With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement updating the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Two weeks ago, the House voted for the extension of UK airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq into Daesh’s heartland in Syria. As the Prime Minister and I explained during the debate that preceded the vote, the extension of military strikes is just one part of our strategy to bring stability to Syria and Iraq by defeating Daesh, working towards a political transition in Syria, and supporting humanitarian efforts in the region. It has been welcomed by our international partners, including the United States, France, and other partners in Europe and the Gulf. During that debate, we committed ourselves to giving the House quarterly updates on the progress of our strategy, but, given the high level of interest expressed by Members during the debate, I decided to offer an early first update before the House rises this week.
Let me deal first with the military strand of our strategy. As is well known, the first RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria were conducted just a few hours after the vote in the House, successfully targeting oil facilities in eastern Syria which provide Daesh with an important source of illicit income. Since then, RAF aircraft have conducted further strikes against Daesh in Syria, targeting wellheads in the extensive Omar oil field, as well as conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions. To make that increased tempo of activity possible, a further two RAF Tornados and six Typhoons have been deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, bringing the total number of manned aircraft conducting strikes from Akrotiri to 16—in addition to our RAF Reaper unmanned aircraft which are also deployed in the region.
During the debate on 2 December, a number of right hon. and hon. Members expressed concern about the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from British military action. Of course there is a risk involved in any kind of combat strike activity, but I am pleased to inform the House that it continues to be the case that we have had no reports of civilian casualties as a result of UK airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria, and I pay tribute to the precision and professionalism of our RAF pilots in conducting those operations.
In Iraq, Government forces continue to make progress against Daesh. The coalition began operations in Iraq in the autumn of 2014, and since then the strategically significant towns of Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar have all been retaken. Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad, is now surrounded by Iraqi forces supported by US mentors, and its Daesh occupiers are being steadily squeezed, including by RAF close support operations. Importantly, work is well advanced in the building of a Sunni local police force, supported by local tribal forces, to hold and police the city once it is liberated. In total, RAF Tornados and Reaper drones have flown more than 1,600 missions over Iraq, conducting over 400 strikes.
In Syria, the situation is more complicated. The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces rather than Daesh. In the last two weeks, the Russians have attacked opposition forces between Homs and Aleppo and in the far north of Syria, and in doing so have allowed Daesh to seek advantage on the ground. Along with our coalition partners, including the United States, we will continue to urge the Russians at every opportunity to focus their fire solely on Daesh. It is unacceptable that Russian action is weakening the opposition, and thus giving advantage to the very Daesh forces against which they claim to be engaged.
Let me now turn to the campaign to disrupt Daesh’s finances and stop the flow of foreign fighters. Experts estimate that the oil assets that have been targeted account for about 40% of Daesh revenues, and tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will attend the first ever meeting of Finance Ministers at the Security Council in New York to agree a further strengthening of the UN’s sanctions regime against Daesh. It is, of course, also crucial that countries enforce sanctions strictly with appropriate investigations and prosecutions. To ensure that we have our own house in order, we have begun the review of funding of Islamist extremist activity in the UK which was ordered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and which will report to him in the spring. We continue to work with Turkey and others to build an increasingly sophisticated network to interdict foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria.
As well as relying on money, Daesh relies heavily on propaganda to attract financial support and new recruits, so we have stepped up our effort to counter its messaging. The UK has created a coalition communications cell which is working to combat and undermine the Daesh “brand”, ensuring that no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. The coalition cell will generate a full range of communications at the pace and scale that will be necessary to highlight Daesh’s cruel and inhumane treatment of individuals under its control, its failures on the battlefield, and its perversion of Islam. The cell has already received staffing and financial contributions from coalition partners, and others have expressed strong support and an intention to contribute.
At the heart of our comprehensive strategy is a recognition that, to defeat Daesh in its heartland, we need a political track to bring an end to the civil war and to have in place a transitional Government in Syria. The world could then, once again, support a legitimate Syrian Government so that the Syrian army, Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish peshmerga could concentrate their efforts against Daesh, liberating their own country from this evil organisation.
Diplomatic efforts to deliver a negotiated end to the civil war and a transitional Government are continuing apace. The International Syria Support Group, bringing together all the major international players, has agreed the need for a ceasefire, humanitarian access and an end to attacks on civilians. In its communiqué of 14 November, the ISSG set out its goals: a transitional Government within six months, a new constitution and new, internationally supervised elections within 18 months. A further meeting of the support group is expected to take place in New York on Friday, which I shall attend. In preparation for that meeting, I met the Foreign Ministers of like-minded members of the ISSG in Paris on Monday, including the US, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Separately, in Riyadh last week, Saudi Arabia brought together well over 100 representatives from a wide range of Syrian opposition groups to agree an opposition negotiating commission and a negotiating policy statement ahead of talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, convened by the UN, which we hope will begin in January. The conference committed to Syria’s territorial integrity, to the continuity of the Syrian state and to negotiations under the framework of the Geneva communiqué. The participants also committed themselves to a
“democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system, representing all spectrums of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian or ethnic basis, and based on the principles of citizenship, human rights, transparency, and accountability, and the rule of law over everyone.”
Given the diversity of the Syrian opposition, I regard that as a significant achievement and I congratulate Saudi Arabia on it. The UK will continue to provide full support to intra-Syrian negotiations.
In Iraq, we continue to support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver the reform and reconciliation needed to unite all Iraq’s communities in the fight against Daesh. I also welcome the recent announcement of the formation of an Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism, bringing together 34 Muslim countries to partner with the rest of the international community. I have discussed that initiative in detail with my Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir. Its clear intention is to create a coalition that is flexible, contributing on a case-by-case basis and defending moderate Islam from the forces of extremism.
On the need for continued humanitarian support and post-conflict stabilisation in both Syria and Iraq, as the Prime Minister outlined to the House again today at Prime Minister’s questions, the end of the civil war in Syria and the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria will present the international community with an enormous and urgent stabilisation challenge. Building on our humanitarian support during the Syria crisis—we remain the second largest bilateral donor—we have committed a minimum of £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction in the long term. In February, the Prime Minister will co-host, with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, an international conference in London, focused on meeting both the UN 2016 appeal to support refugees from the civil war, as well as longer-term financial commitments for Syria and its neighbours.
