With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement.
ISIL poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom and to countries around the world. Last month, 30 British citizens were murdered on a beach in a brutal and cowardly attack inspired by ISIL. It is right that the United Kingdom is making a significant contribution to the international coalition to defeat ISIL and to destroy its bases in Iraq and Syria.
More than 60 countries, both within the region and from outside, are part of that international effort, demonstrating the widespread opposition to and abhorrence of ISIL’s barbarous terrorism. There is a well planned, integrated strategy to defeat ISIL that includes: action to cut off its funding; stopping the flow of foreign fighters; humanitarian assistance to both Iraq and Syria; strategic communications to tackle its poisonous ideology; and the military campaign. That strategy is overseen by Ministers from all the key nations, including the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi.
Our strategy is therefore comprehensive and broader than simply military action. It deals with the ideology and territory that is ISIL’s centre of gravity, which it is committed to expanding. The military element is, however, essential. The coalition has so far helped halt and hold ISIL after its rapid advance across Iraq last summer. Coalition airpower, including sophisticated UK aircraft, flies daily missions to strike ISIL targets and to gather intelligence. The air campaign is helping to turn the tide and will support ground forces ultimately to defeat ISIL.
The Iraqi Prime Minister has been very clear that those forces must be local forces. Western troops operating in a ground combat role would serve only to promote ISIL’s ideological narrative and to radicalise more people. Our expertise is being used to help train local forces and to support efforts to generate Sunni forces to retake and hold the ground in Sunni areas.
So far the coalition has trained nearly 11,000 Iraqi personnel, with the United Kingdom training over 1,700. Iraqi forces, supported by coalition airpower, have had some success against ISIL, retaking Tikrit and pushing ISIL out of Baiji and away from the Kurdish region of Iraq, and they have recently begun operations to retake Ramadi. Since August last year, ISIL has lost about one quarter of the territory it held in Iraq. Roadside and vehicle-borne bombs are slowing the progress of Iraqi forces, and I can announce today to the House that the first additional counter-improvised explosive device training team will deploy around mid-August. When complete, that will bring the number of British troops inside Iraq to about 275.
Tackling ISIL only in Iraq is illogical when ISIL itself does not respect international borders. Its command and control centre is in northern Syria, and it is from there that its weapons and fighters flow into Iraq. It is from there that its global influence spreads and the direct threat to the United Kingdom comes. In Syria, therefore, the UK is contributing up to 85 personnel to the United States-led programme to train and equip the new Syrian forces outside Syria; they will fight ISIL once reinserted back into Syria. Our aircraft are gathering intelligence over Syria for the coalition, and we are also the only country flying manned intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft over Syria; 30% of the entire coalition surveillance operation against ISIL is British.
Let me turn now to the issue of embedded personnel. As I reported to the House earlier today, while the UK is not conducting air strikes in Syria, our armed forces regularly have embeds in the forces of our close partners. Embedded UK personnel operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel, under that nation’s chain of command, but they remain subject to UK domestic, international and host nation law. Ministerial approval is required for UK embeds to deploy with allied forces on operations. Over the last 12 months, a total of five pilots have been embedded at one time or another with forces conducting strikes over Syria; none is currently involved in air strikes. A further 75 personnel have been embedded with US, Canadian and French forces in a range of operations against ISIL.
ISIL has killed many of our fellow citizens. It is actively plotting to kill more. The Prime Minister today set out our plans to tackle extremism and radicalisation at home. We are also determined to use the forces at our disposal to do more to tackle ISIL at its source, and I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it. Everyone agrees that ISIL represents the most serious threat we face and that we must do all we can to defeat it. We all —the UK, our allies and this Parliament—need to work together to achieve that, so why is it that the actions of our armed forces in Syria have come to light only as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, an Act the Government now seek to water down? Is it not clear that the Government had no intention of telling this House or the country about the involvement of British forces in Syria? It is a sad reality that the first we might have known about this activity was if something had gone wrong.
The Prime Minister and other senior members of the Government were aware of the involvement of our forces and indeed approved their action. The Prime Minister told this House:
“I have said that we will come back to the House if, for instance, we make the decision that we should take air action with others in Syria”.—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1266.]
This House took him at his word, so does the Secretary of State not understand why there is such anger following these revelations? How long has he known? How long have Ministers known? Were they ever going to tell Parliament? Can he not see that his authorisation could have resulted in a British pilot being captured, tortured or indeed killed by ISIL? Can he not see how such an event would have undermined public confidence in our entire strategy to combat ISIL? It is crucial that, in these important and sensitive matters, the confidence and trust of this Parliament as well as that of the British people is maintained. The Government have acted in a way that puts that trust and confidence at risk.
Turning to some specifics, can the Secretary of State be clear about how many UK personnel have been involved, when they have been involved and in what action? The Defence Secretary has stated that
“these are a handful of British pilots embedded with American forces and are part of American military operations, for which the Americans have full approval.”
He restates that position today in his written statement. But is it not the case that Parliament should have been told? He will know that British troops embedded with US forces at the time of the Vietnam war were not allowed to take part. Similarly, Dutch marines embedded with the Royal Marines were brought home before the 2003 Iraq war, and US troops embedded with the British Army were not permitted to patrol the streets of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State be very clear with the House and explain why the Government took a different view in this case without seeking the support of this House? Furthermore, have there been any discussions with allies with regard to the use of our ground troops in Syria? Will the Secretary of State be clear that there will be no further use of embedded UK forces in Syria without parliamentary consent?
