With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Iraq and Syria. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Alan Henning. Mr Henning arrived in Syria armed only with kindness and compassion. His appalling murder, like that of David Haines, the two American hostages and many thousands of others, has revealed the true, barbaric face of ISIL.
The scale and unity of the international response to the challenge of ISIL is impressive. It involves Muslim countries of the region and the wider international community. The UK is proud to play its part. Working closely with our allies, under a US lead, we have a clear strategy to take the fight to ISIL—a strategy with military, political and wider counter-terrorism components; a strategy that we recognise, at least in parts, will need to be sustained over the long term. We are under no illusion as to the severity of the challenge to regional stability and to our homeland security.
At the heart of our strategy is the political strand. ISIL will not be overcome until Iraq and Syria have inclusive Governments capable of marginalising its appeal and mounting a sustained and effective response on the ground to the military and ideological threat it poses.
Let me first address the situation in Iraq, which I visited this week. I did so to show solidarity with the Iraqi people and the new Government of Prime Minister al-Abadi, to tell them that they do not stand alone in confronting the ISIL threat, and to encourage them as they put together an inclusive Government of national reconciliation. I recognise the concern in this House—shared, I have to say, by many in the region—as to the difficulties of achieving this more inclusive approach. I recognise too the enormous challenges that Prime Minister al-Abadi faces and the understandable scepticism as to his ability to deliver a genuinely different approach from his predecessor. At the same time, however, I am impressed by the commitment of all three leaderships—Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd—to ensure that this time is, and must be, different. All agreed that this is effectively Iraq’s last chance as a nation state.
In talks with Prime Minister al-Abadi, Vice-President Nujaifi, and Foreign Minister Jaafari, each of them reaffirmed their understanding of the need for, and their personal commitment to, a more inclusive approach; decentralisation of power to Iraq’s communities; and equitable sharing of Iraq’s natural resource wealth. I assured Prime Minister al-Abadi that Britain will do all it can to support reform and reconciliation. He, in turn, assured me that he expects to complete the formation of his Government by appointing defence and interior Ministers over the next few days.
In Erbil, I met the Kurdistan Regional Government’s President Massoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and other Ministers. They likewise assured me of their commitment to work with Prime Minister al-Abadi, and said that Kurdish Ministers would be taking up their positions in the Baghdad Government this week. There was considerable optimism, both in Erbil and Baghdad, that this will allow a much-needed deal to resolve the long-standing issues between the Iraqi Government and the KRG, including oil exports and revenue-sharing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the history, there is a deep, and mutual, lack of trust among the different communities in Iraq and between Baghdad and some of its neighbours in the region. However, it is now vital that all parties, having looked at the alternatives, put the past behind them and have the courage to build bridges to each other—in particular, to appeal to the Sunni populations, who are living under, and in some cases acquiescing in, ISIL’s brutal reign, and who must be brought back into the political fold if ISIL is to be defeated in Iraq. For our part, we will do all that is in our power to encourage the different communities and countries involved to reach out to each other in rebuilding an Iraq capable of rolling back ISIL and the poisonous ideology it represents.
Turning to the military dimension of our engagement in Iraq, Britain, alongside the United States, France, Australia and others, has assumed a key role in carrying out air strikes and mounting the sophisticated reconnaissance that enables them. We are in the process of re-deploying some of our Reaper remotely piloted aircraft from Afghanistan to the middle east to add to our surveillance capabilities.
The security situation on the ground remains very serious, with ISIL maintaining control of significant swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria. ISIL has made advances in Anbar province in recent days, including taking control of the city of Hit and attacking the provincial capital, Ramadi. At the same time, however, Kurdish forces have pushed back ISIL in the north, re-taking several strategically important villages. There will be tactical ebb and flow, but the coalition air campaign has stabilised the strategic picture, and the assessment of our experts is that Baghdad is not in immediate danger.
Approximately 20% to 30% of Iraq’s populated territory could be under ISIL control. Liberating this territory from ISIL is a medium-term challenge to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. The horrific effects of ISIL on governance, security and the social fabric will be felt for even longer.
Prime Minister al-Abadi outlined to me his plans to reform the Iraqi security forces. He is clear-eyed about the scale of the challenges he faces and the resistance he will face in meeting them. However, reform will be essential if the ISF are to develop the capabilities necessary to defeat ISIL on the ground. The United States and others have committed to providing the necessary training. Britain has funded bomb disposal training for the Kurdish forces, as we did for the Iraqi security forces earlier in the year, and on Monday evening I saw for myself members of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment training peshmerga to operate and maintain the heavy machine guns that Britain has gifted to them.
In Syria, we need to reaffirm clearly, lest there be any doubt, that Assad cannot be part of the solution to the challenge of ISIL: the depravity of his regime was, after all, a driving factor in creating ISIL. Indeed, while the international coalition has been trying to save Kobane, Assad has been continuing his attacks and aerial bombardments on the moderates, including around Aleppo and Damascus. Those close to Assad should be in no doubt that he must be removed to clear the way for a Government in Damascus who enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people, credibility with the international community and who can take effective action against extremism. For as long as he remains in power, there will be no peace in Syria.
