My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State earlier this afternoon on “Counter-ISIL Coalition Strategy”. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, ISIL poses a direct threat to the UK and to countries around the world. Last month, 30 British citizens were murdered on a beach in a brutal and cowardly attack inspired by ISIL. It is right that the UK is making a significant contribution to the international coalition to defeat ISIL and destroy its bases in Iraq and Syria.
More than 60 countries, both within the region and from outside, are part of that international effort, demonstrating the widespread opposition to and abhorrence of ISIL’s barbarous terrorism. There is a well-planned, integrated strategy to defeat ISIL which includes: action to cut off its funding; stopping the flow of foreign fighters; humanitarian assistance to both Iraq and Syria; strategic communications co-chaired by the UK to tackle its poisonous ideology; and the military campaign.
This strategy is overseen by Ministers from all the key nations, including the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi. Our strategy is therefore comprehensive and broader than simply military action. It deals with the ideology and territory that is ISIL’s centre of gravity that it is committed to expanding. However, the military element is essential. The coalition has helped to halt and hold ISIL after its rapid advance across Iraq last summer. Coalition airpower, including sophisticated UK aircraft, flies daily missions to strike ISIL targets and gather intelligence.
The air campaign is helping to turn the tide and it will support ground forces to ultimately defeat ISIL. The Iraqi Prime Minister has been very clear that those forces must be local forces. Western troops operating in a ground combat role would serve only to promote ISIL’s ideological narrative and radicalise more people.
Our expertise is being used to help train local forces and to support efforts to generate Sunni forces to retake and hold the ground in Sunni areas. So far, the coalition has trained nearly 11,000 Iraqi personnel, with the UK training over 1,700. Iraqi forces, supported by coalition airpower, have had some successes against ISIL, retaking Tikrit, pushing ISIL out of Baiji and away from the Kurdish region of Iraq, and they have recently begun operations to retake Ramadi. Since August last year, ISIL has lost about a quarter of the territory that it held in Iraq.
Roadside and vehicle-borne bombs are slowing the progress of Iraqi forces. I can announce today to the House that the first additional counter improvised explosive device training team will deploy around mid-August. When complete, that will bring the number of British troops inside Iraq to 275.
Tackling ISIL only in Iraq is illogical when ISIL itself does not respect international borders. Its command and control centre is in northern Syria. It is from there that its weapons and fighters flow into Iraq. It is from there that its global influence spreads and from where the direct threat to the UK comes. In Syria, the UK is contributing up to 85 personnel to the US-led programme to train and equip the New Syrian Forces trained outside of Syria, but which will fight ISIL once reinserted back into Syria. Our aircraft are gathering intelligence over Syria for the coalition and we are also the only country flying manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft over Syria. Some 30% of the entire surveillance operation is British.
Let me turn now to the issue of embedded personnel. As I reported to the House earlier today, while the UK is not conducting air strikes in Syria, our Armed Forces regularly have embeds in the forces of our close partners. Embedded UK personnel operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel under that nation’s chain of command, but they remain subject to UK domestic, international and host nation law. Ministerial approval is required for UK embeds to deploy with allied forces on operations. Over the last 12 months, a total of five pilots have been embedded at one time or another with forces conducting strikes over Syria; none is currently involved in air strikes. A further 75 personnel have been embedded with US, Canadian and French forces in a range of operations against ISIL.
ISIL has killed many of our fellow citizens and it is actively plotting to kill more. The Prime Minister today set out our plans to tackle extremism and radicalisation at home. We are also determined to use the forces at our disposal to do more to tackle ISIL at its source. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement already made in the other place by the Secretary of State updating the position in Iraq and Syria in respect of action against ISIL. The Secretary of State has also issued a Written Statement today on the subject of UK embedded forces in which he confirms that,
“up to 80 UK personnel have been embedded with US, Canadian and French forces”,
since the international coalition commenced military operations against ISIL last year. The Secretary of State went on to say:
“A small number of embedded UK pilots”—
I think it was five—
“have carried out airstrikes in Syria against ISIL targets”,
“none are currently involved in airstrikes”;
“Ministerial approval is required for UK embeds deployed with allied forces on operations”.
