Counter-Daesh Update

– in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 11th February 2019.

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Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 5:25 pm, 11th February 2019

Mr Speaker, with permission, I will update the House on the campaign against Daesh, one of the most brutal and depraved terrorist organisations the world has ever seen. Since Daesh’s reign of terror started, investigators from the United Nations have discovered more than 200 mass graves in areas of Iraq once held by the terrorists, containing between 6,000 and 12,000 corpses. The UN has concluded that Daesh’s onslaught against the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq amounted to the crime of genocide, as testimony from remarkably brave individuals, such as the Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, makes clear.

Daesh once imposed its rule of terror on an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, but has now been driven back to an isolated enclave in eastern Syria. However, the House should not mistake territorial defeat for final defeat. Military action by many nations, including the UK, has broken Daesh’s grip on thousands of square miles of Syria and Iraq—and we can draw encouragement from that success, at the same time as we salute the extraordinary courage of the coalition of armed forces that made it possible—yet as we drive Daesh out of territorial strongholds we are seeing its operatives turning to guerrilla tactics and forming more conventional terrorist networks. So we must press on with the military campaign, even as we employ every diplomatic and humanitarian lever to address the conditions that led to the birth of Daesh in the first place.

Today, I will outline the measures that Britain is taking to guard against the re-emergence of Daesh in the middle east and to protect our people at home. I turn first to the current situation. The Syrian Democratic Forces have cleared Daesh from large areas of the Euphrates valley, expelling its fighters from significant population centres and confining them to a small area near the frontier with Iraq. Their action, alongside the armed forces of all the countries from the global coalition, has liberated millions from tyranny. Of course we take particular pride in the courage and professionalism of the men and women of the British armed services, and the whole House will want to congratulate Flight Lieutenant Thomas Hansford, a Typhoon pilot from 1 Squadron, who was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross in November after destroying four Daesh truck bombs during a single mission over Syria.

On 19 December, President Trump announced the impending withdrawal of American troops from eastern Syria, where about 2,000 US personnel have been deployed. Contrary to what many anticipated at the time, there has been no hasty or precipitate departure. As the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, confirmed to me when I met him in Washington last month, the US Administration recognise the importance of conducting the withdrawal in a way that allows the immense progress achieved against Daesh in Syria to be maintained. We must also do everything within our power to address the conditions that allowed the rise of Daesh, to which I now turn.

The central requirement is for political progress in Iraq and Syria. The new Iraqi Government, under President Salih and Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, are seized of the importance of winning the peace through democratic politics and economic reform, and the UK will do everything possible to help them. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited Iraq in November 2017 and proposed an enduring security partnership. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister for the Armed Forces have since visited Iraq to take forward that pledge, and in January my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East visited Baghdad, where he met the President and the Prime Minister and announced a new £30 million funding package. The UK has helped to train nearly 90,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. We will press ahead with this essential work, including at the re-established military academy.

In Syria, the civil war that gave Daesh its great opportunity has been raging for almost eight years. The House knows the history of this terrible conflict. From the beginning, we have done our best to promote a political settlement, but our efforts have collided with Assad’s determination to subjugate his country at whatever cost and by the most brutal methods. We will continue to work to advance a peaceful settlement. In the meantime, we have mounted our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. The Government have committed more than £2.7 billion of humanitarian aid to the Syrian crisis, providing more than 27 million food rations and 10 million vaccines since 2012. Now that Daesh has been cleared from large areas of Syria, there is an urgent need for humanitarian assistance in those regions. On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, I can announce that UK Aid has provided another £20 million of help for areas of Syria recaptured from Daesh, including Raqqa, bringing the total to more than £40 million in this financial year.

The Government continue to believe that Daesh poses the single greatest terrorist threat to this country, so finally I turn to the measures that we are taking to keep our people safe here in the UK. We are using a range of tools to reduce the threat posed by fighters returning from Iraq and Syria. Those who do come back to the UK should expect to face investigation and, where appropriate, prosecution. Those fighters detained by partner forces in the region must also expect to be brought to justice for any offences, in accordance with due legal process, regardless of nationality.

