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Counter-Daesh Update

Volume 627: debated on Thursday 13 July 2017

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on the counter-Daesh campaign in Iraq and Syria and the UK’s involvement in this collective effort by some 68 coalition nations as well as the Arab League, Interpol, the European Union and NATO.

On Monday, three years after Daesh leader al-Baghdadi declared his so-called caliphate at the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul, Prime Minister Abadi declared victory in Mosul. It was an important moment. Today, Daesh’s black flags no longer fly. Its fighters are dead or fleeing, and only very small pockets of resistance remain in west Mosul. I am sure that the whole House will join me in praising those involved in the operation. Over the past nine months, Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish peshmerga, have fought in incredibly challenging conditions to root out a callous enemy. Over 1,200 Iraqi soldiers have been killed in the fight for Mosul and more than 6,000 have been wounded; I pay tribute to their courage and sacrifice. They have been supported since September 2014, with the permission of this House, by the RAF, whose precision strikes represent two-thirds of the coalition effort outside the US operations against more than 750 Daesh targets. The Army has trained more than 58,000 local Iraqi personnel in skills from counter-IED to medical support. The Royal Navy has helped to protect the US and French aircraft carriers from which strikes have been flown. The UK’s cyber-capability has helped to disrupt the extremists’ activities. As a result, in Iraq more than 1.8 million people have been freed from Daesh’s cruel rule.

Daesh has now lost more than 70% of the territory that it once occupied in Iraq, but the liberation of Mosul does not mean that Daesh has been defeated in Iraq, or indeed in Syria. We in this country need no reminding of the danger that Daesh still poses. In the past few months, our nation has suffered three appalling attacks inspired by the ideology shared by Daesh. We must continue our comprehensive strategy to defeat it, and I want to update the House on three areas.

The first is the military effort. We must ensure that there are no safe havens for Daesh in Syria and Iraq. That is why Iraqi security forces, with United Kingdom support, will go on to defeat Daesh in Tal Afar and Hawija, uproot it from the Euphrates river valley, and clear the area of the improvised explosive devices that threaten the lives of so many innocent civilians. As Iraq is secured—we have some months to go—we will in Syria continue supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have so far ejected Daesh from around 51% of the territory it once held in Syria.

The battle for Raqqa—Daesh’s command and control centre—has begun. Syrian Democratic Forces currently control around 20% of that city. The SDF is relying heavily on coalition air assets, surveillance, reconnaissance, and pinpoint missile strikes, which we will continue to provide as part of the global coalition. As we maintain pressure on Mosul and Raqqa, we will continue to tighten the net around this callous organisation, squeezing the terrorists on simultaneous fronts, striking their senior leadership, countering their poisonous narrative, and cutting off their finances, as they progressively lose access to the oil infrastructure on which they relied.

The second area is humanitarian aid. We will continue to provide stabilisation and humanitarian assistance. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary updated this House yesterday on the humanitarian response required in Mosul, yet while that city can at last begin to look forward, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains dire: 13.5 million people urgently need humanitarian assistance; 4.5 million of them are in areas that are hard to reach, and 1.3 million of them live under siege-like conditions. It is estimated that around 100,000 civilians remain in Raqqa city, caught between Daesh and Assad, and in desperate need of aid.

Our response has been to commit £2.46 billion to support for Syria—the largest ever British response to a single humanitarian crisis—while pushing for better access, so that much-needed food and medicine can reach people, and for an end to attacks on civilians. UK support has helped to stabilise the region more widely. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have become hosts to large-scale Syrian populations. The Department for International Development has helped to ensure that those countries have been given the assistance that they need in hosting large refugee populations; this improves regional security and reduces consequent migration pressures in Europe.

The third area is stronger governance. Humanitarian aid is only part of the answer. A meaningful political settlement is needed now to guarantee sustainable peace, so we are working with our international allies to strengthen regional governance. With regard to Iraq, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary emphasised to Foreign Minister al-Jaafari at their recent meeting in London, that means focusing on inclusive politics post-Mosul, allaying fears, addressing the grievances that led to the rise of Daesh, and sticking to the April 2018 election timetable.

