My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement to update the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Two weeks ago, this House voted to support the extension of UK air strikes against Daesh in Iraq into Daesh’s heartland in Syria. As the Prime Minister and I set out during the debate, this extension of military strikes is just one part of our strategy to bring stability to Syria and Iraq by defeating Daesh, working towards a political transition in Syria and supporting humanitarian efforts in the region. It has been welcomed by our international partners, including the United States and France, and other partners in Europe and the Gulf. During the debate, we committed to update the House quarterly on the progress of our strategy. However, given the high level of interest among honourable Members expressed during the debate and elsewhere, I decided to offer an early, first update before the House rises this week.
I turn first to the military strand of our strategy. The first RAF air strikes against Daesh in Syria, conducted just a few hours after the vote in this House, successfully targeted oil facilities in eastern Syria, which provide an important source of illicit income to Daesh. Since then, RAF aircraft have conducted further strikes against Daesh in Syria, targeting wellheads in the extensive Omar oilfield; as well as conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions. To enable this tempo of activity, a further two RAF Tornados and six Typhoons have been deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, bringing the total number of manned aircraft conducting strikes from Akrotiri to 16, in addition to our RAF Reaper unmanned aircraft also deployed in the region.
During the debate on 2 December, a number of honourable and right honourable Members expressed concern about the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from British military action. Of course, there is risk involved in any strike, but I am pleased to inform the House that it continues to be the case that we have had no reports of civilian casualties as a result of UK air strikes in either Iraq or Syria. I pay tribute to the precision and professionalism of our RAF pilots in conducting these operations.
In Iraq, government forces continue to make progress against Daesh. Since the coalition launched operations in Iraq in autumn 2014, the strategically significant towns of Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar have all been retaken. Ramadi is now surrounded by Iraqi forces supported by US mentors and its Daesh occupiers are being steadily squeezed, including by RAF close air support. Importantly, work is well advanced in building a Sunni local police force, supported by local tribal forces, to hold and police the city once it is liberated. In total, RAF Tornados and Reaper drones have flown more than 1,600 missions over Iraq, conducting more than 400 strikes.
In Syria, the situation is more complicated. The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces, rather than Daesh. In the last two weeks, the Russians have attacked opposition forces between Homs and Aleppo and in the far north of Syria, allowing Daesh to seek advantage on the ground. With our coalition partners, including the United States, we will continue to urge Russia to focus its fire solely on Daesh. It is unacceptable that Russian action is weakening the opposition and thus giving advantage to Daesh forces.
I turn now to the campaign to disrupt Daesh’s finances and stop the flow of foreign fighters. As well as targeting oil assets, which experts estimate account for some 40% of Daesh’s revenues, my right honourable friend the Chancellor will tomorrow attend the first ever meeting of finance Ministers at the Security Council in New York to agree a further strengthening of the UN’s sanctions regime against Daesh. It is also crucial, of course, that countries strictly enforce sanctions with investigations and prosecutions, and to ensure that we have our own house in order, we have begun the review ordered by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister into the funding of Islamist extremist activity in the UK. It will report to the Prime Minister in the spring.
We continue to work with Turkey and others to build an increasingly sophisticated network to interdict foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria. Alongside money, Daesh relies heavily on propaganda to attract financial support and new recruits, and so we have stepped up our effort to counter its messaging. The UK has created the Coalition Strategy Communications Cell, which is working to combat and undermine the Daesh ‘brand’, ensuring that no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. The coalition cell will generate a full range of communications at a pace and scale necessary to highlight Daesh’s cruel and inhumane treatment of individuals under its control, its failures on the battlefield and its perversion of Islam. The cell has already received staffing and financial contributions from coalition partners, while others have expressed strong support and an intention to contribute.
