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House of Commons Hansard
This debate is sourced from the uncorrected (rolling) version of Hansard and is subject to correction.
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Raqqa and Daesh

24 October 2017

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the liberation of Raqqa and the future of the counter-Daesh campaign.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued engagement on this important issue. Raqqa was officially liberated on 20 October. The Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the global coalition against Daesh, began operations to liberate Raqqa in June 2017. Military operations are ongoing. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has highlighted the continued leading role that the UK is playing as part of the global coalition’s counter-Daesh campaign, and we in this House pay tribute to the courage, commitment and effectiveness of the British forces overseas. The United Kingdom is the second largest military contributor to the global coalition and plays a leading role in the humanitarian response.

    The liberation of Raqqa this month follows significant Daesh territorial losses in Iraq, including Mosul in July. Daesh has now lost more than 90% of the territory it once occupied in Iraq and Syria. The Foreign Secretary will in due course provide a full update to the House on the counter-Daesh campaign, including the operation to liberate Raqqa. I look forward to providing the hon. Gentleman and other Members with further information in due course.

  • I thank the Minister for that response. He will recall that back in November 2015 the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, made the case for the liberation of Raqqa—which has now been achieved—a central part of asking the House to endorse the RAF airstrike campaign, which has been taking place in Syria since that time. I think I speak for the whole House when I echo the Minister’s tribute to the professionalism of the Royal Air Force and how it has carried out that campaign. There are significant questions about the conduct of some of the forces in some of the actions in the campaign, but the RAF has been exemplary.

    There are many questions that flow from this, but I want to cover three broad areas in the short time that I have today. First, what is the future for the region? Will the Minister tell us how the UK will engage in attempts to bring to an end the civil war that has already claimed 500,000 lives, the vast majority at the hands of the Syrian regime under President Assad? Secondly, what will be the UK’s role in the reconstruction of the region? Thirdly, what will be the next steps in the global campaign to defeat not only Daesh, which is clearly disintegrating, but the evil ideology that has perverted so many people in the region and enticed to many Brits to join it? Will the Minister also tell us what the future will be for the Brits who have been over to the region and might now be seeking to return?

    The Minister has always been assiduous on this matter, but the Government’s failure to offer a statement to the House following the liberation of Raqqa suggests a lack of respect for Parliament and for the British people, on whose behalf we were asked to make the decision to send the Royal Air Force into a theatre of combat. There is a worry that it also suggests the complacency and lack of grip that have too often been the hallmark of Governments of both colours when attempting to main stability in a region in the aftermath of conflict.

  • I am not going to make any evaluative comments about the motivation or conduct of the Government. Suffice it to say, principally for the benefit of those who are not Members of the House but who are attending to our proceedings, that one of the principal motivations for the Speaker in selecting an urgent question is the judgment that the matter needs to be treated of in the House and, implicitly perhaps, that a Government offer of a statement might reasonably have been expected.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. To deal with the hon. Gentleman’s last point first, a range of statements have been made at regular periods on Iraq and Syria and counter-Daesh operations, and I indicated in my remarks that the Foreign Secretary intends to present a full statement that covers the range of recent activities. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the liberation of Raqqa, and a statement covering that and other things is expected and will come in due course, but he was right to ask this urgent question, and I appreciate that and am happy to respond.

    The hon. Gentleman reminded us that David Cameron asked the House to support activity due to the impending civilian crisis in the area where Daesh was active and the horrendous stories of abuse that were emerging. It is to the House’s credit that it recognised and supported that action, and we have seen that carried through extraordinarily by the forces that the House asked to take part. As for the UK military contribution, the RAF has conducted 1,609 strikes to date—1,348 in Iraq and 261 in Syria—using six Typhoons, eight Tornados, and Reaper drones. We have around 1,350 military personnel committed in the region. UK troops have helped to train over 57,000 Iraqi security force personnel, which says much for the opportunity of future stabilisation. Again, we pay tribute to the forces and what they have done, and the quality and accuracy of the airstrikes in which they have been involved.

    The hon. Gentleman asked three specific questions about what happens next in terms of activity, stabilisation issues and ideology. Our partner forces are closing in on Daesh’s presence in the Euphrates river valley up to the border with Iraq. There, the Syrian efforts will be met with those of the Iraqi security forces, closing in on Daesh and ensuring their ultimate military defeat. No one should underestimate the importance of Raqqa to the whole Daesh ideology, and media reports have made that clear. The fall of Raqqa and Mosul is a tremendous blow to those who would have inflicted harm upon us all. The taking of those cities is of immense importance.

