Remote control vs Islamic State: a new phase

Britain's drone-killing of two of its ctizens in Syria sets a precedent with implications for states and conflicts elsewhere in the world.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 September 2015

The pace of events in the western military campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria-Iraq is making even recent assessments look singularly dated (see, for example, "Air war vs Islamic State: myth and reality" [28 August 2015]). For there have sInce been developments in three spheres: within the ISIS campaign, the western air war, and - the United Kingdom's use of targeted killings by armed drones (which, though revealed this week, took place on 21 August).

While the first two elements are important, it is likely that the third will have much longer-lasting effects. In that sense, this British change of policy - closely resembling United States actions in a range of countries since drone technology made these possible - may be seen in future as a turning-point. 

First, on the ISIS front, the movement has made a number of gains. The retaking of part of the Iraqi town of Baiji, close to a large oil-refinery and the scene of intensive conflict, is notable. Even more so because the Iraqi government had regarded the expulsion of ISIS from most of Baiji as a much-needed success, and because the Iraqi side involved Shi’a militias backed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops.

This ISIS advance was followed by another, the takeover of the last military facility held by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s Idlib province. The Abu Zuhour air-base had been under siege by ISIS paramilitaries for the best part of two years, and they have now successfully evicted the last of the Syrian government’s forces (see "Insurgents Capture Army Air Base in Northwestern Syria”, AP, 9 September 2015). ISIS has also moved towards the key town of Merea, close to the Turkish border, where credible reports say that the defenders are struggling to maintain control. If ISIS does break through, it will control a supply-route of considerable value to the rebel groups it is fighting.

Perhaps the most unexpected (and scarcely reported) event is ISIS's claim that its “Caucasus Province” has announced its first attack on a Russian army camp, in southern Dagestan. Russian government sources had previously denied suggestions that the "Caucasus Emirate" (the group's previous name) was very active; they even seemed keen to encourage Russian jihadi recruits to head for Syria and Iraq. Instead, they now seem to be putting some of their energy into intensifying attacks within Russia itself.

Second, on the coalition side, Australia announced this week that it will start bombing targets in Syria, and France is considering doing the same. The growing refugee crisis in Europe appears to be producing a unity of purpose among coalition partners centred on increasing air-strikes against ISIS in Syria. As a result, much of the focus of the intense war in now on Syria rather than Iraq.

This includes a major linkage of the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in order to create a much-expanded targeted-killing programme focused on Syria, with an emphasis on the core of ISIS’s operations in and around the city of Raqqa.

Much of this expansion in the coalition’s war against the Islamists reflects an uncomfortable truth: an extensive air campaign since August 2014 has killed 15,000 ISIS supporters but failed to limit the group's capability.This factor may underlie the third important element of recent days: the British government’s decision to target UK citizens deemed to be planning attacks on the country from their positions with ISIS in Syria.

A strike of consequence

Such specific targeted killings, now a routine part of US strategy, have been very largely the work of the CIA. As a direct operation by the country's military, the British action is in this sense a departure. Its longer-term significance, though, lies more in the direction of "precedent setting". At present, only two countries have long-term experience of developing, deploying and using armed-drones over a decade or more: Israel and the United States. Both export their drones to friendly states. Britain has two squadrons of Reaper drones, with five drones in each squadron. The ones used in Syria were reportedly launched from Kuwait, but controlled by RAF crew at the Waddington base near the city of Lincoln in eastern England.

What is happening now is that more and more countries are seeking to have longer-range armed-drones. Chris Abbott’s Open Briefing group made an initial survey for the Remote Control Project in 2013 and, even then found that Russia, China, Turkey, India and Iran (among others) were all engaged in developing their own systems. In this context the UK precedent - of direct military use against its own citizens - could readily have an impact on the outlook of these states (see "Drone warfare: a global danger", 26 September 2013). 

UK government sources have said that Britain has a full legal right to carry out these targeted killings and that other countries also have such a right of self-defence. The implications are huge, since this thinking could be applied in many other areas of conflict. Within a few years, ten or more countries will have indigenous capabilities and will be able to point to American and especially British actions.

What this means, for example, is that Russia could readily argue that it had the full right to target Russian citizens in Ukraine, Belarus or elsewhere if there was no means of extraditing them. If at some time in the future Russia demands that the UK government hands over dissidents regarded as direct threats to the state, and if Britain refuses, then Russia might claim the right to carry out targeted assassinations in the UK. The same could apply to China in Myanmar, Thailand or Vietnam; or Turkey against PKK elements in Iraq; or indeed Iran against a claimed terrorist group also in Iraq.

This is a whole new reality, with few indications that any coalition partner - still less the US or UK - has even begun to think it through. Its escalation of "remote-control warfare" may turn out to be one of the most influential events in this phase of the world's wars.

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