ISIL: Iraq and Syria

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 11:48 am on 16th October 2014.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 11:48 am, 16th October 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Iraq and Syria. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Alan Henning. Mr Henning arrived in Syria armed only with kindness and compassion. His appalling murder, like that of David Haines, the two American hostages and many thousands of others, has revealed the true, barbaric face of ISIL.

The scale and unity of the international response to the challenge of ISIL is impressive. It involves Muslim countries of the region and the wider international community. The UK is proud to play its part. Working closely with our allies, under a US lead, we have a clear strategy to take the fight to ISIL—a strategy with military, political and wider counter-terrorism components; a strategy that we recognise, at least in parts, will need to be sustained over the long term. We are under no illusion as to the severity of the challenge to regional stability and to our homeland security.

At the heart of our strategy is the political strand. ISIL will not be overcome until Iraq and Syria have inclusive Governments capable of marginalising its appeal and mounting a sustained and effective response on the ground to the military and ideological threat it poses.

Let me first address the situation in Iraq, which I visited this week. I did so to show solidarity with the Iraqi people and the new Government of Prime Minister al-Abadi, to tell them that they do not stand alone in confronting the ISIL threat, and to encourage them as they put together an inclusive Government of national reconciliation. I recognise the concern in this House—shared, I have to say, by many in the region—as to the difficulties of achieving this more inclusive approach. I recognise too the enormous challenges that Prime Minister al-Abadi faces and the understandable scepticism as to his ability to deliver a genuinely different approach from his predecessor. At the same time, however, I am impressed by the commitment of all three leaderships—Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd—to ensure that this time is, and must be, different. All agreed that this is effectively Iraq’s last chance as a nation state.

In talks with Prime Minister al-Abadi, Vice-President Nujaifi, and Foreign Minister Jaafari, each of them reaffirmed their understanding of the need for, and their personal commitment to, a more inclusive approach; decentralisation of power to Iraq’s communities; and equitable sharing of Iraq’s natural resource wealth. I assured Prime Minister al-Abadi that Britain will do all it can to support reform and reconciliation. He, in turn, assured me that he expects to complete the formation of his Government by appointing defence and interior Ministers over the next few days.

In Erbil, I met the Kurdistan Regional Government’s President Massoud Barzani, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and other Ministers. They likewise assured me of their commitment to work with Prime Minister al-Abadi, and said that Kurdish Ministers would be taking up their positions in the Baghdad Government this week. There was considerable optimism, both in Erbil and Baghdad, that this will allow a much-needed deal to resolve the long-standing issues between the Iraqi Government and the KRG, including oil exports and revenue-sharing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the history, there is a deep, and mutual, lack of trust among the different communities in Iraq and between Baghdad and some of its neighbours in the region. However, it is now vital that all parties, having looked at the alternatives, put the past behind them and have the courage to build bridges to each other—in particular, to appeal to the Sunni populations, who are living under, and in some cases acquiescing in, ISIL’s brutal reign, and who must be brought back into the political fold if ISIL is to be defeated in Iraq. For our part, we will do all that is in our power to encourage the different communities and countries involved to reach out to each other in rebuilding an Iraq capable of rolling back ISIL and the poisonous ideology it represents.

Turning to the military dimension of our engagement in Iraq, Britain, alongside the United States, France, Australia and others, has assumed a key role in carrying out air strikes and mounting the sophisticated reconnaissance that enables them. We are in the process of re-deploying some of our Reaper remotely piloted aircraft from Afghanistan to the middle east to add to our surveillance capabilities.

The security situation on the ground remains very serious, with ISIL maintaining control of significant swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria. ISIL has made advances in Anbar province in recent days, including taking control of the city of Hit and attacking the provincial capital, Ramadi. At the same time, however, Kurdish forces have pushed back ISIL in the north, re-taking several strategically important villages. There will be tactical ebb and flow, but the coalition air campaign has stabilised the strategic picture, and the assessment of our experts is that Baghdad is not in immediate danger.

Approximately 20% to 30% of Iraq’s populated territory could be under ISIL control. Liberating this territory from ISIL is a medium-term challenge to be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. The horrific effects of ISIL on governance, security and the social fabric will be felt for even longer.

Prime Minister al-Abadi outlined to me his plans to reform the Iraqi security forces. He is clear-eyed about the scale of the challenges he faces and the resistance he will face in meeting them. However, reform will be essential if the ISF are to develop the capabilities necessary to defeat ISIL on the ground. The United States and others have committed to providing the necessary training. Britain has funded bomb disposal training for the Kurdish forces, as we did for the Iraqi security forces earlier in the year, and on Monday evening I saw for myself members of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment training peshmerga to operate and maintain the heavy machine guns that Britain has gifted to them.