In Syria, the barbaric chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April reminds us that the Assad regime is no partner for peace. We continue to work for a transition towards new governance, which is fully representative and committed to protecting the rights of everyone in Syria. It is for Syrians to decide how that happens, as part of a Syrian-led transition process, but to reach that goal we continue to support the work of United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura as well as the political process he is overseeing in Geneva. We are engaging with the opposition to help them move towards a political settlement, and we use our role in the Security Council and our participation in the International Syria Support Group to push for progress.

The recently negotiated ceasefire and de-escalation agreement brokered by the United States, Russia and Jordan is welcome. We hope it will lead to further de-escalation agreements and generate renewed momentum in the political process, but that all depends on all the parties involved, which we encourage now to comply. We have seen these agreement before. What will count is what holds on the ground.

As I took office three years ago, Daesh was closing in on the gates of Baghdad. Today it is a failing organisation, but one that remains a threat. Mosul has now been liberated, but the war remains to be won in Iraq as well as in Syria. Our resolve, as a leading member of the coalition, is unwavering. We will continue to do all we can to defeat Daesh, counter its warped ideology, bring stability to the region, and provide greater security to our people and our allies at home and abroad.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it.

The liberation of Mosul marks the end of three years of Daesh control of the city, and we pay tribute to all the personnel who have taken part in the campaign, especially to our servicemen and women who have served in Operation Shader. Although the battle for Mosul has almost concluded, the fight against Daesh in Iraq and the wider region is far from over. Will the Secretary of State tell us about the nature of the support that the UK will continue to provide to Iraqi ground troops as they advance westward to clear the remaining towns and cities in Iraq that are under Daesh control?

Our armed forces have taken every precaution to prevent civilian casualties, and intelligence and targeting are vital to that, but the Secretary of State will be aware that Amnesty International has produced a report that is highly critical of the Iraqi Government and the coalition. It has been alleged that the actions of the coalition in Mosul have been “disproportionate” and even “unlawful”. Major General Rupert Jones, the deputy commander of the international anti-Daesh coalition, has condemned the report in the strongest possible terms, saying that it is “deeply irresponsible”. He has emphatically stated that we should not forget that it is Daesh that is “deliberately killing civilians”. What is the Secretary of State’s response to Amnesty’s report?

The Iraqi Government have concerns about the possibility of Daesh fighters crossing back into Iraq from Syria, so what role will our armed forces play in ensuring the security of the border between Iraq and Syria? As the operation against Daesh moves from one of counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism, the training that the UK provides to Iraqi forces will prove all the more essential. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the support and training that we will continue to give to the Iraqi ground forces?

The campaign against Daesh in Syria is undoubtedly more challenging and complex than in Iraq. Although I appreciate that there are limitations on what the Defence Secretary is able to tell the House, will he be a little more specific on the role our armed forces will have in the liberation of Raqqa from Daesh control?

Finally, as the Secretary of State will be aware, a number of Members on both sides of the House, including my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary, have been calling for an operational service medal for personnel on Operation Shader. As the campaign in Mosul draws to a close, I would suggest that it is now the time to provide proper recognition to all those who have served on that operation and played a vital part in the fight against Daesh and its perverse ideology.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said, particularly about the role of our servicemen. A large number of our servicemen and women have now served in this theatre for nearly three years, sometimes under the most intense conditions, and it is right that we should, on both sides of this House, pay tribute to them.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the next stage of this campaign. It is important to emphasise that Mosul itself has not finally fallen; there is still a small pocket of resistance. Indeed, a Tornado and a Typhoon were over the city yesterday, bombing a final Daesh position, so there is still work to be done there. There will be work to be done to assist Iraqi forces in the capture of Tal Afar and Nineveh, so the campaign goes on and may well become more complex as Daesh spreads out and moves to some of the less populated areas.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Amnesty report. I have not seen the Amnesty report as of yet, but I would certainly recommend that he does heed, as he has done, the words of Major General Rupert Jones, who is the deputy coalition commander. I can reassure the House that, so far as our own participation in the coalition is concerned, the airstrikes that we carry out are absolutely lawful and are conducted in accordance with the law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law. We have rigorous rules of engagement, which I set at the beginning of the campaign. There are very robust targeting procedures. Where the RAF are involved, they gather intelligence about the target they are aiming to strike. They strike it with a choice of weapon that is designed to absolutely minimise the risk of civilian casualties. They go back afterwards and do an assessment of the blast area and whether there were any unforeseen consequences.