At the heart of our comprehensive strategy is a recognition that to defeat Daesh in its heartland, we need a political track to bring an end to the civil war and to have in place a transitional Government in Syria. The world can then once again support a legitimate Syrian Government so that the Syrian army, Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish forces can concentrate their efforts against Daesh, liberating their own country from this evil organisation. Diplomatic efforts to deliver a negotiated end to the civil war and a transitional government are continuing apace. The International Syria Support Group, bringing together all the major international players, has agreed the need for a ceasefire, humanitarian access, and an end to attacks on civilians. In its communiqué of 14 November, the ISSG set out its goals: a transitional Government within six months, a new constitution, and new internationally supervised elections within 18 months. A further meeting of the support group is expected to take place in New York this coming Friday, which I shall attend.
In preparation for that meeting, on Monday I met the Foreign Ministers of like-minded members of the ISSG in Paris, including the US, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Separately, in Riyadh last week, Saudi Arabia brought together well over 100 representatives from a wide range of Syrian opposition groups to agree an opposition negotiating commission and a negotiating policy statement ahead of talks between the opposition and the regime, convened by the UN, which we hope will begin in January. The conference committed to Syria’s territorial integrity, to the continuity of the Syrian state, and to negotiations under the framework of the Geneva communiqué. They also committed themselves to a,
‘democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system, representing all spectrums of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian, or ethnic basis, and based on the principles of citizenship, human rights, transparency, and accountability, and the rule of law over everyone’.
I congratulate Saudi Arabia on this achievement and welcome the outcome. The UK will provide its full support to intra-Syrian negotiations.
In Iraq, we continue to support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver the reform and reconciliation needed to unite all Iraq’s communities in the fight against Daesh. I also welcome the recent announcement of the formation of an Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism, bringing together 34 Muslim countries to partner with the rest of the international community. I have discussed this initiative in detail with my Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Its clear intention is to create a coalition which is flexible, contributing on a case-by-case basis, and defending moderate Islam from the forces of extremism.
Finally, I turn to the need for continued humanitarian support and post-conflict stabilisation in both Syria and Iraq. As the Prime Minister outlined to the House a fortnight ago, the end of the civil war in Syria and the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria will present the international community with an enormous and urgent stabilisation challenge. Building on our humanitarian support for the Syria crisis, to which we remain the second largest bilateral donor, we have committed a minimum of £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction in the long term. In February, the Prime Minister will host, along with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, an international conference here in London that will focus on meeting the UN 2016 appeal to support refugees from the civil war as well as longer-term financial commitments for Syria and its neighbours.
Since the House took the decision two weeks ago to extend our military effort into Syria, the Government have taken forward with our coalition partners a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately to defeat Daesh. We are making steady progress in both Iraq and Syria. We are targeting its finances through military action and through action with our international partners. We are disrupting the flow of foreign fighters. We are fighting its ideology and propaganda. We are a leading player in the diplomatic effort to deliver a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war, and we are preparing for the day after that settlement and the defeat of Daesh so that we can ensure the long-term future stability and security of Iraq and Syria. The fight against Daesh will not be won overnight, but however long it takes, it is in our vital national interest to defeat this terrorist organisation and the direct threat it poses to our security. Failure is not an option”.
My Lords, I commend the Statement to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in the other place and I apologise for the absence of my noble friends Lady Morgan of Ely and Lord Collins of Highbury. Both are unable to be in the House this evening.
The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe stemming from the civil war in Syria is almost too great to comprehend. The death toll is well over 250,000. Millions of men, women and children will spend this Christmas living in tents in Lebanon and Turkey, across Europe in Greece and Serbia, and just 20 miles from our own shores in Calais. Even after all the brutality we have seen over the past four years, the situation continues to deteriorate. This week there were reports that ISIL will murder children who have Down’s syndrome. My late wife was a Mencap volunteer who worked with Down’s syndrome youngsters, so I am sickened by these reports. For too long the international community failed the people of Syria and we must now do everything we can to address the situation.