The Chair of the Defence Committee said yesterday that the Prime Minister is making up policy on the hoof. Surely what we want is a fully thought through strategic response to ISIL. We read in the papers of the Prime Minister’s plans to expand special forces and to procure more drones specifically to take on ISIL. How will that expansion in special forces be achieved from the current pool of regular forces? Can we expand special forces without an expansion of the pool of regulars? Will he be clear with the House and rule out any downgrading in the standards that we expect our special forces to meet?
On unmanned aerial vehicles, will the Secretary of State say what assets specifically he intends to procure, and over what timescale? How does he intend those assets to be operated, given that the number of RAF regular personnel will fall in every year of this Parliament?
Let me restate that we remain ready to work with the Government to defeat ISIL and will carefully consider any proposals that the Government decide to bring forward. But we all need to be clear about what difference any action would make to our aim of defeating ISIL and about the nature of any action—both its objectives and its legal basis. The Home Secretary said this morning that the Government needed to take Parliament with them. The Home Secretary was right, but does the Defence Secretary not realise that he cannot take Parliament with him if he keeps Parliament in the dark?
I find it hard to construe answering a freedom of information request as some kind of concealment. When we were asked the question, we answered it. Let me be very clear about what the practice has been under successive Governments. There is nothing new about embedding; it has been going on for the past 40 or 50 years. We have had our forces embedded with other countries’ forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the Libyan campaign, and most recently with the French in Mali. There is absolutely nothing new about that. The hon. Gentleman asked me about the parallel with Vietnam. There is no parallel, because the British Government at the time did not agree with the American action in Vietnam. We do agree with the American action in Syria, and I hope that the shadow Secretary of State also supports the American action in Syria, which is helping to keep our streets safe. That is action that we agree with, that is legal and that we fully support.
As for keeping Parliament informed, it has been standard practice not to publicise the placing of embeds with other countries’ forces, as they are their forces and their operation. However, we will always confirm details if and when asked to do so. There have been, over the years, a number of parliamentary questions asking for details of embedded forces, and we have replied to them and we will go on doing that.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the risk to our pilots. There is always risk in any military operation. I can tell him that coalition aircraft are well equipped to defend themselves and there are recovery procedures in place, but he will understand that I am certainly not, on the Floor of the House, going to go into details of those defensive and recovery measures. Nor will I comment on his question about special forces—as you know, Mr Speaker, we do not discuss details of the operation of special forces. The provision of more unmanned aircraft and the training of the pilots we need to operate them will of course be matters for the strategic defence and security review.
Let me say in conclusion that as part of the coalition we support the American actions in Syria and the strikes that are being carried out there by American aircraft, by Canadian aircraft and by Gulf states’ aircraft. They are helping to defeat ISIL and are doing so in a way that helps to keep this country safe.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, for some time now, both in Iraq and in Syria, there has been no functioning Government exercising sovereign power over large parts of the territory of either state, and the Sykes-Picot line, which was always an artificial boundary between the two so-called countries, has probably been consigned to the dustbin of history? Does he therefore accept that it is rather legalistic to argue about whether strikes are being carried out over Iraq and Syria, and that the policy decision to be made is whether we should continue to make our proper contribution to the airstrikes that the international coalition is conducting against the territory that ISIL now uses as its base, and Parliament should therefore lift this artificial distinction between strikes in Iraq and strikes in Syria?
I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. ISIL draws no legal distinction regarding which side of the Sykes-Picot line it is operating on. Actions by American, Canadian and other forces in Syria are legal because they contribute to the collective self-defence of the legitimate Government of Iraq where the Government of Syria are unwilling and unable to deal with ISIL at its source in northern Syria. Like him, I think the time will come when this new Parliament will have to reconsider whether we are doing enough to tackle ISIL at its source.
I thank the Secretary of State for the early sight of his statement.
Let me make it absolutely clear that no one on the SNP Benches disagrees about just how evil Daesh is. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery of our service personnel.
I agree with many of the strategic goals that were outlined early in the statement, but I have to point out that we remain firmly opposed to extending airstrikes into Syria without a great deal more justification than has been outlined by the Secretary of State. I cannot help but feel that we are in danger of doing something just to be seen to be doing anything.
I agree that here in the UK we need to develop a comprehensive counter-radicalisation programme, but can the Secretary of State tell me why it has taken five years to develop such an integrated programme? Does he agree that, alongside that, we need a military strategy that will minimise the number of civilian casualties and that is not at odds with the building of a counter-radicalisation programme?
On the FOI request, the Secretary of State suggested that there was transparency, but the fact of the matter is that the information was dragged out of the Ministry of Defence. Why did he choose not to inform the House about the embedded service personnel two weeks ago, in his statement following the tragedy in Tunisia? He spoke about the widening of the UK mission, including airstrikes in Syria, when he knew that there were personnel embedded with the Americans and the Canadians, albeit wearing a different uniform. Why did he choose not to tell the House of the embedded personnel then?
I repeat that the freedom of information request did not drag information out of us; we put the answer on the Ministry of Defence website, and we will do the same with any further requests. We have answered questions in the House from hon. Members, including the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson). If questions are tabled, we will answer them. But it has been standard practice for some time not to publicise the placing of embeds in other countries’ forces because, as I have said, those are their forces and their operations. It is for them to publicise them, not us. However, if we are asked to give details, we of course do so.
The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the loss of life in Tunisia, which included Billy and Lisa Graham and James and Ann McGuire from Scotland, so I hope that he will also see, from the Scottish nationalists’ point of view, the need for us to combat ISIL at its source. He asked about the Prevent programme. The Prime Minister has today given more details of the programme, which we are intensifying. The hon. Gentleman asked where the military strategy fits in. As I have described to the House, the military campaign is only one component of the overall effort against ISIL.
