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Counter-Daesh Quarterly Update

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016

With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the counter-Daesh campaign following the December and February statements by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary. Since then, the attacks in Brussels in March have reminded us of the importance of defeating this terror. Since the decisive vote to extend air strikes to Syria, we have stepped up our air campaign, and today I want to set out the United Kingdom’s contribution to military operations and our wider efforts to defeat Daesh.

We now have 1,100 military personnel in the region on this campaign. I know the House will want to join me in paying tribute to them and to their families who are not with them. The RAF has conducted over 760 airstrikes in Iraq and, since December, 43 in Syria—more than any nation except the United States. As well as providing close air support, we have been targeting Daesh’s communications, command and control, and infrastructure, and also providing crucial intelligence and surveillance. In Iraq, we have over 250 troops who have trained more than 13,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, mainly in countering improvised explosive devices. The extra troops I announced in March have now started to deploy—22 Engineer Regiment from Wiltshire is providing bridge building training, while the MOD hospital unit from Northallerton is providing medical expertise.

The military campaign is making progress. In Iraq, Daesh is on the back foot: it has lost territory, its finances have been targeted, and its leadership has been struck. About 40% of the territory that Daesh once held has been retaken, including Ramadi; last month, Hit; and, more recently, Rutbah. Preparatory operations for the encirclement of Mosul are under way and, at the weekend, Prime Minister Abadi announced the beginning of the operation to retake Fallujah.

In Syria, the civil war, the persistence of Daesh, and Russia’s intervention have created a more complex situation. Despite the so-called cessation of hostilities, the regime has continued to hammer the moderate opposition. In Aleppo, hospitals and schools have been repeatedly shelled. On 4 May, the United Kingdom called an urgent session of the UN Security Council to highlight the regime’s atrocities. Russia, the Assad regime’s protector, must apply pressure to end this violence. None the less, even in Syria, Daesh has lost ground and has been driven from al-Shaddadi—a major supply route from Mosul to Raqqa. Coalition airstrikes have destroyed an estimated $800 million-worth of Daesh cash stockpiles, while the RAF has struck oilfields in eastern Syria—a major source of revenue. We need to build on this progress. Earlier this month, I and other coalition Defence Ministers reviewed what further support we can offer, and we are looking at what more the UK can do.

Daesh cannot be defeated by military means alone. That brings me to the wider strategy. First, on counter-ideology, the UK has led the creation of a coalition communications cell to undermine Daesh’s failing proposition that it is winning militarily, that it is building a viable state, and that it represents the only true form of Islam. Some in the media have criticised our proactive efforts to discredit Daesh’s perverted ideology. I say to the House that we make no apology for seeking to stop people being radicalised and stop them becoming Daesh suicide bombers or foot soldiers.

Secondly, we are supporting political reform and reconciliation in Iraq, and the ending of the civil war in Syria and the transition of Assad from power. We are helping to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh so that people can return to a safe environment. We have contributed to UN-led efforts to remove IEDs, to increase water availability to above pre-conflict levels in Tikrit, and to rebuild schools, police stations and electricity generators across Anbar and Nineveh provinces.

In Syria, long-term success means a political settlement which delivers a Government who can represent all Syrians and with whom we can work to tackle Daesh. Last week, the International Syria Support Group reaffirmed its determination to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, and set a deadline of 1 June for full humanitarian access to besieged areas. It is concerning that despite this agreement, attacks have continued, and that armed groups are on the brink of withdrawal from the cessation. We support the UN special envoy in his efforts to resume Syrian peace negotiations, the success of which depends on respect for the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and discussion of transition by both sides.

Thirdly, the UK is playing a full role, alongside our partners, in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. At the London conference, we doubled our commitment to Syria and the region to £2.3 billion, which has already delivered over 20 million food rations and relief items for over 4.5 million people—but there remain 13.5 million people in need inside Syria. The regime continues to remove vital medical supplies from aid convoys, in violation of international law. It is outrageous that aid itself has become a weapon of war.

Fourthly, we are stemming the flow of foreign fighters through better international co-ordination. At least 50 countries now pass fighter profiles to Interpol—a 400% increase over two years. We estimate that the number of foreign fighters joining Daesh has now fallen to about 200 a month from its peak of about 2,000 a month.

