper for us to engage with Russia where we have interests in common while maintaining our very sharp disagreement with and condemnation of what Russia has been doing in the Crimea and Ukraine. We have engaged with Russia. Russia was a key part of bringing about the settlement in Iran on nuclear power, has been engaged in the Syrian peace process and is now beginning to get involved in the Libyan talks as well. We continue to urge Russia to play a role and use its influence constructively towards a future settlement in Syria.


There are arrangements in place to de-conflict the airspace to ensure that there are sufficient gaps between aircraft and so on—but there is not cooperation or coordination of targeting. We are very clear about that. Russia is not part of the Coalition effort.176

The Secretary of State was also clear that he believed that it was within the gift of Russia “to bring this indiscriminate killing and shelling to an end, to use its influence constructively and to respect the ceasefire”.177 He added that whilst cooperation with Russia might seem attractive, it could leave forces regarded as moderate “at the mercy of the regime”.178

123.The Russians are a key actor in the Syrian theatre and, in the past six months, the Assad regime and its supporters have begun to tackle DAESH in its Syrian locations. Military cooperation with Russia may be the only way in which DAESH can finally be suppressed or defeated in Syria. However, active cooperation could take place only with the agreement of the International Coalition—including, as it does, some regional powers which are wholly opposed to the Assad regime.


124.The decision to extend UK military operations into Syria was the subject of extensive debate due to political and military factors rendering the potential for effective military intervention there far more problematic than that in Iraq. At the start of the debate, on 2 December 2015, David Cameron told the House that:

The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. I am not overstating the contribution our incredible servicemen and women can make; nor am I ignoring the risks of military action or pretending that military action is any more than one part of the answer.179

Having responded to the Foreign Affairs Committee report ‘The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria’180 several days earlier, he listed the concerns that had been raised in previous Parliamentary debates:

I believe the key questions that have been raised are these: first, could acting in this way actually increase the risk to our security by making an attack on Britain more likely? Secondly, does Britain really have the capability to make a significant difference? Thirdly […] why do we not just increase our level of airstrikes in Iraq to free up capacity among other members of the Coalition so that they can carry out more airstrikes in Syria? Fourthly, will there really be the ground forces needed to make this operation a success? Fifthly, what is the strategy for defeating ISIL and securing a lasting political settlement in Syria? Sixthly, is there a proper reconstruction and post-conflict stabilisation plan for Syria?181

125.The complexity of the civil war and the numerous and fractured opposition groups (a number of whom are avowed Salafi jihadist groups) means that—apart from Kurdish forces—it is certainly difficult to identify credible partners on the ground. There is little agreement, even amongst experts, on the extent to which armed opposition groups in Syria can properly be described as ‘moderate’ rather than Islamist. By contrast, the UK Government’s partner in Iraq is the Iraqi Government and we are supporting the Iraqi Security Forces and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga.

126.Two years into the military campaign to counter the threat from DAESH, we are seeing the impact of the UK effort in the International Coalition. Whilst the military effort in Iraq is bearing fruit, that is much less certain in Syria. We believe this is partly due to the aspirations of the UK Government in respect of each country. The goals in Iraq are to remove territory from DAESH, to strengthen the Iraqi Government and to maintain Iraq as a unitary state. The goals in Syria are not only to defeat DAESH, but also to help bring into being a Government which will be neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other. These goals cannot be accomplished by military means alone. We discuss the wider strategy and the importance of the political aspect of the fight to counter DAESH in the next section.

108 Institute for the Study of War, Syrian Armed Oppositions Powerbrokers, March 2016, pp. 9 & 12

111 HC Deb, 26 November 2015, col. 1489

112 Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 12 January 2016, HC (2015–16) 712, Q16 [Dr Lewis]

113 MoD Written Evidence 9 July 2016 [See Appendix 3]

114 Q247

116 Institute for the Study of War, Syrian Armed Oppositions Powerbrokers, March 2016, p. 7

117 PQ 12468 [Islamic State] 26 October 2015

118 Oral evidence taken before the Liaison Committee on 12 January 2016, HC (2015–16) 712, Q15 [Dr Lewis]

119 Q74

120 Q128

121 The Institute for the Study of War defines political Islamist groups as “groups that desire a Sharia-based constitution but do not demand that Sharia courts form the basis of governance in a post-Assad Syrian state.”

122 Q220

123 Q366

124 Q217; 220; 225

125 Q246

126 Q198

127 Q277

128 Q277

129 Q277

130 Q402–4

131 Q403; 406

132 Q406

133 Q177

134 Q74; 159; 175; 218; 238; 356; 357; 361

135 Q74

136 Q180

137 Q219

138 Q219

139 Q257

140 Charles Lister (UMO0009)

141 Q257

142 What is Turkish army really doing in Iraq?, AI Monitor, 6 September 2016

143 Turkish Incursion in Northern Syria Signals Turning Point in Anti-ISIS Fight, The Institute for the Study of War, August 30, 2016

144Turkey seeks to establish ‘safe zone’ along Syrian border’, Financial Times, 6 September 2016

145 Turkish Incursion in Northern Syria Signals Turning Point in Anti-ISIS Fight, The Institute for the Study of War, August 30, 2016

146 Q398

147 Q398

148 PQ HL8193 [Islamic State] 11 May 2016

149 Q399

150 Q438

151 Q357

152 Q110

153 Institute for the Study of War, Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, December 2014, p 11

156 Syrian Nusra Front announces split from al-Qaeda, BBC News Online, 29 July 2016

158 Q427

159 Q427

160 Q429

161 Q225; 277

162 Q246

164 Palmyra had been controlled by DAESH since May 2015

165 Russian Airstrikes in Syria: April 19 - May 12, 2016, Institute for the Study of War, 13 May 2016

166 Russian Airstrikes in Syria: April 19 - May 12, 2016, Institute for the Study of War, 13 May 2016

167 Department of Defense Press Briefing by Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq, April 20, 2016

168 Russian Airstrikes in Syria: April 30 – May 26, 2016, Institute for the Study of War, 28 May 2016

169 Q437

170 Q122; 174; 380

171 Q175; 305; 371

172 Q232–3; 371

173 Q222; 380

174 Q198

176 Q431–3

177 Q436

178 Q437

179 HC Deb 2 December 2015, col. 324

180 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2015–16, The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria, HC 457

181 HC Deb, 2 December 2015, col. 328

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

16 September 2016