“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will make a Statement updating the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but I should like to begin by saying that I called the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr Zarif, this morning to discuss the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I expressed my anxiety about her suffering and the ordeal of her family, and I repeated my hope for a swift solution. I also voiced my concern at the suggestion emanating from one branch of the Iranian judiciary that my remarks to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last week had some bearing on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case. The UK Government have no doubt that she was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year and that that was the sole purpose of her visit. My point was that I disagreed with the Iranian view that training journalists was a crime, not that I lent any credence to Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity. I accept that my remarks could have been clearer in this respect, and I am glad to provide this clarification. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to the tireless campaigning of Mr Ratcliffe on behalf of his wife. We will not relent in our efforts to help all our consular cases in Iran. Mr Zarif told me that any recent developments in the case had no link to my testimony last week and that he would continue to seek a solution on humanitarian grounds. I will visit Iran later this year, where I will discuss our consular cases.
I turn now to the campaign against Daesh. In the summer of 2014, Daesh swept down the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, occupying thousands of square miles of Iraqi territory, pillaging cities, massacring and enslaving minorities and seeking to impose by pitiless violence a demented vision of an Islamist utopia. Daesh had gathered strength in eastern Syria, using the opportunity created by that country’s civil war to seize oilfields and carve out a base from which to launch their assault on Iraq.
Today, I can tell the House that Daesh have been rolled back on every battlefront. Thanks to the courage and resolve of Iraq’s security forces, our partners in Syria and the steadfast action of the 73 members of the global coalition, including this country, Daesh has lost 90% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria, including Raqqa, its erstwhile capital, and 6 million people have been freed from its rule.
When my right honourable friend the former Defence Secretary last updated the House in July, the biggest city in northern Iraq, Mosul, had just been liberated. Since then, Iraqi forces have broken Daesh’s grip on the towns of Tal Afar and Hawija and cleared the terrorists from all but a relatively small area near the Syrian frontier, demonstrating how the false and failed caliphate is crumbling before our eyes.
The House will join me in paying tribute to the men and women of the British Armed Forces, who have been vital to every step of the advance. Over 600 British soldiers are in Iraq, where they have helped to train 50,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. The RAF has delivered 1,352 air strikes against Daesh in Iraq and 263 in Syria—more than any other air force apart from the United States.
I turn now to Syria where, on
The permanent defeat of Daesh in Syria—by which I mean removing the conditions that allowed it to seize large areas in the first place—will require a political settlement, and that must include a transition away from the Assad regime that did so much to create the conditions for the rise of Daesh. How such a settlement is reached is, of course, a matter for Syrians themselves and we will continue to support the work of the United Nations special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and the Geneva process.
I am encouraged by how America and Russia have stayed in close contact over the future of Syria. We must continue to emphasise to the Kremlin that instead of blindly supporting a murderous regime even after UN investigators have found its forces guilty of using sarin nerve gas, most recently at Khan Sheikhoun in April, Russia should join the international community and support a negotiated settlement in Syria under the auspices of the UN.
Turning to Iraq, more than 2 million people have returned to their homes in areas liberated from Daesh, including 265,000 who have gone back to Mosul. Britain is providing over £200 million of practical life-saving assistance for Iraqi civilians. We are helping to clear the explosives laid by Daesh, restore water supplies the terrorists sabotaged, and give clean water to 200,000 people and health care to 115,000.
Now that Daesh is close to defeat in Iraq, the country’s leaders must resolve the political tensions that, in part, paved the way for its advance in 2014. The Kurdistan region held a unilateral referendum on independence on
We are working alongside our allies to reduce tensions in northern Iraq. Rather than reopen old conflicts, the priority must be to restore the stability, prosperity and national unity that is the right of every Iraqi. A general election will take place in Iraq next May, creating an opportunity for all parties to set out their respective visions of a country that overcomes sectarianism and serves every citizen, including Kurds.
But national reconciliation will require justice, and justice demands that Daesh be held accountable for its atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere. That is why I acted over a year ago, in concert with the Government of Iraq, to launch the global campaign to bring Daesh to justice. In September, the Security Council unanimously adopted UN Resolution 2379—a British-drafted text co-sponsored by 46 countries—which will establish a UN investigation to help gather and preserve the evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq. Every square mile of territory that Daesh has lost is one square mile less for it to exploit, tax and plunder, and the impending destruction of the so-called caliphate will reduce its ability to fund terrorism abroad and attract new recruits. Yet Daesh will still try to inspire attacks by spreading its hateful ideology in cyberspace, even after it has lost every inch of its physical domain.
