Britain is also at war

A week after the ISIL attacks in Paris on November 13 , British Prime Minister David Cameron met with French President François Hollande for what was described as a “war summit”. The following week, the British government tabled in Parliament its comprehensive strategy for dealing with ISIL, including the extension of British military operations to Syria.

The Vimy Report provides below a link to the memorandum which the government submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on November 23, 2015 outlining its strategy.

Following are extensive excerpts from the Memorandum, adding sub-headings and underlining key passages:


Today one of the greatest threats we face to our security is the threat from ISIL. We need a comprehensive response which seeks to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to us directly, not just through the measures we are taking at home, but by dealing with ISIL on the ground in the territory that it controls.

It is in Raqqa, Syria, that ISIL has its headquarters, and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated. We must tackle ISIL in Syria, as we are doing in neighbouring Iraq, in order to deal with the threat that ISIL poses to the region and to our security here at home. We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria. The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose. It is wrong for the United Kingdom to sub-contract its security to other countries, and to expect the aircrews of other nations to carry the burdens and the risks of striking ISIL in Syria to stop terrorism here in Britain.

At the same time, we must close down the ungoverned space in Syria that ISIL is exploiting, by working round the clock to bring about a political resolution to the war there. That means putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight, as a full member of an international coalition, behind the new political talks – the Vienna process. It means working through these talks to secure a transition to an inclusive Government in Syria that responds to the needs of all the Syrian people and with which the international community could co-operate fully to help restore peace and stability to the whole country. It means continuing to support the moderate opposition in Syria, so that there is a credible alternative to ISIL and Assad. It means using our aid budget to alleviate the immediate humanitarian suffering. It means insisting, with other countries, on the preparation of a proper stabilisation and reconstruction effort in Syria once the conflict has been brought to an end. And it means continuing, and stepping up, our effort here at home to counter radicalisation.

We must pursue all these tracks in parallel. As the threat from ISIL to our national security grows, we must take action – recognising that no course of action is without risk, but that inaction – not dealing with ISIL at source – also carries grave risk.

The threat ISIL poses

The threat ISIL poses to Britain and to our citizens today is serious and undeniable.

  • ISIL has been behind more than 40 successful terrorist attacks around the world in just the last twelve months.
  • The murder of 30 British citizens holidaying in Tunisia in June was linked to ISIL.
  • In October, ISIL murdered 102 people at a peace rally in Ankara and a Russian passenger plane was blown out of the sky, killing 224 people flying home from Sharm-el-Sheikh – a resort visited by tens of thousands of British tourists each year.
  • In November, ISIL murdered 43 people in Beirut and at least 130 people in Paris, including one Briton.
  • ISIL terrorises and murders Iraqis and Syrians each and every day.
  • We know that ISIL has deadly intent to strike us at home too. In the last 12 months, Britain’s police and Security Services have disrupted no fewer than 7 terrorist plots to attack the UK. All 7 plots were either linked to ISIL, or were inspired by ISIL’s propaganda. ISIL has a dedicated external operations structure in Syria, which is planning mass casualty attacks around the world.

ISIL targets our young people, using sophisticated grooming techniques to lure them to Syria – to fight; to blow themselves up as suicide bombers; or to condemn themselves to lives of subjugation, oppression and cruelty. Around 800 British individuals of national security concern have travelled to Syria since the conflict began. Many have joined ISIL and other terrorist groups. Of those who are known to have travelled, about half have returned. There were 299 arrests in the UK in the year ending 31 March 2015 for terrorism-related offences: an increase of 31% compared with the previous year and the highest number since data collection began in 2001. We have also seen the youngest ever convicted terrorist in the UK, when a 15 year old boy was sentenced to life in prison last month, following his radicalisation over the internet and contact with individuals based in Syria who had urged him to plan acts of terror in the UK. In June, a 17 year-old from West Yorkshire became the youngest ever UK suicide bomber, blowing himself up in Iraq.

ISIL poses a significant threat to the stability of the region, including to the security of Jordan, one of the UK’s key allies. ISIL’s offshoots and affiliates are spreading instability and conflict in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and Nigeria. In the Middle East, they are seeking to establish their vision of a caliphate across Iraq and Syria, forcing people in those areas to yield to their rule or face torture or death. They have beheaded aid workers, organised systematic rape, enslaved Yazidi women and thrown gay people off buildings. All these atrocities belong to the dark ages.

The UK’s Strategy for Syria

We do not have the luxury of being able to wait until the Syrian conflict is resolved before tackling ISIL. Nor should we wait until an attack takes place here: we should act in advance, recognising that there are inherent risks in any course. The threats we face are urgent. Equally, there will be no end to the chaos in which ISIL thrives and which fuels migration, for as long as the conflict in Syria endures. This Government’s strategy for Syria therefore reflects our need simultaneously to:

  • Protect the UK here at home by maintaining robust counter-terrorism capabilities;
  • Generate negotiations on a political settlement, while supporting and preserving the moderate opposition;
  • Help deliver, through this process, a government in Syria that can credibly represent all of the Syrian people;
  • Degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, including through Coalition military and wider action;
  • Continue our leading role in humanitarian support and forestall further migratory flows towards Europe;
  • Support stabilisation already underway in Iraq and plan for post-conflict reconstruction in Syria; and
  • Work in close partnership with our allies across the Middle East, to mitigate the impact of ISIL and other violent extremist groups on the stability of the region.

All these elements are linked – and all are important.

