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Raqqa and Daesh

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place on the liberation of Raqqa:

“Raqqa was officially liberated on 20 October. The Syrian Democratic Forces—the SDF—supported by the global coalition against Daesh, began operations to liberate Raqqa in June 2017. Military operations are ongoing.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has highlighted the continued leading role that the UK is playing as part of the global coalition’s counter-Daesh campaign. The UK is the second-largest military contributor to the global coalition and plays a leading role in the humanitarian response.

The liberation of Raqqa this month follows significant Daesh territorial losses in Iraq, including Mosul in July. Daesh has now lost over 90% of the territory it once occupied in Iraq and Syria. The Foreign Secretary will in due course provide a full update to the House on the counter-Daesh campaign, including the operation to liberate Raqqa”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the response to that Urgent Question. I note that the Foreign Secretary will be giving a further, more detailed report to the other place and I hope that the noble Lord will be able to do likewise here. I have two brief questions. First, in the other place the Minister said that discussions about the future of the coalition were ongoing. Can the noble Lord tell us what role the armed groups that helped liberate the city from Daesh will play in its future administration and what we can do to assist? Secondly—I raised this point in the House last week, I think—we have seen horrendous crimes against humanity from all sides. It is important that the Government continue to support those who are gathering evidence so that ultimately we hold those responsible fully to account.

I thank the noble Lord for his continued support on these issues. He asked, first, what happens next. Our partner forces will close in on Daesh elsewhere in Syria. He will know that it is still present in the Euphrates river valley and on the border with Iraq. There, the Syrian efforts will meet up with those of the Iraqi security forces, closing in on Daesh from both sides. The noble Lord’s second point is well made, as I have acknowledged previously. He is right to say that those on all sides who have committed crimes should be brought to justice. On Daesh-specific issues, in 2017 I was pleased to report back from the UN General Assembly that a resolution was passed specifically on the UK’s efforts, including £1 million allocated by this country, to ensure not only evidence-gathering but the quick creation of a full investigation under the auspices of the UN to deal with Daesh. Other elements of the Syrian regime should also be fully accountable before international law.

My Lords, I understand that 80% of Raqqa has been destroyed in the attempt to root out Daesh. What does the Minister think is the likely timescale for reconstruction? When might refugees be able to return and how might they be protected against any risks from the Assad Government?

This is an issue about which the noble Baroness and I have spoken on several occasions. She is right to point out the destruction in Raqqa. It is terribly regrettable that, because this was urban warfare, many buildings and much infrastructure were destroyed, and let us not forget that Daesh destroyed much of the remaining infrastructure. That said, she will know that we have stepped up our humanitarian support in this regard. At the weekend, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced an additional £10 million to restore crippled health facilities and deliver much-needed medical support and relief. On her final point, safety and security remain the primary concern. As I have mentioned to the noble Baroness before, we will not engage in large-scale redevelopment of infrastructure in Syria until we can ensure both the political settlement and the safety and security of all citizens.

My Lords, regardless of what the Government have done at the Security Council in ensuring that evidence will be collected to bring those responsible for these crimes to trial, and building on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, what will happen next? What structures are we putting in place, either for a referral to the International Criminal Court or to a specially appointed regional tribunal to try those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity? Surely our belief in the rule of law and perhaps the invocation of something like the Treason Act would be more appropriate in bringing British nationals to justice than yesterday’s statement from Rory Stewart, according with statements from the White House, that people could be shot on sight if they had participated in these heinous crimes.

On the final point the noble Lord raises, let us be clear that people— certainly those of British nationality—who have travelled from anywhere in the world into the region and taken part in the crimes committed by Daesh were doing so at their own risk and were putting themselves into the line of fire. There is the important issue, he says, about bringing people to justice. He will be fully aware of the structured programme in which the CPS and the police are making criminal charges against those returning to the UK. Secondly, there is the issue of the International Criminal Court and other such bodies. As I have already alluded to, we have passed a resolution in the UN and we are currently looking at the governance structure, exactly as the noble Lord suggests. The final structure is to be determined, but it will respect all the norms of international law.

My Lords, while I accept that lethal force can properly be used against those fighting for ISIS, including British citizens if they pose an immediate and real threat to the interests of ourselves or our allies, does my noble friend agree that this policy should be exercised with great caution and that it would be helpful if we had a fuller explanation of both the criteria and the controls?

I agree with my noble friend, of course. In any such situation, any intervention or military action should be exercised with strict rules of engagement. As I alluded to earlier in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, we seek first of all to minimise civilian casualties in any action our military is taking. Secondly, on holding those to account, the important thing is that international law and rules of justice are upheld, whether for those surrendering themselves to coalition forces or to the Syrian coalition forces on the ground, or indeed those returning to any part of the world.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his statement and point out that the Christian presence in Iraq is integral to that country’s cultural identity. A reconstruction committee composed of Chaldean, Syriac and Syriac Orthodox churches has restored over 1,700 properties, but that will restore fewer than a quarter of internationally displaced people. What can the Government do to help those displaced Christians to return safely to that space, like Jonah returning to Nineveh, a place where they belong and are called? How can the Government support them in that process where there is a real threat in terms of faith?

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise the issue of minorities and particularly the Christian minorities in Syria. The crimes committed in Aleppo have been a tragic example of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. I revert to the point I made earlier that any support that the British Government give to those returning is done to ensure their safety and security. We have begun to do exactly that in ensuring that, in the areas where people are returning, medical facilities are available including to all minorities who have been displaced. Let us not forget that over 50% of the Syrian population has been displaced. It will take time to ensure that they can return to their homes. Underlining our approach, both safety and security must prevail.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House welcomes the liberation of Raqqa, but deeply regrets both the physical and human cost of Daesh’s control of that area. Is the Minister in a position to say more about the breakdown and balance of the anti-Daesh forces now in control of Raqqa and that area, and anything about the co-ordination and co-operation between them for the future?

The noble Lord raises an important point. We have been supporting the coalition forces and the SDF. I acknowledge that the Russians have also been engaged directly in support of the regime forces. We are clear that the Assad regime initiated this conflict. Although a lasting resolution is very much a matter for the Syrian people, we do not believe it is right that the person who initiated this conflict should be involved in the final, lasting solution. Various international players are working on the ground. I reassure the noble Lord on our actions. The United Nations resolution specifically on Daesh was passed with unanimity, including support from Russia.

Did the Minister see a letter in the Financial Times yesterday, saying that Raqqa is in Syria and reminding its readers that the Syrian regime bears a heavy responsibility for the clearance of ISIS from the city? Does he agree?

I have not seen the letter, but I align myself with the sentiments expressed in it and by the noble Lord. The responsibility for the larger conflict—not just in Raqqa—lies firmly on the doorstep of the Assad regime which created it in the first place. Daesh emerged as a symptom, created by what was happening on the ground. Wherever there is a vacuum and vulnerability, Daesh has reared its head. Although we all breathe a large sigh of relief on its defeat, we are not complacent in any way. Let us not forget that Daesh has recreated itself before and I am sure it is looking to regroup and do so again.