Skip to main content

Counter-Daesh Update

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development updated the House earlier this year, she was able to confirm that Daesh has lost control of almost all the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria. Today, I can tell the House that it is now confined to small pockets on the Iraq-Syria border, where it faces daily attacks from coalition forces on the ground and in the air, including from our own Royal Air Force. In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by coalition air power, are continuing their campaign. This involves the clearance of desert areas, securing the Syria-Iraq border and rooting out the remaining several hundred terrorists who are in outposts in the Euphrates valley and surrounding areas. [Interruption.]

It was an intervention, but I do apologise for it. It is rare that one is heckled by one’s own mobile phone, but on this occasion we have a new parliamentary convention, without a doubt. If I may, Mr Speaker, I will proceed, without the help and support of Siri.

There remains work to be done, but that should not stop us from acknowledging the huge achievements of the past year. With the liberation of its people from Daesh, a new chapter in Iraq’s proud history has opened, and we should be proud of the role that the United Kingdom has played. We have provided close air support to Iraqi forces, as part of the coalition, launching 1,370 air strikes since 2014. We have trained 75,000 Iraqi security personnel, including the Peshmerga, and, for the first time, our cyber-operations have played a significant role in destroying Daesh’s online capabilities. In addition, we have given more than £237 million in humanitarian support and more than £30 million in stabilisation funding to assist in Iraq’s recovery from Daesh. But having visited Iraq at the beginning of the year and seen the extraordinary efforts of our armed forces, I know they have also done something more: given a proud nation hope of getting back on its feet. The elections in Iraq on 12 May were a major milestone in Iraq’s recovery on the road to reconciliation and peace and in bringing the nation together.

The final results are yet to be announced, but we look forward to working with the new Government once they are formed. Although the election was largely peaceful, there have been concerns about alleged electoral problems, and the Iraqi state must ensure that a thorough and transparent investigation is carried out into all such incidents. But as the Iraqis look to rebuild their country, the international community can do much to set the conditions for a more peaceful Iraq. Earlier this year, Kuwait hosted the reconstruction conference, which raised $30 billion in pledges to help Iraq. Now global partners must deliver on their commitments.

The UK is determined to play its part, so last December, the Prime Minister and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi announced that our security co-operation would be enduring. We are offering support in a range of areas, whether through the coalition, through the central Iraqi national security institutions, or through partnership and investment to transform the Iraqi military. Back in January, I signed a statement of intent with the Iraqi Defence Minister that will see us countering the forces that continue to wish to destabilise Iraq and building on our co-operation to counter terrorism. But stabilising Iraq will require a good deal more than rooting out the remnants of Daesh. It will be about reconstructing Mosul and other affected areas, about revitalising Iraq’s economy and reconciling communities, and about supporting people as they get their lives back on track. Of course, those are things that only Iraqis can do and lead on, but we stand ready to help whenever they ask.

From Iraq, I now turn to Syria. Tragically, the conflict in Syria is entering its eighth year, but with our military playing a role second only to the United States, Daesh’s defeat is now at hand. We are doing all that we can to alleviate the unimaginable suffering experienced by the Syrian people. We are doing all we can to ensure that they understand that the British people stand side by side with them. We have committed £2.71 billion of aid—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, we have provided more than 27 million food rations, more than 12 million medical consultations, more than 10 million relief packages and more than 10 million vaccinations. Following the liberation of Raqqa, we have provided an additional £10 million to north-eastern Syria to support de-mining and to help to meet the needs of displaced people with water, shelter and cooking equipment. We have also helped to re-stock health facilities with medicines and equipment.

However, as long as the old grievances that gave rise to Daesh are allowed to fester, this long-running conflict will remain unresolved. Ultimately, the only solution is a lasting political settlement and the end of the suffering of the Syrian people. The UN-led Geneva process, which is mandated by UN Security Council resolution 2254, remains the best forum for a political solution to this conflict. That is why the UN efforts have our full and continuing support.

Thanks to the courage of our forces and our partners on the ground, Daesh’s final territorial defeat is now at hand, but the battle against the poison of Daesh is not quite over. Instead, we are entering a new phase, as the terrorists change their approach, disperse and prepare for a potential insurgency. In Iraq, Daesh cells exist in Mosul, Hawija, Diyala, Anbar and Baghdad, from where they will attempt to grow once more, sowing the seeds of instability and undermining faith in the country’s Government’s ability to deliver security.

