Amid COVID-19, Brexit, and an ongoing economic crisis, the UK appears to be winding down its deadly Middle East bombing campaign. So where to next for the RAF?
The UK’s involvement in the U.S.-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has slowly and quietly wound down over the last few months. Official figures show that the UK hasn’t dropped a single bomb as part of this campaign since September last year.
However, where those bombs have caused significant civilian harm is still uncertain, even after some of these sites have been investigated. According to the data, 4,215 bombs and missiles were launched from Reaper drones or RAF jets in Syria and Iraq over a five-year period. Despite the number of munitions and the lengthy timeframe in which they were deployed, the UK has only admitted to one civilian casualty in the entire conflict.
The UK’s account is directly contradicted by numerous sources, including its closest wartime ally, the United States. The U.S.-led coalition has estimated that its airstrikes have caused 1,370 civilian casualties, and has distinctly stated it has credible evidence that civilian casualties have ensued in bombings involving RAF bombers.
The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) hasn’t actually visited a single site in Iraq or Syria to investigate allegations of civilian casualties. Instead, the coalition relies heavily on aerial footage to determine if civilians have been killed, even while knowing that aerial footage would not be able to identify civilians buried beneath the rubble. This has allowed the MOD to conclude that it has reviewed all of the available evidence but has “seen nothing that indicates civilian casualties were caused.”
UK-induced civilian deaths: what we know so far
There are at least three RAF airstrikes that have been tracked by Airwars, a UK based not-for-profit organization that tracks the air war against ISIS, predominantly in Iraq and Syria. One of the sites in Mosul, Iraq, was visited by the BBC in 2018 after it became aware civilian casualties were likely. Following this investigation, the U.S. admitted that two civilians were “unintentionally killed.”
In another site struck by British bombers in Raqqa, Syria, the U.S. military readily admitted that 12 civilians were “unintentionally killed” and six “unintentionally injured” as a result of the blast. The UK has issued no such admission.
Despite this confirmation from the leading arm of the coalition, the UK has remained adamant that the available evidence has not demonstrated civilian harm caused by its reaper drones or RAF jets. The UK has insisted it wants “hard proof” which is an even greater standard of evidence than that of the United States.
“While we’re not aware of specific UK cases beyond the four detailed [including the UK’s one confirmed event],” Chris Woods, director of Airwars told MintPressNews via email, “we’ve alerted MoD to more than 100 potential UK civilian harm events in recent years. While a proportion turned out not to be RAF strikes, we remain concerned about many possible further cases.”
Woods also added:
Our investigation shows the UK continues to clear itself of civilian deaths from RAF strikes — even where the US-led Coalition determines such events to be credible. In effect, the Ministry of Defence has set the investigative bar so high that it’s currently impossible for them to admit casualties. This systemic failing is a gross misjustice to those Iraqis and Syrians who have paid the ultimate price in the war against ISIS.”
The fact that UK bombers were active in Mosul speaks volumes as to how deep this deception runs. While the U.S.-led coalition downplayed deaths in Mosul (and often blamed them on ISIS), a special AP report found that during the U.S.-led mission, some 9,000 to 11,000 civilians had died, nearly ten times what had been previously reported in the media. The number of deaths found by AP was still relatively conservative, as it did not take into account the dead still buried underneath the rubble.
The elephant in the corporate media’s room
The presence of U.S., UK or any coalition troops, personnel, jets or drones in Syria’s sovereign territory is questionable at best, and outright illegal at worst. How the UK legally justifies its military presence in a sovereign country is still unclear, but as far as Syria’s president is concerned, all foreign troops uninvited by the government have invaded the country.