In the internet age, Daesh has no need to control territory in order to spread poisonous propaganda. Supporters around the world increasingly produce their own propaganda, as well as sharing content from the terrorist group’s outlets. The Foreign Office hosts the global coalition’s strategic communications cell, which works with international partners to counter Daesh’s propaganda. The Government have also mounted extensive cyber operations to destroy Daesh’s online capabilities.

When Britain joined the campaign against Daesh, we knew that we were embarking on a protracted struggle against a movement dedicated to medieval, obscurantist barbarism. Although we can take heart from the crushing territorial defeats meted out to Daesh, the struggle to combat its ideology will take much longer and is far from over. Until then, we must be vigilant, and the Government will continue to fulfil their first duty by doing whatever is necessary to protect the British people. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 5:33 pm, 11th February 2019

May I say that our first thoughts are with the members of our armed forces who are involved in the campaign against Daesh and who every day put their lives on the line in the service of their country? We also recognise the heroism of Flight Lieutenant Thomas Hansford. We owe them all a very great debt.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement for this, the first supposed quarterly update on Daesh since 3 July, almost seven months ago. That is all the proof we need—if we need it—that this truly is a Government who do not know their quarters from their halves or their halves from their elbows. There is a serious point, though, because the commitment to provide Parliament with quarterly updates on the campaign against Daesh was included in the motion on which this House voted when it authorised intervention in Syria. It is not acceptable that we have had to wait for more than half a year for this statement, and I hope the Foreign Secretary will apologise for that failure to comply with the terms of the 2015 motion.

In the time I have, I wish to ask the Foreign Secretary to address a much more serious and profound issue regarding the status of the 2015 motion. As the whole House will recall, that motion stated explicitly that it was designed to

“eradicate the safe haven”— that ISIL had—

“established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”.—[Official Report, 2 December 2015;
Vol. 603, c. 323.]

During the debate in December 2015, the former Prime Minister repeatedly made it clear that the motion had been worded in that way explicitly to address the concerns of Members that this military action should not lead to a wider open-ended intervention in Syria. That was the rationale on which many Members supported the motion, and now we are in a position where we have been told that that rationale no longer exists by the President of the United States himself, who claims that Daesh has been all but destroyed and that, as a result, US troops will be withdrawn within a matter of weeks.

Before we get to the implications of that announcement for our own engagement in Syria, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to address the implications for Kurdish cities and towns in northern Syria? Does he agree that, after all the sacrifices made by Kurdish forces in the war against Daesh, and still being made by them today, it would be a disgrace for America and the world if they were now abandoned and left to the mercy of Turkey and its militias? Will he make it clear that that will be avoided at all costs?

Next, what estimate has the Foreign Secretary made of the remaining strength of the Daesh forces still in Syria in terms of numbers and firepower and does he agree with the White House that it is just a matter of weeks until they are destroyed? Furthermore, does he agree with the President’s conclusion that, once those Daesh remnants have been destroyed, the coalition’s military engagement in Syria can be brought to an end?

We are all aware that many people, including President Trump’s own advisers, strongly oppose that conclusion and argue that an ongoing military presence is required to prevent the re-emergence of Daesh until such a time as Syria is peaceful and stable, with a new, strong and unifying Government in place who are able to tackle the threat on their own. Indeed, many of the President’s advisers argue that continued military presence is necessary for other reasons, including the need to contain Iran. However, if the Foreign Secretary subscribes to the views of the President’s advisers, rather than the President himself, can he spell out for us where, in the 2015 motion, it was made clear to the House that our intervention was not just designed to eradicate the safe haven established by Daesh, but would include maintaining an open-ended military commitment in Syria in case Daesh should ever return? Given that that was never the policy that this House was asked to support, will the Foreign Secretary accept that the 2015 mandate for military action will need to be renewed if our engagement in Syria is going to continue even after those Daesh remnants have been destroyed?

