Does the noble Lord want to speak before I have repeated the Statement?
My Lords, I appreciate that this is a rather late request from the Dispatch Box, but there is a full Chamber today and I was wondering whether the noble Baroness would accede to the House having an extended period of questions for Back-Bench contributions.
My Lords, I would normally hope to receive such a request before we got to this point in proceedings. Clearly, I do not want to deny the House the opportunity to ask questions, but we will have a debate on related matters next Thursday and we have had a debate on the strategic defence review earlier this week. As and when there is any further debate on this matter in the House of Commons, I would expect my noble friend the Chief Whip to schedule time for that. None the less, I will be happy to extend Back-Bench questions by just 10 minutes, so we will do 30 minutes for Back-Bench questions.
With the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows.
“Mr Speaker, I said I would respond personally to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on extending British military operations to Syria. I have done so today, and copies of my response have been made available to every Member of the House.
The committee produced a comprehensive report which asked a series of important questions. I have tried to listen very carefully to the questions and views expressed by Members on all sides of the House, and I want to try to answer all the relevant questions today. There are different ways of putting them, but they boil down to this: why? Why us? Why now? Is what we are contemplating legal? Where are the ground troops to help us meet our objectives? What is the strategy that brings together everything we are doing, particularly in Syria? Is there an end to this conflict, and is there a plan for what follows?
Let me deal with each of these questions very directly. First, why? The reason for acting is the very direct threat that ISIL poses to our country and to our way of life. ISIL has attacked Ankara, Beirut and, of course, Paris, as well as the likely blowing up of a Russian plane with 224 people on board. It has already taken the lives of British hostages and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7, on the beaches of Tunisia. Crucially, it has repeatedly tried to attack us right here in Britain. In the last 12 months, our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to ISIL or inspired by its propaganda, so I am in no doubt that it is in our national interest for action to be taken to stop it—and stopping it means taking action in Syria because it is Raqqa that is its HQ.
But why us? My first responsibility as Prime Minister—and our first job in this House—is to keep the British people safe. We have the assets to do that, and we can significantly extend the capabilities of the international coalition forces. That is one reason why members of the international coalition, .including President Obama and President Hollande have made it clear to me that they want Britain to stand with them in joining in air strikes in Syria as well as Iraq. These are our closest allies, and they want our help.
Partly, this is about our capabilities. As we are showing in Iraq, the RAF can carry out what is called ‘dynamic targeting’, where our pilots can strike the most difficult targets at rapid pace, and with extraordinary precision, and provide vital battle-winning close air support to local forces on the ground. We have the Brimstone precision missile system, which enables us to strike accurately with minimal collateral damage—something that even the Americans do not have. The RAPTOR pod on our Tornado aircraft has no rival, currently gathering 60% of the coalition’s entire tactical reconnaissance in Iraq, while also being equipped for strikes. In addition, our Reaper drones are providing up to 30% of the intelligence in Syria, but are not currently able to use their low-collateral high-precision missile systems. We also have the proven ability to sustain our operations—not just for weeks, but if necessary for months into the future.
Of course we have these capabilities, but the most important answer to the question, ‘Why us?’, is even more fundamental. It is this: we should not be content with outsourcing our security to our allies. If we believe that action can help protect us, then, with our allies, we should be part of that action, not standing aside from it. From this moral point comes a fundamental question: if we will not act now, when our friend and ally, France, has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking, ‘If not now, when?’.
That leads to the next question, ‘Why now?’. The first answer to that, of course, is the grave danger that ISIL poses to our security—a danger that has clearly intensified in recent weeks—but there are additional reasons why action now is so important. Look at what has changed—not just the attack in Paris, but the world has come together and agreed a UN Security Council resolution. There is a real political process underway. This could lead to a new Government in Syria, with whom we can work to defeat ISIL for good, but as I explained to the House yesterday, we cannot wait for that to be complete before we begin acting to degrade ISIL and reducing its capability to attack us.
Let us be clear about the military objectives that we are pursuing. Yes, we want to defeat the terrorists by dismantling their networks, stopping their funding, targeting their training camps and taking out those plotting terrorist attacks against the UK, but there is a broader objective. For as long as ISIL can peddle the myth of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it will be a rallying call for Islamist extremists all around the world. That makes us less safe. Just as we have reduced the scale and size of that so-called caliphate in Iraq—increasingly pushing it out of Iraq—so we need to do the same thing in Syria.
Indeed, another reason for action now is that the success in Iraq in squeezing the so-called caliphate is put at risk by our failure to act in Syria. This border is not recognised by ISIL and we seriously hamper our efforts if we stop acting when we reach the Syrian border. So when we come to the question, ‘Why now?’, we have to ask ourselves whether the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of taking action. Every day we fail to act is a day when ISIL can grow stronger and more plots can be undertaken. That is why all the advice that I have received—the military advice, the diplomatic advice and the security advice—all says yes, the risks of inaction are greater.
Some have asked specifically whether taking action could make the UK more of a target for ISIL attacks. Let me tell the House that the judgment of the director-general of the Security Service and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee is that the UK is already in the top tier of countries that ISIL is targeting. I am clear that the only way to deal with that reality is to address the threat we face and to do so now.
