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Syria: Brimstone Missiles — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 3rd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 3:06 pm, 3rd February 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the effectiveness to date of the RAF’s Brimstone missiles in bombing Syria, and in particular in protecting the civilian population.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the Brimstone missile offers the coalition a capability to strike moving targets accurately, with minimal risk of collateral damage. Between 2 December 2015 and 31 January 2016, RAF Brimstone missiles were used successfully on nine occasions in Syria to strike enemy vehicles. There have been no associated reports of civilian casualties and it is assessed that all targets were successfully destroyed or damaged.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales)

Yes, I think that the kill so far has been two trucks and five mobile cranes. Does it really matter what type of bomb or which of the coalition partners drop it? It has been reported that some 40 civilians or more were killed in January and in the first two days of this week. Surely we are involved in a joint enterprise and, by long-standing principles of English law, we are all of us legally and morally responsible for the lives of those who are killed—innocent civilians, innocent men, women and children—by these bombs. What comment would the Minister have?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

So far as we are concerned, as a member of the coalition, we take the possibility and risk of civilian casualties extremely seriously. As I said in my initial Answer, to date there is no evidence that UK strikes have resulted in civilian casualties. Three factors underpin that: our use of precision guided weapons; our adherence to very strict targeting and planning protocols; and, above all, the skill of our pilots and air crew. I think that it does make a difference whether it is the RAF or another air force taking part.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

The real problem here is heavy bombers flying from Russia unloading unguided bombs in large numbers and killing almost indiscriminately. Does not that also have a dramatic effect in driving up the refugee numbers, which continue to destabilise Europe? Maybe—just maybe—we are not taking this seriously enough.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord is absolutely right. There is no question that Russia is actively targeting civilians and is almost certainly in breach of international humanitarian law in the process. That has to stop. Russia cannot continue to sit at the table as a sponsor of the political process and, at the same time, bomb the civilian areas of the very groups of people whom we believe will form the backbone of the new Syria, once Assad has left.

Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister able to give the House figures for the number of civilian casualties in Syria caused by the action of ISIL on the ground?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I do not have precise figures, but as the House will know the vast majority of civilian casualties in Syria have been caused by the regime itself and also as a result of Russian actions.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, we have not yet heard from the Conservative Benches.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

As my noble friend will know, the Royal Air Force turns dumb bombs into smart bombs by the use of technology. Is it not possible for the Russians to do the same?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

It should be, my Lords. We lose no opportunity to urge the Russians to desist from indiscriminate bombing and to deploy precise weapons, as we are doing, and thereby conform to international humanitarian law.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, for not giving way. The Minister will be aware that a number of Syrian refugees got into the sovereign base area on Cyprus where our air attacks go from without being detected. Can he assure the House that security there has been tightened up? Clearly there is huge vulnerability to terrorists trying to get at our aircraft and our aircrew before they can be in the air being looked after properly.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Our security on Cyprus is very tight indeed.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch UKIP

My Lords, do the Government agree that the European refugee tragedy is caused largely by the evil Islamic State which we, the United States and other allies could destroy on the ground in a few months? Is the reason we do not do so because we have lost our nerve after our disastrous invasions of Iraq and elsewhere? Has the time not come to think again because we clearly cannot solve the problem with airpower alone?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord is right that airpower alone will not defeat Daesh. Indeed, military action alone will not defeat Daesh. We have to counter its ideology as well and cut off its sources of finance. We have set our face against putting British troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq has made it very clear that he wishes the action on the ground to be pursued by Iraqi armed forces, not western troops, and we respect that.

Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the Minister spoke earlier of careful planning. Can he tell the House how many time strikes have been called off as a result of that planning to prevent civilian losses or casualties?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an extremely important point. There have been many occasions—I cannot give her a precise number—when a strike mission has been called off because it has been deemed too risky to the civilian population. We always err on the side of caution in that respect.

Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for tabling this Question because the impact of our actions in Syria on the civilian population must never be far from our minds. On this side, we have consistently argued for airstrikes against ISIL’s oil-exporting capability, thus depleting its sources of funding. Can the Minister update us on this? More than that, I remind him that the Defence Secretary promised a quarterly report on our activities in Syria and one must be due any day now. Will he come to the House and make a Statement when that report is published?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, if a Statement is decided upon through the usual channels and my right honourable friend’s decisions, of course I am very willing to repeat it in your Lordships’ House. I am in full accord with the noble Lord’s initial statements and I am prepared to update the House on a regular basis.