Where there are allegations that the wrong building was hit or that there have been civilian casualties, again, we on the coalition side absolutely investigate those allegations. We publish the findings. This is in distinction to what the Russians and the Syrian regime have been doing in Syria. We investigate, we publish the findings, and if mistakes were made and procedures need to be corrected, that is done. But I want to assure the House that I have seen no evidence as of yet that an RAF strike has involved civilian casualties. I wait to see that evidence being produced, and if anybody has any evidence, it needs to be forwarded to us, as, indeed, other organisations, like Airwars, have been doing throughout the conflict, and we are ready to investigate. Otherwise, I would urge extreme caution in the handling of the Amnesty report.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the border area between Iraq and Syria. It is that middle bit of the Euphrates river valley where we now anticipate Daesh will coalesce, having been driven out of Raqqa in Syria eventually, and from Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq. Our training effort will now be, of course, in Iraq. The training we do at al-Asad airbase in Anbar province will be to improve the capability of the Iraqi forces to police their border, having secured it. We will be doing more of that in conjunction with our other allies.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the campaign in Syria. We will continue with airstrikes. Again yesterday, a pair of our aircraft were in action on the edge of Raqqa, assisting that campaign. There is a lot of work to be done before Raqqa is liberated, and other towns in the Euphrates river valley, such as Mayadin, remain under Daesh control. The air campaign—the reconnaissance and the intelligence-gathering—will probably become even more important as Daesh eventually moves from Raqqa and starts to disperse round some of these smaller towns.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about medallic recognition. I think the whole House would want to see this huge effort properly rewarded. I am awaiting final advice from the military on that, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The reason why, surely, these cities have not been liberated sooner is precisely the care that is being taken in the targeting of the aerial bombardment. Does the Secretary of State accept that whereas the intervention with airstrikes in Iraq was non-controversial because we were prepared to see the army of the Iraqi Government win, the same does not apply in Syria? Apart from the Kurdish elements in Syria, who else does he expect to run the country when Daesh’s land is taken from it, if not the Syrian Government, with or without Assad?

Let me repeat your congratulations, Mr Deputy Speaker, to my right hon. Friend on resuming his chairmanship of the Select Committee. I look forward to working with him on that.

I know that my right hon. Friend and I have always differed on the nature of the Syrian campaign and that he has had reservations about it. He is right to recognise the difference in that we are not working with the Syrian regime. However, we do want to see Daesh driven out of Syria. It remains a threat—in Syria, to this country—and it needs to be defeated in Syria. But of course, as he says, we then need those parts of Syria returned to civilian control—a control that properly involves the Arab population as well as, in the north, the Kurdish elements. That is all part of the process that we are encouraging in Geneva. He is right that the solution lies in Arab-led governance.

I, too, thank the Defence Secretary for his statement and advance notice of it. Let me put on record the tribute of Scottish National party Members to the forces who have been involved, particularly in liberating Mosul to the extent that it has been. I also extend our congratulations to the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his re-election as Chair of the Defence Committee.

Scottish National party Members, and indeed the whole House, will welcome the diminished status that Daesh now has. While there is a difference of opinion as to how to move that from a diminished status to being defeated, there is of course unanimity that defeated it must be.

There are two particular areas of concern that I would like the Defence Secretary to address. The first is the dramatic rise in civilian casualties in the past few weeks. In June alone, there was a 52% increase on May’s estimated figure of 529 to 744, according to Airwars, which he mentioned in response to the shadow Minister. Airwars claims that of the 1,350 UK personnel fighting Daesh, not one is permanently tasked with monitoring civilian casualties. Will he make a commitment to greater scrutiny and transparency on that, and will he ensure that there are dedicated monitoring and investigation mechanisms within Operation Shader for UK forces?

