With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will update the House on the campaign against Daesh, which recently controlled a third of Iraq and Syria—an area the size of the UK—but which has now lost its final piece of territory in Baghuz, Syria. Its sudden rise and fall—morally troubling, profoundly threatening and almost unprecedented—carries deep lessons and warnings for Britain and indeed the nations of the world.
As recently as 2003, the borders of Syria and Iraq were stable. Secular Arab nationalism appeared to have triumphed over the older forces of tribe and religion. Different religious communities—Yazidi, Shabak, Kakai, Christian, Shi’a and Sunni— continued to live alongside one another as they had for more than a millennium. Iraqis and Syrians had better incomes, education, health systems and infrastructure than most citizens of the developing world.
By 2014, all this had changed, partly because of the Iraq war, partly because of the Arab Spring in Syria, but in great part because of the astonishing rise of Daesh. Just three years after the withdrawal of the coalition in 2011, a movement initially founded by a tattooed, drug-taking video store assistant from Jordan had, following his death, captured Raqqa, Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and Palmyra, torn off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq and created an independent Islamic state of eight million people. It was a state with endemic poverty and struggling public services defined not just by suicide bombs but by a vicious campaign against religious minorities. Well-established borders between nations were obliterated. A few hundred men routed three divisions of the Iraqi army. Secular nationalism was swept aside by a bizarre religious ideology.
No one in 2005, and very few in 2010, would have predicted the success of that movement. There were, of course, many reasons to fear an insurgency in north-east Syria or Iraq. People felt little loyalty to the lamentable Governments in Damascus and Baghdad, with their anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption and poor provision of services, but there was initially very little reason to believe that people would support Daesh rather than other insurgency groups.
Indeed, Daesh’s imposition of early medieval social codes and horrifying videos of slaughter of fellow Arabs seemed to most Iraqis and Syrians profoundly irrational, culturally inappropriate and deeply unappealing. Its military tactics seemed almost insane. It deliberately picked fights not only with the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, but with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, Shi’a communities as a whole, the Iranian Quds Force and the Kurds, who initially tried to stay out of the fight. It finished 2014 by mounting a suicidal attack on Kobane in Syria in the face of over 600 US air strikes, losing many thousands of fighters and gaining almost no ground.
All of this, which should have been Daesh’s undoing, seemed at times simply to encourage tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join it, and they came not only from very poor countries but from some of the wealthiest countries in the world—from the social democracies of Scandinavia as much as from monarchies, military states, authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies. Part of its success was notoriously connected to social media. It was the first terrorist movement that really flourished on short, often home-made, video clips, on Twitter rants and on Facebook posts from the frontline. It grew far more quickly, and survived far longer, than any diplomat, politician or expert analyst predicted.
The options that seemed available to defeat this kind of movement in 2008 were no longer available in 2016. Eight years earlier—or, in our case, six years earlier—there had been a full-spectrum international counter-insurgency campaign that relied on overwhelming force, huge investments in economic development, 100,000 coalition troops, eight years of coalition training packages and almost $100 billion a year of US expenditure. But that approach ultimately failed to create stability in Iraq and there was no appetite to repeat it in 2016. The US and its allies did not want to deploy troops on the ground in Syria and very few near the frontlines in Iraq, and no one was advocating nation building in the middle of another war.
Instead, the counter-attack on Daesh in Mosul was led by the Iraqi Government. Initially, this did not seem very promising. The Government appeared to lack the capacity and will to restore even the most basic services to communities in Fallujah or Ramadi. They were backed by unreliable Sunni tribal leaders and by Iranian-supported Shi’a popular mobilisation forces, which alienated and terrified the local populations. Kurdish Iraqi forces also seemed unwilling to fight Daesh in Mosul. The coalition provided training to Iraqi forces but on a much smaller scale than during the surge. Daesh had laid mines throughout the urban areas and was fighting for every inch of ground.
It is remarkable, therefore, that Daesh was ultimately defeated. This was largely due, on the Syrian side of the border, to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and, on the Iraqi side, to the counter-terrorism force, which at times was enduring casualty rates of almost 40% of its combatants. Iraqi forces regrouped and retook Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul by early 2017, while the forces in Syria had retaken Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor by 2018.