Some have argued that we should ally ourselves with Assad and his regime against the greater threat posed by ISIL, as the ‘lesser of two evils’. But this misunderstands the causes of the problem; and would make matters worse. By inflicting brutal attacks against his own people, Assad has in fact acted as one of ISIL’s greatest recruiting sergeants. We therefore need a political transition in Syria to a government that the international community can work with against ISIL, as we already do with the Government of Iraq. The combination of the Assad regime’s mass murder of its own people and, more recently, ISIL’s bloodthirsty campaign has created a human catastrophe that has now crossed the borders of Europe. Over a quarter of a million people have been killed. Half the population of Syria have been forced to flee their homes. There are over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, particularly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. A further 6.5 million people are displaced inside the country.

Diplomatic Action

Since the start of the crisis the UK has worked for a political solution in Syria and was one of the prime movers of the Geneva Process. We have played a key role in diplomatic efforts; pressing for an agreed international approach through the Geneva conferences and providing funding and support to successive UN Special Envoys. There are now important signs of progress. The Foreign Secretary has played a central role in the establishment of the newly created International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which met for the second time in Vienna on 14 November.

The ISSG has brought together, for the first time, all of the major international players – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the US, France and Turkey – behind a common vision of what is needed to end the war. While there are still differences to resolve, they agreed on 14 November an ambitious time frame for political negotiations to begin by the end of the year; a transitional government in place within six months; and a new constitution and free and fair elections within 18 months.

Humanitarian Action

We have led the way in providing assistance to ease the suffering of the Syrian people, donating over £1.1bn. This is by far the largest commitment of any European country and is second only to the United States. Meeting the immediate relief and protection needs of the most vulnerable in Syria helps to support the capacity of the Syrian people to cope with the conflict; to remain in their homes wherever possible; and to lay the foundations for enduring stability and Syrian-led development.

We have also pledged to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians in the UK over the course of this Parliament. So far, about half a million people have sought refuge in Europe. But that number could increase significantly in 2016, if we cannot offer employment and education opportunities in the region and a realistic hope for a safe return home to Syria in the medium term. In February 2016, I will co-host a Syria Conference in London with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, to ensure that the international community delivers a significant increase in the provision of immediate and longer-term support to vulnerable Syrians in Syria, and to Syrian refugees and their host communities, including a focus on education and jobs.

Military Action

I believe that the UK should now join Coalition airstrikes against ISIL in Syria.

Coalition air strikes in Iraq, in which we are participating, are having an effect. With Coalition air support, Iraqi forces have halted ISIL’s advance and recovered 30% of the territory it had captured in Iraq. Only this month, Sinjar was liberated after last year’s ISIL rout and mass killing of Yazidis, with the help of vital RAF and other partners’ air support for Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the ground. Together with the RAF’s Reaper drones, RAF Tornadoes have flown more than 1,600 missions over Iraq and carried out over 360 air strikes. RAF aircraft have destroyed ISIL targets in Iraq, including: key positions holding up Iraqi Security Forces on the ground (e.g. the last remaining strongpoint in Rabiyah, which allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga to successfully liberate the town); large stockpiles of ammunition and explosives; several underground bunker and tunnel networks; and supply boats attempting to smuggle large quantities of ammunition down the Euphrates to isolated ISIL terrorists in Ramadi.

Military action is only one element of what is needed to defeat this appalling terrorist death cult. But it is a vital element: ISIL is not a threat that can be negotiated away. This is as true in Syria as it is in Iraq. On 20 November 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously called on Member States to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL, and to deny them safe haven in Syria and Iraq. The US and France are already acting on this appeal and have asked us to join them, as have our partners in the region. ISIL poses a clear threat to our own national security. We should not stand back and let others carry the burden and the risks of protecting our country.

There is a credible military strategy to defeat ISIL in Syria, as well as in Iraq. We should not expect this to happen quickly. It will require patience and persistence. But it is achievable. While the political track progresses, the Coalition’s military strategy aims to stop ISIL’s advance through the air campaign, to strike them in their heartland and to put them under pressure by continuing to degrade and dismantle their economic and military capability. This military effort helps put ISIL on the defensive, suppressing their ability to conduct external attacks against the UK and our friends and allies. Military defeat will demonstrate clearly ISIL’s inability to build and hold the ‘caliphate’ they aspire to. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.

We have increasingly been confronted by a significant handicap in our ability to respond to the ISIL threat: the fact that British Forces are currently restricted to taking direct military action against ISIL only in Iraq. This restriction has never made military sense. ISIL does not recognise the border between Syria and Iraq; it operates in a single ungoverned space that straddles both countries. Its practical and ideological headquarters are in Raqqa in Eastern Syria from where it conducts its attack planning, operations and recruitment. Hence the importance of the UK joining military action against ISIL in Syria.

Extending UK strikes to Syria would be a significant and welcome contribution to Coalition operations, adding our extensive capabilities to a renewed effort to defeat ISIL. The skill of RAF pilots and the particular capabilities of UK aircraft mean that we are able to conduct the most complex and precise strikes. Britain’s military have the experience and expertise to sustain our role in the campaign for as long as required to get the job done; few other nations can. It is for these reasons that our allies want us as part of the campaign in Syria.


There will be those who say that the UK might become more of a target by taking a greater role in the international effort to counter ISIL. The reality is that the threat posed by ISIL to the UK is already very high. ISIL already views the UK, along with other Western countries, as a legitimate target for its attacks. As part of the international Coalition, we are already carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Iraq, and providing refuelling, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to Coalition strikes in Syria.

These are complex foreign policy and security challenges. It is tempting to see the complexity of the Syria conflict as an excuse to avoid tackling ISIL there, and it is equally tempting to see the threat posed by ISIL as an excuse to avoid facing the realities of the Syria conflict. Neither approach is correct. I believe that we must tackle both the threat from ISIL and the Syria conflict in parallel, recognising the links but understanding the differences. On both, one thing is clear: the threats to our interests and to our people are such that we cannot afford to stand aside and not to act.

I believe that we should extend our military campaign against ISIL into Syria.




The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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