Britain indicates new approach in Syria

Friday 18/09/2015
Shoot to kill. A 2014 jihadist propaganda picture shows British jihadists Reyaad Khan (L), Abu Muthanna al-Yemeni (C), and Ruhul Amin (R).

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.