LONDON (Reuters) - British pilots have taken part in air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, the defence ministry said on Friday, angering some MPs who two years ago refused to back military action there.
The ministry said pilots had taken part in Syrian missions on behalf of its allies, the United States and Canada, and were “effectively operating as foreign troops”.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who knew of the pilots’ role, failed to get approval from MPs in 2013 for military action in Syria. Britain conducts regular attacks in neighbouring Iraq.
“There is an element of sophistry going on here ... at the very minimum, an insensitivity to parliament’s will,” John Baron, a lawmaker from Cameron’s Conservative Party, told BBC radio.
The ministry said fewer than 10 British pilots embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces had taken part in action over Syria.
“We do have a long-standing embed programme with allies, where small numbers of UK personnel act under the command of host nations. That has been the case in Syria,” a spokesman said. “When embedded, UK personnel are effectively operating as foreign troops.”
The ministry said embedding had taken place since the 1950s and was regularly monitored.
Cameron suffered a humiliating defeat in 2013 when MPs voted against his motion authorising military action against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Polls showed Britons were opposed to missile strikes. The legacy of Britain’s involvement in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when military action was justified - wrongly, it later turned out - by assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, also hung over proceedings.
The prime minister “was aware that UK personnel were involved in the (current) U.S. operations and what they were doing,” Cameron’s spokeswoman told reporters, adding the nature of the embed programmes was well known.
“They are not operating in British jets, they are not using British weapons and they are not operating under British operations,” she said.
Earlier this month, Cameron asked MPs to consider whether Britain should also join U.S.-led air strikes in Syria, targeting Islamic State militants rather than Assad’s forces. Commentators said a new vote would be likely to succeed.
The disclosure about the British pilots came through a freedom of information request from a human rights group, Reprieve, which has expressed concern that embedded UK forces in the U.S. Air Force could have been complicit in what it said were illegal, covert drone strikes.
Additional reporting by Kate Holton and Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge/Ruth Pitchford