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Counter-Daesh Update

Volume 638: debated on Thursday 29 March 2018

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary updated the House in November, he announced the liberation of the city of Raqqa from Daesh. Today, I can inform the House that Daesh has been all but destroyed as a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria, having lost over 98% of the territory it once held across both countries. The United Kingdom has led the way, alongside our allies the United States and the Government of Iraq, in creating the global coalition against Daesh, which has enabled this progress. I pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of our armed forces, who have trained over 71,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, including the peshmerga. The RAF has launched over 1,680 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria to support counter-Daesh operations.

We must also recognise the sacrifices of our partner forces on the ground, which have sustained significant losses as they have taken back territory from Daesh, but our work is not yet done. Daesh still holds pockets of territory in Syria, and we encourage all partners, including Turkey, to remain focused on the counter-Daesh campaign and avoid actions that undermine our shared efforts. With its loss of territory, Daesh will still pose a threat as an insurgency and will continue to try to direct and inspire terrorist attacks around the world. That is why we will remain a leading member of the global coalition. We want to ensure that the international focus on Daesh the coalition has generated continues to help prevent Daesh from re-emerging elsewhere.

We will keep playing our part. In Iraq and Syria, the lasting defeat of Daesh is reliant on addressing the conditions that allowed Daesh to hold territory. We are providing humanitarian support to address basic needs in Syria and to help to rebuild communities in Iraq. In north-east Syria, in areas recently liberated from Daesh, we provide a range of life-saving assistance, where access allows. This includes restocking health facilities and providing food, shelter and water. Last October, my Department announced an additional £10 million, including funding to remove mines, provide medical consultations, improve access to clean water and provide delivery kits to ensure safety for mothers during childbirth.

We must, however, look to other areas of Syria to ensure that Daesh does not find support where Assad’s brutal regime, backed by Russia, continues to wage war on its own people and deny humanitarian access to those who desperately need it. We are clear that Russia’s military support of Assad has worsened the suffering of Syrians. In eastern Ghouta, it has supported regime military action, despite having declared it to be a de-escalation zone. The regime, with Russian support, has relentlessly bombarded and besieged the population of eastern Ghouta into submission, and humanitarian access and medical evacuations remain blocked. Only two aid convoys have entered eastern Ghouta in the past month, both facing delays and disruption due to ongoing shelling and attacks. Such activity is in clear violation of UN Security Council resolution 2401, which demands that hostilities cease and allows the delivery of humanitarian aid and medical evacuations. Having voted for the resolution, Russia must use its influence to ensure compliance by the regime.

This year has seen little easing of the suffering of the Syrian population. The regime and its backers continue their devastating attacks on civilians, hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, despite the best efforts of the international community. Even where hospitals’ co-ordinates have been passed to the Russians by the UN, they have not been spared from attack. There have been yet more reports of alleged chemical weapons use, and by blocking the extension of the UN’s joint investigative mechanism, Russia is shielding the regime from accountability.

Humanitarians, health workers and first responders all report their deliberate targeting by the regime and its backers. It is sickening that over 167 White Helmet volunteers have lost their lives as they try to rescue survivors as a result of being deliberately targeted by pro-regime forces in double-tap strikes. I commend their bravery and all that the White Helmets do to support the people of Syria. The attacks must stop.

We are doing what we can to alleviate the suffering and are focused on helping those most in need, regardless of who holds the territory. We will continue to keep that policy under review. We have committed £2.46 billion since the start of the conflict—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis—and the UK was the third largest donor to the UN Syria appeal in 2017. By contrast, Russia gave $5.5 million. Through the UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group, we continue to call on all parties to uphold resolution 2401 and take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, as required under international humanitarian law.

As the conflict enters its eighth year, however, it is abundantly clear that only a lasting political settlement can end the suffering of the Syrian people and remove the root causes of extremism. The Syrian opposition have shown that they are ready for negotiations without preconditions. The regime must now stop stalling and negotiate seriously. We call upon those with influence over Assad to use it to bring him to the negotiation table and meet the Syrian opposition who have shown they are ready to negotiate. Only in that way will the conflict finally end.