Whereas during the surge the UK and its allies had been intimately involved in trying to reshape the Iraqi Government and security on the ground, our recent involvement has been less extensive. Rather than on nation building, since 2014 it has focused on £350 million of humanitarian aid in Iraq to provide healthcare, food and shelter. We have provided almost £1 billion to Syria over the last four years, including £40 million in aid to north-east Syria in 2018, which is going towards mine clearance, the immunisation of children, clean water, food and shelter.
This assistance continues. In Syria alone, there are 1.65 million people in need, while over half a million have been forced to flee their homes. Unexploded munitions and mines remain a major issue. In Iraq, 4 million people are returning home having been forced out. Nevertheless, this aid is on a much smaller scale than that which was provided by civilian officials from 2003 to 2011, our embassy and associated staff are much smaller, there are no longer coalition civilian outposts in every province, and the coalition and indeed the Iraqi Government are a long way from being able to take on the task of reconstructing the shattered remains of Mosul.
What lessons can we draw? First, the hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops committed by the coalition in Iraq from 2003, and more intensely from 2008, were not sufficient to create a stable civil service, a flourishing and sustainable economy, strong institutions, security, or any of the ingredients of a well- functioning state. This suggests that even the best-resourced foreign intervention may not be able to reconstruct a nation in the context of an insurgency. Secondly, local forces with a light foreign support may be able to achieve far more than people anticipate. Paradoxically, the Iraqi operations may have been effective not despite the lack of support from the west, but because of the lack of support. Operating with much less foreign assistance may have given the Iraqi and Syrian forces far more legitimacy, flexibility, control and sense of responsibility.
Thirdly, the sudden rise and sudden fall of Daesh illustrate the extreme fragility of many contemporary societies. The entire political-economic context was and remains so fluid and so open to exploitation, with so little deep institutional loyalty or resistance, that it was terrifyingly easy for an insurgency group to establish themselves on both sides of the border. They may have lost their territory for now, but the underlying conditions remain and could allow insurgents to establish themselves again. Even without holding territory, Daesh remains a significant terrorist threat.
Finally, in a context so inherently unpredictable and unexpected, Britain and its allies need to stand in a state of grace, preparing for the unexpected. We need to keep a close eye on countries that may seem temporarily at peace, continue to invest in the development of countries that may seem no longer to need development and continue to deepen our knowledge of countries that may not seem to be a priority today, while retaining our linguistic expertise and, above all, nurturing our relationships with people in those countries and with potential coalition partners such as the US and France and, in a different context, Germany.
Whether in north-east Nigeria, in Somalia or Libya, in Afghanistan or Mali, the key to our response will never be the amount of money that we invest or the number of troops that we deploy. It will be the depth of our understanding and the care and subtlety with which we respond: our ability to deploy development, defence, intelligence and economic levers, diplomacy and a dozen other tools, rapidly and precisely, not overruling other Governments, but supporting them in the right way at the right time with prudence and economy.
That is why I must close this Daesh statement with deep respect for the courage of our military forces, the skill of our diplomats and the generosity of our development programmes, but above all with deep respect for the people of Syria and Iraq who were in the heart of this fight, who gave their lives, who led this response and who provide us with an example of how we can act as partners with energy, but above all with humility. I commend my statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. However, while the update is welcome, may I point out that it is only the second statement to be made in the House in the 365 days since 4 July last year, although the Government promised quarterly reports to keep the House updated?
We welcome the destruction of Daesh’s final enclaves in Syria. We know that Daesh is a threat to us all and that it must be defeated wherever it emerges. Just today, news reports have revealed the uncovering of another mass grave in Raqqa; 200 corpses have been found, and it is feared that more will follow. The dead, thought to be victims of Daesh, include bodies found in orange jumpsuits, the kind typically worn by their hostages.
Let me pay tribute to the UK forces who have put their lives on the line and show gratitude—as the Secretary of State did—to the Kurdish forces who have taken such huge risks in leading the fight against Daesh. Will the Secretary of State now reassure the House that the Kurdish community will not be abandoned or left vulnerable to attacks by Syria or Turkey? He mentions Yazidis, Christians, Shi’as and Sunnis in his statement, so will he tell us what he is doing to support the protection of all communities in the region?