    As for stabilisation, we have immediately stepped up our humanitarian support. This weekend, the Secretary of State for International Development announced an additional £10 million to help restore crippled health facilities, to deliver much-needed medical support and relief and, crucially, to clear lethal land mines and explosives. In leaving the city, Daesh has left a reminder of its killing machine behind it, and we are making immediate efforts in relation to that. We will of course move towards further stabilisation in due course as the area becomes more stable.

    Lastly, the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that military action on the ground is only one part of the contest with Daesh and its ideology. We must be prepared for Daesh to change its form. It will return to its terrorist roots, luring more adherents to its evil ideology, so we will continue to tackle the extremists on simultaneous fronts, including by preventing foreign fighters from returning to their country of origin. We will continue degrading Daesh’s poisonous narrative, decreasing its ability to generate revenue and denying it a safe haven in the virtual world. Indeed, as I was able say at the United Nations recently, we will also ensure that Daesh is brought to justice. Fighters returning to the United Kingdom can expect to be questioned about their role, and it will be for the Crown Prosecution Service to consider any evidence against them. Fighters who are captured in Iraq or Syria must be treated according to the laws of armed conflict, but they can well expect to stand trial there if offences are alleged against them.

  • We should reject the language coming out of Russia comparing the bombing of Raqqa to the bombing of Dresden. None the less, the result is not dissimilar.

    Will my right hon. Friend try to rectify a wrong that has so often affected us in the aftermath of such events by calling for a donor conference and showing British leadership, so that we can start to rebuild Raqqa and what little remains of the shattered lives of its inhabitants and those who used to live there?

  • My right hon. Friend is correct to point to the immediate misery of the aftermath for those who have been caught up in the conflict. The world now recognises that it has a responsibility to work with those on the ground to rebuild areas of conflict, because that is the best way to prevent conflict from happening again. We expect a political reconciliation, so that there are no sectarian difficulties in either Iraq or Syria as they return to conventional governance.

    On the physical reconstruction, the Syrian Democratic Forces have been at pains to minimise the damage to the city’s infrastructure as they advance, but, in an urban battle such as this, it is impossible to advance against an enemy such as Daesh without causing any damage at all. It must be remembered that Daesh’s tactics do not adhere to the conventions of warfare. It booby-traps buildings and has taken many other desperate measures to protect its vile interests, including using schools and hospitals as tactical headquarters, denying those facilities to the innocent civilian population.

    A stabilisation programme will be put forward under the auspices of the UN reconstruction effort, which will come after political decisions are made to ensure the reconstruction follows political commitments made by those involved in the governance of Syria. I do not know about a donor conference yet, but I will take that idea back to the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock). I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. I wholeheartedly agree with his sentiments. For once, we are in union that the victory against Daesh in Raqqa is a vital blow against an evil death cult, and it makes a mockery of Daesh’s pretensions to establish a caliphate in Syria or elsewhere. It shows them to be the weaklings and cowards they are.

    This is a timely reminder of the battle we and our allies fought on this very day 75 years ago, the second battle of El Alamein—the battle that destroyed the Nazis’ ambition to control Egypt. As we recall Churchill’s words after that hard-fought victory, perhaps we can turn them around: this is not the end of the beginning for Daesh, it is the beginning of their end. We should be grateful for that.

    I hope the Minister can address my questions in his response. If he is unable to do so and we rely on the Foreign Secretary to make a fuller statement, will he ensure the Foreign Secretary is able to answer my questions? I will not repeat the question on the Government’s response to the humanitarian crisis, but this is my second question: now that Daesh is in disarray in Syria, what is Britain’s ongoing military mission in Syria? In short, what is our strategy for the future of Syria, and what is the military’s role in that strategy? In particular, what steps will the Government now take to help rebuild some form of sustainable governance in Raqqa? What role, if any, will the armed groups that helped to liberate the city from Daesh play in its future administration? And how will the Syrian, Kurdish and Arab opposition forces, which played such a pivotal role in the campaign to retake Raqqa, be represented as part of a genuinely viable peace process for Syria as a whole? If there is one thing on which we can all agree, surely it is that the very last thing the middle east needs right now is another vacuum.