The second point—the Defence Secretary knows of my particular concern about this because I have written to him specifically about it—is about the operation in Syria itself. The 2015 mandate of this House was very clearly about targeting Daesh, and nobody else in Syria. I tried to get some clarity from him on this on Monday. I do not know whether he misunderstood my question, but I did not get the clarity I was seeking. Will he confirm that the 2015 mandate to target Daesh stands, and that the Government have no plans to expand that target to any other actor; and that if they do, as the US President seems to wish the United Kingdom to do, it will happen only on the back of a debate and vote of Members of this House?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute he has paid to our armed forces. It is worth reminding the House that the Scottish nationalists voted against military action in both Iraq and Syria. It is all very well to say that they now welcome the fact that Daesh has been defeated in Iraq, but how much longer would Daesh have continued to behead people, to shoot people and to throw gays off buildings without air power, including British air power, and without the involvement of 68 countries around the world, but not the support of the Scottish nationalists? He should reflect on that.

We work with Airwars when it has allegations and suspects that there might have been British aircraft in the air at the time in question. We look at that information and investigate it. So far we have not found any evidence of civilian casualties being caused by a British strike, but we continue to work with Airwars, and if it has fresh evidence it should put it to us and we will investigate it. As I indicated, we also carry out what is called a battle damage assessment after any strike to see exactly what effect it has had and whether there is any risk that there may have been casualties.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the increase in civilian casualties in the final weeks of the battle in west Mosul. It is a highly compact and densely populated city, and Daesh pushed civilians into buildings, held them hostage and shot them if they tried to escape. This was intense urban warfare of a type that we have not been involved in since probably the second world war—a very complex military operation. However, it would not have been easier if it had been extended and we had let it drift on for months. The job had to be done, and I pay tribute to those involved in it, including our pilots for their skill and precision alongside the rest of the coalition.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Syria, as he did on Monday. He has also written to me about it—I have in fact replied to him; I signed the letter yesterday, but he may not have had it yet. It certainly gives clarity on the point that he raised with me.

Yes, indeed. The Abadi Government are representative of all parts of Iraq. Abadi himself is a Shi’a; the President of Iraq, whom I met, is a Kurd; and my opposite number, the Defence Minister, is a Sunni. They are a genuinely representative Government, but they have work to do to provide reassurance, particularly to the Sunni populations and tribes of Nineveh and Anbar provinces in the west, that they too have a stake in modern Iraq and must feel part of it, and that they will be protected from any kind of Shi’a aggression such as they have suffered from in the past. The Government are representative and have lasted longer than some critics originally suggested they would, but they now have a huge amount of work to do to stabilise the areas that have been liberated and promote genuine political reconciliation.

The Secretary of State referred twice to Staffan de Mistura’s negotiations in Geneva, but he did not mention the Russian-Turkish-Iranian initiative and the meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan. What is the British Government’s assessment of the role of that process and the fact that it seems to be undermining efforts in Geneva?

We support any genuine efforts to reduce violence in Syria and bring the civil war to an end, but we cannot endorse the Astana process for a number of reasons, principally because of the status it gives Iran as a guarantor of Syria’s future. That is not acceptable. We want the pluralist type of governance in Syria that we now have in Iraq, and that does not require further interference from Iran.

I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend refer in both his statement and his answers to the need for inclusive politics post-Mosul in order to win the peace, as well as the war, in Iraq. Can he assure the House that Her Majesty’s Government will keep up the pressure on the Abadi regime to ensure that the new governor of Mosul fully respects the rights and needs of all sections of the population there?

Absolutely. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes. It is now so important that the city administrations and the governorates get engaged in the process of political reconciliation. My Foreign Office colleagues and I continue to urge that on the Abadi Government as an absolute precondition for the kind of reconciliation that we want to see.

I welcome the liberation of Mosul and pay tribute to members of our armed forces who have been involved. The tactics used by Daesh mean that the cost to both the infrastructure and the people of Mosul has been great. Will the Secretary of State outline what strategy Iraq could take to rebuild the infrastructure of Mosul and to allow the return of those refugees who have fled Mosul over the past few years?

An encouraging number of dispossessed Maslawis—people of Mosul—are returning to east Mosul. They are returning in quite large numbers now, and markets and schools are beginning to reopen. West Mosul has of course been much more badly damaged than east Mosul and a huge amount of reconstruction has to be done there. That will be led by the United Nations Development Programme and its co-ordinator, but we will be playing our part financially and in the organisation of the rebuilding programme.

RAF pilots and service personnel have played a vital role in this coalition campaign, particularly my constituents flying from RAF Coningsby. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking my constituents who have taken part in Operation Shader? Will he explain, please, the vital role that the RAF plays in ensuring freedom of movement on the ground, which enables Iraqi forces to combat Daesh?

