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Iraq and Syria: RAF Campaign

Volume 616: debated on Monday 7 November 2016

The RAF’s significant contribution to the fight against Daesh is second only to that of the Americans. To date, we have conducted 1,048 airstrikes in Iraq and 67 in Syria. In Iraq, the RAF has helped Iraqi security forces to halt and push back Daesh, with about three quarters of the current strikes now supporting operations to retake Mosul. In Syria, the RAF has struck oilfields and supported the liberation of al-Shaddadi and Manbij.

What further support is the Secretary of State going to give to the Iraqi Kurdish forces in recapturing Mosul? He has outlined an up-to-date version of events, but what further support can he give them?

We are supporting the Mosul operation through airstrikes, through surveillance and reconnaissance from the air and, above all, through the training that we have supplied to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. I can tell the House that British troops have now trained more than 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, including Kurdish.

The Secretary of State will recall that the decision to launch airstrikes, both in Iraq and latterly in Syria, was taken not under the royal prerogative, but by resolution of this House. Does he agree that that precedent might well be useful in discussions in the months ahead?

My hon. Friend tempts me into a matter to be considered by this House a little later this afternoon.

Reports at the weekend suggest that the deployment and moves into Raqqa are imminent. Can the Secretary of State give us any update on what is going to happen and what support we will be providing to the efforts against Daesh in Raqqa?

Yes, I can tell the House that we expect operations to first isolate, then encircle and then liberate Raqqa to begin shortly. Our forces—the RAF—will be involved in a similar role there, providing intelligence and reconnaissance from the air, but they will also be providing close air support to troops on the ground.

The Royal Air Force is world renowned for the accuracy of its missile strikes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what I think is still happening, which is that innocent casualties are at an absolute minimum when the RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria?

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend on that, because we take great care to plan our missions in a way that will minimise the risk of civilian casualties in accordance with the rules of engagement that I laid down at the beginning of the campaign. In more than 1,000 airstrikes now conducted by the RAF as part of the campaign, we have found no evidence yet of civilian casualties, and we do carry out an assessment after each of the British strikes.

In the run-up to Remembrance Day, we think of all those who have served our country as well as those who are currently serving it around the world, and we remember the immense sacrifices that have been made to defend our freedoms.

We support the RAF’s involvement in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. Daesh has used the city as its headquarters to plot attacks against British citizens, and it is vital that that evil organisation is routed for good. Before launching the operation to free Mosul, the Iraqi Government made careful plans about exactly which groups would be allowed to enter the city to avoid the real risk of sectarian violence. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether similar plans have been made in respect of Raqqa?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Let me formally welcome her and her team to Defence questions, and echo the tributes that she paid—and that we will all be paying over the next few days—to the work of our armed forces here and around the globe.

The hon. Lady is right that a lot of work went into the preparation of the Mosul campaign to ensure that there was sufficient reassurance for its predominantly Sunni population that the way that it was to be isolated, encircled and eventually liberated would not further exacerbate the tensions in that already complex city. Raqqa is predominantly an Arab city, and it is the coalition’s view that its encirclement and liberation should be accomplished by a predominantly Arab force.

We are also all deeply concerned about Russia’s corrosive role in the Syrian conflict. Its planes have hit schools and aid convoys and now, as we understand it, the signs are that it is preparing for a devastating assault on Aleppo. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that what the people of Aleppo want is an immediate cessation of hostilities. What is the Government’s strategy for achieving a meaningful ceasefire agreement?

I think there is agreement across the House that Russia’s actions speak far louder than its words. The key is to stop the violence and return to the cessation of hostilities as originally agreed. There have been a number of these ceasefires and, in each case, they have been broken by the Assad regime and its Russian supporters. It really is time now that Russia called a halt to the slaughter and got engaged with us in finding a political settlement so that Syria can finally live in peace.