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UK makes first air strikes on Syria after parliament vote

The U.K. made its first air strikes on Syria, just hours after parliament voted for attacks on the militant group Islamic State, marking an escalation of Britain's involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Tornado bombers returned to the RAF Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus after making strikes on oil field targets in eastern Syria, U.K. defense secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC.

The 397-223 vote in favor of strikes came after more than 10 hours of debate in Britain's House of Commons. Both of the U.K.'s biggest parties faced significant rebellions from their MPs over strikes in Syria. Britain has bombed in Iraq for more than a year.

"Britain is safer tonight because of the decision that the House of Commons has taken," foreign minister Philip Hammond told Sky News.

David Cameron
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Prime Minster David Cameron kicked off the debate by telling lawmakers that "the threat (from IS) is very real." He added: "The question is this - 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, or do we sit back and wait for them?"

Cameron said high-precision, laser-guided Brimstone missiles would help to make a real difference by hitting the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa and its oil-trading business.

Jeremy Corbyn, the anti-war leader of the opposition Labour Party who was reportedly derided as a "terrorist sympathizer" by Cameron, wrote in The Guardian Wednesday: "He (Cameron) knows that opposition to his ill-thought-out rush to war is growing. On planning, strategy, ground troops, diplomacy, the terrorist threat, refugees and civilian casualties, it's become increasingly clear the prime minister's proposal simply doesn't stack up."

Yet Corbyn himself faced the biggest challenge of his few months' leadership to date, was forced to allow his lawmakers to vote according to their conscience in order to quell a rebellion in his party over the military action. Many of his party voted with the prime minister, a move which may bring into question Corbyn's leadership.

The British public is divided over launching the strikes, with a YouGov opinion poll showing voter support for action in Syria had fallen to the lowest level since September 2014, with 48 percent of respondents supporting strikes and 31 percent against.

Those opposed to air strikes recalled the events of 2003 when Britain helped the United States to invade Iraq after asserting - wrongly, as it later turned out - that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Also, the morass in Syria is rather more complicated to understand than the straightforward message of the big, bad Saddam Hussein wolf, with hidden weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.


Islamic State currently seem to be the scariest bullies in the playground, but President Bashar Assad is not much better in many Western eyes, and there doesn't appear to be a clear message about which allies to trust. And the British public may be less likely to trust politicians as a result of the messy fallout from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, which many argue has contributed to the current situation.

But the migration crisis, caused by the fallout from the mass displacement of millions in Syria and neighboring countries, has led to fears that today's refugees could be tomorrow's terrorists, and helped stoke nationalistic tendencies in European states like the U.K., Germany and France. The Nov. 13 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and were claimed by Islamic State may have swayed some people toward bombing IS in Syria.


"Strategically, we need to end IS's control of its territory in both Iraq and Syria in order to drive it back into the shadows from where it emerged. We cannot do that by only air striking in Iraq," Alan Mendoza, executive director at the pro-military intervention think tank Henry Jackson Society, said in a statement.

France and the United States are already bombing Islamist militants in Syria, while Russia has bombed mainly other rebels, according to conflict monitors and Western officials, in an intervention launched on Sept. 30 to bolster its ally, al-Assad. The West says al-Assad must go. The vote also boosts Cameron after he suffered a humiliating 2013 parliamentary defeat over plans to bomb Assad's forces.

Germany's parliament is expected to vote on Friday in favor of joining the campaign against Islamic State, although only to provide military support for air strikes, not actually to take part in them.

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Jacob Pramuk and Reuters contributed to this report.