The House of Commons voted against military action in Syria in 2013 and parliamentary authority has only been given to UK air strikes against ISIL in Iraq. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 26 September 2014:
“I have said that we will come back to the House if, for instance, we make the decision that we should take air action with others in Syria”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/9/14; col. 1266.]
That undertaking has clearly been broken, unless the Minister is going to tell us that neither the Prime Minister nor the Secretary of State for Defence knew what was going on with UK pilots carrying out air strikes in Syria. Can the Minister tell us, therefore, if the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence knew? If they did, when did they know, and which Minister gave the required approval, and when, for these UK embeds to be deployed with allied forces on operations? Were they aware that in so doing, they were authorising UK pilots to carry out air strikes in Syria against ISIL targets?
Did the Prime Minister know that embedded UK pilots had carried out, or had been authorised to carry out, air strikes in Syria against ISIL targets when he made his statement on 26 September last year? If the authorisation for UK pilots to carry out air strikes in Syria against ISIL targets was given during the time of the previous coalition Government, can the Minister say if the then Deputy Prime Minister would have been advised of, or his approval sought for, a small number of embedded UK pilots carrying out air strikes in Syria against ISIL targets?
The involvement of members of our Armed Forces in Syria has come to light only as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the future of that Act is now under threat from this Government. Without that ability to make a Freedom of Information Act request and secure an answer, the involvement of members of our Armed Forces in Syria would not have come to light since it is clear that neither this Government nor perhaps the previous coalition Government had any intention of telling either Parliament or the British people, even though Parliament had voted against military action in Syria and the Prime Minister had pledged to come back to the House if the decision was made that we should take air action with others in Syria.
In his Statement, the Secretary of State said:
“UK personnel have embedded with other nations’ air forces since the 1950s”;
and in the House of Commons today, the Secretary of State sought to say that the Government had actually been quite open about what had happened because they had responded to a freedom of information request. Can the Minister tell us the last time embedded UK forces have been involved in operations and military action in a country when the House of Commons has voted against our Armed Forces being involved in military action in that country and has not subsequently changed its decision?
On the Secretary of State’s claim of openness by the Government because they had responded to a freedom of information request, the reality is that without that request—and most people would have assumed that, in the light of the Prime Minister’s undertaking last September, there would be no British military personnel involvement in operations in Syria—the first the nation might have known about this activity would have been if something had gone wrong. Can the Minister now give an undertaking that there will be no further use of embedded forces in Syria without parliamentary consent, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s undertaking?
We share the Government’s abhorrence of ISIL’s cold-blooded terrorism and we remain ready to work with the Government to defeat ISIL and will carefully consider any proposals that they decide to bring forward. In so doing, we would need to be clear about what difference any action would make to our aim of defeating ISIL, about the nature of any action, its objectives and legal basis. But going behind the back of Parliament and keeping it in the dark, as it is clear the Government have done with the forced disclosure that UK pilots have carried out air strikes in Syria against ISIL targets contrary to Parliament’s decision, does not help.
Somebody in government has tried to be too clever by half by maintaining, as the Secretary of State for Defence has done in his Written Statement, that the Prime Minister’s undertaking excluded UK personnel embedded within other nations’ armed forces operating in Syria, on the basis that it applied only to the deployment of UK forces. The Prime Minister certainly did not make that exemption, and neither did Parliament in its decision. That somebody has done a disservice to the nation, to Parliament and to our Armed Forces—which have served, continue to serve, and will always serve us with great bravery and commitment.
My Lords, I am most worried about the statement in this Statement:
“There is a well-planned, integrated strategy to defeat ISIL”.
