Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I thank the Government Whips’ Office for finding time for this debate, and I am grateful to the Minister and other noble Lords for participating in the last business of your Lordships’ House this week.
I commiserate with the Minister, who has been given the rather short straw of defending the Government’s strategy against Daesh. The strategy proposed so far is threadbare and lacking in detail, but more worrying is the fact that the public have no confidence that the Government are capable of finding a solution to the huge issues that they face in Syria, from achieving peace to solving the refugee crisis.
Since I tabled this debate, events have moved swiftly, with the other place voting in favour of air strikes against Daesh in Syria. The Government’s action to combat Daesh in Iraq has been superseded by the strategy outlined by the Prime Minister in the other place on 26 November 2015, and again during the debate on 2 December. It is a four-pillar strategy. We were told last November that pillar one represented a counterextremist strategy, meaning,
“a comprehensive plan to prevent and foil plots at home, and to address the poisonous extremist ideology that is the root cause of the threat we face”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/15; col. 1492.]
Just how do the Government aim to achieve the latter? Given Daesh’s successful manipulation of the internet, what is required is a comprehensive cybercampaign to discredit Daesh and the hateful extremist ideology that it represents.
The other three pillars of the strategy refer to humanitarian aid, military action and support for the diplomatic and political process. Humanitarian support is of course vital for refugees and those, like the citizens of Madaya, who are starving. Her Majesty’s Government have already given more than £1 billion in aid and pledged £1 billion more for reconstruction. What strategy do the Government have for dealing with the 11 million Syrians in the region who remain displaced, and under what circumstances would Syrian refugees in Britain be repatriated? All this lacks clarity.
The UK’s military action in Syria is largely symbolic in the scheme of things, and I cannot believe it will make a material difference to events on the ground. Still, what are the operational objectives of the UK’s intervention in Syria, how long is it expected to take and at what human and financial cost? Perhaps the Minister can give an update on the UK forces committed to Syria, the number of aerial sorties and the co-operation with local forces such as the Kurds. Are the Government in favour of a grand international coalition of all the major powers to defeat Daesh, including Assad’s Syrian army? Lastly, after the incident when a Russian military plane was shot down by Turkish fighters, is he satisfied with the co-ordination between all the different anti-Daesh forces in the region?
More important is the diplomatic and political process itself. The UN special envoy to Syria has set 25 January as a target date to begin talks aimed at ending the five-year civil war. In late December, building on the work of the International Syria Support Group and the Vienna process, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2254, which called for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN. The aim is to establish within six months credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance, setting a schedule for drafting a new constitution and free and fair elections to be held within 18 months under UN supervision. A ceasefire is also envisaged under a parallel process. That is an ambitious target. Do the Government think it is feasible? Can the Minister say how Her Majesty’s Government aim to ensure that this diplomatic process ends in success and in peace for Syria and the Syrian people? What is the Government’s assessment of the likelihood of a ceasefire over the coming months?
May I also inject a heavy dose of realism into my remarks? No one is suggesting that a solution to the Syrian conflict, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced many millions, will be easy. It has helped fuel a refugee crisis which has shaken the foundations of the European Union and, without a Europe-wide strategy to deal with it, may influence the UK’s decision whether to remain in the EU or not. A failure of British government policy here, or the mere perception of failure, may have a profound effect on the country’s future in Europe. A whole series of proxy wars are being fought out in Syria, with Sunni ranged against Shia and Sunni against Sunni. It is a battleground for a regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, which has been discussed in your Lordships’ House before. It is also the focus of an old-style “great game” involving Russia and the United States and its allies. It is not a new Cold War; it is simply that the old one never ended.
In your Lordships’ House last week, several noble Lords asked whether Russia knew what it is doing in Syria, and the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, appeared perplexed that Moscow had focused much of its attention on supporting Assad. Whether we in the West like it or not, Moscow’s assessment is that what weakens Assad will strengthen Daesh and vice versa. Russia would hardly concentrate all its fire on Daesh merely to watch Damascus fall to the rebels. However, it is also clear that Moscow is not wedded to the brutal Assad regime itself but rather to protecting its vital strategic interests in the country and the region. It fears a Libyan-style disintegration of the country and a consequent loss of influence. It also fears the export of Islamist radicalism. I hope that the British Foreign Office’s assessment of Russia’s motives is merely disingenuous and not born out of lack of understanding.
