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Government Strategy Against IS

Volume 585: debated on Friday 12 September 2014

The Government believe that ISIL needs to be confronted in both Iraq and Syria. The creation of an extremist so-called caliphate represents a direct threat to the national security of the United Kingdom. In seeking to establish its extremist state, ISIL is already seeking to use the territory it controls to launch attacks against the west, including this country.

As my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have outlined to the House this week, the Government are committed to tackling the threat of ISIL using the full range of instruments at our disposal—humanitarian, diplomatic and military.

So far as humanitarian efforts are concerned, in addition to air drops carried out by UK forces, we have committed £23 million in new assistance in northern Iraq, and £12.5 million has been delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross and £5 million to UN partners to provide life-saving assistance to 150,000 people. We have also provided more than £600 million in Syria since the crisis began.

Secondly, we are working with our American, European, Arab and other partners to ensure a united front to stem the expansion and activities of this exceptionally dangerous movement.

In Syria, we continue to support a negotiated political transition to end Assad’s brutal rule and to pave the way for a political solution to this appalling conflict. In Iraq, we are supporting the new Government and welcome Prime Minister al-Abadi’s commitment to reform and to an inclusive approach that meets the needs of all of Iraq’s diverse communities.

Thirdly, the political and humanitarian response in Iraq must be backed up by a security response that will defeat ISIL on the ground. We are delivering military equipment to Kurdish forces, providing surveillance and, as the Prime Minister set out on Monday, looking at training Kurdish battalions.

We welcomed President Obama’s statement on Wednesday. As the global resolve to tackle ISIL strengthens, we will consider carefully what role the United Kingdom should play in the international coalition.

The Government have outlined a broad and comprehensive approach to responding to ISIL, which should command the support of the entire House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for responding as he has. Many colleagues welcome Government assurances that there will be no intervention in Iraq or Syria without Parliament first debating and voting on the issue. Many colleagues also have questions about the feasibility and the policy of conducting air strikes in Iraq. We have questions about the fact that IS cannot be defeated by air strikes alone. We urge that regional powers and allies play their full role in this. The symbolism of the west defeating this caliphate would be too profound. We also believe that questions should be asked about the elephant in the room—the Iraqi army—and about how durable defeating IS in Iraq would be if the politics are not in place.

Many other colleagues have even graver doubts and questions about air strikes into Syria itself. It is not just the legality of the issue and the fact that Syria has robust air defence systems supplied by the Russians, but the fact that we have not yet had an answer to the question: who would take IS’s place? The morphing of one extremist group into another has been a notable feature of this civil war in Syria and many extremist groups lurk in the shadows.

The Foreign Secretary, in his address to the House on Wednesday, expressed that caution. He made it clear, in answer to me and to others, that striking into Syria would be a much higher risk strategy. President Obama’s address to the American people yesterday morning—under Greenwich mean time—seemed to go much further than the Government had hitherto been comfortable with. He talked about destroying IS, air strikes into Syria and supporting rebels, even in Syria, against IS. I ask the Minister for some clarity on the Government strategy on IS? It appears that there has been an element of discrepancy between the Foreign Secretary and No. 10. On Wednesday in this place, the Foreign Secretary expressed caution both in his address and in direct answers to questions; I do not think that anybody could go away with a message other than that. Yesterday in Berlin, he seemed to rule out British involvement in air strikes in Syria altogether, yet No. 10 seemed to row back almost immediately and said that no options must be removed from the table and that everything must remain in play. I ask my right hon. Friend where exactly Government policy is on this issue. In answering, may I remind him that this House passed resolutions last year, making it clear that there could be no lethal support for any Syrian rebels without Parliament’s express say so? Again, President Obama’s address seemed to lay open that possibility. What is the Government’s position on that?

I make no apologies for tabling this urgent question on a Friday, and I apologise to those who want to get through their business, but given our errors in our interventions in the past—whether it is going to war in Iraq on a false premise, the disastrous morphing of the Afghanistan mission into one of nation-building or even our intervention in Libya—it is right that Parliament asks these questions, particularly as we are about to enter the conference recess. We must not allow events to get ahead of Parliament or Parliament to be presented with a fait accompli upon our return.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, this is a subject that quite rightly arouses great interest, concern and debate in all parts of the House. The Prime Minister’s statement and subsequent answers to questions on Monday, the Foreign Secretary’s extensive evidence session with the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a distinguished member, on Tuesday and then the Foreign Secretary’s speech and subsequent debate in this House on Wednesday has shown that we take very seriously our responsibility both to keep Parliament informed of the Government’s developing policy and to allow ample opportunity for Members of Parliament, both in the Chamber and in Committee, to question those Ministers responsible and to express their own opinions.

