UK refuses to say if it investigated reports of Syria drone strike casualties

MoD refuses to say whether it has looked into claims civilians were injured in December strike

By Press Association
March 14, 2023, 6:50 p.m.

Syrian rescue teams inspect the damage at the site of an alleged drone strike in the opposition-held city of al-Bab. Photograph: Bakr Alkasem/AFP/Getty Images

Britain’s Ministry of Defence is refusing to say whether it conducted an investigation into reports of civilian casualties after an RAF drone strike conducted against a terrorist target in northern Syria last December.

Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, told MPs on Monday that a Reaper drone was used to attack “a leading Daesh [Islamic State] member in al-Bab, northern Syria” on 20 December, the latest strike in controversial policy of attempted targeted killing.

The target was Abu Yasser al-Yemeni, believed to be an IS leader, but two or possibly more civilians were also reported hurt, in an attack that raises further questions about the collateral damage from RAF strikes in Syria and Iraq.

Although the RAF has fired more than 4,300 missiles in the air war against IS in Syria and Iraq on more than 5,500 combat missions since it began operations in August 2014, it has acknowledged only a single civilian casualty.

The US-led Inherent Resolve coalition, by contrast, says that 1,437 civilians have been “unintentionally killed” in more than 35,000 airstrikes in a war where ground fighting has largely been conducted by the Syrian Kurds.

The RAF strike last December hit and completely destroyed a building at 1pm in the centre of al-Bab, a city 23 miles north-east of Aleppo, according to Syrian reports, which showed western-made missile casing in the fragments.

Wallace told MPs that the target’s activity was “related to chemical and biological weapons” and that the drone’s crew had “minimised potential risk to civilians” before unleashing two 100lb Hellfire missiles, which cost about $115,000 (£95,000) each.

Syria’s Observatory for Human Rights said it was unclear if Yemeni was killed or wounded in the attack. He was taken to hospital amid “secrecy regarding his fate”.

The group also reported that at least two civilians were injured, separately described by a Syrian television station as a woman and a child in a dossier compiled by monitoring group Airwars. Both were said to be lightly wounded, while other media said a third person may have also been injured.

In the light of the Syrian media, an NGO, Drone Wars, asked the Ministry of Defence whether it had conducted an investigation “into local reports of civilian casualties” and whether British official inquiries were ongoing.

In a written reply, the UK ministry refused to answer, citing national security and other exemptions relating to defence and international relations, prompting Drone Wars to launch an appeal to the department. The outcome is awaited.

Chris Cole, the founder of Drone Wars, asked whether Britain’s ongoing bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria amounted to “a forever war”, saying that while IS remained “a serious terrorist threat” in the two countries, it was “far from clear” that its leaders were “a threat to the UK or should be subject to UK military force”.

Wallace’s disclosure about the RAF drone strike last December raised more questions than answers, he added. “Refusing to even disclose whether the UK is undertaking an investigation into reports of civilian casualties arising from its drone-targeted killing is also simply unacceptable,” he said.

Monday’s refresh of the integrated review of defence and foreign policy makes only a handful of mentions of terrorism, in a document that focusing largely on threats posed by Russia and concerns raised by China. But it does say “the threat from the Middle East is enduring”.

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