Iraqi forces continue to make good progress against Daesh. East Mosul was freed in January; west Mosul operations are on track. Yesterday, RAF Typhoons supported the Iraqi forces in Mosul by demolishing a Daesh base. Syrian Democratic Forces are less than 10 km from Daesh’s stronghold in Raqqa, backed by RAF strikes, including one yesterday on a large Daesh headquarters.
Yes, we need to keep up the pressure on both. With coalition help, Syrian Democratic Forces are making good progress in operations to isolate Raqqa. Senior coalition officers, including some from the UK, are now working on how the coalition might best support the liberation of Raqqa. They are visiting coalition sites in northern Syria as needed to co-ordinate coalition support and to engage partner forces.
There have been recent reports from Iraq of mass graves being uncovered in territory formerly held by Daesh, including the discovery of 4,000 bodies at al-Khasfa, near Mosul. What support is the Ministry of Defence offering the Iraqi Government to ensure that the foul perpetrators are brought to justice swiftly?
We work with other countries in the region to co-ordinate efforts to manage the threat posed by the dispersal of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. Around 30,000 to 40,000 extremists from around the world have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011. Many will be killed in combat or will relocate to other Daesh-held areas. Our current assessment is that a large-scale dispersal is unlikely.
Let me make it very clear that the Royal Air Force, in its precision air strikes, makes every effort to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. We work very closely with organisations such as Airwars. Where there are allegations that civilians have died as a result of coalition air strikes, we want those allegations fully investigated.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that we are doing everything possible to help local indigenous forces on the ground with the liberation of Mosul and the defeat of Daesh, not only in relation to equipment and ammunition, but with regard to access to medical care, protective equipment such as helmets and body armour, and getting the right supplies and expertise for their wounded?
Let me give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am proud that British forces have trained nearly 40,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops over the past couple of years. Much of that training has been devoted to reducing the number of casualties that those troops are likely to have to face in operations in the Euphrates river valley and operations to liberate Mosul, and is exactly along the lines that he suggests.
We have obviously seen significant success in Mosul in recent months, and I am sure that the whole House joins me in sending our prayers and gratitude to those serving in our forces, but can you tell us what lessons we are learning from our success in Mosul, so that we can apply them effectively to the battle in Raqqa?
I shall do my best, Mr Speaker. The campaign in Mosul is particularly complicated. West Mosul, in particular, is a very densely urban area—it is twice the density of east Mosul—so precision strikes in support of ground forces are all the more difficult for coalition aircraft, but as the campaign goes on, the use of precision air power and the training that the Iraqi forces have received make it more and more likely that they will, in the end, be successful, both in Iraq and, later on, in Syria.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to stabilise these areas as quickly as possible—again, not simply by giving them access to essential services, but by encouraging a process of political reconciliation that ensures that in the Sunni areas, particularly in the Nineveh and Anbar provinces, the Sunnis feel that they have a sufficient stake in the future development of Iraq. I have made that point to the Prime Minister of Iraq and its President, and to the coalition commanders.
Have the UK Government received any requests from their allies in the fight against Daesh to deploy ground troops in and around Raqqa? Can the Secretary of State confirm that, if that request came in, Parliament would have an opportunity to vote on the matter?
I have been clear with the House that we are not committing combat troops to Syria. I referred to the presence there of some coalition commanders, who have been assessing the situation on the ground, but we are not committing combat troops to the fight in Syria, and if we were to do so, of course we would come back to Parliament.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm the importance that we place on our defence co-operation with the Egyptian Government, and pledge further support to Egypt as it seeks to contain the Daesh threat in north Africa and Sinai?
Yes, I can confirm that. I met General Hegazy, the chief of the defence staff of Egypt, on his recent visit to this country. Of course, Egypt has a big part to play in ensuring that the different factions and loyalties in Libya can be brought together for a political settlement in that country.
On my recent visit to Cyprus, I was privileged to meet the dedicated RAF crews who work night and day to keep up the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I am concerned that there is currently no specific medal to recognise the dedication and bravery of the servicemen and women on Operation Shader. In doing their duty, these men and women are protecting UK citizens from the threat posed by Daesh as well as defending civilians in the region. Will the Secretary of State now commit to recognising their service with a specific Operation Shader medal?
I am glad that the hon. Lady had a successful visit to our forces in Cyprus. I am sure that the whole House will join her in recognising and thanking our brave servicemen and women, who have contributed tirelessly to this campaign for more than two and a half years. The operational recognition board at our permanent joint headquarters is keeping the issue of the medal under review. As soon as a decision is made on the appropriate medallic recognition for Operation Shader, an announcement will be made to this House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. It is heartening to see the real progress that is being made to liberate Mosul and the role that our forces are playing in that, and yet we know that it is only part of a wider campaign to eradicate Daesh in the region. As the focus will soon turn to Syria, where there are considerably greater challenges, will he tell us in greater detail what role he expects the RAF to play in the battle for Raqqa and other Daesh strongholds?
It is important to recognise that Daesh has lost a considerable amount of territory in Syria as well as in Iraq, not least due to the efforts of the coalition air operation in which the RAF is playing a major part in gathering intelligence and carrying out precision strikes, as recently as yesterday in the area immediately surrounding Raqqa. We will continue to play that part, providing precision air strikes, gathering intelligence from the air and doing what we can to ensure that Daesh is driven out of Syria, as I hope it will shortly be driven out of Iraq.