Let me turn to the question of legality. It is a long-standing constitutional convention that we do not publish our formal legal advice, but the document I have published today shows in some detail the clear legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria. It is founded on the right of self-defence as recognised in Article 51 of the UN charter. The right to self-defence may be exercised individually where it is necessary to the UK’s own defence and, of course, collectively in the defence of our friends and allies.
The main basis of the global coalition’s action against ISIL in Syria is the collective self-defence of Iraq. Iraq has a legitimate Government, one that we support and help. There is a solid basis of evidence on which to conclude, first, that there is a direct link between the presence and activities of ISIL in Syria and its ongoing attack on Iraq, and, secondly, that the Assad regime is unwilling and/or unable to take the action necessary to prevent ISIL’s continuing attack on Iraq—or, indeed, attacks on us. It is also clear that ISIL’s campaign against the UK and our allies has reached the level of an ‘armed attack’, such that force may lawfully be used in self-defence to prevent further atrocities being committed by ISIL.
This is further underscored by the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2249. We should be clear about what this resolution means and what it says. The whole world came together, including all five members of the Security Council, to agree this resolution unanimously. The resolution states that ISIL,
‘constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’.
It calls for member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL, and to,
‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria’.
Turning to the question of which ground forces will assist us, in Iraq the answer is clear. We have the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, the situation is more complex, but as the report I am publishing today shows, we believe there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL.
In addition, there are the Kurdish armed groups who have also shown themselves capable of taking territory, holding territory and administering it and, crucially, relieving the suffering that the civilian population had endured under ISIL control. The Syrian Kurds have successfully defended Kurdish areas in northern Syria and have retaken territory around the city of Kobane. Moderate armed Sunni Arabs have proved capable of defending territory north of Aleppo, and stopped ISIL’s attempts to capture the main humanitarian border crossing with Turkey and sweep into Idlib province. In the south of Syria, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army has consolidated its control over significant areas and has worked to prevent terrorists from operating.
The people I talked about are ground troops. They need our help; when they get it, they succeed, so we should do more to help from the air. But those who ask questions about ground troops are right to do so. The full answer cannot be achieved until there is a new Syrian Government who represent all the Syrian people: not just Sunni, Shia and Alawite, but Christian, Druze and others. It is this new Government who will be the natural partners for our forces in defeating ISIL for good. We cannot defeat ISIL simply from the air, or purely with military action alone. It requires a full political settlement. The question is: can we wait for that settlement before we take action? Again, my answer is no, we cannot.
On the question about whether this is part of an overall strategy, the answer is yes. Our approach has four pillars. First, our counterextremism strategy means we have a comprehensive plan to prevent and foil plots at home, and also to address the poisonous extremist ideology that is the root cause of the threat we face. Second is our support for the diplomatic and political process. We should be clear about this process. Many in this House rightly said how vital it is to have all the key regional players around the table, including Iran and Russia. We are now seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting down around the same table as America and Russia, as well as France, Turkey and Britain, working towards the transition to a new Government in Syria.
The third pillar is the military action I am describing to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses; it is working in Iraq, and I believe it can work in Syria.
The fourth pillar is immediate humanitarian support and longer-term stabilisation. Of course, the House has heard many times that Britain has so far given more than £1.1 billion—by far the largest commitment of any European country, and second only to the United States of America. This is helping to reduce the need for Syrians to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. The donor conference that I am hosting in February, together with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, will help further.
However, the House is rightly also asking more questions about whether there will be a proper post-conflict reconstruction effort to support a new Syrian Government when they emerge. Britain’s answer to that question is absolutely yes. I can tell the House that Britain would be prepared to contribute at least another £1 billion for this task.
All these elements—counterterrorism, political and diplomatic, military and humanitarian—need to happen together to achieve a long-term solution in Syria. We know that peace is a process, not an event. I am clear that it cannot be achieved through a military assault on ISIL alone; it also requires the removal of Assad through a political transition. But I am also clear about the sequencing that needs to take place. This is an ISIL-first strategy.
What of the end goal? The initial objective is to damage ISIL and reduce its capability to do us harm, and I believe that this can in time lead to its eradication. No one predicted its rise and we should not accept that it is somehow impossible to bring it to an end. It is not what the people of Iraq and Syria want; it does not represent the true religion of Islam; and it is losing ground in Iraq, following losses in Sinjar and Baiji.
We are not naive about the complexity of the task. It will require patience and persistence, and our work will not be complete until we have reached our true end goal, which is having Governments in both Iraq and Syria who can command the confidence of all their peoples. In Syria, that ultimately means a Government without Assad. As Ban Ki-moon has said, ‘A missile can kill a terrorist; but only good governance can kill terrorism’. This applies so clearly to both Iraq and Syria.
As we discuss all these things, people also want to know that we have learnt the lessons of previous conflicts. Whatever anyone thought of the Iraq war, terrible mistakes were made in its aftermath in dismantling the state and the institutions of that country, and we must never make those mistakes again. The political process in Syria will, in time, deliver new leadership and it is that transition we must support. We are not in the business of dismantling the Syrian state or its institutions.
In Libya, the state and its institutions had been hollowed out after 40 years of dictatorship. When the dictatorship went, the institutions rapidly collapsed. But the big difference between Libya and Syria is that in Syria this time we have firm international commitment from all the backers of a future Syrian Government around the table at the Vienna talks. The commitment is clear: to preserve and develop the state in Syria and allow a new representative Government to govern for all their people.
