In Brief

Syria 'planning a new chemical attack', US claims

White House warns President Bashar al-Assad he will 'pay a heavy price' if strike goes ahead

PM defends 'secretive' UK  military involvement in Syria

13 January

David Cameron has clashed with senior MPs who accused him of hiding details about the UK's military operation in Syria.

Appearing at the Commons liaison committee yesterday, the Prime Minister was grilled about his claims that there are 70,000 "non-extremist" opposition fighters in Syria.

Cameron admitted the number included some "relatively hard-line Islamists" and added: "They are not all the sort of people you would bump into at a Liberal Democrat Party conference."

However, he refused to give the politicians more details, arguing that would be akin to giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "a list of the groups and the people and potentially the areas he should be targeting".

Cameron also defended a decision to keep some information under wraps about the drone strike in Syria that killed Britons Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin.

The clashes were "heated" with "bad-tempered exchanges", says Jon Craig, chief political correspondent at Sky News, who called it "a secrecy row" over British operations.

"At times Mr Cameron appeared tetchy and rattled as the committee's chairman, senior Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, repeatedly urged him to make more information available to the public and MPs," he adds.

At one point, under pressure from Tyrie to give parliament's intelligence and security committee unlimited access to information about drone-strike killings, Cameron banged on the table and told him: "The government is engaged in a military operation against terrorists who are trying to attack the UK. If you don't think there is a cell of people in Raqqa trying to attack this country, you don't know what you are talking about."

The Prime Minister did, however, agree to reflect on a request from Labour MP Harriet Harman to implement written guidelines governing drone attacks.

Will UK support Muslim 'ground army' in Syria?

16 December

Britain will support the newly-formed Muslim nations ground army against Islamic State (IS), the Daily Telegraph predicted this morning.

In a move that could see the UK dragged deeper into the conflict in Syria, the British military is expected to provide command and control, intelligence and air support to troops from the new coalition of Muslim nations against IS jihadis.

Last night, the coalition of 34 largely Sunni Muslim nations announced it was planning to send special forces into Syria to help defeat IS fighters. Military sources told the Telegraph that British forces would have to provide support for the coalition.

Prime Minister David Cameron has welcomed the formation of the bloc but refuses to comment on whether Britain will offer it military support. However, the UK already has some special forces in place in Syria, providing training and co-ordinating the 'spotters' who call in air strikes.

Some commentators, such as Sky News foreign affairs editor Sam Kiley, have warned that the Saudi-led coalition could lead to more conflict, particularly if Iran, which is not a member, forms a rival Shi'ite bloc.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that IS is eyeing up potentially vulnerable oil assets in Libya and elsewhere outside its Syria stronghold. The terror group already controls roughly 80 per cent of the oil and gas fields in Syria, according to a senior US official.

The anonymous official said Washington is carefully examining who controls oil fields, pipelines, trucking routes and other infrastructure in vulnerable areas, including Libya and the Sinai Peninsula.

"[IS militants] are looking at the oil assets in Libya and elsewhere. We'll be prepared," the official said.

Syria: the case for and against sending in ground troops

08 December

The Syrian government says three of its soldiers were killed yesterday in an air strike on a military camp – the first in which regime forces were apparently targeted.

Both Russia and the US are investigating the incident, which draws attention to the two parallel wars taking place in Syria: one in the air and one on the ground.

While there's little agreement between groups opposed to British air strikes and those who seek more extensive engagement in Syria, one argument unites them: that aerial bombardment alone cannot win the war. But would the West ever commit ground troops?

The case for sending in soldiers

The case for deploying troops in Syria is not difficult to make. It is widely argued that IS can no longer be fought with air strikes: observers say the militants have adapted to them, with many fighters seeking refuge in underground tunnels or blending with civilians to protect themselves from missiles.

Writing for The Independent, Patrick Cockburn says IS have a deliberately decentralised command structure, making aerial bombing futile. "Talk of destroying Isis command-and-control centres in Raqqa is wishful thinking," he says, "given that 2,934 American air strikes in Syria have failed to do so over the last 14 months."

Finally, the gun battles fought and won by the Kurdish YPG show that ground assaults can be effective. Their victory in Kobani in November 2014, or the cutting off of the Highway 47 supply route last month, were the result of fierce ground battles coupled with aerial support.