As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we have seen new branches appear, most concerningly in Libya. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli last month to reiterate our support for Prime Minister al-Sarraj. Yesterday I spoke to the new Libyan Defence Minister to repeat our offer of assistance to the new Government of national accord. Last Monday, the international community reaffirmed its support for that new Government and underlined the need for enhanced co-ordination between legitimate Libyan security forces to fight Daesh and UN-designated terrorist groups. Britain would provide training or other support only at the invitation of the Libyan Government or by other authority. Let me reiterate to the House that there are no plans to deploy troops in a combat role.

Since this House supported extending military operations, we have intensified our efforts to defeat Daesh. There is a long way to go, and political progress needs to match military progress on the ground, but we can be encouraged. This may be a long campaign, but it is one we have to win and one we will win. I commend this statement to the House.

May I start by joining the Secretary of State in recognising the extraordinary bravery and commitment of the men and women of our armed forces? I welcome much of what he has said. Daesh and those who fight alongside it are barbaric and hateful terrorists, and they must be stopped. I was surprised, however, that there was not recognition from the Secretary of State of the terrible news of the suicide bombings in Syrian strongholds that caused so many fatalities yesterday. That obviously serves as a reminder that progress cannot be measured only in terms of the size of Daesh-held territory. On behalf of the House, may I express all our condolences to the victims of this senseless violence, and their families?

A particularly significant development in Iraq was seen at the weekend with the launch of the ground offensive against the Daesh stronghold of Fallujah. It is often forgotten that about 250 British troops have been deployed on the ground in Iraq, providing vital training and military advice to the Iraqi security forces. We therefore have an important stake in the success of the Iraqi military, and we will continue to monitor their progress very carefully.

As the Secretary of State acknowledges, the situation in Syria is much more complex. Last year, he said that we were going to

“tighten the noose around the head of the snake”

that was Raqqa, but taking the fight to the de facto capital of Daesh in Syria will present many challenges compared with the previous stages of the campaign.

In terms of ground forces, coalition airstrikes to date have been complemented by a number of armed opposition groups on the ground, particularly in northern Syria, but the YPG is unlikely to have a role in Raqqa, I would suggest, given its distance from the majority Kurdish regions. There are questions too about both the numbers and the composition of other armed opposition groups. The House was told last year that the Free Syrian Army, comprising the majority of the 70,000 moderate fighters the Government identified, was going to fight in Syria, but as the Secretary of State said again today, Russian airstrikes have systematically targeted the Free Syrian Army, among other rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime but not thought to be affiliated to Daesh. In fact, there have been reports in the past 24 hours that indicate that the Free Syrian Army may be excluded from the US-led plan to liberate Raqqa. Is that correct? If it is, how are the Government expecting to contribute to the next phase of the campaign without troops of our own on the ground? Do the Government plan to increase co-ordination between coalition efforts and the Assad regime and its Russian allies?

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that further airstrikes will avoid inflicting civilian casualties, particularly if urban areas such as Raqqa are to be targeted? The statements so far on the latter point have not provided sufficient reassurance. We are told that a review is carried out after each strike to assess the damage, but there are few details of the process involved. The MOD, we are told, considers all credible reports of civilian casualties, but it is not clear how credibility is defined in that context; nor is it clear how many reports of civilian casualties have been received but not found to be credible, or even how the difficult distinction between combatant and civilian is being made in the first place.

I welcome the progress that has been made in the fight against Daesh in recent weeks. I hope to hear in more detail from the Secretary of State what strategy the Government have for taking the campaign forward.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone of her response. She raised three or four specific points.

The hon. Lady is right to draw the attention of the House to suicide bombings. In Iraq, they may to some extent indicate a switch in tactics by Daesh. As it is increasingly pushed west along the Euphrates and north up the Tigris, we have seen suicide explosions in Baghdad and in Syria.

The hon. Lady is also right to draw attention to the operations likely to be needed to liberate both Raqqa and Mosul, which are the main centres currently occupied by Daesh. That will require quite sustained and formidable operations by the local forces on the ground, and nobody should underestimate the difficulty or the timescales involved. However, as I indicated, some progress is being made in north-east and northern Syria, with operations ongoing to try to seal the remaining unsealed pockets of the border and to begin slowly to tighten the noose around Raqqa. Operations have begun to begin to plan how the city of Mosul may be recovered and troops are being moved forward up the Tigris to be ready for that.

The hon. Lady asks about the estimate of 70,000. Our view is that that estimate has stood up. Numbers of that size are still involved in fighting the regime, and the Syrian democratic forces are part of that struggle.

