Syria: UK Military Action — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:57 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 8:57 pm, 2nd December 2015

My Lords, we have had an extremely thorough, considered and well-informed debate, and that is entirely right. The decisions that may soon be taken in another place will ultimately impact on our brave service men and women, as well as their loved ones at home. This House should be in no doubt whatever about the seriousness with which the Government approach this issue. That is why the Prime Minister held a debate on the issue last week; it is why there has been a full day’s debate both here and in the House of Commons; and it is why we have made sure that both MPs and Lords have had detailed security briefings by senior advisers.

I cannot hope to address the remarks of every speaker in this debate, for which I apologise, but it may be appropriate for me to remind noble Lords of the case that we are making. The case for action is unambiguous and it is threefold. First, ISIL—or, as I shall call it, Daesh—poses a clear and present danger to both international stability and our own security. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, summed this up well. We have seen the atrocities perpetrated by Daesh fanatics on local populations in Iraq and Syria. We have witnessed its horrific attacks on the streets of Paris, on a Russian airliner, and in a Malian hotel. We know, too, that what happened on the streets of Paris could easily happen here on the streets of London.

But the truth is that we are already under attack. Thirty innocent British holidaymakers were murdered by Daesh on the beaches of Tunisia over the summer. In the past six months, our security services have already foiled seven plots against us, orchestrated by Daesh.

The time to act is now. We need to strike Daesh now to prevent it once again striking us. Furthermore, it would wrong for us to stand by idly while others take on the burden of protecting us from the terrorists. So there is a case in self-defence and in collective defence.

Secondly, a point made by my noble friend Lord King, we are already targeting Daesh in Iraq and it makes no sense for our strike fighters to turn back once they reach Syrian airspace. Syria is where its headquarters are based and that is where it receives reinforcements and supplies. Daesh recognises no border between these two countries: nor should we in attacking it. That is the common-sense, practical case for action.

Air strikes are, of course, not the whole answer—the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, is right—but they can be effective. Our support in Iraq has already halted the extremist advance in its tracks. It has already helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces push Daesh back but, to hit it at its heart, we must be able to act in Syria.

Thirdly, we have a strong mandate. The United Nations Security Council resolution 2249 was both unequivocal and unanimously supported. It called on states to take “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress Daesh’s terrorist activities. Other states are now responding. In recent weeks we have seen France stepping up its efforts and Germany committing forces as well. Our allies are now asking us to join the fight. They know that we can bring our particular specialist capabilities to bear, including precision-guided Brimstone and Hellfire missiles. As we have heard, these weapons can minimise innocent loss of life on the ground. Our allies also know that we are already providing up to one-third of the coalition’s high-end intelligence capability in Syria. With a strike capability we can use this to even better advantage.

We need to be with our allies in Syria as we are with them in Iraq. That is the moral and political case. It is also the military case. On the moral case, noble Lords have expressed concern about civilian casualties resulting from UK intervention. Military operations are inherently risky and nothing can ever be wholly guaranteed. However, since the start of air operations by the RAF in September 2014, we are not aware of any claims, credible or otherwise, being made from within Iraq that RAF strikes have caused civilian casualties. We are engaged in a conflict with a terrorist organisation that glorifies in the most bestial treatment that it can inflict on those who do not share its warped and depraved values. Given that the very reason for our military effort is to protect innocent civilians, our highly professional aircrew take great care to assess and minimise all possible risks and have on occasion decided not to engage legitimate terrorist targets rather than take such a risk. Furthermore, every strike is subjected to careful post-mission scrutiny to double-check the assessments made by the aircrew.

Noble Lords have asked about the estimate of 70.000 moderate opposition ground forces in Syria. Let me provide some clarification. We estimate that there are around 70,000 opposition fighters in Syria who do not belong to extremist groups. About 40,000 are open to political participation and western influence. A majority of those are linked to the Free Syrian Army. The other 30,000 are more Islamist but still open to political participation and a western role in achieving a settlement in Syria. No one is claiming that the 70,000 comprise a unified army. There are many groups, but all of these forces have a proven track record of rejecting Daesh. Many of them have helped to stop Daesh’s advance across Syria.

For more than a year now, leaders of those armed opposition groups have worked to build a common vision of a Syria free of Assad’s rule and to commit to negotiate a political settlement based on the Geneva communiqué principles set out in 2012. All of them are working to preserve the unity and integrity of the Syrian state and to uphold the values of the citizenship, representation, pluralism, freedom, rule of law and respect for Syria’s commitments to human rights and international law. These are politics that we can work with and they are people that we can work with, both militarily and politically.

A number of noble Lords have advocated keeping open the option of putting UK troops on the ground. Let me cover that point very briefly. Mr Abadi has said repeatedly in the media, first in September 2014 and most recently yesterday, that he does not want coalition western troops on the ground in Iraq. We are clear that committing western ground forces to Syria would serve only to further inflame the situation and cause radicalisation. That lies behind what Mr Abadi’s injunction to us has signalled.

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked about the approach adopted by the Russians. I believe that the Russians are currently modifying their military and political stance in the light of recent events. It is true that so far they have concentrated their military strikes on non-Daesh targets, but the bombing of the Russian airliner has undoubtedly brought about a reassessment. We have seen Russia hosting a conference in Moscow that included members of the moderate Syrian opposition. We have seen the Russians support United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249. We are seeing them play a full and energetic part in the Vienna process, and we have started to see some increased targeting of Daesh. I do not wish to overstate where we are with Russia, but these are helpful signs.