In Iraq, the liberation by Iraqi forces, with coalition support, of the majority of Daesh-held territory signals a move towards a more peaceful, prosperous country. It can now begin the painstaking task of reconciling all Iraqi communities to bring a lasting peace that delivers a unified Iraq. In support, the UK has committed £237.5 million in humanitarian aid and £100 million in stabilisation support to Iraq. That includes £50 million announced by the Prime Minister during her visit last November, as well as £10 million to rebuild Iraq’s counter-terrorist capacity. The UK will continue to train Iraq’s security forces, enhancing their ability to respond to terrorist threats and support security sector reform. We have helped provide food to a quarter of a million people and have provided shelter to 325,000. Helping families to return to some semblance of a normal life is something the UK can be proud of. Last month, the Kuwait-hosted conference on reconstruction raised an impressive $30 billion in pledges. Central to helping Iraq is the implementation of business environment reforms to stabilise Iraq’s economy and show that it is open for business. We will keep up the pressure for Iraqi leadership in such areas.

Clear challenges remain if Daesh is to be defeated for good, and we cannot be complacent. The public can rest assured that we are taking every necessary action to keep this country safe from Daesh and the terrorist threat, and we must not forget the danger posed to the UK from its returning fighters. As we have made clear, anyone returning from the conflict in Iraq or Syria will be investigated; where there is evidence that crimes have been committed, they must be brought to justice. Policy discussions are ongoing to ensure that happens in accordance with domestic and international frameworks, but the appropriate process will depend on individual circumstances. As a leading member of the coalition, the UK will remain unflinching in our commitment to confront, degrade and defeat Daesh. I commend this statement to the House.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank her for advance sight of it. I am sure the whole House will welcome her update that Daesh has been “all but destroyed as a territorial entity” and that it has lost 98% of the territory it once held. That is testament to the bravery and commitment of those on the ground, including our Kurdish allies, who have fought so hard to expel Daesh from their homelands in northern Syria and to recapture towns such as Manbij.

I welcome the continued humanitarian support that the UK provides through the Department for International Development. Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the conflict in Syria, it is right that the UK has played its part by getting humanitarian aid as quickly as possible to affected areas and by channelling substantial financial resources into helping to save lives in the years since the conflict began. I join the Secretary of State in condemning the appalling attacks on humanitarian workers across Syria, including on the 167 White Helmet volunteers who have lost their lives. Humanitarian workers must never be a target in conflict. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what steps she is taking to ensure full humanitarian access, especially in those parts of Syria that are now changing territorial control, both around Afrin and Ghouta?

I note that the Secretary of State warned Turkey that it must avoid “actions that undermine our shared efforts”, but is that really the strongest language that the Government will use to condemn Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria? That incursion is neither legitimate nor justified, has no basis in international law and should never have been allowed in the first place. This Government have stood by while Turkey and its band of rebel militias have marched into another country on the pretext of combating terrorism, while they have seized Afrin, while they have forced thousands to flee and while they have pulled down Kurdish statues. Does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be right that this Government have not offered even a word of real criticism or condemnation, even as those same Turkish forces now advance and threaten to attack towns such as Manbij and seize those same Kurdish homelands? The Government must not abandon our Kurdish allies, who have given so much in the fight against Daesh. Will she condemn Turkey’s aggression unreservedly today?

One particularly sad story to emerge from the Turkish assault on Afrin is the death of UK national, Anna Campbell, who went to Syria last year to volunteer to fight with Kurdish forces against Daesh and insisted on being sent to the Afrin front at the outset of the Turkish assault. She was killed by a Turkish airstrike on 15 March, shortly before the fall of Afrin. She is one of eight British volunteers killed serving with the YPJ, the Kurdish women’s protection unit, and the first woman. While her father, Dirk, has expressed pride in her bravery and sacrifice, he has been angered in recent days by the Government’s inability to help repatriate her body for burial. Will the Secretary of State tell us what the Government are doing to help retrieve the body of this young woman who did her part in the fight against Daesh?

The United States has made it clear that the objective of coalition forces in Syria is to carry out what it calls “stabilisation activities” in “liberated areas” in the north of the country and to use those areas as a base to achieve the eventual transition of Syria from the Assad regime. Whatever one thinks of those activities, one thing is clear: they are a million miles away from the mandate for military action given to the Government by this House in 2015, which was exclusively to stop Syria becoming a safe haven for Daesh. Is it not time for the Government to come back to this House, set out their new strategy in Syria and seek a fresh mandate?