Since the House took the decision two weeks ago to extend our military effort into Syria, the Government have taken forward, with our coalition partners, our comprehensive strategy to degrade—and ultimately to defeat—Daesh. We are making steady progress in both Iraq and Syria. We are targeting Daesh’s finances through military action and through action with international partners. We are disrupting the flow of foreign fighters. We are fighting Daesh’s ideology and propaganda. We are a leading player in the diplomatic effort to deliver a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war, and we are preparing for the day after that settlement and the defeat of Daesh so that we can ensure the long-term future stability and security of Iraq and Syria.
The fight against Daesh will not be won overnight but, however long it takes, it is in our vital national interest to defeat that terrorist organisation and the direct threat it poses to our national security. Failure is not an option. I commend this statement to the House.
I begin by passing on the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is unable to respond to the statement because he is visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. On behalf of the Opposition, I thank the Foreign Secretary for the courtesy extended to me by his office, for advance sight of his statement and for updating the House before the recess.
The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe stemming from the civil war in Syria is almost too great to comprehend. The death toll is well over 250,000 people. Millions of men, women and children will spend this Christmas as refugees living in tents in Lebanon and Turkey, and in Europe in Greece, Serbia and Calais. Even after all the brutality we have seen over the past four years, the situation continues to deteriorate. This week there were the appalling reports that Daesh will murder children who have Down’s syndrome. The international community has failed the people of Syria and we must now do everything we can to address the situation.
On the military aspect of the UK’s strategy, I note that UK military action up to now has focused, first, on economic infrastructure, particularly oil, which is so key to financing Daesh and, secondly, on alleviating the pressure on Kurdish peshmerga forces operating in Syria. It is notable, however, that the Foreign Secretary did not mention action to support other moderate forces in Syria. Can he update the House on what progress the Government have made in identifying and co-ordinating with such forces?
I note that the Foreign Secretary stated that there had been no civilian casualties resulting from UK military action in Iraq and Syria. Can he outline to the House the steps taken before a strike is authorised to minimise civilian casualties and then after a strike has occurred to ensure any possible civilian casualties are investigated?
I pay tribute to the outstanding bravery and professionalism of the British military personnel who have carried out these early missions. When we all return to our constituencies over the Christmas break, and return to our families, these very brave men and women will be continuing to serve our country in difficult and dangerous circumstances. For this, they deserve our unflinching admiration and respect.
Of course, as the Opposition have consistently argued, military action could only ever be a part of the package of measures needed to defeat Daesh and end the Syrian civil war. The UK’s overriding priority has to be supporting a diplomatic agreement that unites the elements opposed to Daesh within Syria and paves the way for the departure of Assad. The first step to this is an agreement between the Sunni factions opposed to both Assad and Daesh.
I note the progress towards that achieved in Riyadh. There has been a lot of speculation about those talks, so can the Foreign Secretary inform the House how the groups that were invited to attend the talks were selected? Did the UK make representations to the Saudis as to who should be invited? In particular, were key Kurdish groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Democratic Union party present at the talks?
It was reported that the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the Riyadh talks last week and was opposed to any peace talks with Assad. It was later reported that it had signed the agreement, so will the Foreign Secretary confirm the correct position? That group has an estimated 20,000 fighters. Will he also confirm whether those 20,000 formed part of the 70,000 figure the Government cited as being moderate forces opposed to Assad and Daesh?
The key test for the Riyadh agreement will be whether it facilitates meaningful peace talks and a ceasefire, as outlined at the second Vienna conference. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is optimistic about the possibilities for these talks. Will he confirm whether, following the Riyadh agreement, the Syrian opposition will have a common position and a single representative at these talks, or whether there will be distinct factions represented at the talks?
The original timetable was for a possible cessation of hostilities to coincide with the start of peace talks from 1 January. Does the Foreign Secretary still think this is achievable? Was there a clear commitment to this timetable from all the parties present at the Syria talks in Paris on Monday?
With so many different parties to the Syrian civil war, maintaining a ceasefire will be extremely complex. Have the Government explored the possibility of a UN resolution reinforcing the outline agreement, including the ceasefire, agreed at the second Vienna conference? Can the Government confirm whether they will seek a UN resolution to support any agreement that is reached between Syrian opposition forces and Assad?
Finally, I want to return to the humanitarian response and the millions of refugees in tents this Christmas. In Lebanon, nearly one in four of the population is a recent refugee from Syria. Jordan is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Around 340,000 refugees have been resettled in Germany. Just this week we saw Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming the first of 35,000 refugees to be resettled in Canada by next October. And I was pleased to hear in Prime Minister’s questions today that the 1,000 refugees the Government had promised to resettle will be here in the UK by Christmas.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and she is right to highlight yet another recent example of Daesh’s cruelty. I do not think there is anything that this organisation is not capable of.
The hon. Lady asked about the focus of UK military activity. It is important that I emphasise that we do not do this independently as a national contingent. We are operating as part of a coalition. Our aircraft are assigned to CAOC—the combined air operations centre—which tasks them with whatever needs doing at the time, and this can literally be aircraft in the air being diverted to provide close air support to forces on the ground who are engaged in an action.
The hon. Lady asked about UK support for moderate forces. I am slightly confused by her question because the proposition put before this House two weeks ago was clear and narrow: it was about conducting airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. It was not about intervening in the civil war between the moderate opposition and regime forces. Different Members may have different views about the wisdom of taking such action, but at the moment we are very clear that that is not what the UK is engaged in doing.
I should also just clarify: the hon. Lady said I had said in my statement that there had been no civilian casualties. I cannot, of course, make that statement. What I said was that we have had no reports of civilian casualties arising from UK airstrikes.
The hon. Lady asked what steps we take to minimise the risk of casualties. The RAF has, of course, very strict rules of engagement—among the strictest of any air force in the world. The Defence Secretary explained to the House that he has created structures that give a high degree of direct control over targeting decisions, and we use standard NATO procedures for analysing battle damage and dealing with any allegations of civilian casualties or collateral damage.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her acknowledgement of the commitment of our 800 military personnel in theatre and her recognition of the sacrifice that their families in particular will be making this Christmas, spending it without their loved ones who are on active service.
Of course, this military action is part of a comprehensive strategy. I think we all understand in this House that we are not going to resolve this problem by military action alone. The Riyadh talks were an important step forward. It was the Saudi Arabians who brought the opposition together, using their convening power—the convening power of the King of Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the two holy mosques. No one else could have done that. What we have now is a new opposition grouping that includes a large number of representatives of the armed opposition on the ground, and it is a significantly more legitimate body than previous representatives of the opposition, which have tended to represent oppositionists who are outside the country and not directly engaged in the fighting.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s direct question: yes, the UK and other coalition partners provided the Saudis with lists of suggestions about who should be included. Ultimately, who was included in the invitation was their decision.
