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Syria: UK Military Involvement

Volume 764: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they specifically authorised the involvement of British military personnel in allied offensive action over Syria, and if so, why.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Defence gave approval for UK personnel embedded with US and Canadian forces to strike in Syria. Embedded UK personnel operate as if they were the host nation’s personnel under that nation’s command chain, but are still subject to UK domestic and international law and to the host nation’s law. Embed posts allow personnel to gain experience of key capabilities and equipment and to make a positive contribution to our defence relationships.

I thank the noble Earl for his very full reply. Does it mean that the Government now accept that ISIL poses a very serious threat to British interests at home and abroad and that the regime in Damascus most certainly does not? Secondly, do the Government recognise that the collapse of the regime in Damascus would lead to a situation of total chaos from which the main beneficiary would indeed be ISIL?

My Lords, I certainly agree, as do Her Majesty’s Government, that ISIL is a serious threat to us as well as many other western countries. That is why we are engaged as fully as we can be in the fight against ISIL over Iraq, and we are conducting surveillance operations with our coalition partners over Syria. As well as that, we are training moderate Syrian opposition forces and forces in Iraq, as the noble Lord will be aware. His analysis of the position relating to the Damascus regime is, I am sure, one that the House will note, but we are clear that we should do nothing to prolong unduly that regime which, as noble Lords will be aware, has conducted appalling atrocities on its own people.

My Lords, in September this year I will have been on the active list in the Navy for 50 years. All my experience seems to indicate that the handling of this situation of the embeds has been a total cock-up. When one makes a cock-up one should just admit it, learn and move on. My question relates to a clarification. Are we now saying that UK personnel embedded in other nations will be allowed to be engaged on the ground and in the air over Syria? How many naval pilots are in the air wing of the next carrier which is moving out to replace the carrier in the Gulf, and will be flying operations in Syria?

My Lords, it will not surprise the noble Lord to know that I do not share his analysis of the handling of this matter. I can tell him that UK pilots embedded with the Royal Canadian Air Force and USAF have permission to strike ISIL targets in Syria should their mission require them to do so. The US unit that UK pilots are currently embedded with has conducted strikes in Syria, but it is important to emphasise that neither the US nor Canada is authorised to attack Syrian regime military forces.

My Lords, is it not the case that secondment or exchange has been part of the services’ policy, rightly, for very many years and provides very valuable experience and expertise in both directions, and that, once seconded, our servicemen fill a vital role as part of the services that they are seconded to? Does the noble Earl further agree that, should our servicemen not be able to play a full operational part on deployment, secondment would be worthless and disruptive to the other nations, who are often our allies—probably all our allies—to whom the individuals are on exchange?

I fully agree with my noble friend. In a nutshell, one could say that service personnel are either embedded or they are not. The value to our people from being embedded with the United States Navy is the key skills that they are acquiring to operate the Queen Elizabeth class carriers when those come into service later in the decade. The experience gained by flying and supporting US fixed-wing aircraft will allow the pilots to retain the suitably qualified and experienced person status needed to operate the F35B.

My Lords, I am so sorry, but the House is calling for the noble Lord, Lord Reid. I suggest that, if we can be brief, we will be able to hear from the Lib Dem Benches as well.

Thank you. I will be very brief. In order that the House can understand the strategy, which do the Government consider the greatest threat to this country and its interests—Assad or ISIL?

My Lords, in the Syria Statement yesterday, the Secretary of State’s words were carefully chosen. At the moment, our actions could be construed as the West versus Islam, so could the Minister see any likelihood of future pilots being embedded in Middle Eastern partners’ forces? Would any ministerial permission therefore need to be sought?

My Lords, exchange of personnel is a regular feature of our Armed Forces, as the noble Baroness will be aware, and this has been the case for many years. I asked for figures relating to our personnel embedded with the forces of other nations, but that statistic is more difficult to come by than might be initially supposed. However, if I can enlighten the noble Baroness, and indeed the House, I would be happy to do so once the information has been gathered.

My Lords, I am grateful. I wonder if the noble Earl can kindly tell the House what in public international law is the status that Her Majesty’s Government regard President Assad as occupying, bearing in mind that some two years ago, in respect of all the belligerents that were opposed to President Assad, we accepted a status for each and every one of them—including, as it so happened, ISIL.

My Lords, the Government regard the Assad regime as a pariah regime, in short. It will be very important, if we are to seek a lasting settlement in Syria, that Assad and those supporting him are not part of that future regime.