Like any great power, Russia is acting in pursuit of its interests, and whether we disagree with it or not, its strategy is at least clear and supported by the Russian people. Apart from its military bases and long alliance with Damascus, Moscow is acutely aware of its own 21 million indigenous, mainly Sunni, Muslims, its own militant insurgency in the Caucasus and the possibility of contagion. Recently, our Prime Minister said that we maintained a relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite its appalling human rights record and military attack and intervention in neighbouring Yemen, because:
“For me, Britain’s national security and our people’s security comes first”.
Militarily, a solution to the Syrian conflict looks unlikely anytime soon. Even if your Lordships were to accept the Prime Minister’s unlikely figure of 70,000 non-extremists willing to fight the Assad regime and added in the 20,000 Syrian Kurds, this would still be fewer than the 240,000 soldiers in the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah, the Iranians and the Russians. In any event, the UK Defence Secretary concluded that a majority of the posited 70,000 were non-secular Islamists, disinclined to support a western-style democracy. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, former Chief of the Defence Staff, has said, the most capable forces on the ground to defeat Daesh in the absence of western forces are Assad’s Syrian army and the Kurds. Incidentally, his assessment was also that around 40% of the population supported Assad. The remaining rebels are largely a disunited rabble, of varying degrees of extremism.
The West’s policy of regime change in the Middle East has been an abject failure. There was an interesting exchange on this at a meeting of the Liaison Committee in the other place, held on 12 January last, between MPs and the Prime Minister. Some MPs felt that getting rid of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Gaddafi in 2011 had been a terrible mistake, as brutal as those dictators undoubtedly were. We are now seeking to do the same in Syria. Prime Minister Cameron seemed to make the same mistakes in Libya that had been made by his predecessors in Iraq, with the implosion of both states. By removing these dictators forcibly by western intervention, we have opened a can of worms in the region. For most people in these countries, life has got worse instead of better.
While we are in the West are not morally responsible for the horrors of Daesh, it is undeniable that we were partly responsible for its creation. It was former disgruntled Sunni officers of the dismantled Baathist regime which created Daesh in Iraq, as the police and army were forcibly dissolved by the western coalition in the hubris after victory. We should not make the same mistake in Syria. We should put the UK’s weight behind a diplomatic and political solution in Syria, but allow the people of the country to determine their own future.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, and congratulate him on securing this debate. He has rather surprised me, because I expected his contribution to come from a certain perspective that would go along the lines of, “Russia good, Russian intervention good, and everything else we’re doing is a complete disaster”. He and I are old sparring partners and friends, so I do not think that he will mind me speculating that that is what I expected him to say, and I think he would admit that it would not be entirely without foundation. But the noble Lord asked a number of extremely pertinent questions. I hope that in replying the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, will be able to touch on them because they are extremely relevant.
My concern about many of the debates on Syria that we have had in this House recently is that a trend seems to be emerging, particularly on government Benches, whereby there is a view that two things have happened which should make us change the strategy that we held in Syria between 2011, when the conflict started, and early in 2015.
The first—rightly—is the rise of ISIL. I cannot say that it was entirely unforeseen. In the numerous debates that I spoke in between 2011 and 2014, I warned that extremism was filling the vacuum that was increasingly existing in Syria. What was unforeseen was the dramatic capturing of territory and the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi forces, which happened so suddenly. Not only did they abandon huge parts of the territory but they left behind huge financial resources, as well as the oil wells and many other aspects of infrastructure, that enabled ISIL to continue to hang on to territory.
The second factor that implies that we need to change our strategy is the entry of Russia into this quagmire. One gets the impression in this House that people are now beginning to say that because Russia is there and because we need to deal with Russia and come to a diplomatic solution to solve the problem of Syria, we can somehow ignore Russia’s malign influence in all other areas of international life. It seems to me that this analysis suffers from a couple of fundamental errors, the first being that the Russian writ does not rule in Damascus. We know that it does not because, when there have been movements towards compromise, and when concessions have been offered about protection, training, arming and other viable alternatives, Assad vetoes even relatively positive Russian influences. So the constructive elements of Russian thought are not necessarily embraced wholescale by President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s protégé.