    Finally, as the Minister will know, his Department recently confirmed that it has channelled £200 million since 2015 to support the so-called moderate opposition in Syria. Can he give the House a guarantee today that none of that money has ended up in the hands of al-Nusra or other jihadi groups? It would be a tragedy if, while rightly celebrating the destruction of Daesh in Raqqa, British taxpayers’ money is funnelled into organisations that are just as bad.

  • I warmly welcome the right hon. Lady’s remarks, which are highly appropriate and much appreciated. The whole House has engaged collectively on this subject, and it is appreciated by all that she speaks as she does. The House is demonstrating that there is nothing between us on presenting a united front against Daesh and its ideology.

    I am pleased that the right hon. Lady mentions El Alamein, partly because I was there on Saturday. As a much-travelled Minister, I had the opportunity to represent Her Majesty’s Government in laying the wreath on behalf of the United Kingdom to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that extraordinary battle, which over a period of days turned the tide in north Africa and in the war. I was proud to stand alongside representatives of the Commonwealth and people from the United Kingdom who fought with the Desert Rats, as well as representatives of the German and Italian Governments, to recognise that, 75 years later, Europe has achieved much by coming together. In doing so, we demonstrated tolerance and forgiveness, which are sometimes rather lacking in other parts of the middle east, where memories are long and dates are often remembered for the wrong reasons. I was proud to represent the United Kingdom, along with representatives of the military, our ambassador and Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, who represented the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, of which he is vice-chairman.

    Returning to the right hon. Lady’s questions, we recognise the need for ongoing humanitarian relief, about which we have more information if she wishes. As far as the military are concerned, we do not know what will come next. The military will remain engaged as long as there is a need for them to be there. As I have indicated, the strategy further to close off the avenues for Daesh in the Euphrates valley will be supported by United Kingdom personnel until there is no possibility that military action could recommence and no possibility that coalition forces could be put under pressure.

    As the right hon. Lady rightly says, the coalition is clearly essential. The coalition comprises a large number of people from the Kurdish region of Syria and Iraq and from other areas. Discussions are ongoing about how the coalition will stay together, but it is premature to say anything about a disbandment. The coalition has to be kept in place until there is no further military threat, and that will be advised either by my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary or my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in due course.

    On support going in the wrong direction, there has been a continual concern since 2011 that, in trying to provide support for legitimate opposition forces in such difficult circumstances, arms and money get traded. There has been an absolute determination to try to ensure that supplies going to support opposition forces do not go in the wrong direction. As far as possible, that is still the case. I cannot say with absolute certainty that not a single pound or element of aid has gone in the wrong direction—there are difficulties on the ground, where forces must co-operate to overcome Daesh—but the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that, as far as possible, the risk is minimised. I assure the right hon. Lady that that is the case.

  • The Minister of State is an extraordinarily busy and conscientious bee, and I feel sure that I speak for the whole House in saying how delighted we are that he represents us on these important occasions in all sorts of different parts of the globe.

  • Does the Minister accept that the reason why bombing Daesh in Syria was so much more controversial than bombing it in Iraq is the same as the reason why there have been so many more RAF airstrikes in Iraq than in Syria? Namely, we want the ground forces of the Iraqi Government to win in Iraq, but we claim not to want the ground forces of the Syrian Government to win in Syria. Does he accept that the outcome of the welcome squeezing out of Daesh in Syria is down to a combination of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian Government forces, whether we like it or not? The 70,000 so-called moderates are now well and truly dominated by Islamists, and as the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said, we ought to be careful about whom we support.

  • I am not going to go over previous discussions about this, and I understand the point of my right hon. Friend’s question. The coalition forces in Syria that have been backed in relation to Raqqa contain a variety of forces, but not Syrian regime forces. We still hold, and are right to hold, the Syrian regime responsible for a large proportion of the atrocities in Syria, and that should not be forgotten or glossed over. President al-Assad is responsible for launching murderous attacks on his own people, and it has been right to separate, in so far as is possible, coalition forces fighting Daesh from those of the regime.

  • We welcome the news that Daesh or the so-called “Islamic State” has been defeated in Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces after its three-year rule over the city. We also welcome the pledge we hear today of £10 million from the Department for International Development in humanitarian aid.