On behalf of all in this House, may I say that our thoughts are very much with Ms Campbell’s family at this incredibly difficult time. I am sure hon. Members will have heard her father’s incredibly moving tribute to her—she was an inspirational young woman. Obviously, we cannot provide consular support in Syria, but we are in touch with the family and will do everything we can to be of service to them, including in trying to repatriate Anna’s body. This is a very difficult situation, but I reassure all hon. Members that we are in touch and will do everything we can to bring her home.

On the wider issue of Afrin, we recognise Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, but we would support de-escalation of the situation. It is vital that we continue to defeat Daesh and that we continue to have greater stability in the area so that we can move to a political process, which is the only way this horrendous war will end. The indirect effect of what Turkey is doing is to remove fighting resource from the Euphrates valley area, which is clearly not beneficial to the coalition’s efforts in defeating Daesh.

I apologise to the House for the length of my statement, but I wanted to get on record some of the humanitarian atrocities that have taken place since the Foreign Secretary’s statement last year. The activities in eastern Ghouta are particularly shocking. The Foreign Office and DFID have made a continual combined effort to get access, whether it be for aid convoys or for the medical evacuation of casualties, particularly to remove children from the area. Despite the agreements, and despite the opportunities we were told they would be given, the partners we are working with on the ground have found it incredibly difficult to do that—one aid convoy was shelled after being given permission to go in.

We will continue to press for full humanitarian access to eastern Ghouta, and we are also looking at other areas of Syria that may be about to suffer a similar fate. We are trying to ensure that we do everything we can to protect civilians.

The Secretary of State is a personal friend of mine, so I do not mean this in any way to reflect on her abilities, but I am surprised that a statement with so much military content is not being made by a Defence Minister and that we do not appear to have a Defence Minister present on the Front Bench. She will forgive me if I ask some defence-oriented questions.

First, can the Secretary of State confirm that the vast majority of the large number of RAF sorties have been in Iraq, rather than Syria, because there were few forces on the ground in Syria, other than the Kurds, whom we felt we could support? Secondly, does she recognise that the opposition in Syria, with the exception of the Kurds, has been dominated from beginning to end by Islamists, although they are not all from Daesh? Finally, will she acknowledge that we need a realistic strategy whereby we get away from demanding a political settlement when, in reality, our only allies in Syria—the Kurds—are now being attacked by a fellow member of NATO, namely Turkey?

I will do my best to answer the defence matters raised by my right hon. Friend. The key Departments involved in our efforts take it in turns to deliver an update to the House. No disrespect is meant to him or to the House by there not being a Defence Minister at the Dispatch Box. As the Government’s humanitarian lead, I am taking this opportunity to focus on the humanitarian atrocities that have been committed.

I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that the vast majority of airstrikes have been in Iraq—1,362 airstrikes have taken place—which is largely due to the nature of the campaign. The campaign has differed at different stages, from having a named target when an aircraft takes off to carrying out more opportunist surveillance and not having a target as the aircraft gets airborne—that is how the campaign unfolded, as opposed to the factor he mentioned.

We remain concerned that Afrin is indirectly diverting resource away from the main effort against Daesh, and I confirm that we still believe that a political settlement is the only way forward.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. We join the tributes to Anna Campbell and offer our condolences to her family.

This is a helpful statement, and I recognise the Government’s contribution. Does the Minister believe that the liberation of Raqqa means the head of the snake has finally been cut off? If so, how much longer will UK military involvement continue? I agree that a negotiated settlement is ultimately needed, so what contribution does continued UK military presence make to that?

I welcome DFID’s contribution. Supporting refugee camps is particularly important, but so is support for refugees who make their way here. How many more refugees are the UK Government willing to accept here in the UK, and will they support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil)?

How are the Department’s resources being used to support long-term rebuilding, and what kind of strategy is in place for that? Finally, is the Minister making sure that any UK spending that is counted towards the 0.7% aid target is not also counted towards the 2% defence spending target or otherwise appropriated by her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence?

Raqqa was always described as the head of the snake but, as I said in my statement, the job is not yet done. We need to complete the job there, and we also need to ensure that Daesh is not emerging elsewhere. Our commitment will be driven by our progress in the campaign, and any further action will be done on a case-by-case basis. Our armed forces are making an enormous difference, not just through the airstrikes but through surveillance, and we have saved an enormous number of lives with our contribution.

