With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement updating the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Two weeks ago, the House voted for the extension of UK airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq into Daesh’s heartland in Syria. As the Prime Minister and I explained during the debate that preceded the vote, the extension of military strikes is just one part of our strategy to bring stability to Syria and Iraq by defeating Daesh, working towards a political transition in Syria, and supporting humanitarian efforts in the region. It has been welcomed by our international partners, including the United States, France, and other partners in Europe and the Gulf. During that debate, we committed ourselves to giving the House quarterly updates on the progress of our strategy, but, given the high level of interest expressed by Members during the debate, I decided to offer an early first update before the House rises this week.
Let me deal first with the military strand of our strategy. As is well known, the first RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria were conducted just a few hours after the vote in the House, successfully targeting oil facilities in eastern Syria which provide Daesh with an important source of illicit income. Since then, RAF aircraft have conducted further strikes against Daesh in Syria, targeting wellheads in the extensive Omar oil field, as well as conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions. To make that increased tempo of activity possible, a further two RAF Tornados and six Typhoons have been deployed to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, bringing the total number of manned aircraft conducting strikes from Akrotiri to 16—in addition to our RAF Reaper unmanned aircraft which are also deployed in the region.
During the debate on 2 December, a number of right hon. and hon. Members expressed concern about the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from British military action. Of course there is a risk involved in any kind of combat strike activity, but I am pleased to inform the House that it continues to be the case that we have had no reports of civilian casualties as a result of UK airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria, and I pay tribute to the precision and professionalism of our RAF pilots in conducting those operations.
In Iraq, Government forces continue to make progress against Daesh. The coalition began operations in Iraq in the autumn of 2014, and since then the strategically significant towns of Tikrit, Baiji and Sinjar have all been retaken. Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad, is now surrounded by Iraqi forces supported by US mentors, and its Daesh occupiers are being steadily squeezed, including by RAF close support operations. Importantly, work is well advanced in the building of a Sunni local police force, supported by local tribal forces, to hold and police the city once it is liberated. In total, RAF Tornados and Reaper drones have flown more than 1,600 missions over Iraq, conducting over 400 strikes.
In Syria, the situation is more complicated. The majority of Russian air strikes continue to target Syrian opposition forces rather than Daesh. In the last two weeks, the Russians have attacked opposition forces between Homs and Aleppo and in the far north of Syria, and in doing so have allowed Daesh to seek advantage on the ground. Along with our coalition partners, including the United States, we will continue to urge the Russians at every opportunity to focus their fire solely on Daesh. It is unacceptable that Russian action is weakening the opposition, and thus giving advantage to the very Daesh forces against which they claim to be engaged.
Let me now turn to the campaign to disrupt Daesh’s finances and stop the flow of foreign fighters. Experts estimate that the oil assets that have been targeted account for about 40% of Daesh revenues, and tomorrow my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will attend the first ever meeting of Finance Ministers at the Security Council in New York to agree a further strengthening of the UN’s sanctions regime against Daesh. It is, of course, also crucial that countries enforce sanctions strictly with appropriate investigations and prosecutions. To ensure that we have our own house in order, we have begun the review of funding of Islamist extremist activity in the UK which was ordered by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and which will report to him in the spring. We continue to work with Turkey and others to build an increasingly sophisticated network to interdict foreign fighters seeking to enter Syria.
As well as relying on money, Daesh relies heavily on propaganda to attract financial support and new recruits, so we have stepped up our effort to counter its messaging. The UK has created a coalition communications cell which is working to combat and undermine the Daesh “brand”, ensuring that no communications space currently exploited by Daesh is left uncontested. The coalition cell will generate a full range of communications at the pace and scale that will be necessary to highlight Daesh’s cruel and inhumane treatment of individuals under its control, its failures on the battlefield, and its perversion of Islam. The cell has already received staffing and financial contributions from coalition partners, and others have expressed strong support and an intention to contribute.
At the heart of our comprehensive strategy is a recognition that, to defeat Daesh in its heartland, we need a political track to bring an end to the civil war and to have in place a transitional Government in Syria. The world could then, once again, support a legitimate Syrian Government so that the Syrian army, Syrian opposition forces and Kurdish peshmerga could concentrate their efforts against Daesh, liberating their own country from this evil organisation.
Diplomatic efforts to deliver a negotiated end to the civil war and a transitional Government are continuing apace. The International Syria Support Group, bringing together all the major international players, has agreed the need for a ceasefire, humanitarian access and an end to attacks on civilians. In its communiqué of 14 November, the ISSG set out its goals: a transitional Government within six months, a new constitution and new, internationally supervised elections within 18 months. A further meeting of the support group is expected to take place in New York on Friday, which I shall attend. In preparation for that meeting, I met the Foreign Ministers of like-minded members of the ISSG in Paris on Monday, including the US, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Separately, in Riyadh last week, Saudi Arabia brought together well over 100 representatives from a wide range of Syrian opposition groups to agree an opposition negotiating commission and a negotiating policy statement ahead of talks between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, convened by the UN, which we hope will begin in January. The conference committed to Syria’s territorial integrity, to the continuity of the Syrian state and to negotiations under the framework of the Geneva communiqué. The participants also committed themselves to a
“democratic mechanism through a pluralistic system, representing all spectrums of the Syrian people, men and women, without discrimination or exclusion on a religious, sectarian or ethnic basis, and based on the principles of citizenship, human rights, transparency, and accountability, and the rule of law over everyone.”
Given the diversity of the Syrian opposition, I regard that as a significant achievement and I congratulate Saudi Arabia on it. The UK will continue to provide full support to intra-Syrian negotiations.
In Iraq, we continue to support Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver the reform and reconciliation needed to unite all Iraq’s communities in the fight against Daesh. I also welcome the recent announcement of the formation of an Islamic military coalition to fight terrorism, bringing together 34 Muslim countries to partner with the rest of the international community. I have discussed that initiative in detail with my Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Al-Jubeir. Its clear intention is to create a coalition that is flexible, contributing on a case-by-case basis and defending moderate Islam from the forces of extremism.
On the need for continued humanitarian support and post-conflict stabilisation in both Syria and Iraq, as the Prime Minister outlined to the House again today at Prime Minister’s questions, the end of the civil war in Syria and the defeat of Daesh in both Iraq and Syria will present the international community with an enormous and urgent stabilisation challenge. Building on our humanitarian support during the Syria crisis—we remain the second largest bilateral donor—we have committed a minimum of £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction in the long term. In February, the Prime Minister will co-host, with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN, an international conference in London, focused on meeting both the UN 2016 appeal to support refugees from the civil war, as well as longer-term financial commitments for Syria and its neighbours.
Since the House took the decision two weeks ago to extend our military effort into Syria, the Government have taken forward, with our coalition partners, our comprehensive strategy to degrade—and ultimately to defeat—Daesh. We are making steady progress in both Iraq and Syria. We are targeting Daesh’s finances through military action and through action with international partners. We are disrupting the flow of foreign fighters. We are fighting Daesh’s ideology and propaganda. We are a leading player in the diplomatic effort to deliver a political settlement to end the Syrian civil war, and we are preparing for the day after that settlement and the defeat of Daesh so that we can ensure the long-term future stability and security of Iraq and Syria.
The fight against Daesh will not be won overnight but, however long it takes, it is in our vital national interest to defeat that terrorist organisation and the direct threat it poses to our national security. Failure is not an option. I commend this statement to the House.
The full debate and the detailed Q and A to the foreign secretary is here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/hansard/commons/todays-commons-debates/read/unknown/267/