    Does the Minister agree that in order to sustain the military achievement in Raqqa, rebuilding efforts and the introduction of post-IS mechanisms need to start immediately in order to allow locals to develop and run their city meaningfully and in an inclusive manner that will ensure good governance and reliable public services? What funds have therefore been allocated, both to the immediate and the long-term reconstruction of Raqqa and the wider region? Does the Minister agree that British jihadists need also to be captured, where possible, and tried for their heinous war crimes, some of which, such as genocide, can only be faced in the International Criminal Court at The Hague? That would allow the whole world to witness them. Does he agree we should do that rather than, to use the words of the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), follow an approach where

    “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.”?

    That of course will only fuel IS recruitment.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. There are two elements of reconstruction after conflict, the first of which is the stabilisation phase. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary addressed that the other day, and it is about providing the immediate assistance that is needed. As I indicated, that helps to clear lethal landmines and explosives, restock hospitals and mobile surgical units, provide some 145,000 medical consultations, provide immediate relief for innocent people who have been displaced, improve access to clean water and look after pregnant women who are in difficulties. The United Kingdom is contributing to that immediate work. In the longer term, resources have not yet been allocated, and that will be done in conjunction with UN and other donors who will be providing support. That will be a long-term process.

    Again, the hon. Gentleman put his finger on the necessity for inclusive governance in a difficult area. That will be a matter for the Syrian people and for the political negotiations we expect to start in Geneva in November, which will look at the overall governance. They will have to take into account the situation in Raqqa and the political situation in the area, which will be difficult, but he is right to talk about inclusion.

    On those returning to the United Kingdom, let me make it clear, as the Defence Secretary said on 12 October, that those who go to Syria put themselves in danger. Those who go to Syria to take action against the United Kingdom and the UK’s interest put themselves in particular danger, and if they are involved in conflict or in planning actions that will take the lives of British citizens, they run the risk of being killed themselves. Of course those who surrender to forces in the area must expect to be treated under the laws of armed conflict, and to be treated properly and humanely in terms of being brought to justice. As I have said, those who return to the UK will also be questioned about their activity and brought to justice. It is important that justice is seen as the ultimate outcome for those who have committed wrong, but those who are a present danger to the UK run a greater risk and it is right that they do.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for his detailed and full answers; he has been educating the House very effectively. May I, however, press him on a couple of areas he has not yet addressed? Does he not agree that the finality of the conflict in Raqqa gives the lie to Russia’s claim that it was in any way supporting the fight against Daesh? May I therefore call upon him and on his colleagues to make representations to the Russian Government that the actions they are taking in Syria are against the interests of humanitarianism and of the civilians? Will he make representations to the Russians to say that what they are actually doing is making a new problem for themselves in the future?

  • I thank my hon. Friend, who is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Russia’s engagement in this has clearly been to stabilise the Assad regime. The Russians’ primary objective has been to secure their interests in Syria, through Assad, rather than to recognise that he had turned against his own people and to join in a coalition of interests to secure peaceful transition and peaceful reform as part of the end of the conflict. Clearly there are operations against Daesh which have not been participated in by regime forces or those who has supported them, such as the Russians, and other action has been taken, but I am not sure it is true to say that in all cases Russia has not taken action against Daesh forces, because it will have done when those forces were threatening the regime. That is when Russia will have taken that action.

    Moving on, the Geneva talks that will start under the guidance of Staffan de Mistura will inevitably involve Russia as a participant in trying to see what we can do now, towards the end of the conflict, to provide stabilisation. I can make it clear that the UK will echo the remarks made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We recognise Russia’s responsibility in the conflict, but now it has a responsibility in the post-conflict situation to remedy some of the problems it has caused.

  • Some Members of this House received and continue to receive considerable abuse for the decision we took back in November 2015 to support the extension of the RAF mission to Syria. Does the liberation of Raqqa and this considerable setback to Daesh not show that we were absolutely right?

  • Yes, in a word. We have been learning over time the consequences of not taking action. We have all learned that there are consequences of action and of inaction, and sometimes the choices are impossible. But it is perfectly clear that decisions not to do anything will almost inevitably result in a situation becoming worse and steadily more difficult for those involved. The right decisions have to be taken on intervention or not, but the decision of the House to support David Cameron’s determination to take action in Syria was the right one.

