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Lineages of Aerial Policing in the Middle East

This spring, the Ministry of Defense acknowledged enlisting the RAF and other coalition planes to engage in air raids across the Makhmur (or Makhmour) mountains, an independent region to the north of Baghdad. The mountains contain a series of limestone caves, thought to be a favoured Isis hideout by British intelligence services. These air attacks targetted the caves to destabilise the Isis stronghold in the Makhmur region and demonstrate a sustained interest in regaining control of north Iraq. The Guardian reported that the number of civilian casualities killed in the spring 2021 air raids have not been authenticated as the cave complexes have yet to be cleared by Iraqi ground forces.

Since the withdrawal of British troops in 2009, the UK government has increasingly relied upon airborne technology, such as drones and Typhoon jets, to target potential Isis fighters whilst the Iraqi ground forces support the international attacks from below. Despite indications that MoD attacks on Isis had ceased in 2020, these renewed bombings suggest that the UK government has extended its relationship with the Iraqi military and reprioritised the strategic importance of northern Iraqi territory.

However, the British military strategy in the Middle East has been rarely limited to the ground. In the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French established a mandate system in the Middle East, carving up territories and imposing arbitrary nationalism. Struggling to control uprisings from local populations who resisted British attempts to invent artifical states, the British government – in large part, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the Colonies – developed ‘aerial policing’ as the best economical solution.

‘It may be possible to effect economies during the course of the present year by holding Mesopotamia through the agency of the Air Force rather than by a military force. It has been pointed out that by your Air Force you have not to hold long lines of communications because the distance would only be one or one-and-a-half hours’ flight by aeroplane. It is essential in dealing with Mesopotamia to get the military expenditure down as soon as the present critical state of affairs passes away.’

W. Churchill, House of Commons, 22 March 1920

The preventative power of the RAF flights also benefitted the British government and its fiscal anxieties. Flights across Mesopotamian villages communicated a message of authority and alertness to the local populations, regardless of their political or military activities. Fears of observation compounded existing obstacles for the villagers to unite against British aggression and nation-building.

RAF 84 (Bomber) Squadron in Mesopotamia, 1928. © IWM (HU 33933)

‘We know that in the recent rebellion in Mesopotamia whole districts were prevented from rebellion by the mere fact that aeroplanes were seen cruising over those areas. So far as coast defence is concerned—the defence of naval ports and defence against invasion—there is no doubt that the Air Force can afford a real protection that will take the place of far more costly vessels necessary in the pre-War days.’

W. Churchill, House of Commons, 1 March 1921

Indeed, Churchill argued the spectrum of activities delivered by ongoing RAF aerial policing activities, positing the political benefits to such close engagement and observation of the Mesopotamian population.

‘It must not be supposed that aeroplanes have no means of acting except by using lethal force. That, of course, is in reserve. But we hope that, by their agency, we shall be able to keep in amicable touch with the tribes and local centres, and to ward off in good time movements of unrest, to sustain and, if necessary, relieve detached posts, to keep political officers in close relation with their districts, and to maintain a reasonable degree of order in the country.’

W. Churchill, House of Commons, 14 June 1921

The RAF was in its infancy during these air raids on villages along the Euphrates river during the early 1920s, motivating the Air Officers to demonstrate not only the economical value, but the unique military capabilities of aerial operations. Famed South African imperialist, Jan Smuts, was instrumental in developing the British air force during the First World War. He promoted the military potential of aircraft to Prime Minister Lloyd George and his cabinet in August 1917 with the publication of the Smuts Report, insisting on the need for a dedicated air force within the British military. Smuts believed that the air would soon become the primary environment of conflict and Britain should prepare itself for defensive and offensive aerial warfare.

‘The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war.’

J. Smuts, 17 August 1917
Field Marshal Jan C Smuts, South African soldier and statesman. Copyright: © IWM

Therefore, the foundations of aerial policing and air raids in 1920’s Mesopotamia and 2020’s Iraq were borne from postwar imperialists efforts at nation-building and counter-insurgency without expanding UK debt. Investing in a military wing dedicated to aircraft added another dimension to British tactics of colonial control. Aerial policing not only presenting new opportunities for violence, it also altered surveillance, intelligence gathering, and relationships with colonised subjects. Air raids in 2021 are descendants of Smuts’ authoritarian vision of aerial policing, with improved technology enabling the British state to continually occupy a violently intimate yet physically absent space in Iraqi territory, one hundred years on.

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