Finally, the hon. Lady asks about civilian casualties. I made it clear to her and the House that we carry out a battle damage assessment after every RAF strike: we look back at the evidence of what the strike actually achieved to satisfy ourselves that that there have been no civilian casualties. We will of course look especially closely at any allegation made and any piece of evidence that comes to light that there may have been civilian casualties, but at the moment, after a year and a half of operations in Iraq and Syria, our view remains that we have seen no evidence yet of civilian casualties being caused by our strikes. That, I suggest, is a tribute to the professionalism of the RAF pilots and crews and to the choice of precision munitions.

Russian media are reporting a Russian statement that a force of 6,000 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are preparing for an assault on Aleppo. Plainly there is scope for confusion and misinformation about identifying al-Nusra and other opposition forces. Has any work been done by the members of the ISSG to create a joint intelligence picture, so that the capacity for misinformation in that area can be reduced?

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is responsible for middle east affairs, is already involved in work to build up a better picture. The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right: the picture in and around Aleppo is the most complex of all in terms of the different groups fighting there. He makes a good point about sharing intelligence more widely.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

During the debate in December, we were told that the UK’s unique contribution to defeating Daesh was the Brimstone missile and that our coalition partners were pressing the UK to bring it to the conflict. Incidentally, this unique contribution argument continued even after it was shown that the Royal Saudi Air Force had been using Brimstone in Syria since February 2015. Despite that, it remained a central plank of the Government’s case for extending UK military action into Syria. Indeed, according to information obtained by The Huffington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, until as late as February this year not a single Daesh fighter had been killed by a UK-fired Brimstone missile. The Brimstone missile and its capacity to minimise civilian casualties work best when there is human intelligence on the ground to supply precise information. That explains the other great plank of the Government’s case: the 70,000 moderate ground troops who were, we were assured, ready to cut off the head of the Daesh snake in Raqqa.

Today, we are told that the coalition is airdropping leaflets into Raqqa urging the civilian population to flee the city ahead of an imminent attack—the problem of course being that the civilian population of that city are being used as human shields by Daesh, which has threatened to murder anyone attempting to leave the city. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our coalition partners to decide whether the RAF will take part in the imminent bombing of Raqqa, with its large civilian population?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. They are largely about operational matters, but I will do my best to respond.

The RAF uses a number of precision weapons—Paveway bombs, Hellfire and Brimstone missiles—for different tasks. The Brimstone is particularly suited to striking moving vehicles, for example; the Paveway deals with more static targets, such as command posts. I can tell the House that yesterday the RAF used all three—Paveway, Brimstone and Hellfire. There will be more details of that in due course.

We have never suggested that the RAF would start bombing Raqqa or Mosul indiscriminately. The coalition will have to be extremely careful in its use of close air support as operations begin first to encircle, then eventually to liberate the suburbs and the city centre. Obviously, we want to ensure that as many civilian lives as possible are saved. As we have in the liberation of other cities, the coalition has of course been encouraging citizens to leave, to make sure those lives are spared. We discuss such matters regularly inside the coalition.

Order. A further 29 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate all of them on this important statement, the timing of which was flagged up last week by the Government, but there are also about 30 people seeking to contribute to the subsequent debate, so pithiness personified is what we require.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who say that we must find some accommodation with Assad because we need to work with him to beat Daesh are missing the point? They need look no further than Darayya on 12 May, where a humanitarian convoy was prevented from entering the town to save the lives of starving children. The brutality of that regime means that we have no chance of working with Assad successfully in the future.

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The brutality of the Assad regime means that he can play no part in the future of Syria. He and his forces have been using barrel bombs and chlorine, dropping munitions indiscriminately and robbing humanitarian aid convoys of exactly the medicines that the local communities need.

What progress has been made in cutting off finances to Daesh, apart from the sale of oil, such as that obtained from looted antiquities and the terrible sale of slaves, who are the Yazidi women?

We have made progress in reducing the dependence of Daesh on illegally traded oil across its borders and also internally in Syria. We have made progress in cutting down the sale of antiques and artefacts in international markets. We have had the strike that I referred to on the cash stockpiles that Daesh has been using to finance itself. Of course, it draws other revenues from the areas it controls, but one illustration of the progress has been consecutive reports that Daesh has begun to cut the pay rates to its own troops.