Britain will continue to provide strong support to the moderate opposition, including technical assistance and non-lethal equipment. We have recently increased our funding to areas under opposition control and to regional allies, to increase their resilience against the effects of the Syria conflict. Our support, along with that of our allies, is helping the moderates to deliver good governance and strong public services in the area they control, thus relieving the suffering of the civilian population.
Air strikes are being carried out in Syria by the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan. The UK strongly supports this action. No one who has watched a television screen over the past week or so can have failed to be moved by the plight of the defenders of Kobane. Their situation has at times appeared hopeless, yet, supported by coalition air strikes, they are holding on and in some areas pushing back. The moderate opposition has held back ISIL in other parts of northern Syria. Air strikes have targeted ISIL’s headquarters, command and control, and military forces in the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, degrading their capabilities. They have also hit the economic infrastructure that ISIL has been exploiting to generate revenue from illegal oil sales.
The UK Government expect to make a significant contribution to the US-led programme to train the Syrian moderate armed opposition, which is fighting both Assad’s tyranny and ISIL’s extremism. Details of how that contribution will be delivered are currently being scoped.
ISIL represents a threat to Iraq and to the region, but it also represents a major threat to us here at home, particularly at the hands of returning foreign fighters, and to our citizens worldwide. The UK has led the coalition on a number of wider counter-terrorism initiatives, which aim to cut off the flow of finance and fighters to ISIL in both Syria and Iraq.
Through our membership of the United Nations Security Council, we have been instrumental in securing the listings of 20 individuals, including 16 directly linked to ISIL or the al-Nusra front, and two al-Qaeda-related organisations, since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2170 on terrorist financing. We are also working closely with partners to disrupt ISIL’s access to external markets for illicit sales of oil and other goods. Domestically, we are seeking to strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission to counter terrorist abuse of the charity sector. On terrorist recruitment, the UK co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2178 sets out a framework to dissuade, prevent and disrupt travel, to work with communities, to strengthen border controls and to manage the challenge of returning foreign fighters. We will now actively pursue that agenda throughout Europe and the middle east.
As co-chairs of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum’s working group on countering violent extremism, we are looking at new ways to strengthen the ability of partners overseas to counter the terrorist propaganda that contributes to radicalisation, and to the recruitment and mobilisation of individuals into terrorism.
The advance of ISIL and the Assad regime’s continued attrition against its own population have caused a humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria no less grave than the political and military one. More than 170,000 people have fled from Kobane, and more than 30,000 people have been displaced from the town of Hit in Anbar province as a result of recent fighting; many of them have ended up in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The need to winterise refugee accommodation is increasingly urgent as the wet weather and then the cold weather approaches. The Kurdish leadership made very clear to me the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis it faces in accommodating nearly 1 million refugees—perhaps half Iraq’s total population of internally displaced persons—at the same time as defending its 600-mile front line with ISIL. The humanitarian challenges go wider. In Syria, nearly 14 million people need assistance, with 6.5 million IDPs and 3 million refugees.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recently announced £100 million in additional funding, bringing the UK contribution to the Syria crisis to £700 million. Our support is reaching hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. UK aid is providing water for up to 1.5 million people, and has funded more than 5 million monthly food rations. In addition, we are supporting the Governments of Lebanon and Jordan to manage the impact of the huge influx of refugees to those countries on their host communities. Britain was one of the first donors to respond to the worsening situation in Iraq this summer, and has allocated a total of £23 million to Iraq since 13 June to meet immediate humanitarian needs and to support the UN and other agencies in their response. Aid has been focused on need, mainly in the Kurdish region. DFID has already responded to the urgent needs of the Syrian Kurdish refugees who have recently fled to Turkey, and it is ready to react swiftly to further developments.
We have a wide-ranging and ambitious strategy to confront an evil that is a direct threat to our national security. I pay tribute to the members of our diplomatic service and international development teams in the region, who are working in very difficult circumstances, and, above all, to the men and women of our armed forces who are once again putting their lives at risk as Britain takes its place at the heart of the international coalition in waging a struggle against a barbaric force that has no place in human civilisation in the 21st century. They will always have our wholehearted support. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for advance sight of it, although I regret that, unlike under his predecessor, it was sent only a few moments before we had to head to the Chamber. None the less, let me of course echo him in expressing our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of Alan Henning. He went to Syria to help the Syrian people in their most desperate time of need, and his callous murder by ISIL both confirms the brutality of an organisation that glorifies terror and defies decency and humanity.
I join the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute not only to our armed forces for their outstanding work, but to the dedicated diplomats and aid workers who are today contributing to the UK’s efforts in the region. Let me of course pay tribute as well to the law enforcement officers and agencies in the United Kingdom, who endeavour each and every day to keep our borders safe.
I welcome the steps that the British Government are taking to address the huge humanitarian needs within the region, but I urge them to make further efforts to ensure that the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs appeal is fully funded by the international community, notwithstanding the significant contribution that I am proud to say the United Kingdom has made.
