DEFENCE COMMITTEE – UK MILITARY OPERATIONS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ [EXTRACTS] – 1 December 2015

Grimond Room, House of Commons

Questions 1, 27 – 40, 53 – 58

Q1   [Defence Committee Chairman] Julian Lewis: Welcome to this session of the Defence Select Committee, originally scheduled to concentrate on our inquiry into defence expenditure and the 2% commitment. We will indeed get on to that topic and will also discuss some aspects of most interest from the recently published SDSR. However, in the present circumstances, given the vote that is going to take place tomorrow on military action regarding Syria, we feel that it would be bizarre if we did not take this opportunity, having the Secretary of State for Defence before us, to have a conversation and a question-and-answer session on that very important topic.

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Julian Lewis: Earlier, Madeleine Moon asked questions about the reliability of estimated numbers of ISIL/Daesh. I know that Jim Shannon has been waiting patiently to ask about the reliability of another interesting number: the number 70,000.

Q27   Jim Shannon: First, it is nice of you to come along and let us know what your thoughts are about questions. Last week the Prime Minister said,

“we believe there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters – principally the free Syrian army…with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL”

or Daesh. The question on my mind since last Thursday has been: what is the make-up of the different coalition groups? You have got different cultures, different religious factions, different levels of training, different levels of equipment quality and different goals. For instance, the free Syrian army are clear that they want to get rid of Assad, but there are other, different strategies, with small groups who do not want to leave the territories that they currently protect.

Have we got our Lawrence of Arabia: someone who can bring these groups together as one, fight under one flag, if there is such a thing, and focus on the enemy, Daesh/ISIL? Secretary of State, can you give us an idea of your thoughts about how a coalition of all those groups can come together under one banner to fight them?

[Secretary of State for Defence] Michael Fallon: I will try. This is a complicated situation. Perhaps I could say a couple of things about the overall number. I am slightly surprised that people should be surprised that it was 70,000. In a country of more than 20 million that has been fighting a civil war for several years, it would be a bit surprising if it was any lower than that. It is a large country, and they have been fighting Assad for over three years.

You said that it was the Prime Minister’s belief that the number was 70,000. It is not his belief, and it is not our belief. It is not even our estimate. It is the estimate of the independent Joint Intelligence Committee, which was reset precisely because, after the Iraq invasion and war, there was concern that estimates and intelligence that Ministers were using were not properly verifiable.

Q28   Julian Lewis: Is there any reason why there has not been a breakdown of how that figure of 70,000 supposedly moderate forces is made up? I put down a question to ask the Prime Minister. It is due for answer today. Will I be getting an answer?

Michael Fallon: I think it is possible to give a rough breakdown and, if I may, I will come to that.

Q29   Julian Lewis: Please do.

Michael Fallon: This is the independent Joint Intelligence Committee’s estimate of around 70,000. That has been supported by academics who have been studying the conflict over the last two or three years, and it deliberately excludes those who are on the extreme side of this fight, such as al-Nusra Front and so on, who are right on the outer edge of this. The Joint Intelligence Committee estimates the number, but those 70,000 are people who we would define as being able to do two things. First, they could play a part in supporting a different type of government in Syria, and indeed be part of it. Secondly, they could, in the fullness of time, take the fight to ISIL. That is what we mean by moderate opposition forces in Syria, and we estimate that there are around 70,000.

You are perfectly correct that those 70,000 are not all in one place. They are not a new model army, drilled outside the walls of Raqqa. They are spread through Syria, with more than 20,000 in the Free Syrian Army, mainly in the north, and around 20,000 on the southern front, commanded by al-Zoubi. There are groups throughout Syria that add to give the overall figure of 70,000, so they are not all in one place. They are fighting on a whole range of different fronts, but they are fighting Assad. One of the reasons for us to get more involved in tackling ISIL in Syria is to relieve the pressure on the Free Syrian Army, so that they are not being squeezed by both sides, by both ISIL and Assad. Is there a single commander who can weld all this together, as Lawrence of Arabia tried to do 100 years ago? I am not sure of that. Let me now ask General Gordon Messenger to give a little more on the breakdown of the 70,000 and their future deployment.

[Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Military Strategy and Operations)] Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: First, I totally support the Secretary of State’s point that this is not a coherent force. Their principal motivation is defending their communities and self-preservation against anyone who is fighting them, and that is mostly the regime but in certain parts of Syria it is ISIL. We would be wrong to characterise them as a rag-tag army. If we look at what they have managed to defend over years, and what they have managed to achieve in terms of territory preservation in both the north and the south, it is considerable. They have been up against enormous pressure and techniques such as barrel bombing and other indiscriminate forms of violence, which have brought violence to their population as well as their combatants.

I don’t think that we should dismiss them, but nor should we try to invent some coherence where it does not exist. Nor are we saying – and again, the Secretary of State has been clear on this – that they are ready to advance to Raqqa. We are saying that they are a very important group to preserve because we see them as a vital part of the political process that we described earlier. We see it as critical to preserve them to prevent Syria from becoming essentially a choice between Assad or ISIL, neither of which we assess to be acceptable for what I hope are obvious reasons. So they are a very important part of the dynamic.

As was said, what we do not want to do is directly link air strikes at the heart of ISIL with the idea that there is an imminent ground force about to exploit the effect of that, but I think we can say that, by applying pressure to ISIL, we are relieving the pressure on those moderate oppositions where they are up against ISIL, and doing a bit to preserve them as part of a future political process.

Q30   Jim Shannon: To follow on from what you and the general have said, it is very clear that the Assad regime will not provide any troops for this coalition. Is that an assumption that we can gather – that Assad’s troops will not be part of the coalition at any time?

Michael Fallon: Absolutely.

Q31   Julian Lewis: On a point of clarification about these 70,000 forces or groups named as moderate by the Prime Minister, do they include the organisations in the Islamic Front in general, and Ahrar al-Sham in particular, a leading group? I do not think anyone is arguing against the idea that 70,000 people might be willing to take up arms on a local or even regional basis; the question is, how moderate are they? Are they really moderate, or are they in fact Islamist?

Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: I cannot go into the detail because of the level of classification of this briefing, but what I can say is that there is a spectrum of extremism, and that –

Q32   Julian Lewis: I’m sorry, General; I do not accept that at all. These groups are known to exist, and the Prime Minister has come forward with a figure of 70,000. He has obviously got a basis for that figure, and there is nothing of a sensitive or classified nature about which of these known groups he is including in his total and which he is not. As the Prime Minister is asking us to make a decision based in part on the idea that there is some democratic third force between the devil and the deep blue sea, as the Government see it, of Assad and ISIL/Daesh, the public are entitled – as are parliamentarians before we vote – to know how these 70,000 are made up. There cannot possibly be anything sensitive about which of the forces out there that are known to exist, such as the ones that make up the Islamic Front, are included in the total or not.

Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: As the Secretary of State has described, there is a spectrum of extremism. Those that are seen to be inside the 70,000 are those that are moderate and in the next band: in other words, those that we are prepared to accept might be part of a political process that is representative of the people whom they represent.

Q33   Julian Lewis: It has been suggested publicly by people who are experts in the field that not many people in that group are what most people from a western viewpoint would regard as moderate rather than Islamist. Do you accept that a lot of people in that 70,000 would and should be categorised as Islamist?

Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: You would have to ask the Joint Intelligence Committee for the detail.

Q34   Julian Lewis: I really don’t see why that has to be a secret. These groups are known. All we are asking is which of the known groups are included in the 70,000. I really think that breakdown ought to be made public. Nobody is going to do that now, I take it?

Michael Fallon: We will certainly reflect on that. Almost all these groups subscribe to Islam.

Q35   Julian Lewis: That is not what I am asking.