British military action is focused on ISIL’s economic infrastructure, particularly oil. During the Syria debate, I urged the Government to target ISIL’s wealth-creating, oil-exporting capability, and I am pleased that this was the first target of our air strikes. Can the Minister tell us what assessment has been made of the degree of success of our operations in destroying that oil-exporting capacity? Most welcome in the Statement is the report that there have been no civilian casualties. God knows, the people of Syria have suffered enough. But there will be civilians working and living in and around the oil facilities we are targeting. What steps are being taken before a strike to minimise civilian casualties, and then after a strike has occurred, to ensure that any possible civilian casualties can be investigated?
I shall return to the question of ISIL’s wealth and its ability to fund its evil activities. In the Syria debate, I asked what steps we are taking to cut off the flow of money earned from investments worldwide which are controlled by ISIL. I note from the Statement that Finance Ministers are to meet in New York and that it will be attended by our Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will the Minister say whether we are doing anything here, bearing in mind that London is the world’s premier financial centre?
Many noble Lords have expressed doubts about the Prime Minister’s statement that there was a force 70,000-strong of moderates who would engage in the ground war against ISIL. What progress have the Government made in identifying and co-ordinating with such forces? More, will the Minister say whether we are undertaking operations to help alleviate the pressure on the Kurdish Peshmerga forces operating in Syria? We certainly share the Government’s view that military action can only ever be part of a package of measures needed to defeat ISIL and end the Syrian civil war. Britain’s overriding priority has to be supporting a diplomatic agreement which unites the elements opposed to ISIL within Syria and paves the way for the departure of Assad. The first step to this is an agreement between the Sunni factions opposed to both Assad and ISIL. I note the progress towards this achieved in Riyadh.
There has been a lot of speculation about these talks so will the Minister say how the groups were invited to attend these talks? Did Britain make representations to the Saudis as to who should be invited? In particular, were key Kurdish groups, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Democratic Union Party, present at the talks? It has been said that the Salafist group, Ahrar al-Sham, pulled out of the talks and were opposed to any peace talks with Assad. However, it was later reported that it had signed the agreement. Can the noble Baroness shed any light on this? This group has an estimated 20,000 fighters. Did this form part of the 70,000 figure the Government previously said would be moderate forces opposed to Assad and ISIL?
The key test for the Riyadh agreement will be whether it facilitates meaningful peace talks and a ceasefire, as outlined at the second Vienna conference. Will the Minister confirm whether, following the Riyadh agreement, the Syrian opposition will have a common position and a single representative at these talks or whether there will be distinct, separate factions represented?
The original timetable was for a possible cessation of hostilities to coincide with the start of peace talks on 1 January. Do the Government still think that this is achievable? Was there a clear commitment to this timetable from the parties present at the Syria talks in Paris on Monday? Following the Paris talks, will the Minister confirm whether further talks of regional and international powers will take place in New York this week? If these talks clash with the EU summit, who will represent Britain?
With so many different parties to the Syrian civil war, maintaining a ceasefire will be extremely difficult and complex, which I think we all appreciate. But have the Government explored the possibility of a UN resolution reinforcing the outline agreement, including the ceasefire, agreed at the second Vienna conference? Can the Minister confirm whether Britain will seek a UN resolution to support any agreement reached between Syrian opposition forces and Assad?
Finally, many nations have responded to the Syrian refugee crisis. In Lebanon, nearly one in four of the population is a recent refugee from Syria. Jordan is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees. Around 340,000 refugees have been resettled in Germany. This week, we saw Canada welcoming the first of 35,000 refugees who will be resettled there by next October. On this side, we certainly welcome the news today that the 1,000 refugees the Prime Minister promised would be here by Christmas has been honoured. It is an honour to the whole of Britain that that has happened. Taken together, this gives us hope that humankind will not pass on the other side of the street when people are suffering as much as they are in Syria.