  • Is the Minister aware that a young medical student from my constituency, who was radicalised at Khartoum University, went to Raqqa, via Turkey, to work in an ISIS hospital? She and dozens of other such medical students are obviously authors of their own peril, but does the Minister agree that every effort should be made to get them out safely?

  • We have no facility to get British citizens out of Syria. Those who have gone to Syria have not been able to access any consular support, because we cannot put British officials at any risk in trying to deal with that. At present, that is the situation. Those who have gone to Syria have done so at their own risk. Inevitably, some people will return, and I hope that those who have a story to tell about turning against Daesh are able to convince others that this was a false ideology and that they should not be seduced by them into travelling abroad; these people may have a role to play in making that story clear.

  • In welcoming the liberation of Raqqa from Daesh, we recognise that the city has experienced death and displacement on a huge scale. The 8,000 or so civilians left are in a devastated city without access to drinking water, sewerage, electricity, schools and hospitals, and Assad’s forces are just a few kilometres away. Where does the Minister think responsibility for the rebuilding of Raqqa lies? What will the UK Government do to minimise any delays in that arising from what he referred to as political decisions?

  • In a sense, it is not a question of responsibility—certainly the people of the area have not caused their own destruction—and it makes sense for the world to be supportive of efforts that will ensure a return to normality, with people having decent lives. Members can expect the UK to play a leading part in supporting those efforts to rebuild schools, hospitals and the economy. I think this is something in which the world will be engaged. On the responsibility of the state, clearly the UK holds the regime to be responsible for a significant part of what has been inflicted upon its people. There has to be a political decision about moving forward with a political process before reconstruction can begin. The decisions have to be taken and that is the view of the international community. It does not prevent the immediate humanitarian assistance in difficult situations from taking place—that is what is happening now—but longer-term reconstruction must follow a political settlement.

  • Does my right hon. Friend know how many Daesh terrorists have escaped from Raqqa and where they might be headed?

  • I do not know the answer to that question because it is just impossible to gauge. Talk seems to centre around the low thousands of foreign fighters. Over time, it will become clearer, but I am not sure I can rightly say anything more accurate than that. It is clear that some will attempt to return to other parts of the region and beyond from where they came. Some countries have supplied more fighters than others. They will be a risk until they have all been interviewed, those who are responsible for crimes have been brought to justice, and others have been dealt with in other ways.

  • My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) referred to the vote two years ago. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in that vote, but I welcome the liberation of Raqqa. As the Minister said, it proves that conflicts of this kind cannot be won simply from the air. Ground forces have to be used. Will he reiterate our praise for the Syrian Democratic Forces, particularly Syria’s Kurds, who have played a pivotal role, and tell the Turkish Government to stop attacking them?

  • The hon. Gentleman has always been clear in his determination to take what he considers to be the right action, regardless of the political pressure on him, and he has been courageous to do so. Some battles clearly cannot be fought without ground troops being involved, as recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria have shown. There would have been no liberation of Mosul from the air, nor of Tal Afar or Raqqa. The United Kingdom did not take part in those operations; others have done so elsewhere, with our support. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention Kurdish forces’ leadership of the coalition forces that have been operating in Raqqa and the extraordinary work they have done. Whatever difficult situations may be faced back in the Kurdish region of Iraq, it is clear that those fighters and the people they represent deserve to be treated with the greatest of respect. Any political situation needs to be handled with great care, and there needs to be a lot of dialogue between states, not undue pressure or force.

  • I welcome the news that Raqqa has been liberated from Daesh, especially with respect to Paradise Square, where the terrorists carried out public beheadings. I thank the Minister for all his work to secure the UN resolution on locating and prosecuting Daesh. Will he update us on that, and on the Geneva process?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I was pleased recently to have the honour of moving the resolution at the UN, which was adopted unanimously by the Security Council, to further the work commenced the year before by the Iraqi Foreign Minister to bring to justice those responsible for the crimes of Daesh and to institute an investigative process to help that work. The United Kingdom will support that work and see the resolution carried through. I met Staffan de Mistura in New York and he is hopeful that the Geneva process will restart in November. There is clearly a long way to go, but an absence of conflict will help that process. It is essential that a process of justice emerges from the political conversations in which the people of Syria have the chance to choose their leadership, and that they do not have one imposed on them.