Michael Fallon: You say “Islamist”, but there is a separate debate as to how exactly you would define that. All we can go on is the best assessment that the Joint Intelligence Committee can make as to which of these groups would be prepared to play their part in a new, peaceful Syria. That is really the most important thing of all. These people are there and they deserve our support, if we are to free Syria of both Assad and ISIL.

Q36   Julian Lewis: Can you think of any good reason why that list, making up the 70,000 of those groups that are openly known to exist, cannot be published?

Michael Fallon: I have said that I will certainly reflect on that.

Q37   Richard Benyon: Like many MPs, since the Prime Minister mentioned this figure of 70,000, I have applied what I hope is a healthy scepticism to that number. Broadly speaking, it seems to have stacked up since then in terms of most commentators and most of what I have read. Would you say that it is an accurate view that around 70,000 people have managed to continue to support neither Assad nor ISIL? That is, that they have not been drawn into some pro-Assad grouping or some pro-jihadist grouping?

These are people who have for four years protected, sometimes just their village and sometimes larger territories. So that we can really understand what we are saying: these are people who one day may be looking after farmland or their local business and the next day may be defending their community. It is that lack of clarity that we are all going to face in trying to make this decision. Broadly speaking, that number seems to have held up.

Michael Fallon: I absolutely agree with that, and we ought to do more. We need to help them because, in the end, if we do not, they are going to get squeezed between the caliphate over in the east and Assad and his Russian support in the west. There are going to be fewer and fewer of them. It is very important that now we grip this and bring some relief to those opposition forces who have been fighting, as you say, for more than four years now. We can point their way to a different kind of Government altogether in Syria. There is now growing international agreement that we can do that, that there can be a political track, which there needs to be.

Q38   Richard Benyon: You used that word “caliphate”. Could I ask you to precede that with “so-called”? I think a lot of people find it deeply worrying when, not just in this country but other parts of the west, use of that phrase gives some credence to such a concept. Many people in the Islamic world find the use of the word “caliphate” a deep affront. “So-called caliphate” I can understand, but not using it on its own.

Michael Fallon: We stand reprimanded. “Self-styled caliphate” I think would perhaps be best of all.

Q39   Ruth Smeeth: Thank you, Secretary of State. I have a few questions, as we all have. Can you clarify, if we can only guestimate that there are 30,000 members of Daesh, why we are so confident about 70,000 fighters? Assuming that they are there – and I do – are they in the right areas where we need them to be? Given how much we are investing in those 70,000 people, what additional support are we going to give them on the ground?

Michael Fallon: Again, I will try to answer the final question. We have been trying to support these opposition forces for a while now, within the limits of what Parliament has previously approved and agreed. We have supplied some training outside Syria itself, in camps in Jordan and Turkey. We have supplied some non-lethal equipment to enable them better to look after themselves, for example, in terms of battlefield medicine and some basic equipment that is not lethal, is not interfering with the civil war, just as we provided similar equipment to the Ukrainian army, for example, again not intervening directly in that conflict but helping them better look after themselves. But on the numbers, let me turn again to General Messenger.

Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: Flowing from that point is the fact that we have a support relationship with them, which means that we understand them more, and therefore we are able to have more confidence in the numbers.

Q40   Ruth Smeeth: So we are directly dealing with these groups on a day-to-day basis both through support and on a military basis?

Lieutenant General Gordon Messenger: I would not say that we are dealing with all groups on a day-to-day basis, but we have a support relationship with a number of groups that we can do business with.

Michael Fallon: Some of them have been to the west. They have been to London and had meetings with my staff. They are, I hope, preparing to go to Riyadh, where the Saudi Arabians are convening the first conference of a spectrum of people in Syria who are now going to get working on a future Government. These people need our support.