More widely, Daesh remains the most significant terrorist threat to the United Kingdom because of its ability to inspire, direct and enable attacks on our interests. That is why we continue to work through the global coalition to eliminate the danger that Daesh poses, and it is why the British people can rest assured that the Government will continue to do everything in our power to protect them by dealing with the threat at source in Iraq and Syria. We can keep that threat away from our shores by making sure that we are involved in counter-insurgency work with the Iraqi Government and with our allies in Syria.

Let us not forget that we have made enormous advances since the dark days when Daesh was close to the gates of Baghdad. Today, its black flags lie in tatters. As long as we maintain the same resolve, the same determination and the same unity with our partners, we can be confident that Daesh’s days are numbered.

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

The Opposition welcome the extraordinary progress that has been made in the campaign against Daesh. This evil organisation and its poisonous ideology must be defeated wherever they emerge. We pay tribute to our UK servicemen and women, whose courage and commitment is hastening the demise of Daesh, and we pay tribute to our allies and partners on the ground, who have sustained such heavy losses while liberating their peoples from the scourge of this terrorist group.

Following the success of the operation to liberate Mosul and much of Anbar province, the Iraqi Government are now focused on securing the border with Syria to ensure that fighters cannot return. Will the Secretary of State outline in greater detail the support that the UK is providing to that effort?

The campaign against Daesh has inevitably caused very substantial damage to infrastructure in Iraq and Syria. Homes, schools and hospitals have been destroyed, as has much of the fabric of governance. The World Bank has estimated that the overall cost of reconstruction and recovery in Iraq alone is more than $88 billion. Will the Secretary of State say more about the UK’s role in not only the reconstruction but the stabilisation of the areas affected?

Daesh fighters have carried out crimes of unspeakable barbarity. Many have been captured and are now in the custody of the Iraqi Government and other authorities in the region. Will the Secretary of State outline what action is being taken to prosecute them for their crimes and what monitoring there is of fighters and their families who may seek to return to the UK?

The global coalition against Daesh is engaged in degrading and defeating the organisation by tackling its finances. That is key to ensuring that Daesh does not simply reappear elsewhere or in another form. The loss of territory in the region has also precipitated a loss of assets and oil revenue, but what further steps is the UK taking to combat the funding of Daesh? As the organisation becomes vastly diminished as a territorial force, what work is being done, alongside internet companies and social media providers, to combat the online spread of Daesh’s vile propaganda?

As the civil war in Syria has entered its eighth year, will the Secretary of State say what steps are being taken to achieve a ceasefire and a lasting political solution? As the UN-sponsored Geneva peace process has stalled, what effort is being made to co-ordinate that process with the discussions in Sochi and Astana?

The campaign to defeat Daesh has made significant progress in liberating territory, but we know that operations continue on a daily basis, as does the vital training that we provide to forces on the ground. That is down to the extraordinary commitment of our personnel and that of our allies. No one who serves in our armed forces does so for medals or acclaim but, particularly in the RAF’s centenary year, I know that the whole House wants to see our personnel being commended for their bravery. The Ministry of Defence has been examining the criteria for awarding a medal to those serving on Operation Shader. Will the Secretary of State provide an update on that work so that we can ensure that the bravery and dedication of our personnel is recognised properly and without delay?

I thank the hon. Lady for her continued support for our armed forces as they continue to be involved in this important operation.

Our commitment in respect of a training mission to Iraq and the need to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure stability in the region was underlined by our recent visits to Iraq and meetings with the Iraqi Prime Minister and Defence Minister. We will continue to do everything that we can to train Iraqi forces to ensure that Iraq’s border forces are in the very best position to deal with some of the threats and challenges. We are also looking into how we can do more with Jordanian forces. On top of that, we have committed to providing more than £30 million of support for UN stabilisation efforts. That makes it clear that Britain is a long-term ally of our Iraqi friends.

We are the second largest bilateral donor in Syria. We have consistently been the country leading the way in making sure that humanitarian support gets through, and we will continue to do that on top of the funding and support that we have been giving to Iraq.

The hon. Lady made an important point about the funding of Daesh, which the Government take exceptionally seriously. We talk about the dispersal of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but the challenge is actually much wider, with Daesh dispersing much more globally. We need to look carefully at the financial flows that follow these people and that provide support for the acts of violence they wish to perpetrate in the countries to which they go.