As well as the Foreign Secretary’s visit to the region this week, President Obama held a video conference with the Prime Minister, President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy to discuss the campaign against ISIL. On Tuesday, the United States hosted a summit with senior military commanders from across the international coalition to discuss the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Curiously, those discussions did not merit a mention in the Foreign Secretary’s statement. What did feature was the Foreign Secretary’s assessment that the coalition air campaign has “stabilised the strategic picture”. That seems to be a somewhat complacent assessment, given that the air strikes initiated in recent weeks have failed to prevent ISIL from conquering almost all of Anbar province and coming close to overrunning the Syrian town of Kobane. It is reported that ISIL also drew to within 15 miles of Baghdad international airport only last weekend.
The backdrop to the authorisation that Parliament granted for UK airstrikes in Iraq was the expectation that, within Iraq, the Iraqi military and the Kurds would provide resistance to ISIL’s advance on the ground. The United States has also committed significant resources to supporting the Free Syrian Army in Syria. However, only one of those forces—the Kurdish peshmerga—has so far resisted ISIL effectively. Incidentally, that force has historically not been armed or trained by our friends and allies in the United States.
Against that challenging backdrop, I ask the Foreign Secretary the following questions. Reports in recent days have suggested that in Iraq’s Anbar province the Iraqi army abandoned a key base under cover of darkness, leaving 30,000 families defenceless and the way clear for ISIL to advance on Baghdad international airport. Only last month, General Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, stated that nearly half of the Iraqi military—24 out of 50 brigades—were incapable of fighting ISIL. In the light of his discussions in Iraq this week, can the Foreign Secretary offer more clarity on our Government’s assessment of the capability of the Iraqi armed forces? Will he also set out what consideration is being given to further material requests from the Kurdish peshmerga for training, equipment and support?
In Syria today, the sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them Kurds, fleeing in terror from their homes in Kobane is a stark demonstration of the peril and persecution that so many citizens still face across the region. Reports overnight indicated, however, that the international coalition has made some progress in helping to secure parts of the border town. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm his assessment of those reports?
The Foreign Secretary spoke on his visit to Iraq about a growing role for the UK in training and supporting local forces. Rather delphically, he has just told the House: “The UK Government expect to make a significant contribution to the US-led programme to train the Syrian moderate…opposition”. He went on to say that details of that contribution are currently being “scoped”. Will he therefore set out not the details, but the parameters of the potential UK contribution?
Curiously, the Foreign Secretary chose to mention Turkey in his statement only in relation to humanitarian assistance. Given Turkey’s huge strategic significance, will he confirm whether he, personally, has raised the prospect of its contributing to the military coalition against ISIL with the Turkish Government directly?
The long-term success of any approach will be measured by the role that is played by a broader alliance against ISIL and, in particular, by regional leaders, armies and communities. It is clear that the role of the Sunni communities and leaders across the region remains fundamental. In Iraq, the Sunni tribes who revolted against ISIL’s earlier incarnation in 2007 will undoubtedly be required to play a significant role once again. Across the region, leading Sunni countries must make tangible commitments to defeating ISIL, beyond simply writing cheques. Will the Foreign Secretary give his assessment of what progress is being made not only on halting the flow of fighters from within the region, but on disrupting the flow of finance to ISIL from countries within the region? Will he say whether it is realistic to expect that we will secure a significantly greater regional military contribution to the coalition campaign?
Ultimately, the need for an integrated regional, military, diplomatic, humanitarian and political campaign against ISIL is common ground across the Chamber. Notwithstanding today’s statement, our view is that the severity of the threat that ISIL poses is not yet matched by the effectiveness of the national, regional and international response. I certainly welcome the optimism of the Foreign Secretary’s statement after his visit to Iraq, but the risks remain real and we remain concerned that recent weeks have seen more setbacks than progress on the ground.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. If he received a copy of my statement only a few minutes before I rose to deliver it—as far as I am concerned, it was delivered to him a good 45 minutes before I stood up—I shall investigate what happened and write to him. Although I am optimistic about the commitment being shown in Baghdad—he mentioned the optimism of my tone—I thought I was frankly rather realistic about the challenges that lie ahead, particularly the time scales. His remarks and questions suggest that he is looking for a degree of instant gratification in response to the international coalition’s engagement that, I am afraid, is unlikely to be delivered.
Let me go through the points that have been raised. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there was an important conference of chiefs of defence staff to discuss the operation of the coalition forces, and that President Obama convened a video conference. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to give the House a running commentary on the outcome of either of those discussions, but I can say that the conclusions of the read-outs I have seen were very much in line with what I have said this morning. The coalition intervention has stabilised the strategic picture, and ISIL is no longer making rapid advances, which we saw earlier in the summer. It has been forced into a defensive posture in many areas, and forced to change its tactics and resume the characteristics of a terrorist organisation, rather than operating as a conventional military force. The intervention of the coalition has had a significant impact, but, as I said, that in no way attempts to conceal the fact that there will of course be tactical ebb and flow. Towns will be taken and towns will be lost as the situation stabilises.