Leaked audio of then-secretary of state John Kerry confirmed the U.S. knew their presence in Syria was illegal, yet to this day nothing has been done to address this. Speaking to Syrian opposition members at a meeting at the Dutch Mission to the UN, Kerry said:
… And we don’t have the basis – our lawyers tell us – unless we have the U.N. Security Council Resolution, which the Russians can veto, and the Chinese, or unless we are under attack from the folks there, or unless we are invited in. Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime – well it’s illegitimate in our mind – but by the regime. And so they were invited in and we are not invited in. We’re flying in airspace there where they can turn on the air defenses and we would have a very different scene. The only reason they are letting us fly is because we are going after ISIL. If we were going after Assad, those air defenses, we would have to take out all the air defenses, and we don’t have the legal justification, frankly, unless we stretch it way beyond the law.” [emphasis added]
Even if the U.S.-UK entry into Syria could be justified on legal grounds, the effects of this campaign were nothing short of criminal. In mid-2018, Amnesty International released a report which described the onslaught as a U.S.-led “war of annihilation,” having visited 42 coalition airstrikes sites across the city of Raqqa.
Most credible estimates of the damage done to Raqqa indicate that the U.S. left at least 80 percent of it uninhabitable. One must also bear in mind that during this destruction, the U.S. cut a secret deal with “hundreds” of ISIS fighters and their families to leave Raqqa under the “gaze of the US and British-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city.”
As explained to MintPressNews by anti-war campaigner David Swanson:
The legalistic-ish justification for war on Syria has varied, never been clear, never been in the slightest convincing, but has focused on the war not really being a war. Of course it’s a violation of the UN Charter, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and the laws of Syria.”
Only people dumbed down or beaten down enough to accept the notion that you can bomb a country and not kill civilians could accept that it’s legal to do so.”
Where to next for the UK military?
With the continued, ongoing threat posed by COVID-19, Brexit, and a public and social economic crisis, the UK appears to have enough on its internal plate in the meantime. However, even under the leadership of David Cameron – a prime minister who believes his austerity measures were too soft – the UK still found the resources and funding needed to bomb Libya back tp the Stone Age in 2011.
The UK will likely always find a reason to follow the U.S. into war depending on the geopolitical significance of the battle arena. As public intellectual and MIT professor Noam Chomsky explained to MintPress via email “Brexit very likely will turn Britain into even more of a US vassal than it has been recently.” However, Chomsky noted that “much is unpredictable in these deeply troubled times” and indicated the UK did have a unique opportunity to take its fate into its own hands post-Brexit.
Swanson echoed Chomsky’s concern, advising that war under the leadership of Boris Johnson appears to be more, not less, likely. “There is a cardinal rule of corporate media,” Swanson explained, “Thou shalt not criticize a current racist sociopathic buffoon without glorifying a past one. Thus, we see Boris being compared with Winston [Churchill].”
The more likely scenario is that the UK will follow the recent U.S. doctrine of declaring the Indo-Pacific its “priority theatre” and winding down its wars in the Middle East and elsewhere on that basis.
At the end of 2018, the UK announced it was establishing diplomatic representation in Lesotho, Swaziland, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa Tonga and Vanuatu. With its existing representation in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG), the UK will likely have better reach than the U.S. in this region.
Earlier this year, the UK also opened its new mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesia. Further, the UK’s National Security Capability Review also noted that the “Asia-Pacific region is likely to become more important to us in the years ahead”, echoing a similar sentiment to that of the MOD’s Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence policy paper published in December 2018.
In 2018, it quietly deployed warships to the region for the first time in five years. The UK has also continued regular military exercises with Malaysian and Singaporean troops and maintains a military presence in Brunei and a logistics station in Singapore. There are even talks that the UK will seek to build a new base in the region.
The fact that a royal navy warship was challenged in the South China Sea by the Chinese military should give one an idea of where this is all headed.
As the rise of China in this region raises more challenges for the US-NATO establishment than Iraq and Syria will in the near future, we should expect the UK to divert more of its military resources and focus to this region in a bid to counter and confront China at every possible avenue.
Feature photo | Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is escorted by Station Commander Group Captain James Beckpast during a visit to Royal Air Force Marham, east England, Feb. 3, 2020. Richard Pohle | AP
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.