That is not what it looks like to many on these Benches and elsewhere. We are in an extremely complex situation in the Middle East in which some of our partners are on our side in some respects and on the other side for other purposes. I was being briefed at lunchtime today about the complexities around the Kurdish forces which are involved in the conflict both in Syria and in Iraq, and the deeply ambivalent attitude of the Turks and of the Iraqi Government to their activities. That is merely one of the many complexities that we face.
The coalition, after all, includes Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many others, many of which have reservations about how we see the conflict. For many purposes, Iran is effectively now an additional member of the coalition, and one of the strongest forces opposing ISIS. I wish I could see a well-integrated strategy. I fear that it is not possible to have one, given the complexity of the situation facing us.
We are talking about local forces that are engaging ISIS. Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the forces that engage ISIS but I am not entirely sure that we want to support it or provide it with more assistance. Some of the Shia militias in Iraq are not as easy as we would like, and sadly the Free Syrian Army, which we have been training, is not one of the strongest forces in the land. I was also worried by what the Prime Minister said at the weekend about domestic radicalisation and counterterrorism because we are all clear that there are direct links between domestic radicalisation and the actions of some of our allies and partners in promoting radical and jihadist versions of Islam against moderate Islamic practices.
We recognise that the Government are edging towards asking for British planes to be involved in bombing in Syria. A small number of British planes bombing ISIS in Syria is no more likely to resolve the multiple conflicts across the Middle East than bombing Damascus would have done two years ago. There is no shortage of aircraft in the Gulf states and Turkey that are quite capable of bombing ISIS from the air. It worries me that we are told that 30% of the surveillance activities over Syria are being conducted by British planes. That suggests that not many other planes apart from American ones are flying over Syria.
Sadly, some of the Governments have themselves supported radical Islamic groups and are still ambivalent about attacking Sunni groups, however radical or brutal, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. It is not in Britain’s interests to cling to the hard-line Sunni side of a developing Sunni-Shia conflict. Nor is it in our interests to present ourselves to ISIS as an existential enemy—I note that the Statement downgrades “existential threat” to “direct threat”, which is perhaps a little better—when ISIS is a much more direct threat to moderate Muslims and to regimes across the Middle East. We should be working with others to promote a coherent response from the neighbours of Syria and Iraq, which we can support, not repeating the mistake of the 2003 Iraq war when we followed the Americans into bombing and then occupying an Arab country.
Some of Britain’s allies in the Middle East have actively funded radical Islamic mosques and movements in the UK and elsewhere. The Prime Minister’s commitment to combat radicalisation within Britain would be more persuasive if he spelled out to the Saudi Government, in particular, our condemnation of Saudi money funding radical groups, and that the Saudis must now themselves take responsibility for containing violent jihadism among Sunni Muslims.
The Prime Minister responded positively to a request from our Middle East partners that we should conduct an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood. It is now time for the Prime Minister to ask them in return to conduct an inquiry into the funding of radical Islamic groups in our territory.
I have some questions, if I may. Which local forces are responding? Do they include Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq? Do they include the Shia militias? What is their attitude to Jabhat al-Nusra? How many of our Middle Eastern partners are currently flying air strikes over Syria? I was told the other day that only one was doing so—Jordan. In terms of embedded personnel, how many RAF pilots are embedded in US drone units, which are flying drones, including armed drones, over the Middle East? How many embedded personnel from other states are currently embedded in British forces? I have been told that French pilots are flying in RAF strike fighters, for example. We, of course, know about the Dutch in the UK/Netherlands Amphibious Force. Are there others? Would it not be proper, either now or later, to give us at least a Written Statement telling us what the position is the other way round as well?
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their comments.
The implication, if not the overt proposition, of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, was that Her Majesty’s Government had been guilty of bad faith towards Parliament. I ask him to accept that there has been no bad faith towards Parliament. Indeed, that is the last thing that Ministers want.