The hon. Lady asked me about the curious question of Ahrar al-Sham, and she is right to do so because there is a little ambiguity about its position. It attended the conference, it signed the declaration, but it did leave the conference before the end of it. But it has signed the declaration and we take it as bound by the commitments made in that declaration. For clarity, the figure of 70,000 opposition fighters that we have used does not include the Ahrar al-Sham forces. While not extremists like al-Nusra or Daesh, they are clearly not democrats in the sense that Free Syrian Army supporters are, so we do not include them in that figure.
The hon. Lady said I was optimistic about talks. I have to tell her that I am under no illusion that we still have a huge distance to go. We still have a chasm to bridge between ourselves on the one hand and the Russians and the Iranians on the other about the future of Bashar al-Assad, and that will be an issue for many of the oppositionists who are now engaging in this process.
In terms of Syrian opposition unity, the convening power of Saudi Arabia can do a great deal to deliver that. The conference last week was a great step forward, but I do not think anyone should imagine that there will not be disagreements within the Syrian opposition even as they confront the Syrian regime in face-to-face talks, and it will not be a single negotiator; a negotiating panel will be selected.
The hon. Lady asked about the ceasefire. It remains the clear intention of US Secretary of State John Kerry to try to get agreement on Friday in New York to a ceasefire. Frankly, that will be highly challenging, but I commend him for his ambition.
We are also holding this meeting on Friday in New York rather than Vienna specifically to be able to go immediately to the United Nations Security Council if it becomes clear during the morning that it is possible to reach an agreement that the Russians will not veto in the UN Security Council. So there is a possibility—I put it no higher than that—that Friday’s meeting will end with a UN Security Council resolution.
Finally, may I join the hon. Lady in commending the extraordinary effort and sacrifice of the people of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey in providing refuge to so many of those fleeing the chaos in Syria, and taking this burden on unasked and without fanfare not just over the past few months, but for many, many years?
May I join the Opposition in welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s update to the House, and join him in congratulating the Saudi Arabians on success last week in assembling that opposition group?
In relation to Ahrar al-Sham, what progress is there on the Jordanian task of identifying those Islamist groups that are going to stand outside the whole negotiation process between the Syrian Government and opposition forces? There have been long-standing disturbing reports of Turkish action, or inaction, on the Turkish-Syrian border that has served to aid Daesh. Now that the Foreign Secretary has identified Turkey as a like-minded member of the coalition, what reports does he have that action on that border is now firmly not in the interests of Daesh? Finally, turning to Iraq, he referred to the preparation of a Sunni police force for Ramadi; what progress is there on a Sunni national guard force around Anbar and on the national guard Bill in the Iraqi Parliament?
On the Jordanian process, and the strand that is attempting to identify who should be considered terrorists, I spoke with my Jordanian counterpart on Monday evening. That work is progressing and all parties have fed in their views on the vast number of different groups. The Jordanians are currently seeking to distinguish those groups that have a significant number of fighters from those that comprise only one or two dozen people, and cross-referencing the views of the different coalition partners. That is work in progress.
On the question of the Turkish-Syrian border, I had a meeting yesterday with the US President’s special envoy, Brett McGurk, the successor to General John Allen, and we talked about this issue. He told me that there were clear signs on the ground that the Turks were moving to close the border along the 60-odd mile gap that remains open. That is very good news. On the question of the Iraqi national guard, the legislation to create a national guard, which we regard as important, is bogged down in the Iraqi Parliament. It is precisely for that reason that the rather pragmatic approach of creating an armed local police as a ground-holding mechanism in the absence of the ability to create a national guard has been taken.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me early sight of his statement. UK forces in theatre carry the admiration and support of those on these Benches.
I would like the Foreign Secretary to tell us more about three aspects of this issue. First, I welcome the new initiatives on finance and on information and propaganda. He said that the Chancellor would be going to the first ever meeting of Finance Ministers in the Security Council to pursue the Security Council resolutions. Does it not speak volumes that that is the first meeting to tackle the flows of finance, the financial institutions and the arms dealers without whom Daesh could not move a muscle or fire a shot? Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that, after waiting so long for initiatives in this direction, these will be pursued as vigorously as are other elements of the tactics?
Secondly, the Foreign Secretary announced that a communications cell had been established. Can he tell us how many people—and how much money—have been devoted to intercepting, interrupting and counteracting Daesh propaganda? Given the extraordinary financial cost of military action, it would be of interest to the House to have that comparison between what is spent militarily and what is spent on countering Daesh’s poisonous propaganda.
Finally, on the subject of civilian casualties, I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary said that there had been no reported casualties as a result of UK action in Syria. However, he also knows that the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported in the last few days that 26 civilian casualties have resulted from the action of the coalition of which we are part, including the reported deaths of seven children and four women. As the bombing moves into urban areas and city centres such as Raqqa, where I understand there has been no bombing by UK forces as yet, will he tell us by what means we will take forward the NATO protocols on investigating reports of civilian casualties, and how that will be reported timeously to this House and elsewhere?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, particularly for his comment on the commitment of UK forces to their task. This will be the first meeting of Finance Ministers in the Security Council, and I think that sends a very clear signal about the importance with which we regard the issue. It does not mean that no steps have been taken; many measures have been taken already. Financial sanctions are in place, and a financial flows working group, led by Bahrain, has been operating for a year now, but the fact that Finance Ministers of the key countries in the world are going to New York tomorrow to sit in the forum of the Security Council to pass further sanctions measures is an important symbol of our commitment to shutting down this channel of Daesh’s lifeblood. We regard it as extremely important. We saw, in relation to sanctions on Iran, that getting the financial sanctions right was at least as important as getting the sanctions on flows of physical goods right.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the communications cell. The operation of the cell necessarily encroaches into the area of the secret intelligence agencies’ work, so I cannot give him details of the resources available to it or of the number of people deployed in it, but I can tell him that it is already having a visible and measurable effect on Daesh’s communication channels. He also asked me about deaths resulting from coalition action. Of course, any civilian death is deeply regrettable. I was referring to deaths attributable to RAF action, and I believe that while the House will obviously be concerned about civilian deaths more widely, it will be on the question of RAF-caused civilian casualties that hon. Members will want to focus, and I intend to ensure that the House remains updated if the situation changes in respect of any reports of any RAF-caused civilian casualties.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the protocols for investigating civilian casualty reports as the campaign moves on. NATO has well-established protocols for investigating any incidents where CIVCAS are estimated to have occurred or where imagery suggests that there could have been collateral damage to civilian buildings, and it routinely publishes the outcome of those investigations.