I have attempted to answer the main questions: why? Why now? Why us? Is it legal? What are the ground forces? Is there a strategy? What is the end point and the plan for reconstruction? But I know that this is a highly complex situation and that Members on all sides will have other questions, which I look forward to trying to answer this morning.
One will be about the confused and confusing situation in Syria with regard to Russia’s intervention. Let me reassure the House that the American-led combined air operations centre has a memorandum of understanding with the Russians. This enables daily contact and pragmatic military planning to ensure the safety of all coalition forces, and this would include our brave RAF pilots.
Another question will be about whether we are taking sides in a Sunni versus Shia conflict. This is simply not the case. Yes, ISIL is a predominantly Sunni organisation, but it is killing Shia and Sunnis alike. Our vision for the future of Syria, as with Iraq, is not a sectarian entity but one governed in the interests of all its people. So we wholeheartedly welcome the presence of states with both Sunni and Shia majorities at the Vienna talks, and their support for international action against both ISIL and towards a diplomatic solution in Syria.
The House will also want to know what we are doing about the financing of ISIL. The document sets this out. It includes intercepting smugglers, sealing borders and enforcing sanctions to stop people trading with ISIL. But, ultimately, ISIL is able to generate income through its control of territory, so while we are working with international partners to squeeze the finances wherever we can, it is the rolling back of ISIL’s territory which will ultimately cut off its finances.
Two of the most complex questions in an undoubtedly complex situation are these. First, will acting against ISIL in Syria help to bring about transition? I believe that the answer is yes, not least because there cannot be genuine transition without maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. ISIL denies this integrity. Crucially, destroying ISIL helps the moderate forces, and those moderate forces will be crucial to Syria’s future. Secondly, does our view that Assad must go help in the fight against ISIL or, as some claim, does this confuse the picture? The expert advice I have could not be clearer: we will not beat ISIL if we waiver in our view that ultimately Assad must go. We cannot win over majority Sunni opinion, which is vital for the long-term stability of Syria, if we suddenly change our position.
In the end it comes back to the one main question: should we take action? All those who say that ultimately we need a diplomatic solution and a transition to a new Government in Syria are right. Working with a new, representative Government is the way to eradicate ISIL in Syria in the long term, but can we wait for that to happen before we take military action? I say we cannot.
Let me be clear: there will not be a vote in this House unless there is a clear majority for action, because we will not hand a publicity coup to ISIL. I am clear that any Motion we bring before this House will explicitly recognise that military action is not the whole answer. Proud as I am of our incredible service men and women, I will not pretend or overstate the significance of our potential contribution. I will not understate the complexity of this issue, nor the risks that are inevitably involved in any military action, but we face a fundamental threat to our security. We cannot wait for a political transition. We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now. We must not shirk our responsibility for security or hand it to others.
Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and must, do so again. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, we are grateful to the Leader for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement, and welcome the publication of the Prime Minister’s response to the Select Committee report. Both are necessary and detailed, and cover a range of issues which all Members of your Lordships’ House will wish to consider and reflect on.
The first duty of any Government is the safety, security and well-being of their citizens. My party does not take an isolationist or non-interventionist position. We have never been reluctant to use force when it has been deemed necessary. I understand and appreciate how difficult it is when making such judgments to ensure that decisions are right and fair and that actions are justified.
Our interventions as the Labour Government in 1999 to protect Muslim Kosovar Albanians from genocide by Milosevic, and in Macedonia in 2001, were central and crucial to the protection of citizens and supporting peace. We used military action in Sierra Leone to bring order and stability, and we still have British citizens there playing a central role in building and maintaining that stability. We have also provided military support in times of humanitarian crisis; for example, fighting Ebola in West Africa.
Your Lordships’ House, Parliament as a whole and, indeed, the general public are convinced of the evil and brutality of ISIL. They are very aware of and well informed of the atrocities. Paris brought it so close to home: not only is ISIL willing to cause death, terror and mayhem—and apparently rejoicing in that—but it has the capacity to do so. If anyone doubts that such attacks will continue, they have only to look at the videos and messages posted online as recently as last night: they are chilling, they are frightening and they must increase our determination to protect our citizens.
Our efforts must focus on a comprehensive strategy to tackle not just the actions of ISIL but the environment which encourages such views to develop, and we have to support the overwhelming majority of Muslims here in the UK who themselves challenge and reject such a violent interpretation of their religion and culture. That is why any strategy to defeat ISIL has to be so much more than military action alone.
As we know, the UK is already engaged militarily, providing intelligence and logistical support to our allies in Syria who are engaged in flying missions. We are directly involved in targeted military bombing in Iraq, and we must judge any proposed extension of UK involvement against the wider support it can gain, against the contribution it will make to the chances of success and against the additional capacity it will create. Proposals that are brought forward must also be judged against how they can contribute to the future transition to peace and stability and to the protection and security of our citizens in the UK.
There are also broader issues. There is not just a war to be won; there is also a peace to be won. The issues raised by the Foreign Affairs Committee focus on extending military operations, and the committee identified seven challenges to the Government that should be addressed before the Prime Minister asks the House of Commons to consider this matter and vote. When the report was published a month ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee was not convinced that the Government would be able to provide convincing answers to the points raised. Of course, we will all want to consider with care the Prime Minister’s answers and the committee’s response.