Britain leads the global coalition’s efforts to counter Daesh propaganda, through a communications cell based here in London, and Daesh’s total propaganda output has fallen by half since 2015. However, social media companies can and must do more, particularly to speed up the detection and removal of dangerous material and to prevent it being uploaded in the first place. Hence, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister co-hosted an event at the UN General Assembly in September on how to stop terrorists using the internet.
The Government have always made it clear that any British nationals who join Daesh have chosen to make themselves legitimate targets for the coalition. We expect that most foreign fighters will die in the terrorist domain that they opted to serve, but some may surrender or try to come home, including to the UK. As the Government have previously said, anyone who returns to this country after taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated for reasons of national security.
While foreign fighters face the consequences of their decisions, the valour and sacrifice of the armed forces of many nations, including our own, has prevented a terrorist entity taking root in the heart of the Middle East, with all that that would have meant for our national security and the safety of nearby countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan.
The struggle is not over and we will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the British people, and the terrorist threat will change rather than die away, but the territorial defeat of Daesh is now within sight and the House can be proud of Britain’s role in helping to bring that about. As one chapter closes and Daesh’s grip is prised away from Syria and Iraq, we must redouble our efforts to help the people of those countries to rebuild and renew. I commend this Statement to the House”.
That concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I turn first to the formal part of the Statement, the Government’s quarterly update on the fight against Daesh. I think everyone in this House, when this subject was last discussed last month, welcomed the steps that we have taken to bring an end to the rule of Daesh, its criminality and its evil, and I am sure everyone in this House will join the Minister in welcoming its defeat.
However, at that time I sought to find out from the Minister what the Government’s current strategy is in Syria. What is their approach to the future? What are they seeking to achieve, militarily and diplomatically, from our engagement? When we discussed this last, the Minister suggested that there would be further talks with all Syrian opposition groups and that further reports would be forthcoming. I do not see in this Statement much detail about that strategy, and certainly no mention of more meetings with the Syrian opposition groups.
My right honourable friend in the other place raised the question of the funding of opposition groups and is particularly concerned about whether funds would be going to jihadist groups. I would certainly welcome the Minister’s response on that. As detailed in the Statement, war crimes have been committed by Daesh, but all sides in this conflict have committed war crimes. I would welcome a commitment from the Minister that all crimes in this shocking civil war will be properly investigated so that all those responsible will be held to account, whether they are the Government, the opposition or Daesh. It is vital that we do not concede one bit on this important area.
I also raise the question about prisoners and British jihadists fighting for IS and the remarks of the Minister of State for Africa. Again, it reflects the need to bring people to justice and hold them to account. I hope that the noble Earl will reassure us that this is not a shoot-to-kill policy somehow substituting for the need to bring people to justice.
I turn in conclusion to the imprisonment of Mrs Nazanin Ratcliffe in Iran. I think that all of us—certainly everyone on this side of the House, and, as far as I know, everyone in this House—share one common objective: to seek her release. Nothing we say or do today should hinder that objective. I certainly do not intend to heap blame or score political points, and I welcome what the Foreign Secretary said in the other place—that he would meet Mr Ratcliffe as soon as possible. I hope that in that meeting, the Foreign Secretary will properly explain his conduct and how every effort will be made to seek her release. I said last time that we need to shout from the rooftops about the rule of law, and I hope that that will be the case.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the visit to Iran and his conversation with the Iranian Foreign Secretary on the phone. I welcome that communication, but we need to ensure that every contact, every communication with Iran is held on the most diplomatic basis. I welcome the fact that the noble Earl is here today repeating the Statement. I hope that when the Foreign Secretary goes to Iran, he is accompanied by someone such as the noble Earl, who will be able to put the case strongly—forcefully —but in a way that will not cause any counterreaction.
My Lords, like others—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Collins—I welcome the terms of the Statement and the success which it revealed. I express my admiration for British service men and women and their role in training and conducting air strikes, and wholeheartedly support the humanitarian effort, as that is set out. I have some questions on that part of the Statement to put to the noble Earl.
First, what does transition away from the Assad regime mean? We have had a debate here about the difference between transition and implementation, but leaving that to one side, is it still the position of Her Majesty’s Government that they expect President Assad to have a role in any such transition? Secondly, what methods are in mind to identify and bring to justice those on all sides—here I echo, to some extent, the noble Lord, Lord Collins—those guilty of authorising, facilitating or using sarin nerve gas or other chemical weapons, whatever their rank, nationality or political importance? Finally, what proposals do the Government have to deal with the children and innocent spouses of United Kingdom citizens who fought for Daesh? Are the family members to be treated in the same way as those who fought, or is there a different, more enlightened policy?
