Tobias Ellwood is a Foreign Office Minister and MP for Bournemouth East.
The fall of Palmyra and Ramadi has filled our newspapers with yet more stories and images of the violence and brutality of the terrorist group known as ISIL or ISIS. We have seen once again the untold misery and suffering it causes in areas they occupy, largely amongst the Muslim communities it falsely claims to represent.
But its recent gains are not the full story. Eight months ago, the fall of Erbil and even Baghdad was seen by some as a real possibility. Today, a quarter of ISIL’s Iraqi territory has been regained. Carefully targeted action by a global coalition of over 60 countries has helped liberate the key towns of Rabiyah and Zumar. Our efforts have broken the siege of the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, and pushed ISIS out of Kobane in Syria. Iraqi Security Forces have also re-taken Tikrit.
It is easy to assume that the Coalition, with its highly trained forces and superior air power, should have been able to push ISIS’s fighters back up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by now. But the challenge is far broader than defeating ISIS militarily: we must combat their violent ideology, and leave in their place trained and equipped local forces capable of ensuring enduring stability in the aftermath of liberation.
Clearly, there is more to be done. This week, I joined Philip Hammond and other foreign ministers from the global coalition in Paris to take stock of the international effort to assist Iraq. We assessed the five primary areas where our efforts should be focused.
First, the coalition is participating in military efforts to defeat ISIS. This includes upgrading support for local forces who are leading the fight it – the Iraqi Security Forces, Kurdish Forces, and the Syrian Moderate Opposition – through the provision of training and non-lethal equipment. It also means participating directly in military operations. The UK is playing an active role and, with over 250 successful airstrikes, is the second largest contributor to Coalition airstrikes.
Second, we must challenge ISIS’s financing by preventing their use of the international financial system and cutting off sources of funding, whether that is from extortion, oil smuggling, kidnap for ransom, foreign funding, or the trade in looted antiquities. Monuments such as in Palmyra are the physical connection we have with preceding generations, each learning from the past and so wiser than the last. ISIS wants to return to life as they imagine it in a 7th century caliphate, and does not hesitate to sell or destroy our shared heritage, our physical connection to history, to the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of mathematics, sciences, writing and even the wheel. We owe it to future generations to prevent this from happening and protect these precious, irreplaceable connections with our humanity’s ancestry.
Thirdly, we are countering ISIS’s efforts to recruit foreign fighters by identifying recruitment networks, encouraging the exchange of information on travel routes, and ensuring coalition members are sharing information to combat the flow of fighters.
Fourth, the coalition is committed to providing stabilisation support. We must ensure that an indigenous force is able to not just liberate the country, but also secure enduring stability. Essential services, civilian planning, local government and police will be needed in liberated areas to ensure relief and recovery, so that displaced people can choose to return to their homes safely. In the meantime, the UK is providing a huge amount of humanitarian assistance to the millions of people affected by ISIS’s brutality and chaos. There are currently 7.6 million displaced persons inside Syria and a further 3.9 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. We have already committed £800 million of support – the largest ever humanitarian response from the UK government – including food, medical care and relief items for people in Syria, Iraq and the region.
Finally, there is the area of strategic communications. ISIS’s propaganda machine is formidable. ISIS claims to have established an effective state for all Sunni Muslims. But the reality is the reverse. People in ISIS-occupied territory are facing hunger, power-rationing and indiscriminate violence. The areas bordering those ISIS control are being flooded with refugees fleeing the horror. We are clear: ISIS does not represent Islam. It is extremism hiding under the banner of religion in order to carry out barbaric, appalling atrocities against Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
In Paris, the Iraqi Prime Minister confirmed that the efforts of the Global Coalition have already removed thousands of ISIS commanders and fighters from the battlefield, destroyed fighting positions, and damaged ISIS-controlled oil and gas facilities.
Yet it will be a long process. Defeating ISIS, its terrorism, and its violent ideology will take time and patience. The challenge is all the more complex as ISIS attempts to exploit pockets of instability across the region. As the recent attacks in Paris and Tunisia illustrated, tackling violent extremism is one of the biggest global threats of our time. But, working together with the Government of Iraq and the entire Coalition, we will be successful. For the sake of our global security and our shared humanity, we must be.