It is right that we pay tribute to the RAF, and not only to the pilots, who are always mentioned on occasions such as this, but to the huge numbers of other RAF members, such as the air crew, those who service, maintain and guard the planes, and those involved in the intelligence work of studying and preparing the targets. It has been a massive effort. The RAF is working at probably its highest tempo for more than a quarter of a century, and it is right that we should pay proper tribute to it.

The role of the RAF has been huge. Noticeably, more than 60% of the strikes not conducted by the United States in Mosul were conducted by the RAF and not by any other country, simply because of the precision of our pilots, the intelligence that goes into the selection of targets and the precision of the weapons that were chosen for each of those strikes. Now, the RAF will be increasingly involved in close air support as Daesh moves out of the cities and starts to coalesce along the Euphrates river valley.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the men and women of our armed forces and the civilians who support them. Given that operations against Daesh are likely to endure for some time and that since the previous defence and security review we have had a change to our national security context, a general election and a referendum in which Britain decided to leave the European Union, what plans do the Government now have to conduct a strategic defence and security review?

On the first point, as I indicated, the campaign in Iraq is not over. It has many months to run, and I expect British forces to be involved well into 2018. The situation in Syria is even more complex. The work of the RAF and Army trainers is likely to continue for some time.

The previous strategic defence review was only 18 months ago. The threats that were set out in it—from Russian aggression, Daesh, other terrorism and cyber—remain the principal ones facing this country. That review did not forecast the referendum or indeed its result, but I do not think we can blame defence intelligence for that—a lot of people did not predict that event. However, the review was only 18 months ago, although we will of course have a look to see if any of it needs any kind of refresh.

The role of the British armed forces in mentoring and training our Iraqi allies has been critical to the success of the operation. What plans do we have for continuing that support to the Iraqi military into the future?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question and I pay tribute to his own service. It is worth reminding the House that we are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government. Everything that we have done as part of the coalition has been with the authority and at the request and invitation of the Iraqi Government. Although we have not entered into those discussions, I anticipate that the Iraqi Government would welcome the continuation of the coalition’s training effort and indeed the support of air power until Daesh is completely eliminated from their borders.

We all welcome the progress made in defeating Daesh in Mosul and Raqqa and pay tribute to the bravery and tenacity of the forces on the ground and in the air in liberating so many people from Daesh’s cruel yoke. The Secretary of State has set out in great detail the effort that the RAF makes to avoid civilian casualties—rightly, in view of the terms of the resolutions of September 2014 and December 2015 that the House passed. Is he satisfied that all our partners in the air campaign are making the same efforts to avoid civilian casualties?

Certainly, as far as I can be. There are coalition rules of engagement and there are slightly different rules of engagement for each country involved in the campaign. It is perfectly true that targets have been offered or discussed within the coalition that we have chosen not to strike because of the rules that we apply. Each country approaches the matter in a slightly different way. However, the principal dozen air forces involved all work together in the same headquarters, and the rules that apply have become closer over the duration of the campaign. It is worth saying that, sadly, it is simply not possible to liberate a densely populated city such as Mosul without civilian casualties. Of course, those casualties have been made much worse by Daesh’s policy of holding civilians hostage in buildings, shooting people trying to escape the city and generally making the population continue to suffer.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the role that our armed forces have played and the progress that has been made. Will he reassure me that he is working closely with the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—I know that we all greatly welcome him back to the Front Bench—and our allies in the region to ensure that, as Daesh is pushed back, its fighters are contained and not displaced to pop up elsewhere in the region?

Yes, that is an increasing part of the work of the counter-Daesh coalition, in which I participate in so far as the defence effort is concerned, and in which my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East participate on foreign policy. We work across the coalition to ensure that we can share intelligence on returning fighters, explore how Daesh leadership can now be held properly to account—let us not forget the British hostages who were beheaded two to three years ago—and that, where possible, those who committed those most heinous crimes can now be brought to justice.

With more Yazidi women being freed this week with the liberation of Mosul, will the Secretary of State say more about the particular case of the Yazidis and whether the Government have reached a conclusion on whether their treatment by Daesh is genocide?

