That’s the question people are asking after last week’s revelation that UK pilots have been involved in carrying out air strikes in Syria, in spite of assurances that Parliament would vote on any such expansion of the anti-ISIS bombing campaign. The news comes as further proof of a worrying lack of transparency in both the UK and the wider coalition’s operations in Iraq and Syria.
Last week’s news resulted from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the activist NGO Reprieve. The FOI showed that a small number of UK pilots have been embedded with US and other forces in Syria, and have flown ‘strike missions’ against Islamic State targets in the country. It is not clear when these strikes took place, or how many there have been, although the total number is reported to be in the single figures.
The fact that this has happened at all is a significant expansion of the UK’s current role in the bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, and has taken place without the explicit consent of the British Parliament. To this point, air strikes against ISIS targets have only been authorised in Iraq, where they were at the request of the country’s government.
In 2013 the UK Parliament voted against British air strikes in Syria. The ‘no-vote’ rejected a proposed military intervention against Syrian government assets, after the chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on 21 August 2013. Speaking at the time, Kate Hoey MP said “The question is how bombing, no matter how strategic, how precise and how short, will make things if not better for the Syrian people, at least not worse. I believe that it will not do so and I have yet to be persuaded by anyone who has spoken in this debate that it would make things better for the Syrian people.” A diplomatic response was ultimately used to pressure President Assad into destroying or removing his stockpiles of chemical weapons.
The current air campaign is aimed not at the Assad regime, but at Islamic State militant groups who have seized swathes of territory across eastern Syria and neighbouring Iraq, carrying out a string of barbaric atrocities as they establish a self-proclaimed Caliphate.
Earlier last week Michael Fallon, the UK Minister of Defence, mused in Parliament that it was logical that UK bombing efforts in Iraq should be expanded into Syria. Yet as of this moment, any such proposal has not been put to the vote.
The argument that such a move is a good idea will likely meet with opposition in Parliament for a number of reasons, including the morality of military intervention for humanitarian purposes and the strategic short-sightedness of bombing the people you are trying to help. Arguments against might also focus on the muddled sovereignty issues in a country at civil war since 2011, and the implicit support it might offer to the Syrian state forces, who have killed thousands of civilians over years of bombing populated areas with heavy explosive weapons.
These are important debates to be had, and which must not be pre-empted.
Government statements after the Reprieve revelations tried to downplay the significance of the news, saying that strikes were carried out as part of a long-standing accepted policy of embedding UK forces with other nations. Such a policy is in fact common practice in NATO operations, and means in this case that the UK personnel would have been subject to the rules of engagement of their host nations.
The nuances of whether actions of an embed exceeds the mandate given by Parliament in the initial vote is a matter for Parliament itself to decide, but this defence rings alarm bells that this might become a precedent for circumventing Parliament’s oversight mechanism.
In previous investigations into rules of engagement used by international coalitions in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan since 2008, AOAV has shown the importance of strong rules of engagement in affecting how explosive weapons like aerial bombs and missiles can be used, and how these rules can massively limit civilian casualties, or create conditions that raise threat to civilians on the ground.
So the news that UK forces may be working within a different country’s rules of war without Parliamentary consent or oversight is alarming. As Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve, said last week, it is deeply worrying that “the UK seems to have turned over its personnel to the US wholesale, without the slightest idea as to what they are actually doing, and whether it is legal.”
Fog of war
It also reflects a wider lack of accountability in the coalition’s conduct.
AOAV’s data on coalition air strikes suggests that the majority of reported civilian casualties are coming from Syria, even if the majority of attacks are in Iraq. However, the reporting of civilian, or any, casualties from coalition airstrikes is extremely limited.
Security conditions on the ground make it impossible for independent journalists and investigators to assess impacts, and the coalition itself, while providing detailed information on the frequency of attacks, are vague as their consequences.
Coalition spokesmen have acknowledged the challenges in knowing definitively if civilians have been killed or injured in their air strikes. Public officials have only acknowledged a handful of civilian casualties to date, while simultaneously claiming that thousands of ISIS fighters have died.
Without transparency it is extremely difficult to draw effective assessments of the impacts of the international coalition’s use of explosive weapons on civilians in Iraq and Syria. There is a duty for coalition actors to fully investigate and acknowledge any civilian harm that may arise from their campaign, and work towards the fulfilment of the rights of any such victims.
Users of explosive weapons should recognise their responsibility to collect and publish data on the impacts of their use on civilians. Accurate and disaggregated data is necessary in order to develop effective programs of redress for civilian harm.
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