Recent discussions with Government officials on a visit to countries in the region confirmed that key questions remain unanswered about the Government’s strategy on combating Daesh, which remains the best-funded terrorist group in history. On the non-military side, why are hard questions not being asked of regional allies about the funding of donations to Daesh from within those countries? When it comes to oil, why are we not asking our regional allies not only to disrupt the flow of stolen oil heading north but to combat the end customers of that oil? Without a market, there can be no cash flow.
My hon. Friend is right. We are focusing on all channels of funding to Daesh. He asserts again that it is receiving funding from within the region, and of course I cannot be certain that there are no channels of funding remaining open to Daesh from the region, but I am confident that none of the Governments in the region either contribute to or condone any such funding. On the question of the flow of oil, he well knows that that oil is being sold into a black market, and I am afraid that black markets are an inevitable consequence of any kind of embargo on the sale of goods. We are doing everything we can to interdict and disrupt the flow of oil and indeed to disrupt the flow of the proceeds of the sale of that oil. He will know that the scale of that production is small and that the means of transport are crude and sometimes even primitive, so it is difficult to disrupt that process to the extent that we would like. Bombing the wellheads so that the stuff cannot be produced in the first place is likely to be the most efficient way to do it.
Following on from the comments of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), is not the crucial difference that the RAF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, while Daesh goes out of its way to destroy, kill and maim as many innocent civilians as it possibly can? As well as commending the professionalism and dedication of the RAF staff on the mission in the field, will the House also remember their families back home at RAF Marham, and at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, who will be without their loved ones this Christmas?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman; he is absolutely right. The training and doctrine of the RAF and other NATO air forces are built around minimising the risk of civilian casualties. I am afraid that that is not the case with all air forces in the world and it is certainly not the case with Daesh.
I warmly welcome the broad-spectrum initiatives that the Foreign Secretary has announced, all of which are designed to degrade and eventually destroy Daesh. Outstanding among them is the Saudi Arabian initiative relating to an Islamic military coalition, which seems to me to be the basis for a very good ground force for the future. It is quite right that we should not be involved in that in any shape or form, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we have some capabilities to offer, perhaps in the form of command and control, training or other things which would not involve British troops being on the ground in Syria but which could none the less make a useful military contribution to the success of that coalition?
We have ruled out the use of UK combat forces in Syria, and indeed in Iraq, but we have not ruled out the provision of UK capabilities in support of combat forces provided by others. UK command and control, logistics, surveillance, and intelligence gathering and analysis could all provide a very substantial reinforcement to any troops that were deployed on the ground.
Yesterday, I met people from the Waltham Forest Council of Mosques to discuss Daesh. They share the concern to tackle the threat it poses, but do have questions about the strategy. The Secretary of State said that failure was not an option, but will he set out for my constituents a bit more about what he means by either failure or success in our operations in Syria?
For me, success is the destruction of Daesh. As I have said many times in this House, I do not delude myself into thinking that destroying Daesh will end the threat of Islamist extremism, but this particular iteration of it as a military force occupying territory has to be ended. The struggle to defeat the perversion of Islam that the Daesh ideology—the extreme Islamist ideology—represents will take much longer. It will be the struggle of a generation, and it is a struggle that must be led by Muslims themselves, reclaiming their religion from the extremists.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s briefing and look forward to similar such briefings in the new year. As chairman of the all-party group on Kurdistan, I was wondering what feedback or briefings the Foreign Secretary has had, and what effect there has been on the morale and military capability of Kurdish peshmerga forces following these targeted UK airstrikes on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was in Kurdistan yesterday and he reports that our action has boosted morale among Kurdish forces, as we would expect. In particular, what has been happening around Sinjar has considerably boosted morale and the strategic position of Kurdish forces. They are extremely delighted—there is no other word for it—about the decision this House made two weeks ago.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said, “The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces rather than Daesh.” Is it not clear that Russia’s priority is to protect the Assad regime? Does it remain the position of the British Government that Assad cannot be part of any solution to the Syrian crisis?
I long since gave up using the word “clear” to describe anything about Russian policy, because it is anything but clear—it is always opaque. We simply do not know what the Russian strategy is. We do not know what Russia’s objectives are, and my assessment is that most people in the Russian system do not either; perhaps Mr Putin has in his head an idea about what the end game is. What I do know is that some 75% of Russian airstrikes are being conducted against people whom we believe have to be part of the solution to the Syrian problem, not against Daesh, which we are very clear is the enemy.
I welcome the emphasis on a political solution and possible ceasefire in Syria. Given the growing strength of Daesh in Libya, can my right hon. Friend tell us how we might get political progress in Libya? Are there military consequences of that growing concentration?
As they say, I am glad that my right hon. Friend asked me that question, because it just so happens that a signing ceremony is planned for tomorrow in Morocco, at which it is hoped by the UN special representative, Mr Martin Kobler, that a majority of the House of Representatives and a significant number of members of the General National Congress will sign an agreement creating a Government of national accord. If that happens tomorrow, the western countries and the Gulf countries will swing behind that Government of national accord and will look to build their capability as soon and as quickly as possible, so that we can start to work in Libya to contain the threat that Daesh now clearly represents in that country.
With the escalation of the UK’s role in the conflict, the Department for International Development should form a central part of the planning processes to ensure that the humanitarian situation in Syria does not deteriorate. How will the Government ensure that coalition military operations do not worsen the conditions faced by civilians in Syria or negatively affect DFID’s capacity to deliver humanitarian assistance?
DFID does do precisely what the hon. Lady has suggested, but of course the lion’s share of DFID work is concentrated on supporting refugees who have left the country. We face issues associated with getting supplies into Syria to support refugees, and one crucial strategic area is the relatively small corridor along the Turkey-Syria border that still remains open to international traffic. Securing that and making sure it remains open is a key objective of coalition forces, for humanitarian reasons.
May I warmly applaud the new impetus that has been given to the diplomatic approach and say how delighted I am that the UK is playing such a prominent role, led by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to boot? The role being played by Saudi Arabia is also to be welcomed. In his statement, he set out the details of the strikes by the RAF that have taken place in Iraq, but he did not mention what has happened in Syria. Given that the application of the dual mode Brimstone was such a key difference between us and other coalition partners, can he set out how many strikes have taken place in Syria with the dual mode Brimstone or give us more detail on other strikes that have taken place?