We continue to look for more evidence, specifically on the Yazidis, to ascertain whether the brutal treatment that they suffered was genocidal. We are also accumulating evidence across the board so that those who are eventually detained can be properly held to account.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying particular tribute to the Kurdish peshmerga, who have made a vital and continuing contribution to the defeat of Daesh? Can he assure the House that we will give them every possible assistance in training, equipment and weaponry, but also, importantly, access to medical care and treatment for their wounded? Is not there a case for providing additional, specialist care here in the UK for their most badly wounded?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is looking at that specific point, but I too pay tribute to the peshmerga, and, indeed, to what has been an all-Iraq effort. There has not been the distinction that people fear between the different groupings in Iraq. The campaign to liberate Mosul was conducted by agreement between the different parts of the Iraqi forces, and that was done successfully. We played our part in helping to train peshmerga forces, and much of the training that we supplied was designed precisely to reduce the number of battlefield casualties that they might otherwise have suffered, particularly from improvised explosive devices.

I welcome the statement, and I agree with the Secretary of State that an important element of progress is countering the violent extremist ideology of Daesh and others. Does he agree that one of the most eloquent ways of doing that is demonstrating, through the reconstruction of Mosul and Raqqa and the establishment of law and order and security for the people who live there, that there are better systems of governing than those provided by ISIL?

Absolutely. It must be central to the work of stabilisation and reconciliation that we have a form of governance in Mosul, in the council there and in the wider provincial government, that is genuinely representative of all interests in Mosul, which is a very complex city, to ensure that all those living there have a proper stake in its future, and that the conditions under which the likes of Daesh originally flourished do not re-emerge.

I join others in welcoming the statement and the liberation of Mosul, but what steps are the Government taking, as Daesh is defeated, to deal with the threat posed by dangerous individuals who seek to return to the United Kingdom?

The purpose of part of the work that is being done in the coalition is to recover sensitive material in both Mosul and Raqqa—as the Syrian democratic forces move into Raqqa—that will enable us to track down foreign fighters, particularly British fighters, who have been based in either city, and, indeed, foreign fighters in those cities who have been involved in planning external attacks on the cities of western Europe. We are urgently trying to recover that material, which will enable us to identify more of those who are involved in planning of that kind and thus ensure that they are detained and properly held to account.

May I ask a question on the same theme? The Secretary of State mentioned Interpol. Welcome though the liberation of Mosul is, we know that the capacity to deal with returnees from Iraq poses a challenge to our already overstretched intelligence and counter-terrorism services. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government have sufficient capacity, not just in this country but throughout Europe, to ensure that returnees are dealt with appropriately?

Yes. We are putting extra resources into our agencies to ensure that that is being done in this country, and we are working with other police forces across the coalition to share intelligence about the foreign fighters who are identified so that we have better information when they attempt to cross the borders back into western Europe, and so that each of us understands how we are now likely to prosecute those who have been involved in the fighting.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), does my right hon. Friend agree that we should pay special tribute to those in the Kurdistan region? They are building democracy, they have a rule of law, and they made a huge effort in defeating Daesh. Can my right hon. Friend guarantee not just that we will give military support, but that we will do everything possible to help them to build their emerging democracy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to the chairmanship of the Education Committee. I am sure that my colleagues look forward to working with him.

We work very closely with the Kurdish authorities—I meet the Prime Minister and president there regularly—and we want to see the economy and stability of the region improve. It is, of course, part of Iraq overall, and the future of Iraq, ultimately, is for the Iraqi people to determine.

The fact that, apparently, there is currently no evidence that a single civilian casualty has resulted from an RAF strike during this campaign is extraordinary and commendable. Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), may I ask what influence the UK armed forces can have on some of our coalition partners, in whose cases the rules of engagement have clearly been different and the civilian death toll has been higher?

I was, I hope, careful to remind the House that this is war. While we as a coalition do everything to try to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, it is not possible to eliminate that risk entirely when we are trying to free cities from terrorism of this kind. I was equally careful to say that there is no evidence yet from an RAF strike. I am not claiming that that might never be the case, but so far no such evidence has been presented to us.

We work across the coalition with the other countries involved in airstrikes to ensure that we apply broadly the same rules of engagement: that we are selecting the same targets, for instance, and that we have the same institutions, such as mosques and hospitals, on our no-strike lists. Each country is slightly different; there are variations; but what we encourage our partners to do—and I think this is the best possible answer to the regime in Syria—is to be straight, and when an allegation is made, to investigate it, publish the findings, and if it then becomes clear that there were faults in procedures, set out how they will be put right.