I take the House’s mind back to the vote that took place in the House of Commons on 29 August 2013. The context of that vote was a proposal to approve UK military action to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The Motion before the House was not about, and significantly did not cover or forbid, anything else. It explicitly did not recognise the rise of ISIS, which had not by then occurred. What has ensued from those votes?
At no time have British pilots or British aircraft been involved in strikes against the Assad regime under the British flag. The will of Parliament has, therefore, not been flouted in that sense. Indeed, the United States has not been involved in air strikes against the Assad regime. In accordance with a decision of the House of Commons on 26 September 2014 we have been involved in coalition operations against ISIL in Iraq, and we have supported our allies in their operations against ISIL in Syria—notably in surveillance operations. There have not, on the other hand, been any UK airstrikes over Syria. What we are talking about now are US airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, which have included some embedded UK pilots over the last few months.
Embedded personnel are not acting under a UK chain of command. That is why Ministers did not think it incumbent on them to report to Parliament about the potential use of those embeds. I was asked when formal authority was given. I understand that it was given in early October last year by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister. Operations conducted by the United States did not in our judgment fall within the scope of the Government’s commitment to return to Parliament if the UK were ever to propose to take military action in Syria.
I naturally regret it if the noble Lord feels that he would have taken a different view. However, it has been long-standing practice by Governments of all colours not routinely to publicise embeds, as they are not our forces or indeed our operations. Those operations are a matter for the forces concerned. The view of Ministers was and remains that there was no need to change that position as these pilots were operating as members of the host nations’ military, so the House should be clear that this is not Britain conducting airstrikes in Syria. However, of course, we confirm the position, if asked. When my department received a request we were happy to set out the position.
I can say, too, that there is a clear legal basis for coalition operations in Syria, which governs any activity that takes place in that country. Any activity by UK personnel embedded within US or Canadian forces will be conducted in accordance with the UK’s interpretation of international law, and of UK law and the appropriate rules of engagement.
With regard to the future, the House will be aware that we do not regularly update either House of Parliament on this routine area of defence activity. As I said, we respond to parliamentary inquiries when those are put to us. UK forces are regularly embedded in the forces of other nations. They have been for many years, and we have a long-standing exchange programme with allies, meaning that there will always be a small number of UK military personnel operating under the command of foreign nations. It would be quite impractical to have some kind of unwieldy, running commentary on military operations conducted by other nations.
I turn to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, many of which I welcomed and agreed with. ISIL cannot be defeated on the battlefield alone. We continue to work to support the kind of inclusive political settlements that would help to deal with the causes of ISIL’s rise. In Syria, this means that we are working to support the moderate opposition and to push for a political settlement.
The noble Lord said that, in his perception, there was no visible sign of a strategy. However, I bring his attention to the fact that there is a very concerted political mechanism overseeing the campaign against ISIL, of which the military component is only one part. That strategy involves a number of key nations. There have already been two significant meetings, at Lancaster House and in Paris, to draw up and take stock of the strategy. It has five strands, as the Statement indicated: counterinformation, the flow of fighters, the humanitarian dimension, countering the financial flows that ISIL receives, and military operations. We are supporting the Iraqi Government in their commitment to inclusive governance and reconciliation between communities, particularly as they re-establish security and governance in areas liberated from ISIL’s control. We are also pressing Prime Minister Abadi to progress his national guard law to strengthen the Iraqi security services’ accountability.
The noble Lord asked me what the value-added of a UK component in offensive operations in Syria would be, were we ever to come to Parliament to seek permission for that. He asked me a number of detailed questions. If he will allow me, I will reply in writing to the extent that I have the information, but the United Kingdom can and does offer some unique capabilities that would undoubtedly be seen as extremely helpful if we were to join offensive operations over Syria, not least a capability for precision bombing.
I also ask the House to reflect on the overall context of what we are talking about. ISIL is a ruthless organisation. It has murdered several of our innocent citizens in Tunisia and in other parts of the world very brutally. It is right that we support our United States allies in what they are doing to counter ISIL. As the Statement made clear, ISIL’s centre of operations is in northern Syria. While we are not proposing ever to flout the will of Parliament in terms of conducting offensive operations against Syria ourselves, nevertheless we will continue to play our part in what has become a very effective coalition.