The other reason why simply trying to do a deal with Russia will not wash is what I would describe as the very positive turn of developments with Iran. By saying that, I am not trying to suggest that Iran’s influence in Lebanon and Syria is entirely constructive or positive. I would not say that for a second. I think that the House knows well what I think of Hezbollah, Hamas and other organisations that are terrorism-inclined, if not clearly terrorist organisations. But the point I am trying to make is that since we are now in a position where we are co-operating with Iran, the idea that Russia should be the focus of our endeavours is rather misplaced. The focus of our endeavours should be Iran, because Iran has far more authority in Damascus with Assad than the Russians.
I was not able to be in the Chamber, but I read carefully the Statement made by the Home Secretary in the other place and repeated here by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, on Russia’s nuclear terrorism on the streets of United Kingdom. There are also Russia’s malign actions in Crimea and Ukraine, Russia’s record on human rights, Russia’s abandonment of the rule of law, and Russia’s pernicious hostility towards settling many outstanding disputes around energy, security, the Baltics and so on. So allowing Russia too large a space in what is happening in Syria will be counterproductive.
The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, mentioned Russia’s vital strategic interests. I assume that he is referring to the Russian base at Tartus. But besides that, Russia does not have vital strategic interests in Syria. If it did, it would not have stood on the sidelines for as long as it did. If we allow the international community to recognise these vital strategic interests, as they are described, we will be in danger of allowing that country to beat us around the head when its other, plausibly more significant strategic interests, which are nearer to our shores in the case of Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, the Stans, the Baltics and other countries—where we have far greater and clearer obligations in terms of our NATO membership—are imperilled. I am trying to say that we need to be extremely careful about giving Russia too much credibility and too much space in resolving the conflict.
But resolve the conflict we must, and I want to pose some questions to the Government in terms of what will happen in the forthcoming 25 January Geneva talks. It appears that the Assad Government’s strategy in approaching these talks—and I am sceptical about whether they will take place—is simply to brand everyone on the other side as a terrorist group. We know that several of the people who have been vetoed by the Assad Government, Russia on the sidelines or the Saudi Arabians, who are themselves a hugely malign influence in Syria, are not terrorist groups. We also know, as we know from our experience with the IRA—and my God this country knows this better than most others— that when you need to get peace you need to talk to some pretty unpleasant people. The idea that we allow these vetoes to continue to hold imperils any attempt since Geneva in 2012 to get to the end of this crisis. We have had five years of it—we are now approaching the anniversary—and it seems that we will not get anywhere if we do not accelerate a resolution to the conflict.
The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting of 12 January. I also saw the transcript of that and noted that all three experts who spoke on the prospects for progress were profoundly pessimistic, noting that the persistence of the Syrian regime in labelling various groups as terrorists did not bode well for any positive developments or even for attendance.
The Prime Minister made an impassioned defence when he came to the House of Commons of a transitional plan—a peace plan—and said that extending military action into Syria, which he asked the House of Commons to approve last November, had to be accompanied by a political solution. We are now three months down the road. I accept that there has been some success in Iraq—the Iraqis have taken back some of the land mass—but one cannot see evidence of any military success in Syria.
Three months is not a long time and I am perfectly prepared to give the Government some more time on that. But what I would like to hear from the Minister in his concluding comments is an explanation of why only a few months ago the Prime Minister was so optimistic about a transitional plan, a peace process moving forward and involving the UN Security Council and so on, when we do not see any sign of accelerating what was the Vienna process and is now the Geneva process. Also, we are not getting any tangible messages from the Government as to where we are heading in terms of a longer-term strategy in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon—essentially across the whole of the Middle East, which is more or less predicted to be unstable for the foreseeable future, with all the side-effects that that entails.
My Lords, the defeat of ISIS is of paramount importance for the future of Syria, but it is of even greater importance for the future of the Middle East. ISIS is a transnational movement. It will not be defeated in Syria, it has to be defeated throughout the region. Although as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned, some progress has been made in Iraq in pushing ISIS back, let us not forget that it controls the city of Mosul, which is larger than the city of Manchester. I think that it will be a long time before it will relinquish or be forced out of Mosul.
