The UK's role in the war against ISIL following the Cessation of Hostilities in Syria in February 2016: Government response to the Committee's Third Report of Session 2015-16 Contents

Appendix: Letter from the Foreign Secretary and Government response

Letter from the Foreign Secretary

I note the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the UK’s Role in the Fight Against Daesh (ISIL), published on 24 March 2016.

This Government has set out a comprehensive strategy to degrade and defeat Daesh. We are taking military, political and humanitarian action as part of the Global Coalition of 66 countries and international organisations from around the world.

The Coalition’s combined efforts are succeeding. Daesh have not had a single successful major offensive since the summer of 2015, and are retreating from more territory. They have lost about 40% of the territory they once held in Iraq and significant territory in Syria. So far in 2016, the Coalition has supported local forces in retaking Ramadi and Hit, key towns on the Euphrates River in Iraq, and the former stronghold town of Al-Shadadi in Syria, an important link between Mosul and Raqqah. We believe Daesh morale is suffering. They have been forced to reduce salaries by half in some areas; the flow of foreign fighters has dropped by up to 90%; more fighters are defecting than ever before; and instances of public protest are rising.

The UK is playing a key role across all strands of the international effort to defeat Daesh. Our contribution to the military campaign is second only to that of the US. Our military efforts, combined with UK leadership in international fora, are also squeezing Daesh’s finances. We are tackling the root cause of support for Daesh in Iraq. And we are encouraging the Iraqi Government to establish the political reconciliation and reform needed to rebuild public trust in the Iraqi state and unite communities against extremism. The UK is helping Iraqi citizens to return safely to their homes; we have provided £6m funding for UNDP efforts to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh control; and £2.25m to UNMAS counter-IED efforts.

The UK, with the US and UAE, co-chairs the Global Coalition’s Strategic Communicatons Working group. The UK has provided £10m to set up a Counter Daesh Coalition Communications Cell, based in the FCO. The Cell brings together the 66 Coalition partners behind one communications initiative. Through this work the FCO is setting the direction for counter-Daesh communications, sharing expertise on strategic communications tools and building the capacity of Coalition partners in the region.

We are also using our aid budget to alleviate the immediate humanitarian suffering that drives extremism. The Syria Conference in London in February helped secure pledges of more than $12 billion to help the countries of the region, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, sustain the cost of hosting Syrian refugees. This was part of our wider effort to ensure that regional partners can deal with Daesh on their doorsteps.

Government response

This Government notes the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the UK’s Role in the Fight Against ISIL, published on 24 March 2016.

This Special Report sets out the Government’s response to each of the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. The Committee’s text is in bold and the Government’s response is in plain text. Paragraph numbers refer to the Committee’s report.

Identifying the terrorists/groups beyond any reconciliation process

1. The UK needs to work within the international community to establish that those who are willing to abide by a ceasefire and accept certain fundamental principles about the future nature of Syria should be welcomed into the negotiation process. (Paragraph 6)

The Government agrees that those who are willing to abide by a ceasefire and accept certain fundamental principles about the future nature of Syria should be part of the political process. A Cessation of Hostilities, brokered by the US and Russia, came into force on 27 February, and specifically excluded Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organisations designated by the UN Security Council. Other groups covered by the cessation signed up to terms which include the full implementation of UNSCR 2254, readiness to participate in UN-facilitated political negotiations, suspension of fighting and acquisition of territory, and allowing humanitarian access. The Cessation has since come under significant pressure, and we hope that US-Russian efforts to restore the Cessation are successful. The UK worked with other partners in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to encourage and support full implementation of the cessation and constructive engagement in UN facilitated negotiations in Geneva. This was reaffirmed in the ISSG meeting in Vienna on 17 May. We agree that any political settlement must be inclusive and we support the inclusion in the negotiations of the full range of Syrian groups, who sign up to the principles of the Geneva Communiqué, at the right time.