Does my noble friend recognise that the House thinks the Government are quite right to bring forward, before the House rises, this Statement on their strategy to counter ISIL? It is against a situation that every single Member of this House recognises is extraordinarily grave, in terms of both security and the possible humanitarian catastrophe that might affect some of the countries we are dealing with. Against that background, I find it absolutely mind-blowing that the sole contribution from the Opposition Front Bench was to argue against the system of embedding, which anybody involved in defence knows has been long-established for many years by different countries. We take in officers and other ranks from other countries; we likewise enjoy the benefit of them. They are under other people’s command. It is run as effectively as possible.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made a much more measured contribution on the question of the objectives. In addition to the military objectives and the diplomatic objectives—Russia, Iran and others have a contribution to make in this area—is resources and funding. Anyone who has had to deal with terrorism knows that very often, at the back of it, money has a lot to do with it. The greatest effort that can be made, in addition to the military and security effort, is to try to switch off the resources that are undoubtedly available to ISIL in its various activities.
My Lords, I am delighted that we now have a well-planned and integrated strategy, because until now we did not seem to have one at all. I thought the Prime Minister’s speech today about the UK aspect of that was very good. We are beginning to tackle this, but my goodness me, we need to get our act together on all the strands that the noble Earl talked about.
My question relates specifically to Syria. Clearly, the Americans are running the air tasking order for that region, which is highly complex. As the noble Earl said, we are using a lot of ISTAR assets over Syria, so the Americans must at the very least be dealing with Assad and his integrated air defence system, talking to him prior to these operations going on. I would be interested to know how much we have been involved in talking to Assad and his people about this. Clearly he has given permission for this to happen, aside from saying that the Iraqis have. Looking ahead, it makes no military sense only to attack targets in Iraq and not in Syria, as has been said. What sorts of deals will we be doing with Assad? In the final analysis, even if we clear Iraq of ISIL fighters—which we will—we will not have beaten ISIL because it has a haven and base in Syria. We will end up having to do something in Syria that is unbelievably complex and difficult. I am not at all clear how we can move forward in that arena.
My Lords, again, I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord West, said. I am not aware of any discussions that have been going on with the Assad regime on the part of UK Ministers. If there is anything I can tell him on that front in writing I will, although he will understand that much of this territory has to remain confidential. Indeed, we do not comment on the detail of specific operations, as he knows. Nevertheless, the overarching point that he makes is fair. We certainly do not want anything we do to assist the Assad regime. I do not believe that we have been guilty of that. However, it is important to counter ISIL wherever it appears and to push it back from the territory that it has gained. After that, we need to address the Assad regime and how, on an international basis, we set about displacing it.
My Lords, at the risk of repeating some of the points already made, does the Minister accept that several members of the international coalition, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, attach a higher priority to the removal of the Syrian regime, as part of the Sunni/Shia or Arab/Iranian dispute, than they do to the containment of ISIL? The Statement makes clear that any strategy is overseen by Ministers from key nations, including the Prime Minister of Iraq. What about Syria? What steps is the coalition taking to co-ordinate its action with the Syrian armed forces, which after all are taking the main brunt of ISIL’s military expansion in Syria? Finally, would the Minister tell us what contact, if any, we or our European partners have with the Government in Damascus?
The noble Lord’s question is very similar to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord West. The short answer is that I do not know. If there is an answer I can give to the noble Lord about that, I will be happy to do so. However, these matters are very delicate. As he said, the political forces at play—if I can put it that way—in that part of the world are extremely complex. He rightly points to the priorities of some countries in the region being different from those of the United Kingdom, and I agree. I think the same could be said for Turkey, which perhaps puts greater emphasis on countering the Kurds in the southern part of Turkey than we do. Nevertheless, we are working with our Turkish friends and they are extremely supportive of the work we are doing. I am advised that there are no direct discussions with President Assad or his regime. However, if there is any further detail I can give the noble Lord, I will, as I say, follow up in writing.