Without ground troops, it is nearly impossible to reclaim territory. But whose troops would they be?

The case against

Protracted and costly campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the West reluctant to put 'boots on the ground'. Such is the lack of appetite for a ground war that it was specifically ruled out when the UK voted to extend air strikes into Syria last week.

Another reason the West is reluctant was outlined by Barack Obama on Sunday. Western troops on holy Muslim lands would be a propaganda coup for the jihadi cause. "That's what groups like Isil want," he said. "They know they can't defeat us on the battlefield."

New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi says one of IS's key beliefs is that establishing a caliphate will lead to the apocalypse – an epochal battle with 'infidel' armies in Syria. Many Western analysts believe that sending troops would only strengthen the appetite for violence.

 

Syria: MoD officials 'concerned about PM's 70,000 rebels claim'

04 December

Senior military officials were reluctant for David Cameron to declare that 70,000 Syrian rebels were ready to help destroy Islamic State, according to The Times.

Citing British intelligence, David Cameron revealed the figure in parliament last week as he attempted to convince MPs to back his call for air strikes.

But even the Tory chairman of the Defence Committee Julian Lewis said the figure was "magical". The so-called moderate opposition fighters are not a united force, and many are preoccupied with fighting the army of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad rather than IS, said critics.

One senior Whitehall source told The Times that Ministry of Defence officials were concerned that the 70,000 declaration would become Cameron's "dodgy dossier" moment, referring to the scandal over Tony Blair's push for war in Iraq.

Blair's claim that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes was later shown to be false and appears to still be haunting officials at the MoD.

"There were Ministry of Defence officials who maybe felt scarred after the previous dossier," a senior Whitehall source told The Times. "They looked at the latest text and said that [the 70,000 figure] could become the '45 minutes' moment of this document."

Military officials were apparently not worried about the validity of the claim, but had voiced fears about declaring a specific figure, a defence force said.

Downing Street said that the figure was produced independently by the Joint Intelligence Committee. A spokeswoman said: "The Ministry of Defence did not raise concerns with No 10 on whether this figure should be included in the prime minister's response to the foreign affairs committee."

The UK launched air strikes on a Syrian oil field one hour after parliament voted in favour of military action. The number of British warplanes at RAF Akrotiri has also been doubled to 16.

Cameron has warned that the operation will require "patience". He added: "This is going to take time. It is complex and it is difficult what we are asking our pilots to do, and our thoughts should be with them and their families as they commence this important work."

UK launches first air strikes in Syria after MPs vote for action

3 December

MPs have voted to approve military action against Islamic State in Syria, with four RAF Tornados carrying out their first air strikes overnight.

The jets took off from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, each with three Paveway bombs, within hours of MPs authorising UK action against IS, by 397 votes to 223.

The vote followed a ten-hour debate in the House of Commons, in which MPs made impassioned cases for both sides of the debate.

Seven Tory MPs rebelled against the government to vote against the air strikes, while 66 Labour MPs voted for military action, despite the views of their leader.

Jeremy Corbyn said the case for war did "not stack up" but it was a speech by his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn that moved MPs from both sides of the chamber to tears and applause.

Addressing his own party directly, Benn said: "We must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria."

Foreign secretary Philip Hammond even described it as "one of the great speeches to be given in this House of Commons".

Hammond later welcomed the vote, claiming that Britain was "safer because of the actions taken by MPs today". He added: "Military strikes alone won't help Syria, won't keep us safe from Daesh. But this multi-strand approach will."

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the word Daesh would now be used in all official references to the extremist group, arguing that the name Islamic State only serves to legitimise their aims.

This morning, defence secretary Michael Fallon said the overnight air strikes had targeted the Omar oil fields in eastern Syria, which is under IS control. The Ministry of Defence will be assessing the damage caused by the bombs later, but the aim was to strike "a very real blow on the oil and revenue on which Daesh depends", said Fallon.

Syria air strikes vote: three questions that need answering

2 December

MPs will embark on a 'marathon' ten-hour debate today ahead of a vote on whether to extend RAF air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. But according to the SNP, key questions remain unanswered. Commentators have identified three issues that must be addressed before the UK extends its air campaign against IS:

What evidence is there that '70,000 moderate' Syrian fighters exist?