At home, may I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s speech today, which reflects a counter-radicalisation strategy of precisely the sort that was recommended to his extremism taskforce approximately two years ago? Abroad, however, and particularly in Syria, it appears from the Secretary of State’s statement today that he still thinks it is possible to bring down Daesh without promoting, as it were, the Assad regime, or to bring down the Assad regime without promoting Daesh. The reality is that he has got to face up to one or the other, and until we know which he regards as the lesser of two evils, it is not true to say that we have a coherent strategy for Syria.
I do not wholly agree with my right hon. Friend. The fact is that none of us wants to see the Assad regime last a day longer than is necessary, but the regime has lost control of the part of northern Syria where ISIL is headquartered and from where its influence has spread. Tackling ISIL in northern Syria—tackling its command and control centres and interdicting its supply routes into Iraq—can be done in a way that does not prop up the regime, which was rightly the concern of the House when we last debated these matters. Of course, August 2013 was before the rise of ISIL right across Iraq and Syria, before the murder of British hostages there and before the slaughter we saw in Tunisia a few weeks ago.
Given the explicit parliamentary prohibition against British military action in Syria, is it not irrelevant whether or not British aircrews are embedded in US forces? In view of the gravity of this secret deployment—a possible mission creep towards war without a mandate—does the Secretary of State not recognise that the system of ministerial accountability to this House behoves him not just to apologise, but to consider whether his position is still tenable?
I am rightly accountable to this House, which is why I am making a statement to it. Let us be clear about the scale of what I have described. Hundreds—possibly thousands—of pilots have been involved in this action, which was begun by the Americans 12 months ago in August 2014, and at one point or another five of our pilots have been involved, but they have been involved in United States or Canadian military action. This is not a British military operation; had it been, we would of course have come to the House for preliminary approval.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his report of the progress that we are making in halting ISIL, which represents a massive threat to Iraq. If we lost Iraq, that would be catastrophic. My right hon. Friend is right to support the case for embedding our armed forces in our allies’ armed forces, as they embed their forces in ours. This is a completely different situation from deploying British military assets. We are not doing so. It is very important that we work with our allies in this way because it is likely that we shall be in coalition with those allies in any future conflict.
That is exactly the point. This is an international effort against ISIL. We are participating principally in Iraq, but also in the surveillance and intelligence gathering over Syria. As I have described, we are participating in the training of moderate Syrian forces outside Syria itself, and a number of countries are helping in different ways, according to the various permissions that they have. But in the end ISIL will be defeated only by an international coalition, with each of us playing our part.
The statement has in its name the word “strategy” and there was a sad lack of that from the Secretary of State today. He did not mention, for instance, what the strategy is in relation to Libya or other countries where ISIL is a major threat, and particularly the need for boots on the ground and how he will deal with that. I want to ask him the same question as I have asked the Prime Minister: given the problems with the Sunnis in Iraq and the lack of involvement with them and arming of them by the Iraqi Government, what more are the Government going to do to try and encourage more involvement of the Sunnis in Iraq?
ISIL activity, as we have seen tragically in Tunisia and elsewhere, is inspired by its headquarters in Syria. Whether or not it is directed, it is inspired by its headquarters in Syria. That is the fount of its influence and its command and control, so it is logical that we support the American and Canadian actions there. With respect to the Iraqi army and the Abadi Government, yes, of course, we are encouraging the Abadi Government to complete the army reforms that are necessary, to complete the national guard legislation, to better prepare their own forces, particularly to hold ground that has been recaptured from ISIL, and to do so in a way that retains the confidence of the local tribes and populations, particularly in Anbar province.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that during the cold war, during the Bosnian war and during Iraq-Afghanistan, it was deemed essential to have embedded troops, including pilots, particularly because of the need to work with our allies? Does he agree that it is very important that the naval air service continues to garner its expertise aboard American carriers so that when our own new carriers are delivered, we will be able to operate them much more effectively?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who had some responsibility for this area. We already have the future crew of the Queen Elizabeth carrier training on American carriers. These deployments are all part of building up that carrier capability to ensure that we are ready to take those carriers to sea when the time comes. When they do go to sea, they will almost invariably be operating as part of an international force with our allies, and it is extremely important, therefore, that our personnel are able to work with our close allies—with French and American forces—and to serve on their ships and with their units.
I know that it is the tradition of this House not to make any statement about the operation of the special forces. However, in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement about expanding those forces, the Secretary of State needs to tell the House how he intends to expand them, how that will affect the regulars, and what the cost will be.
Yes, we do not discuss on the Floor of the House the operation of special forces, but I can tell the hon. Lady that we will use the opportunity of the strategic defence and security review that is now under way to look overall at our force structure. The Prime Minister has already made it clear that the size and shape of the special forces and the equipment available to them is one of the areas that he would like the review to focus on.
If we are to be asked to vote on this, presumably at some stage in the autumn, it will—at least in part—be to permit a wider air assault. I sense that the House will require significant reassurance that targets can be picked accurately and that such an assault will make a productive difference. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State to invest a lot of time in persuading Members of all parties in advance, telling us exactly what is proposed and reassuring us that such action will produce useful benefits?
I certainly undertake to do that. Very clear, specific rules of engagement are laid down for the strikes that are being carried out in Iraq, rules that I approved personally, and I look at each proposed static target for particular strikes on the basis of the evidence submitted to me. I will take up my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that we consult more widely on applying those rules of engagement.