Cessation of Hostilities and resumption of talks

2. We recommend that the UK support close coalition co-ordination with Russian military forces to minimise the scope for a return to hostilities through misunderstanding and to provide a means to act together to manage a joint response to outbreaks of violence. (Paragraph 11)

Coalition military efforts are focused on Daesh, not the wider Syrian conflict. We raise our concerns about violations of the Cessation of Hostilities through the ISSG Ceasefire Taskforce, which is the agreed forum for promoting compliance, de-escalating tensions and resolving non-compliant behaviour. This is the forum in which we seek to minimise misunderstandings, through sharing our understanding of the situation on the ground. We continue to be concerned about Russia’s role in the wider conflict because it continues to support regime offensives against opposition groups with air power. Although Russia and the Syrian regime claim only to target UN designated terrorist groups not covered by the Cessation of Hostilities, armed opposition groups who are covered by the Cessation of Hostilities and thousands of innocent civilians have been targeted. This has contributed to the significant pressure on the Cessation of Hostilities, and must be addressed if the Cessation is to be fully restored. We have made clear to Russia that we expect it to pressure its client, the regime, to help deliver a full Cessation of Hostilities and that it needs to match its actions to its words and ensure full implementations of UNSCR 2254.

There is a Memorandum of Understanding on the prevention of flight safety incidents between the US, acting on behalf of the global Coalition, and Russia. The safe separation measures for Coalition and Russian aircraft conducting missions in Syria are operating effectively. Daesh are not covered by the Cessation of Hostilities so action against Daesh by either Russia or the Coalition would not constitute a violation or endanger the Cessation.

FCO contribution

3. It is plain that the Prime Minister’s “full diplomatic weight” does not reflect actual human resources. It is the case that the FCO struggles to have the capacity to deploy properly resourced teams, and it is unlikely to be a priority when the hope will be that the UK’s principal ally will do the work. It is another indication of the FCO stretched beyond sensible limits to support the rhetoric of UK leaders and to support the delivery of key British objectives in a crisis-riddled world. It also reinforces the impression in the mind of our principal ally that the UK is another “free rider”. This further reinforces the case made in our First Report that the FCO’s budget should increase. (Paragraph 14)

The FCO’s Spending Review Settlement protected the organisation’s budget in real terms over the course of the Spending Review period, but it also imposed additional requirements, so there are funding pressures that we will address. However, the FCO expects to receive significant funds from the cross-Whitehall Conflict, Security and Stability Fund for use on Syria and countering Daesh, given that it is one of the Government’s highest priorities.

A total of 20 officers have been deployed or reassigned to enhance the UK’s political contribution to the counter-Daesh effort in Iraq. Half of these have been deployed to Baghdad, with the remainder in Posts in Erbil, Amman, Washington DC and London. These are in addition to the already large staffs we had in our diplomatic network in Iraq, other regional capitals, key coalition capitals like Washington and through our Syria Overseas Network (based in Istanbul but with officers in different regional capitals). These officers are working in support of Global Coalition efforts to help build the conditions to isolate Daesh politically, hastening its defeat, including by helping Iraq deliver genuine political reform and meaningful reconciliation. Funding for this uplift has been extended until April 2017.

The UK is making a significant contribution to resolving the conflict and dealing with its consequences. The Government’s response to the crisis in Syria includes significant inputs from the MOD, DFID, and the FCO. This includes our extensive humanitarian response and our military contribution to the fight against Daesh. The UK has pledged over £2.3 billion in aid, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis and second only to the US. The UK’s military contribution to the fight against Daesh is also second only to the US, including the deployment of over 1,000 personnel, Tornado and Typhoon jets and our unparalleled Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities. After the US and Russia, the UK has deployed the largest team to support the negotiations in Geneva, and to assist with monitoring the Cessation of Hostilities. The UK is a leading member of the International Syria Support Group, and has, with allies, led the UN Security Council in New York in securing Resolutions to weaken Daesh and maintain pressure on Asad’s regime. The UK’s budget for programme support in Syria through the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund stands at almost £60 million for this financial year. This funding allows us to support moderate governance and service delivery inside Syria as well as provide support to the political process. The FCO works closely with the US State Department in this area and we are confident that our US partners recognise the value of the UK contribution in this work and that the Committee’s fears about US perceptions are groundless.