The hon. Lady’s point about countering propaganda is vital. For the first time, the United Kingdom has been incredibly active with an offensive cyber-capacity to deal with, correct and address that propaganda. We have seen a 70% reduction in the amount of propaganda coming out of Daesh, so our work is really showing results. We cannot rest on our laurels, however, and we will continue to look at the issue and drive down that propaganda, because we do not want to see any of Daesh’s vile hatred on the internet at all.

On the hon. Lady’s final point about a medal for those who have served in Op Shader, I have been incredibly touched by the commitment and dedication that all our service personnel have shown in the operation, and by the sacrifices that they have made to keep Britain safe—I know that the hon. Lady has, too. We are looking closely at medallic recognition. Ultimately, we hope to try to find a solution that ensures that all service personnel who have been involved in the campaign get the recognition that they deserve. As the hon. Lady knows, we are looking to try to land the support of all members of the cross-Government Committee.

Does the Secretary of State accept that our principal allies on the ground in Syria have been Kurdish-led? Does he share my concern that, having helped to supress and eliminate Daesh in Syria, those Kurdish-led forces may now find themselves under attack by Turkey, a country with an ambivalent record toward both Islamist extremism on the one hand and Russia on the other? What will we do if we find that our Kurdish allies are attacked by our so-called NATO ally?

We have worked incredibly closely with the Syrian defence forces over a period of time, as have other coalition allies. We are working closely with the United States and France to get a dialogue going between the Syrian defence forces and Turkey to ensure that there is no conflict of the form that my right hon. Friend suggests.[Official Report, 5 July 2018, Vol. 644, c. 2MC.]

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement and of course, in the first instance, welcome the progress being made towards the eradication of what is a most despicable and cowardly terrorist organisation. I commend those Members of the armed forces who have been a part of that. However, it is imperative that the House is given a clear idea of what the Secretary of State sees as UK strategy in the region, especially if we are not to repeat the mistakes that allowed the vacuum from which Daesh emerged to be recreated elsewhere.

As the Secretary of State mentioned, following the damage wrought by Daesh in Iraq, the Iraqi Government asked the international community for some $88 billion, yet, at February’s conference for the reconstruction of Iraq in Kuwait, less than half that figure was raised. SNP Members are fully supportive of the £2.71 billion of aid that the Government have already provided, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that others will need to step up as well. Does he accept that failing to invest adequately in reconstruction risks allowing Daesh back in through the back door?

On a broader point, the Secretary of State spoke about the number of forces who are deployed to fight against Daesh, but what he neglected to mention was that many of those will be special forces whose operational assignments almost always escape adequate scrutiny from the House. Can he tell us, therefore, how the House can hold the Government to account in future when so many of the day-to-day operations are carried out in this way? Finally, given the emerging case of Daesh using drone technology, what actions are the Government taking to counter that not only in the battle zone, but in the possible use by Daesh outside of it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government do not comment on the activity of special forces, but we are absolutely committed to keeping this House regularly updated on our operations in Iraq and Syria. He talks about the recovery in the region and touches on what the Iraqi Government were looking for with regard to support. The international community has come forward with $30 billion-worth of support. It is vital that the British Government do all they can to encourage that support to come forward swiftly, so that the Iraqi people get the benefit of it. We are starting to see some very positive signs in the Iraqi economy, with a recovery and increased private sector investment, and that is the true driver to Iraq’s future. We should not underestimate the amount of oil wealth in Iraq in ensuring that we do all we can to help the Iraqi Government to benefit from that wealth and, more importantly, that the people of Iraq benefit from that wealth, too.

What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of Daesh fighters who have got away, got back and are at large in the United Kingdom?

The Government continue to keep a close eye on all those people who are travelling from the region through other third countries with the intention of returning to the United Kingdom. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will also appreciate that the Government keep a very close eye as to the activity and the movements of such people.

What steps is the Secretary of State’s Department taking to counter those in Daesh, al-Qaeda and their affiliates who are now creating chaos across the swathe of sub-Saharan Africa, forcing much of the people movement towards the Mediterranean and on to our shores? What are we going to do there to again destroy Daesh?

I am sure that the hon. Lady is very aware of the work that we have already announced, working with our partners, the French, as well as many other NATO countries, on dealing with the increasing problem of Daesh in the sub-Saharan region and with how it could migrate into Europe. We will continue to work very closely with the French and other NATO partners. The Government continue to look at how we can work more closely with other countries, such as Nigeria and Libya, to ensure that we do not see this migration of terror and the spread of Daesh into ungoverned areas.