The key question, which the right hon. Gentleman correctly identifies, is the capability of the Iraqi security forces. We have always been clear that although airstrikes are an important component, they can never deliver victory against ISIL on their own. That victory will be dependent on boots on the ground, and in southern Iraq those boots must be provided by the Iraqi security forces. In the north the Kurdish peshmerga are doing a good job, and we will continue to support them with training and additional equipment. It is clear—I had this discussion with President Barzani on Monday evening—that the peshmerga will not operate very far outside the Kurdish region. They may be prepared to take part in limited operations in the north outside the Kurdish region, but they will not be operating in the south or west of Iraq.
We are dependent on rising to the challenge of rebuilding, restructuring, re-equipping and retraining the Iraqi security forces, after a period of years in which their capability was degraded by the blatant sectarianism of the Maliki Government, who appointed Shi’a officers, on the basis of tribal allegiance rather than military competence, to command posts that they were not necessarily suited for. There is a major job to be done, and we should be under no illusions about the technical challenge and political hurdles that Prime Minister al-Abadi will face—including resistance from his own Shi’a block in Parliament—to making the necessary changes. The reason for optimism is that the leaders at least understand that that has to be done, and that this is Iraq’s last chance to show that it can operate as a nation state.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about suggestions that 50% of ISF’s brigades were effectively undeployable and inoperable. That is an absolutely fair assessment, and I have heard higher assessments of the percentage of heavy equipment that has either been lost to ISIL or destroyed during fighting. He mentioned the role of the international coalition in Kobane, and I am pleased that the intensification of air strikes appears to have allowed the Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobane to retake some ground and consolidate their defence. Again, we should be under no illusion that we will be able to use coalition air power alone to save Kobane. We can support the forces on the ground, but it is that fight on the ground that will determine the outcome.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about training the Syrian moderate opposition, but I cannot give him detailed plans because the programme is still at an early stage. It is clear that the training will be done outside Syria in friendly regional countries, and that the forces to be trained will be paid on a regular basis from funding that the United States is providing. This will be a trained, disciplined and organised force returning to the fight in Syria under proper command and control.
The right hon. Gentleman detected what he thought was perhaps reticence on my part to talk about the role of Turkey, whose role in this battle against ISIL is indeed complex. Turkey has complex relationships with Iraq and Syria, and the presence of a large Kurdish population spanning the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey is a significant factor in how Turkey relates to this challenge. Turkey has made it clear that since the release of its hostages by ISIL, it is ready to engage with the coalition, but the exact form of that engagement must be sensitive to the historical context in which it sits, and to historical relationships between the Kurds and the Turks, the Kurds and the Iraqis, and the Iraqis and the Turks. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I spoke to my Turkish opposite number on Friday, following discussions earlier last week in the United States on the specific question of Turkey’s role in the coalition. The UK National Security Adviser is in Turkey today for further such discussions, and they are at the forefront of the coalition’s agenda as we take the debate forward.
Finally, let me respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about Sunni countries in the region and the regional powers. From a western perspective, we are looking at a Muslim region, and we are asking and expecting Muslim countries in the coalition to do more to lead this fight. I was in the Gulf on Tuesday and I detected a clear willingness on the part of the Gulf Arabs to commit to the fight and to address issues of funding flows, and much has already been done. Again, however, we must be sensitive to the historical and cultural context in which these questions sit. Prime Minister al-Abadi has to take a Shi’a majority in Parliament and a Shi’a majority population with him in the fight against ISIL. In working out how best to utilise the willingness of Sunni Arab countries to become engaged in this fight, he must ensure that he is respectful of the sensitivities of his own Shi’a population, and ensure that this is a fight that we can all deliver together, without trampling on historical sensitivities along the way.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the tone and approach of his statement, but may I press him a little further on the role of Turkey? Will he verify the truth of rather astonishing reports that the Turks bombed Kurdish PKK camps in the last few days, rather than ISIL camps? Can he confirm that the Turks have said that they will not intervene on the ground in Syria unless the opposition is armed? He has spoken about further support for the moderate armed opposition, but will the further support that he says is under consideration include the supply of lethal equipment?
The UK’s position at the moment is that we will not supply lethal equipment to the Syrian armed opposition. We are supplying non-lethal equipment and we will provide training in due course. Although the discussion with Turkey about the role it will play is ongoing, I have not heard any conditionality proposed by the Turks around arming the Syrian opposition as a precondition for Turkish involvement on the ground. There have been discussions on various other issues, but I have not heard that one.
My right hon. Friend asked me about the reports in the media that Turkish forces have attacked PKK bases within Turkey. I, too, have read those reports. There is a historic pattern of conflict between Turkey and armed PKK locations. I cannot verify those particular reports, but it is important to emphasise that the reports relate to PKK positions in south-eastern Turkey rather than in Syria. I hope those responses are helpful to my right hon. Friend.
