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Reapers will initially be operating in Syria for surveillance, but will also engage Hellfire missiles in an attack capacity if authorisation is given.
Britain’s Reaper drones, similar to this US version, will be controlled from an RAF base in Lincolnshire.
Kim Sengupta is Defence Correspondent at The Independent.
British aircraft have been readied for flights over Syria in the war against Isis. Armed Reaper drones which have been moved from Afghanistan are going to be used in missions in the heartland of the Islamist extremists, The Independent has learnt.
Last week, the Government announced the redeployment of the Reapers for operations in Iraq, where the RAF is already in action as part of a US-led coalition.
However, senior Whitehall sources have disclosed that they would be operating in Syria as well, initially for surveillance, but also in an attack capacity with Hellfire missiles if authorisation is given.
British air strikes against Isis came after a Commons vote authorising military engagement in Iraq, with David Cameron stressing that he would seek a second mandate from MPs if it was deemed necessary to extend the fight to Syria. But the Government maintains that no such permission is necessary to carry out reconnaissance flights or even armed action – the latter if it is a matter of national security, such as the rescue of British hostages being held by Isis.
The RAF has flown 37 missions and conducted 10 successful strikes over Iraq since Parliament authorised action, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, told MPs yesterday. The unmanned Reaper drones will be based in Kuwait after their move from Kandahar, The Independent understands. They will be controlled via satellite link from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire.
The decision to fly over Syrian territory is certain to lead to charges of “mission creep” and opposition in some quarters of Parliament. Several Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for the Iraq operation indicated that they would object to moving it on to Syria.
An explosion rocks the Syrian city of Kobani during a reported suicide car bomb attack by Isis on Monday. (Getty)
Some of the MPs have questioned the validity of military action in Syria under international law, pointing out that the Iraqi government has asked for help from the US-led coalition, but Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, has not. There would also be apprehension that the drones may be followed by fighter-bombers whose pilots would be vulnerable to the air defences of the regime as well as missiles acquired by Isis fighters.
But there is growing consensus among ministers and military commanders that meaningful action against the extremists must include the ability to strike at their bases inside Syria and assistance to “moderate” rebel groups fighting Isis.
The Assad regime has offered only token criticism of Western action and its forces have made no attempt to intercept the flights by the Americans and Arab allies over its territories.
Officials acknowledge that there has been an element of confusion over British military policy in the Isis mission. The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, declared recently that the UK would not consider carrying out air strikes in Syria. He was forced to backtrack after this was denied swiftly by Downing Street. Mr Hammond also said no rescue attempt could be carried out for British hostages because the Government had no idea where they were held.
Officials in the security field do not want to publicise any preparations being made to free the kidnapped prisoners.
A Whitehall official said: “The Reapers would be very useful for intel on Isis in Syria for ourselves and our allies; that would be their primary purpose. Their use in combat would obviously depend on parliamentary approval – unless we have a need for them to secure the wellbeing of British subjects or prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
The Reapers have carried out more than 4,800 sorties in Afghanistan since 2008. Amnesty International has suggested that their use by the US and UK may, in some cases, constitute war crimes.
Ukrainian Femen protesters prepare to pour buckets of ‘blood’ on themselves before Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Milan. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP
Lizzy Davies in Milan,
The Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen has staged a two-woman demonstration against Vladimir Putin in Milan, where he is expected to attend a summit of world leaders on Thursday.
The protesters stood in front of Milan’s cathedral and poured buckets of red wine, which they said represented the blood of Ukrainian people, over their bare chests.
The message “Stop ignoring Ukrainian bloodshed” was written on one woman’s torso, while the other made direct reference to the two-day summit of more than 50 European and Asian leaders: “ASEM allies of Putin,” read the message on Femen leader Inna Shevchenko’s chest.
“We believe that welcoming a killer, a person who is killing a whole nation right now – and this Ukrainian blood is right here, is on us – and shaking his hand, is ignoring the big torture, the big killing and the war in Ukraine that is started and supported by Putin,” she told AFPTV.
Although its main purpose is economic, the ASEM summit looks set to be dominated by the security situation in eastern Ukraine, where a fragile ceasefire struck last month has been repeatedly violated. An ongoing dispute over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine is becoming increasingly urgent as winter approaches.
Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, are scheduled to meet at a breakfast on Friday morning. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, will also host David Cameron, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the EU’s top officials.
It is possible that Putin and Poroshenko may also meet face-to-face in a separate bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit. Poroshenko has been quoted as saying the whole world had “high expectations” of his talks with Putin.
Britain’s Tornado jet strikes expected to limit Islamic State advance to aid later, persistent, use of ground forces.
An RAF Tornado jet in Cyprus following air strikes against Isis in Iraq on Tuesday. Photograph: Neil Bryden/PA
Richard Norton-Taylor reporting,
Air strikes by RAF Tornado jets are the least efficient and most expensive way to attack Isis fighters in Iraq. But they are symbolic. They are the most visible evidence of Britain joining military action against Islamic State fighters and have the greatest political impact.
David Cameron, and his foreign and defence secretaries, Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon, have been at pains to stress that bombing would not be enough to defeat Isis, and that the military campaign could last for years.
More accurate missiles and sophisticated radar and infrared night-sight technology should allow the Tornado crews to respect what Fallon has called “very strict rules of engagement, obviously to avoid civilian casualties”, though risks remain.
Yet while bombing from the air is more politically acceptable than “boots on the ground”, a long campaign risks two consequences, analysts warn – public impatience and challenges to the RAF’s resilience.
“This will be a persistent but low intensity campaign waged over a number of years,” said Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
He said a comparison could be made with the no fly zones operated by the UK and US over Iraq in the 1990s after the first Gulf war. “They were cautious, low risk, and sustained missions, designed to stabilise the situation rather than drastically change it.”