Nevertheless, Daesh remains the best funded terrorist group in history, despite the fall in the oil price. How confident, therefore, is the Secretary of State that Daesh can no longer access the financial infrastructure and resources of the Iraqi state, given that the Foreign Affairs Committee is still waiting for answers from the Iraqi banking authorities as to Daesh’s ability to make a turn on the state’s currency markets?

That is one of the areas that we are working on. When Daesh originally established its caliphate so rapidly, it was able to access finance from the central bank in Mosul and other areas in Iraq, and it levies taxes on the towns and cities that it controls, but I want to assure my hon. Friend that the work is in hand and we are making progress in restricting Daesh’s financial support.

Is it not now clear that the success of the international coalition against ISIS will be limited so long as civilians in Syria continue to be subject to starvation tactics, besiegement and attacks with impunity? Is it not time for a rethink on the UK strategy so that it focuses much more on civilian protection? To that end, has operational planning begun by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development on supporting the World Food Programme in its deadline of 1 June on airdrops to besieged communities?

We continue to look at that. The difficulty with airdrops is that they are very difficult to target on the precise population that we want to help. It is difficult to drop water in very large quantities, and at present the United Nations wants, where it can, to get food in through humanitarian convoys, but we will keep that under review.

Towards the end of last year when I was in Iraq, I was honoured to meet some displaced people in a number of camps. The Secretary of State is right to say that in addition to military action, we need to win the peace. May I therefore have an assurance that when we liberate cities such as Falluja, a key part of the strategy is ensuring that the utilities, water and other things to support civic society will be very much part of our plan?

Absolutely. We are providing some £80 million in lifesaving humanitarian aid for those who have been forced to flee their homes. The Chancellor announced at the G7 last week that we are contributing some £300 million in loan guarantees to the World Bank’s facility to help rebuild and strengthen the economy of Iraq, and we are also contributing to the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund that will help tackle poverty and ensure stability, precisely to get back the essential services on which people depend, to encourage them to return rapidly to the areas that have been liberated.

The Secretary of State has spoken about the battle damage assessment that takes place after a raid. Can he explain to the House, for those who are not familiar with the process, not only about selecting targets and the legal basis, but the fact that some targets are avoided at the last minute because of awareness of the risk of civilian casualties?

When selecting and approving targets for deliberate strikes, we take very great care to make sure that they respect the rules of engagement that I set at the beginning of the campaign. A target that is selected may be studied for several days or even weeks to make sure that we understand the pattern of life around it— that it is a building, for example, that civilians are not using and only the military are using. We continue that surveillance right up until the last moment. If civilians are found to be in that area, the strike can be aborted right at the end. We take very good care to minimise civilian casualties. In long campaigns, however, in the messiness of war it is not impossible that there may be civilian casualties at some point. All I can tell the House is that from the evidence so far, we think we have avoided them.

I thank the Secretary of State for the quarterly update. What progress has been made in supplying the arms and ammunition that the brave Kurdish peshmerga forces have been requesting so that they can continue to take the fight to Daesh on the ground?

Yes, we are planning to provide the Kurdish regional government with more than £1 million worth of further ammunition to equip the peshmerga. We have already supplied ammunition and arms to start with and we have done a lot of training. We have trained some 3,000 of the peshmerga to fight, but we have a further shipment in hand and, subject to the approval of Parliament—there is a special procedure by which Parliament must signify its approval—I hope that that ammunition will be with the Kurdish peshmerga in the next few weeks.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made in relation to the number of Daesh terrorists operating in Europe, as opposed to Syria? How effective has our work been in preventing conscription to Daesh, both here and abroad?

That is a very good question, if I may say so. As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we may well see some backlash from Daesh in its external attack planning against west European or British targets, so we are vigilant, working with our partners across Europe to make sure that we understand how that attack planning is being carried out and so that we can track down those who are likely to be responsible for future attacks.

I thank the Secretary of State for the quarterly update. I understand that there are some reports that the Russians have asked the Americans to join them in joint strikes. Have they also made such a request to the United Kingdom and, if so, does the Secretary of State share the concern of many people that such a move might undermine the political process because many in the Syrian Opposition see the Russians as the aggressors?

It is in Russia’s gift to help push the political process on and to use its influence with the Assad regime much more constructively than it has done so far. Our own strike aircraft are covered by the existing memorandum between the United States and Russia, and so far are deconflicting the airspace around particular missions, but we are not otherwise co-operating.

