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British Lawmakers Approve Bombing Runs Into Syria

Dec 3, 2015
Originally published on December 4, 2015 2:10 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Britain's Royal Air Force is already bombing Syria. The strikes came just hours after Britain's Parliament voted to approve them. That's a different result than the last time Parliament voted. Britain's ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott is in our studios. Good morning.

PETER WESTMACOTT: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. What has Prime Minister David Cameron thrown into this fight?

WESTMACOTT: Well, the British Parliament voted yesterday very strongly to extend the military action we're already taking inside Iraq into Syrian territory. In practical terms, what that means is that within hours of the vote in the House of Commons last night, we had four more British Tornados making strikes inside Syria, which we hadn't done before.

INSKEEP: These are attack planes, we should say.

WESTMACOTT: Attack planes dropping Paveway bombs, attacking the oil fields, which are a very important source of revenue for ISIL. That's a big part of what we're trying to do to degrade the organization. Overnight, we also announced we were sending eight more aircraft - strike aircraft - from the United Kingdom to our bases in Cyprus. They will be arriving there in the course of the day. So we're making a significant increase in the aircraft contribution that we have got to the campaign against ISIL.

INSKEEP: In practical terms, are you simply striking targets that the United States would have struck but it's symbolically better if Britain strikes them?

WESTMACOTT: I think not because one of the things that we have been doing in Iraq is making some precision strikes with equipment that the Brits have got and that other people have actually not got. And the other point is that when we've got aircraft in the theater, we have found in the past that some of those supporters of ours, if you're like the moderate Syrian opposition, who desperately needed support at very-short range at very-short notice could not get those airstrikes, whereas there were British airplanes just minutes away, which weren't able to strike because they were the wrong side of the border. It means that we are going to be able to make a difference to the strike capability of the coalition as a whole. But we also bring some precision weapons which were not available inside Syrian territory.

INSKEEP: So what made this vote different than the last time Parliament voted and voted not to get involved in this way?

WESTMACOTT: Well, the last time Parliament voted, it voted heavily to get involved but only in Iraqi territory. The question that was put was exclusively for that. And then just over two years ago, there was an important vote where the British Parliament voted not to get involved in airstrikes against Syria...

INSKEEP: At the time there was a chemical weapons controversy...

WESTMACOTT: Chemical weapons, yeah - that was the - that was, if you'd like an important moment. So what we've got now is a very powerful case put by the government to the House of Commons for extending strikes we're already doing in Iraq into Syria. I think what's happened is that the House of Commons, British public opinion recognizes that with a number of other allies taking action against Daesh, as we're now going to call them more and more, inside Syria. It was somewhat absurd for the British, who are major coalition players - we provide about a third of all strike capability against Daesh - not to be involved in Syria and only to be involved in Iraq. The terrorists don't recognize the border. Why should we?

INSKEEP: Let me ask how involved Britain really is going to be. There was a Labour member of Parliament, Khalid Mahmood, who, as I understood, abstained from the vote yesterday. He said it was unfortunate that this vote will not have enough of an effect on the war in Syria because what you would really did is troops on the ground. Is he right?

WESTMACOTT: We think that the airstrikes are but one part of the campaign that we've got to conduct against Daesh to eliminate this death cult, as my prime minister calls it. Troops on the ground are going to be necessary, but they're not going to be ours. The prime minister of Iraq has made clear he doesn't want to have the foreign troops on the ground. We need to engage with the more moderate Syrian opposition. We need a political settlement in Syria so that many more troops who are Syrians themselves can take part in cleaning out the areas of Syria which have been occupied by Daesh. So yes, we need troops on the ground, but they're not going to be ours or American ones.

INSKEEP: In about thirty seconds or so, do you feel that you have a strategy to win or that simply you are working your way toward, groping your way towards some way to deal with an incredibly complex situation?

WESTMACOTT: I think there's a strategy. David Cameron set that out in the House of Commons yesterday. There are several strands to it. Airstrikes are a part of it; humanitarian support for refugees are part of it; a political settlement that are taking further talks in Vienna are a part of it; and trying to ensure that Syria and Iraq once again become countries where people can live rather than countries where people have to run away is also a part of it. We've also got to stop radicalizing our own foreign fighters, the hundreds of people from my country and others, who, for some bizarre reason, have become brainwashed by Daesh and want to take part. So it's a comprehensive strategy.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks very much for coming by.

WESTMACOTT: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Peter Westmacott is Britain's ambassador to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.