4. We recommend that the FCO maintain a close dialogue with the Russian Government, and especially with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The policy differences between the UK and Russia over Syria are well known, but close dialogue with Russia is a prerequisite if the UK wishes to influence events in the region. (Paragraph 16)

The Government agrees that dialogue with Russia is essential if we are to make progress in Syria. Senior UK officials engage with Russian officials through the International Syria Support Group (ISSG). In addition, the National Security Adviser visited Moscow on 11 April for talks with the Russian government. Syria was discussed at length. We are open to discussing Syria issues with Russia. However, where we are convinced that Russian actions hinder progress towards a political solution, we will continue to make clear our concerns.

5. Compromise on all sides is going to be required to deliver a successful negotiated outcome and in concert with our allies the FCO should in practice provide reassurance around our collective commitment to their future security and survival to the HNC so that they can have the confidence to make the necessary compromises. (Paragraph 17)

We have made clear to the HNC and the Syrian National Coalition (from which a sizable proportion of the HNC is drawn) that the UK stands firmly with them as they tackle the challenges the Vienna talks will inevitably produce. Our goal is to bring about an end to the conflict and a political transition. This necessitates a long term and supportive relationship with the HNC. We are providing technical and strategic advice to the HNC as well as financial support to allow them to maintain their presence in Geneva. FCO officials, notably the UK Special Representative for Syria, also work closely with the HNC to advise them on how to approach negotiations in Geneva. We stand ready to provide further support as required. The HNC, however, faces significant challenges due to the inability of the Cessation of Hostilities to deliver real relief on the ground–full humanitarian access continues to be obstructed by the regime. This constrains HNC’s willingness to take political risks in the process in a way that reassurances from the international community cannot fully address. The ISSG is seeking to resolve this, and on 17 May set a deadline of 1 June for humanitarian access to designated besieged areas, after which it asked the World Food Programme to extend air drops of aid.

Attitude of regional players

6. We recommend that the FCO with our allies does all it can to sponsor working-level engagement between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey at Political Director level and below, so that a practical dialogue is developed between these key regional powers. (Paragraph 21)

The Government notes the Committee’s recommendation. The dialogue format most likely to deliver success is the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), of which all three countries and the UK are members. There are regular working level discussions in Geneva and elsewhere in this format. Progress is likely to be slow. We will continue to promote the role of the ISSG as the best means of forging consensus on Syria among its members in pursuit of a solution to the conflict.


7. The UK must press Turkey to refrain from taking any further action against YPG forces and play a constructive role towards shared objectives in the defeat of ISIL. It is not acceptable for the UK, in return for Turkish co-operation on EU migration priorities as per the deal agreed on 18 March, to turn a blind eye towards the brutal Turkish government suppression of legitimate Kurdish aspirations at home and in neighbouring states, which is almost certainly illegal and involves a grossly disproportionate use of force. (Paragraph 25)

The Government is committed to safeguarding the United Kingdom’s national security. To this end, we welcome Turkey’s invaluable contribution to our shared objective of defeating Daesh, including through stopping extremists from reaching Iraq and Syria, and allowing use of its airspace and airbases for countering Daesh. Turkey has itself been a victim of Daesh’s barbaric attacks–in Ankara, Istanbul, Suruc and elsewhere. The border town of Kilis has frequently been shelled, leading to significant loss of life.

Turkey is a key partner for the EU in tackling the migration crisis and we recognise Turkey’s generosity in hosting over 2.7 million refugees from Syria and around 300,000 of other nationalities.

The Government does not recognise the Committee’s description of Turkey’s policy towards the Kurds. We believe that Turkey has a legitimate right to defend itself against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a proscribed terrorist organisation in the United Kingdom that continues to kill innocent people in violent attacks. A PKK offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), claimed responsibility for a number of attacks recently, including an indiscriminate suicide car bomb attack on civilians in central Ankara on 13 March that killed 37 people. TAK has also publicly stated its desire to continue to target civilians. We believe that the PKK must immediately cease its terrorist attacks in Turkey. The Government continues to promote a return to the peace process. This is the only way to secure a sustainable cessation of violence.

The Government shares Turkey’s concerns about the links between the YPG and the PKK, and the YPG’s role in Syria. We are concerned by patterns of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and Russian air force, and their direct conflict with elements of the moderate armed opposition. We continue to support the territorial integrity of Syria. As such, we do not recognise calls by the PYD for an autonomous Kurdish area.

