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Counter-Daesh: Quarterly Update

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made early today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the counter-Daesh campaign. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the counter-Daesh campaign, following the December and February Statements by my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary. The attacks in Brussels in March remind us of the importance of defeating this terror. Since December’s decisive vote to extend air strikes to Syria we have stepped up our air campaign and today I want to set out the UK’s contribution to military operations and our wider efforts to defeat Daesh.

We now have 1,100 military personnel in the region on this campaign. I know the House will join me in paying tribute to them and their families. The RAF conducted 761 airstrikes in Iraq and, since December, 42 in Syria—more than any nation besides the United States. As well as providing close air support, we are targeting Daesh’s communications, command and control, and infrastructure. We also provide crucial intelligence and surveillance.

We have more than 250 troops in Iraq, who trained more than 13,000 Iraqi security forces, mainly in countering improvised explosive devices. The extra troops I announced in March have started to deploy and 22 Engineering Regiment in Wiltshire is providing bridge-building training, while MoD Hospital Unit Northallerton is providing medical expertise. The military campaign is making progress. In Iraq, Daesh is on the back foot. It has lost territory, its finances have been targeted and its leadership has been struck. Around 40% of Daesh-held territory has been retaken, including Ramadi and, last month, Hit. Preparatory operations for the encirclement of Mosul are under way, and at the weekend Prime Minister al-Abadi announced the beginning of an operation to retake Fallujah—but this will be a long fight.

In Syria, the civil war, the persistence of Daesh and Russia’s intervention create a complex situation. Despite the so-called cessation of hostilities, the regime continues to hammer the moderate opposition. In Aleppo, hospitals and schools have been repeatedly shelled. On 4 May, the UK called an urgent session of the UN Security Council to highlight the regime’s atrocities. Russia, the Assad regime’s protector, must apply pressure to end this violence. None the less, Daesh has lost ground and been driven from al-Shadadi, a major supply route from Mosul to Raqqa. Coalition airstrikes destroyed an estimated $800 million of Daesh’s cash stockpiles, while the RAF struck oilfields in eastern Syria which were major sources of revenue. We must build on this progress. Earlier this month, coalition Defence Ministers reviewed what further support coalition countries could offer and we are looking at what more the UK can do.

Daesh cannot be defeated by military means alone. This brings me to our wider strategy. First, on counter-ideology, the UK led the creation of a coalition communications cell to undermine Daesh’s failing proposition that they are winning militarily, building a viable state and represent the only true form of Islam. Some in the media criticised our proactive efforts to discredit Daesh’s perverted ideology. We make no apology for seeking to stop people being radicalised and becoming Daesh suicide bombers or foot soldiers. Secondly, we support political reform and reconciliation in Iraq, the ending of the civil war in Syria and the transition of Assad from power. The UK is helping to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh so people can return to a safe environment. We have contributed to UN-led efforts to remove improvised explosive devices, to increase water availability to above pre-conflict levels in Tikrit, and to rebuild schools, police stations and electricity generators across Anbar and Nineveh provinces.

In Syria, long-term success means a political settlement that delivers a government representing all Syrians and whom we can work with to tackle Daesh. Last week, the International Syria Support Group reaffirmed its determination to strengthen the cessation of hostilities and set a deadline of 1 June for full humanitarian access to besieged areas. It is concerning that, despite this agreement, attacks have continued and armed groups are on the brink of withdrawing from the cessation of hostilities. We support UN Special Envoy de Mistura’s efforts to resume Syrian peace negotiations, the success of which depend on respect for the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and discussion of transition by both sides.

Thirdly, the UK is playing a full role, alongside our partners, in addressing the humanitarian crisis. At the London conference, we doubled our commitment to Syria and the region to £2.3 billion, which has already delivered 20 million food rations and relief items for more than 4.6 million people. But there remain 13.5 million people in need inside Syria. The regime continues to remove vital medical supplies from aid convoys, violating international law. It is outrageous that aid has become a weapon of war.

Fourthly, we are stemming the flow of foreign fighters, including supporting improved international co-ordination. At least 50 countries and the UN now pass fighter profiles to Interpol—a 400% increase over two years. The coalition estimates that the numbers of fighters joining Daesh have fallen to around 200 a month from a peak of up to 2,000. As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we have seen new branches appear, most concerningly in Libya. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli last month to reiterate support to Prime Minister Sarraj, and I spoke to the new Libyan Defence Minister yesterday, repeating our offer of assistance to the new Government of National Accord.