As a former Minister with responsibility for the middle east, may I express my disappointment at the Foreign Secretary’s failure to answer the pertinent questions put by the shadow Foreign Secretary? In particular, does not the situation around Kobane symbolise the complete failure of this Government’s policy towards dealing with Syria and the wider conflict that it has spawned around ISIL? The truth is that the Turkish Government are unwilling to intervene to stop ISIL—its tanks are literally parked looking down at Kobane—until Assad has gone. Assad is not going to go, however much we all want him to, because he has too much firepower standing behind him, including the Russians and the Iranians. Until there is a serious strategy of engagement and negotiation to bring about the transition, we will continue to pursue this futile policy and we will not be able to defeat ISIL. Does he not agree?
The right hon. Gentleman says that he speaks as a former Minister with responsibility for the middle east, so he will know, perhaps better than most, the complexity of this area. We can only guess at the complex motives and motivations of Turkey in its individual actions, but I am not sure that his analysis of why the Turks have not intervened in Kobane is correct. Frankly, I think this has more to do with intra-Kurdish politics than it has to do with the regime in Damascus, but it is a complex situation. There are many different conflicts wrapped up within this overall battle, many of them deeply historic and with very complex roots.
In the debate a couple of weeks ago on intervention in Iraq, the right hon. Gentleman made very clear, to his credit, his view that we should be further forward- leaning still—that we should be prepared to intervene in Syria. What I would be very interested to hear, and did not hear from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman’s speech, is an indication whether that is now the Opposition’s view.
I personally find it increasingly difficult to justify the distinction in our policy between Iraq and Syria. If the town of Kobane falls, the outcome for its inhabitants, based on previous experience, could be apocalyptic. In those circumstances, is there not a case for the United Kingdom to join in the air operations in Syria under the authority of not only the right of humanitarian intervention but, perhaps more pertinently, the duty to protect?
I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend says about the distinction between Iraq and Syria. He is absolutely right that in military terms this is a single theatre of operations. The Government continue to review our position with regard to Syria. As we have said before, if we come to the conclusion that there is a military case for Britain taking part in air strikes in Syria, we will come back to the House of Commons and there will be a separate debate on that. What I would say to him is that my meetings in Washington last week left me with the clear understanding that there is no shortage of air power capability in Syria. The targets that are being identified are being prosecuted. What is needed is not more strike power; it is more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in order to generate targets. That does not require UK participation in strike operations.
I want also to respond to my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments on Kobane. Of course it would be a very negative development if Kobane were to fall, but he should be aware that the great majority of the inhabitants have already left that town, many of them crossing the border into Turkey. As we understand it, there is a very small number of civilians left in the town.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the 170,000 people who have left Kobane, but the city has not fallen. It has not fallen because the brave Kurdish Syrian PYD fighters are resisting, but they are outgunned. When he says that we should be supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, is there any suggestion that that should include the Kurdish Syrian opposition, who are fighting hard to protect the civilian population in that part of Syria?
Yes. We would look to work with all opposition groups in Syria who are committed to a democratic future for Syria, but the hon. Gentleman will know, returning to the theme of the complexity of the historic conflicts in this area, that the Turkish Government regard PYD as a terrorist organisation and have said in terms that they regard it as on a par with ISIL. The Turkish Government see what is happening in Kobane as two terrorist organisations fighting each other.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that ISIS cannot be defeated by air power alone, and that success on the ground will be required. Frankly, if we cannot get the Sunni tribes in Anbar province to take up arms against ISIS, this is simply not going to happen. What are our Sunni Arab partners in the coalition doing to try to bring those tribes into this situation so that they can provide some of those ground forces? Will he also tell us what our allies in the Arab world believe the endgame to be, politically? Many now believe it is inevitable that the final outcome will have to be a federal Iraq that gives Sunnis the guarantee of some autonomy, having seen how they were utterly betrayed by the Maliki Government?
To answer my right hon. Friend’s last point first, yes, I think there is a widespread realism in Baghdad, not just among the Gulf Arab countries, that a viable future Iraq will have to involve considerable devolution of autonomy to the Sunni areas, as well as to the Kurdish region. The recognition of that by Prime Minister al-Abadi is an important step forward, but he still faces huge challenges in delivering it because not all of his own Shi’a block in Parliament understands the existential need to devolve power within Iraq if the country is to remain together.
My right hon. Friend asked me about the Sunni tribes in Anbar. He is of course right. There are three potential forces in Iraq to fight ISIL: the Kurdish peshmerga; the Iraqi security forces, once they are reorganised and retrained; and the Sunni tribes in Anbar and other western provinces. A significant programme of outreach to tribal leaders is going on, partly led by Sunni Gulf countries that have tribal links to them. Also, we, and our American partners, have significant links to these tribes from our own time operating in Iraq and through key individuals who developed significant personal relationships with tribal leaders and have access to them.
I, too, was surprised at the lack of reference in the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the role of Turkey. May I get a response from him on one point? Will he prevail on the Turkish Government not to attack legitimate civilian protest in locations as far apart as Van, Mardin, Diyarbakir and Istanbul? Up to 9 October, 33 civilians have been killed by Turkish police and paramilitaries, and 336 people, I believe, have been injured, allegedly by Turkish forces chanting, “Long live ISIL”.