With our Tornado force, we also have accurate, high precision missiles that reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties. That is another reason why the coalition would like our Tornadoes to be deployed in Syria as well as Iraq.
Is not the Secretary of State aware that his obligations under the ministerial code are not just to answer freedom of information requests, but to be straight with the House of Commons? Will he confirm that successive British Governments have made it clear that embedded personnel have to conform to rules of engagement, including the ambit of operations? How in this case is that consistent with a specific instruction from the House not to be involved in air strikes in Syria?
I will always be straight with the House. Let me be clear about the rules of engagement. As far as air strikes are concerned, embedded pilots have to comply with the rules of engagement of the host nation, but also with United Kingdom law and the law of armed conflict. When the host nation’s rules of engagement are less restrictive than our own, those embedded must also comply with ours.
Most reasonable people will conclude that my right hon. Friend deserves the benefit of the doubt on this matter. However, further to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), will he take especial care to ensure that he keeps the House closely informed, ahead of what I hope will be a successful vote in the House in the autumn on action in Syria?
Yes, I will certainly do that. We continue to update the House regularly through written ministerial statements about the progress of the campaign. The number of strikes is reported regularly on our website, as are any replies to freedom of information requests. I will certainly see what further information we can provide to the House as the campaign continues.
If the Secretary of State wants agreement across the House, he seems to be going the wrong way about it. An apology from him would be appropriate for this information having to be extracted through freedom of information legislation: no wonder the Government want to weaken that Act. The Secretary of State gives the impression today that Parliament is getting above itself.
Certainly not. I made it very clear that we will respond to questions from any Member about the role of embedded UK personnel in other forces. I simply made the point that it has been standard practice in the past not to publicise specific operations because they were other countries’ operations. It is completely open to any hon. Member, including the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, who tabled questions on the matter previously, to ask questions. Those questions will be answered.
I share the Defence Secretary’s evident frustration about the prominence given to the issue of embeds, which is a sideshow compared with British involvement overall, which is itself a sideshow when set against the need for a wider international strategy to take and occupy ground in Syria. There is a sort of plan to do that in Iraq; it is faltering in its execution. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office team to put their effort into making a reality of an international strategy—of getting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran in the same place, so as to have a strategy involving local ground troops, which we can then assist, to take and hold the territory that ISIL currently holds in Syria?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We certainly need a political strategy alongside the military strategy, to help hasten the end of the Assad regime and to make it clear that the only future in Syria is a comprehensive democratic regime that is open to all the peaceful and moderate parties in Syria, similar to the way in which the Iraq Government is now constructed. In Iraq itself, we continue to urge the Abadi Government—I will press this point in Baghdad in a couple of weeks—to get on and complete the reforms and to show the Sunni areas in particular that they can have confidence in the Iraqi forces to hold ground that has been liberated.
The Secretary of State is right to say that, ultimately, ISIL forces will be defeated by ground forces, but he is also right to say that they should be local forces, not western forces. What can he tell us about his reassurances on how quickly, and the level to which, Iraqi forces are being trained, particularly among the Sunnis?
As I have said, about 11,000 Iraqi forces personnel have been trained in the past few months. The British Army has made a formidable contribution to that training and is now extending the training it offers to the training bases outside the Kurdish areas. We need to continue to do that. The Iraqi army has to be reconstituted. It has been weakly led and has been slowed up, particularly by improvised explosive devices in vehicles and by booby traps left behind in abandoned villages. The British Army can make a real contribution with the training we offer and the operational expertise we developed in Afghanistan, but it will be slow work.
My right hon. Friend rightly spoke of the importance of aerial surveillance in gathering a picture of what is happening on the ground, but he will be aware of informed speculation on both sides of the Atlantic that we were to an extent blindsided by lack of HUMINT—human intelligence—on the fall of Mosul and, a year later, Ramadi. What confidence can we have that the necessary assets are in place to build up an optimal picture of 21st-century jihadism?
I do not think that my hon. Friend or the House would expect me to go into too much detail about how we gather intelligence in either Iraq or Syria, except to say that 30% of the intelligence-gathering effort is done by British aircraft. We need to build up a more accurate picture of ISIL’s strengths up the Tigris and west along the Euphrates before we can assist the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the ground that has been lost. That advice, and train and equip, is all part of the mission to help bolster Iraqi forces.
I think we should thank the Freedom of Information Act for today’s statement. The Secretary of State really ought to come clean. What specific discussions has he had with Saudi Arabia about what happens to the arms supplied to it? Are any of them leaking through and ending up with ISIL forces or, indeed, any other weapons supplier in the region?
Secondly, what is happening about the oil that is clearly sold from the ISIL area of Syria to someone else and the money that then flows back to support it? How effective is the sanctions regime conducted by the western forces, with the co-operation of other Governments, to stop arms and money flowing to ISIL?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this does show the Freedom of Information Act at work: a question was put to us and we answered it, and the answer is produced on our website. I have regular discussions with the Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia—the deputy crown prince—not least about the situation in Yemen and the need for humanitarian aid and to get talks going. I am not aware of significant leakage of Saudi arms into the conflict in Iraq or Syria.
We hope that Assad will not continue in place for a day longer than is necessary. There is no future for Syria with Assad still in place. As well as the military campaign and the counter-ideology campaign, we now need to work with friends in the region, as has already been said, to help to promote a comprehensive and moderate democratic Government in Syria that has the confidence of all the communities there, including the Alawite community, from which Assad originally came.
Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a huge difference between making this statement and making a case? Will he acknowledge that if he is going to take this House and the wider public with him over the coming months, he will need to make a better case than he has made today?