There is also the question of the ongoing role of our forces. The 2015 motion that set down the terms for our engagement in Syria to eradicate Daesh’s safe haven in Syria and Iraq was worded in such a way as to avoid an ongoing military conflict in the region. Will the Secretary of State now set out the purpose of our forces, given that their original purpose of defeating Daesh’s safe haven has been achieved? Does he believe that the original mandate has now expired and that therefore a renewed mandate for military action—and clarity on the role of special forces—is required for continued UK engagement in the region?
Let me say a few words about the ongoing conflict in Syria. There remain serious concerns for civilians in Idlib. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that there are safe corridors for civilians to leave, given that the United Nations has warned that up to 700,000 people could flee Idlib as refugees? Given that dozens of health facilities have been damaged and destroyed in recent months and more than half a million civilians have been unable to access vital medical care, what steps are the Government taking to encourage parties to the conflict to adhere to international humanitarian law and protect civilians?
Last month, I was lucky enough to meet members of a delegation from the Syrian Women’s Political Movement. They spoke about their experiences of being denied their rights to employment, education and medical care and facing sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation. They called for increased women’s representation in peace negotiations and decision-making positions. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to respond to their calls?
As for Iraq, does the Secretary of State share the growing international concern about the arbitrary, draconian and legally unsound way in which the Iraqi authorities are conducting trials of alleged jihadist collaborators and the resentment caused among the Sunni community in the country?
What discussions are taking place about the huge number of detained suspected Daesh fighters? More than 55,000 suspected fighters and their families have been detained in Syria and Iraq. Most of them are citizens of those two countries, but overall they come from at least 50 countries. More than 11,000 relatives are being held at the al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria. Michelle Bachelet, the UN human rights chief, has said that the relatives of suspected fighters should be taken back to their countries of origin. Does the Secretary of State agree with her call?
Let me finally raise the issue of Daesh’s ongoing influence beyond the physical battlefield. The Secretary of State has spoken today about Daesh’s physical territory, but its influence online is an ongoing threat and deeply worrying. What are the Government doing to work with our allies to ensure that action is taken by social media companies so that Daesh cannot find new safe havens online to spread its hatred?
The shadow Secretary of State has touched on a number of issues, stretching from the Kurdish community to Daesh online. I shall try to deal with them in turn.
What I think is at the heart of the answers to all these questions is that the only way in which we will be able to resolve the problems is through a proper political settlement. Many of the issues raised by the shadow Secretary of State—whether the issue is the minority rights of Yazidis and Christians, or the relationship between Kurds in Syria or Iraq with their national Governments—will have to be resolved in that way. It is very easy to stand at the Dispatch Box and try to talk about an inclusive political settlement, but that is unbelievably difficult to achieve, particularly after eight years of war, deep resentments and a massive militarisation of societies. We see the challenges all the way from Somalia to Yemen, and it will be just as difficult on the Syria-Iraq border, but ultimately that is the only way to resolve these issues, and the more support we can provide for mediators to try to come up with those political solutions, the better off we will all be.
The hon. Gentleman raised a technical and important question about the purpose of British forces. The reason for our forces on the ground was the Iraqi Government’s request for self-defence against Daesh and Syria, and the justification for their continuing presence is to do with the continuing threat posed by Daesh as a terrorist organisation, but not as a territory-holding organisation. I can, however, reassure the House that the nature of our presence is relatively limited. We are talking about airstrikes many of which are not conducted, the planes not being based in the middle east itself, and we are talking about British troops who are predominantly involved in training operations such as counter-IED and first-aid training. Some are based in the Kurdish regions, others in Iraqi bases. We are talking about a few hundred people. This is not the type of operation that we were talking about in relation to Iraq or Afghanistan, and I therefore do not think that a whole new mandate is necessary.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration that a debate on an issue as important as this should be so poorly attended in the House of Commons. I hope that our sense of seriousness as a nation means that the next time such a statement is made, people will engage more in the debate.
Idlib is a source of huge concern. DFID has put £80 million into humanitarian support in Idlib, but it remains true that the populations in Idlib are under a ferocious and brutal attack from the Syrian Government. It remains very difficult to access people within Idlib, and we continue through every mechanism to call on both the Syrian Government and their supporters, including their supporters from Russia, to exercise restraint, but our options have been very limited and we need to do so in a way that does not repeat the mistakes made in the past of laying down red lines that we cannot maintain or raising the hopes of communities in ways that we cannot vindicate or justify.