We are approaching one of the most special and, for many, one of the most holy times of the year. Whether we have faith or not, as we prepare to share the Christmas joy, I want to pay tribute to the outstanding bravery and professionalism of the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces who have made the success of these early missions possible. When we are at home this Christmas, many perhaps with our families, I have no doubt that the British people will keep in their thoughts and prayers our fighting men and women and their families. They serve our country in dangerous and difficult circumstances. For this, they deserve our unflinching admiration and respect.
My Lords, I thank the Government for coming back so early to report to Parliament and to encourage them to continue to do so both on the Floor and, since there are things that cannot be said on the Floor, off the Floor as far as possible on an all-party basis. It is very important to hold cross-party consensus together on what we are doing in this incredibly complicated situation. That includes carrying the country with us, including Britain’s Muslim minority, which needs to be reassured that we are not taking part in any sort of western crusade against the Sunni and Muslim world but that we are part of a campaign with Middle Eastern partners against this perversion of Islam.
We are all concerned about this as a war across the Middle East. We have been concerned at those who wanted to switch from being preoccupied with Assad to being preoccupied with ISIS and allowing Assad to stay in place. From all the evidence we have, we know that the refugees fleeing to Europe are overwhelmingly fleeing Assad rather than ISIS. We cannot therefore merely move from one to the other. We are also aware that the Saudis are distracted by Yemen, in which a number of other Gulf states are also engaged. What is happening in Libya is increasingly worrying. Sinai is no longer under Egyptian Government control. The worsening situation in the occupied West Bank is a matter of concern which could worsen further and continues to act as a recruiting rationale for confused young men in all sorts of countries to join ISIS. We need a broad approach.
Therefore, I should like to ask how Her Majesty’s Government are engaging in the very important diplomatic side, since we are never going to win this conflict except through diplomatic, multilateral agreement. Where are we post-Vienna? How actively are the Government engaged and with whom most closely in pursuing the tasks agreed at the Vienna conference? How actively are our Government engaged with the more difficult of our partners in this endeavour? The Russians, after all, appear to have been focusing their attacks in Syria on the Turkmen rather than on ISIS. We have to have the reluctant co-operation of Iran in any transition away from the Assad regime. It is necessary to insist that border control is extremely important to Turkey, while the Kurds have to be seen as an asset in the fight against Daesh/ISIL rather than a threat to Turkishness as such. Finally, in so many ways, the objectives of the Saudi Government do not coincide with ours.
It was splendid to hear the statement on what has been agreed in Riyadh on human rights and so on. I do not think most of that is intended to apply within Saudi Arabia. There are many things to do on the diplomatic front. I do not want to repeat the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, on the military side. We welcome the greater visibility of the Syrian Democratic Forces and a degree of cohesion among different factions, which appears now to offer a more effective counterweight to Daesh in north-eastern Syria. We were worried by the contradictory statements about Kurdish exclusion from the Riyadh talks and would welcome the Government clarifying how far Kurdish elements, which are now co-operating with Arab, Christian and other forces much more effectively than they were, are to be pulled in.
Finally, next summer we are likely to see if the civil war has no sign of reaching an ending and whether there will be a further surge of refugees towards Europe. The best way to keep refugees in the region is to offer them the hope that this war will come to an end. I would like to hear a little more from the Government on how far we are working with others to ensure that, while the conflict continues, those who are really struggling in underfunded refugee camps are fully supported.
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their thoughtful and compassionate tone in reflecting on those who are affected by the evils of Daesh and those who are seeking to defeat it. I join with their tribute to the Armed Forces.
I was asked whether I would give an assessment of our success in our operations, both to destroy oil capacity and more generally. Clearly, a careful analysis is taking place of the impact of combined air operations and how that affects Daesh’s ability not only to produce oil but to transmit it. When one carries out air assaults it is important to disrupt the arterial network—the roads. I was in northern Iraq last month on the day that the assault on Sinjar was launched. The importance of that was not only to recover the town and give it back to its people but to provide a break in the supply lines. So it is not a simple matter of saying what disrupting oil production can do to reduce the overall supply of oil for sale, which Daesh then profits from; it is part and parcel of a wider picture.