Last Monday, the international community reaffirmed support for the new Government and underlined the need for enhanced co-ordination between legitimate Libyan security forces to fight Daesh and UN-designated terrorist groups. Britain would provide training and support only at the invitation of the Libyan Government or other authority. I reiterate: there are no plans to deploy troops in a combat role.

Since this House supported extending military operations, we have intensified our efforts to defeat Daesh. There is a long way to go, and political progress must match military progress. But we should be encouraged. The fight may be long, but it is one we will win. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and join him in paying tribute to our service men and women and their families, whose support and affection is constant and much needed.

It is important that Parliament is not ignored and is kept up to date by the Government when our forces are in action, wherever that is in the world. For some years now our democracy has benefited from the convention that government should consult Parliament when planning to send forces into conflict, and testing the opinion of Parliament in a vote in the other place. On top of this, we have come to demand that the Government keep Parliament informed whenever our forces are engaged in conflict. After all, has not Parliament just passed the Armed Forces Act, without which there is no legal basis to maintain an army in this country in peacetime?

Having said that, we recognise, of course, that at times there is a need for very tight security surrounding some operations. The war waged against humanity by this evil ISIL has shocked people around the globe. Britain, like many other nations, has joined battle with the evil in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and it is right that we have done so. The Government, for their part, have published considerable detail of our air strikes and are to be congratulated on their transparency.

In answer to a Written Question I tabled in March, the Minister said:

“Between 2 December 2015 and 14 March 2016 there were 36 UK airstrikes in Syria and 236 in Iraq”.

He went on to say:

“Among the targets successfully engaged by UK aircraft were oil facilities, which Daesh used to generate revenue to fund their campaign, and command and control centres”.

This is welcome news, but throughout our exchanges going back months on this matter, the Minister will remember that on this side we have pressed strongly for our air-strike capacity to be deployed to destroy ISIL’s oil-exporting capability.

The Statement today gives some detail of our successes in attacking oil fields in eastern Syria, but can the Minister say more about the extent to which our air strikes have degraded, and indeed destroyed, ISIL’s oil-exporting capability? More than that, is it true that ISIL is exporting oil through Turkey and through Syria in areas controlled by the Assad regime? If the former claim is correct, have we raised the matter with the Turkish Government? If the latter is correct, what steps have we taken, both militarily and diplomatically, by raising the matter with the Russians, whose influence on Assad is as strong as ever?

During our debate on Syria on 2 December last year, I said that tracking money around the globe is more of a challenge. Since then, we have seen the publication of the Panama papers. That issue, together with last week’s anti-corruption summit, which it is hoped will lead to greater transparency in global financial dealings, must afford an opportunity to do even more to cut off funds for ISIL. The Statement reveals that we have destroyed an estimated $800 million of ISIL’s cash stockpiles, presumably located in Syria. However, London is the world’s chief marketplace for financial transactions. I understand the need for caution here, but can the Minister say, even in the broadest terms, what success we have had in cutting off ISIL’s international funding for its evil exploits?

At the time of the SDSR, the Government announced massive increases in spending on cyber. Have we had success in employing cyber intelligence to track and cut off ISIL’s money and investments? I accept the need for caution here so as not to impede operations already in place, but can the Minister say what success we have had in discovering which organisations are being used to move ISIL’s funds around the globe, especially through London?

At the start of our debates on action in Syria, we were told by the Prime Minister that there were some 70,000 fighters not infected by ISIL or some other terrorist group, waiting to join us and our allies to defeat ISIL on the ground. What success have we had in engaging, collaborating and working with these fighters? I have no doubt that the defeat of ISIL will not be achieved by air power alone; it will need ground forces.

Finally, will the Minister say a little more about the peace talks? When my noble friend Lady Smith opened the Syria debate on this side, she stressed the importance of gaining a peaceful outcome for Syria and its people. The Statement today rightly describes Russia as Assad’s protector. Will the Minister say more about Britain’s role in trying to bring all sides together, especially in engaging with the Russians, without whom there will be no peace in Syria?