This brings me to the question of resettlement in Iraq and the 55,000 suspected Daesh fighters and their families and social media. All that is leading up to a much bigger issue: there are clearly some legal issues raised, and there are consular and human rights issues raised, but at the heart of all this has to be the question of Daesh mark 2, or in other words, how we prevent all the same conditions—all the same resentments, all the same abuses, all the same lack of public services and all the same corruption—that led to the emergence of Daesh in its first form back in 2004-5 and its new form of 2011-12 from re-emerging again. We have to work with the Iraqi Government and with those areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure that people’s rights are respected, that reconstruction money is going in and above all that Sunni Arabs feel they have a stake in a political settlement, whereas at the moment they often feel deeply excluded by the regimes, by the ethnicity of the regimes and by the sectarian allegiances of the regimes.
On that last point, recognising the considerable caution my right hon. Friend has expressed about the future of Iraq, what more can be done to help promote political reconciliation in the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh and to encourage economic reforms that will enable all the provinces of Iraq to benefit from the stability that our forces have done so much to secure?
This is of course an issue that my right hon. Friend knows very well indeed. In essence, the only way that we can begin to bring some kind of life and some kind of hope back to areas such as Anbar and Nineveh is by making sure that we have the right combination of economic development, governance and security, which is a pompous way of saying we need to start fixing houses in Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul. That means clearing mines out of the way, and that means actually physically getting buildings up. This has to be led by the Iraqi Government. There is more we can do in terms of tax incentives, training, support and infrastructure, but that all points to the next consideration, which is of course security. They still remain dangerous areas; there is still a continuing rural insurgency. The way in which that security is addressed—the identity of the Iraqi forces we bring in and their sectarian allegiances—will be very important in regaining the trust of the population. Finally, we must have the right kind of devolution down to the local level so that people feel that the leadership in Mosul, Ramadi or Fallujah genuinely reflects them—reflects them democratically, reflects their identities, reflects their sense of hope—so that those three elements of security, governance and economic development can begin to produce a sense of hope.
First, may I say as someone whose brother served in Iraq that I am conscious of the sacrifice made by members of the armed forces over the long period in which they have been there? I may not necessarily have agreed with the original direction of travel, but nevertheless the commitment of members of the armed forces is keenly felt by those of us who have family in the armed forces and by those of us on these Benches.
I do not disagree with much of what has been said by the Secretary of State and by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who spoke for the official Opposition, but I do wish to raise some issues that have not yet been spoken about. Before doing so, however, let me say that the onus is on us not only in these islands but across western Europe to consider our own history in terms of ethnic and religious tension before we ever believe that we could give some kind of panacea to the peoples of Iraq, and I will also say Kurdistan. I think we should first learn from our own history.
The Secretary of State raised some serious issues about opportunities for moving forward into reconciliation, and even the official Opposition mentioned some of the issues highlighted in some of the camps, and I wish to specifically highlight what was mentioned by Ben Taub in The New Yorker back in December last year:
“Shortly after ten o’clock, three judges in long black robes shuffled into Courtroom 2 and sat at the bench. Suhail Abdullah Sahar, a bald, middle-aged man with a thin, jowly face, sat in the center. There were twenty-one cases on his docket that day, sixteen related to terrorism. He quietly read out a name; a security officer shouted it down the hall to one of his colleagues, who shouted it to the guard, who shouted it into the cell. Out came a young man named Ahmed. A security officer led him to a wooden cage…
‘Sir, I swear, I have never been to Qayyarah,’ Ahmed said.
Sahar was skeptical. ‘I have a written confession here, with your thumbprint on it,’ he said.
‘Sir, I swear, I gave my thumbprint on a blank paper,’ Ahmed replied. ‘And I was tortured by the security services.’…
‘Enough evidence,’ the prosecutor said. ‘I ask for a guilty verdict.’…
Ahmed wept as he was led out of the room. His trial had lasted four and a half minutes.”
I am sure that the Secretary of State recognises that some of the issues in relation to reconciliation are compounded by corruption within the existing infrastructure of the Iraqi Government, notably corruption in Mosul through the limitation of the impact of international aid because of the mayor of Mosul. I was at a meeting yesterday with my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on Scottish medical professionals trying to get into Mosul as well.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is the issue of women and children, specifically those women whose husbands divorce them by telephone and children where husbands abdicated responsibility for them after they joined Daesh? Their ex-wives and children are now being treated not only as second-class citizens but lower than cattle.