I am afraid that I must close by asking the Foreign Secretary about the civilian death toll from coalition airstrikes in Syria. As he will know, there is a large disparity between the official military estimate of just over 1,000 civilian deaths, and the estimates produced by organisations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which puts the toll at 3,300, including 1,400 women and children. May I ask the Foreign Secretary what estimates the Government have made of the true level of civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes and, based on the investigations into those airstrikes, how many does he estimate have sadly been caused by British planes and British drones?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

First, I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for the tone of her questions. I will do my best to answer them as clearly as I can. I apologise for the fact that we did not keep the House updated as frequently as we promised and that this statement is long overdue, so she has my apology without reservation for that. We did lay a written statement just before Christmas, but that is not good enough; the commitment was to verbal statements.

The right hon. Lady is correct in what she said about the 2015 motion. There is a very important matter that we need to address in my response to her comments. The motion did talk about eradicating safe havens, but it is very important to say that the territorial defeat of Daesh does not mean the defeat of Daesh. The President of the United States has talked about a territorial defeat. Daesh now holds just a few square kilometres of the Middle Euphrates valley, so its territory has come down massively from an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom, and it is possible that it will lose that even this week, according to some of the comments that the President has made. But that does not mean that it will be defeated. However, it also does not mean that we are saying to the House that our commitment to a military campaign is indeterminate. The right hon. Lady used the phrase “open-ended military commitment” and that it is not. We are committed to the defeat of Daesh in Syria. That is what the mandate is and we will stick to that mandate.

The right hon. Lady talked about the Kurdish SDF fighters. I want to put on record to this House the incredible courage of those fighters. I stand in the House today to report what I think most Members would consider to be an extraordinary and—dare I say it—rare success in foreign policy, whereby it is possible to see an evil organisation a shadow of its former self. That would not have been possible without the incredible courage of the SDF fighters. It would absolutely not be acceptable to this House, the Government or the country were there to be adverse consequences to those fighters from other regional powers. I had that discussion with the United States when I visited there on 24 January, and it shares that view. Indeed, Turkey also knows our opinion on that issue. The SDF plays an important role for us right now, because it holds a number of foreign fighters captive and is responsible for looking after them, so its role will continue to be extremely important for some time.

In this battle, it is important not to claim victory too quickly. If we do so, we risk Daesh re-establishing a territorial foothold. Indeed, concerns are already being expressed that that is beginning to happen in parts of Iraq now. We do not want to declare victory too quickly only to find shortly afterwards that the very thing that we thought we had defeated is back. That is why we need to continue until we are confident that Daesh will not be able to establish a territorial foothold, but that is not an open-ended commitment. This is a military commitment to make sure that the military job is properly completed.

On the deaths from coalition strikes, I am not aware that the Government have an internal estimate that is different from the estimates that the right hon. Lady told the House, but I will find out and write to her, if I may.

I fully recognise that the whole matter of military intervention overseas is a very difficult issue for many Members of this House. It is something that this House takes its responsibilities on extremely seriously, and that we rightly debate very carefully. I think that we can all think of military interventions that have not been successful in the way that was promised, but this is not in that category. This is a military intervention—not by Britain alone, but with a global coalition of allies—that has been extremely successful in reducing the threat to British citizens. It has also been one in which Britain played a particularly important role, because we led the part of the campaign that was countering Daesh disinformation and online propaganda, which was one of the main recruiting sergeants. We can, as the right hon. Lady rightly did, pay enormous credit to the members of our armed services who have done such a remarkable job.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although there can be no guarantee of a peaceful future for Iraq, interventions such as that by the coalition can indeed be successful if the fighting is done by local rather than foreign troops, if airstrikes are conducted according to the strictest rules of engagement, and if the military campaign is properly underpinned by a political process of reconciliation and reform that tackles some of the root causes of the insurgency?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend of course speaks with great wisdom on this because he was responsible for a lot of the training of overseas armies that makes precisely that strategy possible. We have now trained 70,000 Iraqi forces as a result of the programme that I think he may even have set up when he was Secretary of State for Defence.[This section has been corrected on 14 February 2019, column 10MC — read correction] He is absolutely right that coupling that with a programme of political reconciliation is the key. I would go further and say that that is really the key lesson from what happened in the original Iraq conflict, which ended up so much more problematically than anyone in this House was hoping for at the time. Local boots on the ground and proper political reconciliation is the way to make progress.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies)

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for early sight of the statement. I join him in recognising the risks faced by and the capabilities of members of the armed forces. As someone who comes from a forces family who served in Iraq, and also Afghanistan, I know of the risk that they put themselves in in fulfilling their duties.