Daesh’s atrocities have failed to deliver a caliph, let alone the so-called caliphate. As Daesh are flushed out of Mosul, they will convene in other parts of Iraq and Syria. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must recognise that our military will continue to play a role in defeating Daesh for a considerable time to come?

Yes. The military campaign is not over yet, in Iraq or indeed in Syria. We have every interest in staying the course, because we need to keep our country safe. There are still people in Raqqa who wish us harm and want to carry out attacks in this country and in other western European cities. We must not rest until that threat is removed, and then we must pay attention to what the Iraqi authorities want and to the scale of the training that they may now require.

It is good to see so many Members entering the Chamber to hear my question. [Laughter.]

I pay tribute to our amazing armed forces personnel, who have acted with the utmost bravery and dedication in this conflict, and I second the calls for an operational service medal to be awarded. Given the special role that the Army has played in training during the conflict, among its many other roles, and given the depth, breadth and complexity of the operations that it now faces not only in this theatre but around the world, does the Secretary of State agree that this would be exactly the wrong time to reduce the number of our regular Army personnel?

I am grateful for the tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to our armed forces. He will have heard what I said earlier about the issue of medallic recognition for personnel who served in this particular campaign. We have no plans to cut the size of the Army; indeed, in our manifesto we made a clear commitment to maintain the size of our armed forces.

The liberation of Mosul is a significant moment in our battle against Daesh, but does the Secretary of State agree that the real victory will be the creation of a modern Iraqi state that is capable of governing itself for all the people of Iraq and of ensuring that it resists any infiltration by Daesh as we clear it out of Iraqi territory?

I absolutely agree. The kind of modern Iraqi state to which my hon. Friend aspires would not only reduce any threat to our country but would be good for the stability of the region. Iraq is already a democracy—a fragile democracy, but it is a democracy. It has called on its friends and allies throughout the world for help. Sixty-eight countries are in there, helping to bring about the kind of modern Iraq that he and I want.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank him for his commitment and leadership. I also thank our soldiers for the significant contribution that they have made to delivering the peace. The peshmerga have been a critical part of the allied forces to defeat Daesh, with many peshmerga fighters coming from Kurdistan. The regional government in Kurdistan wishes to have more devolved responsibilities and is seeking the release of moneys held in Baghdad for reconstruction. To deliver the transition to new governance that is fully representative and committed to protecting the rights of everyone, will he agree to those two issues being dealt with right away?

I am grateful for the personal words with which the hon. Gentleman began his remarks. Discussions are under way between the Kurdish authorities and the authorities in Baghdad on precisely those issues. We encourage those discussions. In the end, where there are disputes of that kind, they have to be resolved between the different parties in Erbil and Baghdad.

The progress militarily in Mosul is welcome, but the poisonous ideology that underpins ISIL continues. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the number of UK citizens fighting on behalf of ISIL/Daesh? What is happening about those who choose to return home, so that we can apprehend them and ensure that they are not a danger to UK citizens?

On the first point, we have not yet defeated the virtual caliphate. It is important that, across the coalition, we now intensify our efforts to destroy that caliphate in cyberspace as effectively as we are beginning to undermine it in Iraq itself. On returning fighters, that is predominantly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, Daesh is a proscribed organisation. Fighting for Daesh is a criminal offence and, where those people can be properly prosecuted, they will be charged on their return.

In December 2015, we were assured that, with the support of UK airstrikes, we could expect to see a transitional Government in Syria within six months, and that there were 70,000 moderate ground troops ready to carry out a ground war in tandem with coalition airstrikes. What is the Secretary of State’s current assessment as to when we can expect to see a transitional Government in Syria? How many of those 70,000 ground troops ever actually existed?