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and questions. He asked a number of the latter, the first of which was about access by Daesh to oil. We have no evidence that Governments in the region are buying Daesh oil, with the exception of the Assad regime. Regional countries, including Turkey, have increased their efforts to counter smuggling. The majority of Daesh oil is sold internally, within Daesh-held territory. There is no doubt that our international efforts, including sanctions, have made it harder for Daesh to trade oil. Our military effort with coalition partners has successfully targeted Daesh oil facilities and infrastructure. We have destroyed or damaged over 1,200 oil infrastructure targets and reduced Daesh oil production by around 30%.

Broadly, the military operation has enabled us to drive Daesh out of territory from which it takes tax revenues. We are militarily degrading its ability to earn revenue from oil and we are using international sanctions to cut it off from external sources of revenue. The issue of countering Daesh finances is regularly raised at meetings with officials and Ministers around the region, including at the recent Coalition Counter-ISIL Finance Group, the Financial Action Task Force meeting in Paris in February, and the Chatham House counterterrorism funding conference on 8 February.

I mentioned Turkey a second ago. We regularly engage the Turks on the issue of Daesh’s finances. I say again: there is no evidence that Turkey is purchasing Daesh oil. In fact, Turkey has taken very active steps to tackle oil-smuggling across its border with Syria, including by greatly increasing the number of border guards. The Turks have reported that 79 million litres of smuggled oil were intercepted in 2014. In the period January to October 2015, that had dropped to 1.22 million litres. So it appears that they are making a very considerable difference.

The noble Lord asked about our support for fighters in the region. Subject to parliamentary approval, the MoD is planning to provide the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq with more than £1 million worth of ammunition to equip the Peshmerga. The UK is providing significant support to the Kurdish Peshmerga to assist them in the fight against Daesh. We have already provided them with more than 50 tonnes of non-lethal support, 40 heavy machine guns, nearly half a million rounds of ammunition, and £600,000 worth of military equipment. To date, we have trained more than 3,300 Kurdish Peshmerga.

As regards the negotiations to bring about a peace in Syria, UN Special Envoy de Mistura has conducted three rounds of talks with the parties in Geneva, and this pattern is set to continue. We never expected the UN-brokered negotiations to deliver instant results. We are clear, however, that a negotiated political settlement is the only way to end the conflict, and we are working with our international partners to help to create conditions on the ground that are conducive to negotiations continuing. In its statement of 17 May, the ISSG reaffirmed its determination,

“to strengthen the Cessation of Hostilities”,


“to ensure full and sustained humanitarian access”,

so that the parties can return to negotiations to reach agreement on political transition. We hope the parties will resume negotiations soon.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I join him and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in commending the work of our service men and women. This was echoed in yesterday’s debate.

There must be absolute clarity about what Syria and Iraq would look like post-Daesh and about what post-conflict strategy, including an exit strategy, will give the best chance of avoiding a power vacuum. It might seem optimistic to think of Syria post-crisis, but what stage has been reached in determining what needs to be done? Is there any sort of embryonic Marshall plan? As the Minister said, clearly Kurds are at risk in Syria and Iraq. He has outlined some of the steps that the Government have taken in training, but will he indicate what support has been given by Turkey?

Finally, the battle against Daesh in Syria and Iraq is ongoing, but will the Minister give us some indication of the work that is being done against Daesh here in the UK? At the beginning of the Statement, he highlighted the events in Brussels. Brussels is down the road. I would be really quite interested to hear what progress we are making in beating Daesh in the UK.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her very relevant questions. She asked about the post-settlement strategy in Syria. It is perhaps too early for me to give her substantive information on that. Clearly, the priority is to achieve that settlement. We are actively supporting the negotiations through our participation in the ISSG, including in the ISSG task forces on the cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access, and our engagement with the opposition. The Foreign Secretary has attended all four meetings of the ISSG and a ministerial meeting of the United Nations Security Council on 18 December, at which UN Security Council Resolution 2254 was passed. We are also offering technical advice, including on strategy and diplomatic handling, and logistical support to the opposition negotiating team, alongside our international partners. However, I can tell her, as I am sure she knows, that as and when a settlement is achieved, the UK has promised a further £1 billion to assist in the reconstruction of Syria.

