On 20 January, I attended the first Defence Ministers meeting in Paris, where we reviewed and agreed options for intensifying the military operation against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. On 11 February, I attended the full counter-Daesh ministerial in Brussels, where we agreed an accelerated campaign plan, including agreeing on the importance of the liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, and pressing Daesh from all sides.
The international community had previously asked Arab countries to do more in the fight against Daesh. Having just returned from leading a parliamentary delegation to Saudi Arabia, I understand that the Saudi authorities are prepared to send ground troops into Syria to defeat Daesh but require air cover from their international partners. Will the United Kingdom and other international partners look at that request?
I welcome the contribution that co-operating Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which was present at the Daesh meeting in Brussels, are making to the fight against Daesh, and I welcome the Saudi redeployment of F-15 aircraft to the coalition air campaign. I have seen the reports my hon. Friend mentioned that Saudi Arabia is prepared to send troops to the fight in Syria. We will wait to see the details of any plan before commenting on what support the UK would provide as part of the global coalition.
Russian airstrikes are clearly targeting civilian populations in Syria, killing and maiming innocent men, women and children, as well as degrading the moderate Syrian forces that we are relying on to defeat Daesh in the region. Will the Secretary of State outline what actions we are taking now, and might take, to protect these populations and underpin our military strategy in the region?
I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the cessation of hostilities at the weekend. That appears largely to be holding for now, but it will succeed only if there is a major change of behaviour by the Syrian regime and by its principal backer, Russia. Russia must honour the agreement by ending attacks on Syrian civilians and moderate opposition groups and using its influence to ensure that the Syrian regime does the same. As for the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, there has been some progress in the past few weeks in reaching besieged areas. Some 60,000 people have recently been reached with aid through the United Nations food convoys.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have been very clear and public that Russian actions have been undermining the prospects for ending the conflict in Syria. We welcome the Russian contribution to the most recent agreement that came into effect on Saturday. Russia can and should play a positive role in the fight against Daesh and in ending the conflict in Syria. I have to tell the House, however, that over 70% of Russian airstrikes have not been against Daesh at all but against civilians and moderate opposition groups in Syria—an appalling contribution to a conflict that must be ended.
There have not been discussions about extending airstrikes to Libya because at the moment there is no Government in Libya. We have been working to assist the formation of a new Government in Libya, and it is then for that Government to make clear what assistance they require. We are party to the Libyan international assistance mission, and we will see exactly what kind of support the new Government want—whether it is assistance with advice or training, or any other kind of support.[Official Report, 2 March 2016, Vol. 606, c. 6MC.]
Last week in Iraq, members of the Defence Committee were informed of the full horror of Daesh, specifically in Ramadi. As it is forced out of territory, it leaves behind minefields of improvised explosive devices, including in people’s fridges and toilets, but there are no resources available to remove them. What conversations is the Defence Secretary having with partners to ensure that those resources are made available?
The hon. Lady is right to say that Daesh has been seeding with improvised explosive devices those towns and villages from which it has been expelled. The British contribution to the training effort of the Iraqi forces has focused on counter-IED training, which we are now supplying at all four of the building partner capacity centres. If there is more we can do to assist the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in that training, we will certainly do so.
What support will the UK Government give to the United Nations, which is today giving fresh aid to Syria, and to the albeit very fragile ceasefire?
We have been making our contribution through the United Nations and we are ready to help do more. It is not easy for convoys to get through to some of the very hard-to-reach areas. Last week’s aid drop was not entirely successful; it was dropped from a great height into a high wind, and a number of the pallets did not reach their target. The best way of getting aid in is by land convoys, but that is not easy in some of the particularly hard-to-reach areas.
Members of the Defence Committee also visited Jordan and Lebanon, and we were particularly concerned to see that Daesh was threatening the borders of relatively stable countries that Britain has assisted with huge and impressive investment. What more can my right hon. Friend and the Government do to support those countries in dealing with the clear and present danger of this evil organisation?
My hon. Friend is right to say that Daesh represents a threat to the stability of the entire region, including the neighbours of Iraq and Syria. We have already made a huge contribution towards training the Jordanian forces, and we have more to do. We have recently been playing role in Lebanon, too, in helping its border defences.
Brimstone is one of the precision munitions available to our armed forces, alongside Paveway bombs and the Hellfire missile. The United Kingdom forces have flown more than 2,100 combat missions against Daesh and have carried out more than 600 strikes, including with Brimstone missiles. One of the points for review at the recent ministerial meeting was what more we can do to target the infrastructure that supports Daesh—its command and control, logistics and supply routes—as well as our efforts in support of Iraqi forces.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he comment on recent reports in The New York Times that say that, although Daesh numbers have fallen in both Iraq and Syria, those in Libya have doubled in the same period? Is it not the case that, rather than diminishing Daesh, the current bombing campaign is simply displacing it?
No, I do not think there is direct evidence of movement from one country to another. Daesh is on the back foot in Iraq. The Iraqi and Kurdish forces, with support from the coalition, have liberated Tikrit, Baiji, Ramadi and other cities, and Daesh is being pushed back there. That is not happening yet in Syria, and I, like the hon. Gentleman, am extremely concerned about the proliferation of Daesh along the Libyan coastline, which is why we have been urgently assisting the formation of a new Libyan Government.
As the Secretary of State has said, coalition efforts have a significant effect on stopping and degrading Daesh not only in Iraq, but, to a lesser degree, in Syria. Does he agree, however, that a conventional, full-frontal assault on Mosul and Raqqa might well have the opposite effect to that we are seeking, and that trying to do something about Daesh’s poisonous ideology and funding is possibly more important than purely conventional attacks?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We have to look at all those things and deal with Daesh across the board. We have to combat its ideology, we have to cut off its financing and we have to deal with the message that it is putting out to local populations. Preparations for the liberation of both Mosul and Raqqa will require very careful preparation to reassure the Sunni population, particularly of Mosul, that it will be able to enjoy better security once Daesh is thrown out.
As we consider these issues, our thoughts are very much with the brave members of our armed forces who are serving in the middle east, with all those who are living under the brutality of Daesh and with the victims of the terror attacks that have been carried out all over the world. The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that we can simultaneously welcome the progress towards a ceasefire and the contributions that the Russians have made, and condemn the previous Russian attacks on the moderate forces that the coalition is working with. Will he tell us how reliable he feels the estimate of 70,000 moderate Syrian ground forces is at this moment in time?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful for the official support that has been given to the campaign against Daesh. The 70,000 figure was not the Government’s figure; it was a figure produced independently by the Joint Intelligence Committee. We have no reason to believe that it is wrong. Indeed, the civil war in Syria has been raging for six years, so considerable forces, of which the 70,000 are a formidable part, have been engaged against the Syrian regime.
Just two days ago, ISIS launched a series of attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdish forces in Tal Abyad, to the north of Raqqa. Given that we were hoping that the moderate forces were waiting to take the fight to Daesh, that is obviously very concerning. Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about how effective he thinks UK airstrikes have been in achieving our objectives of weakening Daesh and supporting moderate forces to take back control and liberate Raqqa?
The UK is playing probably the second most important part in coalition air activity in the strikes, in surveillance and in intelligence. As I have said to the House, Daesh is being pushed back in Iraq. There is no doubt about that. It is being pushed up the Tigris and it is being pushed back west along the Euphrates. In Syria, the position is much more complicated. We are concerned at some of the more recent reports that may suggest co-ordination between Syrian democratic forces and the Assad regime, which is not helpful to the long-term aim of defeating Daesh.