UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain is prepared to make a robust legal case for extending airstrikes against Islamic State beyond Iraq into Syria, with the backing of MPs.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Friday, Hammond said the government believes there is a strong legal basis for extending UK airstrikes into Syria.
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“We would look at the circumstances at the time,” Hammond said. “If we felt we had some capability to contribute that was needed in order to deliver the outcome that we all want to see, which is the defeat of [Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL] and its poisonous ideology, then we would certainly make the case for doing that if the circumstances were right.”
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Hammonds comments came ahead of Friday’s recall of parliament, where MPs debated a Commons motion calling for strikes against IS targets in Iraq. The motion specifically excluded airstrikes in Syria without a further vote.
The foreign secretary confirmed extending airstrikes into Syria would require a second parliamentary vote, but said the legal advice used by the US to underpin its airstrikes in Syria could be used by Britain.
“At the moment, the government of Iraq has asked us to intervene in Iraq,” Hammond said. “It is clear that the US intervening in Syria is also able to do so on a legal basis of collective self-defence because the government of Iraq has identified that there is a present threat to Iraq coming from Syria.
“We haven’t looked at this in terms of our own permissions … because we are not proposing to do it. That is the legal basis that the US is relying on. It looks robust to me.”
Deployment of UK troops for combat operations is ruled out by Friday’s parliamentary motion. However, the motion does permit the deployment of special forces and intelligence personnel, as well as trainers, to help bolster Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told House Magazine earlier this week that the war against IS would be “a long haul” that may require action against militants in Syria if MPs can be convinced.
The government is not currently proposing any involvement in airstrikes in Syria, where a US-Arab coalition began bombing IS militants on Tuesday. MPs last year rejected airstrikes on Syria to oppose the government of President Bashar Assad.
Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs early in Friday’s debate the situation in Syria is “more complicated” than Iraq because of its “brutal dictator” President Assad and the civil war that has been ongoing for the past three years.
Cameron held out the possibility of extending British air strikes against IS in Syria. He suggested he would be prepared to extend the military campaign without the initial approval of parliament in the event of a humanitarian catastrophe.
“Let me address very directly this issue of Isil in Syria,” said Cameron. “I am very clear: Isil needs to be destroyed in Syria as well as Iraq. We support the action that the US and five Arab states have taken in Syria.”
“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis.”