Finally, does the Secretary of State recognise the dire need for truth and reconciliation not only in Iraq, but to enable breathing space between the Government of Iraq and the Government of Kurdistan specifically in relation to some of the border issues, which are allowing a possible Daesh resurgence?
That portrait of a courtroom is of course profoundly shocking, and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that if court proceedings are conducted in that way—in other words, if people feel that their constitutional rights are not being upheld and that their evidence is being extracted by torture to gain a prosecution —that simply provides a really strong reason for there to be more insurgency, as well as that being a flagrant abuse and a flagrantly unjust act. The challenge for us is to think what Britain and other countries can actually do about it. The reality is that we have tended to approach rule of law programmes through focusing on training, so traditionally a judge like that would have been put through a training course; they might even have been flown to the University of Kansas for a couple of weeks to go on a seminar and there would have been a lot of investment in legal books and court procedure. The problem however in that specific case is unlikely to have been simply to do with capacity building; it is much more likely to be about the political context. The key thing is to try to communicate to a sovereign Government in the most respectful way we can through the Ministry of Justice that in the end this kind of approach is, as indeed many Iraqis would acknowledge, self-defeating. Working out how we as Britain or France or Germany or the United States or anyone else can actually get involved right down to the level of that courtroom and a decision made by a judge on the bench remains very tough there, or indeed in 100 other countries in the world.
The question of divorce and the treatment of women is again a subset of a much bigger issue: the ways in which this type of injustice and abuse will continue to fuel resentment going forward into the future, and I look forward perhaps to sitting down with the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issues of the borders on another occasion.
It is always a pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend talking about this subject; although it is a grim subject, the depth of his knowledge is always enlightening, and I would hope that at some stage we might have a debate rather than just an update statement so that we can engage with him more fully. May I therefore raise a couple of points?
First, does my right hon. Friend accept that ultimately the reason Daesh was defeated was that, by seizing and holding territory, it gave up the terrorists’ best weapon: the cloak of invisibility? Secondly, the only thing I found missing from his statement was any reference to that part of Syria that was not fought upon and occupied by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Can he explain what percentage of the country is occupied by forces other than the Kurdish-led forces? Is not a large percentage of the country occupied by the forces of Assad? Does he now accept what the Government have denied all along: that if we wanted the insurgency in Syria to be defeated, the logical consequence—unacceptable though it seems—was going to be that Assad was at least in part going to win, given the support of his Russian backers?
These are two important challenges from the distinguished Chairman of the Defence Committee. I shall take the second one, then move on to the first. It is of course true that the vast majority of Syria is now in the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Looking back in time, we can see that the optimism of the United States and the United Kingdom that Bashar al-Assad would inevitably be defeated, and the red lines that were created by President Obama and others, have not been vindicated in any way at all. In fact, with Russian backing, the Syrian regime has not only retaken the land right the way up to the Euphrates—the edge of the area we are talking about with the SDF—but has pushed south to the Jordanian border and is now pushing up to Idlib, having taken Aleppo and the rural areas around Damascus. The Chairman of the Defence Committee is absolutely correct in his assessment of that. That does not answer the bigger question, which is what Governments such as those of the United Kingdom or the United States will choose to do with the Syrian regime in the future. This returns us to the kinds of challenges that we faced in dealing with, for example, the Shi’a community in southern Iraq under the brutality of Saddam Hussein. How on earth do we balance our humanitarian obligations towards people in horrifying conditions with our sense that we do not wish to operate in the territory of a man who, whatever the sequence of his military successes, remains an unbelievably brutal murderer who is clearly associated with the execution of unarmed prisoners and countless persons through the deployment of chemical weapons. That will remain the key issue for the House to consider over the next months and, indeed, years.
On the first issue, the Chairman of the Defence Committee is also absolutely right. One of the most bizarre, peculiar and ultimately self-defeating parts of Daesh’s campaign was its decision to try to hold territory and, in particular, to try to take on conventional forces. The entire idea of an insurgency or a terrorist organisation is supposed to be that it should drift around like mist or, to take Chairman Mao’s analogy, that it should work and feed off the consent of the local population. Daesh did neither of those things. It attempted to hold territory and, in Kobane, to take on 600 US airstrikes. It attempted to alienate the entire population that it was trying to depend on, through its brutal videos and its incredibly horrifying Islamic social codes. What is extraordinary is not that Daesh was ultimately defeated but that it remained so successful for so long and was able to hold this territory for such an extended period of time.
