The Royal Air Force has made a vital contribution to the counter-Daesh coalition, carrying out 1,092 strikes in Iraq and 75 in Syria, and providing essential intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. In Iraq, the RAF has helped Iraqi security forces reclaim significant territory, including supporting operations to liberate Mosul. In Syria, the RAF has already attacked Daesh’s capital in Raqqa while supporting opposition groups pushing back Daesh on the ground.
We shall be reviewing progress in Iraq and Syria with the military commanders at the counter-Daesh coalition meeting in London on Thursday, and will map out a road to longer term peace in Iraq, including potential future deployments in different parts of Iraq that may help to continue the training we have been offering Iraqi forces, and further work on counter-terrorism. We will also discuss the need to control the spread of the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria to the different countries that they came from.
At a time when our RAF is at full stretch on operations, the Secretary of State will be as concerned as I was to hear the announcement that RAF Halton is to close, not because the long-term defence estate consolidation is not the right direction of travel, but because the closure seems to have been sprung on the civilian and military personnel in order to meet the local council land bank deadline. Will he reassure personnel about timescale and staff support so that the decision does not create a serious retention risk?
Notably in relation to operations in Iraq and Syria, to which I am sure the hon. Lady intended to allude but did not quite get round to doing so.
Decisions on closing some of the bases and airfields that we no longer need have been taken on the basis of military capability and on the advice of service chiefs. I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend, and indeed Bridget Phillipson, in paying tribute to the work of the RAF—both the sustained tempo of its operations, which is probably at its highest for more than 25 years, and the enormous job it is doing to keep our country safe.
May I press the Defence Secretary on the level of defeatism in his statement that it is nearly impossible to envisage successful airdrops if Russia does not allow them? For all its belligerence, Russia does not want to trigger a conflict with the UK and our NATO allies. The longer that that cowardice, in essence, goes on in the face of Russia’s posturing, the more Russia will push and the harder it will be for any resolution to come to the dreadful tragedy happening in Syria.
We continue to consider all possibilities for getting either food or medicine into Aleppo, or indeed some of the other besieged areas, but it is not simply a question of Russian permission; we would also have to make sure that any drops were feasible, considering the vulnerability of aircraft to ground-to-air defence systems.
The Secretary of State said that it was very late for the people of eastern Aleppo, but it is not too late, and I would second the calls for airdrops. RAF planes could be flying over and providing humanitarian airdrops. Some 200 Members on both sides of the House, including Front-Benchers and Back-Benchers in the Labour party, have signed a letter calling for airdrops. Leading humanitarian organisations have done likewise. Will he look at it again?
We continue to look, almost daily, at the various ways we might get food aid in, but it is not possible, in a contested airspace, with ground-to-air missile systems and Russian aircraft flying overhead, denying permission, to fly coalition aircraft over Aleppo. Without that security, we cannot drop food where it is most needed, but we continue to look at all the options.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer on Aleppo to my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis, and I recognise the RAF capabilities that he mentioned, but I share the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) that we really need to look at this again. Will the Secretary of State continue to look—and not at any stage give up looking—for a way to alleviate the terrible suffering in east Aleppo?
I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. We continue to look at these options and to talk to non-governmental organisations willing to help us provide food and medicine. Some food and medicine is getting into other cities in Syria, but it is not getting into Aleppo itself, simply because of the impossibility of flying aircraft in the airspace over Aleppo and the very real risk of aircraft being shot down.