We regret the outbreak of violence in domestic protests in Turkey—something we had hoped we had put behind us—and, as always, we deplore the use of violence in protests and the use of violence by the authorities in dealing with those protests. We make our views known consistently to our Turkish allies.
May I urge caution on those who advocate increased military intervention, whether in Iraq or Syria? Our track record in understanding the nuances of the region has been poor over the past decade, whether in Iraq in 2003, the disastrous morphing of the mission in Afghanistan in 2006, Libya or, indeed, our differing positions on the Syrian civil war only recently. However, may I turn the Foreign Secretary’s attention to the politics in Baghdad? The layer below the immediate leadership has essentially remained the same, which makes the adoption of a more inclusive form of politics far less likely. That will be an uphill struggle. What are we going to do about it?
I made specific reference to that in my opening remarks. It is true that Prime Minister al-Abadi faces a significant challenge in persuading those on his own side, including a bloc of Shi’a representatives in Parliament led by former Prime Minister al-Maliki, to acquiesce in what will be some very difficult decisions for the Shi’a community to accept. This moment demands great leadership, and we will offer Prime Minister al-Abadi all the support we can to do that. If I wanted to identify a reason to be optimistic, it would be this: the advance of ISIL earlier this summer has shocked the political elite in Baghdad, as well as the Iranian Government, who hold significant influence over the Shi’a bloc in the Iraqi Parliament. There is awareness in Baghdad that something has to change and that if something is not done, the battle will be lost.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s support for the peshmerga and the ongoing support of the UK Government, and he was right to recognise the bravery of the defenders of Kobane. However, what detailed conversations is he having about opening up a humanitarian corridor to ensure that the people, including women, who have taken up arms to defend their families are supported and protected and that we avoid the apocalypse mentioned by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell)?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is talking about Syria or Iraq. In Syria, under the authority of the UN Security Council resolution, of course we are seeking humanitarian access to communities under pressure, and we will continue to assert our right to deliver humanitarian aid and the regime’s obligation under international law to allow the aid to be delivered. As she will know, we are also focusing a lot of aid in the Kurdish region of Iraq. I have not been able to verify this personally, but I was told on Monday by the Kurdish President that many of the Kurds who left Kobane and crossed the border into Turkey have now made their way into Iraqi Kurdistan, because of the relative safety there and the relatively good level of humanitarian provision being delivered under UN auspices.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the brave aid workers at ShelterBox? It is providing ShelterBox tents and tented medical clinics to the vast numbers of people that, according to those I have spoken to at ShelterBox, are making their way to the relatively safe haven of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the last two weeks, more than 540 tents have been distributed and set up, and I understand that another 1,300 are awaiting distribution.
I am happy to endorse the efforts of ShelterBox, an organisation my hon. Friend obviously knows something about, and commend its efforts. The urgent need in Kurdistan now is for winterisation. Camps have been set up and are accommodating just under 1 million internally displaced persons within the territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, but as winter approaches, they will face a dire situation if that accommodation is not effectively winterised against the very harsh conditions in that mountainous area.
On the point abut winterisation, will the Secretary of State comment on media reports that British Army equipment abandoned in Afghanistan could, if moved to Irbil, save the lives of up to 20,000 Iraqi refugees?
As far as I am aware, unless policy has changed in the three months since I left the Ministry of Defence, there is no British equipment of any value being abandoned in Afghanistan; the overwhelming majority of Britain’s equipment is being brought back, reconditioned and taken back into use by the British Army.
What about tents?
I do not think we have any shortage of tents. I will talk to colleagues in the Department for International Development, but my understanding is that we have plenty of physical equipment. The problem in the Kurdish region is with logistics, rather than the physical infrastructure of tents and so on, and now the challenge is to make the accommodation appropriate for the harsh winter conditions.
Order. I ask hon. Members to focus on crisp, single questions to the Foreign Secretary, whom I am sure will give crisp and short answers, so that we can get everybody in and still have time for the debates later.
First, may I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s serious endeavours to get to grips with some very complex problems? He said that having boots on the ground was essential. To ask a crisp question, what are the prospects of getting the Iraqi army retrained—
Or others, as my hon. Friend says. It was a matter of extraordinary surprise, after the investment made by British and American troops in training the Iraqis, that they collapsed in the face of the enemy.
We need to do two things to make this work. First, we need to retrain the basic manpower of the Iraqi army. It can be done, but it will take some time and, in the meantime, we will have to use air power to hold the line. Secondly, we need significant change in the senior command and control structure, including the replacement of essentially political appointees under the previous regime with competent military people. That will be a challenge, because these people will have their vested interests and their constituencies behind them, but it is the challenge that Prime Minister al-Abadi faces.
Returning to the humanitarian issues that the Foreign Secretary raised, I acknowledge the work of DFID, the UN, the non-governmental organisations and the international community, but in the areas of Iraq and Syria under ISIL control, the response to the humanitarian crisis is dependent wholly on local organisations. What help can we give them?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of support for DFID and the international community that is trying to deliver aid. He is absolutely right, of course: in the areas controlled by ISIL, informal support to local NGOs is one strand of the work that DFID and the international aid community are doing. The aid community is acutely aware that it needs to work with the grain of the local situation, and where it provides support in ISIL-controlled areas, it has to work with who it can. That will not always be ideal, but it will get as much aid to those areas as possible.