It goes without saying too that ISIS poses a substantial threat to the security of this country and indeed to the democratic world as a whole. In our actions, and especially as a permanent member, we must pay special heed to the need for UN Security Council backing wherever possible. Here I gently note the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner. We need Russia because it is a member of the UN Security Council. Peace processes will not go forward without support from Russia. That is a fact of diplomatic life.
Four of the five permanent members, China excluded, are of course engaged in military action in Syria, although there is a sharp difference between the three western powers, the UK, France and the US, in their attacks on ISIS and those of Russia, which, while it is hostile to ISIS, has adopted an overt stance of supporting the Government of President Bashar al-Assad. Progress in addressing the long-running civil war in Syria is essential if a campaign against ISIS is to be successful. Last month, the Security Council issued a rare unanimous show of support for the negotiations between the Assad Government and the opposition. I should be grateful if the Minister could update the House on the present situation regarding the talks which we are all hoping will proceed next week in Geneva. Perhaps I may take the opportunity to commend the role of Staffan di Mistura, my former colleague in the UN and a friend, in leading the UN’s search for peace.
In the 19th century the great German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, is reputed to have said that making peace is like making sausages, you do not want to see too closely what goes into the process. Indeed, the Government need to be mindful of the compromises that are inherent in the necessity to silence the guns and to end the appalling humanitarian situation that prevails not only in much of Syria, but throughout the wider Middle East. UN missions in which I served in the 1990s had to negotiate with the likes of the Khmer Rouge and later with indicted war criminals such as Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic. That is often the case when there is a need for a diplomatic solution. We must do that if we are to make progress in the search for peace. If we do not make progress in that regard, I fear that it will impede our strategy to defeat ISIS, the subject of this debate, and indeed perhaps even embolden it.
One of the few glimmers of hope in recent months in the Middle East, and here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, has been the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 plus Germany. I hope that hard on the heels of this very welcome accord we are talking seriously with Iran about the compromises that the country is going to have to make to see a more broad-based and representative Government in Damascus, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s acknowledgment that that is indeed the case. If we are going to find a way out of the bloody maelstrom in Syria, we need more engagement with Iran, not less.
Similarly, while we can abhor the practices and conduct of the Assad regime, we need to reach an understanding as to why so many Christians, and especially Alawites, of that country still support the regime. I recall one Syrian friend pointing to the example of Tariq Aziz, the late Foreign Minister of Iraq and saying to me rather provocatively, “When do you think we will see a Christian again as a cabinet minister in an Arab country?”. That was provocative, because there are Christian Ministers in Lebanon and Jordan, but it is true that one of the great losers from the UK-US invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was the Christian population in Iraq, the vast majority of whom have now, sadly, left the country.
Underlining my friend’s concern was the fear that in the sectarian storms between Shia and Sunni, there would be little room left for minorities. The Alawites are an important presence in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Lebanon. It is important that in all our public messaging with regard to Syria, we underline our commitment to the continuing role and presence of minorities. Without them, ISIS will be that much harder to defeat.
Let me end by referring to some remarks made yesterday at a meeting in Paris between the US and French Defence Ministers, Ash Carter and Jean-Yves Le Drian. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter pointedly called on Arab countries to do more in the fight against ISIS. In this regard, he said that the United States was very much looking to countries in the Gulf. Does the Minister agree with that, and with the conclusion that Gulf countries have shifted their key military capabilities away from fighting ISIS to involvement in the Yemeni civil war? That is where the Saudis and Emiratis are concentrating now: on a conflict built on sectarian strife which pales compared to the need to defeat ISIS.
I believe that the figures for involvement in air strikes against ISIS in Syria show a diminishing involvement on the part of Arab air forces and a rising involvement on the part of western air forces. That cannot be how the struggle against ISIS will be successful. We cannot win this fight without the wholehearted support of the Sunni countries, but that engagement seems to me to be flagging somewhat.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, for initiating this debate, and I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lady Falkner and the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I am slightly nervous about following such expertise, but I must confess that I am even more nervous about speaking in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Powell of Bayswater. I have known him for 33 years, ever since I was a school friend of his son Nick and rather foolishly and precociously decided to provoke an argument with him about the then Conservative Government’s Budget. It is fair to say that he fairly comprehensively defeated me in that argument. Given that his expertise on foreign affairs is even greater than his expertise on economic affairs, it is nerve-wracking indeed to speak opposite him.