On that particular question about the role of Parliament in respect of any—at the moment hypothetical—military action by British forces, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out the position in detail on Monday in answers to questions following his statement. I draw the House’s attention to his words in Hansard, column 663.

We want to see the broadest possible international coalition involving regional partners as well as European and American partners in combating ISIL, which is a threat to all of us, and not just to the United Kingdom and European countries.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made it clear in answer to questions in Berlin that we are not yet at the stage in which decisions about any putative British military action have to be taken. His precise words were:

“We have ruled nothing out. We will look carefully at our options and decide how we will make a contribution but we are clear that we will make a contribution.”

Effective political, humanitarian and possibly military action by a broad-based international coalition will be necessary to meet the very grave threat that is posed to us all by ISIL.

We welcome this opportunity, given that in recent days questions have been raised about how the Government have gone about setting out their approach to tackling ISIL. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) highlighted yesterday’s comments by the Foreign Secretary in which he ruled out British military action in Syria and the subsequent statement from the Prime Minister’s spokesman that all options remain on the table, so I am sure that the Minister will understand the House’s desire for clarification.

As President Obama continues to set out further detail about his strategy for combating ISIL, it is crucial that the British Government also recognise the need to provide reassurance to the British public about their approach. The Opposition have made it clear that we support the targeted air strikes authorised by President Obama in Iraq and we strongly support the UK Government’s provision of arms and assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga forces that are the effective front line against ISIL. Of course, as the situation develops and the international community agrees its common approach to the threat, we will continue to seek assurances from the Government that if there is any change in their approach to Iraq, Syria or the wider region they will seek the appropriate endorsement of this House.

We welcome the lead taken by French President Hollande in setting up an international conference in Paris on Monday. Will the Minister confirm which regional partners will be attending and will he also set out whether Iran has been invited and what the UK’s position is on that? Given that the United Kingdom currently holds the chair of the United Nations Security Council, what more does the Minister believe that the UK can do to help co-ordinate these efforts?

What assurances can the Minister give that Iraq’s new Government recognise the need for a truly inclusive approach that addresses the needs of all of Iraq’s diverse communities? In addition, what can the Minister tell us about the support that will be provided by the countries in the region, not just the Arab League but Turkey and Iran, and what steps are now being taken to ensure that any international efforts to tackle ISIL are co-ordinated by the international community and that there is a clear regionally led approach to such a strategy? Furthermore, can the Minister now give any further detail about whether there are any discussions about how to restart the Geneva II process, which surely still offers the best hopes of long-term stability in Syria?

President Obama has rightly said that left unchecked ISIL extremists pose a threat not only to security inside Iraq but to countries outside the region, so will the Minister provide the Government’s latest assessment of the number of UK nationals who they believe are currently actively part of ISIL’s campaign?

Finally, will the Minister confirm the commitments made by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary about the need for ongoing debate to ensure that this House is kept fully up to date?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his broad support for the Government’s approach to dealing with ISIL. I shall try to respond to the detailed points that he made. The estimate—one can never be absolutely certain about these things—is that a few hundred have travelled out to the region and my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have explained at length to the House the measures that the Government are taking to deal with the potential threat those people pose. I would add that this is not a challenge that is in any way unique to the United Kingdom. When I attended a meeting of European Foreign Affairs Ministers two weekends ago, this was a theme coming from Ministers representing many Governments within the European Union. This is a challenge that almost every European country faces.

The question of attendance at the Paris meeting is, for self-evident reasons, primarily a matter for the French Government rather than for us. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that 10 Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, have now publicly announced their support for the United States and international efforts so this is by no means an enterprise confined to what one might regard as traditional western allies. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear in his evidence to the Select Committee on Tuesday, we hope that the Government of Iran will choose to play a constructive role, but I believe that the House will understand why, in the light of Iran's nuclear programme and its history of very active support for the Assad regime and for Hezbollah, we are proceeding cautiously in our relations with Tehran while hoping that we will see the kind of improvement that both the right hon. Gentleman and I would wish to see.