  • The Minister has said some helpful things today, not least about the cost of inaction possibly being as great as the cost of action—a point made forcefully in the paper written by the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and Jo Cox, “The Cost of Doing Nothing”. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that those who have committed war crimes in Syria are brought to justice? Will he update the House on the British Government’s role in making sure that the Syrian Government, who have prosecuted a brutal campaign and bombed hospitals, are brought to justice in whatever way possible?

  • I hope it will please the hon. Lady if I tell her that while I was in New York I met the leader of the White Helmets, along with members of the opposition. We give enormous credit to what they have achieved, and to the work of the hon. Lady and others in supporting them.

    On bringing people to justice, it is clear that those who are responsible for war crimes in any circumstances—whether they belong to Daesh or the regime—should feel that justice is available against them. The process against Daesh is clear; I suspect that the process against the regime will be more difficult, but if there is evidence, it should be prosecuted and pursued. The United Kingdom will be determined to see that process carried through, although I do not suspect for a moment that it will be particularly easy.

  • Like all colleagues, I welcome the military defeat of Daesh in Raqqa. What steps is the international community taking to ensure the vacuum in that area is not filled by the Iranian militia? That region is a key link to Lebanon, where Iran has some key interests.

  • My hon. Friend’s knowledge of the area is considerable, and we remember his long campaign to make sure that we refer to Daesh as Daesh. We pay tribute to him for that. The militias operating in the region are not always under the control of the coalition forces or, in Iraq, of the Iraqi Government. As far as I am aware, every attempt has been made to ensure that the forces occupying the ground are under the coalition’s control and thereby to minimise any danger of sectarian activity. However, we have to remember that some of the militia have been involved in close fighting and helping to relieve some areas. It is essential that those who are responsible for them now play a part in building a consensual process of governance and do not use them for sectarian purposes. It is an opportunity for some to perhaps show new colours, take a different direction from the one they have taken in the past, and build stability rather than disruption.

  • The Minister rightly referred to the accuracy of the 261 British strikes on Daesh in Syria, by which I presume he also means to say that, to his knowledge, no civilians were casualties of British strikes. By contrast, the Russians said that their whole aim in Syria was to attack and put an end to Daesh, yet 95% of their attacks seem to have been on other opponents of Assad. Does that mean that the Russians are liars or militarily incompetent?

  • On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, only 0.31% of coalition air strikes result in a credible report of civilian casualties, highlighting the care taken by the coalition to avoid such casualties. We have not seen any evidence that we have caused civilian casualties, but that is not the same as saying that we have not or will not, especially in close urban fighting against a ruthless terrorist enemy that uses civilians as human shields. Hopefully, the relief of Raqqa will make that likelihood still less.

    The question about the other air strikes that have taken place and the use of other forces is one for others to answer, but the hon. Gentleman is correct about the care taken by the coalition, and particularly by the RAF. The RAF’s rules of engagement, avoiding strikes where it is known there are civilians, are very clear. Others must be responsible for their actions, but actions and air strikes that have unnecessarily taken civilian lives make the process of reconciliation afterwards so much harder and therefore fuel the causes of further conflict, which the UK has tried desperately hard not to do.

  • The Minister has mentioned Iran. Does he think that the role played by Iran in both Syria and Iraq presents a threat to our interests?

  • I wish that we had more time. My hon. Friend’s knowledge of the area is very considerable, and he brings that with him to the House. We have been clear in saying that there is evidence of Iran being a disruptor in the region. It has been involved in activities in both Iraq and Syria—in Syria, supporting the Assad regime and supporting its own interests by doing so, and being complicit with a leader who has waged war on his own people have made that region more unstable. In Iraq, it must now allow the Iraqis to run Iraq—the Iraqi Government to run a unified Iraq—and recognise that its influence should be confined to the border. It has an opportunity now to play a part in making peace in the region, but can only do so if it listens to the concerns of others and understand that its influence can be used for better in different ways than it has been up to now.

  • I thank the Minister for his work on this very difficult issue. Has he any idea of how many UK nationals have left the UK to fight with Daesh, and of what work the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing with the Home Office to identify these individuals and, where possible, repatriate them?

  • The short answer is that I do not know. I do not have a figure. We have worked on the number of relatively low hundreds, but we do not know. I will not put a figure on it—why pluck one out of the air? The numbers are not huge, and are not as great as some from other places. On dealing with people when they return, let me make it clear that there is no facility to return people—certainly not from Syria. We have no personnel there and we have no responsibilities in that regard. If people make their way back to the United Kingdom and are identified as having taken part in conflict in Syria or Iraq, they will be detained and will have to answer questions while it is found out exactly what they have done, which is right and proper, and those who have committed offences can expect to face justice.

