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The UK Isn't Bombing the Islamic State in Syria — but British Pilots Are

The UK's parliament voted against any military action in Syria two years ago, but the country's defense ministry today admitted that embedded British personnel are carrying out airstrikes there.
Photo by Christopher Lindahl/EPA

Britain's Ministry of Defense today admitted that its pilots have conducted air strikes on Islamic State (IS) militant targets in Syria while embedded with other military forces — even though the UK's parliament has only approved operations in neighboring Iraq.

Defense officials confirmed on Friday that pilots acting under the command of other forces, such as the United States and Canada, have conducted strikes following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the human rights group Reprieve.


In 2013, the House of Commons voted against any military action in Syria by 285 votes to 272.

"The UK itself is not conducting air strikes in Syria," the ministry said in a statement on Friday. "But we do have a long-standing embed program with allies, where small numbers of UK personnel act under the command of host nations."

The ministry claimed that there are currently no British pilots operating in the region, but added that "when embedded, UK personnel are effectively operating as foreign troops."

Related: Iraq Just Closed Their Border With Jordan To Battle the Islamic State

In a statement sent to VICE News, Reprieve — the organization who revealed the strikes — said that British personnel's participation in the strikes had happened "despite the government's claim that there would be a vote in parliament before any such action took place."

Reprieve's FOI found that UK personnel embedded with US and other forces "operating in Syrian airspace," "include pilots flying…strike missions."

Jennifer Gibson, a staff attorney at Reprieve, said that the documents seen by the NGO indicate that this behavior had been going on for some time, "making the current debate over whether Britain should carry out such strikes somewhat obsolete. It is alarming that parliament and the public have been kept in the dark about this for so long.

"We need an open and honest debate about UK involvement in Iraq and Syria. We can't have that, though, until the UK comes clean about what actions its personnel are already undertaking," Gibson added.

Former chief of British air staff Michael Graydon told BBC Radio 4 that UK military members act for other forces in an "exchange program" that has existed for years.

"They're totally embedded in the operations of those squadrons," Graydon said. "They bring, I think, great credit to our nation in that process and equally they learn a great deal which they bring back to the country and they're with those squadrons for two, up to three years."

Related: The Islamic State (Full Length)

The Associated Press contributed to this report.