As for the United Nations, I gently correct the right hon. Gentleman: we do not hold the chair of the Security Council at the moment. We had the chair last month and it is held by the United States this month. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken personally to Ban Ki-moon about how the United Nations could be used to shape an effective international response to the challenge posed by ISIL and when the Prime Minister goes to the United Nations General Assembly later this month, he intends to use that opportunity to try to build and widen this international coalition.

If the so-called Islamic State is confronted seriously in Iraq, it will inevitably drift over the border into Syria, particularly if it believes in any way that Syria should be a safe haven. It will then continue to collude with the Assad regime in committing acts of terrorism against the Syrian people. There is already a force in Syria fighting both the Assad regime and the extremists, the Free Syrian Army, supported in theory by a large number of the international coalition. Will my right hon. Friend say that we are not ruling out supporting those who are taking on both ISIL and Assad in Syria and, more importantly, does he agree that if strong resolution is shown on confronting ISIL in Syria it might be possible to use that to change the terms of political debate so that serious negotiation could take place in Paris? With resolution and determination against both the extremists and the Assad regime, we could perhaps get the negotiated settlement we need and the appalling brutality of death and injury to the people of Syria that has somehow been airbrushed from the front pages for far too long could finally be confronted.

As I said in my initial answer to the urgent question, we are not yet in a position where the Government are being asked to take decisions about any possible military action. Obviously, we would come to the House as soon as possible to tell Members if and when such decisions were taken. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the fact that we need a political process in Syria that provides for a transition of power away from the Assad regime, which, given the slaughter that has taken place in that country, cannot possibly become the focus of any kind of national unity in the future. A political process in Syria will also be essential in the long run to create peace in the region and to defeat ISIL comprehensively. There will be a series of discussions in New York during the General Assembly week later this month and I think that following those discussions about Syria we will be in a better position to determine how best to take forward that political process.

Order. I appeal to hon. and right hon. Members to put pithy questions and I know that the Minister, subject to the detail and complexity of these matters, will seek to follow suit. Several people want to get in and I must have regard to that and to the priority of the continuation of the main debate.

The Minister said that the Government welcome the statement made by President Obama. President Obama is very clear that the United States will engage in air strikes not just in Iraq but in Syria. It has been suggested that the reticence of and division between the Foreign Secretary and No. 10 relate to legal advice that military action and air strikes in Syria would be illegal. Can the Minister clarify? Is it the view that the military action proposed by the Obama Administration in Syria would be legal under international law? If that is the case, why should there not be any UK involvement in similar legal action against Isis in Syria and in Iraq?

The basic fact is that no decisions about UK military action have been taken or are being asked of us at the moment, so much of the hon. Gentleman’s line of questioning is somewhat academic. As both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said in the House, there are differences—not least important logistical differences—between the situations in Iraq and Syria. The immediate challenge from ISIS to a legitimate democratically elected Government comes in Iraq. That is why, at the invitation of that Government, we and other allies are giving priority to that particular case.

Does the Minister agree that whenever and whatever British military intervention takes place, it will need four things? They are a good legal and humanitarian case, a long-term plan, strong regional and international support, and a vote in this House—only one of which was in place the last time we launched the military intervention in Iraq.

The short answer to my hon. Friend is yes to all four of his points. I simply add a rider in respect of his final one: as the Prime Minister said on Monday in the House, the Government, while wanting to put such a matter to Parliament, including for a vote, as rapidly as possible, will need the freedom to act in the case of an urgent threat to the security of the United Kingdom or of an impending humanitarian disaster, and to come to the House as soon as possible after such action.

It is clear to the whole House that ISIL must be defeated. I understand that it is premature to take decisions about the involvement of the UK in military action, but I want to ask something further to the question put by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the former Minister. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that, were the House to decide that military action should be taken, including in Syria, there would be no question of the Government’s asking the permission of the horrible despot Assad.

We do not recognise Assad as providing the legitimate Government of Syria, so that question would not arise.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that on both sides of the House and in all parts of the country there is a sense of shock at the behaviour of the Islamic State—the brutality it shows and its contempt for the normal laws of human behaviour? I certainly support the broad range of the Government’s activities, but it helps to make the case if the Government can at particular moments explain their legal thinking as well.

My hon. and learned Friend knows better than most that, as with any client in receipt of legal advice, it is important for the Government to preserve the confidentiality of advice from legal advisers. However, when this Government have taken action previously during their time in office, we have set out the legal grounds for that action and why we think a particular course of action—a recent example is Libya—was justified in international law.