Now I turn to the case of Mrs Ratcliffe, and I fear that I shall not be as charitable as the noble Lord, Lord Collins. First, I understand that the Government have been sent copies of legal advice on behalf of Mrs Ratcliffe to the effect that the United Kingdom could take legal action against the Iranian Government to protect her rights. Can the noble Earl tell us the Government’s response to that legal advice?
But it is inevitable that focus will turn on the Foreign Secretary. Whatever he says now, the damage has been done. Whatever the Foreign Minister of Iran says now, the Republican Guard—at whose instigation Mrs Ratcliffe is being detained—is unlikely to be impressed. I cannot understand why the Foreign Secretary could not bring himself to give a formal apology. I am afraid this is only the latest of a series of foreign policy blunders by him, the last being his tasteless reference to tourism and Libya. The Foreign Secretary has annoyed our allies and embarrassed our friends. He was never fit for purpose and should never have been appointed to his present role. He should go now, and if the Prime Minister will not sack him then he should do the honourable thing and fall on his sword.
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their constructive comments. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, initially asked me what our strategy was in relation to the next steps in countering Daesh. We have a comprehensive strategy to defeat Daesh, working as part of the 73-member global coalition. As the Statement made clear, we are playing a leading role in that. As well as undertaking the military campaign in Iraq and Syria, the coalition is committed to doing a number of things: first, tackling Daesh’s financing and economic infrastructure; secondly, preventing the flow of foreign terrorist fighters across borders; thirdly, supporting stabilisation in areas liberated from Daesh; and, fourthly, exposing Daesh’s false narrative and the propaganda it puts out. The UK is playing its part in all those areas.
We must secure Daesh’s lasting defeat by bringing it to justice and working with legitimate local authorities to ensure a stable, prosperous and united future for affected communities in both Iraq and Syria. We need to keep going on that, as the Statement made clear. In Syria, there ultimately needs to be a transition to a new and inclusive, non-sectarian Government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. However, we are pragmatic about how exactly that might take place. Syria’s future really has to be for Syrians themselves to decide on. We can do our best to facilitate the process but it is right that there should be self-determination for the Syrians. In our view, the UN-led Geneva process, between the Syrian parties, remains the best forum for reaching a lasting solution to the conflict. Meanwhile, we can devote our funding to what needs to be done in response to the Syria crisis. We have committed £2.46 billion to the current situation in Syria, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.
The noble Lord asked what progress is being made in bringing Daesh to justice. There has been progress in that area. As the Statement mentioned, on
As regards foreign fighters, it is important that I clarify some remarks that have been referred to in this context. Our priority is to dissuade people from travelling to areas of conflict and our Prevent strategy includes work to identify and support individuals who are at risk of radicalisation. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 enables police officers at ports to seize and retain temporarily travel documents to disrupt intended travel. However, those who have committed criminal offences should expect to be prosecuted for their crimes under the full range of existing counterterrorism legislation. Any decision on whether to prosecute will be taken by the police and Crown Prosecution Service on a case-by-case basis. However, we need to make clear that anyone who has travelled to Syria or parts of Iraq against UK government advice for whatever reason is putting themselves in considerable danger, particularly if they are fighting for our enemies.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for his questions. I covered some of the areas that he touched on but I have not talked about chemical weapons. We are gravely concerned by the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria and we condemn any use of those weapons by anyone anywhere. The UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism concluded on
In 2013, as noble Lords will remember, Russia promised to ensure that Syria would abandon all its chemical weapons. Since then, the investigators have found the Assad regime guilty of using poison gas in four separate attacks. Russia has repeatedly attempted to disrupt efforts to get to the truth of the Khan Sheikhoun attack: first of all denying that sarin was even used and then, on
As regards Assad’s future, it bears repeating that his regime has overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people. His oppression has caused untold human suffering. It has fuelled extremism and terrorism and has created the space for Daesh. We believe that there needs to be a transition away from Assad to a Government who can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. However, as I have made clear, we think it is for Syrians to decide exactly how that happens as part of a Syrian-led transition process which we will try to facilitate.
I have not covered the issue of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I have noted the points that have been made. I am, though, acutely aware of the wish of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to see a humanitarian solution emerge from the appalling situation that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe faces. While acknowledging the kind comments of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about me, I do not anticipate that I shall be one of the people asked to continue the process that has been started. However, I know that very competent people will be doing so and we hope that the Iranian Government are prepared to listen to reason on that score.