I was rightly asked about civilians and the steps that the RAF and UK aircraft personnel take to avoid any civilian casualties. I can say, as I did when repeating the Statement last time—I beg the House’s pardon; the Leader repeated the Statement—that we still do not have any reports of casualties that have occurred to civilians in either Syria or Iraq as a result of RAF air strikes. I appreciate some of the processes that go into the careful selection of targets and the avoidance of risk to civilians, but, as I mentioned in the Statement, there is always a risk. It is how one contains that risk. We hope that we remain in the position where there are no such reports, but when that happens there are processes in place, not only for reports by others but for self-reporting, too. It is a matter that we take most seriously.
I was also asked how we are taking steps here to prevent the funding of Daesh. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been working across government to ensure that the sanctions imposed on Daesh are properly effected here—as, indeed, has the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Treasury—and that we trace those who may be involved in such activities. I know that noble Lords would not expect me to comment in any further detail on that.
I was also asked about the position of the Kurds in Syria who need help. The Kurds in Syria have indeed been fighting against Daesh, as well against the depredations of the Assad regime. First, on the question of military help, we are not supplying weapons to anybody on any side in Syria, but we have delivered more than 4 million articles of life-saving equipment, including communications, medical and logistics equipment, and we have provided equipment to protect against chemical weapons attacks, including 5,000 escape hoods, nerve agent pre-treatment tablets and chemical weapon detector paper. That is available for all those seeking to defeat Daesh with whom we seek to work. We cannot contact all of them, but where we do, that is the kind of assistance that we can give.
A wide range of people was brought together at the Riyadh conference, which was held between 8 and 10 December. I understand that the Syrian opposition agreed a representative negotiating team for the upcoming UN-brokered negotiations with the regime. The national coalition will play a leading role in the new team as a result of that. A wide group of people was invited. Some would fall into the category of those with whom we have contact on a regular basis; others would not. I think noble Lords will understand that I am not in a position to identify particular groups. I was asked to say whether they are part of the 70,000 persons who were described as those who would fight against Daesh. We have to be careful not to identify individual groups or people, for obvious reasons, but I can say that we estimate that there are around 70,000 non-extremist opposition fighters in Syria. The majority of them are linked to the Free Syrian Army.
In addition—to come to the Kurdish matter—some 20,000 Kurdish fighters are playing an important role in combating Daesh in Syria. Politically, over the last 18 months the major opposition armed groups have come together to affirm that they are prepared to negotiate a political settlement to the Syria conflict, based on the Geneva communiqué of 2012. That is a major advance. I know that it looks as if there are only small steps, but it has made a real change.
I was also asked whether the Syrian opposition would have a common position. As I just explained, they have said that they will be in the position to play a leading role in the talks as they go forward.
I was also asked about the timetable and whether it can be met. We hope that the timetable can be met so that the talks can begin in January. Lots of things in this world can intervene, but the important thing is that those who met together to give this commitment agreed on a structure—not necessarily a day-by-day timetable, but a structure—by which we could ultimately achieve the transition of power and preserve the institutions of Syria, so that we can learn from past events and not repeat them in Syria so that transition is practically possible.
I was also asked about UN resolutions and whether we would seek one regarding the agreement in Syria. I referred to that; my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be in New York at the end of this week. I know that we will continue to work very closely with the UN, as we always do. Where it is appropriate for a resolution to be considered, our normal practice is that we would seek to do that—but we will have to see how those talks develop.
I was also asked who our real, like-minded friends are with whom we engage in this. I think that I gave a flavour of that in the Statement. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary mentioned that he met on Monday the United States, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It is important that we continue to engage with them.
