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Syria: Military Involvement by Canada

Volume 765: debated on Wednesday 28 October 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the new Government of Canada regarding the intention of that Government to withdraw their combat mission from the bombing campaign against ISIL.

My Lords, we have not had any discussions with the new Canadian Government, who take office on 4 November, about their intention to withdraw from air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. We welcome the new Government’s manifesto commitment to continue to focus on the training of local forces in the region and to provide more humanitarian support, including for refugees from Syria.

I am extremely glad that the noble Earl welcomes the election of the new Liberal Government who are delivering on their manifesto commitment to withdraw combat forces from the campaign in Iraq and Syria. Will he accept that this is a recognition by the Canadian people that the facts on the ground have changed? Russia is in Syria now; Iran is more constructively engaged. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary is in Saudi Arabia today. Will the Government accept that it is time for a peace process to stabilise Syria and to desist from continuing on an open-ended campaign which even the Americans say will last for years and years?

My Lords, I agree that the facts in Syria have changed by reason of the Russian intervention. That is undeniable. What has not changed is that ISIL represents a direct threat to this country as much as ever it did, if not more, and it is very much in our national interests to see that threat eliminated. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point that ultimately the end of this conflict can be reached only by political means, and we are engaging as strenuously as we can through diplomatic and political circles to see that satisfactory conclusion.

My Lords, I note the Minister’s response to my noble friend’s Question. We support our troops in the advice and training role in Iraq. However, I am concerned to learn that American trainers have been involved in combat and there have been casualties. Will the Minister clarify the position with our trainers? How many are there? Has their role changed to replicate the US model, and have there been any casualties?

My Lords, I am not aware of any casualties among those of our personnel who are engaged in the training of moderate Syrian forces. Both we and the United States agree that we need to continue to support the moderate opposition in Syria. We acknowledge that the training programme has faced some challenges. The noble Baroness may be aware that only the training element of the programme is currently paused. We will continue to enable the efforts of the moderate opposition in its fight against ISIL and focus on equipping. That will allow us to reinforce the progress already made in countering ISIL.

Was my noble friend not struck by the fact that the appallingly difficult problem we face, raised by the noble Baroness, makes it extremely difficult to see at present how anything except a political solution can possibly resolve what is becoming a galloping crisis of refugees as the situation goes from bad to worse? As winter is now coming on, we can only pray that at last we can get some central resolution. We welcome the fact that Iran as well as Russia will now come to the discussions to be held shortly, together with the United States and other parties that are concerned.

There is no doubt that any eventual political solution will require the major powers and those countries in the region to agree on that solution and, of course, if Iran can be involved in that as well as the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, all the better. The effect of the Russian action to date in targeting the moderate opposition groups is to take the pressure off ISIL, allow it scope to make territorial gains, which in recent days is exactly what it has done, and in so doing put back the date of that eventual settlement.

My Lords, the noble Baroness who asked the Question seemed to indicate that if the Russians were involved that was a ground for our getting out. Is the noble Lord aware that many of us, certainly on this side of the House, take the view that if the Russians are involved that is an additional ground why we should be involved, not that we should extract ourselves from it?

My Lords, I cannot disagree with the noble Lord, particularly on what I said earlier about the threat to this country from ISIL. We cannot let up in our efforts to defeat what is a very pervasive and destructive force in that area and potentially to our country.

My Lords, I heard the noble Earl say that we are both politically and diplomatically involved in a search for a political solution. Will he explain what role we or the European Union are playing in the talks between the Americans, the Russians, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Jordanians and the Turks? I get the impression from reading the press that we are not involved with that at all.

My Lords, it is certainly true that the diplomatic efforts are currently being led by the United States and the other countries that the noble Lord mentioned. However, the House needs to know that there is a comprehensive, cross-government strategy that supports those diplomatic efforts. It is a full-spectrum response, led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, not only in counterterrorism but in diplomatic efforts on Syria, Iraq and Libya, and with cross-HMG work on strategic communications and stabilisation. The noble Lord need be in no doubt that we are at the table in that sense.

My Lords, can I come back to the issue in the Question, on how Canada is reacting to the situation? The new Canadian Prime Minister stated that he will continue to engage in a responsible way in the fight against ISIL without being involved in the combat mission. Will the Minister say whether they will discuss how the new Canadian Government can contribute through these political and diplomatic efforts? Also, will the Government undertake to bring up the response to the refugee crisis with the new Canadian Government?

Most certainly. It is important to emphasise that Canada is not disengaging from the region or abandoning the coalition. It will still keep its military trainers in northern Iraq and be engaged very substantially in the humanitarian relief effort. It is still very much part of the political and diplomatic discussions that are going on. Indeed, Canada will be represented this week in London at the coalition’s strategic communications working group, which is co-chaired by the UK.