The only other point that I did not cover is on what we are doing to support children who are traumatised by the events around them in either Iraq or Syria. Noble Lords should be aware that DfID is supporting vulnerable children who have been exposed to injury, trauma or abuse by funding the provision of emergency healthcare and mental health services. We are in fact the largest contributor to the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund, which responds to the most urgent needs of vulnerable Iraqis. That has included psychosocial support services for over 2,700 people and referrals to specialist legal services for hundreds of survivors of torture and sexual violence.
My Lords, I am sure that on the sad and sensitive case that has been mentioned the Foreign Secretary would benefit from the Minister’s wisdom. The Foreign Secretary today admitted that, in his testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee on Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, his remarks “could have been clearer”. We may think that is rather a generous interpretation and description of his testimony. However, leaving that aside, can the Minister explain why the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, having said that today, refused either to apologise or, more importantly, to accept the invitation extended to him in the House by a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, to write and correct his transcript if he had misspoken. We know that we can all misspeak in front of committees and elsewhere. However, the opportunity is there to change that record by correction. He was given the invitation today and I do not understand why he did not accept it. Can the Minister impress this upon him? If he leaves it uncorrected through his own free will, he will compound the initial problem. It may well be, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said, that it cannot be changed now in consequence, but at least it can be changed on the record. The wisdom of the Minister would be useful in speaking to the Foreign Secretary on this matter.
My Lords, I will ensure that the noble Lord’s remarks are conveyed to the appropriate quarter and I thank him for them. In my right honourable friend’s defence, he has been as keen as anybody to emphasise to the Iranians that there are obvious humanitarian grounds for the release of some of our dual nationals. He has pressed consistently for consular access and has done everything that he feels appropriate to reunite those detainees with their families. It is important that noble Lords understand that while he may indeed have misspoken—and I will put that to him; I am sure that it has been put to him—he has in the background been doing what I am sure all noble Lords would wish.
My Lords, I welcome the important Statement my noble friend has repeated, which brings the extremely welcome news of the almost total military defeat of Islamic State—albeit at a huge cost in life, and misery and suffering for millions of people. I will focus my question on the section of the Statement which deals with British people, from the United Kingdom, who chose to go and fight for Daesh. The Statement says, rightly, that they have made themselves,
“legitimate targets for the coalition”,
and that the expectation is that,
“most foreign fighters will die in the terrorist domain”.
In the case of the British contingent, it would appear from a Written Answer which I received today from the Home Office that, of the 850 who went from this country to fight for Daesh, only 15% have died and 400 have already returned to the United Kingdom.
The Minister of State at the Foreign Office, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, told the House last week in the most relaxed manner that the fighters were pouring back into the United Kingdom. The Government have not just the duty but, I hope, the means to prevent them coming back. I can see no reason why they should be allowed to come back and I hope very much that the Government will take steps to see that they do not come back. By fighting for the Queen’s enemies and against the interests of the great majority of the world, they have lost the rights that they may have had in this country. In time of war—and we have been in war—it is normal that, where there is a clear conflict between human rights and national security, the British people expect national security to prevail.
My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend’s comments will resonate with many noble Lords. Approximately 850 UK-linked individuals of national security concern have travelled to engage with the Syrian conflict. That flow of British citizens has diminished considerably, but clearly there is a risk that some will attempt to return to this country. Our position is that, wherever possible, anyone fighting for Daesh should be brought to justice and that a decision to prosecute an individual suspected of fighting for Daesh should be taken by the relevant competent authority. Our policy is that terrorist fighters should be held to account by the states on whose territories their crimes have been committed. We would offer support to any such prosecution, so far as we were able. I reassure my noble friend that all returnees to this country will be investigated where that is considered appropriate.
My Lords, in welcoming the role that British officials played in the drafting of Resolution 2379 which, as the noble Earl told us, was passed on
Have the Government given proper consideration to whether a specialised regional tribunal, such as that used in Cambodia, would be a better way of dealing with this, rather than going to a national court that clearly does not have the capacity, the powers or the proper jurisdiction? Given that a veto might well have been used against a referral to the International Criminal Court, would a regional tribunal not have been a better way to go about it?
My Lords, I will take advice on the noble Lord’s very constructive suggestion. I do not know the answer to his question but I will ensure that he gets one. Clearly, we want to see mechanisms that are fit for purpose in this context. We are all aware that there have been horrific cases of attacks on religious communities by Daesh. We are working with the Iraqi Government, the United Nations and the international community to support the protection of the rights of all minorities. That includes making sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are brought to justice. We prioritise reaching the most vulnerable people across the region, including Christians, of course, and others who have suffered from such violence. I have already mentioned children, in particular, in that context.
It is probably right for me to leave it there. My understanding is that the United Nations Security Council is confident that the structures it has set up will deliver the necessary degree of justice and accountability —but I think the noble Lord is owed further and better particulars on that front.