On the first point, of course we want Syria to move towards a new political settlement and we continue to encourage that. So far as the existence of moderate armed opposition in Syria is concerned, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that the civil war would not be in its seventh year if there had not been formidable moderate armed opposition to the Syrian regime. Who does he think has been fighting Assad? It is important to recognise the progress that has been made since December 2015 in reducing Daesh and the amount of Syrian territory that it holds, in starting the battle to defeat it in its capital, Raqqa, and thus overall to reduce the threat that Daesh poses to the UK. I am only sorry that, although we had the support of 67 other countries throughout the world, we did not have the support of the Scottish National party.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. In particular, I welcome his comment about reducing the risk and the number of civilian casualties. Perhaps for the benefit of those who have just entered the Chamber he could repeat the number of civilian casualties there have been as a result of our actions and repeat his confirmation and assurance that he will do all he can to reduce further such risks?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend but I am not sure that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would welcome me repeating too much of the statement that I gave earlier. However, I emphasise that I believe it is because of the rules of engagement that we set, the careful use of intelligence and reconnaissance from the air, the skill of our pilots, and the precision of the weapons that are selected for each strike that we are able to say that, to the best of our knowledge, we have not caused significant civilian casualties on the ground.

I join the Secretary of State and Members of all parties in paying tribute to the work of the men and women in all three services. Does he agree that the important and prominent role played by the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force further reinforces this country’s place as the United States’ most important ally and a vital partner in the region to ensure the ultimate defeat of Daesh and to ensure peace in the region?

I agree. The United States has led the coalition. I was able to review the next steps in both Iraq and Syria when I met the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington last Friday. He and his predecessor have played a key role in leading the coalition. Like us, they now want to see us move on in Iraq to the work of stabilisation and reconciliation that must follow the military campaign.

I, too, pay tribute to all those who have served so diligently to make such progress. My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned in his statement the continued determination that we need to battle this warped ideology and to achieve long-term stability in the region, but what reassurance can he give my constituents and all communities throughout the UK that the Government are determined to share intelligence during Brexit and beyond to keep us all safer?

We have made it clear that, beyond Brexit, we want to continue the various arrangements there are for security co-operation across Europe, including co-ordination between our intelligence agencies and the work of police in tracking foreign fighters. It is only by working together that we can ensure that this ideology is defeated not simply in Iraq but on a wider basis.

I return to the question of the skill of our pilots in avoiding civilian casualties wherever possible. Can my right hon. Friend please confirm that that extends to the selection of hot and cold targets, so that targets can be changed even at the last moment to avoid those casualties?

Yes. These are operational matters for decision by our commanders in the Gulf, but they keep those matters under review before each mission is planned and while each mission is being carried out. We had evidence of that yesterday in the strikes that a Tornado and a Typhoon together undertook in Raqqa and Mosul on the same day.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Like him, I welcome the fact that the RAF has played a key role in defeating Daesh on the battlefield. However, my concern is that it will now move from the battlefield to being a guerrilla organisation. Therefore, what support can he reassure me will be given to training local forces to deal with threats such as improvised explosive devices and others involved in a guerrilla war?

That is already a key part of our training effort. We are working with the Iraqi forces, for example, as I said earlier, in strengthening their border force. We are working with the police, not simply the military, so that they are better equipped to deal with the threat of insurgency when the final remnants of Daesh go underground, particularly in the Middle Euphrates River valley.

Defeating Daesh in its twin capitals is a key step to demolishing the myth of the caliphate but in the statement the Secretary of State also referred to undermining the poisonous ideology elsewhere. Will he expand on the steps that the Government are taking to do just that?

Yes. We are working with our colleagues in the coalition to deal with the extremist ideology that lies behind this terrorism. We are working to counter it in cyberspace, taking down the messaging that is posted there. We are working here at home on steps to improve the deradicalisation effort where extremism exists in colleges, mosques and elsewhere. We work with the Muslim community to ensure that it is properly recognised and tackled.

Last, but hopefully not least, I would like to ask the following question of the Secretary of State. The war against Daesh is a complex form of unconventional warfare: a hard insurgency fought with other tools—cyber, governance, propaganda and so forth. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that this war will be properly studied and the lessons actually learned? There has been a tendency to see unconventional warfare as an occasional accident, when in many ways it is becoming the new norm; will it be understood and studied as such?

That is a very important point and I hope it was recognised in the strategic defence review that we carried out in 2015. This war has had to be fought using the full spectrum of responses; it has been fought predominantly by, with, and through local forces, but involving a spectrum of responses right across the different domains, and it is very important that we recognise that this may well become the fighting of the future and we learn the lessons appropriately.