Last year, the Prime Minister set out the Government’s strategy to defeat IS, or Daesh. I have to say that I was not terribly convinced about it then and am not much more convinced now, but I will listen with interest to the Minister’s answers in the hope that I can be reassured. It is not clear to me how it is possible to defeat Daesh without credible forces on the ground, and the 70,000 so-called moderate forces seem to me neither a credible number nor a credible description. Those who have spent time on the ground in Syria are clear that the dominance of extreme Sunni groups in the armed opposition is almost total.
In Iraq, where the RAF has been operating for some time, there are ground forces with whom we can co-operate—both the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. That is why the coalition decided that it should focus its efforts on Iraq rather than Syria: there was a coherent strategy in Iraq and an absence of one in Syria.
For understandable reasons, post-Paris, the Government felt they had to act. I understand that sentiment but to act without a credible strategy is a dangerous thing to do. To act when one cannot answer the question “And then what?” as we did in Libya can have horrific consequences directly impacting on our country.
Even if we have a credible strategy to defeat Daesh, that is not enough. We will have gained little if another violent extremist group takes its place. That is why we have to have a strategy to fill the vacuum and to bring peace and order back to Syria. More than that, we need a much wider strategy to tackle violent extremism around the world because, of course, it is not just Syria and Iraq that are afflicted by this curse, but Libya, Yemen, the Sinai peninsula, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The attacks recently in Ouagadougou and Jakarta also highlight the global phenomena that we are facing. If we do not develop a comprehensive strategy to tackle this problem, we will find that even if we are successful in Iraq and Syria the problem will emerge elsewhere, whether it is called Daesh, al-Qaeda or whatever new formulation emerges, and it will threaten and menace us still.
As we go forward, we must learn from our mistakes. I know that Governments and countries are not always good at doing this, but given the menace we face it is critical that we get better at it. The first lesson we need to learn is that formenting regime change has proved comprehensively disastrous for us in this region, whether in Iran in the 1950s with the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh, the invasion of Iraq overthrowing Saddam Hussein, or Libya more recently. We have to learn that we do not have sufficient understanding of the complexities of these societies or of the consequences that flow from our actions to keep blundering in, in the way we have done in the past.
Moreover as Libya shows, we lack the attention span or the resolve to tackle the problems arising from our interventions. Our insistence on the removal of Bashar al-Assad was foolish. It was foolish because we had no way of effecting it, foolish because personalising the issue on Assad showed our lack of understanding of the regime and foolish because it helped scupper any chance that the original peace talks might succeed.
We must not let it scupper the next round of peace talks. As the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, pointed out in her speech when we debated Syria last year, to bring peace in the former Yugoslavia, people had to make peace with Milosevic. No one liked that; he was responsible for terrible brutality but that was the price for peace and it was one that was worth paying.
Indeed the best way to get rid of Assad, as was the best way to get rid of Milosevic is to end the war, particularly as there are many people in minority communities who, as long as the war continues, see Assad as the best of a lot of bad options. If we make Assad going a precondition we will simply ensure that the war continues and Assad remains, and as a consequence many more people will die. Everyone, including the Prime Minister, has accepted that we cannot ultimately defeat Daesh until there is a political settlement. On 26 November, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons:
“We are now seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting around the same table as America and Russia, as well as France, Turkey and Britain. All of us are working toward the transition to a new Government in Syria”.—[Official Report, Commons; 26/11/15, col 1492.]
The difficulty is that so many of these parties want such different things. I hope the Minister can update us on progress towards convening the all-party talks proposed for 25 January. Can he tell us whether he sees any prospect of such talks taking place this month, as planned? It has been widely reported that in briefing the Security Council on 18 January the UN special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, expressed his frustration about the many obstacles being placed in the way of his ability to convene a broad representation of opposition groups at the talks. As my noble friend Lady Falkner has already suggested, in particular Saudi Arabia may be playing an unhelpful role in that respect. It is reported that Turkey is blocking the attendance of the Kurdish YPG and the Democratic Union Party, that Russia is blocking attendance of Saudi-backed groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, and that Saudi Arabia is insisting that the Riyadh-based and Saudi-aligned high negotiations committee is exclusively to be given the status of the opposition delegation.