My Lords, I have a couple of very short questions. Does the Minister believe that we can identify all the returning fighters from Syria? There has been quite a lot recently about work done by Special Forces on iris recognition, and so on, which has not been accepted by the UK Border Agency. I would like confirmation that the Minister is sure that we will actually be able to identify these possibly highly dangerous people coming back from the country.
Secondly, a senior Royal Air Force officer has said that our fast jets will be returning back home now, and did not really go into ISTAR and drones. Again, will the Minister confirm that we will not move any of our military assets until we are sure that we have defeated them on the ground—in other words, destroyed the caliphate? I know that the whole issue of terrorism is different, but can he confirm that we will not start moving assets until we are sure we have done the work that is needed there?
I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Clearly, we do not want to move assets back when it may turn out that they are needed in theatre again. I am not aware of what decisions are being taken on that front, but we are clear that we do not want to wreck our chances of playing the part we want to play in the coalition.
As for identifying returnees, I asked my officials that very question before this debate and am assured that mechanisms are in place to identify returnees at the border, even if iris recognition is not in place. The names of those on the wanted list are very clear and have been distributed, and I am advised that the mechanisms are secure in that respect.
Will the Minister perhaps cast some light on a point that was not covered in the Statement—the situation on the border between Turkey and Syria, where there are substantial Kurdish forces? He spoke about the Kurdish situation in the part of Iraq ruled by the regional Government, but not the tensions that exist between the Kurds in Syria and Turkey. There is a real risk that the coalition, which has so successfully dealt with Daesh thus far, will now start fighting among themselves. Could he confirm, too, that the evidence of the UN inquiry that the Assad regime still has chemical weapons means that that regime is in contravention of the chemical weapons convention, which it was persuaded to sign four years ago, and that, in any peace settlement, the chemical weapons convention organisation will need to have complete access to all sites in Syria and to be able to ensure that never again are chemical weapons kept, stored or used there?
I can tell the noble Lord that Syria is certainly in breach of the chemical weapons convention, which it is a party to. I am aware that those charged with investigating the manufacture and use of chemical weapons in Syria are seeking access to the relevant sites, and no doubt news on that score will emerge as the days pass. As regards clashes between Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, we are aware of reports of violence between those forces. However, we very much welcome the discussions brokered by the global coalition to co-ordinate security arrangements between the parties so as to avoid violence, and we have called upon all parties to continue to de-escalate the situation and refrain from provocative statements which could lead to conflict. It is critical that all parties quickly refocus on our shared priority: the fight against Daesh, preventing its re-emergence and working together to rebuild liberated towns and villages, and lives.
My Lords, in Syria will the Government seek to use the Euphrates river as a boundary between Assad’s forces and the YPG and others? I suggest that such a separation of forces would save lives and prevent unnecessary clashes. Does the noble Earl agree that some minimal level of British representation in Damascus would facilitate the separation of forces and any transition in Syria? I think the same would also be true of protecting civilian life in the provinces of Idlib and Afrin.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. He will of course know that we do not have personnel on the ground in Syria any more than we have diplomatic representation. Our position is clear: we rely on the United Nations to secure the necessary agreement across the piece, not just in the political process in Geneva but in influencing the parties in Syria to minimise further loss of life and further suffering. The noble Lord’s suggestion regarding the Euphrates river may well be useful in that context, and I will see what I can do to feed it through to the appropriate quarter.
My Lords, the noble Earl has been kind enough to say that he will take back to the Foreign Secretary the remarks of my noble friend Lord Reid concerning the case of Mrs Nazanin Ratcliffe. However, the Foreign Secretary says in this Statement that he is concerned at the suggestion that his remarks “had some bearing” on Mrs Ratcliffe’s case. I put it to the Minister that of course they had some bearing on her case because he specifically mentioned her. That is the whole point. It is not that there was just an interpretation; he drew very specific attention to her. To pass it over by saying that somehow, it has been interpreted as having some bearing is—if I may say so to the noble Earl, for whom I have the greatest respect—verging on the disingenuous.
It is perfectly clear that the Foreign Secretary must write to the Select Committee with an apology for mis-speaking. It is the very least he can do following what he said and what has happened, and I hope he will do so with the full support of this whole House. He accepts that his remarks could have been made clearer, but he makes no apology for the fact that they should and could have been made clearer. I hope that any letter he sends to the Select Committee will not only contain an apology, but make it completely clear that he was wrong in what he said. Even the Foreign Secretary—important as he is and highly as he is regarded by many people—will have to face the consequences of what he said.
My Lords, just as I undertook to feed through the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, I shall certainly do the same with those of the noble Baroness.