Britain ready to put ‘robust legal case’ used by US for Syria airstrikes – Foreign Secretary
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain is prepared to make a robust legal case for extending airstrikes against Islamic State beyond Iraq into Syria, with the backing of MPs.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Friday, Hammond said the government believes there is a strong legal basis for extending UK airstrikes into Syria.
“We would look at the circumstances at the time,” Hammond said. “If we felt we had some capability to contribute that was needed in order to deliver the outcome that we all want to see, which is the defeat of [Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL] and its poisonous ideology, then we would certainly make the case for doing that if the circumstances were right.”
Hammonds comments came ahead of Friday’s recall of parliament, where MPs debated a Commons motion calling for strikes against IS targets in Iraq. The motion specifically excluded airstrikes in Syria without a further vote.
The foreign secretary confirmed extending airstrikes into Syria would require a second parliamentary vote, but said the legal advice used by the US to underpin its airstrikes in Syria could be used by Britain.
“At the moment, the government of Iraq has asked us to intervene in Iraq,” Hammond said. “It is clear that the US intervening in Syria is also able to do so on a legal basis of collective self-defence because the government of Iraq has identified that there is a present threat to Iraq coming from Syria.
“We haven’t looked at this in terms of our own permissions ... because we are not proposing to do it. That is the legal basis that the US is relying on. It looks robust to me.”
Deployment of UK troops for combat operations is ruled out by Friday’s parliamentary motion. However, the motion does permit the deployment of special forces and intelligence personnel, as well as trainers, to help bolster Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told House Magazine earlier this week that the war against IS would be “a long haul” that may require action against militants in Syria if MPs can be convinced.
The government is not currently proposing any involvement in airstrikes in Syria, where a US-Arab coalition began bombing IS militants on Tuesday. MPs last year rejected airstrikes on Syria to oppose the government of President Bashar Assad.
Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs early in Friday's debate the situation in Syria is “more complicated” than Iraq because of its "brutal dictator" President Assad and the civil war that has been ongoing for the past three years.
Cameron held out the possibility of extending British air strikes against IS in Syria. He suggested he would be prepared to extend the military campaign without the initial approval of parliament in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe.
“Let me address very directly this issue of Isil in Syria,” said Cameron. “I am very clear: Isil needs to be destroyed in Syria as well as Iraq. We support the action that the US and five Arab states have taken in Syria.”
“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis.”
Conservative MP Bob Stewart, a member of the Commons Defence Committee and a former British commander in Bosnia, said that IS had to be defeated in its birthplace, Syria.
“You have got to go to the eye of the octopus,” he told STV, using a phrase made popular by US civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, “and the eye of the octopus isn't necessarily in Iraq, it is in Syria.”
Earlier this week, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that eight civilians, including three children, were killed in US-led airstrikes inside Syria. Rebel forces, meanwhile, said 11 civilians were killed in Idlib and another five in Homs.
However, a spokesman for the Pentagon said although the military is still gathering intelligence on the situation, imagery taken from before and after the strikes – intended to hit Islamic State militants – showed that no civilians had been killed.
While American officials deny any civilian deaths, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday that the US and its allies should take care to ensure that such casualties are limited, if not avoided entirely.
“I regret the loss of any civilian lives as a result of strikes against targets in Syria,” the UN chief said on the sidelines of a climate summit in New York. “The parties involved in this campaign must abide by international humanitarian law and take all necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties.”