In the increasingly feverish run-up to military action in Syria, David Cameron declared that the “snake’s head” of Isis had to be removed in its lair.
There had been briefings about how Britain would play a key role in eliminating the jihadist leadership. The scene was being set for a campaign which would not only be long, but bloody. The only other UK air attack in Syria had indeed been very violent: the targeted killing of British nationals, Reyyad Khan and Ruhul Amin, who had gone to fight for Isis, in Raqqa, using a Reaper drone.
The Prime Minister has taken a robust stance in the row that followed, declaring he would be ready to authorise more such attacks to protect national security.
In the event, the two pairs of Tornado GR4s which took off from RAF Akritori in Cyprus, 54 minutes after the vote in the House of Commons, struck not at Isis commanders and fighters, who are increasingly holed up in dense urban areas, but a remote desert oilfield.
The Ministry of Defence in London, releasing the news of the raid on al-Omar, was at pains to stress that “before our air crew conducted their attack, they used the aircraft’s advanced sensors to confirm that no civilians were in the proximity of the targets who might be placed at risk”.
Four hours later came another communiqué from the Ministry saying: “Britain has been asked by coalition partners to join operations in Syria, as the UK can provide high-precision weapons which can minimise the risk of civilian casualties and collateral damage.”
Group Captain Richard Davies, a Tornado pilot, was then produced for good measure to say: “In the hundreds of air strikes that the RAF has carried out in Iraq, we have had absolutely no civilian casualties reported... I am absolutely confident that will continue to be the case with operations in Syria.”
There was yet another email 37 minutes later titled: “Preventing civilian casualties and co-ordinating strike action – what you need to know.”
The targeting of the Syrian air campaign, certainly in these initial phases, is being done as much with an eye on British domestic politics as Middle-Eastern strategic considerations.
The UK air operation in Iraq, going on now for over 14 months, had killed more than 350 Isis fighters with zero civilian casualties, the MoD has said – a claim which has raised few, if any, questions. But there is awareness now that every death following British air strikes will be closely scrutinised and apprehension that the more ghoulish “anti-war” activists are itching to put photos of dead babies on social media.
The attack on the oil field addresses an issue on which politicians both for and against military action in Syria are in agreement: the need to cut the revenue stream of Isis, of which fuel is a major part.
The US-led coalition has stepped up targeting the Islamist group’s oil facilities, as have the Russians, with their air strikes. Isis oil has also become a key issue in the war of words between Russia and Turkey with Vladimir Putin accusing the family of President Recep Tayyep Erdogan of profiting from the illicit trade.
Isis supposedly gets 10 per cent of its estimated total annual revenue of around £2.6m a month from al-Omar 35 miles from the Iraqi border near the town of Deir Ezzor. As well as refinery, the site also used to contain a command and control centre and a transport hub.
An American air strike in October damaged some of the facilities. At the time Major Michael Filanowski, an operations officer for the coalition said in Baghdad: “It was very specific targets that would result in long-term incapacitation of their ability to sell oil, to get it out of the ground and transport it.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the MoD is assessing the effects of the UK bombing, the aim of which was to strike “a very real blow on the oil and revenue on which Daesh (Isis) depends”.
Both the Americans and the Russians, however, concluded that bombing oil installations was, by itself, not enough. The jihadists repaired some of the damage at al-Omar as they had done at other oilfields which had been hit by the coalition.
Last month, they started bombing the tankers, some of them from al-Omar, which smuggled the fuel to Turkey. The Americans destroyed 349 of them in a series of strikes. Attacks on the vehicles had been avoided in the past because of the likelihood of civilian casualties, a risk the UK will face if it intends to continue trying to deliver the blow on jihadist oil revenue the Defence Secretary had pledged.
Both Mr Fallon and the Prime Minister repeated there would be no British boots on the ground. There is no appetite for large-scale presence in Syria, as had been the case in Iraq where the UK, with 275 troops, provide one of the smallest of the Western contingents.
The Defence Secretary insisted that “plenty can be done from the air”. The Russians are also of this belief. They are in the process of building a second airbase at Shaaryat, near Homs, to supplement the one at Latakia.
The Russians, however, have regime forces, Hezbollah and Iranian “volunteers” to move into areas Isis will be forced out of by air strikes. Britain and America, on the other hand, are still searching for the right partners on the ground.
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