As my hon. Friend well knows, those are operational details that I cannot give more detail on. As I said in response to the Opposition spokesman, the UK forces are committed to the combined air operations centre, which tasks aircraft from coalition countries with whatever task is in hand. The analysis of strikes carried out by the coalition is done by CAOC and in due course—in the new year, I believe—it will release those figures.
Does the Secretary of State ever tune in to the Airwars website? If he does, he will see its estimate of between 660 and 970 civilian casualties in the last 15 months of operation in Iraq and Syria. Will he please send an official from the Foreign Office to discuss with people from that website the definition of a “non-combatant”—a civilian—casualty and work that out, so that this House may know the truth about how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria as a result of our actions?
The hon. Gentleman put a slight caveat in his question in the last few words when he said “as a result of our actions”. Of course he is absolutely right to say that civilians are dying in Iraq—they are dying at the hands of Daesh and they are dying as a result of ongoing conflict across the country. Our commitment is to ensure that civilian casualties arising from the operations of the RAF are minimised or, ideally, avoided altogether, and I am sure that we are doing an excellent job.
I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the 34-nation coalition formed by Saudi Arabia to defeat terrorism. Will he urge all middle east states, whether Shi’a or Sunni, to get behind this military Islamic alliance to defeat Daesh, because stability in the region also requires bold but much-needed steps towards a Sunni and Shi’a reconciliation?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend on that. The Sunni-Shi’a division in the middle east, which is a relatively new phenomenon to the politics of the region, is unhelpful and, ultimately, destabilising. I am assured by my Saudi Arabian counterpart that the initial 34 nations that have announced their membership of this coalition is not an exclusive list and that other countries are considering joining. I very much hope that further countries will join, giving it the broadest base and the greatest legitimacy possible.
I remain deeply concerned about the lack of progress on civilian protection inside Syria, much of which is being perpetrated by the Assad regime. Does the Secretary of State agree that ending Assad’s indiscriminate use of barrel bombs is a key confidence-building measure that should be prioritised alongside efforts towards a formal ceasefire? Should a ceasefire not be delivered on Friday, may I urge him to look again at other measures to protect civilians, including putting in place no-bombing zones. Will he also reconfirm the Government’s unequivocal commitment not to have truck with anyone—including the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who says that working with Assad’s forces is a compromise that we should be willing to make? That would be not only morally wrong, but counter-productive given that Assad is Daesh’s biggest recruiting sergeant.
As I said in my statement, the US Secretary of State aspires to deliver a ceasefire as an outcome of Friday’s meeting, but even he recognises that that is ambitious. We are also very focused on confidence-building measures, which do not go as far as a ceasefire, but are likely to be more readily achievable. They include an end to the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas, an end to the bombing of hospitals and medical facilities and a guarantee of humanitarian access to besieged areas on both sides of the conflict. The hon. Lady asked me whether we would consider alternative methods of protecting the civilian population, with specific emphasis on no-bomb zones. We have looked extensively at that, and much military effort has gone into analysing what is and what is not possible. I am afraid that the analysis is that it will not be something that is practical to deliver in the absence of forces on the ground, and, as she knows, we have no intention of committing forces on the ground.
I want to pick up on the point that the hon. Lady made about Assad. The reason we say that Assad can play no part in the future is not just to do with a sense of moral outrage about what he has done. We all want to end the killing and, despite what has happened in the past, if I thought that that would bring an end to the killing more quickly, I would look at it, but it will not. We will not get a ceasefire, an end to the civil war and all the guns in Syria turned on Daesh until Assad has gone.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that when one sups with Vladimir Putin, one needs a very long spoon? It is very dangerous for some of our European colleagues to say that his involvement in this battle is somehow helpful and that we should reconsider sanctions against him. Will he confirm that that is not the view of the Government?
The Government have been clear that anyone who genuinely wants to take part in the fight against Daesh is welcome to join the coalition and to do so, but what the Russians have done so far is, at best, ambiguous. Yes, they have bombed Daesh positions. Although the percentage of Russian airstrikes targeting Daesh has increased since the loss of the Russian aircraft over Sinai—which was almost certainly due to a Daesh-inspired or planned bomb attack—they are still only about 25% of the total of their airstrikes. The remainder are targeted at the moderate opposition, and that is, to put it mildly, deeply unhelpful.
The Minister referred in his statement to a coalition of 70,000 troops to defeat Daesh. The coalition is very diverse, with groups having different goals, ambitions and strategies. Will he update the House on how that coalition army is coming together? Who will lead it? How is its training going, and has it got the crucial equipment?
As we covered quite extensively in the debate two weeks ago, this is not a single army; of course it is not. There are diverse groups fighting the opposition. We have identified approximately 70,000 fighters whom we regard as within the pale in the sense that they have objectives with which we can broadly associate and that they are people with whom we are broadly prepared to work. As I set out in my speech closing that debate two weeks ago, the way we envisage this working is through an end to the civil war, thus creating a legitimate Government in Syria, which the international community can support with training, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, weapons, ammunition and command and control support. The Syrian army, thus legitimised, will work alongside these various other militias going after Daesh to finish the job of reclaiming the territory of Syria. That is the outcome that we seek.
Daesh is on the back foot in Iraq. Sinjar has been liberated and, as we speak, Iraqi forces are fighting street by street in the liberation of Ramadi. There have been some very good and positive outcomes with the return of the Sunnis to Tikrit, but there have been some greater challenges around Diyala, and there is a real need for a strong political push for post-conflict co-ordination in that country. We have a strong ambassador who is respected by all parties. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to us taking a lead on that post-conflict co-ordination in Iraq to safeguard the Sunni return?
We have been doing just that. As my hon. Friend says, we have considerable influence in both Baghdad and Irbil. The problem is that some of the steps that need to be taken to create an environment in which the Sunni population in Iraq feels comfortable and as if they are fully fledged citizens of the country are blocked in the Iraqi Parliament. They are being blocked for a variety of reasons, some of which are to do with the basis of power politics rather than issues of high principle.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Vladimir Putin must choose whether he wants his country to remain a respected member of the UN Security Council, or to continue down the road towards being an international pariah and rogue state? If Russia chooses the latter path, do the UK and coalition partners have the steel to ensure that it does not profit in any way from its flagrant abuses in the region?
