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A detailed paper was published on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 ny the House of Commons Library. Here's a summary


US-led air strikes against ISIS continue in Iraq and Syria, alongside a training programme to build the capacity of Iraqi security forces. The UK has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq since September 2014 and has been providing training assistance to Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Following a vote in Parliament, the UK recently expanded its air campaign into Syria. But will it make a difference?

A coalition of 65 countries are engaged in international efforts to counter ISIS (also known as Daesh, ISIL or Islamic State). The military campaign in Iraq and Syria is just one aspect of that broader strategy which also includes measures to restrict the flow of foreign fighters, stop foreign financing, provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq and Syria and strategic communications, intended to counter their ideology.

In terms of the military campaign (Operation Inherent Resolve), which is the focus of this paper, the United States has led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 8 August 2014 and end of September 2014 respectively. With a view to building the capacity of local forces on the ground, offensive military action has so far been restricted to air operations in support of local forces, providing reconnaissance, surveillance and attack capabilities. Training is also being provided by a number of coalition countries to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in order to bolster their ground capabilities and allow them to take the fight to ISIS.

The US had also been leading a programme of training for moderate opposition forces in Syria. However, that programme has been beset with difficulties and on 9 October the US announced that it would pursue a new strategy with respect to supporting opposition forces in Syria.

Who is in the military coalition?

The coalition against ISIS is being led by the United States.

Along with the US, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Jordan, Canada and Denmark have all conducted air strikes in Iraq, although Belgium and Denmark have recently withdrawn their combat aircraft.

The first US- led airstrikes in Syria were assisted by aircraft from five Arab countries: Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with Qatar in a supporting role. Since then Turkey, Canada, France and Australia have joined the air campaign in Syria. The UK initially restricted itself to conducting surveillance reconnaissance operations over Syria. The UK began offensive operations in Syria on 3 December 2015 following a vote in Parliament.

The new Canadian government has announced its intention to end its combat mission in Iraq and Syria, although the timetable for doing do is currently unclear. At the same time, and in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, the French government has increasingly called on its coalition partners to support the military campaign against ISIS. The German Government approved plans in early December to deploy Tornado reconnaissance aircraft, refuelling aircraft, a naval frigate and a 1,200 strong force to the region, although those forces will not engage in offensive operations.

The United States, the UK and a number of other coalition countries have also deployed military personnel on the ground in Iraq to train Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. These are not combat troops and are not deployed in an offensive role.

Legal basis

Military action in Iraq is being conducted at the request of the Iraqi government, which coalition partners consider provides a firm legal basis for operations.

The reluctance of many coalition partners to intervene in Syria has partly been because of concerns over the legality of such military action, given that it is not at the request of the Assad government, and is being conducted in the absence of a UN Security Council resolution specifically authorising such action.

The Government's November 2015 response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on extending British military action to Syria says that the main legal basis for UK military action in Syria is collective self-defence of Iraq, with the individual self-defence of the UK and collective self-defence of other states (but not Security Council authorisation) as additional legal bases.

Duration of the mission

It is widely acknowledged that the campaign against ISIS will be longstanding. During the Commons debate in September 2014 David Cameron warned Members of Parliament that "we should not expect this to happen quickly. The hallmarks of this campaign will be patience and persistence, not shock and awe." In October 2015 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, suggested that a three-year timeframe was the current expectation of military commanders.

The UK's contribution

In September 2014 Parliament voted to support offensive military action in Iraq. However, that vote did not extend to offensive operations in Syria. In July 2015 the Secretary of State for Defence indicated that the Government could seek further approval from Parliament to extend air strikes into Syria provided that "there is a sufficient consensus behind it". A debate, and vote, on extending offensive military action against ISIS in Syria was subsequently held on 2 December 2015. Parliament voted in support of military action exclusively against ISIS in Syria by 397 to 223 votes.

Since September 2014 RAF Tornado GR4 and the Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) have conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, with support aircraft including the new Voyager tanker/transport aircraft and the Sentinel surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. The UK has been the second largest contributor to the coalition air campaign, conducting more than 1,600 missions over Iraq, including over 380 airstrikes. The government has suggested that the UK has carried out 8% of coalition airstrikes in Iraq; that nearly 60% of the intelligence gathered in Iraq is provided by British Tornado aircraft; and that Reaper and Airseeker aircraft, which have been authorised to fly surveillance missions over Syria since October 2014, are providing up to 30% of the intelligence effort in that country.

In early December 2015 two additional Tornado aircraft and six Typhoon aircraft were deployed to the region following the expansion of military action into Syria. The first British airstrikes in Syria were conducted on 3 December 2015.

Since November 2014 the UK has been providing training and military advice to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In early June 2015 the Government announced that a further 125 British military personnel would deploy to Iraq in order to bolster that training mission. To date the UK has trained over 2,000 Iraqis. The UK also participated in the US-led programme to train moderate Syrian opposition forces which was suspended in October 2015.

Approximately 850 British military personnel are involved in operations against ISIS. Around two thirds of those personnel are deployed in the region in support of the air campaign; while the remaining personnel are on the ground in Iraq providing training and military advice. Those personnel on the ground are not combat troops.

The net additional costs of the military air operation (Tornado, Typhoon, Reaper and air-to-air refuelling) are being met from the Treasury Special Reserve; while the costs of training and equipping the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and the provision of key enablers, are being met from the Deployed Military Activity Pool (DMAP).

Russian actions in Syria

Since early September 2015 Russia has been forward deploying troops and other military assets to an air base in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

Estimates of the number of deployed Russian military capabilities vary, but what has been established is that the Russian air force has forward deployed a powerful strike group comprising nearly 50 combat aircraft, helicopters and force protection assets. Thus far personnel appear to have been deployed in support of air operations and to provide a base protection capability, although reports suggest that preparations are being made for the potential deployment of significant Russian ground forces.

On 30 September Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria, the first time that Russian forces have undertaken a military operation beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. Russia was immediately criticised for targeting rebel groups rather than ISIS, including moderate opposition forces supported by the US. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russia is targeting ISIS "and other terrorist groups" in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.

Russia has also supported counteroffensive operations by Syrian government forces against rebel forces; has violated Turkish airspace on more than one occasion and has launched attacks on targets in Syria from Russian warships based in the Caspian Sea.

In recent weeks Russia has stepped up its bombing campaign in Syria, largely in response to the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula on 31 October but also in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. Some commentators have also suggested that there has been a slight shift in focus, with Russian forces increasingly striking ISIS targets as opposed to moderate rebel groups.

The deconfliction of Syrian airspace has become a priority and US and Russian officials have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to that end. Most analysts concur that the Russian air force's presence in Syria makes the concept of establishing no-fly or safe zones in Syria almost impossible now to implement.

Boots on the ground?

Combat troops have been explicitly ruled out by the UK and other countries involved in the coalition, amid debate about the reliance on air power alone. However, the prolonged nature of this campaign has led many to reignite the debate about whether the Coalition is doing enough and whether 'boots on the ground' is the next logical step. The US' recent move to deploy Special Forces' personnel to northern Syria in support of local forces has been regarded by many as the first step in this direction.

Commons Briefing papers SN06995
Authors: Claire Mills; Ben Smith; Louisa Brooke-Holland

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