As regards Turkey, there is no doubt that Turkey is making a critical contribution to the international campaign against Daesh. It is a key member of the global coalition and co-chair of the foreign terrorist fighters working group, and it is making a really strong contribution to stopping extremists from reaching Iraq and Syria. The Turks have detained more than 2,500 Daesh suspects. We should remember too that Turkey has itself been a victims of Daesh attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere. It is also housing 2.7 million refugees. We should pay tribute to the efforts that the Turks have made in this very difficult area.

The noble Baroness asked about the effort at home. We are continuing the Prevent strategy, which has undoubtedly made a difference. Thousands of people in the UK have been safeguarded from targeting by extremists and terrorist recruiters, which incidentally includes those at risk from far-right and neo-Nazi extremism as well as those vulnerable to Islamist extremism. In the last year, we have considerably increased our programme of Prevent activity through our network of Prevent professionals, working with more than 2,790 different institutions and engaging nearly 50,000 individuals during last year. Although to some the Prevent name has acquired a slightly pejorative ring to it, nevertheless it is the right thing to be doing to protect those most vulnerable.

My Lords, would the noble Earl add to his plaudits those non-military government officials who have been working in parallel with the military? In particular, in relation to Prevent, which he has just mentioned, would he confirm for example that RICU, the Research Information and Communications Unit of the Home Office, has taken down many thousands of violent Islamist and other extremist sites? Would he also confirm that the balance of the propaganda battle is now against Daesh and in favour of our authorities?

I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. Since December 2013, 101,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist material have been taken down from the internet. That brings the overall total to 120,000 since February 2010, when the police Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit was set up. The unit makes 100 referrals a day related to Syria.

My Lords, the military action against jihadism started in Afghanistan in 2001. My noble friend may have seen reports that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and indeed plotting attacks against the West from there. Could he give me any indication as to whether those reports are to be given credence? Secondly, if so, what can or should the British Government do in conjunction with allies and the Afghan Government to counter this?

My noble friend has strayed slightly from the anti-Daesh theme of the Statement, but I can tell him that we are concerned that al-Qaeda is regaining some of its former footholds in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban has made recent gains as well, particularly in Helmand. This is something that we and our allies are looking at very closely. The Afghan armed forces have risen to the challenge that has faced them, but we are in no doubt that that challenge is increasing.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that the Government had received criticism for their proactive countering of the Daesh and jihadist narrative and ideology. My own view is that the Government are absolutely right and deserve the support of this House. This phenomenon will not be defeated by force of arms alone: countering both the narrative and the underpinning ideology of the jihadists is an essential component in countering radicalisation, recruitment and ultimately their operational effectiveness.

The Minister mentioned the flow of jihadist recruiters to Syria. He did not say anything about the returnees. Will he say a quick word about what action is being taken to ensure the protection of the United Kingdom from those returning from Syria and, in particular, surveillance or deradicalisation programmes?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the Prevent strategy. Currently, the greatest threat comes from terrorist recruiters inspired by Daesh. Our Prevent programme will necessarily reflect that by prioritising support for vulnerable Muslims and working in partnership with British Muslim communities and civil society groups. I do not have up-to-date information about the extent to which we have been able to intercept and assist—in the right sense—those returning from the Middle East, but I shall gain data from the Home Office, if I may, and write to the noble Lord about that.

My Lords, Daesh cannot be defeated by military means alone. It lives and exists on a distorted ideology of religion. It is important to look at religion itself. If religions tell people what to do, they should be open to criticism. The Koran is an historic text. There are things written in the Koran for a particular period for a particular purpose. They have no relevance at all and it is false and wrong for anyone to say that any religious text is the word of God. The Koran says some good things about how to treat slaves better, but would we say today that the Koran condones slavery? It is very important to ensure that religious texts are taken in context and common sense is used to interpret them. Words such as “prevent” and “radicalisation” actually fog meaning rather than explain it. We need to get at what we are actually teaching, and the Government need to do much more with the Muslim clerics to explain Islam in the context of today, so that people know that this is a false ideology.