The conflict in the region is not straightforward. Indeed, as the noble Baroness said, it is highly complex. The civil war in Syria has meant not just the physical collapse of a country but the absolute collapse of society. The skills of, and commitment to peace by, those who have been forced to leave their homeland and become refugees will be needed to build the future. So when the extension of air strikes on strategic targets in Syria is considered, it must be as part of a political, diplomatic, humanitarian and economic strategy. We will seek reassurances that the Government fully understand that, and that they will be engaged in and committed to working closely with countries across the region towards the reconstruction and a peace process. The Vienna talks are vital. Whatever the difficulties, that framework and the bringing together of so many countries provides some movement towards political and diplomatic progress.
I have a few questions for the noble Baroness that I hope she will be able to address. Can she say whether any assessment has been made of the direct threat to British citizens from ISIL here in the UK? Can she be clear about the additional capacity that British participation would bring militarily, given the support that is already being provided? Has any assessment been made of the impact of UK involvement on the success of the objectives of military engagement? Can she also say whether the service Chiefs of Staff have been able to participate directly in the decision-making process by providing expert strategic advice? The noble Baroness will understand the concerns about any possible unintended consequences of increased military action, particularly civilian casualties. Therefore, can she also say something about the impact of military action in terms of civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of UK action?
The Government’s response says that,
“a political solution to the Syria conflict”,
is “finally a realistic prospect” following the establishment of the International Syria Support Group and the Vienna talks. This is going to be a difficult process. The government response rightly states that this issue must not be reduced to a choice between Assad on the one side and ISIL on the other. In repeating the Statement, the noble Baroness was clear about the Government’s opposition to Assad. Can she say something more about the longer-term future of Assad and about how the British Government can achieve our objectives, given the atrocities for which Assad and his Government are responsible? I know where the Government stand on this but I am thinking particularly of how we think we can achieve the objective of removing Assad. Finally, can she say something further about the legal basis for military action following the United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 November?
Today’s Statement will obviously be considered carefully over the coming days before the Prime Minister brings any Motion before the other place. These are not issues on which your Lordships’ House has a vote, but I hope that—and put it to the noble Baroness that—given the military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian experience and wisdom in this House, we will have an opportunity for an early debate in addition to the scheduled debate she referred to. I urge the Prime Minister to consult those in this House whose expertise will be of great value.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition in thanking the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement, and thank her also for early sight of the Prime Minister’s response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
From these Benches we unequivocally condemn atrocities perpetrated by ISIL, be they in Paris, Ankara, Sharm el-Sheikh, Tunisia or Beirut, or indeed the day-in, day-out victimisation of people in the Middle East. We have also recognised that in defeating an enemy like ISIL the use of military force will be necessary, and indeed we have supported air strikes in Iraq. But the use of lethal force should never be used simply as a gesture—not even a symbolic gesture. It has to have effect. And to have effect, it must surely be part of a wider strategy, not least on the diplomatic front. So the challenge is not whether the Government have made a case to justify bombing but whether they have a strategy to bring stability to the region and lay the foundations for a peaceful future for Syria.
We have consistently called for a diplomatic effort to put together a wider coalition, including others who have an interest in the defeat of jihadism, notably Russia and Iran. While it is understandable, it is not right either to have a knee-jerk reaction to engage in air strikes in Syria or to avoid being involved in another conflict in the Middle East at all costs. Given the gravity of the question that we are being asked, we will look carefully at the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and take a considered response.
In doing so, we will apply five tests to what the Prime Minister has said. First, is military intervention legal? In fairness, the response that we have had today is reassuring on that point. Secondly, is there a wider diplomatic framework, including efforts towards a no-bomb zone to protect civilians? Thirdly, will the UK lead a concerted international effort to stop the funding of jihadi groups within the region? Fourthly, is there a post-ISIL plan for Syria and Iraq? Fifthly, what is the Government’s plan domestically? I would be grateful if the Leader of the House could provide the House with further details. What is the Government’s plan for post-conflict reconstruction, especially in terms of the vacuum that would inevitably be created in an immediate post-ISIL Syria? What discussions are the Government having with Turkey about its contribution to the fight against ISIL? Can we be assured that we fully share each other’s objectives?
The document before us helpfully discusses the precision with which on a number of occasions our own military capabilities can add to the current actions. However, as we have seen from recent TV reports, some of those already engaged in the region do not act with the same kind of restraint and precision as we can and would. So if we were to become engaged in military action, what responsibility would we have for the actions of other members of the coalition? Perhaps more importantly, what influence could we bring to bear on other members of the coalition with regard to the restraint and precision with which they would take action?
What pressure is being put on our coalition partners in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to rejoin the air strikes, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown asked at Questions? They appear not to have been involved in them for some months. What are the Government doing to ensure that they play their part? I am sure that we agree that ISIL would like nothing better than to be able to frame a narrative that the conflict was one between the crusading West and them as defenders of Islam. We must give the lie to that, and that requires the evident and active involvement of coalition partners from the region itself.
Further, what efforts are being made to stop the funding and supply of resources to ISIL? Do the Government have confidence that some of our coalition partners are doing enough within their own countries to stop the funding of ISIL and other extremist groups? The strategy before us does not seem to address that question. What further steps do the Government intend to take into investigating foreign funding and support of extremist and terrorist groups at home in the United Kingdom?