It is our policy to try to support refugees as close to their country of origin as possible. We are doing a tremendous amount in neighbouring countries, and we are grateful to the likes of Jordan and Lebanon for their huge efforts. I am aware of the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, and I have had lengthy discussions with the Home Office and other parts of government. I am keen to see whether the existing rules are in any way not fit for any of the cases we have. I have asked for detail of all the cases, including the numbers.

Although I continue to have meetings with the Home Office, the Bill’s intention is that a child, say, who has been injured or is undergoing medical treatment, and where it would not be appropriate for them to be anywhere other than here, can be reunited with their family. We have had cases in which that has happened, so the existing rules are not inadequate, but I will thoroughly look at this with the Home Office to see whether there is anything else we can do. It is our policy not to contribute towards reconstruction unless progress is made on a political process. On the double counting that the hon. Gentleman talks about, different bodies mark our homework on our NATO contribution and our 0.7%, so there are no shenanigans as to what is counting towards one thing or the other. He will know that there are clear rules on what constitutes the 0.7%, and that cannot be anything to do with the military.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Given the incredible role that the Kurds in the autonomous Kurdish region played in trying to defeat Daesh, will she do more, on behalf of the Government, to recognise the genocide of the Kurdish people, to recognise their demands for independence and to stop the bullying by the Iraqi Government of the Kurds in the autonomous region?

Yes, sorry. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has been in discussions with both Turkey and, yesterday, with two members of the Kurdish opposition. We are very much pressing for a de-escalation of what is happening in Afrin, in part because it is distracting from the effort in fighting Daesh.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of all those who have helped to defeat Daesh on the ground and to liberate those whom it enslaved. Evidence of that is to be found in an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall this week, where the stories of Yazidi women who survived Daesh’s attempts at genocide, and who suffered sexual enslavement and rape, are told in the form of their words and art, as they seek to come to terms with the harrowing experience they went through. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what further efforts are being made to collect evidence of the genocide and crimes against humanity that Daesh committed, so that those responsible can finally all be brought to justice?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for publicising that amazing exhibition. I know that many colleagues from both sides of the House have visited it, and it was incredibly moving. It is absolutely right that we capture and record the immense suffering and cruelty that has taken place across both countries throughout the duration of this conflict. Clear processes are in place for that to be done. It is also vital that we are monitoring the existing humanitarian atrocities that are being perpetrated, not only by Daesh but by other groups, which I have alluded to in my statement. In future updates to this House, we may be able to share more information about the evidence that has managed to be collected, both photographic and forensic.

On 17 September last year, the threat level for our country was reduced from “critical”, which meant that an attack was imminent, to “severe”, which means that an attack by terrorists is highly likely. The senior Metropolitan police counter-terrorism officer in our country has said that that threat is likely to last for five years. We all see the threat level on the Annunciators, but we get very complacent. How can the Government help the public not to become complacent about the threat we face over such a long time?

Let me take this opportunity, as I am sure the whole House would want me to, to pay tribute to the work of our security services, our police, the support services that work with them and our military in keeping the UK safe. They do a tremendous job; we know that they foil an enormous number of threats against this country. We all, as a nation, need to remain vigilant. I commend and point out to hon. Members the social media campaign that the Home Office has been running in order to ask people to report things that they find suspicious and to ensure that people are remaining vigilant all the time. When these information campaigns come out, all Members of this House, through their media channels, can help to promote them. We must all stay alert and resilient, while not letting this affect our way of life.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State set out the difficulty in getting aid through to the people of eastern Ghouta that is caused by the crimes committed daily by Russia and Syria, but simply publicising it and arguing against it is not proving sufficient, and nor can anyone believe that it will. So are the Government prepared to consider working with allies in the region to guarantee the safety of aid convoys to Ghouta—or to wherever Syria and Russia target next—in order to say to the regime, “This will get through. We are giving it military protection. You must not shoot those convoys down”?

I have looked at this, both in my current role and when I was a Defence Minister. One of the incredibly frustrating things is the limitation in our ability to offer protection to humanitarian workers and aid convoys and, in certain cases, to civilians on the ground. We need new things in our toolbox if we are not to be faced with these situations again. A few weeks ago, I launched, along with my US counterpart, a new fund designed to bring forward technology that will help us to protect people in conflict situations, and to help us do the things that I know this House gets frustrated that we cannot do. This fund is a call-out for technology innovations and other things that will help us to protect civilians in conflict. It is called “Creating Hope in Conflict”, and I urge all Members who may know organisations, entrepreneurs, and tech specialists who work in this field to look at that to see whether they can help us on some of these issues.

