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Daesh: Raqqa

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2017

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they were aware of the decision to allow some 4,000 Daesh fighters and their families to leave Raqqa, and what is their assessment of the implications of this decision for security in the region and for the UK.

My Lords, we were not involved in the discussions and did not condone the decision. This was a local agreement by local leaders, including the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal elders. Despite territorial losses, Daesh remains a threat and coalition activity against it continues. We remain determined to fight and defeat Daesh. We are prepared for the risk from returnees as Daesh loses territory and we are using a range of tools to disrupt and diminish that threat.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. These clearly are hardened fighters and I hope we have put in place mechanisms to spot them when they come in. Militarily, we have now effectively destroyed the caliphate in physical terms, and we should be very pleased about that huge success. Now, we must move towards trying to get a proper ceasefire in Syria. The only way to do that is to involve the SDF, the Kurds and other coalition members, but also Assad. Assad might be a loathsome man but he is a fact of life on the ground. If he and his structure suddenly went, 2 million to 3 million Alawites and Christians could possibly be wiped out but would certainly be refugees. We really must deal with this dreadful man because otherwise we will not have a ceasefire, the fighting will continue and people will continue to be killed. Will we now have more connection with Assad, the SDF and the others to ensure that there is a ceasefire, so that we can then move forward to some sort of future settlement?

First, I agree with the noble Lord about the despicable nature of the crimes committed by Daesh fighters. We have all rightly condemned those, and the Government have taken a very strong stance to ensure that they are held to account. The noble Lord will be aware that in September, during the UNGA, we led on a Security Council resolution specifically to hold Daesh fighters to account.

On the situation regarding the different parties, the noble Lord is right that the coalition continues to support the SDF and the Kurds. However, on the specific issue of Bashar Assad, we have made our position clear: we do not believe that he should be leading Syria at the end of any discussions that take place. That is ultimately a call for the Syrian people themselves but we have been consistent in our call to ensure that there is a true representation of civilian communities in Syria, and clear that Bashar Assad does not provide any sense of a final settlement being reached in Syria. At the same time, I take on board totally the fact that we must ensure the security and safety of all communities within Syria, particularly the minorities who have suffered dreadfully during this far too long conflict.

My Lords, the fact is that these fighters have gone somewhere. They have not disappeared, and there is a potential threat to neighbouring countries. What assessment have the Government made of the threat to neighbouring countries, particularly those which are fighting Daesh? Also, what assessment has the Minister made of how that release of fighters affects our ability to hold these criminals to account? It is vital that we do that.

I agree with the noble Lord, most certainly on his final point—the Government, as he knows, take very seriously the need to hold them to account. Just to put this in context, the number quoted also includes the families. The deal was known to the SDF, in particular, and was a local tribal deal. The purpose behind the evacuation was to minimise the loss of civilian lives in the fall of Raqqa, particularly those of women and young children. To track Daesh fighters we are continuing to use all agencies on the ground and to work with the coalition of 73 countries, including several neighbouring countries, to ensure that those who are seeking to leave the conflict zone in Syria and in Iraq are held accountable locally. If foreign fighters seek to return to the UK, there is due process in place to ensure that they are held to account for their crimes abroad.

The Minister will have heard the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, say 10 minutes ago that we continue to play a pivotal role in operations against Daesh. The presence of coalition aircraft over the convoy, as reported on BBC News, suggests that at least some leading members of the coalition knew what was going on and, perhaps, must have been involved in the conflict. Is he saying that we were not playing a pivotal role in this?

My noble friend made the point that we continue to be at the heart and centre of the fight against Daesh in both Syria and Iraq. I think that some of the media reports were speculative. However, to put the noble Lord’s question into context, the deal was not not known to people as there were two press releases at the time highlighting that the evacuation was taking place. It was not a question of not knowing. We continue to monitor all aspects of any Daesh fighters fleeing from the territory. We continue to monitor their movements very closely.

Can my noble friend confirm that many foreign Daesh fighters have burned their passports, so in the case of British fighters it will be quite difficult, but not impossible, for them to find their way back to the United Kingdom?

My noble friend raises a point and I am sure there are cases where that has happened. I suggest to him that anyone making themselves known to the authorities on the ground will be held to account. There are measures in place to ensure that those who somehow, through various efforts, return to the UK are held to account. It is ultimately for the CPS to take forward any prosecutions which may occur.

The Minister’s account of what seems to have happened gets curiouser and curiouser. As I understand what he is now saying, we knew this was going on. Presumably the Americans also knew that it was going on. The other members of the coalition knew that it was going on. Did we try to stop it? Did we make representations to whoever was doing the deal that it was not in the interests of the coalition or of the war against Daesh? In short, what did we do except just look at it?

For the benefit of the noble Lord and the whole House I shall read from the press release put out on 14 October by Jonathan Braga, the coalition’s director of operations. At the end, it states:

“We do not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice only to resurface somewhere else. We remain concerned about the thousands of civilians in Raqqa who remain subject to Daesh cruelty”.

It continues:

“Daesh terrorists have been hiding behind women and children”—

I alluded to that—

“for three years, and we are against any arrangement that lets them continue to do so”.

As I said, there were press releases at the time. This was a decision made locally by tribal elders and the Raqqa civilian council. The primary objective behind the decision was to protect women and children. The Daesh fighters numbered not thousands but hundreds, and they continue to be monitored. As to the coalition’s role in any decision-taking, we do not condone any such arrangement, and we continue to ensure that any Daesh fighters, wherever they may be in the territory, are held to account.

The noble Lord, Lord West, quite rightly wanted a complete ceasefire in Syria. How would that be achieved by wiping out every last Daesh fighter? Secondly, will the Government ensure that wives and other camp-followers are not held responsible for the crimes of the fighters?

With Daesh, we are dealing with a despicable organisation. The way that it has influenced many, in terms of recruitment, is well known to all noble Lords. The noble Lord’s point is pertinent: we need to ensure that all efforts are made to save any lives that can be saved, particularly those of women and young children. Of course I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord West, that ultimately what we are seeking from our operations on the ground and from the coalition engagement—with all 70-odd nations involved with that coalition—is to reach a final settlement that protects the peace and security of all communities that have been impacted by Daesh activity not just in Syria but, as we are seeing now, encouragingly, in Iraq as well.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me whether there have been discussions with other members of the coalition about trying to address the situation so that these fighters can be detained and face the justice that he mentioned in the press release?

Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, we championed an anti-Daesh resolution at the Security Council. We continue to work not just with our P5 coalition partners but across the piece to ensure that, as my noble friend rightly says, these Daesh fighters, whether they are caught in Syria, crossing borders or making their way back home if they were foreign fighters—there were some who, regrettably and tragically, left the UK—are held to account for their actions and brought to justice.