My right hon. Friend has already stated that the enemy is now in an enclave on the Iraq-Syrian border, presumably penned there by Syrian forces, Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga. What happens to people, enemies, who are either captured whole or wounded? Are we ensuring that they are penned away and cannot hurt our country in future?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is the case. The Syrian democratic forces are playing a key role in that in terms of the detention of such people.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on the Syrian assault on the province of Daraa, in which some 750,000 civilians are now effectively trapped—the border with Jordan has been closed for some time? There are also reports that opposition forces are negotiating to hand over some of the towns to the Assad regime. Also, is there anything that he can tell the House about the efforts that are being made to recover the body of Anna Campbell, who died fighting with the Kurdish YPJ?

On the final point, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman to give him an update on that. I know that the Foreign Office is working very closely to try to facilitate the repatriation of the body. On the substantive point of his question, we are working with our allies to try to bring stability and a ceasefire. There had been a long-term agreement, which had held in terms of that area. This has, obviously, fallen apart. We will continue to work both with the Jordanians and the United States, but there is an important role that Russia can play here in bringing pressure to bear on the Syrian regime. Russia is the nation that holds the greatest sway on the al-Assad regime and it needs to be doing all that it can to bring an end to the bloodshed that we are witnessing there.

It is welcome news that 98% of territory once held by Daesh has now been surrendered. May I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent visit to RAF Cosford in my constituency? Would he like to put on record his tribute to the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering at RAF Cosford? Without engineers, our pilots cannot fly. In this, the 100th year of the RAF, will he pay a special tribute to the 100-year history of that station in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the important role of the Royal Air Force in our continued campaign. The Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering at RAF Cosford is an important part of that, training not just British service personnel, but service personnel of many other nations. It has done an amazing job in supporting the RAF over its very long and distinguished history. I say a big thank you to everyone in the Royal Air Force, which has not been more active than it has been in its 100th year. It has flown constant operations over the past few years, making sure that Britain remains safe.

The RAF has played a major role, and still does, in ensuring that something like 7 million civilians in Iraq and Syria are no longer under the shadow of Daesh, and we can be proud of the role it has played. We know how meticulous the RAF is in avoiding civilian casualties, and any allegation of civilian harm is, and should be, properly investigated, but how do we counter allegations by some organisations, such as Amnesty International, that there have actually been hundreds of civilians who have been killed by the RAF?

We have always made it clear to this House that we investigate the issue of civilian casualties and that we do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties. We investigate it very closely and we have committed to reporting to this House immediately should it come to light that there has been a civilian casualty, which, of course, we did earlier this year.

I must say that I was deeply, deeply disappointed by the Amnesty International report, which was not only disappointing, but disgraceful. We have always been very open about the strikes that we have made. Amnesty International decided to issue this report. It contacted the Ministry of Defence, but, within 24 hours, without the ability for us to go back and explain, all its allegations were unfounded; RAF flights had not even been involved. It did not give us the opportunity to correct such a damaging and disgraceful report. We have written to Amnesty International and invited its representatives to the Ministry of Defence to discuss the matter. If it is going to produce reports, we want them to be accurate. We certainly do not want them to be calling into question the amazing professionalism of our Royal Air Force.

I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating our armed forces on the startling progress that they have made in Iraq and Syria. If we want to be able to do the same in the future, we must maintain capacity for peer-on-peer warfighting and expeditionary counter-insurgency, as well as meeting emerging threats in space, beneath the oceans and online. Does the Secretary of State agree that only nations with tier 1 military capabilities can confidently pursue their national interests against any enemy in any theatre, and that that is what the UK must continue to want to do?

We have always been at the very top tier of military power and the ability to field military force, and I have no doubt that this nation will continue to be so long into the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He is right and pragmatic to recognise that while Daesh is on the run it will move, change tactics, and try to regrow and emerge again. Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the outworkings of the Northern Ireland experience is that we have great knowledge in counter-terrorism? Companies from Northern Ireland are involved in Afghanistan, Libya and Tunisia, and their expertise could also be useful elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about using the expertise and knowledge of British business—including businesses from Northern Ireland—in our fight against Daesh. We also need to look imaginatively at how we are spending our aid budget to ensure that British businesses benefit. We are spending more than £2 billion in the area, so it would be great to see more British companies benefiting from that spend and using their unique expertise to benefit the people of Iraq and Syria.

As part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been fortunate to meet many men and women who have participated in Op Shader and our counter-Daesh activities overall. How many such men and women do we need to thank for their service and their sacrifice—often being away from their families for months at a time?