It is disappointing that the document says nothing about trying to have a no-bomb zone, which would help the refugee and humanitarian situation in the region and beyond. Humanitarian aid alone, while important, cannot stop the flows of people, and there is huge pressure on Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which cannot maintain the numbers in refugee camps within their borders.
Finally, since we cannot separate the domestic and international aspects of the fight against ISIL, will the Leader of the House tell us what steps the Government are taking or intend to take to ensure that, in the event of action, the British Muslim population fully understand and are supportive of the actions that the Government propose?
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for their comments. As the Statement and their contributions have reflected, we all understand that this is a very serious matter and are dealing with it in a very careful, measured and constructive way. I am grateful for their contributions in that regard. In responding to the points that have been raised, I would say in the first instance that the Prime Minister has replied personally to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report this morning. It is a comprehensive reply. I recognise that noble Lords will not yet have had an opportunity to study that document properly, but the Prime Minister intends it to be one for all parliamentarians to reflect on and consider. I think that the House will see answers in that document to many of the questions raised by the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord this morning.
The noble Baroness asked directly about having a debate in this House, should the Prime Minister decide that he wanted to bring the question to the House of Commons. Clearly, I would want to ensure that we schedule a debate in this House and would expect, in discussion with my noble friend the Chief Whip, us to follow a similar arrangement to that in previous years. We would have a debate in this House at the same time, or on the same day, that the House of Commons was debating this matter. As noble Lords will know, this House is not invited to divide on such a matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, both asked about the legal basis of the proposed action outlined in the Statement. The Statement was clear that we have the ability, through the respective existing UN charters, to take action on the basis of self-defence—both in our own self-defence and collective self-defence of Iraq. But the comprehensive UN resolution passed last week, which urged all countries to take the necessary action to defeat ISIL, gives further resounding support for that action.
The noble Baroness asked for more information about the direct threat to UK citizens from ISIL and what assessment there has been of that threat. I would point out to her that, as she knows, there has been an attack on British tourists recently. There has also been evidence of imminent attacks in the UK, which our security services have been successful in thwarting. The noble Baroness will recall that, only in September, I came to the House and repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement when we took action on one of the British terrorists who was based in Syria. We had clear evidence that an attack was imminent on UK territory, which was why we took that action.
The noble Baroness asked what additional contribution the UK would make to the effort in Syria. Clearly, we have equipment which is not available to other coalition partners. This equipment is not just in addition to what they have available but brings an extra degree of precision and accuracy to targeting. That is why the coalition partners are very keen that we join their action in Syria. She also asked what the chance of success was. I believe absolutely that there is evidence of success. So far, what has been happening in Syria is that the coalition partners have been able, with their air support, to give the cover necessary to the moderate opposition fighters who are against Assad to regain territory. We think that, with greater effort, they will make more progress. Indeed, we have to help them make progress, because we need to achieve stability in Syria so that the country has a chance of a Government who will govern for all its people.
The noble Baroness asked whether the military chiefs had been consulted and involved. Of course, the Chief of the Defence Staff, the Chief of the Air Staff and many other key military figures have been properly consulted in the process of putting together the Government’s strategy. She asked about civilian casualties in Iraq. So far, in more than a year of strikes against ISIL targets in Iraq, there have been no reports of civilian casualties resulting from UK air operations. As I have already said, the equipment that we have available to us is a very important part of ensuring that we minimise civilian casualties. She asked about the long-term future of Assad and how we will achieve stability in Syria with a new Government who govern for all their people. This is part of our strategy. The diplomatic and political effort has restarted, via the talks in Vienna that the Foreign Secretary attended recently and through all the various different diplomatic channels. We are supporting the UN envoy, who is pursuing the same agenda. There is a concerted effort, and now more than ever, post the UN resolution on Friday, there is the will among all countries to see stability in the region. It is clearly recognised that that will mean a Government who can govern for all Syria’s people.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, asked about discussions with Turkey and their objectives. Turkey is very much part of the international diplomatic effort and was part of the recent talks in Vienna. He asked also about the clarity and precision of other partners and what influence we could bring to bear to ensure that they, too, approach this objective in the same way that we do. This is about working together in a coalition partnership to defeat ISIL and recognising that we must achieve that aim with minimum civilian casualties. As he knows, and as the Prime Minister said in this Statement, Russia has been targeting the moderate opposition to Assad rather than ISIL. We see signs now of it shifting its approach and recognising that it, too, is under threat of attack from ISIL. As the PM said not so long ago, the gap between us and Russia as far as Assad is concerned remains but is growing narrower all the time.
As for the neighbouring countries among our coalition partners rejoining air strikes and playing their part, one of the benefits of the recent United Nations resolution which all countries signed up to and the restarting of diplomatic and political talks is that that will bring much more effort and influence to ensuring that all the neighbouring countries play their part. However, it is worth saying that they are already playing an active part and contributing extensively. Some of those neighbouring countries are providing a huge amount of support just by giving a place of refuge to all the people who are being attacked and fleeing both ISIL and Assad.
The noble and learned Lord asked about the funding and supply of terrorist groups. We were cosignatories to the resolution that the funding of terrorist groups had to stop. We continue to apply pressure on that and are very much behind the sanctions regime that is in place to apply if there is any evidence of that objective being thwarted.