I wonder whether I could press the Foreign Secretary further on the role of Turkey. It is a concern that foreign fighters are still crossing the border from Turkey into Syria to join ISIS. It is also a concern that the Turkish authorities are still equivocal about the use of the Incirlik air base by coalition forces. Will my right hon. Friend say what representations he has made to the Turkish Government on those two matters?
As I mentioned earlier, the national security adviser is in Turkey today and will be talking to the Turkish authorities. For operational security reasons, I do not propose—and, I do not propose as a Government—to give a running commentary on which bases in which countries are being used for which operations. What I can say to my right hon. Friend is that control along the Turkish-Syrian and Turkish-Iraqi border has significantly improved over the last few weeks. We have close contact with the Turks on the movement of British-originating potential fighters across that border, and although there is still more that can be done, we are generally very pleased with the advances that have been made over the last few weeks.
Is the Foreign Secretary not concerned about the apparently very close relationship that exists between some elements of the Turkish Government and forces and the ISIL forces? Does he not think that in the long run there has to be a political settlement? That must include the right of self-determination for the Kurdish peoples all across the region, who have frankly been wronged ever since the end of the first world war on the question of their own identity. It is an issue that will simply not go away.
The hon. Gentleman’s intervention just goes to underline how complex the situation is. We are not dealing with a conflict; we are dealing with a number of conflicts that interact with each other and mean that some of the participants have multiple considerations that they are dealing with when they decide how to act. Progress was being made—has been made—in Turkey over the last couple of years in resolving differences between the Turkish state and its Kurdish population. Significant progress has been made. I am afraid that what is going on now across the region is not helpful to that process and is not taking it forward. I think it is probably premature at this stage to speculate on the end outcome, but clearly the relationship between the different Kurdish groups in the four different countries is a crucial part of the overall conflict.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has used strong language in his statement. He says that Islamic State is “an evil which is a direct threat to our national security.” He says that it is possessed of a “poisonous ideology”. He says that it is “a barbaric force that has no place in human civilisation in the 21st century”; and he says that it “represents a major threat to us, here at home, particularly at the hands of returning foreign fighters”. Given that, with the assent of this House, Her Majesty’s armed forces are now engaged in military action against Islamic State, given that we have all witnessed on television the beheading by a British jihadist of British and American aid workers, and given that the offence of treason still exists, but has not been used since 1946, will the Foreign Secretary ensure that British jihadists who return from Iraq and Syria are prosecuted for the offence of treason? Their actions are treachery against Her Majesty, and aiding and abetting enemies of Her Majesty is one of the greatest offences a British citizen can commit. The message should go out from this House—
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a long time. He knows that this is not an opportunity to make a speech. He has made his point very powerfully and I am sure the Foreign Secretary will respond equally powerfully.
My hon. Friend makes his point with great passion. He will know that there are a number of offences under English law with which returning foreign fighters can be charged. We have had a discussion about the allegiance question. We have seen people declaring that they have sworn personal allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. That does raise questions about their loyalty and allegiance to this country and about whether, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the offence of treason could have been committed. I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the Home Secretary, who ultimately will be the person who needs to look at this.
There are indeed many historic and political reasons for Turkey not to take a more active part in fighting ISIL, but will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that Turkey is not putting anything in the way of those who do wish to take part, in terms of access to air space or land routes, and also say to what extent any negotiations that the United States is having with Turkey at the moment over access and activity include the United Kingdom?
The hon. Lady will know that the Turkish Parliament has recently passed a law that allows Turkish air bases to be used by international forces, allows the stationing of international forces on Turkish soil and allows the passage of international forces across Turkish soil and through Turkish air space, so the framework is now in place to permit a high level of collaboration. What we, the Americans and the French are still talking to the Turks about is how best they can deliver their contribution to the coalition in a way that recognises the historical sensitivities, but none the less makes a significant contribution to the effort against ISIL.
The women and men of our intelligence and security services are doing the most incredible job at this difficult time. Will my right hon. Friend pass on the thanks of this House and confirm that if they need anything—whether support from this place or further budget and financial support—it will be given?
I am probably long enough in the tooth to know that questions asking for categorical assurances of further additional budget resources are ones for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, it is the case, as my hon. Friend says, that the intelligence and security services are making a huge contribution to the fight against ISIL. Much of the fight has to take place in the intelligence and security space. It is about stopping foreign fighters getting out there, tracking them while they are out there, intercepting them if they try to come back, cutting off funding flows and stopping the supply of illicit equipment and materials. The services have reprioritised—something they do incredibly effectively when they need to—to make this their main effort and they are providing a huge input to the fight.
Further to the contribution from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), 30 British jihadists have died since the current fighting started, and all the evidence is that the more who die, the more who want to go and fight. Although I obviously accept the package of measures that the Foreign Secretary has set out to the House today, what more can be done to stop people going in the first place—not just to stop them crossing borders, but to stop them boarding those flights?