8. The UK should spearhead raising with Turkey their behaviour on the Kurdish issue, their support for Islamist groups, playing a destructive role overall in the political process and the suppression of internal dissent and freedom of speech. (Paragraph 26)

The UK and Turkey enjoy a strong bilateral relationship based on trust and shared interests, which allows us to have an open dialogue on a range of issues. UK Government Ministers and senior officials regularly raise concerns about freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. We have consistently encouraged Turkey to continue to work towards the full protection of fundamental rights, especially in the areas of minority rights and freedom of expression.

Implications for the fight against ISIL

9. We recommend that the FCO give greater priority to the immediate fight against ISIL, alongside its longer-term work towards a comprehensive peace settlement. As we concluded in our Second Report on the extension of British military operations to Syria, we remain unpersuaded that talks involving all parties provide an incentive for people to join ISIL. (Paragraph 29)

The Government made the case for extending airstrikes into Syria due to the urgency we give to the fight against Daesh, whilst making simultaneous efforts towards a peace settlement. It is not the Government’s view that work towards a sustainable political solution prevents any progress from being made against Daesh in Syria. Since the UK joined the Coalition’s airstrikes in Syria, significant progress has been made on the ground. Coalition airstrikes targeting Daesh oil and economic infrastructure have reduced Daesh revenues, and Daesh has been forced to cut salaries by half in Raqqah. UK and Coalition support has helped local forces take key territory. In December, Daesh lost the strategic Tishreen Dam, and in February it lost the town of Al-Shadadi, a former stronghold and key route between Raqqah and Mosul, along with around 6,000 km2. The UK efforts in leading the Coalition’s Strategic Communications, including creating the Coalition Communications Cell, have increased the pace and scale at which we counter Daesh propaganda. The flow of foreign fighters has reduced and desertions are increasing. Efforts by the FCO and others have improved international coordination. For example, at least 50 countries and the UN now pass fighter profiles to Interpol–a 400 per cent increase over two years.

However, as progress made against Daesh during the Cessation of Hostilities has shown, the ongoing civil war continues to draw the fight away from Daesh. It continues to be this Government’s view that the long-term defeat of Daesh in Syria will require an end to the civil war.

10. We recommend that the FCO and the Ministry of Defence work together to advance the recovery of territory from ISIL control, assist Syrian armed groups which have ceased hostilities to work towards this objective whilst ensuring that civilian protection is also prioritised, and press the regional powers to provide the necessary enabling capability, including action to disrupt ISIL’s business and financial activities. (Paragraph 30)

The Government notes the Committee’s recommendation. There is close collaboration between the FCO, the Ministry of Defence and other government departments, coordinated by the cross-Government Daesh Task Force, based in the FCO. We continue to make progress in the fight against Daesh, alongside our partners in the Global Coalition. In Iraq, the UK is working with the Government of Iraq and Coalition partners to train and support Iraqi Security Forces to recover territory from Daesh. Those forces, with Coalition air support, have retaken 40% of the territory once held by Daesh in Iraq, including Tikrit, Baiji, Sinjar, Ramadi and most recently the town of Hit. In Syria, Daesh have been lost around 10% of their territory, having been pushed out of the large Kurdish areas in northern Syria, the strategic Tishreen Dam north of Raqqah and the town of Al-Shadadi, the former stronghold and key route between Raqqah and Mosul.

In addition, there were some welcome reductions in conflict levels over the course of the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH). We hope that a reaffirmation of the CoH is possible; this is the only way to move forward political negotiations in Geneva. The CoH also allowed some moderate groups to take the fight to Daesh, taking significant territory from Daesh along the Turkish border with Coalition support. Only a genuine political transition, away from Asad, to a government which can represent all Syrians, can bring about a lasting peace. While the regime continues to target the moderate opposition in breach of Cessation agreements it is hard to envisage the circumstances under which regime and opposition forces could come together to tackle Daesh. With our ISSG partners and through the Global Coalition against Daesh we will continue to explore ways to degrade and push Daesh out of territory, squeeze their finances and counter their propaganda We will also continue our work with partners and through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support civilians in liberated areas in Iraq and Syria.

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

8 June 2016