British bombers hit ISIS oilfields in Syria hours after parliamentary vote
Before Wednesday's vote, Britain had been participating in U.S.-led attacks in Iraq only
British bombers made their first strikes on Syria on Thursday, hitting oilfields that help fund the activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
British Tornado bombers took off from the RAF Akrotiri air base in Cyprus, hours after parliament in London voted 397-223 to support Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to extend air strikes from Iraq to Syria.
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"There are plenty more of these targets throughout eastern, northern Syria which we hope to be striking in the next few days and weeks," Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said.
RAF Akrotiri has been used as a launchpad for attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq for just over a year, and late on Wednesday Britain's parliament broadened its scope for targets within Syria.
Britain has eight Tornado fighter-bombers at its base in Cyprus, and eight more RAF were said to be taking off from Britain to reach the base. Crews at one U.K. base are reportedly scrambling to get two more Tornados ready to send out, increasing the number of missions British pilots can fly over Syria daily.
Turns out 8 RAF fighter/bombers set to hit <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ISIS?src=hash">#ISIS</a> in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Syria?src=hash">#Syria</a> as soon as <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Britain?src=hash">#Britain</a> Parlt gives OK, expected tonight <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/CBC?src=hash">#CBC</a> <a href="https://t.co/0lJR8CEaU7">pic.twitter.com/0lJR8CEaU7</a>—@sasapetricic
Anti-war protesters outside Parliament booed as they learned the result of the vote. The decision came after an emotional 10 ½-hour debate in which Cameron said that Britain must strike the Islamic State group in their heartland and not "sit back and wait for them to attack us."
Opponents argued that Britain's entry into Syria's crowded airspace would make little difference, and said Cameron's military plan was based on wishful thinking that overlooked the messy reality of the Syrian civil war.
Cameron has long wanted to target ISIS in Syria, but had been unsure of getting majority support in the House of Commons until now. He suffered an embarrassing defeat in 2013 when lawmakers rejected a motion backing attacks on the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Paris attacks hit close to home for Britons
The mood has changed following the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, claimed by ISIS, that killed 130 people. Both France and the U.S. have urged Britain to join their air campaign in Syria, and Cameron said Britain should not let its allies down.
Many Britons are supportive of the decision, seeing the Paris attacks as a reminder that London could be targeted.
Cameron said Britain was already a top target for ISIS attacks, and airstrikes would reduce the group's ability to plan more Paris-style carnage.
"Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people?" he said. "Or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?"
He said that attacking ISIS was not anti-Muslim but "a defence of Islam" against "women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters."
The British contribution forms only a tiny part of U.S.-led "Operation Inherent Resolve," which has been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for more than a year with hundreds of aircraft. Previously, the small British contingent participated in strikes on Iraq but not Syria.
The strikes have so far failed to dislodge the militants from a swath of territory where they have proclaimed a Caliphate to rule over all Muslims, although Washington and its allies say they have helped halt the fighters' advance.
Washington has announced it will deploy more special forces to conduct raids in both Iraq and Syria and help locate targets for air strikes.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in an interview this did not mean a large scale ground assault like the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq "with battalions that are moving across the desert."
"But what I've been very clear about is that we are going to systematically squeeze and ultimately destroy ISIL and that requires us having a military component to that," he told CBS.
We are going to systematically squeeze and ultimately destroy ISIL and that requires us having a military component.- U.S. President Barack Obama
Most of the world's powers are now flying combat missions over Iraq and Syria against Islamic State. But any consensus on how to proceed has been thwarted by opposing policies over the four-year-old civil war in Syria, which has killed 250,000 people, driven 11 million from their homes, left swaths of territory in the hands of jihadist fighters and defied all diplomatic efforts at a solution.
Russia is bombing Syria outside the U.S.-led coalition. Moscow and Tehran support Assad, while the United States and its European, Arab and Turkish allies want him gone and back his enemies.
Putin blasts Turkey once again
After the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both the attacks on Paris and the bombing of a Russian airliner last month, world leaders have striven to bury differences and unite the separate campaigns against the militants.
But the quest for unity was dealt a sharp blow last week when NATO-member Turkey shot down a Russian warplane.
"It appears that Allah decided to punish the ruling clique of Turkey by depriving them of wisdom and judgment," Vladimir Putin said Thursday during the Russian president's annual state of the nation speech.
Moscow has already responded with measures including bans on some Turkish fruit and vegetables, and in his icy remarks, Putin made clear that would not be the end of it.
"If anyone thinks that having committed this awful war crime, the murder of our people, that they are going to get away with some measures concerning their tomatoes or some limits on construction and other sectors, they are sorely mistaken."
Turkey would have cause to regret its actions "more than once," Putin said. Minutes after the speech, his energy minister announced the suspension of a gas pipeline project.
Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Belgrade on Thursday in the first high-level face-to-face contact since the plane was shot down, but the two sides still appeared far apart.
Russia's Sergei Lavrov said he had heard nothing new from Mevlut Cavusoglu. The Turkish minister said it would be unrealistic to expect all problems with Russia could be solved in one meeting but it was important to keep communications channels open.
Lavrov did however welcome Britain joining air strikes in Syria, saying more universal efforts against Islamic State would be more effective.
With files from Saša Petricic and Associated Press