First, I welcome the quarterly report. We need to be in a cycle of delivering such reports with a focus on Daesh. Secondly, I thank the Secretary of State and the MOD for the very helpful briefing that was given yesterday in relation to Daesh. I asked two questions yesterday. One was about no-fly zones. The Secretary of State has been very clear in saying that there is no scope for no-fly zones at present. However, I hope he will keep that under review so that if at any point Assad and the Russians agree to it, we can implement that rapidly. The second question, which was not answered, was in relation to Raqqa and Mosul. If those two cities are turned into Stalingrad, what support can we give to civilians within them?

On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, we are adhering to the quarterly rhythm: the first statement was made in December, the next in February and it is now the end of May. It is useful for the House to be updated according to that timescale.

On no-fly zones, it is simply the practical application of a no-fly zone that I need persuading about; I am not clear at the moment how a no-fly zone could be properly policed. The worst thing of all would be to offer a no-fly zone that is not actually safe.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, Raqqa and Mosul are very large cities with, at the moment, large civilian populations who have not fled. That is why the operations are going to take a very long time. Ramadi took eight months. It is going to take a long time to persuade those civilians that Daesh is not their future and that it would be best for them to leave while the fighting is going on.

I pay tribute to the men and women of our armed services who are working day in, day out to liberate people from Daesh. What preparations are being made for post-conflict reconstruction when areas are liberated from Daesh, and what part is the United Kingdom playing in that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said and will make sure that it is passed back not just to the Royal Air Force, but to all those involved in this huge effort—our biggest single military undertaking at the moment. Stabilisation is the key: after liberating a town or city, it is essential to offer the local population the security and stability they need to be able to return. We are co-operating with our partners, and a huge amount of work is being done on the stabilisation effort, which will be offered to each city and town as it is liberated.

Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Speaker, so that I can get out of the Chamber and spare everybody my germs.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Given that large areas of north-eastern Syria would not have been secured but for the Syrian Kurds, what practical support are we giving them and what efforts are being made to include them in diplomatic negotiations? Does he agree that it is incredibly problematic for a key actor in the Syrian Kurds to be excluded from Geneva I and II and from future peace talks, given their strategic importance as interlocutors in any future peace settlement?

The Kurds are represented in the Syrian talks. It is not the object of the talks to start excluding every single Kurdish group. The Syrian Kurds have to be part of the solution. Many of them have come forward in the fight against Daesh, as well as in the fight against the regime, and they have to be part of the future.

I also thank my right hon. Friend for his update, and add my thanks to the British military personnel who are serving in the region on our behalf. As the military campaign progresses, what assurance can he give that we are doing all we can to ensure that we also make progress on the political track?

Talks are under way on the future of Syria and they need to make more progress. My hon. Friend is right. In Iraq we have not seen the political progress needed to match the military progress, which is getting ahead of the reforms, securitisation and stabilisation that we need to see following on, particularly in Anbar province. We urge the Abadi Government to crack on with the reforms needed to create a national guard in which people can have confidence, to give the governors the powers they need to get essential services up and running, and to ensure that the areas that are liberated are then properly policed.

The Secretary of State’s statement did not refer to the Syrian Kurds—the Democratic Union party—or the Iraqi Kurds, the Kurdish Regional Government. In answer to an earlier question, he said that the long-delayed supply of ammunition to the peshmerga would take place at some point in the future. Why is it taking so long?

The peshmerga are able to access ammunition from a number of sources. They now have the funding to purchase it—some more funding has gone in from the United States recently—but we are not able to supply the Kurdish peshmerga directly. The Kurdish area is part of the unitary state of Iraq, so supplies have to be routed through Iraq and we also have to consider the needs of the Iraqi forces—the Iraqi army itself— vis-à-vis the peshmerga. I have, however, agreed a new shipment of ammunition, and I hope it will be going out there shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for the interesting update. It is clear from experience that when areas are liberated, a system of government, law and order and justice in which everyone can have confidence needs to be put in place quickly. Does he agree that while there may be some need for transitional arrangements, in the long term Assad cannot be the solution in Syria?

Absolutely. We have been very clear throughout that there is no future for Assad in the future Government of Syria and he needs to depart. We want to see in Syria what we have in Iraq—a Government who are genuinely representative of all groups in Syria and who are prepared to work towards a democratic and representative Administration.