It is very encouraging to hear this statement and it is quite a vindication for those of us who accepted the reasoning put forward for the UK to be involved in military action back in 2015, which was so eloquently set out at that time by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). It is right that we are now moving the focus on to reconstruction and therefore that this statement is being made by the Department for International Development. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what role she sees her Department playing in trying to rebuild communities, as the long-term strategy of dealing with Daesh is to rebuild civil society and better states within both Syria and Iraq that prevent the issues that led us to this point?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. We made the argument in this House, and the House agreed, that this campaign was taking place across both countries and that it made no sense that we could not use the nearest asset, if it was a British one, to protect civilians in Syria. I was very grateful to the House when it allowed us to cross that border. That decision has saved lives, and helped us to protect civilians and make the best use of the assets that the coalition has. On Iraq, we are doing a huge amount to support the goal of a unified Iraq. I mentioned in my statement some of the resource we are levering to enable communities to come together to support civil society and some of those practical things we are doing. On Syria, we will not be involved in any reconstruction there until there is a political settlement to that situation, but, obviously, we are trying to get humanitarian relief through to those people who are in need.

May I echo the tributes to Anna Campbell and the condolences to her family expressed by others in this debate? May I also welcome the regular updates that the Secretary of State and other Ministers have given to this House? It is essential that Members should have an understanding of the role British forces are playing abroad and of what British aid is contributing.

Will the Secretary of State confirm more clearly what I think she has already said, which is that she believes that Turkish action in Afrin is damaging the fight against Daesh? Is she able to say whether the International Committee of the Red Cross is able to gain access? There are concerns that the Turkish Red Crescent is not able to do that in a credible way. Would she like to use this opportunity to confirm that, notwithstanding the serious issues that Oxfam and other agencies of that sort have, this is a good example of where they are making an outstanding contribution to dealing with a real humanitarian crisis?

It is absolutely indirectly affecting the campaign against Daesh, particularly in respect of removing resource from the Euphrates valley area. The ICRC does not yet have access, in large part because improvised explosive devices have been laid in the area. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has requested that the ICRC be granted access. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) is right to say that we work with an enormous number of partner organisations. Indeed, although Oxfam is not directly funded by us, it is doing incredibly important work in the region and helping to save lives. We owe the people who are working in very dangerous situations an enormous debt of gratitude.

Nearly two years ago, in April 2016, the House, including Government and Opposition Members, voted for the treatment of the Yazidis and Christians to be classified as genocide. Will the Secretary of State update the House on when she thinks the British Government will recognise that treatment as genocide?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern. The atrocities that have been committed against those people are horrific. As she will know, to classify something as genocide is not something that the Government can do—there is an international process to classify something as genocide—but I would be happy to update her, perhaps by letter, on what the timetable for that process might look like.

I raised the issue of Afrin with the Foreign Secretary some weeks ago and sought his assurance about what discussions he has had with the Turkish Government and our NATO allies about how they are safeguarding the law of armed conflict in relation to civilians in Afrin. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions the Government have had with their Turkish counterparts on upholding the cornerstone of NATO policy and the law of armed conflict, and on securing civilians?

The Foreign Office has ongoing discussions. Most recently, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East was in Turkey last week and spoke to the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Secretary of State mentions the suffering of the Syrian people; does she agree with the constituents who came to see me at my surgery last Friday that that suffering has been compounded by the British Government’s shameful timidity regarding Turkish aggression in northern Syria?

Yes; my right hon. Friend points to the answer. I think hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber regret that we took military action off the table in the vote in 2013. It was not a vote on taking military action; indeed, there was an undertaking that if military action was sought, the Government would come back to the House and ask it to vote on that. What we did that day was remove the option for this country to take military action. That is a lesson that sometimes inaction is not the right answer.

Thank you.

After turning a blind eye to Turkey’s disgraceful offensive against the Kurds in Afrin province, will the British Government now unreservedly condemn the Turkish army’s intention to extend the offensive into Idlib, Manbij and Kobane, and all the way to the Iraq border? As Turkey is now directly undermining a counter-Daesh operation, should not the British Government at least stop selling arms to that country?

I have already said a great deal about Afrin. I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Government as turning a blind eye to this—far from it. Just last week my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East spoke with members of the Turkish Government about these matters.