The United Kingdom is part of a coalition of more than 60 countries supporting the Government of Iraq against ISIL, and RAF strikes are assisting Iraqi ground forces. A number of strategically important towns in the north have been liberated by the peshmerga, but the scale of the problem remains significant. The coalition’s air intervention has halted the rapid ISIL advance, but it alone is not capable of rolling back ISIL’s gains. Ultimately, the fight against ISIL in Iraq must be led by the Iraqis themselves, with the new Government ensuring that there is an inclusive and unified response.
The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged that the air strikes are only one element of a wider political and military strategy, including support for the creation of a more representative Iraqi Government. Having just returned from Iraq with the Foreign Affairs Committee, I am aware of ongoing disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, which may well have a negative effect on the achievement of that aim. What progress does the Foreign Secretary think can be made, and what are the implications if the situation cannot be resolved?
There are still outstanding disputes between Irbil and Baghdad, but, if I may say so having been there two and a half weeks ago myself, the mood music between Irbil and Baghdad is much better now than it has been for months, probably years. Kurdish Ministers are now in Baghdad. There is a serious discussion going on about the division of oil revenues, which is one of the crucial outstanding issues. I told the House a week or so ago, and I repeat again today, that I am optimistic about relationships between Irbil and Baghdad at least in the medium term.
Important though air strikes are, of course alone they are not going to defeat ISIL. In his answer to the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) my right hon. Friend explained the political progress being made in Iraq. Will he update the House on how he sees the importance of political progress in Syria in also defeating ISIL?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the fullness of time, pushing ISIL back in Iraq, which is our first priority, will not be sufficient to defeat that organisation; there will have to be political progress in Syria as well. At the moment we are focused on ensuring the consolidation of the Syrian moderate opposition and the organisation of the additional training and equipping that the US Congress has now agreed to finance for Syrian moderate opposition fighters.
Speaking of the campaign against ISIL, the US director of national intelligence recently testified that the Syrian opposition is composed of at least 1,500 separate militias, and a recent US congressional report went further in claiming that the Free Syrian Army does not actually refer to any
“organised command and control structure with national reach”,
so can the Foreign Secretary set out whether the Government’s own scoping exercise that is under way is focused on the Free Syrian Army, or whether support for other opposition groups is being considered as part of this exercise?
We will be working closely with our American allies, and General John Allen in his newly appointed role will be the overall co-ordinator of this programme, but the Americans have made it very clear that while the Free Syrian Army will be part of this programme of training and equipping, the whole thing will not operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army; other organisations who are judged to be moderate and share our objectives will be able to participate.
But does the Secretary of State accept that in Syria it is going to be months, if not years, before the Syrian moderate opposition will be strong enough to push back the Islamic State terrorists in the north? Is there not a fundamental gap in international strategy, including that of the British Government, if that is what they are relying on to remove Islamic State in Syria?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; it will take time—it will take time to train and organise the force that will be able to do this. In the meantime, we will use coalition air strikes to contain and degrade ISIL, but defeating it on the ground will take Syrian boots, and training those Syrian boots is going to take time.
During a visit by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to Iraq and Kurdistan last week we were told of the gratitude of the Iraqis and the Kurds towards the British Government for the help they are giving. We also saw the peshmerga being trained with the new weaponry that has been sent to Kurdistan, but they are taking enormous hits. They are very brave as we all know, but they are taking enormous hits and they need more weapons; that is the message they wanted us to get across.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and she will not be surprised to learn that I heard a very similar message when I was in Irbil a couple of weeks ago. The Prime Minister has appointed Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall as his security envoy to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Part of his task is to assess the needs of the peshmerga, and their abilities as well—there is no point giving them weapons they cannot maintain or use effectively. We have supplied them with some heavy calibre machine guns, which they are now deploying to good effect, but we are constantly open to suggestions from the peshmerga about any additional requirements they may have.
The point has just been made that the peshmerga are defending hundreds of miles of frontier with just rifles, and what they desperately need is equipment, equipment and equipment. To what extent is the Foreign Office liaising with our allies to make sure there is not a duplication of equipment and to enable us to supply the very important equipment the Peshmerga need?
There is co-ordination with allies. Part of the point of the US appointing General John Allen to act as a co-ordinator for the coalition is to ensure that we do these things efficiently and effectively. My right hon. Friend is right to suggest that the peshmerga are defending 1,000 km of frontier in what is effectively ISIL-controlled territory. They are doing that extraordinarily bravely, but there are still significant deficiencies in their weaponry, and we must look collectively at those and address them as rapidly as we can.