Joshi added: “I anticipate that the air strikes will become a means of halting [Islamic State’s] advance and softening up their resource base, so that local ground forces can, in due course, take them on with a greater prospect of success. Patience is the key. It is hard to see how the Iraqi army can make significant gains over the next year.”
Isis could collapse much sooner than the government suggests. But if there are no results by Christmas, then the public might, wrongly, said Joshi, assume military action had failed. That was why British ministers, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had stressed the long timescale, in previous campaigns not an emphasis normally.
As in any multinational war, such as Kosovo, or the first Gulf war, military strategy would be shaped by the need to keep the countries’ coalition together, analysts, including Joshi, said.
“Air strikes have to be cautious, avoiding high-risk, high-reward targets, because mistakes could compromise Arab and European military support,” he said. “This means that some targets of opportunity will be foregone, even where that comes at the cost of Iraqi army losses on the ground.”
By last weekend American aircraft had flown about 2,500 sorties and hit 270 targets, according to the Pentagon’s central command. But America’s capabilities cannot be compared to those of the UK. In the 1991 Gulf war the RAF had 30 combat squadrons; now it has seven.
The RAF’s latest fighter bombers, the Typhoons, are not equipped with Brimstone missiles, the most accurate and, say analysts, the most suitable weapon to use against Isis. So it is left to the ageing Tornados to pursue what could be a very long campaign.
And just as the campaign of air strikes over Libya in 2011 led Cameron to cancel planned cuts in Tornado squadrons then, a squadron of Tornados due to be axed in April 2015 and replaced by Typhoons, will almost certainly now be saved.
Left unchecked, we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven intention to attack our country and our people.
Six RAF Tornado G4 fighter-bombers based in Cyprus are on standby.
Britain’s parliament has approved air strikes against Islamic State (IS) insurgents in Iraq, paving the way for the Royal Air Force to join US-led military action with immediate effect.
Six Cyprus-based Tornado GR4 fighter-bombers were on standby to take part in initial sorties after prime minister David Cameron recalled parliament from recess to back military action following a formal request from the Iraqi government.
Mr Cameron told MPs before the vote not to expect a “shock and awe” air campaign, while his office said a small number of service people could be sent to Iraq within hours of the vote to guide air strikes and, possibly, to train Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces battling IS militant forces.
The decisive 524-43 vote means Britain will embark on its first military campaign since it conducted air strikes in 2011 on behalf of Libyan rebels who toppled Moamar Gaddafi, and join an international coalition led by the United States.
Australia has sent eight F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets and 200 special forces troops to the United Arab Emirates in preparation for attacks on IS targets in Iraq.
On Friday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the jets were not sent “for merely an exercise”, adding that the Government would make further decisions “in coming days“.
While Arab countries have quickly joined the bombing campaign, Washington’s traditional Western allies had been slow to answer the call from US president Barack Obama.
France was the first European country to respond on September 19. Since Monday, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark have also announced they would dispatch warplanes
Mr Cameron was careful to secure cross-party support for strikes against IS before putting a motion before parliament.
“Is there a threat to the British people? The answer is yes,” Cameron told parliament before the vote, saying he thought action would need to last “years” to be effective.
“This is not a threat on the far side of the world.
“Left unchecked, we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven intention to attack our country and our people.”
Britain, a staunch US ally, was quick to join military action in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago.
But a war-weary public and parliament’s rejection last year of strikes on the Syrian government prompted Mr Cameron to tread carefully this time.
Before Friday, Britain had confined itself to delivering aid, carrying out surveillance, arming Kurdish forces who are fighting IS militants, and promising training in Iraq.
But the beheading of British aid worker David Haines by an Islamic State militant with a British accent has driven home the danger the group poses to domestic security.
The fate of another Briton being held, Alan Henning, has also stirred public opinion.
UK Labour concerned about possible intervention in Syria.
Mr Cameron’s tactics dismayed some legislators in his Conservative Party who said they thought striking IS in Iraq was insufficient and wanted him to extend action to tackle militants in Syria too, something he said he wasn’t ready to do for now.
During a lively parliamentary debate, Richard Ottoway, the Conservative chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said IS was ranging at will across an unguarded border between Iraq and Syria, meaning it had to be targeted in both countries.
“We will never end this conflict by turning back at the border,” Mr Ottoway told parliament.
Mr Cameron explained he had not proposed air strikes in Syria because he realised there were concerns within the opposition Labour party about such action. Labour has said any such action would require a UN resolution on Syria.
“I do believe there is a strong case for us to do more in Syria but I did not want to bring a motion to the house today which there wasn’t consensus for,” he said.
“Of course … there are many concerns about doing more in Syria and I understand that.”
Some Conservatives harbour doubts about the efficacy of the Iraqi military and have said Mr Cameron is wrong to rule out, as he repeatedly has, deploying British ground forces.
Britain’s proposed effort is is modest compared to previous interventions.
That has prompted some Conservatives to accuse Cameron of taking only token action.
“Is he seriously contending that by air strikes alone we can actually roll back ISIL (IS), or is this gesture politics?” Edward Leigh, a Conservative lawmaker, told parliament.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband of Labour said he backed strikes against IS in Iraq, but some lawmakers in his left-leaning party made clear they were uncomfortable about the prospect of any kind of military action.
“The question is, will what the prime minister and the government is proposing, will that be effective in destroying ISIS (IS)?,” asked David Winnick, a Labour lawmaker.
“Look at what the House of Commons agreed to: Iraq, Afghanistan, in this government, Libya. None of them success stories.”
Britain has said about 500 of its citizens have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq, raising fears radicalised fighters could return to stage attacks at home.