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Syria: British Armed Forces

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 24 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether any British Armed Forces, in particular air assets, are involved in operations over Syria identifying and targeting ISIL.

My Lords, UK air assets are currently involved in operations over Syria as part of the global coalition against Daesh, and we remain fully committed to the coalition and the air campaign.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. It is extremely worrying that our ally President Trump has turned that arena into an extremely dangerous place. There is no doubt that President Putin has a visceral dislike of NATO, yet the Turks, who are part of NATO, now have double digit SAM missile systems. These need the SIF settings, which enable a very special type of fire. Those settings are available to the Turks as members of NATO. Therefore, they are available to the Russian technicians as well. Russians are working with the Turks on the border. This is highly dangerous, and I have real concerns. Our airmen, who have done a splendid job out there, have been put in a position where it is not at all clear who is actually controlling the air region—there is a threat from Turks as well as Russians and Syrians. This is a different situation. Are we absolutely sure that we have in place the mechanisms to ensure the safety of our brave airmen?

I thank the noble Lord for making a very important point. He is absolutely right: this is a situation of turbulence and uncertainty, and implicit in that is great potential risk and danger. The United Kingdom has always been clear in relation to Syria as a whole that we want a political solution. We are focusing our attention on trying to deal with Daesh. Turkey of course remains an important ally within NATO. It may be reassuring to know that the Secretary of State for Defence is meeting NATO allies today and tomorrow, and north-east Syria will be very much on the agenda.

My Lords, can we assume from my noble friend’s answers to the noble Lord, Lord West, that we continue to support our old friends and allies the Kurds in their efforts to fight ISIS, despite the fact that Turkey and Russia are now taking over control of the region?

My noble friend raises an important point. We will be looking very closely at Monday’s agreement between Turkey and Russia, including any impact on the local population. I make clear to the Chamber that the United Kingdom will not recognise any demographic change in Syria brought about as a result of deliberate attempts to force population changes. We are very clear that parties need to act on a properly negotiated and sensible basis.

My Lords, on 17 October our two NATO allies, the US and Turkey, agreed that operations must target only terrorists, their hide-outs, et cetera. Who do Her Majesty’s Government understand the terrorists to be? In line with the question from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, can she reassure us that that does not include the Kurds, with whom we have been working in Syria? Even if our NATO allies identify some people as terrorists, we need to be sure that we support the Kurds.

Let me be clear that the United Kingdom focus on Syria has always been on Daesh, which is a lethal, toxic threat. That continues to be where our efforts are focused.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the report that the mayor of Limassol, the town close to the Akrotiri peninsula, wishes to expand its tourism arrangements on to the peninsula and believes that it is time that the United Kingdom gave up the sovereign base area there? Have the Government reacted to these proposals?

I should say to the noble and gallant Lord that the United Kingdom enjoys a very good relationship with the Republic of Cyprus, which includes a cordial relationship as regards our sovereign base areas. Of course, our sovereign base areas have been critical to our capability to endeavour to take action against Daesh in Syria.

My Lords, is it not clear that, as a result of President Trump’s decision, we are witnessing a major geopolitical shift in the region in favour of Russia? What protocols or understandings are there with Russia to ensure that there is no clash between Russian planes and our own?

I can reassure the noble Lord that we have set procedures for handling the airspace above Syria. He is right that, given the number of parties operating over Syria now, the airspace is congested, but that is no different from the conditions during earlier counter-Daesh operations. There are procedures to ensure that air activity is appropriately deconflicted and handled in a safe and professional manner. Those are the rules by which the United Kingdom abides, as do our allies.

My Lords, my noble friend has referred twice to Daesh, which is much bigger than ISIL. Events are moving very fast in the region, but Daesh goes by different names in many different parts of the world. Can she assure us that the Government are still firmly fixed on their main objective, which is the overall defeat of Daesh?

Let me reassure my noble friend without any ambiguity or ambivalence that the answer is yes. Daesh is the focus of our activity. I said earlier that Daesh is a lethal, toxic entity, and we owe it to the safety and security not just of the United Kingdom but of our friends and allies throughout the world to play our part in addressing that threat.

My Lords, having said that, has the noble Baroness had a chance to read the report in this morning’s Times by Anthony Loyd that the ISIS flag has again been flying above the al-Hawl camp where 68,000 family members of ISIS are held? Has she also yet had a chance to evaluate the list that I sent to her department naming jihadists who are now fighting alongside the Turkish army? Where does this leave the fight against terror and Turkey’s membership of NATO, as well as our obligations to bring those who are responsible for this genocide against minorities, both in northern Iraq and north-east Syria, to justice?

I am aware of the noble Lord’s earlier inquiry and, if he will permit me to do so, I shall respond to him in more detail. I said earlier that these are turbulent, difficult and unpredictable times. The United Kingdom is clear that we must be consistent and resolute in our approach to these difficult circumstances. I emphasise that the focus of our activity is, if we can, to assist in a political solution within Syria but also, unequivocally, to deal with the continuing threat posed by Daesh.