My hon. and learned Friend is right, too, to point to the shock felt throughout the country at ISIL’s action, and I ought to say that I strongly welcome the unreserved condemnation from so many British Muslims and mosque leaderships throughout the United Kingdom.

Odious as ISIL is, it did not come from nowhere. Is it not a product of our past policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and of the vast number of arms that we have supplied to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region? That gives it highly sophisticated weaponry. Do we not need a slightly more nuanced view of the world that does not automatically lead to intervention everywhere and create the problems of tomorrow?

I think the answer is considerably more complex than the hon. Gentleman allows. This kind of perverted Islamist ideology has been around for a considerable time and is found not just in Iraq but in parts of the world where there has not been the kind of intervention that the previous Government undertook in 2003. It is also the case that in Iraq ISIL seized the opportunity presented by the loss of support for the Baghdad Government among the Sunni population in central Iraq. One of the key tasks for the new Government in Baghdad will be to win back mainstream Sunnis to support the democratic Government.

Is it the assessment of Her Majesty’s Government that the 10 Arab countries that have signed up to the coalition so far are unable to co-ordinate effective air strikes between them without the assistance of the United States and the United Kingdom?

The first step has been to rally as many countries as possible to form a broad-based coalition. What is now happening and will continue at the Paris meeting is detailed consideration of the part that each country can play. We saw in Libya that a number of allies from the Arab world were prepared to play a very active role indeed.

Despite what the Minister has said about not recognising the Assad regime, does he not accept that any intervention in Syria will require the tacit, if not overt, consent of the Syrian armed forces? Can he not think in advance of such matters and of the matters of illegality raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as of the high risk of civilian casualties, before taking any precipitate action? Otherwise, we will be in the same position as we were last summer.

All these questions to do with the efficacy, the logistical and military challenges and the legal position with regard to any particular military intervention in any part of the world will be considered very carefully. If the Government decide to undertake such military action—I repeat that we are not at that point at the moment and nor have we been asked to make a particular military contribution—they would at that point come and explain their case in full to the House.

Having done work related to the Iraq war in 2003, I know how light the planning was for after the intervention. I urge that we have a clear strategy for the first 100 days and would like to understand much more that that is the case. We will be creating power vacuums and great alienation among the Sunni community. Can we please know that we have such a strategy?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The key role has to be played by the newly formed Government in Iraq, who have the prime responsibility to bring together the leaders of the diverse communities within Iraq to work for the common purpose of defeating ISIL conclusively. We are playing an active role in encouraging Iraqi leaders from all communities to play a constructive role in that effort. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development was in Iraq in August this year, she talked to Mr al-Abadi and the president of the Kurdish Regional Government about precisely that issue.

Last Sunday afternoon, I was privileged to be part of a large demonstration made up predominantly of Iraqi Christians but also including Yazidi and other minority communities. They handed in a petition to Downing street. Their cry from the heart was for United Kingdom support for a safe haven. What is the Minister’s response to that cry?

The Government are committed to doing everything that we can to safeguard the position of Christian and other minorities in Iraq. The best and most rapid way to do that will be to re-establish the authority of the legitimate Iraqi authorities over the area now being terrorised by ISIL. I can say to the House that, as well as the political work on reconciliation being carried out in Baghdad, the Iraqi army, after initial reverses, are now taking ground back from ISIL. We want to make sure that we continue to provide support to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to enable them to continue doing that.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the facts on the ground. The Kurds have a 600-mile border with ISIL. Working with the Iraqi army and the Sunni tribes, they have to be front and centre of the fight against ISIL. In Syria, the Free Syrian Army is working to squeeze ISIL. It is important that we keep all those options open. It is only sensible policy for us to discount nothing in terms of our support in either country.

As the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said, as things stand today we have ruled nothing out. We want to see the defeat of ISIL and an inclusive political process in Iraq and in Syria—those are our objectives.

I have spoken to many young people across Cardiff South and Penarth who are deeply concerned by videos, images and extremist propaganda from ISIL, and those who have gone to fight for it, being distributed on platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Ask FM, BBM and WhatsApp. What discussions have the Government had with those platforms about disrupting those activities, and what methods are they using to rebut many of the extremist arguments being put forward?

I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s horror at the ready accessibility of those images. He will understand that there are practical challenges in any Government anywhere in the world trying to control the internet. I will write to him about the specifics.