On Monday, I met the Iraqi ambassador, and it is clear that the Iraqi authorities are keen for the UK Government, EU countries, the US and Russia to take responsibility for Daesh fighters and their families who might—or might not—have been involved in terrorist activity. Will the UK Government take responsibility for those fighters?
The position of the UK Government remains that it is more appropriate to prosecute the vast majority of those people in the countries in which their crimes were committed. If those individuals were Daesh fighters, and if they were slaughtering Iraqi and Syrian civilians and committing crimes within that territory, it is perfectly acceptable for them to be prosecuted in that territory, just as it would be for a citizen of any country who committed a crime in somebody else’s country.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his thoughtful responses, but I would like to pick up on two brief things. He mentions unexploded munitions and mines in Syria, and I wonder if he could expand on that and tell us how much of that country is still dangerous to live in for the many people who have been forced to flee their homes. Also, possibly a longer piece of work is about rebuilding the peace and about how this House and Governments relate to countries post conflict. What does he think the role of parliamentarians across this House—across both Houses, in fact—should be in supporting parliamentarians and potential parliamentarians in not-quite-yet democracies in the middle east? What role does he think there might be for us in that peace-building?
First, the mines remain an unbelievably serious issue. They are ensuring that not just a lot of agricultural land but much of the urban centres of Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa are almost uninhabitable. This is not just a question of the ordnance buried in those buildings. The old city of Mosul is so profoundly damaged that it is almost impossible to understand what we can do to rebuild these places without ceilings falling in on people’s heads. We are talking about many billions of pounds-worth of damage. This brings us to the question of the role that parliamentarians can play, and actually there is one. There is a gloomy analysis of countries such as Iraq, which would have suggested 10 or 12 years ago that there was nothing much we could do, but it is striking that a new generation of leadership is now emerging. The recent visit of the President of Iraq, Barham Salih, shows the emergence of a new, more progressive type of politics in Iraq that wishes to engage with Members of Parliament. That does not mean that we in this House hold the panacea for what is happening in Iraq, in Myanmar or indeed anywhere else, but respectful relationships, partnerships, modelling ways of behaviour and exchanging thoughts with humility about the problems we have, even in this place, dealing with sectarian conflict in Britain or with some of the polarising and divisive effects of our recent referendum here may be useful in dealing with questions on the aftermath of the referendum in Kurdistan.
Order. I do apologise for having overlooked the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). The problem is that he is sitting in the blind spot, so when the Secretary of State is standing at the Dispatch Box I cannot see the hon. Gentleman or anyone who is sitting in that seat—[Interruption.] No, this is no criticism of the stature of the Secretary of State. Far from it. I happen to be of considerably diminutive stature, and I cannot see over him. The hon. Gentleman sits in what might appear to be a prominent position if I were sitting somewhere else, but not when I am sitting in the Chair.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I quite understand that it must be my svelte figure that hides me from view.
Following large territorial losses in 2017 and 2018, Daesh declared a global battle of attrition in May this year. What steps is the international coalition taking to ensure that foreign terrorist fighters do not simply move their fighting elsewhere, beyond Syria and Iraq?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on the problem. Isis affiliates are now emerging all the way from northern Nigeria to the Philippines, and they are feeding in every case on very similar problems: the lack of legitimacy of the local government; corruption; poor provision of public services; sectarian and tribal conflicts; economic problems, particularly unemployment among young men; fluid borders; and, in cases such as north-east Chad, even catastrophes of climate and the environment. Addressing the root causes that allow this type of insurgent group to flourish involves an enormous development effort, but we are currently about $2.3 trillion a year short of being able to provide the sort of support that could transform the economies all the way from northern Nigeria to the Philippines. What we can do is try to balance our investment with that of other partners in a modest and targeted way. We are now looking much more closely at the work we can do with the French and the United States on the border between Nigeria, Chad, Mali and Niger, but we may have to accept that we cannot control all of the world all of the time, which is why I believe that nimbleness, deep country knowledge, enormous flexibility and enormous energy are going to be required to deal with this over the next 30 to 40 years.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank him for his comprehensive update. The defeat of Daesh in Syria is good news, but there have been indications that Daesh is re-establishing in other countries, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Algeria and Libya. The recent story in the media about stolen US missiles being in the hands of terrorists in Libya is particularly worrying. As he rightly said, contact and co-operation with other countries is now necessary, but will that be done in Libya, where it is uncertain who is in charge; in northern Nigeria, where Daesh is free to roam; or in Afghanistan, where Daesh is attempting to connect in an area in which it once had influence? It is important to prevent Daesh mark 2 from being established elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the problem, which is that coming up with a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy simultaneously in Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria is beyond us. At the height of the counter-insurgency surge in Afghanistan, there were not only over 100,000 troops on the ground, but over 100,000 international civilians and £100 billion a year of expenditure, largely from the US. Those days have now passed, so we are having to respond to such conflicts with a much lighter footprint.
