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Volume 767: debated on Thursday 26 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the implications for the United Kingdom strategy in Syria of the shooting down of the Russian plane by Turkish forces.

My Lords, this incident is deeply concerning. The UK joins our NATO colleagues in supporting Turkey’s right to defend its airspace and in calling for de-escalation. UK policy on Syria remains to defeat ISIL and seek a political solution to the Syrian crisis, thereby eroding the threat of ISIL and reducing the flow of refugees from Syria. The Prime Minister is now outlining UK strategy in Syria and the Leader of the House will repeat that Statement shortly in this House.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her answer. I realise that the Prime Minister is making a Statement, and I welcome the Government’s determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies in Syria. However, can the Minister tell the House whether there is any prospect of a stronger NATO presence in southern Turkey, particularly on the border with Syria, which seems to have been turned into a gateway for extremism, not only in terms of manpower but for supplies as well?

My Lords, the UK believes that NATO has a key role in the south to improve partner resilience and reassure allies. Indeed, next week, NATO Foreign Ministers will discuss a new strategy for the south, including through its defence capacity-building initiatives and partnerships. The Prime Minister and the Secretary-General have said that the fight against ISIL must be full spectrum, with NATO playing a role. NATO-EU co-ordination is also vital.

My Lords, there will no doubt be opportunities later this morning to discuss government strategy in Syria. But is the Minister in a position to comment on reports in today’s press that the Russian air force has been dropping cluster bombs on the rebels? Are these the rebels the British Government support?

The noble Lord has rightly raised the question of the use of cluster bombs—and in the past, I believe, of chemical warfare—across the area by different groups. I have not seen the reports to which the noble Lord refers but I will certainly look into those. It is a matter of great concern that those who are seeking to defeat ISIL follow the normal international procedures.

My Lords, we have an international coalition that is supposed to be focusing on ISIL. Are we in an active dialogue with our Turkish allies about the extent to which defeating ISIL rather than the Kurds is a main priority?

My Lords, indeed we are. The Turks are a valued ally in the fight against ISIL/Daesh, and we have regular conversations with Turkey on the basis referred to by the noble Lord.

My Lords, I have asked a question before about in what forum we are discussing airspace co-ordination. It seems extraordinary that with such a complex air picture, with so many assets being used within limited airspace, there is not a proper forum where this is being fully discussed. When I asked this question last time, it did not seem that the UK was involved in that and I have real concerns for our aircraft. Will the Minister confirm that a proper forum has now been established and that we are establishing proper airspace security?

My Lords, the coalition has implemented safe separation measures for aircraft operating in Syria and keeps the issue under constant review. British aircraft are already flying combat missions over Iraq and reconnaissance missions over Syria. That includes overflying Turkish airspace by agreement with the Turkish Government and following long-standing practice among NATO allies, which ensures full transparency and communication at all times. I assure the noble Lord that all these missions are co-ordinated by the US-led coalition co-ordination centre.

My Lords, there are inevitably conflicting and competing claims about what actually happened. Can my noble friend cast any light on whether in fact that Russian jet was over Turkish territory? If so, for how long was it over Turkish territory? Is she able to tell us whether the Turks did indeed give adequate warning of their intention to shoot it down?

My Lords, we support Turkey in the way in which it has presented the facts of the case. Turkey has said that the Russian plane was warned 10 times in five minutes before they shot at the plane, and the US military spokesperson has corroborated that. It is clear that the most important thing at this time is that the issue is de-escalated. As President Obama and the Prime Minister here have said, it is important that all sides consider carefully their relationship with each other.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but is it not the case that the last Saudi Arabian plane to join the coalition over the battlefield was seen three months ago, in September, and the last Qatari plane nine months ago, in February? If we are to ask our pilots to go in, should we not be pressuring our allies to ensure that they do not pull theirs out?

My Lords, it is important that all members of coalition play a strong role in whatever they may bring in the way of technical support and assistance, airpower or overflying with drones. It is a matter for command and control of the coalition to determine how best that effort is delivered.