The Iraq Government have stated that they need £88 billion to rebuild the country following the prolonged conflict. While, as the Secretary of State said, Daesh’s state-building may be close to defeat, the organisation still holds a powerful sway in many parts of the world, including the Philippines and Somalia. He talked about reconciliation. At the heart of reconstruction, there is a lack of truth and reconciliation for a new Iraq, and that could possibly allow for a resurgence of Daesh. Does he recognise that with less than half of the sums required for reconstruction being available, if we fail to invest adequately in Iraq, that runs the risk of allowing Daesh to regain a foothold?

Will the Secretary of State expand slightly more on what we have learned in this process to enable us to combat fanaticism in this region and beyond?

Finally, does the Secretary of State recognise that more work is required to be done through truth and reconciliation, especially if Iraq is to be fully reintegrated, and that that includes the innocent women and children whose Daesh husbands and fathers cast them aside for the sake of fanaticism—an issue that was most recently given steam in The New Yorker by journalist Ben Taub?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He speaks of some very important issues.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that reconciliation has to be central. Sometimes that costs money. In this country, we can be proud of the fact that we have put £2.7 billion into that process, which has had a huge humanitarian impact.[This section has been corrected on 14 February 2019, column 10MC — read correction] But part of reconciliation in this case, which is a specific case different from the original Iraq war, is the need for justice against the perpetrators of the genocide that Daesh was responsible for. On 17 January, I had the privilege of meeting Nadia Murad, the Nobel prize-winning Yazidi campaigner against sexual violence in conflict. In her book, she talks about the perpetrators of sexual violence against her who have still not faced justice and are still in the region somewhere. She says that for someone like her, there will be no closure until those people face justice. Part of that process of closure is justice, but part of it is also for people like her to be able to go back to the villages near Mount Sinjar that they were driven out of, at a time when many of their family members had been murdered. That is beginning to happen. All these things matter.

I think we have learned a number of things, but probably the most significant has been the need to engage in cyberspace as well as with boots on the ground, because it was the dissemination of propaganda that probably allowed Daesh to grow much further than we anticipated in the early days.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s proper tribute to the fight of the Syrian Democratic Forces in our interests, noting that they have sacrificed 8,000 soldiers, including men and women, with 5,000 permanently disabled. The Foreign Secretary says that, having liberated all that territory from ISIS and then taken into custody thousands of foreigners, they are responsible for the investigation of those people. Surely the states from which those people come must bear the burden of investigating and prosecuting their own citizens who are being looked after. When will the Foreign Secretary instruct his officials to negotiate with the forces of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria the repatriation to the United Kingdom and the proper investigation and prosecution of British citizens who will range from the wholly innocent to the rather eccentric to the downright murderously dangerous, who need to be put in British custody as soon as reasonably practical?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. First, in terms of the courage of people who have been fighting in Syria, there is one group that we have not mentioned so far, and that is the White Helmets, who did an extraordinary job in Syria—not so much in the particular conflict against Daesh, but we can be proud that this country has resettled 29 families of White Helmets and was instrumental in getting about 400 White Helmets out of Syria towards the end of last year.[This section has been corrected on 14 February 2019, column 11MC — read correction]

The issue that my hon. Friend raises—I will not pretend to him; he speaks with huge knowledge of the region—is immensely complicated. The complicating factor is not that we do not want to take responsibility for these individuals, although frankly we would be happy if they never came back, because they have gone to fight for enemy forces who have been committing the most appalling atrocities. The issue we have is ensuring that they face justice, and sometimes that is not as easy as simply bringing them back here. That is why we are working through this as quickly as we can to try to find the right solution, to ensure that we can look the victims who have suffered in the face and say that we have brought the perpetrators of these atrocities to justice.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