Can the Minister assure us that the UK gives its full support to the UN special envoy in dealing with these issues? Can he give us some indication of the role that the UK Government are playing in ensuring that the talks take place as soon as possible? Finally, can he tell us what progress the International Syria Support Group has made towards securing a ceasefire among non-Daesh and ANF forces, which it agreed as a priority in October? Given the central role of the political track in the ultimate defeat of Daesh, it is concerning that we hear so much about the military effort and so little about the diplomatic track. I hope that the Minister will put that right this afternoon.
We must hope and pray that the peace talks bring some results, and that we can get to a position where coalition air forces can work with a reformed Government and reformed Syrian army to finally defeat Daesh and bring peace and order back to the Syrian people. I fear that that happy day may be some way off but, even when we achieve it, we will not have resolved the threat of extremist violence around the world. To do that, we need to look much more carefully at our strategy and how we adopt it across the region, instead of adopting a piecemeal approach. The establishment of the National Security Council by the Prime Minister under the coalition Government was a hopeful step forward, but I regret very much that it did not take a much more strategic view of issues, as we had hoped, and that there were few strategic discussions on areas such as the Middle East. We need a comprehensive approach.
I understand the difficulty that Governments face in tackling as complex a threat as Daesh, and how much easier it is to be critical when you are outside government. However, I hope that the Government will work as hard on the diplomatic track as on the military track. When peace is finally restored to Syria, I hope that the UK Government will not allow their interest and attention to wane, as they did so tragically in Libya.
My Lords, the war in Syria has killed 250,000 people, contributed to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, and become a breeding ground for Daesh and other extremist groups that threaten not only Syria’s neighbours but all the powers supporting one side or the other. I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for initiating this debate and giving the House the opportunity to look beyond any one specific action and to consider what is meant by a “strategy” in the context of defeating Daesh.
The lesson from previous conflicts is that having a strategy is one thing but it needs to be followed through to fruition, with clearly defined objectives. The current situation in Syria and beyond highlights that a strategy to defeat Daesh cannot be limited to Syria alone, much as the conflict cannot be confined to its borders. In this context, modern conflict is not just physical so a strategy needs to be comprehensive, targeting Daesh not only in Syria but in cyberspace and at home as well as abroad. A strategy needs to be a broad approach recognising globalisation, the conflict and Daesh itself, otherwise it risks overly focusing on one aspect.
A strategy needs to be proactive and offensive, but also defensive, in the sense that care and attention need to be paid to how the strategy, and, indeed, Britain’s involvement in Syria, is presented. To my mind, too much attention is paid to the RAF bombing missions and not enough to other aspects. If we are to have international security and stability, development, defence and diplomacy have to go together. We need a joined-up, whole-government approach to this conflict.
If there is one lesson that should be learnt from more than a decade of combating Daesh and its previous incarnations, it is that no amount of foreign force can defeat the organisation without enlisting the help of an armed local resistance. Daesh strategy in Iraq and Syria is built around the objective of subduing locals and leaving them with no viable alternatives. The targeting of oil facilities and trucks may be paralysing the economy in Daesh-controlled areas, but we also need to understand how sometimes this pushes people to join the only employer in town to generate income for their families.
As Daesh embeds in residential areas to evade air strikes, it continues making money through taxation, extortion and other means that enabled it to take most of the areas now under its control before it laid its hands on the oil infrastructure. It is also quietly expanding in less strategic but vulnerable areas, such as those between Palmyra, the city of Homs and southern Syria, to avoid intensive bombardment or heavy military deployment.
The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, said this week that we are entering a new phase,
“where we aim to systematically dismantle Daesh’s structure and capabilities … That means striking harder at the head of the snake, with an increased focus on infrastructure, lines of communication and supply routes”.
While that element of the strategy may be vital, it should not be the sole focus. We need to encourage local forces to fight Daesh. I therefore ask the Minister: what steps are the UK Government taking to work through existing and new channels to advise, network, train and provide non-military services to armed fighting groups in different parts of the country?