My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Earl, Lord Howe, so it is sad to see his semantic convulsions to avoid the impression that UK forces are flying in bombing missions over Syria. If one of those five pilots were shot down during a bombing raid, how would he explain in plain English to the country that this was not a military operation by UK forces over Syria? On the broader point, is he aware of the comments over the weekend of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards, former Chief of the General Staff, that an ideology such as ISIL’s cannot be defeated militarily other than through boots on the ground and a full-on war, even if one were to go that far? Therefore, will he tell the House what happens when ISIL is displaced to other countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan? Are we going to reinvade those countries? What strategy do the Government think they are achieving through the military part of this campaign?
My Lords, I did see the comments of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards. I simply point out that, as for the proposition that the United Kingdom, or, for that matter, any of the coalition allies, should put boots on the ground in Iraq, or, indeed, Syria, that course of action would not be conducive to a satisfactory end game or resolution. We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi Government. They have said in terms that they do not wish to see western ground troops in their country for the very good reason that the more we, as western nations, are seen to occupy Iraq, the more likely it is that local people and, indeed, individuals in this country will be radicalised, so that cannot be a way forward there. Let us be in no doubt, though, that the air strikes have achieved very significant results. I am sure all noble Lords agree that no air campaign could hope to win the war. However, the contribution that the air campaign has made is beyond question. It has stalled ISIL in its tracks, has enabled ground forces in Iraq to recapture large slices of territory previously occupied by ISIL, and has been effective in keeping ISIL at bay. It is not the whole story. That is why, along with our allies, we are engaged in training Iraqi forces and their officers. This is very welcome to the Iraqi Government. It is necessary, I believe, and this activity will continue.
I hope that the noble Baroness will allow me to avoid her first question about what might happen if a British pilot were captured, as contingency plans are in place for the retrieval of pilots by the coalition if need be. However, I do not wish to go into the detail of what those plans are.
I very much welcome the way in which my noble friend presented this very clear Statement on coalition strategy to the House. It casts new light on an issue about which there has been doubt in the past, and we all understand more clearly what is being done. It is of course complete nonsense to say that Parliament voted against attacking ISIS two years ago. ISIS did not even exist then and the vote two years ago was about a completely different issue. I cannot understand why that sort of “silly season” approach has been used by the Opposition.
My noble friend is also completely right to point out that ISIS makes a thing of ignoring international boundaries and national frontiers. It operates across countries and denies the existence of nations. As I think the Statement implied, it is absolutely clear that, in destroying ISIS, and this barbaric, evil movement, which is a challenge to all civilised nations, we have to operate on the same basis and in more than one country. That is absolutely clear. I am very glad to hear that for the future that is clearly the way the Government are thinking. I believe it is also important to recognise that this is not just a US-led western approach. The entire organised, civilised world is threatened and we need the maximum co-ordination but not from merely the regional powers; it needs to be eastern, Asian, western and southern powers as well—all are involved in bringing together this coalition, and strengthening it should be our prime task from now. Does he agree with that?
My Lords, I do agree and I am grateful to my noble friend for his comments. He is quite right: ISIL does not respect international boundaries. My Secretary of State has said publicly that he thinks it is logically incoherent that the United Kingdom is unable to engage in offensive operations over the border into Syria, whereas it is able to do so in Iraq. Nevertheless, we have been absolutely clear that we will return to Parliament for a separate decision if we propose to take military action against ISIL in Syria. Having said that, as the Prime Minister has made clear, if there were a critical British national interest at stake, or a need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, we would act immediately in those circumstances and explain to Parliament afterwards.
