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Volume 764: debated on Thursday 17 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the remarks by General John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, on 13 September that the conflict in Syria must be solved at a political level in order to ease the humanitarian crisis, whether the Chiefs of Staff have formally discussed comprehensive strategy options for the defeat of ISIL, and peace and reconstruction in Syria.

My Lords, in Syria, we are tackling immediate threats to UK national security, while also seeking a political settlement to the conflict. The ultimate solution, both to the migration crisis and to threats emanating from Syria, must be political transition. The National Security Council is the forum for comprehensive cross-government discussion of strategy and has recently discussed Syria. The Chiefs of Staff also address Syria regularly at their monthly Chiefs of Staff Committee.

I thank the noble Earl for his Answer. However, I am disappointed, because I know that the Chiefs of Staff have not discussed this formally. Does the Minister agree that there is now great urgency to agree a comprehensive strategic plan to destroy ISIL and restore peace? It clearly needs to involve Assad, Russia and Iran, all levers of diplomacy, pressure on money flow, propaganda and military force, and being part of a huge coalition makes it much more complex. Will the Minister assure us that strategic options have been looked at for us to present to the coalition, because we are experts in this, as are the Americans? They have not been so far, but will the Chiefs of Staff be fully involved in this in a formal way?

I agree with the analysis that the noble Lord has put forward. We have in place a cross-government, counter-ISIL task force. We are also supporting our friends and allies in the Middle East to broker a solution in Syria. We welcome the international effort, particularly that being conducted by the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are clearly key players in the area. We encourage Russia and Iran, in particular, to use their influence with the regime to achieve a lasting political transition. There is a blend of tough military action and self-defence at home, but we are also using our good offices, diplomatically, to broker that political solution.

Does the Minister agree that the only credible strategy option for the defeat of ISIL is what the Russians appear to be doing at present—namely, to work with their long-time ally, the Syrian Government, to help them push back ISIL from the occupation of their sovereign territory? That is the only strategy that might enable those Syrians massing at the Hungarian border, many of whom have fled the brutality of ISIL, to return to their homes. Are we in diplomatic or military contact with either the Russians or the Syrians about this?

We are certainly in diplomatic contact with the Russians. However, we are also strongly supporting the United Nations efforts. Following on from wide-ranging consultations, the UN envoy, de Mistura, has outlined plans to form four thematic working groups. These focus on political and legal issues, military and security issues, continuity of public services, and then, in the future, reconstruction and development in Syria. Last month, the United Nations Security Council endorsed his plan, in a welcome show of unity, and we would give maximum encouragement to that process.

The Minister will be aware of reports that the Russians are building new runways in Syria, in addition to the naval base in Tartus, and deploying significant numbers of military advisers, even “green men”, we are told. This has striking parallels with Vietnam; although of course this time it is the Russians, rather than the US, in the role of being sucked in. Is the Minister able to tell the House whether Chiefs of Staff and military-to-military contacts have been made with the Russians to avoid conflicts and conflagration within the Syrian-Iraqi space?

My Lords, we are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and equipment to Syria. We are monitoring those reports very closely. Any unilateral military support to the Assad regime, for any purpose, is, in our view, destabilising and counterproductive. This is, after all, the same regime that is causing a humanitarian crisis through aerial bombardment of its own people, forcing thousands of people to flee. They cannot be a partner against ISIL. Therefore, any attempt by the Russians to achieve that is, in our view, misguided. We are, however, in diplomatic contact with the Russians, and we make our views clear.

My Lords, before the Government come back to Parliament in a few weeks’ time with, as we understand, a proposal for military action, can the Minister make sure that they outline their grand strategy, by which I mean not only the purpose of military action but the diplomatic, financial, humanitarian, political and military aspects of the overriding grand strategy? One reason why the Government failed last time to get agreement on military action in Syria was that there was a belief in this House and elsewhere that it was not part of an overall grand strategy, or at least that it had not been explained to Members of Parliament.

My Lords, I take fully on board the comments of the noble Lord, with his immense experience in this area. The Prime Minister has made it clear that in order to facilitate further action in Syria he will return to Parliament; but, as he has said, it would be better if there were consensus in the House supporting such action. His views have not changed on that. What has changed is the growing evidence that ISIL poses a threat to us here in Britain. It is right for parliamentarians to be thinking about these issues and what more we can do, but I recognise that it will be vital for the Government to present a coherent case for action in Syria if that is what we decide is best.