As I found in my briefings in Jordan a few weeks ago, the border between Iraq and Syria has disintegrated. I saw freely moved weapons captured from the Iraqi army going straight into Syria. Last year, I did not support intervention in Syria. The challenge now is very different, with a clear enemy and clarity as to who our allies are. May I implore the Minister to ensure that for as long as we have clear achievable objectives, we keep all options open, because Syria and Iraq cannot be dealt with in isolation, just as ISIL cannot?

At the moment, no decision on British military intervention has been taken. All options remain open and nothing has yet been definitively ruled out. We do indeed need to see a process that eradicates the threat from ISIL across the region, not just within the recognised borders of Iraq. I say again that this could never be a matter simply of military action achieving miracles on its own. There has to be an inclusive political process within the region and there needs to be humanitarian assistance for the people who are in such desperate need.

What conversations are the Government having with community leaders in this country? The Minister mentioned the revulsion felt by Muslims here in the UK, but it will be important that ongoing conversations are maintained to preserve understanding within the community of the UK Government’s stance. How are those conversations at the most senior level being carried out?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has the lead on this issue. I am happy for me or someone from that Department to write to the hon. Lady with details of what is being done. Members of this House also have a role to play in working with their own communities in the way she has described.

Going back to the point about a safe haven for the Yazidis, minorities are second-class citizens under the Iraqi constitution. Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that whatever force we use, our aid will be used proportionately to look after these peaceful peoples?

We have given aid to the Yazidi community, in particular, who are in dire distress at the moment. In talking to the Baghdad Government, we always emphasise the need for them to achieve national unity through fairness and equal rights for all communities within their country. Ultimately, of course, these are matters for the elected authorities in Iraq.

Further to my hon. Friends’ questions, will the Minister explain how Government programmes such as Prevent are being altered in the light of the immediate threat that IS poses as regards the risk of losing British nationals overseas, as opposed to the response of the Government, which is often about preventing those extremists from returning to this country?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in her statement last week and to what the Prime Minister said in his statement to the House on Monday. Clearly, in the light of recent events and the threat from ISIL, we work very hard on ensuring that Prevent is kept up to date and that we are doing the right work with those communities.

The Minister has rightly said that the Government must be given freedom to act. May I urge him to resist the attempts, such as in questions today, for the House to micro-manage this policy over the weeks ahead?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. The Government are accountable to this House. The Prime Minister said very plainly on Monday that he wants to give the maximum information to the House, and that he is not afraid of Parliament debating and voting on any Government decision about military action. However, the Government cannot delay reaction in an emergency when British lives might be at risk in order to wait for the House to assemble first.

British Kurds, including those in Leeds, are desperately concerned about what is happening. Kurdish fighters are fighting courageously with inadequate international support. What are the Government doing to support the Kurds and to seek greater recognition for a stable Kurdish land that would be part of stabilising the entire region?

As I said, we have given a considerable amount of assistance to the Kurdish Regional Government, and we continue to do so. We will also continue to work with it bilaterally and through the European Union and various international bodies to try to make sure that there is good governance within the Kurdish region.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hesitate to interrupt the debate on overseas aid, but a matter has arisen in my constituency relating to the Ministry of Defence. I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who is responsible for defence equipment and support, is on the Front Bench.

The Ministry of Defence is intending to dispose of Minley manor—a historic house in my constituency. The timetable for that disposal is that it announced on 22 May that it intended to sell, bidders had to submit bids by 2 September, and a decision is to be announced on Monday, with completion on 9 October, before the House returns. This is a very hurried process. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence on 2 September but have had no reply. The House is about to rise. As the local Member of Parliament, I have expressed a long-standing interest in this historic building, which used to be in the ownership of the Currie family, whose descendant was Andrew Hargreaves, our former colleague in this place. Can you give me any guidance, Mr Speaker, as to how I might I deal with this matter when the House is about to rise and the Ministry of Defence is about to present a fait accompli without any consultation with me as the local Member of Parliament?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My immediate response is to say that I think he knows the Secretary of State for Defence very well, and has done for some decades. My assessment of the situation is that if the hon. Gentleman, in pursuit of his constituency responsibilities, asks to speak to—or, indeed, to see face to face—his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the latter would be either brave or reckless in the extreme to decline the request; I would not reckon much to his chances on that score. If the hon. Gentleman needs to revert to me at some point, I feel sure he will. I understand the circumstances that cause him to raise the matter today. He is justifiably concerned about a matter that impacts on his constituency, but let us leave it there for the time being.

I thank the Minister of State and colleagues who participated in the urgent question. We must now return to the Bill.