  • My constituents in Kettering are increasingly alarmed about the number of British jihadists who have been fighting our armed forces personnel in Iraq and Syria. My understanding is that about 850 of them have been identified, of whom about 400 are already back in the UK. Please correct me if I am wrong but I do not believe that there has been a single prosecution for any offence. Will the Minister try to understand that if no effective action is taken against these people in this country, it will send a positive signal to potential jihadists to Syria to say, “We can go off and fight British services overseas because nothing will happen to us when we return.”

  • Many terrorist offences have extra-territorial jurisdiction, which means that people can be prosecuted in British courts for terrorist activity in Syria or anywhere else in the world. Any decision on whether to prosecute will be taken by the police and Crown Prosecution Service on a case-by-case basis. That requires evidence of what people have done. It does not require rounding up people who have been in a particular place and detaining them without any legal process for doing so. It is essential that we find out what people are doing. That will require the sort of investigative work that I announced earlier that we have promoted through the UN. The investigations unit is entirely designed to uncover the evidence that will bring people to justice. It is a question of holding this number of people in reasonable bounds so that everyone knows that they have gone there, but that the numbers are not as great as those from other countries. There is a determination in the United Kingdom to make absolutely certain that if those who put the country at risk return, they can expect to be questioned, to be brought to the notice of the security authorities and to be subject to controls thereafter according to existing law. Where prosecutions are possible, people will be prosecuted and rightly so.

  • I am sure that the whole House will agree with me when I offer my thanks and congratulations to all those people, and their families, who have served in Operation Shader. Given what we learned in Fallujah about the industrial use of improvised explosive devices in domestic property, can the Minister give us some more information on what efforts are being made to ensure that, on the ground, we are supporting people to clear those IEDs?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to thank the families of those involved for their sacrifice, too. As I mentioned earlier, my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for DFID, deliberately targeted some of the money that has been given to deal with the IEDs, the explosive devices and booby traps that are littering Raqqa and Mosul. The United Kingdom is contributing to the landmine clearance effort, and we will continue to do so.

  • Further to earlier questions about returning fighters to the UK, there are a number in my constituency who have actively supported Daesh in Syria and are now back home. I appreciate the fact that a cross-Government response has been made to those individuals and that there will be prosecutions where appropriate. In addition, can I also have an assurance that, to keep the wider community safe in my constituency and across the country, the security services will be monitoring the activities of those who have returned but cannot be prosecuted because there is insufficient evidence to ensure that they are not radicalising their communities?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. More than 60 countries are now providing data to coalition partner Interpol to build a global database of those foreign fighters who have worked with Daesh. The database has grown from 40 people in 2013 to 14,000 internationally and it continues to grow. This information, along with our other investigative efforts, helps to ensure that people in the United Kingdom are safer.

  • The Minister was correct earlier to pay tribute to the Kurdish peshmerga forces for their contribution in defeating Daesh on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. How concerned are the British Government, therefore, about the events of last week when the Iraqi military and Shi’a militia captured Kurdish-held territory in Kirkuk province, about the reported clashes with Kurdish forces and about a splintering of the anti-Daesh forces in future?

  • The Foreign Office and I are in pretty close contact both with the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Our understanding is that the process of recovering so-called disputed territory has been done not through conflict, but by agreement between the Government of Iraq, peshmerga forces and the Kurdish authorities. We have been at pains to do all we can to say to both the Regional Government and the Iraqi authorities to do nothing to risk a conflict. There are Shi’a militias in the area, but my understanding at the moment is that the responsible parties are doing everything they can to avoid conflict so that they can return to the dialogue that must take place between the Kurdish representatives and the Iraqi Government following the referendum in September.

  • There is a significant presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh in Yemen. What assessment have the Government made of the extremist threat in Yemen, and what support are we giving to the ground troops of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and the Government forces that are trying to defeat those extremists in that country?