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Q53   Julian Lewis: We are coming towards the end of this large part of our session. Let me just put one or two more points to you, which arise out of what you have just said. There is no doubt that if it were a choice between moderate democrats, authoritarian dictators such as Assad, or revolutionary internationalist terrorists such as ISIL/Daesh, every sane person in a western democracy would say that we want the moderate democrats to win. Of course, the question – which is why so much attention is being paid to this figure of 70,000 moderate fighters – is whether there is a moderate alternative, or whether it is a question of choosing the lesser of two evils. At Defence questions last Monday, the Secretary of State said that the aim is

“to ensure that Syria is rid of both Assad and Daesh”.

If you could get rid of only one of them, which would it be? Assad, or Daesh?

Michael Fallon: If I may say so, that goes right to the heart of those who want to reduce this to very simple choices. We want Syria to be free of both, and we are clear that Syria first has to be free of ISIL, because the overall threat to us and to the rest of the region would be if ISIL were to win in either Iraq or Syria and to take control of Baghdad and Damascus. That would be the greatest threat of all. But we want Syria to be free of both, and what has changed since I think you posed this question a long time ago –

Julian Lewis: Several times.

Michael Fallon: Several times. We now have the prospect of a new Syria and how it might shape up, but in the meantime we have to get on with this campaign of dealing with ISIL seriously, not just hoping it will go away or just attacking it around the periphery in Iraq, but getting after its command and control right in the centre, in the area around Raqqa.

Q54   Julian Lewis: If it transpired that there was no moderate alternative, which choice would you make? Would you decide to stay out, or would you decide to choose the lesser of two evils?

Michael Fallon: There are moderate alternatives in Syria. Syria has had elections before, and there is no reason why Syria cannot have elections. Elections have taken place in Iraq, and they have taken place in Afghanistan. There is no reason why Syria cannot have a democratic future. The people we have been discussing – the 70,000 – have been fighting Assad for over four years now. They believe in a better future for Syria. We can disagree about exactly where on the spectrum of Islam each of these different groups sit, but they are sure that they want to get out from this dictatorship and equally sure they do not want to live under the Daesh. These are the people we should be supporting.

Q55   Julian Lewis: I will protect the last half hour for our other concerns … My final question, Secretary of State, is what assessment have you made of the risks of a confrontation between western and Russian air forces if both are bombing in the same battlespace in Syria without mutual military co-ordination?

Michael Fallon: Since the Russian intervention, there is already a memorandum of understanding between the coalition and the Russian forces in terms of air safety. If we were given permission tomorrow to fly in Syria, we would come under the protection of that particular memorandum that ensures the maximum possible air safety when these operations are being conducted.

In addition, I should say that our own aircraft are well able to defend themselves. They are equipped with defensive aids and there is already co-ordination – there has been over the last year – in the command centres as to how the different aircraft form part of the attacking and strike patterns in the air.

Q56   Richard Benyon: That is my question. It would be a great help if we could see the MOU. I cannot imagine it is particularly classified – perhaps it is. It is really important that we feel that what happened over Turkish airspace or disputed airspace does not recur.

Michael Fallon: Let me respond to that. First, the memorandum is not ours. It would certainly not be for us to give it to you.

Q57   Richard Benyon: But we have signed it?

Michael Fallon: No. I have said that it is about operations in Syria. It is an understanding between the coalition and the Russians and we would come under that if we strike in Syria. But I will see if there is some summary of it that can be provided.

What happened with the shooting down of the Russian plane is still not wholly clear. We must not prejudge what the precise facts were. As I understand it, there was a Turkish fighter involved in air defence inside Turkish airspace that engaged the Russian aircraft and, after warnings, the Russian aircraft was shot down because it did not respond to those warnings and was in Turkish airspace. In other words, the Turkish plane was not engaged in operations against ISIL or anything like that. But, as I say, the facts are not yet entirely clear.

Q58   Julian Lewis: Just a bit of a nightmare scenario – supposing the Russians go on bombing various aspects of the opposition that we are actually bombing other targets in support of, can you not see the potential for a very dangerous confrontation?

Michael Fallon: That was seen from day one, which is why this memorandum of understanding was negotiated between the coalition and the Russians; precisely to ensure safety in the air.

Julian Lewis: Thank you.