I hope I have made the case, first, that embedding UK personnel in other forces is absolutely standard and normal and has been going on for years—there is nothing unusual about this particular situation; and, secondly, that the UK personnel who have been embedded have been embedded in actions that we support. We support what the Americans have been doing in Syria, as well as the action they have been taking in Iraq. That action is legal and we welcome it, and it is of course action in which they would like us to join.
A number of Americans and personnel from other forces are embedded in our forces. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is part of the normal exchange between close partners in NATO and beyond, and these are some of normal operating procedures among the armed forces of friendly countries.
Twelve years ago, based on half-truths and in some cases untruths, the Iraq war began. Even today, we know the repercussions of those half-truths and of the failure to tell Parliament everything. I believe that the Secretary of State has not learned those lessons, and history is repeating itself.
I hope we are learning some of the principal lessons from Iraq, including that Iraq’s future will be secure only under a moderate Government of all the peoples of Iraq, whether they are Kurd, Shi’a or Sunni, and that it will survive only with the support of its friends and allies within the region. That is why this is an international effort to sustain a legitimate and democratically elected Government, which I hope the hon. Gentleman would welcome.
The Secretary of State will be only too well aware that, over the past half an hour, there has been considerable division and difference of opinion with reference to his statement. That also applies to his strategy, which I fully support, of using direct military action against ISIS. The conundrum is that hundreds of young British people believe that what ISIS is doing is right. We are trying to put in place a strategy to deal with that. Does my right hon. Friend have any doubts in his mind that, sadly, direct military action might encourage those young people to want to go out and not only die for ISIS but kill their fellow British citizens?
I am clear that were we to intervene on the ground with combat troops, we could well help further to radicalise opinion in western Europe and encourage more support. That is exactly why the Prime Minister of Iraq for one has made it very clear that he does not want foreign troops on the ground and that this fight has to be a fight of the Iraqi army, which has to win back the support of the local population. There is therefore no question of our supplying combat troops on the ground in Iraq.
For more than three years, the position of our Government has been to support the Syrian Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. The Secretary of State says that we are training people outside Syria to be reinserted at some point. Has he seen the press statement issued by the Syrian Coalition today, in which it denounces a breakaway group, “a so-called military council” that is being formed by
“members of the dissolved FSA Supreme Military Council”,
“just an attempt to mislead public opinion”?
Is it not clear that our strategy of working with the so-called moderate Syrian opposition has failed, is failing and will fail? Is it not time that we gave direct support to the only people in Syria who are fighting Daesh—the Syrian Kurds?
Support is going to the Syrian Kurds, but it is also important, as I hope the hon. Gentleman would recognise, to continue to try to identify moderate elements further south in Syria who are prepared to take the fight to ISIL. He is right that those who come forward for training have to be properly vetted. We are part of the overall American organisation of the programme. We must have confidence that, once trained, these people will be prepared to re-enter the fight when they return to Syria. That is why the numbers have been relatively small. However, we are at the beginning of the programme, and we expect and hope that the numbers will build up.
Were it not for the coalition’s efforts, with our support, there is no question but that Iraq, including Kurdistan, would have fallen by now and that there would be a significant threat to the west as a result. Will the Secretary of State comment on something that he missed out from his statement? We have done great work supporting the peshmerga, who are the one people who have done fantastic work holding ISIS back. They are asking for more support through training on the ground and more heavy weapons. What consideration has been given to providing that support to these brave people?
The peshmerga have fought extremely bravely and have had some success in pushing ISIL out of Kurdish areas. I have welcomed the training and equipment that we have been able to supply to them. However, it is also important to assist the Government of Iraq by supplying training and equipment to the Iraqi army outside the Kurdish areas. That is where our new effort, which involves stepping up our counter-IED training, will largely be concentrated.
The “Ministerial Code” states:
“Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public”.
Not once, in a seven and a half hour debate last year on military action on Daesh targets, did the Government mention the potential role of UK forces embedded in US or Canadian forces in bombing targets in Syria. Does the Secretary of State consider that to be an open and transparent approach to this most serious of issues?
I have explained the practice in respect of publicising the role of embedded personnel. These are not our operations but the operations of other countries, and it is for them to decide whether they want to publicise them. Our policy has been, when we are asked for details of this embedding, to be open and transparent. We answer parliamentary questions or freedom of information requests from anybody in this House or outside it.
It is clear, on any analysis, that the military action being taken in Syria is lawful under international law. Will the Secretary of State also confirm that each of the operations in which embedded British personnel have taken part has been seen as necessary and proportionate to meet a legitimate aim under international law? Will he take it on board—on the basis of his statement, I am sure that he will—that the sooner we remove the wholly artificial distinction between taking military action against ISIL in Iraq and taking military action against ISIL in Syria, the better?
All these actions, as my right hon. and learned Friend said, contribute to the collective self-defence of Iraq. They are not simply legal, necessary and proportionate, but very welcome, because they are actions against an enemy of this country, which is ISIL.
Let us be clear: the Secretary of State is here today not because he is a big fan of parliamentary accountability, but because he knew that there would be an urgent question and he did not want to look as though he had been dragged kicking and screaming to the House of Commons—he is doing a pretty good imitation of that anyway. Will he answer a question that was asked previously: how long has he known about British involvement in military strikes in Syria?
I agree that we should keep the embedding of five pilots in hundreds of missions in perspective, but the fact remains that we were given a solemn promise that if British service people were to bomb in Syria, we would be consulted. I urge my right hon. Friend to learn the lessons of these incidents. Twice bitten, twice shy; twice we have relied on faulty intelligence to undertake disastrous invasions of Libya and Iraq. Two years ago we were told that we had to bomb Assad; now we are told that we have to bomb his enemies. I say to my right hon. Friend, please do not take us for granted; tell us all that is going on.
