ISIS: the military response in Iraq and Syria

US-led air strikes against ISIS continue in Iraq and Syria, alongside a training programme to build the capacity of Iraqi security forces. What part does the UK play and is this enough?

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The United States has led airstrikes against ISIS (also known as ISIL or Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria since August 2014. 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 the north of the country; while the US is also leading a programme of training for moderate opposition forces in Syria.

Who is in the coalition?

The coalition against ISIS is being led by the United States. According to the Department of Defense, more than 60 countries are assisting in efforts to counter ISIS from measures to restrict the flow of foreign fighters and foreign financing, to participation in the training of Iraqi, and local, security forces and offensive military operations in Iraq and Syria.

The United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Jordan, Canada and Denmark have all conducted air strikes in Iraq. With the exception of Canada, all have been reluctant to intervene militarily in Syria. Iran is also reported to have conducted airstrikes in eastern Iraq, although not in coordination with the US-led coalition.

So far only the US, Canada, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have participated in airstrikes in Syria. The UK is conducting surveillance reconnaissance operations over Syria.

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 in that country.

The reluctance of many coalition partners, including the UK, to intervene in Syria, however, is because of concerns over the legality of such military action.

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.”

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.

RAF Tornado GR4 and the Reaper remotely piloted air system (RPAS) have since conducted reconnaissance missions and airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, with support aircraft including the new Voyager tanker/transport aircraft.

Reaper and Rivet Joint aircraft have also been authorised to fly surveillance missions over Syria.

The UK is the second largest contributor to the coalition air campaign.

Since November 2014 the UK has been providing training and military advice to the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in the north of the country.  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.

The UK is also participating in the US-led programme to train moderate Syrian opposition forces.

Approximately 900 British military personnel will be involved in operations against ISIS. 630 of those personnel are deployed in the region in support of the air campaign; while 275 personnel will be on the ground in Iraq providing training and military advice. Those personnel are not combat troops.

The net additional costs of the military air operation (Tornado, 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 MOD’s £50 million Deployed Military Activity Pool (DMAP).

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 fall of Ramadi in May 2015 and the advances that are being made by ISIS has led many to reignite the debate about whether ‘boots on the ground’ is the next logical step.

(Source / 22.06.2015)

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