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

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 over 5,500 combat missions since it began operations in August 2014, it has only acknowledged 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.

Scenes from our teams’ response to the missile attack carried out by an unidentified drone, targeting a house in the city of Al-Bab, east of #Aleppo, today, Tuesday, December 20.

— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) December 20, 2022

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 still 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”. While IS remains “a serious terrorist threat” in the two countries, it was “far from clear” that its leaders “are 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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