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Greater transparency and a grand strategy needed to defeat DAESH

21 September 2016

The Defence Committee publishes its report into UK military operations in Syria and Iraq. The report examines the nature of DAESH, the threat posed by DAESH affiliates and the role played by the UK military, diplomatic and aid efforts in achieving the International Coalition's strategic goals.

Report findings

The report welcomes the progress made in terms of the land retaken from DAESH and the UK's military training effort in Iraq. However, it raises concerns about the lack of progress of the political strategy in both the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts.

UK air strikes

The report provides a comprehensive assessment of the air effort in both Syria and Iraq. That work demonstrates that since December 2015, UK airstrikes have been predominately in Iraq (550) with a far smaller number in Syria (65). Furthermore, only a minority of the 65 UK air strikes in Syria appear to be in support of opposition forces on the ground.

Syrian opposition groups

The report also assesses the Syrian opposition groups identified by the UK Government as partners on the ground and the resultant difficulties of a military campaign based predominantly on air power. Despite extensive correspondence with the Ministry of Defence, the Committee was unable to obtain the Government's list of which groups the UK was supporting in Syria.

In the absence of an official list, we have had to rely on information provided by outside organisations. Whilst there was a degree of overlap in the groups identified in those lists, there was not a consensus on the political or religious motivations of those groups.


The report questions whether the Government's policy instruments are sufficiently integrated with the International Coalition's strategy and whether the strategy has the flexibility to meet the changing nature of the conflict in the Middle East.

The report concludes that the phenomenon of DAESH is indicative of a wider problem and recommends that the Government sets out how it intends to counter new threats—whether they manifest themselves as a DAESH affiliate in Africa or South East Asia or as another group entirely, such as the former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al Sham.

Report's recommendations

Among the Report's recommendations are:

DAESH and the threat posed by DAESH affiliates

  • "The UK and Coalition's strategy to counter DAESH is predominately focused on Iraq and Syria; and relies on the removal of territory from DAESH in order to eliminate it. That is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy. If DAESH transforms itself into an international movement or a network of affiliates—like al-Qaeda before it—which can survive the loss of territory, the UK Government approach will need to adapt. For example, if DAESH is defeated in the Middle East but then grows strong in Africa, the current strategy will require major revision."

The UK military effort

  • "It is disappointing that the MoD has been unable to provide us with the full statistical analysis of UK airstrikes in Syria which we requested. Their inability to do so for understandable reasons, nonetheless may tend to undermine the Government’s assertion that the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces (apart from the Kurds) which was one of the key elements of its argument for extending the UK's campaign against DAESH to that country."
  • "In Iraq it is clear that air operations have been effective in reclaiming territory, despite the adaptation of DAESH tactics to counter that threat. This is because of their role in supporting identifiable local ground forces which are able to take and hold territory. The air operation in Syria is much smaller mainly because of a lack of partners on the ground, other than Kurdish forces, which can benefit from that support. Also in Iraq, the UK training effort appears to be both effective and substantial. Over a third of troops trained by the Coalition have received this training from UK military personnel. The expansion of training offered by UK troops means that the UK now has a presence at all of the Iraqi training bases. In the gifting of equipment, the length of time that it has taken for the UK Government to re-supply Peshmerga forces with ammunition for machine-guns it previously supplied, is also of great concern."

Armed actors in Syria

  • "The Government's case for extending UK military operations to Syria was based on a strategy of supporting the 70,000 moderate opposition forces identified by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. We have sought to test this figure in terms of both numbers and orientation. We understand why the Government have been unable to provide a list of the groups, since that would risk providing useful intelligence to the Assad regime. However, we have relied upon outside organisations who have published such lists and most, if not all, the individual groups have as a result, already been identified. That information is in the public domain which means that the groups will already be known to the Assad regime."
  • "Two years into the military campaign to counter the threat from DAESH, we are seeing the impact of the UK effort in the International Coalition. Whilst the military effort in Iraq is bearing fruit, that is much less certain in Syria. We believe this is partly due to the aspirations of the UK Government in respect of each country. The goals in Iraq are to remove territory from DAESH, to strengthen the Iraqi Government and to maintain Iraq as a unitary state. The goals in Syria are not only to defeat DAESH, but also to help bring into being a Government which will be neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other. These goals cannot be accomplished by military means alone."

UK strategy in Middle East and wider strategy against extremism

  • "The argument that it must be a local force—not a Western one—which takes and holds territory has been borne out by previous experiences of intervention. Such a strategy (western air power and local ground troops) is reliant on political progress alongside military achievement. Whilst the progress in the military campaign to counter DAESH is beginning to gain momentum, the same cannot be said for the progress of political reform. A lack of political reform in Iraq, let alone Syria, may well undermine the military progress to date, removing the threat of DAESH only for it to be replaced by other groups posing similar or even greater threats."

Changing the way we intervene

  • "It is clear that recent interventions have required much more than mere military campaigns. There have been criticisms of levels of engagement in the political sphere in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria too. It is also clear that there is no single formula for success but that understanding the local political and cultural context, as well as the nature of the situation on the ground, is absolutely essential. We welcome the emergence of a new doctrine that extends thinking about intervention to include other actors such as aid agencies, NGOs and the private sector. The 'whole-of-Government' approach, epitomised by the National Security Council, is clearly an improvement on the management of previous interventions. However, despite that innovation, a number of concerns have been raised about interventions that have taken place since the National Security Council was created. This indicates that there are still flaws and weaknesses in the system. Some of these were identified in our predecessor Committee's Report (HC 682) on 'Decision-making in Defence Policy', published in March 2015."

Chair's comments

Dr Julian Lewis, Chair of the Defence Committee, stated:

"Whilst substantial progress in eliminating DAESH is clearly being achieved in Iraq, the situation in Syria is far more complex. Assuming DAESH is squeezed out of both countries, we have to focus too on what happens next—both in other countries to which DAESH may migrate, and in Syria especially where there is no shortage of other Islamist groups, just as dangerous, which are planning to take control."

Further information