Britain indicates new approach in Syria
London - British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated a radical shift in the United Kingdom’s policy towards Syria after authorising drone strikes against British citizens fighting for the Islamic State (ISIS) amid reports that the government has a “kill list” containing names of British nationals fighting abroad.
British citizens Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed in a British drone strike on August 21st near Raqqa in Syria, Cameron announced on September 7th. This was the first time the government admitted to targeting British citizens in a foreign country.
The killings were authorised by Britain’s National Security Council, with Cameron conceding that a “number of individuals” were identified as posing a threat to British national security.
Cameron said the strikes were legally justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which provides the basis for nations to defend themselves against imminent attack. Although parliament has not authorised air strikes in Iraq, the UK government contends that this was not required as the drone hits were acts of self-defence.
Speaking before parliament on September 8th, Cameron said Khan and Amin had been directing planned terrorist attacks against Britain. “We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action,” he said.
One day later, Cameron told MPs that Britain has no choice but to use “hard military force” in Syria to defeat ISIS.
“Assad has to go, ISIS has to go and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but it will on occasion require hard military force,” Cameron said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Senior UK ministers defended the government’s new stance in Syria. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the government “wouldn’t hesitate” to carry out drone strikes against British jihadists abroad, while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that it was “incoherent” to carry out air strikes against ISIS in Iraq but not Syria.
However, the government came under fire from opponents from two directions for carrying out strikes in Syria that parliament had not authorised and for targeting Britons abroad. Cameron has refused to release the legal advice the government used to carry out the air strikes.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against air strikes in Iraq, criticised the government’s killing of the jihadists. “The prime minister has some very difficult questions to answer about the legality of what he did,” he said.
Human rights group Rights Watch (UK) called for the government to publish the legal advice on which it based its decision to order the drone strike.
“These strikes set a dangerous precedent for UK government activity. The UK government can now kill at will with no oversight. If the only oversight for these actions is internal confidential government legal advice, which the British public never gets to see, that is no oversight at all,” said Yasmine Ahmed, director of Rights Watch (UK).
Reports of a government “kill list” raised questions about whether Cameron intends to pursue a harder line on ISIS.
“It appears that the UK is adopting a broader and more expansive vision of what the right of self-defence means, which connects to the approach taken by the US in its ‘global war on terror’,” Philippe Sands QC, a professor of law at University College London, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“It appears to be a departure from established British practice in the use of force in self-defence.”
Legal expert David Allen Green also raised concerns about the legality of the drone attack in an article in the Financial Times. “Article 51 is not a general ‘licence to kill’ terrorists on sight wherever in the world they may be found,” he wrote.