The Secretary of State said: “It is outrageous that aid itself has become a weapon of war.” Those outrages have grievous consequences for civilians and children. What preparations are the UK Government making to make sure that such crimes are investigated and that someone is held accountable for them at some point in the future?

I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. That will be an important part of the work that will be needed when the conflict finally, I hope, ends. We are already working with non-governmental organisations to see what resources and funding they need in order to collect the evidence required to nail those responsible.

On a recent visit to Moscow, it was often said that any lasting, peaceful and democratic solution in Syria would only happen in partnership with Russia. That view has also been expressed here at home, too. I have two questions. When did the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary last meet their respective counterparts in the Russian Government? On timelines, will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the House that the lasting, peaceful and democratic solution will be delivered within the three-year target period that he suggested at yesterday’s MOD briefing? Are we even close to that?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, Russia has legitimate interests and influence in Syria, and we want it to bring that to bear constructively. The Foreign Secretary regularly meets his counterpart; I believe he met Mr Lavrov early last week. On the hon. Gentleman’s third and final question, the original timescale was set not by me, but by Secretary Kerry. When we asked the House to support action in Iraq in summer 2014, Secretary Kerry’s estimate was that it would take at least three years. We are not yet into the second year. This is, as I said in my statement, going to be a long campaign.

Turkey is a key NATO ally and a partner in our fight against Daesh. It has also taken in and provided a safe haven to millions of people fleeing the terror in Syria and Iraq. What support is the UK Government offering Turkey with regard to its own internal fight against Daesh, the terrorist attacks it has experienced and the other terrorist groups identified as operating there?

I visited Ankara for discussions just after one of the first attacks in Turkey. We have offered Turkey counter-terrorism assistance, and we should applaud the role it is playing in looking after so many refugees—more than 2 million of them—and the efforts it is making to close the border, stem the flow of foreign fighters and restrict Daesh’s ability to trade in oil. Turkey deserves enormous credit for that. On the second part of the hon. Lady’s question, I hope she will allow me to write to her.

In his statement, the Secretary of State mentioned that the number of foreign fighters has been reduced to 200. Has he made any assessment of the number of UK citizens—both male and female—who have travelled out to support Daesh and of how many have returned to the UK?

Again, I will try to get that specific information to the hon. Lady; I do not have it to hand. I want to make it clear that the estimate is of 200 foreign fighters joining Daesh a month, vis-à-vis the figure of 2,000 joining a month when Daesh was at its peak a couple of years ago. They have more than 200 foreign fighters, but the flow of new foreign fighters has been quite considerably reduced.

At the time of the Syria debate back in October, there were guarded suggestions that Russia, through the Vienna process, would work towards a stable transition in Syria within a six-month period. Clearly, that has not happened. Will the Secretary of State say whether there is any hope of Russia playing a constructive role?

Well, we are hoping for that, and it is depressing that it has not happened. Russia has huge influence in Syria and it could have played a much more constructive role, but we have seen what has happened since the so-called cessation of hostilities was agreed in February. We still see Russia playing a very malevolent role—claiming to have withdrawn some of its forces, but bringing in new helicopters and not directing its fire against Daesh. The hon. Gentleman asked what hope there is. I think we should always be hopeful. We will continue to engage with Russia and urge it to bring its influence to bear at the conference table.

What progress has been made in securing a safe corridor for civilians and in providing support for marginalised groups, such as the disabled?

It is extremely difficult to establish any kind of safe corridor in Syria, particularly in northern Syria where such groups are under most threat. If I may, I will look at that very specific point and write to the hon. Lady.

The point about civilian deaths is really important because the assurances we were given last year, when we were asked to extend precise, limited and targeted air strikes from Iraq to Syria, were central to persuading me to support the Government’s proposals. I welcome—I really welcome—what the Secretary of State has said today, but what additional reassurance can he provide about the steps the RAF is taking to protect civilians in Syria and ensure that they do not become victims of the RAF’s work?

We have set rules of engagement that apply to our operations in Syria as well as in Iraq. They are different from the rules of engagement of other countries; each country has its own rules of engagement. Any deliberate targets have to be approved, which covers the choice of munition involved, and an absolute assurance that civilians are not using, near using or likely to use the particular building or area to be bombed. As I said, that is checked over a period of days or perhaps weeks while the target is watched. Our commanders in the operations centre in the Gulf as well as the pilots themselves can, right until the last moment, pull back from a strike if they have any concern at all that civilians may be in the area. Obviously, in some of the areas of very intense fighting where there is close air support, it will be more and more difficult to ensure that we avoid civilian casualties. All I can say is that our policy is absolutely to avoid the risk of civilian casualties, and so far we believe that the RAF has been successful in doing that.