I was asked a practical point by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, which was: if the talks are happening in New York at the end of this week, yet we also have the EU talks carrying on, how will the personnel be divided? I can assure him that it is normal practice that the Prime Minister attends the EU talks; the talks in New York are being attended by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Clearly, the Foreign Secretary is engaged continually in talks, either in person or on the telephone, with all the main actors in this. All of us want to ensure that those suffering the vile attacks by Daesh that have shocked the world should receive not only compassion but help. We continue to give major help in humanitarian aid to the region. That will continue beyond the defeat of Daesh. We are already committing to continuing our assistance.
Does my noble friend accept that I strongly share her welcome for the Islamic military coalition mentioned in the Statement? Will she assure us that we are going to give strong encouragement to that coalition? Does she see it as a possible source of the troops on the ground which eventually will, of course, be needed to penetrate the Daesh heartlands? The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned Libya in passing. Will my noble friend say a word about how the Government see the Libyan situation, bearing in mind that Daesh is now getting increasingly embedded in Sirte, and is very likely shortly to take over the Libyan oilfields, which would give it a new resource with which to carry on its hideous operations?
My Lords, on my noble friend’s first point, we are not considering engaging in land warfare and having our Armed Forces within Syria. When the Leader of the House repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement, she set out why that was the case, so we are not planning for that. My noble friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the very serious position in Libya and the growing threat from extremist groups, including Daesh and groups affiliated with it. These groups pose a threat to the stability of Libya and the region itself, and potentially to the UK and our interests and citizens overseas. We are working closely with international partners to develop our understanding of Daesh’s presence in Libya, including in Sirte, to which my noble friend rightly referred. This includes working closely with Libya’s neighbours to enhance their ability to protect themselves against threats from terrorists in Libya and prevent weapons smuggling across the region. We continue to urge all Libyans to unite against these extremists.
My Lords, on the political track, is it the view of the Government that Russia is moving towards accepting that there will be no place for Assad at the end of the transition period? We understand, of course, that oil provides a substantial part of the financing of Daesh/ISIL, but also there are taxes, including taxes on lorries crossing frontiers to go into Syria. What is being done to block those lorry convoys supplying the areas controlled by Daesh? Finally, clearly at the end of the period, any successor regime will inherit a wasteland. There is the very welcome initiative by the Government to host the pledging conference in February, but are we also preparing to mobilise refugees both in the region and in Europe to help to reconstruct their homeland following the terrible devastation caused by the war?
My Lords, we welcome the fact that Russia was prepared to engage in the Vienna talks. Clearly, how its views on the position of Assad may or may not change is a matter of further consideration. That makes negotiations perhaps a little more testing than might otherwise be the case, but clearly it is important that those talks continue. We have made it clear throughout that Assad cannot remain in power because he is a recruiting sergeant for Daesh’s very existence, in that people feel that they have to tolerate Daesh and work with it. With regard to convoys, as I mentioned earlier, air strikes can be used specifically not only to target the oil production facilities but to disrupt the transport of materials—not only oil but things such as weaponry. As regards the border crossing, it is important that we continue to liaise with our colleagues in Turkey as much as possible to maintain the sanctions regime which has been imposed. I confirm that we are looking very closely at how the pledging conference will approach the issue of refugees. When I was in Iraq, I visited a refugee camp and was made aware at first hand of the vast challenge ahead. Those who are not in the camps will also need much assistance from all of us.
My Lords, the noble Baroness and the Statement rightly referred to the terrible depredations occurring in Syria and the egregious violations of human rights. Earlier today, in a Written reply, the noble Baroness stated:
“We are not submitting any evidence of possible genocide against Yezidis and Christians to international courts, nor have we been asked to”.
Will the noble Baroness reflect on that reply and reconsider the Government’s position, and at least perhaps open discussions with the International Criminal Court? If the difference that marks us out from Daesh and those involved in these atrocities is that we believe in upholding the rule of law, is it not important to emphasise that a Nuremberg moment will come for those responsible for the mass graves—she may have seen them when she visited Sinjar recently—where Yazidi women who had been raped were then killed, and the other examples of beheadings, crucifixions and the many atrocities which were outlined in our recent debate in your Lordships’ House? One day, all that must have a day of reckoning.