I want to answer that question carefully. I have said before in this House that, while I deplore many things that the Russians do, I do not believe that Russia is soft on Daesh. Russia and President Putin recognise a threat from Daesh to Russia, which is at least as great as the threat from Daesh to the west. Russia has 13 million Sunni Muslims living inside the borders of the Russian Federation. What we disagree about is methodology. Mr Putin would say, if he were here to answer the question, that he is going about defeating Daesh in the way that he believes will be most effective. We fundamentally disagree with him for the reason that I explained to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), which is that unless and until Assad is gone, we will not get a reconciliation in the Syrian civil war and we will not get all Syrians turning their guns on Daesh.
My right hon. Friend has referred at some length to the challenges presented by Russia, but does he not agree that there are now also huge opportunities? A very good example is the co-operation we saw yesterday with Tim Peake going into space. Does he recall that, 24 years ago, another British cosmonaut, Helen Sharman—she was known as the woman from Mars, because she worked for the Mars confectionery company—went up in space, and the former Member for the Western Isles, Calum MacDonald, and I were there to see it at the Baikonur cosmodrome? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that, overall, it is now in the British national interest to have better relations with Russia, and that if he wants more co-operation at the UN, it would be a good idea to look again at the Russian-Ukrainian situation?
Yes, clearly those are two separate situations, and we are not trading them off. Russia must comply with its international obligations in relation to Ukraine. It must remove its troops from the territory and comply with its obligations under the Minsk agreement. It must also decide whether it wants to be part of the international coalition against Daesh, or whether it is pursuing other objectives by its own methods.
It is right that the Foreign Secretary has come to the House to make his statement today, and it is right that hon. Members across the House pay tribute to the inspiring commitment of our armed forces and their families; but on the subject of commitment, does he think it a little strange that we keep hearing the Government berate other countries for their lack of commitment on aid for Syria, when our commitment to refugees has been so very poor? Does he think that it would improve our diplomatic commitment if we gave a little more sanctuary to just a few more people?
No. As I have said before, we are clear that the best way to support most refugees is by providing the aid that they need for the food programmes, healthcare, shelter and education for their children, to enable them to remain in the region until the conflict is over and then to return to their homes to rebuild their country and be part of Syria’s future. We have said we will accept for resettlement those who are especially vulnerable, as defined by the UN. They are the most vulnerable refugees, requiring extensive support once they arrive here, and we are proud to have resettled 1,000 of them by Christmas.
My right hon. Friend has reassured us that President Assad cannot be part of the long-term solution. Will he advise us whether all necessary parties, including the Assad regime, are co-operating with the political process, which is so important alongside military action?
The Assad regime has said that it has selected its negotiating team and is ready to meet the Syrian opposition on a no-preconditions basis. Of course that assertion remains to be tested, but the regime has indicated that it is willing to engage in those discussions. As in many things around the conflict, in the end the attendance of the Syrian team at the talks will depend, I am sure, crucially on a phone call from Moscow.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for a welcome statement. He talks about defeating Daesh and, of course, all the financial implications, but as we see in Afghanistan, ISIS is now recruiting in 24 of the 39 states. It is transferring money clearly from the oilfields of Syria and Iraq to fund that campaign and paying some of its soldiers—the foreign fighters— $600 a month, and it has now got trained divisions in Afghanistan and has declared war on the Taliban. What is the Government’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, and what does he think ought to be done to defeat Daesh?
Whatever the hon. Gentleman’s issues, after the 11-and-a-half-hour Syria debate, it is not a problem that any of us think you share, Mr Speaker.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. There is evidence of Daesh penetration in many countries, including Afghanistan. What we have to do in Afghanistan is to continue to support the Government, as we and the international coalition have done, to fund the Afghan national police and the Afghan national army to resist the attempt to create a new caliphate, and we will find that happening elsewhere. We need to be clear about this; it will pop up in other countries as well, and we need to be ready to respond to it, wherever it arises.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the remarks about humanitarian support and his answer on humanitarian corridors. Can he tell the House any more about the ongoing discussions on securing access across Syria for humanitarian support and whether there has been any progress in meeting the resolution?
That will be one of the issues on the table on Friday. I mentioned earlier an end to the indiscriminate use of weapons in civilian areas and to the bombing of medical facilities and humanitarian access to besieged areas—the three early confidence-building measures that the UK in particular is promoting and will be promoting at the conference on Friday.
The Prime Minister has been clear in telling us that there have been no civilian casualties as a result of our actions in Iraq or Syria, and the Foreign Secretary has clarified today that there have been no reports of civilian casualties as a result of RAF action, so I was surprised to read yesterday that, when asked how many people had been killed by UK airstrikes, the Ministry of Defence responded, “What do you mean by ‘people’?” Will he clarify what the Ministry of Defence means by “people”?
I very much commend the update and briefing that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has given us. I was privileged last month to visit the Kirkuk region and meet the peshmerga, who were extremely grateful for the RAF air support that we have been giving; Daesh has been curtailed in more than a third of the territory that it once held in the region. May I have assurances that we will continue to work directly with the Kurds, both in the autonomous region of Iraq and in Syria, to ensure that we press the fight further to Daesh?
As my hon. Friend is well aware from his visit, we are providing direct support, training and mentoring to Kurdish forces in Iraq. At present, we do not carry out that kind of activity with the Kurdish forces in Syria. Frankly, Kurdish forces in Syria have demonstrated their fighting capabilities and the adequacy of their supply lines and training arrangements.
Is the Foreign Secretary not concerned that the further involvement of tribal groups and others such as the Muslim Brotherhood and some al-Qaeda groups will lead to further conflict, as we have already seen in Libya? Is not the best way forward to engage with the 34-member group that Saudi Arabia is putting together, with our coalition, to have the people and troops to deal with this problem properly and realistically, rather than by using wishful thinking?
I do not think that the two are mutually exclusive. It may be possible in the future, once we have established a transitional Government in Syria, to rally diverse opposition forces against Daesh, alongside what is left of the Syrian army—possibly supported by specialist interventions from members of the 34 Muslim nation coalition, special forces, logistics, targeters, military intelligence analysts and so forth. That is probably the most effective model that we can put together.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement to the House today and his ongoing commitment to continue to make such statements. The crisis in Syria has truly become a regional conflict, not just because of the impact of Islamic State, but because of the increasingly concerning refugee crisis. Does he agree that we must continue to support the authorities in Jordan and Lebanon, which have been so greatly impacted by the influx of refugees from Syria?
Yes. We are working with all three countries—Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—but particularly closely with Jordan, in trying to produce an innovative scheme that will allow refugees in Jordan to access the labour market and to support the Jordanian economy in a way that allows them to engage with that programme.