It is probably worth noting that, as well as the reported 30 dead, there have been media reports of an even larger number of jihadis who, having seen the brutality of ISIL, want to escape from it and return, but are reportedly unable to do so. The kernel of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is about how we stop people getting out there. We have to take a multi-tiered, multi-layered approach. We start by trying to explain to them the reality of what ISIL is about, undermining its narrative and ideology, and explaining to them that it is incompatible with any reasonable and sensible interpretation of Islam. If we do not succeed in dissuading people, we will try to intercept them, and we have an increasing number of tools available to us. If we fail to intercept them leaving the UK, we have the opportunity, through our collaboration with Turkey, to intercept them when they seek to cross the Turkish border. At all those stages, we will do everything we can to prevent foreign fighters from reaching Iraq and Syria.
We have heard about the gallantry of the Kurdish ground troops, often led by women, who are defending Kobane, but is there any possibility of a humanitarian corridor through Turkish territory to give humanitarian aid and support to its besieged inhabitants?
Looking at a map, that would exactly be the logic. My understanding is that the Turks are allowing humanitarian supplies across the border, but they are not currently allowing military reinforcements across their border.
ISIL swept across northern Iraq and the middle of Iraq in its brutal and bloody campaign of genocide. One thing that concerns many people within and outside the House is the kidnapping and abduction of women, children and families. What steps have been taken to return those members of families to their loved ones, and what can be done to help them?
The hon. Gentleman is right: there have, sadly, been industrial-scale organised kidnappings—perhaps not so much kidnappings as enslavement of large numbers of people, particularly of women but people of communities and faiths that ISIL does not recognise or approve of. Sadly, there is little that we, from outside, are able to do to trace what has happened to those people on the ground. Some of them have escaped and turned up as refugees, and their heart-rending stories have been published in some of the newspapers, which the hon. Gentleman will have seen. I am afraid we have low visibility when it comes to what has happened to many of these people.
What is the rationale for proving only non-lethal support to the Syrian moderate opposition?
The Government’s decision to date has been that we do not wish to move to the provision of lethal support to Syrian opposition groups while the opposition remains as fragmented as it is and the intentions of all the groups in it are not as clear as we would like. Some of the groups that might have been considered eligible for support as members of the moderate opposition two years ago have subsequently shown themselves to have little in common with our view of the democratic future of Syria.
The Foreign Secretary has talked a number of times about stopping the flow of fighters going to join ISIL. Is any specific work being done on the very disturbing reports of young women, who are actually children, being radicalised and travelling from this country to the region to become brides of ISIL fighters?
There is. It is an absolutely central strand of the work that the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government lead. The trafficking of any people who are not adults for any purpose is deeply to be deplored—and for the purposes outlined by the hon. Lady, even more so. It is, as I say, an essential strand of the work going on.
In answer to an earlier question from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the Foreign Secretary seemed to say that there were no grounds for extending British military activities into Syria. If I am right, and on that basis, will he today rule out any such extension of British military action across the border into Syria?
No. To make the position clear, we have always said that we have not ruled out the possibility of extending British military action in the form of air strikes into Syria, but that we would need to see a clear military case for doing so. In other words, we need to be able to make a contribution that would add some significant value to the coalition effort. What I said was that my understanding of the current situation is that there are plenty of strike assets available for use in Syria. The US as coalition lead is not short of ability to strike targets in Syria; what it is short of is properly reconnoitred targets that we can strike safely without fear of creating collateral damage or civilian casualties. The need at the moment is for more ISR—intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—not more strike assets.
Returning to the humanitarian crisis in and around Kobane, the Foreign Secretary is right that an estimated 178,000 refugees have crossed the border into Turkey, but many were seeking sanctuary in Kobane and are left there under threat. Given the sensitivities in the relationship between the Kurdish community and the Turkish authorities, can the right hon. Gentleman reassure us that he or other Ministers have had conversations with the Turkish authorities to ensure that they will be up to the problems created by a humanitarian crisis, should it occur?
I understand that an estimated 20,000 civilians remain in Kobane. The Turks have an excellent record of accommodating refugees crossing their border. They have accommodated hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the great majority of the population of Kobane has already evacuated the city, mostly across the border into Turkey. Should the remaining population choose to leave the city, I have no reason to suppose that they would be unable to do so via Turkey.
From the words and tone of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, it seems that those who have fled the conflict to protect their lives might now find themselves in jeopardy if there is inadequate preparation for the onset of winter. How confident is the right hon. Gentleman that the extensive efforts going on will ensure that people who have saved their lives from conflict do not lose their lives through winter?
The hon. Gentleman asks the right question. People who will have moved to a place of safety, if not one of comfort, now face the real challenges of a mounting winter. I am confident that between the bilateral efforts, the international agency presence and the significant work being done by the Government of the Kurdistan region, we are not talking about placing lives in jeopardy as a result of the onset of winter. I do not think the situation is at that level of extreme, but I do think we face the risk of some real suffering during the winter if we are unable to deliver all the winterisation equipment required before the onset of the really cold weather.