If the Government’s predictions in the debate on 2 December had proved correct, Syria would have had a transitional Government next week, and free and fair elections by this time next year. What are the Secretary of State’s most up-to-date predictions of when those two vital milestones will actually be delivered?

To be honest, I would not have predicted the progress that has been made in Iraq during the past few weeks and months. It has actually been more rapid than I would have said had the hon. Gentleman asked me about that during the debate in December. In Syria, yes, progress has been far slower than we wanted and far slower than I thought would be the case when the cessation was agreed in Munich in February. However, this is war, and a lot of the people involved have an interest in sustaining this war, especially the Assad regime, supported by Russia, and we have to keep working at it.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that Daesh’s attacks on the city of Aleppo have been very brutal, very violent, very bloody and very destructive, and that many thousands of people have died or been injured. Some 225,000 Christians lived in Aleppo; now, there are only 25,000. There used to be 80,000 Armenian Christians in Aleppo; now there are only 10,000. What steps will the Government take to ensure that any support for opposition groups does not indirectly benefit extremists targeting minority communities, such as the Christians in Aleppo?

The hon. Gentleman is right: what is happening in Aleppo is nothing short of a tragedy. It is a beautiful and tolerant city—I have visited it myself in the past—which contains all kinds of groups from different faiths living and working happily alongside each other. It is important that all those groups are represented in the drive for a political settlement, and that is our aim.

I join other Members in condemning the attacks and raids on aid convoys. What support or protection can the UK provide for such convoys?

That is very difficult given the complexity of the situation in Syria, where multiple strikes are being carried out by the regime against its opponents and where we need to keep up the pressure on the infrastructure that supports Daesh. However, these attacks could stop: it is within the gift of the regime to stop them. It within the gift of the Russians to bring their influence to bear, and I still hope that they will do so.

The Defence Secretary talked about people returning to a safe environment, which we all support. What more can be done by the international community to secure the freedom of the Yazidi women who were captured and taken into slavery?

We have had some success in populations returning, particularly in Tikrit, to which the vast majority of the population has now returned. That is more difficult in Ramadi, simply because so many improvised explosive devices have been seeded right across the city. There are different circumstances in each of the particular areas. In relation to the Yazidi women, about whom the hon. Gentleman is concerned, we are working with NGOs to see what we can do to identify where they are being held and what more can be done to help them to return to Sinjar.

To return to what the Secretary of State said in his statement about the number of foreign fighters joining Daesh being reduced to 200 a month from up to 2,000 a month, that is extremely welcome. It would build on that if we could work with our international partners to drive that down to zero and completely isolate this organisation.

I hope that we can do so. We are working very closely with our partners—over 40 countries are now reporting, through Interpol and other international organisations, on foreign fighters—so that we can share information about these fighters as they travel towards Iraq or Syria. Of course, we must play our part by ensuring that more people are not radicalised in this country and by keeping tabs on those who are likely to go out there.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that the RAF will not take part in air strikes against Daesh in Libya without a further vote in this House?

Yes. We have made it clear that we are not planning any kind of combat role either for our troops or for the RAF in Libya. That is not part of our planning. If we were considering further military action against Daesh wherever they are—whether in Libya or anywhere else—we would of course come to this House to discuss it first.

A recent report, “Why Young Syrians Choose to Fight”, argues that money acts as a key recruiter for Daesh, claiming that while the Syrian army pays around $100 a month, often late, Daesh can pay three times that amount on time. What alternative economic options for young Syrians are therefore being used to undermine Daesh’s recruitment?

The first thing is to undermine Daesh’s own access to revenue and finance. There is some evidence that we are beginning to do that and to reduce its earnings from oil and other trades. There is also some evidence—anecdotal, perhaps, but an accumulating body of evidence—that its pay rates to fighters are being reduced. Beyond that, we have to get the Syrian economy going again. The sooner we get a political settlement, the sooner we can get in the money that we and a lot of other countries pledged during the London conference. The money is ready and waiting to rebuild the Syrian economy and, most importantly, to give the young people of Syria a reason to stay in Syria and build a new society that is safe and secure for their future.