Many noble Lords focused on the diplomatic and political negotiations, and I pay special tribute to my noble friend Lord Hague on his exemplary maiden speech. The International Syria Support Group has now met twice in Vienna. For the first time since the conflict began, it brought together all the major international players behind a common vision of what is needed to end the war. States with both Sunni and Shia majorities, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia, the US, France and Turkey, have for the first time accepted the principles set out in the Geneva communiqué, along with the need for Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition. While there are differences to resolve, there is now real momentum. It agreed a timeframe for political negotiations, including a transitional Government within six months, a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months. We will continue to support the efforts of the UN Secretary-General and his special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to bring together the Syrian parties for these important discussions.

It is important to understand that we are seeking to do two things in parallel: to put our weight behind the political and diplomatic process in Vienna, which we hope will lead to a transitional governing body in Syria and an end to the civil war there, and to degrade Daesh through air strikes. An end to the civil war would enable Syria to unite against Daesh, and air strikes against Daesh now should not only make that task less difficult but make Daesh less of a threat to us and our allies in the mean time. It is a twin-track approach.

How is it envisaged that transition in Syria will work once Assad has gone? What is the vision? We know that we must stabilise the country before we can start to reconstruct. That means a ceasefire, security and political inclusion for all Syrians, and importantly it means not dismantling the institutions of the Syrian state. But it is important not to underestimate the scale of the challenge. Syria has experienced 40 years under an oppressive regime. It has experienced a brutal civil war. Conflict has reversed Syria into poverty. It is estimated that reconstruction could cost up to $170 billion. But we are already working to build capacity in preparation for a political settlement. That includes working through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund with local councils in opposition-held areas to help them to clear rubble and to police local areas. It means building the capacity of local civil society through our work with international humanitarian partners and supporting the United Nations in its work at scale inside Syria.

None of this will be easy, but we have been planning for the end game since the beginning of the Syrian conflict and throughout the Geneva process. We are now updating our planning to reflect the timeline envisaged in the Vienna process and we are asking others to do the same. To answer a question from the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I can say that it is hoped that there will be another meeting of the Vienna talks before Christmas. Indeed, next week we expect the Syrian regime to nominate a team of people to negotiate under the auspices of the UN. In the coming days, Saudi Arabia will host a meeting for opposition representatives in Riyadh.

Noble Lords have asked about Daesh’s sources of finance. It has three main sources of funding: extortion from communities living in territory under its control; selling oil and antiquities, including to the Assad regime; and donations from individuals pursued by international law enforcement. The international community is working together to cut Daesh off from the international financial system, including through action in the UN. The global coalition has already damaged or destroyed 260 oil infrastructure targets. On 15 November, coalition air strikes in Syria destroyed 116 Daesh oil tankers. The United Kingdom has led UN efforts to make it illegal to sell oil and oil products to Daesh. We helped to pass UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which requires all states to prevent transfer of economic resources to Daesh, including its infrastructure. These sanctions require countries to freeze Daesh’s assets and prohibit any person from making funds or economic resources available to it. In this country, our law-enforcement agencies have a sophisticated system for investigating and shutting off sources of finance for terrorists, including Daesh, but there is more that we can and should do in Syria. It is worth saying that UK precision weapons could assist the coalition in taking out more Daesh oil facilities and supply convoys.

Noble Lords have asked what we are doing to engage with Muslim communities in tackling extremism. There are several strands to the work that we are doing. A key pillar of the counterextremism strategy is strengthening our partnership with the Muslim community to tackle extremism in all its forms. We have the Prime Minister’s engagement forums, two of which have been held. We are directly addressing concerns being raised by the Muslim community on rising anti-Muslim hatred. There will be a specific recorded offence from April next year in that regard. We have regular conversations and discussions with representatives of the Muslim community, including imams and community-based leaders. We are doing our utmost to strengthen international relations with Muslim countries.

There is a lot of work going on. In particular, the Prevent strategy is a key part of our counterterrorism strategy, preventing people being drawn into terrorism. The Prevent strategy is on a statutory footing in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Since February 2010, the Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit has taken down more than 120,000 pieces of unlawful terrorist-related content online. It is worth my quoting what the Prime Minister said today in the other place:

“Far from an attack on Islam, we are engaged in a defence of Islam, and far from a risk of radicalising British Muslims by acting, failing to act would actually be to betray British Muslims and the wider religion of Islam in its very hour of need”.

Let me make one point clear: strikes are only one element of a much broader strategy which looks to cut off Daesh’s sources of finance, stop its fighters crossing borders, cut off its weapons supply and counter its poisonous ideology. Noble Lords on all sides have also reminded us of the importance of the need to provide humanitarian support for Syrian refugees. On that front, Britain has so far given more than £1.1 billion—by far the largest commitment of any European country, and second only to the United States of America. Britain is prepared to contribute at least another £1 billion for the task of reconstruction in due course.

The first duty of government is to protect our people. Daesh poses a direct threat to our security, our interests and our way of life. The bottom line is this: by putting more pressure on the fanatics, we reduce their ability to launch international attacks against us. That will make us safer in the long term. There is a time for debate but there is also a time for action, and that time has surely come.

Motion agreed.