The noble Lord makes a series of very good points. Only this morning, I was down in Shrivenham, at the international military religious leaders’ conference, where from 19 nations we have 40 representatives of mainly Muslim denominations, all of them Army, RAF or Navy officers, coming together to share experiences in this area. I attended a lecture on the very subject that the noble Lord mentions. I have personally visited mosques and spoken to imams, and there is no doubt that around the country the Government are engaging with Islamic religious leaders to ensure exactly the point that he makes: that where the Koran is preached, it is preached correctly and no fog of meaning surrounds the words that are bandied about.

My Lords, following up that question, have Ministers had time to consider the reports in the press last weekend of concerns expressed by Sir Michael Wilshaw about illegal schools, often Islamic schools, operating here in the United Kingdom teaching in a way that promotes extremism? What action are the Government taking to sort out this problem, because these schools are often recruiting areas for people who end up with Daesh?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. It is slightly outside my brief, as that is a Home Office matter, as he will appreciate. But I am aware that there is considerable concern across government about schools of the kind he mentioned, particularly unregistered schools, where a false ideology is being promoted. Again, I shall consult Home Office colleagues and, if I can give the noble Lord up-to-date information, I shall be happy to write to him.

The Minister mentioned the spread of Daesh to Libya—and one of the principal victims of Libya is, of course, Egypt. What help are we giving to Egypt to counter the increased Daesh activity on its borders?

My Lords, we are in close touch with the Egyptians about this, and we share their concern about the spread of Daesh in Libya. We welcome the signing of the Libyan political agreement in December for the establishment of a Government of National Accord to restore a measure of security and stability in Libya. We know that the Egyptians are also supportive of the new Government in any way that they are able. All I can say to the noble Lord is that we will continue to play an active role and encourage the Government in Libya to make sure that, as the Libyan state authority is re-established across national territory, we see respect for human rights being considered as an important part of rebuilding governance—and, of course, we impress that message on the Egyptians as well.

The noble Earl will forgive me if I press him a little further on the issue of Libya, where Daesh has now established bases on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, within easy reach of southern Europe. I also ask him to take into account the well-founded reports that Daesh has formed an association with Boko Haram. Military success is obviously to be welcomed but, if a consequence of that is displacing the activity of Daesh into further acts of terrorism, it is clear that we must have a strategy to deal with that. Precisely what is that strategy?

My Lords, clearly, there is concern about the spread of Daesh’s influence and geographical presence in Libya. We have been very clear that we have the convention, which we should observe, that, if we had plans to send conventional troops for training in Libya, we would of course consult Parliament. That is why the noble Lord has heard nothing to date about that. Nevertheless, we look with concern at what is happening. Now that there are a Government of National Accord in Libya, we look to them to request help from us if they so choose. For example, we stand ready to send British resources to assist in training the Libyan army. As for the link-up with Boko Haram, there is prima facie evidence that what the noble Lord says is correct, which must be another issue of concern. We are in touch with allies such as France in that connection. This is quite a fast-moving situation; I will be happy to update the noble Lord if there is further detail that I can provide him with.

My Lords, the noble Earl has acknowledged that the struggle against Daesh will not be won by military means alone. I commend the Government for their growing realism in their approach to the Assad regime. The enemies of our enemies may not be our friends, but they can be useful in this very long struggle.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a profound point. Nevertheless, we are clear that Assad cannot form part of a long-term solution in Syria. He has passed the point where that might once have been an option. It is clear that the Syrians want change, and we think that the Syrian peace process in Geneva is the route to that change.

My Lords, the answer to the previous question does affect very many people. Is it not a fact that, unless the Assad problem can be solved and the United States Government and our Government withdraw their demand that he should be deposed, it would be far better to end the war with Assad and then have elections so that he can be tested by the will of the people?

My Lords, there is no doubt that Syria needs transition to a new Government able to meet the needs of the Syrian people as a whole. That is why our position on Assad is unchanged. That regime is responsible for the current crisis in Syria. The barbarity it has meted out—the barrel bombs, the chlorine, the siege tactics, the interception of medical supplies to those in need—is the main driver of the refugee crisis. We do not think that Assad can form any possible part of a future regime, and the transition has to take place by another means.

My Lords, will the Minister enlighten the House as to how many elections President Assad won without the will of the people?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord is better informed than I am of the political history of Syria. There is no doubt that Assad does not now command the support he once clearly did.