Citing British intelligence, David Cameron has claimed that there are about 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters who could help take the fight on the ground to IS alongside a bombing campaign. But the view remains contentious. Even the Tory chairman of the Defence Committee Julian Lewis said the figure was "magical", while The Independent's Robert Fisk suggested the number had been airbrushed onto the map of Syria and that Cameron would be lucky to find 70. The prime minister said it was the estimate of the Joint Intelligence Committee, but he should expect this figure to come under microscopic scrutiny today.

What is the plan for Assad and how does this not become another Iraq or Libya?

The motion to be debated today puts "post-conflict stabilisation" and "reconstruction in Syria" among its main priorities. These, of course, were major failings in the UK's previous interventions in Iraq and Libya. But it is unclear how exactly reconstruction will work while the current Syrian government has, according to The Guardian's Jason Burke, "killed at least 200,000 of its own people, far more than IS has done".

Moreover, if IS truly is a global threat with potential new recruits in every part of the world, where does this mission end? What will success look like? And what is the wider plan for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who, let's not forget, is an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin?

What does Britain bring to the Syria campaign that others do not?

American, Russian, French and possibly soon German bombs will be among those raining down on IS targets in Syria. But what does Britain bring that the others do not? Much has been made of the UK's weapon capabilities – not least the laser-guided Brimstone missile. But IS militants are said to have a network of underground tunnels that such weaponry cannot penetrate. Plus, as The Guardian points out, the use of Brimstone missiles in Iraq led to terrorists positioning themselves within the civilian population – which negates their usefulness entirely.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that her party will be opposing air strikes, saying bombing on its own will not rid the threat of terrorism. A YouGov poll for The Times shows that public support for air strikes has also dropped from 59 per cent to 48 per cent. The proportion of people opposed to air strikes increased from 20 per cent to 31 per cent, with 21 per cent undecided. By midnight we will know what the rest of the House of Commons thinks.

Commons to hold vote on launching air strikes on Syria

1 December

Parliament is expected to vote tomorrow on whether the UK should launch air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Prime minister David Cameron is said to be confident that military action will be approved after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn decided to allow his MPs a free vote on the issue. First, Cameron will have to ask his cabinet to endorse the debate and vote in a meeting today.

In a televised statement, Cameron said he believed there is "growing support across parliament" for the "compelling case" to act against IS in Iraq and Syria. Several newspapers suggest that RAF bombs could therefore fall on IS targets in Raqqa by the end of the week.

Corbyn had requested a two-day debate, but Cameron wants the vote to take place in one day on Wednesday. In response, Corbyn accused the prime minister of "bulldozing" a matter of national security through the Commons "for political convenience".

The Labour leader is still expected to argue against air strikes but other Labour MPs, such as shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, will be able to argue for military action without resigning from the shadow cabinet.

Tom Watson, deputy Labour leader, is said to be for air strikes. However, he wanted Cameron to delay the vote so that ministers could address the continuing doubts of Labour MPs.

According to The Guardian, about 60 Labour MPs support air strikes, which is enough to ensure the Prime Minister has a Commons majority of more than 100.

"Isis poses a very direct threat to the United Kingdom – and as we have already seen in Iraq, British air strikes can play a key role in degrading them; but they are only part of a comprehensive strategy for Syria," said Cameron.

He added: "This strategy must include the international community working together to find a political solution to the turmoil in Syria, a continuation of our extensive humanitarian efforts and a clear commitment to post-conflict reconstruction of Syria."

It has been more than two years since the Coalition motion to take military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was defeated by 285 votes to 272.

Cameron pushes to join war in Syria with Islamic State warning

26 November

David Cameron will today make the case for extending military action against Islamic State in Syria, warning that the militants are plotting terrorist attacks in the UK.

The prime minister hopes to stage a quick Commons vote on extending air strikes from Iraq to Syria next week, says The Guardian.

However, the Scottish National Party has suggested that it might oppose the new military action, meaning that Labour's decision on the vote will be crucial.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has indicated his opposition to military intervention, is facing mounting pressure to allow his MPs a free vote on the issue.

