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Syria

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

Syria is facing a humanitarian crisis as a result of the continued assault by the Assad regime on the civilian population and the brutal occupation of a significant part of the country by ISIL. The Russian intervention—purportedly to join the fight against ISIL, but in fact targeting principally non-ISIL opposition positions—is complicating the situation and risks driving much of the opposition into the arms of ISIL.

The Financial Times reported on Thursday that ISIS is making $1.5 million a day, plus racketeering, plus ransom money, plus proceeds stolen from the banks. It is a $1 billion organisation now. Where is that money going? It is not kept in shoeboxes under beds. What are the British Government doing to pursue the financial interests of ISIS?

The UK is heavily involved in that particular strand of coalition activity—intercepting financial streams—and, of course, the coalition is also taking kinetic action to try to disrupt ISIL’s revenue-generating activities. However, because we target cautiously, to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties, there is a limit to the kinetic action that we can take.

While the Russian intervention has complicated the military situation, might the actuality of Russian and Iranian practical military support for the regime somewhat simplify the politics of this situation? They now need a solution; otherwise they will be in an indefinite war supporting the regime. Is this not now the moment to invest in a serious diplomatic effort to bring all the parties together?

It is probably too early to judge whether or not my hon. Friend’s point is valid. Let me say again that the British Government believe that we must have political engagement to find a solution to the Syrian civil war, while we certainly need a military solution to the challenge of ISIL. We are ready to engage with anyone who is willing to talk about what that political transition in Syria might look like, but we are very clear that, from our point of view, it must at some point involve the departure of Bashar al-Assad.

The Foreign Secretary clearly has his itchy fingers on the trigger of military intervention, as indeed do the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister. With 12 other countries already bombing in Syria, what analysis has been done of what additionality or what further sorties would be flown by RAF Tornadoes, and what possible difference could they make to the military situation?

My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has already made it clear—I remember saying the same, when I performed that role, more than a year ago—that the point is one of military efficiency. We are already flying reconnaissance missions over Syria, but our Reapers now have to fly over Syria unarmed looking for situations, which they then relay back to call in other allies to carry out strikes. That is not the most efficient way to carry out operations.

We could drop a few bombs from our reconnaissance aircraft, but what difference would that make to the military situation? Why does the Foreign Secretary not listen to his own Back Benchers? As a non-combatant nation, there are certain advantages in being able to make diplomatic initiatives. Given that the Prime Minister is meeting the President of China—another non-combatant nation and a permanent member of the Security Council—why not discuss a joint diplomatic initiative, instead of just thinking that additional bombing is the answer?

I have discussed the situation in Syria with my Chinese counterparts on several occasions. At the moment, I judge that the Chinese are not willing to take a diplomatic initiative that would separate them from the Russians. Let me be clear that we are part of coalition activities in Syria. We are not carrying out kinetic actions, but we are flying reconnaissance and surveillance missions and feeding back the output of those missions to the coalition.

Russia’s military intervention has certainly changed things, but one thing that remains unchanged is the suffering and agony of the Syrian people. Given that we can now expect more people to flee their homes, and recognising, as we heard earlier, that the neighbouring countries are almost at bursting point, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what discussions he has had with Foreign Ministers about the possibility of establishing safe zones for people in Syria?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, there have been extensive discussions about safe zones, which were originally a Turkish idea, over many months. At the moment, we judge the creation of safe zones to be impractical and impossible to enforce. We are acutely conscious that if we create something called a safe zone, it must be safe. There must be someone who is willing to enforce the safety of that zone. We judge that that means boots on the ground, and we and the United States are certainly not prepared to put boots on the ground in northern Syria.

I take the point that the Foreign Secretary makes, but that does not mean that we should not try. The boots could be those of neighbouring countries.

Something that there is widespread agreement on, as we have just heard, is the threat from ISIL/Daesh, with over 60 countries now being part of the coalition that opposes it. What steps are the Government taking to secure a UN Security Council resolution to authorise effective action to end the threat from this murderous organisation, including disrupting the huge flow of funds from its oil extraction and trading operations, which was revealed by the Financial Times last week and referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) today?

In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s response to my comments, I say that it is easy to volunteer others to put boots on the ground, but it is pretty difficult to tell people to do what we are not prepared to do ourselves.

UN Security Council resolutions are already in place and we will continue to test the appetite of the permanent five for going further, but the Russian intervention in Syria complicates matters not only on the ground, but in the Security Council.