Overall, both the noble and learned Lord and the noble Baroness raised some very important questions. I hope that I have been able, through both repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement and publishing his reply to the Foreign Affairs Committee today, to provide comprehensive answers to all those points. I hope that the House will take the time to consider and reflect on those documents in the next few days.
Are the Russians showing any willingness to become involved in aircraft co-ordination over Syria?
Yes, there is co-ordination in place.
I thank the Leader of the House for the repetition of the Statement, and particularly the publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee report, and welcome the seriousness of the emphasis in both the Statement and the report on a comprehensive approach—the seriousness of military action but also the integration of soft and hard power, support for jobs, education, family and community life and stability, and of communities flourishing in the neighbouring countries, which comes out very strongly. The test will obviously be the total mobilisation of effort in a focused way that recognises the long-term needs of security for indigenous populations, particularly the Christian populations, which are being harried out of the area.
For the first time in almost 300 years, we are facing a conflict that has a distinct theological and religious element which we have not faced before. Recent studies—there is a particularly authoritative one in which I should declare an interest because it was partly written by one of my children, who is interested in the subject—demonstrate the theological basis of the extremist groups behind jihadist thinking. Do the Government realise that, in facing this conflict, there must be an ideological response that is not only national in dealing with the threat of extremism here, but global in challenging the doctrines that draw so many people to support ISIS internationally? What steps are they proposing to take to put together the conflict at the ideological and theological level, as well as the humanitarian and military levels?
The most reverend Primate raises an important point about ideology being an important element to us combating Islamist extremism. The Statement gives an indication of the comprehensive way in which we are approaching combating this huge threat.
On the specifics of the ideological approach, here in the UK, we have the extremism strategy, which is directed at addressing the risks associated with people here, but internationally we are doing quite a lot, taking the lead to address matters within the internet industry. We have a very effective approach on that. At a conference only about a week ago in Qatar, the UK was seen very much as a leader in bringing together all the respective players on that issue. The UK is hosting the coalition communications cell, which is an effort to address the communications aspects and drive a new narrative counter to that coming out of ISIL, and is a better way for people to understand the alternative to what it is proposing.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement the Leader repeated and the additional capabilities that she explained the UK will be able to employ against ISIL in Syria. However, would she agree that the worst possible argument for inaction is that other people are already doing plenty of things? It is one thing to believe that military action is counterproductive; but to believe that it is necessary for our own security, and then to suggest that we should not employ that military capability because others already are is not only wrong but shameful. The noble Baroness talked about precision weapons. Those go where they are pointed, but they must be pointed at the right thing at the right time. Could she assure the House that, should military action be taken against ISIL in Syria, the necessary specialist personnel will be deployed on the ground to make sure that those weapons are used properly and to best effect?
I could not agree more with the noble and gallant Lord on his point about us not doing anything because others are. We cannot shirk our responsibility here. We are under threat; we see this ISIL force as a direct threat to our own way of life. How can we possibly hand over responsibility for that to other people? We do not think we should do that whatsoever. On weapons, the noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right: clearly, they need to be directed at the right targets. On the ground force issue, we are clear that this is not for UK ground forces; it is for the ground forces currently operating in Syria. We want to support them. We see that as a key difference and a lesson we have learnt from recent military interventions.
My Lords, it cannot make sense to prevent the RAF from taking out targets on the Syrian side of the border that it can identify or from playing a full part in the coalition. I thoroughly support the Government in seeking to remove that anomaly now. Can we have an assurance that the intention is to improve our effectiveness against Daesh and not to pursue the Government’s vendetta against Bashar al-Assad? It cannot make the slightest sense while we are engaged in an involuntary and unavoidable war against Daesh—which of course we must win—to fight on the same territory another entirely voluntary war against one party in the Syrian civil war. The Government’s prediction that the Bashar al-Assad regime was about to collapse—made consistently for three years now, and which I assume was part of the basis of their policy—has proven completely wrong. I spent last weekend in Damascus and was very struck by both the health of the economy and the resolve and morale of the regime. I fear that the Government up till now have been very misconceived in their double approach, and hope that they will now be able to concentrate on the real enemy: Daesh.
As I made clear in the Statement, this is about ISIL first. Militarily, we propose to take action in Syria alongside the action already being taken in Iraq because we cannot stop at a border that our enemy does not recognise. At the same time, we must also achieve a political settlement in Syria that will provide for stable government in future and in which al-Assad will not be able to play a part, because he will not provide the stability that is the long-term solution for eradicating ISIL.
My Lords, I thank the Leader for what is, I am sure the House will recognise, by any standards a very substantive Statement, and particularly for her understanding that it will take a little time for us to digest and study this. I am grateful for both those things. The new element here is the UN Security Council resolution, which seems, as my noble and learned friend said, to provide a pretty clear case for legality. Secondly, there is the diplomatic track at last being followed—not before time, some might imagine.
May I test the Leader a little on the ambitions of the Vienna talks by drawing a parallel? The Dayton agreement that stopped what was a terrible sectarian war was an international treaty drawn up to include neighbours across the religious divide and underpinned by the great powers in guarantor fashion. It provided a framework for military action and for the peace that followed. Is that the model the Government have in mind for Vienna? If it is, then I strongly support that.