Given what the people of Iraq and Syria faced when ISIS/Daesh suddenly acquired control of large parts of territory, what has been achieved in the years since is really quite remarkable. I am sure the whole House will want to join the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary in welcoming the near-final defeat on the battlefield, if not in ideology, of this bunch of fascists.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the mass graves that have been uncovered. Since the UN report in November, further graves have been found in places such as Tabqa and Palmyra. Who is taking responsibility for collecting forensic evidence, so that those who have committed these crimes can be brought to justice? Given the difficulties that he just referred to in working out who will take that responsibility, does he think there is any potential for the United Nations to agree to an international tribunal where these cases may ultimately be brought, so that the individuals who murdered people in cold blood and raped and tortured them can finally face the justice that they deserve?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for asking that question. He is right that unless we are able to demonstrate justice for these atrocities, we will not persuade people that as a world, we have sat up and taken notice of what has happened. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt, recently met Karim Khan of UNITAD, which is the United Nations investigation body, and we are strongly supporting its work. The UK strongly supported the international, impartial and independent mechanism, to ensure that we have a proper mechanism for investigating these people, and we brought forward Security Council resolution 2379, which sets up an independent investigatory body. It is none the less not easy. Finding evidence that can be traced back to an individual perpetrator in whichever part of the world is extremely challenging, but that does not mean that we should leave any stone unturned in this process.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Having given evidence in war crimes trials, it is my understanding that people charged with genocide or crimes against humanity should be brought to book in the country in which they have carried out their crimes. Will those who have carried out genocide against the Yazidis be tried in Iraq, or will the International Criminal Court have some responsibility for dealing with that matter?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is right; our first intention is that they should be tried in Iraq if it is possible to get justice for them in Iraq, and there is no reason why it should not be, with the new Government in Iraq. Of course, there are cases in which it is not possible for people to get justice in the country where the atrocity happened. That is when the ICC has a role, and that is why we support the ICC. It has a very important role to play internationally, despite a number of challenges that it currently faces.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

The Secretary of State is right; the defeat on the battlefield is to be welcomed, but the ideology continues to grow. The fact that they have been defeated on the battlefield does not mean that they are not planning and are not capable of carrying out further attacks. Can he say a bit about what we are doing to track the money that is laundered to fund such attacks? The crucial thing that we need to do is cut off access to the money.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Absolutely. We have taken a number of measures to try to find out what is happening with that money and cut off access to it, including the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and the Proceeds of Crime Act, which I think became law in 2010; I cannot remember which party was responsible for it. We can always go further, and for that we need to work with not only UK-based banks but Crown dependencies.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

My right hon. Friend knows well that the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the valiant Peshmerga were essential allies in defeating Daesh on the battlefield. We all appreciate that the ideology of Daesh has not yet been defeated. Given the Kurdistan Regional Government’s vital and positive role in challenging continuing extremist ideologies and upholding security in the region, will he increase his efforts to strengthen the KRG in Iraq and help them achieve a full and fair political settlement with Baghdad?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are helping to train the Peshmerga at the moment. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa was in Baghdad and Erbil just two weeks ago, and he met President Salih and Prime Minister Mahdi to talk about that important reconciliation and inclusion of the Kurds in the reconciliation process.

Photo of Janet Daby Janet Daby Labour, Lewisham East

Due to this conflict, approximately 5.5 million Syrian people have become refugees and undergone experiences that are very difficult for us to imagine. Half of those people are children. In the Borough of Lewisham, we have made a commitment to be a sanctuary borough for Syrian refugees. How many refugees have we received in the UK, and what is our target?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I believe that over 14,000 Syrian refugees have come to the UK. We should also pay tribute to neighbouring countries such as Iraq, which has 250,000 Syrian refugees. That is an important reason why we as a country must have a humane policy when it comes to asylum seekers.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

The Foreign Secretary will know that the self-governing regime and the Arab-Christian coalition in the north-east of Syria are under huge pressure from the Assad regime. What is the Government’s latest thinking on the safe haven plan of President Erdoğan of Turkey?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We are looking at that plan very closely, and we are talking to our allies in the United States about it. We understand the strategic reason why President Trump wants to withdraw American troops, but our concern is to make sure there no unintended consequences. That is why we think it encouraging that, although the original announcement suggested this withdrawal would happen very quickly, the United States has behaved with considerable pragmatism in practice.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces)

I, too, pay tribute to our armed forces. What they have done in recent times gives us good cause to hold our heads up high.