I have never taken my hon. Friend for granted. The motion that the House debated almost two years ago in August 2013 did not license UK military operations in Syria. There are no UK military strikes in Syria, but I have explained to the House that where our personnel are embedded with other forces, they are participating in those countries’ operations that are approved by their procedures and Parliaments.
I understand the political requirement to restrict Royal Air Force operations only to Iraq, but it is military and strategic nonsense and I totally support any move that removes that artificial restriction. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the overall strategy against Daesh, which may well include our having to beef up help on the ground, is continually under review?
Yes it is. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed with Prime Minister Abadi at their most recent meeting that we would step up our effort, particularly in the niche training that we are offering in measures to counter IEDs. We are also working in the Ministries to help to advise the Iraqi Government and Iraqi army security effort, and we stand ready to consider further requests for help.
In the last Parliament, the Defence Committee undertook an inquiry into strategic defence planning, and we found it woefully inadequate. The former Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee told us that the Prime Minister’s idea of strategy was “What’s next?” What is next seems to be a plan that is coming forward in September for us to take action in Syria. Will the Secretary of State undertake to bring a fully worked out strategy that includes what nations and organisations will hold any ground cleared by our planes, rather than policy on the hoof, which is what we have on a day-by-day basis at the moment?
I do not accept that. I described the strategy to defeat ISIL, including the campaign to cut off its finances and efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters, in which we are playing our part. The battle to deal with ISIL’s ideology is being led by our Government and the working group on strategic communications, and there is a military campaign in which many countries are involved. As far as ground force operations in Iraq are concerned, I have made it clear that the Prime Minister of Iraq does not want foreign troops involved. He does not want British or American forces on the ground, and in the end this battle must be won by the Iraqi forces with our help.
When I was serving, one of the most frustrating things was an almost uninformed debate about our military action. Does my right hon. Friend agree that questions about embeds, and asking special forces capabilities to be raised on the Floor of the House of Commons, belie a fundamental misunderstanding of how our forces operate, and that in interoperability it is vital we have embeds to ensure we take part in the international fight against terrorism?
Does the Secretary of State accept that so-called IS actively wants war? Its core message is to present itself as the guardian of Islam under crusader attack. That is a pernicious but effective message. Stepping up our involvement in air strikes reinforces that narrative, even if we stop short of being involved in a ground war. Moreover, it is likely to lead to more civilian casualties. Will he tell us how many civilian casualties there have been so far as a result of US-led air strikes?
I can certainly write to the hon. Lady on the latter point. Our rules of engagement only agree operations where the capacity for civilian casualties is minimised. I hope she is not suggesting to the House that we should take no action in Iraq or in Syria against ISIL. This is an evil organisation that has committed terrorist outrages on the streets of western Europe and on our own streets. It inspired an attack in the past couple of weeks in which 30 of our citizens were murdered.
I and the Foreign Secretary have regular discussions with leaders in the middle east. I recently met the King of Jordan, I speak to other leaders on the phone, and I shall be visiting the middle east in a couple of weeks. They are very aware that the effort to defeat ISIL has to be led from within the region, as well as by using the international coalition to support it from outside the region. They are grateful for our assistance and they would certainly welcome any additional support that we can give the Government of Iraq. As we can do more, so too can they.
As part of his campaign to tackle extremism, the Prime Minister is quite rightly promoting the values of democracy, in particular parliamentary democracy. Does the Secretary of State agree that essential to the operation of parliamentary democracy is respect for the decisions of Parliament and honesty by Ministers?
Of course that must be right, but since the debate we had two years ago we have seen the rise of ISIL. The debate in August 2013 was on a motion that would have authorised the Government to take action against the Assad regime and its potential use of chemical weapons. It was not a debate about ISIL. It is since August 2013 that we have seen the rise of ISIL and its capture of a huge swathe of Syrian and Iraqi territory. We have seen terrorist outrages, promoted by ISIL, in western Europe and on our own streets. We have now had 30 of our citizens murdered in an attack inspired by ISIL. All those things have happened since that debate on a different issue—chemical weapons in Syria—in the previous Parliament.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the call for inaction, in the face of such evil as is being seen on the streets of Raqqa and other areas of northern Syria today, is to opt out of protecting our friends and allies? Having served alongside Jordanians, Lebanese and Iraqis in recent conflicts, may I urge him to redouble his efforts to support our friends and allies who require such assistance at times like this?
This is an allied effort, and we are certainly encouraging the other Gulf countries to do more, but we too face an enemy in ISIL and we too need to do more. That is why we are stepping up our training effort and taking on a huge burden in the intelligence and surveillance missions. It is also why, so far, we have conducted a very large number of strikes.
Plaid Cymru MPs opposed the bombing of Daesh in Iraq, as it was inevitable that operations would have to be extended into Syria, drawing the UK into an intractable civil war. In the light of the proliferation of Daesh and its affiliates throughout the middle east and north Africa, will the Secretary of State concede that the rationale of current UK foreign policy could lead to UK involvement in a war without end across the whole region?
The hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on what would have happened last summer, when ISIL was within a few miles of the gates of Baghdad, if countries in the region and those outside it—such as the United States and eventually ourselves, after our vote—had not intervened. What would have happened if Iraq had shattered into pieces? What would the effect have been on the overall stability of the region and, indeed, on the economic prosperity of this country?