The Dayton agreement produced a very messy outcome, and whatever outcome, whatever peace we achieve in Syria—God help us, I hope we do—will be even messier. This will not be a comfortable peace; it will be a fractured peace and the very best we will be able to say of it is that, fractured, uncertain and unsatisfying as it is, it is better than continuing this terrible war. If that is the case, that is good enough for me.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. I can tell him and other noble Lords that there are clearly differences between some of those involved in the Vienna talks—I mentioned that Russia is involved and there are some differences between us—but on 14 November they agreed a timeframe for political negotiations to begin by the end of the year, for a transitional government to be in place within six months and for a new constitution and free and fair elections within 18 months. The key thing everybody is signed up to is that a Government in Syria—like a Government in Iraq or, indeed, anywhere—must govern for all the people and provide the stability that is necessary for all those who live there.
May I tell my noble friend how impressed I am by the approach the Government have taken in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report? The thoroughness is, I have to say, in stark contrast to the previous occasion, at the time of the chemical weapons concerns, when bombing was suggested. Then, we were to debate the issue on Thursday and bomb on Friday. I have listened to the exchanges in the Commons, and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, speaking in a personal capacity, has indicated that he believes the Government have answered the questions that the committee very sensibly asked.
There is one weakness in the Government’s position, which is inevitable. Arguments are centring on the existence and substantial nature of the ground troops, but the reality is that we have to deal with where we are. The hope is that if there is an effective air campaign, co-ordinated with the existing total allied commitment, we may see rather more troops appearing on the ground than are presently willing to show themselves.
Any of us who have had any dealings with tackling the challenges of terrorism know that at the back of it all is money. What I welcome in the allies’ recent efforts is the attack on the oil supplies—the source of income. There is no doubt that ISIL has been very well funded up to now. Resources; weapons production; weapons support, enabling its people to travel round and cause terrorist outrages in various places—all that takes money. I welcome the mention in the Statement of the steps now being taken, particularly accurate targeting in the air campaign, to tackle the economic forces that are keeping ISIL alive. I support that very much.
I am grateful to my noble friend for providing us with an update on how the Statement is being welcomed in the other place. We estimate that there is a ground force of about 70,000 troops in Syria who are fighting ISIL, and who would make up a moderate opposition to Assad. These troops are having some success. They have regained territory, and where they have done so they are able to administer those areas. We are already providing non-military support, trying to maintain the civic society in Syria which is so important to long-term stability. My noble friend is absolutely right about the attacks on the economic resources that ISIL relies on—that is where we have to continue to focus a lot of our energy.
I note that the Statement says that diplomatic advice has been received that inaction is more dangerous than action, but how much action is taking place now in this very dangerous situation with other actors in the Syrian field? How much diplomatic contact do we have day-to-day with the Russians, the Iranians and, most particularly—and I am afraid the answer to this must be none—the Syrian Government? After all, it is their territory on which we are talking about military action.
I have two other quick questions. What diplomatic efforts are we or our American allies making to persuade the Saudi Government to withhold any further financial or material support from their allies in ISIS? And do we seriously still regard the so-called Syrian Free Army as a credible replacement for the secular Syrian regime in Damascus? I think we should all be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, for having given us a very rare picture of what life is like in Damascus now.
On the noble Lord’s first point about financial support for the terrorists, I can be absolutely clear that we are very clear in our requests to our partners to withhold any kind of financial support from terrorist groups. The reason why I can be clear and confident with him is that we now have in place resolutions that prevent this happening—and there is no evidence of this coming from Governments, from partners. We are urging our partners, the neighbouring countries in the area, to apply their efforts to make sure that individuals in those countries do not provide financial support to terrorist groups.
The Free Syrian Army is being effective on the ground. We believe that it will continue to increase its effectiveness with greater support from the air.
My Lords, the Statement says that we are now seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting down at the same table as Russia, America, France, Turkey and Britain. These are not easy bedfellows. Many of these different parts of the coalition have long-standing, real, substantive difficulties with each other. Page 8 of the Statement says that the full answer cannot be achieved until there is a new Syrian Government that represents all the Syrian people, not just Sunnis, Shias and Alawites, but Christians and Druze, but how much is that fundamental point made in the Statement accepted by all the people sitting around the table? That is a crucial point not just in going into a conflict but in coming out of it, as the Statement makes clear later. I think we all agree that the aftermath in Iraq saw the appalling dismantling of the institutions. That has to be agreed, and understandings have to be reached before any real fighting gets under way in the way that the Statement anticipates.
We are very clear that a stable Government in Syria is an essential part of the long-term eradication of ISIL. Ensuring that is at the heart of the talks in Vienna. The Statement says that there are some differences, which Prime Minister has acknowledged. We are working to achieve full and clear agreement on that—and that is what we will pursue, because we know it is essential to long-term success.
Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government have made RAF Akrotiri available to the French air force? If we have, are we not to all intents and purposes already involved in the military campaign?
We have certainly offered RAF Akrotiri to the French Government. I am afraid that I do not have any information beyond that, but I will see if I can provide anything further to the noble Lord in writing.
As one of the 16 Members of Parliament who voted against the Iraq war and defied a three-line Whip, I point out to my noble friend that this situation is wholly different from that very foolish occurrence. In this situation we ought to support our allies, and to accept that we are involved and that our people are in fact threatened. The Prime Minister’s Statement should gain the support of all of us.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for his comments, particularly because of the remarks he prefaced them with about his views on the war in Iraq.
