British jets and drones to operate in Syrian skies, David Cameron says

In September the UK Parliament authorized airstrikes in Iraq, but not Syria. The prime minister's workaround involves surveillance aircraft that will not use weapons.

US Air Force/AP/file
The British defense ministry announced on Tuesday that it would "very shortly" start surveillance missions over Syria using Reaper drones, seen here, and Rivet Joint spy planes.

British military drones and spy planes will begin carrying out surveillance missions over Syria, Britain’s defense secretary said Tuesday, deepening the UK’s roll in the fight against the self-described Islamic State.

In a letter to Parliament, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon assured lawmakers that the aircraft “are not authorized to use weapons,” a step that would require further permission, the BBC reports.

Mr. Fallon said the unmanned Royal Air Force Reaper drones and Rivet Joint spy planes would start operations “very shortly.” He said both aircrafts “will be authorized to fly surveillance missions over Syria to gather intelligence as part of our efforts to protect our national security from the terrorist threat emanating from there.”

The British Parliament voted in September to approve airstrikes against IS forces in Iraq. But a lack of parliamentary support has stopped Prime Minister David Cameron from authorizing similar action in Syria, the Wall Street Journal reports.

For many lawmakers, the situation in Syria appears less clear-cut and there are concerns about the legal basis as intervention isn’t at the request of the government—as it is in Iraq.

Mr. Cameron has said he fully supports the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria and has indicated that U.K. involvement could ultimately spread to Syria, but has acknowledged it is a more complicated situation than Iraq …

The government doesn’t require parliamentary approval to take military action, but it could be politically tricky to do so without it. Mr. Cameron has said that if there was a need to take urgent action to protect British interests, he would order that and afterward consult Parliament.

Cameron didn’t seek parliamentary approval for the planned surveillance operations. An unnamed deputy official spokeswoman told the Guardian that Parliament had not been consulted prior to the announcement because such operations didn’t amount to military action.

The spokeswoman repeated the prime minister's promise to consult Parliament before authorizing military action in Syria when pressed by the Guardian on whether the surveillance missions were a step in that direction. 

“This is about looking at the nature of the conflict, looking at the nature of the assets we have, and thinking: how can we best deploy those to support our efforts to protect the UK and keep British people safe?” she said.

Last year, Parliament delivered an embarrassing blow to Cameron when it rejected his request to join in airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The Independent, a London-based newspaper, reports that “the decision to fly over Syrian territory is certain to lead to charges of ‘mission creep’ and opposition in some quarters of Parliament.”

Several Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who voted for the Iraq operation indicated that they would object to moving it on to Syria.

Some of the MPs have questioned the validity of military action in Syria under international law, pointing out that the Iraqi government has asked for help from the US-led coalition, but Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, has not.

The surveillance missions will make Britain the first Western country aside from the United States to conduct operations against IS in Syria. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar have all contributed aircraft to US-led missions there, including airstrikes.

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