My Lords, first, I make it clear that I was not close to Sinjar itself. I was in Erbil when the assault was launched. I would like to make that clear. With regard to genocide, as I have mentioned before, we condemn utterly those who carry out mass killings. There is no doubt about that. There is also the fact that it is for courts to determine whether that falls within the legal definition of genocide. We will continue to monitor exactly how the ICC is dealing with these cases, or not. I understand that, as the matter stands, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor, has determined not to take these matters forward. However, I will check whether there has been any change to that position. I have made it clear in the work that I have done on preventing sexual violence in conflict that we must not tolerate impunity, and therefore, if the ICC is unable to act, I hope that we can work throughout the international community to find another way of providing justice to those who have suffered at the hands of Daesh—the Yazidis, the Syriacs and the other small communities forming the component parts across Iraq and Syria—because all of them deserve our respect and help.
My Lords, with regard to our bilaterals with Turkey, will the Government impress upon the Turkish Government the importance of exercising the maximum self-restraint where there are intrusions into its airspace? To shoot down another Russian aircraft would be extremely unfortunate.
My Lords, we defended Turkey’s right to defend its own airspace when it reported that it gave warnings to Russia, but we have urged both Turkey and Russia to de-escalate. My noble friend points out absolutely correctly how important it is that, in circumstances such as this, those seeking to defeat Daesh should not seek confrontation between themselves.
My Lords, in welcoming the building of a Sunni local police force in Ramadi, I press the Minister to engage with the Sunni powers in the region, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and others, to ensure that Sunni soldiers are available to fight Daesh on the ground. Clearly, as the noble Baroness has indicated, it is not for western troops to do that, certainly not British ones, and it is certainly not for Shia troops either. You have to have Sunni soldiers there. Nobody thinks that the 70,000 force—which may or may not exist—is capable of doing this, or that a future inclusive Syrian Government can do it because that might take ages to establish. There is a need for Sunni soldiers now to beat Daesh.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord. When we seek to achieve a military victory followed by a political success, it is important to have an inclusive Government. Part of the sign of an inclusive Government is that you have armed forces that are also inclusive, so it is important that Sunnis feel that they are able to play a part in the military victory in both Iraq and Syria. When I was in Baghdad recently, I had the privilege of giving a presentation on the prevention of sexual violence in conflict to the most recently established group of cadets there. I did not ask whether they were Shia or Sunni; I asked them to think of those civilians when they went out to fight. The noble Lord is right, it is important for those from all minorities—and majorities—to be able to take part in recovering a real life for all in both Syria and Iraq.
My Lords, talking as the Minister did about the fear and success in avoiding civilian casualties and given the figures she gave, I get the impression that extreme caution is being shown about air strikes in Syria—we had the oilfields. This may be partially because in Syria we do not have people on the ground for precision-point targeting in the way that we have—or perhaps I should say, may have—in Iraq. I ask the Minister to confirm that this caution exists, which I and, I suspect, many others in your Lordships’ House very much welcome.
Yes, extreme caution is indeed exercised. The noble Lord was right to return to that theme. We were able to provide extra technical help with the Reaper that we provided so that there is surveillance overhead. The noble Lord is absolutely right: it is not effective to get intelligence on the ground—it puts people at too much risk. Intelligence is sought from surveillance overhead. We are also able to provide technical help from weaponry that can target very closely. The target was described to me, when the firing takes place, as being the size of a small dining table.
Can my noble friend the Minister say a little more about the extremely welcome news that the UK has set up a coalition communications cell and, in particular, about who else might be participating? Given that the activities and communications of Daesh are particularly professional, can she say whether, on our side, we are employing professional broadcasters? In particular, are we getting local voices to participate in spreading the messages that we need to put across?