United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 says that free and fair elections must take place under UN supervision and that the political transition should be Syrian-led. Given that the resolution was by definition unanimously approved by the Security Council, which includes Russia, and that Russia’s subsequent position and activities in effect block its implementation, what, if any, recourse does the UK have to go back to the United Nations and make some attempt to remove this completely illogical blockage and ensure the implementation of a resolution that is fundamental to the future of the country?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I completely share the frustration that the hon. Gentleman has expressed about the role of Russia. We were on track, with the potential for a political settlement that could have removed Assad and meant the people of Syria did not have to suffer from someone who was prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people to impose his bloody rule. However, the Russians then intervened in the process, and it now looks as though Assad is here to stay, to put it very bluntly, so I think the Russians have to take responsibility for the way in which they have changed the situation. Like us, they have a veto at the Security Council, and we cannot stop them exercising that veto. What we can do is to support the work of UN special envoy Geir Pedersen, who has just started and will I think do a very good job. We hope that he can find a way forward, but we do not underestimate the challenges.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement, and I particularly welcome the progress that has been made on degrading Daesh. Does he agree with me that the continued influence of Russia and Iran in Syria and across the middle east actually presents the biggest threat to the rules-based international order that we have seen for a long time and that Britain needs to redouble our efforts to try to rebuild that rules-based international order over the long term?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I absolutely do agree with that. I think we have to be aware of the limits of our power and of the mistakes that we have made in our own foreign policy over the years in the middle east. As a new Foreign Secretary, I am very conscious that this is not an area of the world that someone can come to understand quickly, so we need some humility as we approach policy in this area. He is right, however, that one of the challenges we have is the involvement of Russia, which has become a more influential player in the region, and we should also say that about the activities of Iran. Taken together, these do present real risks to stability in the region of which we need to be aware.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the ongoing efforts to defeat Daesh in the field, but he will be aware of the wider strategic need to promote reconciliation. I would reflect on the post-invasion picture in Iraq, particularly the strategic blunder of de-Ba’athification, as it was then seen, and the huge vacuum and stoking of sectarian tensions it created. Is the Secretary of State aware of the growing concern about the continuing judicial processes in Iraq that may be stoking sectarian tensions, and what efforts is he making to impress on the Government in Iraq that that ought to be avoided at all costs?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

This was exactly the topic that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East talked about when he met President Salih and Prime Minister Mahdi on his recent visit to Iraq. I do not want to pretend that we have magically moved to a totally robust and stable democracy in Iraq. None the less, I think it is encouraging that the country is getting used to the process of elections and that the new Government are committed to reconciliation in the way that the previous Government were. However, it is a very fragile new democracy, so if we are going to do what Prime Minister Mahdi wants, we have to give him all the help we can.

Photo of Rachel Maclean Rachel Maclean Conservative, Redditch

May I join colleagues in adding my thanks to members of our armed forces? As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it has been my privilege to visit serving soldiers in various locations, which makes me very humbled and very proud.

May I ask the Secretary of State for an update on the number of people joining Daesh to fight for it as foreign fighters, and what is he doing to reduce further the number of British citizens joining that force?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My understanding is that the number of people from the UK trying to join Daesh to fight has fallen significantly, but I will write to my hon. Friend with the most up-to-date information. In terms of the total numbers, about 900 UK citizens have gone to fight with Daesh, about 40% of whom have come back and about 20% of whom have been killed. We are obviously working out as quickly as we can what is going to happen to the remaining 40%.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the Secretary of State for the statement he has made. He is right to highlight the importance of our efforts in the cyber-sphere, and to mention that we host the global coalition’s strategic centre communications cell. When we considered this work in the Defence Committee, we heard that our efforts are too slow, too reactive and too cautious, and when we asked who excels in this sphere, we were told it was the Israel defence forces. Will the Secretary of State engage with Israeli representatives and learn the lessons about how we could be more proactive and more effective?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I will happily take that away. My understanding is that we have excellent co-operation with the IDF, and there are always things we can learn from working with other organisations involved in similar battles. Of course, we do work under the very tight legal constraints rightly imposed by this House in terms of what our agencies are and are not allowed to do and the authorisations necessary. That is something we would not want to change: that is as it should be. However, I will happily take away the challenge of seeing what we can learn from the IDF, which have a formidable reputation.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