I fully accept that co-operation in these matters requires embedding, not just in military activities but in areas such as intelligence and humanitarian assistance. It must be clear to my right hon. Friend, however, that the real concern is a result of the aftermath of the vote in the House in August 2013. Will he make a full statement on behalf of the Government at some point on where the royal prerogative arises in these circumstances? Many of us are concerned about that. We had a vote in Parliament, and I am concerned that Parliament is overriding the will of the Executive. We need clarification on that at the earliest opportunity.
The debate and vote that we held towards the end of August 2013 were on whether the House would accept military action against the Assad regime and its potential use of chemical weapons. That predated the rise and viciousness of the ISIL phenomenon that we are now confronted with.
My right hon. Friend also raises a more intriguing point on the extent to which the Executive of the day should be bound—rightly bound, I think—by the debates that take place in the House. I want to give him a clear answer. It is for the Government of the day to defend this country and the values our country believes in, and then to be accountable to this House for their actions.
I have reported to the House on the actions we take to deal with ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, and when we have been asked questions about the embedding of our personnel in other forces we have answered them. That is one reason why I am standing here today. We answered this question properly on our own website last week.
I am quite disturbed that the Opposition seem to think that embedding is a recent phenomenon. It has been going on for generations. My father was an embed based in Hong Kong in the 1960s. What the House should really be concerned about is whether what is being carried out in these armed forces manoeuvres is legal. Will my right hon. Friend please assure the House that it is?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Action in Syria, in aid of the collective self-defence of Iraq, is perfectly legal, particularly in an area such as northern Syria, where the authorities are neither willing nor able to act themselves. The action that is taking place is perfectly legal. So far as previous practice is concerned, there have indeed been embedded UK personnel in armed forces for the past 50 or 60 years, and it has never been our policy to announce the embedding in any particular operation, because those operations are matters for the countries of those forces.
When the Defence Secretary sits down at the end of the statement, will he reflect on whether some of his answers have been a little too casual in addressing the serious concerns that have been expressed about the use of embedded forces without the Government first volunteering that information? The House wants the Government to be straight with it, and to be proactive in doing so.
The Secretary of State was asked by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), about the regional strategy into which these actions will fit, but I was not clear about his response, so will he again say what regional strategy he wishes to pursue in confronting Daesh?
On the first point, of course we give the House information about the military operations that we are conducting in Iraq and Syria. We do not announce every operation in the way the hon. Gentleman perhaps envisages, but we are always ready to give information to the House proactively in respect of UK operations for which we are responsible, and that is only right.
I am sorry if my answer to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee was not clear. I hoped I was making it clear that we agreed with him. This has to be a regional strategy that involves Syria’s neighbours, particularly Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, in finding a way forward for Syria, as happened in Iraq, with a Government who are genuinely open to all parties in Syria and can command the confidence of all sectors.
We cannot ignore the evil of Daesh, but there are reports that former military figures support deploying ground troops in Iraq and Syria. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we learn from past mistakes in Iraq and do not do anything that might enflame local tensions?
Yes, I do. Putting ground troops into Iraq or Syria would help the ISIL narrative and help further radicalise its potential supporters by showing that foreign armies were there to deal with it. That is why the Prime Minister of Iraq has made it crystal clear that he does not want British or American troops on the ground in this particular fight.
The Secretary of State keeps extolling the virtue of transparency, saying that his Department released this information under the Freedom of Information Act rather than by coming to Parliament and explaining the Government’s actions to Members. Given that the Government are in the process of reviewing the functions of the Act, does he think the actions in question will be removed from the scope of FOI under any proposed changes?
As I understand it, the review has only just been announced. From my point of view, it certainly is not envisaged that we should lessen the flow of information about our operations, but I did not simply rest my answer on the operation of the Act. It has been open to hon. Members—as it was to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East, who tabled questions well before Christmas—to table questions on this matter. If they do, those questions will be answered.
I would be the first on the Conservative Benches to criticise the Secretary of State if I thought there had not been any transparency, but operational exchange is perfectly normal, and military pilots would be surprised were it not happening.
On another important issue, which the Secretary of State has touched on, if the Government propose to change military strategy in Syria, will he first come to the House so that there can be a full debate on a substantive motion, even if it means recalling Parliament?
The Secretary of State has said that western troops operating in a combat role would serve only to promote ISIL’s ideological narrative and radicalise more people. Why does he think that such risks attach only to boots on the ground and not to bombs from the air?
That is the view of the Iraqi Government, not simply my view. Everything we do in Iraq is done either at the request of the legitimate Government of Iraq or with their permission. The Iraqi authorities have full authority over this campaign and can veto any action they think would be unhelpful. They do not think that combat troops on the ground would be helpful, but they certainly welcome the air support the coalition is providing.
What proportion of coalition air strikes against ISIL in Iraq are undertaken by the Royal Air Force? I quite understand that, given the outstanding quality of our pilots and our aircraft—especially the Tornado—an increased contribution from the RAF is being sought, but many Islamic countries in the region are very well off and have established air forces. Should they not also be required to do more? Surely if ISIS is to be defeated, it must be defeated by the Islamic countries in the region.
I can provide my hon. Friend with the exact number of strikes as of last week, but we have been shouldering one of the biggest burdens of the strike missions being flown in Iraq. Other countries have, of course, been flying and striking in both Iraq and Syria, and some of the Gulf countries that are not flying in Iraq have been involved in the campaign in Syria, but each of the coalition countries is making its contribution in its own way. Some are doing other things, such as providing financial help for the refugees of Iraq and Syria, or providing logistics and bases for the plans to fly from and help with refuelling. Each country is helping in its own way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has made it clear that there is ample precedent for embedded troops to be withdrawn from specific operations when they are outwith the foreign policy of their country. The Secretary of State has told the House that he has personally authorised each bombing raid by a British pilot. Does he understand how concerned the public will be about the fact that he seemed prepared to flout the settled will of the British Parliament and, more importantly, the British people?
