Rory Stewart – 2019 Statement on the Counter-Daesh Update

Rory Stewart

Below is the text of the statement made by Rory Stewart, the Secretary of State for International Development, in the House of Commons on 3 July 2019.

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will update the House on the campaign against Daesh, which recently controlled a third of Iraq and Syria—an area the size of the UK—but which has now lost its final piece of territory in Baghuz, Syria. Its sudden rise and fall—morally troubling, profoundly threatening and almost unprecedented—carries deep lessons and warnings for Britain and indeed the nations of the world.

As recently as 2003, the borders of Syria and Iraq were stable. Secular Arab nationalism appeared to have triumphed over the older forces of tribe and religion. Different religious communities—Yazidi, Shabak, Kakai, Christian, Shi’a and Sunni— continued to live alongside one another as they had for more than a millennium. Iraqis and Syrians had better incomes, education, health systems and infrastructure than most citizens of the developing world.

By 2014, all this had changed, partly because of the Iraq war, partly because of the Arab Spring in Syria, but in great part because of the astonishing rise of Daesh. Just three years after the withdrawal of the coalition in 2011, a movement initially founded by a tattooed, drug-taking video store assistant from Jordan had, following his death, captured Raqqa, Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and Palmyra, torn off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq and created an independent Islamic state of eight million people. It was a state with endemic poverty and struggling public services defined not just by suicide bombs but by a vicious campaign against religious minorities. Well-established borders between nations were obliterated. A few hundred men routed three divisions of the Iraqi army. Secular nationalism was swept aside by a bizarre religious ideology.

No one in 2005, and very few in 2010, would have predicted the success of that movement. There were, of course, many reasons to fear an insurgency in north-east Syria or Iraq. People felt little loyalty to the lamentable Governments in Damascus and Baghdad, with their anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption and poor provision of services, but there was initially very little reason to believe that people would support Daesh rather than other insurgency groups.

Indeed, Daesh’s imposition of early medieval social codes and horrifying videos of slaughter of fellow Arabs seemed to most Iraqis and Syrians profoundly irrational, culturally inappropriate and deeply unappealing. Its military tactics seemed almost insane. It deliberately picked fights not only with the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, but with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, Shi’a communities as a whole, the Iranian Quds Force and the Kurds, who initially tried to stay out of the fight. It finished 2014 by mounting a suicidal attack on Kobane in Syria in the face of over 600 US air strikes, losing many thousands of fighters and gaining almost no ground.

All of this, which should have been Daesh’s undoing, seemed at times simply to encourage tens of thousands of foreign fighters to join it, and they came not only from very poor countries but from some of the wealthiest countries in the world—from the social democracies of Scandinavia as much as from monarchies, military states, ​authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies. Part of its success was notoriously connected to social media. It was the first terrorist movement that really flourished on short, often home-made, video clips, on Twitter rants and on Facebook posts from the frontline. It grew far more quickly, and survived far longer, than any diplomat, politician or expert analyst predicted.

The options that seemed available to defeat this kind of movement in 2008 were no longer available in 2016. Eight years earlier—or, in our case, six years earlier—there had been a full-spectrum international counter-insurgency campaign that relied on overwhelming force, huge investments in economic development, 100,000 coalition troops, eight years of coalition training packages and almost $100 billion a year of US expenditure. But that approach ultimately failed to create stability in Iraq and there was no appetite to repeat it in 2016. The US and its allies did not want to deploy troops on the ground in Syria and very few near the frontlines in Iraq, and no one was advocating nation building in the middle of another war.

Instead, the counter-attack on Daesh in Mosul was led by the Iraqi Government. Initially, this did not seem very promising. The Government appeared to lack the capacity and will to restore even the most basic services to communities in Fallujah or Ramadi. They were backed by unreliable Sunni tribal leaders and by Iranian-supported Shi’a popular mobilisation forces, which alienated and terrified the local populations. Kurdish Iraqi forces also seemed unwilling to fight Daesh in Mosul. The coalition provided training to Iraqi forces but on a much smaller scale than during the surge. Daesh had laid mines throughout the urban areas and was fighting for every inch of ground.

It is remarkable, therefore, that Daesh was ultimately defeated. This was largely due, on the Syrian side of the border, to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and, on the Iraqi side, to the counter-terrorism force, which at times was enduring casualty rates of almost 40% of its combatants. Iraqi forces regrouped and retook Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul by early 2017, while the forces in Syria had retaken Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor by 2018.

Whereas during the surge the UK and its allies had been intimately involved in trying to reshape the Iraqi Government and security on the ground, our recent involvement has been less extensive. Rather than on nation building, since 2014 it has focused on £350 million of humanitarian aid in Iraq to provide healthcare, food and shelter. We have provided almost £1 billion to Syria over the last four years, including £40 million in aid to north-east Syria in 2018, which is going towards mine clearance, the immunisation of children, clean water, food and shelter.

This assistance continues. In Syria alone, there are 1.65 million people in need, while over half a million have been forced to flee their homes. Unexploded munitions and mines remain a major issue. In Iraq, 4 million people are returning home having been forced out. Nevertheless, this aid is on a much smaller scale than that which was provided by civilian officials from 2003 to 2011, our embassy and associated staff are much smaller, there are no longer coalition civilian outposts in every province, and the coalition and indeed the Iraqi ​Government are a long way from being able to take on the task of reconstructing the shattered remains of Mosul.

What lessons can we draw? First, the hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops committed by the coalition in Iraq from 2003, and more intensely from 2008, were not sufficient to create a stable civil service, a flourishing and sustainable economy, strong institutions, security, or any of the ingredients of a well- functioning state. This suggests that even the best-resourced foreign intervention may not be able to reconstruct a nation in the context of an insurgency. Secondly, local forces with a light foreign support may be able to achieve far more than people anticipate. Paradoxically, the Iraqi operations may have been effective not despite the lack of support from the west, but because of the lack of support. Operating with much less foreign assistance may have given the Iraqi and Syrian forces far more legitimacy, flexibility, control and sense of responsibility.

Thirdly, the sudden rise and sudden fall of Daesh illustrate the extreme fragility of many contemporary societies. The entire political-economic context was and remains so fluid and so open to exploitation, with so little deep institutional loyalty or resistance, that it was terrifyingly easy for an insurgency group to establish themselves on both sides of the border. They may have lost their territory for now, but the underlying conditions remain and could allow insurgents to establish themselves again. Even without holding territory, Daesh remains a significant terrorist threat.

Finally, in a context so inherently unpredictable and unexpected, Britain and its allies need to stand in a state of grace, preparing for the unexpected. We need to keep a close eye on countries that may seem temporarily at peace, continue to invest in the development of countries that may seem no longer to need development and continue to deepen our knowledge of countries that may not seem to be a priority today, while retaining our linguistic expertise and, above all, nurturing our relationships with people in those countries and with potential coalition partners such as the US and France and, in a different context, Germany.

Whether in north-east Nigeria, in Somalia or Libya, in Afghanistan or Mali, the key to our response will never be the amount of money that we invest or the number of troops that we deploy. It will be the depth of our understanding and the care and subtlety with which we respond: our ability to deploy development, defence, intelligence and economic levers, diplomacy and a dozen other tools, rapidly and precisely, not overruling other Governments, but supporting them in the right way at the right time with prudence and economy.

That is why I must close this Daesh statement with deep respect for the courage of our military forces, the skill of our diplomats and the generosity of our development programmes, but above all with deep respect for the people of Syria and Iraq who were in the heart of this fight, who gave their lives, who led this response and who provide us with an example of how we can act as partners with energy, but above all with humility. I commend my statement to the House.