As the British Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend is an international statesman. One hundred years ago, his predecessor was drawing the borders of all the countries we are talking about in this discussion this afternoon. In the treaty of Versailles 100 years ago, the Kurdish people were in effect ignored by the western powers. One hundred years on, after their valiant efforts against Daesh, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will not abandon the Kurds again and that we will help them to achieve if not independence, at least autonomy in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee

Notwithstanding the validity of what the hon. Gentleman has said about the status of the Foreign Secretary as an international statesman, my hunch is that the right hon. Gentleman is altogether a wilier soul and too discerning a dad to try that one on with the kids.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am slightly perplexed, Mr Speaker, but someone will enlighten me about your pearls of wisdom.

I think what my hon. Friend says is worthy of serious reflection. The truth is that we have seen what important allies the Kurds have been in this battle against Daesh. Were we to let them down now, it would send a terrible signal about our commitment to our allies for any future conflict in which we might be engaged. With respect to reflecting on what my predecessors did 100 years ago, it tells any Foreign Secretary that they do need to approach the job with a degree of humility.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

As many contributors to this discussion have mentioned, the Kurds have been doing the dirty work for us on the ground in northern Syria against Daesh, yet, in the words of one defence analyst, they face potential slaughter at the hands of the Turkish military. What are the British Government doing to avoid this gross betrayal, to protect the Kurds from Turkish aggression and to allow the Kurds to finish the job in the last stronghold of Daesh in Deir ez-Zor province in north-east Syria?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We do understand that Turkey, too, has a right to territorial integrity, but we are very concerned about what might happen with regard to the issue the hon. Gentleman raises if the US withdrawal is too precipitate, and if it was not clear what outcomes would be unacceptable both to the US and to us. That is why there has been a huge amount of discussion between Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom and our other allies, precisely to avoid the outcome he is talking about.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

It is reassuring to hear what the Secretary of State has said today and to have an indication, for those of us who supported military action against Daesh, of what needed to be done to ensure that these fascists, as they are rightly called, would be defeated and not allowed to fester. Will he reassure me that we will continue a long-term engagement in Iraq and Syria, because defeating Daesh in the long run is also about rebuilding those devastated communities, supporting Christians to return home and ensuring that funds are available, through aid, to redevelop those countries?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that our commitment to that part of the world is for the long term. Our military commitment is finite—it is restricted to the mandate given by the House of Commons—but we are committed in every possible way, because we recognise that if the region is unstable, we will pay the price back here, through terrorism, disruption to our economy and any number of ways. He is absolutely right that our commitment must remain.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

The Leader of the Opposition is a former national chairman of the Stop the War Coalition. Under his chairmanship, the coalition issued a statement praising Daesh for its “internationalism” and “solidarity”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although we might have many words to describe Daesh, those are certainly not two of them?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I agree wholeheartedly. I think that it is a terrible mistake when people misjudge the atrocities that organisations such as Daesh are capable of just because they happen to share their own anti-western worldview.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

As chair or the all-party parliamentary group on explosive weapons, I thank my right hon. Friend for the £5 million of additional funding he has supplied for the United Nations Mine Action Service’s de-mining activities in Iraq. May I ask him to go further and speak to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development to ensure that mine deactivation and removal is a priority? In places such as Fallujah, which was the first city to be freed from Daesh control, people’s daily lives are disproportionately affected by these terrible weapons. Even though Daesh has been routed, it has left behind a terrible legacy.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, has just told me, the reality is that if the mines remain long after the war, the war lasts longer. The truth is that people cannot get back to their normal lives and the tragedy continues, so we very much support the work that my hon. Friend describes. I am sure that there is more we can do, so we will look at that.