I do not accept that. The hon. Lady is right in that there have been a handful of instances—and only a handful—in which UK embedded personnel have been withdrawn from an operation that was not in accordance with UK law or UK policy, but in this case we fully support the action that the United States is taking, because it is legitimate and in our interest.
More certainly needs to be done to interdict the flow of finance. Various actions are being taken internationally, through the United Nations and other bodies, to try to get to the heart of ISIL financing. That includes its operations in the oil market, from which it is deriving some revenues, and its ability to purchase arms and other equipment on the international market. As I have said, however, more needs to be done.
It simply is not good enough for the Secretary of State to come to the House and tell us that he does not understand what the fuss is about. On not one occasion but two we were asked whether we would support limited bombing of Syria, and on both those occasions we made it clear that we did not agree. The Secretary of State has just told us that, in fact, members of the armed forces were bombing Syria last autumn. Was that before or after we were asked for the second time whether we supported such action? Does this not set a dangerous precedent?
I am afraid that I missed some of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but in relation to medical assistance we have been providing a series of training courses for members of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish forces, entailing, for instance, short infantry skills. If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman specifically about whether that includes the treatment of battlefield casualties.
If the Secretary of State intends to return to the House at some point to ask for an enlargement of our military engagement in Syria, does he not accept that Members and our constituents—especially our Muslim constituents —will now feel more sceptical about whether we are fully informed and able to take any such decision?
I do not accept that. If we are to come to this House to debate the matter and seek permission to carry out UK military strikes in Syria, of course we will provide all the information we can for hon. Members. What I have been describing today is the long-standing practice of placing embeds in the forces of other countries.
On the five occasions when the deployment of embedded UK personnel was approved, which Minister or Ministers, including the Prime Minister, were aware and gave such approval? What is the point of requiring ministerial approval if it is always granted even when Parliament has expressed its overwhelming view that such deployment should not take place, and is it not the case that the Government always disagreed with Parliament’s view and were happy to see it circumvented in this way?
I do not accept any of that, but let me try and help the hon. Gentleman with information on the approval process. My predecessor gave approval for embeds with American forces to participate when they were due to be deployed. That was given last summer, just before I took office. I gave a similar approval in the autumn of last year, and I gave a subsequent approval when the Canadian forces were deployed earlier this spring.
The Iraqi army is well resourced and has access to the best and most modern equipment. However, confidence in the Iraqi army to take on Daesh is severely lacking. Can the Secretary of State outline what has been done to train experienced officers with courage and leadership abilities to lead their soldiers and defeat Daesh?
Elements of the Iraqi army have had to be almost completely reconstituted under the current Government from what existed beforehand, and it is to the credit of the new Abadi Government that there has been a clear-out of some of the higher command—the senior generals who were not prepared to take the fight to ISIL—and a restructuring of the army, and I hope that the passage of the national guard legislation will soon enable the deployment of a security force alongside the army that is able to hold ground that has been liberated from ISIL.
It is now clear that this House should have had a further debate in the autumn about embedding our UK service personnel. Will the Secretary of State therefore withdraw our personnel pending any further debate in this House that may or may not provide a mandate?
A number of UK personnel are embedded with American and Canadian forces, but at the moment no UK pilots are involved. We welcome the operations the Americans and Canadians are carrying out alongside us to help defeat and degrade ISIL in both countries, because, as the Prime Minister made clear again today, ISIL can be defeated only in both Iraq and Syria.
In the event that the Government bring forward a motion for further military intervention in Syria against Daesh, can the Secretary of State assure us that we have a strategy in place so that that bombing does not have the consequence of bolstering the Assad regime?
Absolutely. I do not think any Member on either side of the House wants to see the Assad regime in office a day longer than is necessary. We do not see any future for Syria with President Assad remaining in place, but President Assad is not in control any more of areas around Raqqa and northern Syria where ISIL is headquartered and from where its supply routes run into Iraq. It is no longer regime territory. That is where ISIL’s effort is directed from, and that is where the Americans and other forces are striking.
The Secretary of State has disregarded the will and vote of this House, he has been found out and he is now trying to wriggle out of it. So when will this Parliament be given a vote on the engagement of British personnel in Syria? Will he assure us that it will be in a properly timetabled debate, in sitting time, not in a mid-August ambush? Will he say that there will be no more involvement of British personnel until that vote has taken place?
No, not on the latter point. As I have said, we continue to have personnel embedded with American and Canadian forces. They are engaged in action that is legal and necessary. It is action that I welcome and that I would hope the House welcomed to help defeat ISIL. So far as any further vote in the House is concerned, no, we do not have a specific timetable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said, the serious issue here is the fact that the Government have given permission for UK armed forces personnel to be involved in air strikes in Syria, despite giving first the impression and then the assurance that they would come to the House before they did any such thing. The Secretary of State has not recognised that. How can the Government expect to build the confidence of hon. Members, never mind the British public, to embark on further military action in Syria when they behave in that manner?
I have described to the House the long-standing practice as regards embedded personnel. I have described exactly what information is released about that embedding, the fact that we do not publicise the embedding because these are operations of other countries, and the fact that personnel are deployed on them with my agreement. But it is also our policy, whenever we are asked about these operations, to give full answers about them. That is what we have done and what we did last week in response to a freedom of information request.