My Lords, may I nudge my noble friend very gently on this issue of the position of Assad, which has come up in many comments this morning? Up to this point, the British Government have been absolutely clear that this is black and white and that they will not under any circumstances talk to Assad. Yet in this search for peace and stability in Syria, diplomatic solutions occasionally require us to get our hands dirty. I listened very carefully to the Statement this morning, which said that we are,
“working towards the transition to a new government in Syria”,
“ultimately Assad must go”.
That sounded to me as if we were being rather more flexible on the matter of talking with Assad. If that is the case, I suggest to my noble friend that many of us would welcome that flexibility.
My Lords, I must be absolutely clear that ultimately, Assad cannot be a part of Syria’s future, because the Syrian people will never accept his rule. That is at the heart of this. When we talk about good governance—a theme I have returned to, having repeated a couple of Statements recently—we are saying that the people who run that Government have to command the confidence of the people within that country. The Syrian people cannot accept Assad as part of their future. However, we are flexible about how political transition would work. We are certainly discussing that, and ultimately it is for the Syrian people to decide. But Assad cannot be part of the future.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s very clear Statement of their policy towards Syria and endorse in particular what one might call the evolution of their attitude towards the Government in Damascus. Here I endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies. We underestimate the strength and stability of the regime in Damascus. More importantly, will the Minister assure us that while seeking a regime more widely acceptable in Damascus, we will above all avoid a collapse of authority in central Syria? The only result of that would be not just chaos but the most appalling bloodshed, and it must be avoided.
My Lords, to be clear, we are proposing military action to attack ISIL. However, we are saying that Assad cannot be part of the future of Syria, because for us ultimately to eradicate ISIL we will have to see a different regime in Syria. I say to the noble Lord, and partly in response to my noble friend Lord Dobbs, that Assad has been barbaric to his own people; he has used chemical weapons on his own people. That is why he cannot be part of a future, because there has to be a stability if we are to see a future that is safe for all of us, wherever we live in the world.
My Lords, the Prime Minister quoted in his Statement the words of Ban Ki-moon— that a missile can kill a terrorist but it takes good governance to win the battle. I suggest that good governance involves winning the battle for hearts and minds. What worries me about bombing without substantial demonstrations of support on the ground and without active military support on the ground is that it has an ugly tendency to play into the hands of the extremists, who can exploit it. It therefore seems to me very important if we are to go ahead—I am not against going ahead but I am very much in favour of going ahead from the strongest possible position—that we get very substantial, specific assurances from sufficient people with authority on the ground that they will provide the military support that is necessary.
My Lords, the extremists are already attacking us. That is why doing nothing is not an option. We are already in this country a target for ISIL. We know we are because we have been able to avoid at least seven attempts to launch a direct terrorist attack here in the UK. The noble Lord asks about the ground troops that are already in place in Syria. At the moment, they are starting to make progress in defeating ISIL. We have to be in there too because, together, we will be able to achieve the success that we need to achieve.
My Lords, if the ground forces to which the Leader has referred were defeated or looked as though they were losing, would the British Government send in ground troops to make sure that they did not lose?
I have been clear that our proposal is about providing air support to existing ground forces. We are doing it this way because we think this is one of the key lessons that we learned from previous military interventions over the last decade or so. So no, this is about local ground forces that are already there.
My Lords, I thought that the Prime Minister was making an absolutely clear distinction between military action against ISIS and the desire that the Government have to see the end of Assad. But as the Statement progressed, I felt that there was more and more confusion between the two. I was particularly concerned when my noble friend, in answer to a question from the Opposition Front Bench, said that we have to help the anti-Assad forces to make progress. Can she reassure me that in no circumstances will British military action be taken to help the anti-Assad forces make progress against Assad?
Forgive me if I was not clear, but the point I was trying to make is that the moderate opposition forces are the forces that are also fighting ISIL. They are fighting two fronts. When I say that, the point I am trying to make is that these are people who are in opposition to Assad. They are not his people; they are the moderates. They are the people who he has been trying to attack; he does not want them there because they are a threat to him continuing. ISIL is also attacking the moderates. The moderates are under attack on all fronts, but they are the only forces on the ground that are actively attacking ISIL.
My Lords, the quarrel with ISIL is different from the quarrel with Assad. I agree with my noble friend when he says that the two must be kept separate in the minds of those planning what is to happen. Those of us of a certain age remember when large western and British forces were advancing east across Germany to meet large military forces from Russia advancing west. We remember the tensions that evolved then, the ruin of that state and the need to replace it with something that worked. I suggest that, as a contingency plan, some department of the Government should be looking at what actually happened and how that difficulty was resolved.
Clearly, there are always lessons to be learned from history. However, what I have outlined today is a clear and comprehensive strategy and approach that the Government want to pursue to ultimately defeat ISIL and bring stability to the region, for all the reasons that I have already outlined.
My Lords, I make one final further attempt for a greater degree of clarification in response to the noble Lord’s question about any potential use of British military forces, their targeting and the rules of engagement that they may well operate under. Can the Leader of the House be quite clear on whether they will rule out British military forces being used to target Assad-regime assets?
Our plan is to target ISIL. This is a strategy to target ISIL and that is what we are going to do. This is not about military action against Assad; it is about military action against ISIL. ISIL is our target and that is who we are going to go after.