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Evaluating Britain's Air Campaign Against The Islamic State


We now examine the strategy to defeat ISIS as it looks to a vital U.S. ally. Britain has expand its role in the fight against ISIS. The British Parliament approved bombing in Syria in recent weeks, and that bombing is well underway. British Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon is visiting Washington, and he's in our studios. Good morning, sir.

MICHAEL FALLON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is Britain doing that it wasn't before?

FALLON: Well, we're stepping up military operations in Syria. Previously, we were part of the coalition effort in Iraq, providing a lot of surveillance over Syria, but mainly doing the airstrikes in Iraq that were necessary to help put push ISIL out of Iraq. Now we're joining in the action in Syria as well. And to be honest, this is one theater. This is a border - an artificial border - that ISIL themselves don't recognize. So we're stepping up now to see what more we can do to undermine ISIL and push it right back into its homeland.

INSKEEP: We've heard about Britain joining the air campaign in Syria, their Tornado warplanes dropping bombs. Britain has quite famous special forces. Are you doing or planning to do anything on the ground?

FALLON: Well, we don't actually talk about where our special forces are or which countries they're operating in. But we have been. We've had troops on the ground in Iraq helping to train the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish forces. We've given them a lot of equipment. And as I said, in addition to the airstrikes, we're also providing reconnaissance and surveillance - a huge proportion of the overall coalition effort in the skies above Syria. So we've been doing our bit, but we're now stepping up and going to do even more because this is a menace, a terrorist menace to the world. And we've got to deal with it.

INSKEEP: What does victory look like?

FALLON: Well, victory looks first of all like pushing ISIL out of Iraq, supporting the new democratic government of Iraq and then dealing with ISIL in its homeland, its heartland around Raqqa from where all these attacks are being inspired or directed, whether they're in Western Europe or wherever. And we need to get to grips with that, degrade it and then defeat it.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to ask some questions about that. We had Ted Cruz, the Republican presidential candidate, on the program earlier this week, and he says he wanted to, quote, "carpet bomb ISIS." Now, he wasn't specific on what he wants to carpet bomb, but you can hear plenty of analysts and military people who said that this air campaign is very limited, that other campaigns have been much, much larger, and even Britain's new contribution is not that large. Why not do a lot more?

FALLON: Well, our - what we're going to do is add more precision-strike capability to the campaign. We need to minimize civilian casualties in this. And I don't think, you know, we can tolerate any kind of carpet bombing of occupied civilian areas. What we need to do is to degrade the infrastructure - take out the oil fields from which they derive their revenue - they've been trading and selling oil - cut off their supply routes between Iraq and Syria, attacked their arms depots, their logistics, their command and control. And we need to do that in a way that minimizes any collateral damage or risk of civilian casualties.

INSKEEP: Understanding the risk to people and also the political risk of civilian casualties, are you too concerned about that?

FALLON: We are, yes. We have very strict rules of engagement. I sign off on the targets that are selected - that are preselected - the deliberate targets.

INSKEEP: You, yourself, sign off on the targets?

FALLON: I sign off on the deliberate targets, but there are also dynamic targets where aircraft are in close air support of ground forces. But where we're going to attack a particular depot or supply route or an oil well head, I have to be satisfied that we're doing everything possible to minimize civilian casualties.

INSKEEP: Does that limit things, that it has to go all the way up to your level? Hitting a particular truck goes up to you, or a depot?

FALLON: Well, yes. But we have to be sure we're not making life any worse. It's pretty grim already in Syria. For example, we've been attacking the oil installations. We've not been attacking gas because the population there depends on gas supplies for their daily life.

INSKEEP: So Max Fisher, who's an American analyst, writing in vox.com the other day had a very interesting analysis of the strategy. He said most experts agree broadly on the points of a strategy to defeat ISIS, but he said you need one big thing that's missing - a ground force of Sunni Muslims that can beat ISIS in Syria. It doesn't exist. Where are you going to get one?

FALLON: Well, we're going to get one from a new settlement in Syria. And you'll know the talks are now underway with all the opposition parties in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, involving everybody who wants to see a better future for Syria in a move towards a settlement that excludes the dictator Assad and which will, in time, release the Syrian Army to combine with elements of the Free Syrian Army to end the Civil War and get those involved on the ground providing more security in Sunni areas and helping eventually to back up the airstrikes. But there's no reason to wait on the airstrikes. There's plenty that can be done from the air while the political track proceeds to make sure that we do have moderate opposition forces there on the ground.

INSKEEP: We've just got about 30 seconds, but I want to throw a famous quote at you from Winston Churchill, 1940 - gave maybe the best statement ever of a war objective. In a famous speech, he said the objective is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror. In a few seconds, are the allies all in on this fight in that same way?

FALLON: Yes. There are 60 countries in the coalition, 20 of them helping militarily. I'll be reviewing with Secretary Carter today the progress of the campaign. But we need to step up, otherwise this menace is going to spread around the world. It's going to hit all the democracies, the open societies and the values by which we live and trade and work with each other. We have to deal with this for once and for all, so we're going to step up in Britain.

INSKEEP: Michael Fallon, thank you very much. He is Britain's Secretary of State for Defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.