There are 1,400 deployed, including 600 in Iraq, but the total number who have been on orientation is considerably higher. We need to recognise the amazing contribution that these forces have made—not only those who have been in Iraq or flying over Iraq and Syria, but the whole tail of people who have been doing the work and putting in the effort to ensure that the RAF has been able to make the flights and strike at the heart of those who wish to do us harm.

Further to the question of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), I want to press the Defence Secretary on the issue of those returning to the UK who are not currently on the security list. What efforts have been made, in conjunction with Border Force, to monitor the people we have no knowledge of?

Well, it is obviously difficult to monitor people we have no knowledge of. We are obviously working closely with the security services and allies in the region, whether it be Turkey or Iraq, and working closely with the SDF to keep close tabs on what Daesh fighters are doing. We are seeing a large number of Daesh fighters not actually returning to the United Kingdom, but also going to different countries such as Afghanistan and Libya. We keep coming back to the point that, although we are making great progress in Iraq and Syria, the threat is changing and moving to different countries. We have to be aware that the fight continues against the evil hatred in these people’s hearts, and we have to do everything we can to stop them.

Daesh is a dangerous ideology in cyber-space as much as it is a physical threat on the battlefield. Will my right hon. Friend join me in acknowledging the work of the intelligence agencies, including GCHQ in my constituency, in dismantling that power base online, and will he update the House as to what steps are being taken to expunge what remains?

As I touched on earlier, we are already using our abilities in the cyber-security field to counter the Daesh threat. We can only do that by working hand in glove with GCHQ—its amazing work and the technology it has developed—and with defence intelligence. We will continue to do that and to invest in this capability. An awful lot of extra investment has gone into this field from the Ministry of Defence and GCHQ, but we cannot be complacent. Although we have seen a significant, 70% reduction in the amount of propaganda that has been put out by Daesh, we saw a slight uptick as a result of the SDF shifting away from the fight in the middle Euphrates valley. Now that the fight has returned to that area, we are again seeing a reduction in the amount of online activity. These two things do not sit separately; it is about kinetic force, as well as cyber-force.

I think that the previous question got to the heart of something that is of great interest to this House. First, will the Secretary of State reassure me that the intelligence contacts that have been made with Iraqi intelligence will be developed and built on? I am sure that he will agree to that. Secondly, will he perhaps go a little further and outline how the experience of counteracting the cyber-war will benefit our intelligence services during the years and decades to come?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. For the first time we saw a terrorist group that created a state around it and that effectively used the internet as a tool to bring terror to the streets of many European and world cities. We have learnt an awful lot in countering that. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), we have to keep investing in technology, experience and the people who are best able to counter the threat, and the Government are completely committed to doing that.

The Secretary of State will be aware of reports of a number of private conversations and correspondence between himself and the Prime Minister that have been leaked to the press. Can he shed any light on how these have come into the public domain? Has he instituted a leak inquiry? If so, who will be leading on it and when will it report its findings to the House?

Is not one of the major problems we face that Daesh is an ideology, not a country? Therefore, when it is defeated in one geographical location, it can morph and develop in another location, as we are seeing on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Daesh has extensive control of that eastern border, Libya and the sub-Saharan region. There is ultimately no military solution to the problem we face, unless we are to accept the situation of permanent war. We therefore need to concentrate on counter-radicalisation strategies. When we are involved in military activity in the middle east and Africa, the problem is that it feeds the fuel that drives Daesh.

That is why we have put so much effort and resource into counter-radicalisation strategies, and into dealing with the threat in cyber-space as well as the physical threat. Behind those computers are individuals who have experience of fighting and spreading hate. That is why we have to deprive them of the territory in which they have been able to operate and do everything we can to deprive them of their ability to operate freely, and that is what our armed forces have been so successful in doing.

The Kurdish people fought with some of the most bravery and effect to defend their local populations against the cruelties of Daesh. What are the UK Government now doing to protect the Kurdish people of Iraq and Syria from being attacked by the Governments of those two countries and, indeed, by the Government of Turkey?

We continue to work very closely with, especially, the Iraqi Government and the Turkish Government to make sure that we have sensible and pragmatic solutions. We have always had a very strong relationship with the Kurds, especially in Afghanistan. We have a very good relationship with the SDF, which is both Kurdish and Arab. We will continue to work to try to ensure, especially in Syria, that the SDF is an integral part of the solution for that country going forward.[Official Report, 5 July 2018, Vol. 644, c. 2MC.]