Will the UK Begin Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria?

By Ashley Deeks
Thursday, July 2, 2015, 5:31 PM

Prime Minister David Cameron is looking to do more in Syria against ISIS. Today his Minister of Defence, Michael Fallon, made the case before Parliament that the UK should participate in coalition airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria. The UK government’s renewed interest in undertaking airstrikes in Syria is driven largely by the attack last week on tourists in Tunisia, in which 29 or 30 of the 38 killed were Brits. (Officials are investigating links between the attacker and ISIS.) Cameron’s government also seems motivated by the idea that limiting uses of force to Iraqi soil makes little strategic sense when ISIS itself treats the Iraqi/Syria border as irrelevant.

Cameron is seeking Parliamentary approval before undertaking airstrikes in Syria, though Fallon noted that the UK could act without Parliament’s authorization if there is an imminent threat to the UK. This statement is relevant in evaluating the UK’s legal theory (or theories) for using force in Syria. One theory could be national self-defense. Cameron’s spokesperson today affirmed that it would be lawful under international law to conduct strikes against ISIS in Syria because of “the threat posed by ISIS to the British people.” Unless the UK treats the deaths of the 30 nationals as an armed attack on it by ISIS, however, the UK would have to determine that it faces an imminent threat of armed attack by the group and that Syria is unwilling or unable to suppress the threat. Fallon’s statement suggests that no imminent threat is pending.

An alternative theory (on which current UK operations including overflights of Syria and the training of the Free Syrian Army outside Syria are based) is collective self-defense. Fallon told Parliament, “Any action we are seeing in Syria is in aid of our operations to assist the government of Iraq.” This argument is consistent with the UK’s article 51 letter of late 2014, which asserted that the UK is acting in furtherance of Iraq’s right of self-defense. This theory also has an unwilling/unable determination embedded in it.

Cameron’s government may need to articulate more precisely its legal theory before Parliament is convinced. On the question of international legality, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt stated, “I don’t think it’s quite as clear as people have said it is. It’s easy to come in as the guest of the government in Iraq, at their invitation, in their country. It becomes slightly more questionable when you don’t have a United Nations security council resolution and you’re operating in another country.” It will be worth watching the parameters of the international law debate in the UK as Cameron’s proposal develops.