Surgical Strikes: Are there consequences to British drone warfare in Syria?


Multiple challenges remain in the Syrian War and conflict with Islamic State, particularly when dealing with non-state actors accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the case of Islamic State, whose fighters perpetrated genocide and waged an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Yezidis, Shia Muslims, Assyrians and Shabak Turks in Syria and Iraq, justice has largely been delivered through bombing and special operations, a multitude of precise and imprecise drone strikes (de-facto extra-judicial killings) by the RAF, USAF and other countries involved in Operation Inherent Resolve. The legal minefield presented by military campaigns in Middle East over the previous decades and the fallout of operations against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are numerous.

Tens of thousands of civilians, innocent men, women and children have been killed or wounded in the Western-sponsored military campaign to drive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s and his elite fighters from key cities across the Middle East. The airstrikes utilised by Coalition airpower in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the caliphate in Syria, killed an estimated 12,600 people. At one stage during the battle of Mosul, Kurdish intelligence estimated that 40,000 civilians (as supposed to 11,000) had died during the battle (1/4 attributed to Western airpower) and the massacre which ensued after the Iraqi military’s operations had concluded.

The coalition has admitted to 1,200 civilians deaths in Iraq and Syria, and during the height of Inherent Resolve, the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence regularly denied that their ‘surgical’ bombings were harming civilians. The U.S admitted, at one stage, that 318 civilians had died in combat operations, despite the death toll being much higher. The MOD were adamant that one civilian had died in over 1,700 air-raids (a motorcyclist in the wrong place at the wrong time) across Syria, again a controversial figure dismissed by groups such as Action on Armed Violence.

A month after the MOD released this statement, Mark Lancaster, the armed forces minister, directly contradicted this death toll. “It is difficult to prove exactly what has happened as a result of a strike, but that doesn’t mean that we are remotely complacent in our approach,” he stated to the Defence Committee in April, 2019. “It is not our position that there has only been a single civilian casualty as a result of our military action. What we are saying is that we only have evidence of what we believe to have been a single civilian casualty.”

An uncomfortable question also emerges. Can those accused of committing war crimes fighting with (or in) the U.S-led coalition be held to account? It is unlikely. Light has been shed on war crimes committed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet the perpetrators have rarely been punished. Both the British and American armies and government, high ranking officials and politicians, have avoided being held to account for the disastrous Iraq War which left an half a million Iraqi civilians dead. In Afghanistan, the extra-judicial killings of civilians by Special Air Service (SAS) - which made headlines in The Independent in July, 2017 - were investigated by Royal Military Police.

There are some exceptions of-course. In 2006, after months of hard fighting in the Anbar province, Paul Cortez, James Barker, Jesse Spielman, Brian Howard, and Steven Green were tried in U.S civilian courts for the rape of Abeer Qassim Hamza Al-Jabani, a fourteen year old girl and the murder of her family.

Multiple efforts have been made by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, the International Criminal Court, Public Interest Lawyers, the Court’s Office of the Prosecutor and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights have conducted investigations into UK forces accused of committing war crimes, however these efforts have been undermined by pressure from the political establishment and mainstream media. British Marine, Alexander Blackman who was charged with the murder (this charge was later cleared and reduced to manslaughter) of a wounded Taliban fighter was another scandal that deeply affected the British military establishment. The incident - caught on camera by a fellow marine - and the Blackman Case created a stir in media over the nature of the British campaign in Afghanistan. One British soldier, Donald Payne, has been sentenced for war crimes violations in Iraq for the torture and death of Baha Mousa.

In Syria’s war - as with conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, new boundaries were crossed in August, 2015 when a UK drone targeted a student from Cardiff, Reyaad Khan and a former pizza delivery boy, Ruhul Amin, both of whom had been recruited as fighters for Islamic State and were allegedly planning to conduct terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron admitted to the House of Commons that it is the first time UK forces have directed a targeted attack against one of its own citizens when Britain is not at war. It was also conducted without parliamentary approval.

Mohammed Emwazi, a British national and Islamic State fighter, from Maida Vale, Londo, sliced off the heads of David Haines and Alan Henning, two British aid workers and murdered several foreign nationals, Syrian POWs, and charity workers and journalists was also targeted in a U.S drone strike in 13th November, 2015. “Our own security and intelligence agencies and armed forces have been working hand in glove with their American colleagues,” said Cameron arguing that the counter-terrorist operation to eliminate Emwazi was a matter of “self-defence.” Philip Alston, however, notes on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the case of targeted killings by drone strikes, ‘the rare emergency exception to an absolute prohibition can effectively institutionalize that exception. Applying such a scenario to targeted killings threatens to eviscerate the human rights law prohibition against the arbitrary deprivation of life.’ From a practical stand-point, the execution of Emwazi didn’t succeed. The very same day of his death, Islamic State launched major attacks in Paris and Beirut on 12th-13th November killing and wounding hundreds of people. In July, 2018, the APPG’s (All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones) chair, Professor Michael Clarke argued that “As the trend of British personnel being embedded with foreign forces increases there is a danger they will find themselves complicit in drone strikes that are not legal on our terms.”

The government has been very ambiguous on targeted killings carried out without Parliamentary authorisation. “There is growing concern that the UK is likely supporting a drone programme where the US commits unlawful acts,” the APPG’s report in 2018 said. “This Inquiry has found that the support provided by the UK constitutes the provision of material assistance to a state that appears to be violating international law.” With President Trump revocation of Obama’s 2016 executive order on 7th March, an order which, in theory, would increase transparency and scrutiny on civilian causalities in drone strikes conducted outside designated war-zones, has increased the risk of British military personnel of being complicit in what could be - according to human rights organisation Amnesty International - war crimes in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan linked to drone warfare and CIA black sites

In the of case of Raqqa, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor said the MOD was in “denial” over the “mass-bombing” of the city, described by Amnesty International in its report, where interviews with over one hundred witnesses and survivors and satellite imagery shed light on 'disproportionate’, ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘unlawful’ air raids on the city during the campaign to dislodge Islamic State.

Similarly, the hollowing out of democratic accountability, increased government secrecy, and lack of legal oversight into secret wars abroad could have serious consequences, increasing anti-British sentiment abroad. Checks on military power are essential for a healthy democracy, and in Syria and the wider wars in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, these restrictions have allegedly been disregarded.