In parallel with military action against Daesh—I support such action—the UK Government must work harder to support Syrian refugees. Will the Foreign Secretary set out the UK Government’s position on the private sponsorship of vulnerable refugees? Such sponsorship, which is supported by a range of organisations from Churches to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, would allow more vulnerable refugees, beyond the 20,000 already agreed by the Government, to find sanctuary in the UK. Will the UK Government support that?
The right hon. Gentleman has asked that question of the Prime Minister. While being clear that we think that our position is right on admitting 20,000 vulnerable refugees, the Prime Minister has said that he will look further at the question of orphaned children, and I will remind him of that commitment.
I join other Members in welcoming the statement. I welcome the news that Ministers have been urging the UN special envoy to involve Syrian women’s groups in the peace process. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the response to those representations?
I am afraid there is not such great news to report on that front. The gender balance at the Riyadh meeting was disappointing. Given that it was happening around the time that Saudi Arabia itself was taking a historic step forward in women’s participation in its political system, that is disappointing. We have fed back our concern about that, and the UN special representative, as my hon. Friend said, is particularly focused on this issue.
Should we ponder with some scepticism the apparently ever more pivotal role that is accruing to Saudi Arabia, not just because of the provenance of some of the issues now being faced in this conflict and the Saudi role in Yemen, but because the precepts and principles which the Foreign Secretary quoted that were brokered by Saudi Arabia for the opposition negotiating commission are broken every day for Saudi Arabian citizens? Will the UK Government and others be trying to shepherd the opposition contribution to the negotiations planned for January, or will they leave that shepherding role to Saudi Arabia?
As I have already said, we have provided support to the Syrian opposition in logistical terms in trying to prepare its role as a negotiating convention, and we will continue to do so. Nobody should underestimate the power that Saudi Arabia has because of the position of the King of Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the two holy mosques. That creates a unique convening power which allows Saudi Arabia to bring together people who do not particularly want to sit in a room together and force them to engage with each other. Frankly, in a storm we need to work with partners who have the capabilities that we need, and Saudi Arabia has that capability.
Syria needs political stability so, although we may have to deal with the Assad regime in the short term, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Assad regime cannot be part of the long-term solution, even if other regional partners support his continued dictatorship?
I welcome the early reporting on this subject, which is very important to many in the House. I welcome all the political and diplomatic efforts that the Government are clearly undertaking, and I agree that in those diplomatic efforts the involvement of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Muslim world is crucial. There are two points that we have to acknowledge, the first being that many of those Muslim countries themselves are under attack from Daesh or other terrorists. Secondly, many Muslims across those countries in the Muslim world do not acknowledge the Daesh ideology as being anywhere near Islam, and we have to stress that point. I urge the Government to continue those conversations, because if Daesh is to be defeated properly, we must defeat not only the body known as Daesh, but the evil ideology. That is where Muslim world co-operation will be necessary. On the important issue of civilian deaths, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives in Iraq and in Afghanistan. What assurances can the Foreign Secretary give me that the same will not happen in Syria?
Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives in Syria and people are continuing to lose their lives in Syria, both as a result of Daesh’s systematic murder and as a result of Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombing and chemical attacks on civilian populations, so I am afraid I can give the hon. Gentleman no assurance whatsoever that we will not see similar levels of casualties in Syria. The only way we can seek to prevent them is to bring the bloody civil war to an end and then bring the rule of Daesh over a third of Syria’s territory to an end as quickly as possible.
On the first part of his question, the hon. Gentleman is right. This group of 34 countries is, of course, committed to the challenge of defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but it is at its heart a self-help group—34 countries coming together, recognising that any one of them can be attacked by Daesh or Daesh-affiliated groups, and allowing them to call on each other to provide mutual assistance in responding to such an attack. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right that we have to destroy not only the manifestations of this organisation, but the underpinning ideology. That will be a much longer task and I do not expect it to be completed in my lifetime.
I am pleased that we are finally targeting the oilfields in an attempt to cut off Daesh’s illicit funds, but can my right hon. Friend tell the House why it is only now that we have joined the coalition for airstrikes that we are hitting these oilfields and trying to cut off that source of income? Are there any other places that we should be hitting which form a greater part of our overall strategy?
Maybe I missed something in my hon. Friend’s question. The simple answer is that it is because they are in Syria and until 14 days ago we were not authorised to strike at targets in Syria. A crucial part of our argument was that we needed to take the fight to Daesh in Syria—its command and control headquarters, its supply lines and its sources of economic support.
In the debate just two weeks ago we were told that Daesh in Raqqa represented the head of the snake, and that Daesh posed a real and imminent threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Given that, can the Foreign Secretary tell us what action has been taken by the RAF to diminish Daesh in Raqqa? If no action has been taken by the RAF in Raqqa, why not?
As I made clear earlier, I cannot talk about individual targets and individual attacks. The hon. Gentleman is right. That focus in the debate was on the command and control headquarters in Raqqa and that has to be the target if we are to destroy Daesh, but we have to go about that deliberately. Rushing to strike Daesh in its headquarters is not necessarily the best way to go about the task. I am not a military strategist and I do not think it would be sensible for politicians, least of all in open session, to try to set the military plan. What I do know is that targeting the leadership of Daesh in a heavily populated city such as Raqqa will require extremely careful planning, the acquisition of a great deal of intelligence and surveillance data, and the proper analysis of those data.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s continued commitment to a political solution and to further peace talks, but does he agree that it is important to include and involve as wide a range of countries as possible, including Iran, in order to ensure that all parties get round the table in Syria?
Yes, and one of the great achievements of the Vienna process is that Iran, along with Saudi Arabia, is engaged, so two countries that have not been conspicuous by their ability to talk each other are now talking to each other across a table in Vienna or this week in New York. That is a positive achievement.
I hear what the Foreign Secretary says about civilian casualties, but the effect of bombing—any bombing—is to maintain the flow of refugees, including into Europe. What are the Government doing to get the UNHCR into camps from Lesbos to Calais? Will they offer refugee status to refugees in those camps whose primary family connection is with Britain?
The hon. Gentleman has asked a specific and detailed question. I would be chancing my arm to give him a precise answer. If I may, I will write to him and place a copy of my letter in the Library. I will want to talk to my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the International Development Secretary before answering.
This week the Financial Times reported that even in Daesh-controlled Syria and Iraq two certainties of life exist: death and taxes. Given that the collection of the zakat is now reported to equal the sale of oil revenue, what impact are our airstrikes having on Daesh’s continued worrying economic growth, which has been built on the backs of the rural poor of Iraq and Syria?