My Lords, I have no particular brief to offer an explanation of what my noble and gallant friend Lord Richards said recently. However, if we take seriously the fact that ISIL must be defeated, the broad strategy of the coalition must be pursued with all vigour. I am sure that the noble Earl agrees with that. We need to do that to make sure that we do not, in extremis, ultimately have to put British soldiers and British units on the ground. Therefore, we must do everything short of doing that. Does the noble Earl agree that, although it is tremendous that there is now a coalition of 60 nations fighting ISIL, those myriad 60 countries can lead to confusion among those we are trying to help? A country such as the United Kingdom has great expertise in providing training teams, equipment and know-how to those fighting on the ground. Therefore, will the noble Earl bring to bear all the influence he can within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that we deploy our maximum efforts to send British training teams, so that our expertise is maximised and the confusion which a number of the recipient countries are experiencing is reduced?
I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord’s points and questions. He is absolutely right that, to the extent that we are able to do so, we should use our strongest endeavours to contribute to the anti-ISIL effort. We will contribute around 85 military personnel to US-led training of the moderate Syrian opposition, training thousands of screened members of the opposition over the next three years in, for example, the use of small arms, infantry tactics and medical skills. More than 6,000 Syrians have volunteered for the train-and-equip programme and are in various stages of registration, pre-screening and vetting. It is imperative that we attract, recruit and retain the right candidates. We screen potential recruits thoroughly.
Our focus will initially be on helping the new Syrian forces defend communities against ISIL and eventually lead offences against its brutal attacks. Training will take place in Turkey and other countries in the region. I have already referred to the training we are undertaking in Iraq, which, as I have said, is welcomed by the Iraqi Government and is proving effective.
My Lords, I am sure I heard the Minister say that were British aircraft to be used over Syria to bomb ISIL, they would bring—I think his phrase was—unique capabilities. Will he explain, within his ability to do so, what those unique capabilities would be that were not already fully supplied in good measure by the United States, apart from anyone else? Were the Government to bring to the House a proposition to use British aircraft over Syria, and were we to believe that that was anything other than token bombing for political purposes and to cheer ourselves up, we would need to be convinced that the very small amount of high explosive that the British could add to the huge weight of high explosive already in theatre, which can in fact not be used because it cannot acquire the targets, would make any material difference whatever. Surely our skills and ability would be better served by following the line proposed by the noble Lords, Lord King and Lord Howell, to see if we can build the wide coalition—building on the Tehran deal, bringing in Iran and bringing in Russia—that will be necessary to make sense of military action, which, without that, seems to have very little.
I agree on the need for a wide coalition. As has been said, there are already 60 nations involved in the current coalition. I also agree that it is important that we bring along with us as many other nations as we can.
As regards the proposition that United Kingdom forces under a UK flag should conduct offensive operations in Syria, as I said, that would be subject to a separate vote in Parliament. But it is right for me to make it clear that the Government would not wish to come to Parliament with a half-baked proposal. We would want to garner as widespread support as possible across the political spectrum, including from the Opposition, and that entails demonstrating that the UK could make not only a positive contribution to the coalition effort but one that would in a real sense be unique or nearly unique.
I mentioned precision bombing as one of the capabilities that we have that other nations do not, apart from the United States. We are certainly in a prime position to offer state-of-the-art surveillance capabilities to any operation, and we are second to none in the quality of the training that we supply to foreign countries.
Is my noble friend aware that I was an embedded RAF officer responsible to the Canadian Government in the 1950s and that there is nothing unusual about that? Will he please clarify the point about airspace raised by the noble Lord, Lord West? Is he saying that there is an air exclusion zone across the 30% of the ground area of Syria that is controlled by ISIL? Is he further saying that the surveillance drones are surveilling only that 30%?
There is not an air exclusion zone because, as has been made clear, we are conducting surveillance operations on behalf of the coalition and we have always been open about that. What I hope I have been clear about is that we have not gone that stage further and commissioned or commanded British forces to engage in offensive operations over that territory.