  • That is a slightly wider question, but, in relation to Daesh and others, it is absolutely pertinent. We do not take part directly in the coalition operating in Yemen. Of course UK representatives are available to ensure that international humanitarian law is adhered to by those who are taking action using munitions supplied by the United Kingdom. That work is ongoing, but it is not a direct part of the coalition. We have supported the coalition’s aims in pushing back an insurgency against an elected Government, which has opened up the risk of more ungoverned space in Yemen in which AQAP and Daesh can operate. We continue to work towards a conclusion of that conflict. We are working extremely hard on trying to get negotiations to start again so that the conflict can come to an end, because that is the only thing that will secure the area and deal with that risk of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

  • One of the most horrifying elements of this war has been the weaponisation of food. I am sure that the Minister has seen the story in The Times today, reporting that the United Nations says that 90% of its aid trying to get through the Wafideen checkpoint to East Ghouta is turned back. What are the Government doing about that particular case and, more broadly, how are they trying to fight against President Assad waging starvation?

  • The hon. Gentleman is right. The area has returned to medieval conditions of war and siege in which humanitarian aid, which ought to get through under international rules, is not allowed to get through because of forces on the ground. We make strenuous efforts through the UN and humanitarian agencies, which do extraordinary work in these places. We should pay tribute to those who are working on the ground in dangerous conditions to provide relief and to try to get things through, but it is difficult and we will continue to make that case. In Raqqa, however, the UK has provided more than 660,000 relief packages—including blankets, clothing, hygiene items and kitchen utensils—and more than 88,000 monthly food rations, so where we can get things through, we do. But there is no doubt that aid and the refusal of aid is used as a weapon of war, and it should not be.

  • It is in the interests of Assad and Putin to suggest that life is returning to normal in Syria. The Minister mentioned the meeting in Geneva in November. In light of that, what more will the UK Government be doing to ensure that Russians and other actors are aware that there can be no lasting peace in Syria while Assad continues to rule and while there is not a role for peace-loving Sunnis, as well as those of all other communities, in Syria?

  • The House can be absolutely clear that the points that the hon. Gentleman has made were made during conversations with the P5, including to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Staffan de Mistura. Russia is protecting its own interest in Syria and it is doing so in what we consider to be an unconscionable manner, by supporting President Assad and what he has done to his people. There can only be a political resolution that gives the people of Syria the free choice to choose their Government. This is not an easy process, and we are giving all backing to Staffan de Mistura as he restarts the Astana talks in Geneva with all parties present. It is essential that the people of Syria have the choice of their own President and Government. It cannot be the case that everything is returning to normal in Syria. That is true in some parts but, in areas of serious conflict, the situation is still miserable for civilians attacked by their own Government.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on securing this urgent question. The decision in this House in December 2015 to take military action in Syria was obviously controversial, but it was the right one in my view. As somebody who supported that decision, I pay tribute to the RAF and to the professionalism of our military servicemen and women who are in the region today. My question is about UK foreign fighters who may have left Syria and ended up in refugee camps in Turkey. What are we doing to track those people down and return them to justice?

  • As I mentioned earlier, the acquisition of names on to the Interpol database is extending the reach of national authorities in the more than 60 countries from which foreign fighters have gone to fight in Iraq. That will provide a basis for what happens when they return. I am not aware of any efforts that are being taking to visit camps in order to identify people before they return. I do not know about that matter, so I will find the answer and ensure that it is made available in the Foreign Secretary’s next statement.

  • Happily, the campaign against Daesh in Syria is coming to an end, bringing hope to millions who suffered abuse from these evil madmen. But in light of the events in Kirkuk last week, is the Minister concerned that Iraq and Iran are now turning their attention militarily towards the Kurds? Does he see that as a potential source of conflict, and what role can he and the Government play in trying to diffuse the situation?

  • The first role I hope that I can play is to urge the House to be cautious of reports coming out from the region. It is not always entirely clear what is happening on the ground, and those with vested interests are trying to stir up more conflict than there need be. Our understanding is that there is sufficient of a relationship between Baghdad and representatives of the Kurdish Government to enable a dialogue to take place so that the conflict is avoided. I do not believe it is true that Iraq and Iran have turned their attention to conflict in the Kurdish region. There is a risk of conflict—that is true—but everything we know about Prime Minister Abadi, and his actions and rhetoric, indicates that he does not want conflict. That has been mirrored by those in the Kurdish region. We are using all our efforts to ensure that that will remain the case, but the hon. Gentleman is right that there are spoilers who might start to urge a conflict. We should be doing all we can, in this House and at a Government level, to urge the necessary dialogue, which we think is taking place.