The reality is that the areas where Islamic State has established itself in those three countries are almost entirely outside Government control. They are areas that are inaccessible not only to us, but to soldiers or police from the central capitals. Security must come first, but that security needs to be based on some kind of trust in the regime in the centre. That will be the real problem going forward.
In some ways, ironically, it may turn out to be an exception that Daesh tried to hold territory in Syria and Iraq, because it made them an easier target. Ultimately, their flaw was the attempt to try to hold Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Mosul and, in the end, huge courage from Kurdish-led Syrian forces and from the Iraqi army allowed them to retake those areas. However, when Daesh act as an insertion guerrilla group in remote areas of Afghanistan, Nigeria or Libya, that poses huge demands on Governments that are not actually able to provide intelligence, governance or public services in those areas. A different strategy is necessary, because we are not going to be able to prevent such things from emerging, and we will have to respond quickly with partner Governments when they do.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my trips to north-eastern Syria on the behalf of the Kurdish authorities. I want to ask about the designation of north-eastern Syria and Rojava as a zone under the Counter Terrorism Act 2019. I am informed that the Home Office wants to make it illegal for British citizens to enter the zone but, as someone who visited post-war Afghanistan, the Secretary of State will know the importance of allowing British people to visit such areas to help them rebuild. These people were our allies and helped us, as he described it, to defeat ISIS, and it would be totally self-defeating to make it illegal for British citizens to co-operate with them in the future. Will the Secretary of State hold urgent discussions with the Home Office to ensure that Rojava, north-eastern Syria or Kurdish-controlled Syria—whatever one wants to call it—is not in that designated list?
The reason why the Home Office has been considering introducing this legislation is that we are looking at ways to try to prevent people going out to such areas for terrorist activities. It is not primarily intended to prevent humanitarian assistance going out. One of the legal issues that the Home Office has faced is that, despite having clearly advised that British citizens should not be travelling to such areas in order to prevent them from joining Daesh, we did not have the legal framework in place to make that happen. The proposals that the Home Office has been considering have been designed to target foreign fighters and to exclude people who are going there for humanitarian reasons.
However, I have listened carefully to the concerns, which have also been expressed by a number of international aid agencies, NGOs and others about the possibility that people going there for good reasons could be caught up with people going there for bad reasons. I am sure the Home Office will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations. Indeed, we at DFID have raised similar concerns ourselves.
The Secretary of State’s analysis of the situation was thorough and highlighted the fluid and unstable situation that continues to persist in the region. However, I cannot help but note the cognitive dissonance that seems to exist between his Department and the Home Office, particularly in relation to asylum applications. Some 250 of my constituents are liable to be evicted from their homes, many of whom are Syrians from the region. Will the Secretary of State undertake to write to his counterpart in the Home Office to emphasise the continuing and ongoing danger that the region presents and to stress that sufficient credence should be given to asylum applications, so that asylum seekers are not placed in situations where their lives are threatened?
The Home Office is trying to do a very difficult job, and it often does it very well. It is the responsibility of the Home Office to try to have a fair and transparent process for asylum seekers. When processing asylum seekers—even asylum seekers from difficult countries such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan—it is extremely important that we verify their stories and ensure that they have legitimate cause to seek asylum. I am sure that the Home Office has heard the hon. Gentleman’s point carefully and will be looking carefully at such cases. However, in my experience, the Home Office takes enormous care and thought, by using people who have deep knowledge of those areas and people who speak the local languages, to ensure that the support that the British Government provide for asylum seekers is genuinely targeted towards the people in most need.