One example highlighted in a recent Chatham House report was support for a unique programme to promote moderate imams in an area controlled by various rebel forces, instead of extremist clerics affiliated to jihadi organisations. Part of the moderate clerics’ focus was to educate worshippers about the danger of takfir, or pronouncing fellow Muslims infidels or apostates. According to a field commander of the faction overseeing the programme, the culture of takfir is a major impediment to getting fighters to combat groups such as Daesh, especially if the faction is backed by western countries.
On the peace process, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, referred last week to the fact that, as a result of efforts by the International Syria Support Group over the past three months, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2254 on 18 December, requesting the UN to convene the Syrian Government and opposition for negotiations on a transition process. As we have heard, these negotiations are due to start on 25 January and will be a welcome step towards ending the conflict, but it seems that Russia is determined not to let Assad or his party lose power. Although I hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, says, I am of course aware that it remains the Government’s hope that Russia will use all its power with the Assad regime and persuade him to come to the talks and ensure that the team is engaged in true negotiations about peace to achieve a transition process.
However, does the Minister think that the UN process outlined for a new constitution and elections within 18 months is practicable in that timeframe? Are we actually predicting failure if we do not meet that specific target? Obviously, in any road map for peace, you need certain milestones.
The strategy also needs to focus domestically. I was pleased to note from yesterday’s Evening Standard that Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism chief praised Muslims in London for coming forward to help fight extremism. However, anyone who watched Channel 4’s programme on Tuesday night this week will have seen it highlight the threat of jihadist extremists and how they can evade prosecution. Is the Minister satisfied that the counterextremism strategy is fit for purpose in such circumstances?
Refugees have, of course, to be a major part of the strategy. Yesterday, the Minister for International Development said:
“The overwhelming majority of refugees remain in the region and this is where our support is targeted. We have been at the forefront of the response and have pledged more than £1.1 billion to the crisis”.—[Official Report, 20/1/16; col. 760.]
However, I remain concerned for the millions of Syrian refugees in the region who remain displaced and, in particular, those in neighbouring countries or in transit. What representations have the UK Government made, for example, to the Lebanese authorities, about the forcible return of Syrian refugees?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, said that I had possibly drawn the short straw in replying to the last debate of this January Thursday. However, I could not agree less with him to be perfectly honest, because the high quality of the speeches made by all those who contributed on all sides of the House certainly impressed me. I am only too happy to admit that they have increased my knowledge of this issue. So I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions. A number of detailed questions were asked. I will do my best to answer them, but I hope that noble Lords will allow me to reply in greater depth in writing.
The Government’s strategy to tackle Daesh in Syria and globally is comprehensive, spanning political, diplomatic, humanitarian and, of course, military action. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, it is the combination of all these factors that is so important.
The horrific attacks this month in Istanbul and Jakarta, as well as those elsewhere, demonstrate the very real threat that we all face. Our law enforcement and security and intelligence services are working constantly to keep the people of this country safe and secure. We are taking all necessary steps to make sure that they have the powers, the capabilities and the resources they need. I say to noble Lords who asked about our capabilities that that is why we are spending 2% of GDP on defence, recruiting an additional 1,900 officers for our intelligence agencies—which will also help with cybersecurity, about which noble Lords asked—doubling our investment in equipment to support our Special Forces and protecting counterterrorism policing.
As noble Lords also said, tackling Daesh requires a global response. The United Kingdom is a leading member of a global coalition of 65 countries and international organisations, including many in the region, united in our aim to defeat Daesh on all fronts. The United Kingdom and the coalition will work with any countries which prove they are serious about fighting Daesh and protecting civilians.
British and coalition efforts are focused on five areas. We are attacking Daesh militarily; restricting its finances; disrupting the flow of fighters; challenging its poisonous ideology; and working to stabilise liberated areas. To tackle the funding, the United Kingdom has led efforts to create and enforce an international legal regime, underpinned by UN Security Council resolutions, which we co-sponsored. We are working with our regional partners to ensure the implementation of UN and EU sanctions, to stop Daesh’s ability to trade outside the formal financial system and to prevent smuggling out of Syria.