In Syria, we need to reaffirm clearly, lest there be any doubt, that Assad cannot be part of the solution to the challenge of ISIL: the depravity of his regime was, after all, a driving factor in creating ISIL. Indeed, while the international coalition has been trying to save Kobane, Assad has been continuing his attacks and aerial bombardments on the moderates, including around Aleppo and Damascus. Those close to Assad should be in no doubt that he must be removed to clear the way for a Government in Damascus who enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people, credibility with the international community and who can take effective action against extremism. For as long as he remains in power, there will be no peace in Syria.

Britain will continue to provide strong support to the moderate opposition, including technical assistance and non-lethal equipment. We have recently increased our funding to areas under opposition control and to regional allies, to increase their resilience against the effects of the Syria conflict. Our support, along with that of our allies, is helping the moderates to deliver good governance and strong public services in the area they control, thus relieving the suffering of the civilian population.

Air strikes are being carried out in Syria by the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan. The UK strongly supports this action. No one who has watched a television screen over the past week or so can have failed to be moved by the plight of the defenders of Kobane. Their situation has at times appeared hopeless, yet, supported by coalition air strikes, they are holding on and in some areas pushing back. The moderate opposition has held back ISIL in other parts of northern Syria. Air strikes have targeted ISIL’s headquarters, command and control, and military forces in the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, degrading their capabilities. They have also hit the economic infrastructure that ISIL has been exploiting to generate revenue from illegal oil sales.

The UK Government expect to make a significant contribution to the US-led programme to train the Syrian moderate armed opposition, which is fighting both Assad’s tyranny and ISIL’s extremism. Details of how that contribution will be delivered are currently being scoped.

ISIL represents a threat to Iraq and to the region, but it also represents a major threat to us here at home, particularly at the hands of returning foreign fighters, and to our citizens worldwide. The UK has led the coalition on a number of wider counter-terrorism initiatives, which aim to cut off the flow of finance and fighters to ISIL in both Syria and Iraq.

Through our membership of the United Nations Security Council, we have been instrumental in securing the listings of 20 individuals, including 16 directly linked to ISIL or the al-Nusra front, and two al-Qaeda-related organisations, since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2170 on terrorist financing. We are also working closely with partners to disrupt ISIL’s access to external markets for illicit sales of oil and other goods. Domestically, we are seeking to strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission to counter terrorist abuse of the charity sector. On terrorist recruitment, the UK co-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 2178 sets out a framework to dissuade, prevent and disrupt travel, to work with communities, to strengthen border controls and to manage the challenge of returning foreign fighters. We will now actively pursue that agenda throughout Europe and the middle east.

As co-chairs of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum’s working group on countering violent extremism, we are looking at new ways to strengthen the ability of partners overseas to counter the terrorist propaganda that contributes to radicalisation, and to the recruitment and mobilisation of individuals into terrorism.

The advance of ISIL and the Assad regime’s continued attrition against its own population have caused a humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Syria no less grave than the political and military one. More than 170,000 people have fled from Kobane, and more than 30,000 people have been displaced from the town of Hit in Anbar province as a result of recent fighting; many of them have ended up in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The need to winterise refugee accommodation is increasingly urgent as the wet weather and then the cold weather approaches. The Kurdish leadership made very clear to me the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis it faces in accommodating nearly 1 million refugees—perhaps half Iraq’s total population of internally displaced persons—at the same time as defending its 600-mile front line with ISIL. The humanitarian challenges go wider. In Syria, nearly 14 million people need assistance, with 6.5 million IDPs and 3 million refugees.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recently announced £100 million in additional funding, bringing the UK contribution to the Syria crisis to £700 million. Our support is reaching hundreds of thousands of people across Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. UK aid is providing water for up to 1.5 million people, and has funded more than 5 million monthly food rations. In addition, we are supporting the Governments of Lebanon and Jordan to manage the impact of the huge influx of refugees to those countries on their host communities. Britain was one of the first donors to respond to the worsening situation in Iraq this summer, and has allocated a total of £23 million to Iraq since 13 June to meet immediate humanitarian needs and to support the UN and other agencies in their response. Aid has been focused on need, mainly in the Kurdish region. DFID has already responded to the urgent needs of the Syrian Kurdish refugees who have recently fled to Turkey, and it is ready to react swiftly to further developments.

We have a wide-ranging and ambitious strategy to confront an evil that is a direct threat to our national security. I pay tribute to the members of our diplomatic service and international development teams in the region, who are working in very difficult circumstances, and, above all, to the men and women of our armed forces who are once again putting their lives at risk as Britain takes its place at the heart of the international coalition in waging a struggle against a barbaric force that has no place in human civilisation in the 21st century. They will always have our wholehearted support. I commend this statement to the House.