With my noble friend’s distinguished background in the field of cyber and intelligence generally, I know that she will not expect me to give information even if I had it. I certainly would not wish to do so and have it in Hansard. I can assure her that, when looking at the work we do in the communications cell across the field, we are engaging the brightest and the best across all ages and backgrounds. She is right to say that Daesh has proved itself extremely smart in the sphere of communications. We can be smarter, it is true, but we also need to be committed to continuing the fight for a long period and that is something that this Government are prepared to do.
I echo the request of my noble friend Lord Touhig for the Government to keep the House updated on the progress of the talks, not least because Members of both Houses, and indeed in the wider country, who did not support military action need to see that this is part of a political process. That is very important—I have felt from the start that that message did not get through and it needs to.
Following up on that, if those important talks in Saudi Arabia are successful—and it is a big if—we need to think about a policing mechanism in Syria afterwards; that was referred to earlier. There is clearly a role in that for the United Nations, among others.
My right honourable friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have committed to giving updates on a three-monthly basis. They can be flexible and do so more regularly, particularly when a House may be going into recess. I will certainly ensure that it is possible for noble Lords to have an update before the February Recess, outside the Chamber. We can have a meeting on that.
With regard to the issue of—sorry, I lost track of the second part.
I apologise to the noble Lord—I could not read my own writing. I mentioned earlier that we are pleased to now be in the position where there will be a trained Sunni police force. It is the first step. Policing is clearly important as, when places are taken from Daesh, people will want to return to them but those places often have been booby-trapped with IEDs and police need to be in place to provide security while any remaining dangers are cleared. It is the only way for a community to be in a place and feel safe to set up its own council and organisations to run itself.
I welcome the Minister’s Statement, which was very good. I want to pick up on one aspect, namely the coalition that has been formed by Saudi Arabia. We need Saudi Arabia to defeat Daesh but, at the same time, we must be careful that it is not done on a sectarian basis. The Minister referred earlier to Haider al-Abadi, in the Iraqi Government. Iraq is not part of the coalition formed by Saudi Arabia, nor will it be. There are several other states that have abstained from joining that coalition, including states with a long history of combating terrorism. One example is Algeria, the largest country in the Maghreb, and another is Indonesia, the world’s largest Sunni Muslim state. I urge some caution in backing Saudi efforts for an alliance that is essentially Sunni and not Islamic. After all, what we are fighting for in Iraq and Syria is the preservation of countries with faiths of many denominations.
My Lords, I agree that it is important that the Islamic military coalition should consider the interests of both Sunnis and Shias, but that should come in any event because there are Shia minorities within the coalition countries. Bahrain, which is a member, has a Shia majority population. The noble Lord is right, however, to sound a word of caution. We welcome the creation of the IMC to fight terrorism and we look forward to hearing further details from the Saudis on the IMC’s intended remit and scope. We want it to be able to work closely alongside the global coalition against Daesh to tackle the terrorist scourge.
We continue to receive reports on the removal of chemical weapons. I answered a Question about this a little while ago and have also answered a Written Question. We continue to keep that under review, although I am concerned by reports that, in some circumstances, chemical weapons have been used in Syria. It is, therefore, even more important that we have regular inspections and reports. The specific stockpiles to which my noble friend referred have, we are told, been reduced.
Given the importance attached by the Government to the International Syria Support Group, which, according to the Foreign Secretary, comprises the major international players, I was rather surprised that there has been no reference to Egypt. Do the Government recognise that Egypt not only is the largest Arab country but has the largest Arab army? President al-Sisi is attempting to introduce into Egypt a secular Government, based on a path to democracy, which is exactly what we would like to see in Syria. What role do the Government see for Egypt in the resolution of these conflicts?
My Lords, when I met Foreign Minister Shoukry in New York earlier this autumn, my opening words to him were to describe Egypt as a major regional player. It is because of that that the Government take very seriously the importance of engaging with Egypt on how it can play its part in ensuring that Daesh is defeated. All those who take a stand against extremism, or against Daesh, need to work together and that is what we will do.