The military campaign, as mentioned by noble Lords, is also crucial. The RAF carried out 15% of air strikes in the global coalition’s recent offensive targeting Daesh oil facilities. This offensive destroyed 25% of Daesh’s daily oil production capability, equating to approximately 10% of its total income.
Noble Lords also mentioned strategic communications. The UK is leading the effort to counter Daesh’s poisonous propaganda, co-chairing the coalition’s strategic communications working group with the United States and the United Arab Emirates. In September my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that the United Kingdom would create a coalition communications cell in London, with staffing and financial support from coalition partners. I am pleased to say that this coalition cell is now up and running. It will ensure that no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. It will generate a full range of communications at a pace and scale necessary to highlight Daesh’s perversion of Islam, its barbaric treatment of individuals under its control and its failures on the battlefield.
Military operations need to be followed by stabilisation efforts to provide security, governance and services to populations in areas liberated from Daesh. The United Kingdom is supporting the work of the United Nations Development Programme in Iraq. In Syria, the situation is more complex. The United Kingdom is working with existing local Syrian institutions, as well as with moderate partners on the ground. This will establish a strong foundation to support transition and restore stability as quickly as possible.
All noble Lords, I think, questioned the political future of Syria. Ultimately, a political solution in Syria will be key to stabilisation, reconstruction and the defeat of Daesh. We need an end to the civil war and to have in place a transitional Government with whom the international community could co-operate fully to help restore peace and stability to the whole country. That means a Syrian Government broadly accepted by their people. As the Prime Minister said to the Liaison Committee last week,
“as long as you have Assad in power, you are in danger of having a Daesh-style, Sunni … terrorist … state in western Syria”.
Assad cannot be part of the future of Syria. That is why we are putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight behind political talks to secure a transition to an inclusive Government in Syria who respond to the needs of all the Syrian people.
A number of noble Lords mentioned UN Security Council Resolution 2254, requesting the United Nations to convene the Syrian Government and Opposition for negotiations on a transition process. These negotiations, due to start on 25 January, will be a welcome step towards ending the conflict. I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that Her Majesty’s Government are throwing the United Kingdom’s full diplomatic weight behind the efforts of UN Special Envoy de Mistura to bring the Syrian parties to talks on 25 January. As noble Lords will know, the situation is highly complex and fragile, but we remain hopeful that both sides will agree to take part in the talks. There is still clearly a long way to go on the political talks but also the best chance for peace that we have seen in four years.
The United Kingdom, as a member of the International Syria Support Group, is working with a host of countries including Russia, the United States—very importantly—France, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations towards negotiations between the Syrian parties on a transitional Government. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary attended the last meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which noble Lords have mentioned, on 18 December in New York. The subsequent ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council which passed the resolution was an important step forward in the international community’s efforts to bring about political transition in Syria. The resolution is supported by all members of the ISSG, including Russia and Iran, and of course by the entire Security Council, but there is still a long way to go.
In Riyadh earlier in December, more than 100 representatives from a wide range of Syrian opposition groups met to form a common negotiating position, ahead of intra-Syrian talks convened by the United Nations, which the United Nations special envoy hopes will begin and continue next week, as I mentioned earlier. This is an important step on the political track.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, mentioned the importance of the minorities in this area. The situation is quite desperate for many such communities within Syria and Iraq. We condemn in the strongest terms the atrocities committed by Daesh against all civilians, including Christians, Mandeans, Yazidis, and other minorities—as well as against the majority Muslim population in Iraq and Syria, who continue to bear the brunt of Daesh’s brutality. Ultimately, the only way to protect the Christians and other religious minorities from Daesh is by defeating this organisation, which in turn requires, among other things, ending the conflict in Syria.
There are a number of questions that I have not answered in great detail, but I will write to noble Lords on those various issues.
To conclude, the Government’s strategy to defeat Daesh in Syria is a comprehensive one. We are working within the region in a global coalition across political, diplomatic, economic, humanitarian and military fields. We are also working with the international community to end the civil war and support a transitional government in Syria. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, we face a generational struggle. However, our strategy is the right one. Let me assure the House: the defeat of Daesh is a goal to which the Government are utterly committed.
House adjourned at 6.52 pm.