I suspect that those two eternal inevitabilities, death and taxes, are rather more immediately unavoidable in Daesh-controlled territory than they are in most other places. There are some signals—this was set out in the debate two weeks ago—that Daesh is facing some financial stress. Stipends paid to fighters have been cut. There are many reports of fighters being unpaid and payments to fighters being delayed. This is still a very well-funded organisation, but the huge one-off bonanza that it acquired in the early days of its surge into Iraq, where it was capturing hundreds of millions of dollars in cash in banks and simply taking it away, has ended. I think it is facing a little more pressure financially than it was then, and we intend to keep tightening the screw.
Will the Secretary of State say more about what is being done in relation to the position of the Iraqi Government on the Sunni community, who are a mainstay of Daesh in that area and are enabling it to run an effective economy and to pay wages to civil servants, soldiers and others because of the technical expertise of many of the people who have gone from Iraq into the area? If we are going to deal with Daesh in the long run, what pressure can be put on the Iraqi Government to deal with that fundamental problem?
We are working very closely with the Iraqi Government, and we are supporting Prime Minister al-Abadi, who remains committed to the programme of outreach to the Sunni community in Iraq but is facing significant challenges in delivering it. His immediate predecessor is opposed, and a significant bloc in Parliament is making it impossible to progress with two key pieces of legislation: on the creation of a national guard, which would see regionally based forces composed of groups that reflected the ethnicity and the confessional allegiance of the regions; and on repealing the de-Ba’athification legislation passed in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, which has driven many capable Iraqis who were associated with the Ba’ath regime into the arms of ISIL. Many of the military brains behind ISIL’s initial success were former Ba’athist military officials from the Iraqi regime.
If use of the Brimstone missile was such a key part of the Government’s argument for extending the bombing campaign to Syria, does the Secretary of State not think he should inform the House of how many Brimstone missiles have been used in operations over Syria, and will he commit to doing so in future statements?
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces tells me that there is a certain amount of operational information available on the gov.uk website on a daily basis, and the hon. Gentleman may find information there that at least partly answers his question.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), the Foreign Secretary set out the complexities of establishing a civilian safe haven on the ground in Syria. Notwithstanding that, given the intensification of the civil war and our own battles against Daesh, will he enter into dialogue with Syria’s neighbours to see whether they or the Islamic military coalition that he described would be willing to provide the ground support that is needed to create that safe haven for civilians?
I regularly talk to my Turkish colleagues, in particular. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Turks have long promoted the idea of creating safe havens in the north along the border with Turkey. However, all such previous proposals have foundered on the question of who will provide the defensive air cover, given the presence of a very sophisticated Syrian air defence system, and now the presence of Russian air-to-air offensive capability in the area.
The MOD has confirmed that the RAF Typhoons operating in Syria have, on occasion, not only carried air-to-surface missiles for attacking targets on the ground but have been armed with air-to-air missiles designed to shoot down enemy aircraft. The Government have said that the only enemy we have in Syria is Daesh. There is no indication whatsoever that Daesh has any aircraft. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us which specific countries’ aircraft the RAF thinks it might have to shoot down in the skies over Syria?
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), is not the reason we have not attacked Raqqa, the so-called head of the snake, that, as I have said, the snake is instead a hydra? We read in the weekend papers that the Government are now giving serious consideration to stretching their operation against Daesh into Libya, which will inevitably lead to our doing so in other parts of the region and in north Africa. We have a plan to attack Daesh, not a plan to defeat it. When will the Foreign Secretary get round to giving us a proper plan for dealing with the problem in the context in which it actually exists?
First, I would say to the hon. Gentleman, do not believe everything you read in the papers, especially at the weekends. As I have said before, this is a complex military task that requires careful planning and careful execution. I am sorry if it does not suit him that we have a debate and 14 days later he has not seen the level of attack in a particular spot that he, as a military strategist, would like to see, but I have to defer to the military strategists in the Ministry of Defence and in the combined air operations centres and let them execute the objectives that this House has clearly endorsed.
The Foreign Secretary was right to highlight the importance of Syria’s neighbours, particularly Arab states. I am sure that he will be aware of this comment by the US Defence Secretary:
“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states joined the air campaign in the early days but have since been preoccupied by the conflict in Yemen.”
Is he concerned by that, and has there been a decrease in sorties by Arab allies?
Yes, there has been a decrease in air sorties by Arab allies. Of course, we recognise the challenges of the conflict on their southern border. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear, and I am sure the House will be pleased to hear, that talks are currently going on between the two sides in the Yemeni civil war. A ceasefire of sorts has been in place over the past couple of days, and although there have been violations, I understand that it is broadly holding. We are therefore hopeful that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the military phase of the conflict in Yemen.
In his previous statement the Prime Minister mentioned the memorandum of understanding regarding communication between the coalition and Russia, which is hugely important. We need only look at the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey to see how crucial it is that those communications are going on daily at an operational level. The House has heard loud and clear about the difficulties in dealing diplomatically with Russia, and we must continue to endeavour to be more successful in doing that. How well is the memorandum of understanding working, given that it is for the safety of our troops as well as Russia’s that it is working?
This is about de-confliction. It is about ensuring that we are not flying our aircraft in the same bit of airspace where, inadvertently or by accident, they might come into conflict with others. That has been working well. In fact, coalition aircraft and Russian aircraft are generally operating in different areas. Of course, the situation with regard to Turkey is different. The Turkish aircraft in question in the incident that the hon. Gentleman refers to, which tragically led to the death of a Russian lieutenant colonel, the pilot, were defending Turkish airspace. It was a routine air defence patrol of the type that we fly in the UK, and we would be in the same position if our airspace was threatened or challenged. The de-confliction of airspace for operations between the coalition and Russia is working well, but the conflict—the tension—remains along the border, where Turkish aircraft are flying in their airspace and Russian aircraft are flying in Syrian airspace. We are all extremely keen to see any risks in that area de-escalating, and we are working hard to achieve that.
The Foreign Secretary says that a minimum of £1 billion has been put aside for reconstruction. Is that a blank cheque, and, if so, what alternatives is it at the expense of? What needs analysis is that figure based on? What plans exist for spending it, and over what timescale?
I do not think it is a blank cheque: it says on the top line, “People of Syria”, and on the next line, “£1 billion”, so it is clearly not a blank cheque. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are going to remain committed to the Syrian people through this conflict, through the formation of a transitional Government and in the rebuilding of their country after the creation of that transitional Government and the end of the conflict. He made it very clear in the debate two weeks ago that £1 billion is not the limit of our support for the Syrian people; it is a first instalment to which we have committed.