"It's clear that [Cameron] would like to see air strikes before the end of the year, but will only call a Commons vote if he is confident of victory," says Iain Watson, a political correspondent for the BBC. "The reaction to his statement could determine whether that vote is ever held."

Cameron is expected to tell MPs: "Decisions to use force are not to be taken lightly.

"It is right that Parliament, on behalf of the people, asks difficult questions and holds the government to account."

The prime minister will respond to a Foreign Affairs Committee report, which outlines the conditions that should be met before air strikes are considered. This includes a "coherent international strategy" on combating IS and putting an end to Syria's civil war.

Accordingly, Cameron is expected to say that any military action would be part of a wider seven-point plan for dealing with IS and Syria that includes more counter-terrorism measures in the UK and providing humanitarian support to Syrians.

In yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions, Cameron suggested that the Free Syrian Army and Kurdish troops could work with the UK to "help eliminate" IS.

"We have to deny a safe haven for ISIL in Syria," he is expected to say today in the House of Commons. "The longer ISIL is allowed to grow in Syria, the greater the threat it will pose."

PM signals support for Syria strikes ahead of defence review

23 November

David Cameron has met with French President Francois Hollande this morning to discuss the European response to the Paris attacks, before he returns to London to outline the UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The UK government is expected to pledge an additional £12bn for defence equipment, including a new fleet of maritime patrol aircraft, with the priority of tackling state-based threats and terrorism, including Islamic State.

In a press briefing with Hollande in Paris this morning, Cameron said he firmly believed that military action against IS was justified and that the "world was coming together" to fight the militants.

The meeting with Hollande comes in the wake of the 13 November Islamic State attacks in Paris, which left 130 people dead. Police are still hunting for the prime suspect, with Brussels on the highest level of terror alert.

Speaking at the Elysee, Cameron said: "I firmly support the action that President Hollande has taken to strike Isil in Syria and it is my firm conviction that Britain do the same."

The UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review, due to be published today, is expected to increase the ratio of troops ready to deploy anywhere in the world, with the creation of two 5,000-strong "strike brigades" over the next decade. The acquisition of 42 stealth fighter jets will also be accelerated.

The review comes amid "firm signs" that parliament is ready to sanction air strikes against IS in Syria, says The Times. Cameron is expected to set out his strategy for countering IS in Syria on Thursday, although it is not yet known when a parliamentary vote might take place.

The newspaper says the review "includes positive measures" but warns that the "promising aspects must not be allowed to cloud the very real risks of a hollowed-out military".

While the extra funds will take total defence spending to £178bn over the next decade, The Independent notes that it is also likely to be "offset by other cuts". Many government departments are destined to face further reductions in George Osborne's Autumn Statement on Wednesday, including policing.

David Cameron to set out strategy for UK strikes in Syria

17 November

Days after the Paris attacks that left 129 people dead, David Cameron has said he will set out a "comprehensive strategy" for tackling Islamic State and for carrying out airstrikes in Syria.

A House of Commons vote on extending the RAF's mission from Iraq into neighbouring Syria was widely expected to take place by the end of the year. Then earlier this month Whitehall sources claimed that Cameron had scrapped plans to hold the vote due to a lack of parliamentary support.

Downing Street strongly denied the claims, but the prospect of a parliamentary vote was not seriously raised until today, when Cameron told the Commons that there was a "compelling case" for extending military action in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Prime Minister said it was time to "do the right thing for our country", and strike the "head of the snake" at IS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

"We cannot expect, we should not expect, others to carry the burdens and risks of protecting our country," he said.

However, Cameron has promised that military action in Syria will not take place without Parliament's consent, and this is by no means guaranteed.

Two years ago MPs vetoed military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime following a chemical weapons attack. In September last year, parliament supported military action against IS in Iraq, but Cameron did not propose airstrikes in Syria, and promised that any future proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote.

Following the terror attack in Tunisia, Labour sources suggested that they would not rule out supporting airstrikes in Syria. However, Jeremy Corbyn has since been elected leader of the party and he opposes military action in Syria.

According to The Independent, he has made it clear that Labour MPs should not expect a free vote over airstrikes, potentially posing a headache for Cameron or, perhaps, for his own leadership.

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