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Hammond's stance on IS defended

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has been defended in the Commons by one of his ministers amid claims the Government has not made clear its policy on tackling Islamic State.

Europe Minister David Lidington, answering a rare urgent question posed during a Friday sitting of the Commons, insisted Mr Hammond had deliberately not ruled anything out when he answered reporters' questions in Berlin yesterday.

Downing Street had appeared to overrule Mr Hammond, who was promoted to the Foreign Office in July, following the remarks.

Tory MP John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) called the urgent question and insisted Parliament must not be left behind as it breaks for the conference recess later today.

Mr Lidington said: "The Prime Minister set out the position in detail on Monday in answers to questions following his statement... we want to see the broadest possible international coalition involving regional partners as well as European and American partners in combating Isil, which is a threat to all of us, not just the United Kingdom, not just European countries.

"The Foreign Secretary made it clear in answer to questions in Berlin that we are not yet at the stage in which decisions about any putative British military action have to be taken - his precise words were 'we have ruled nothing out, we will look carefully at our options and decide how we will make a contribution but we are clear we will make a contribution because effective political, humanitarian and possibly military action by a broad-based international coalition is going to be necessary in order to meet the very grave threat that is posed to us all by Isil'.

Downing Street appeared to overrule Mr Hammond after he seemingly ruled out Britain joining US air strikes against the militants on Syrian territory held by the extremist group.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted the Foreign Secretary's remarks referred to last year's Commons vote opposing air strikes against president Bashar Assad and that nothing had been ruled out in relation to IS.

Mr Hammond had told reporters that "Britain will not be taking part in any air strikes in Syria" following talks in Berlin with his German counterpart..

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "The point he was making was that last year Parliament expressed its view with regard to taking action with air strikes against the Assad regime."

Islamic State (IS, or Isil or Isis) dominated a major foreign policy debate in the Commons on Wednesday, which was led by Mr Hammond.

Mr Cameron answered questions on a statement following the Nato summit on Monday.

In his urgent question, Mr Baron said: "Many colleagues have welcomed Government assurances there will be no intervention in Iraq or Syria without first Parliament debating the issue and voting upon the issue.

"But many colleagues also have questions about the feasibility and the policy of conducting air strikes in Iraq. We have questions relating to the fact IS cannot be defeated by air strikes alone, we urge regional powers, allies, play their full role in this - the symbolism of the west defeating this caliphate would be too profound.

"Many colleagues have even graver doubts about air strikes into Syria itself. It's not just the legality of the issue, it's not just the fact that Syria has robust air defence systems supplied by the Russians, but it is also the fact we have not yet had answer to the question of who would take IS's place.

"President Obama's address... actually seemed to go much further than what the (UK) Government had hitherto been comfortable with - he talked about destroying IS, he talked about air strikes into Syria, he talked about supporting rebels, perhaps even in Syria, against IS.

"Can we have some clarity with regard to Government strategy on IS - it does appear there has been an element of discrepancy between the Foreign Secretary and No 10."

Mr Baron reminded Mr Lidington Parliament resolved last summer that no lethal support could be given to Syrian rebels without a clear authorising vote.

And he added: "Given our past errors with interventions in the past, whether it is going to war in Iraq on a false premise or the disastrous morphing of the Afghanistan mission into one of nation building, or even Libya, I think it is right Parliament asks these questions... we must not allow events to get ahead of Parliament."

Mr Lidington said the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary had been made available to MPs on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Earlier, in his initial remarks to MPs, Mr Lidington said: "As the global resolve to tackle Isil strengthens, we will consider carefully what role the United Kingdom should play in the international coalition.

"The Government has outlined a broad and comprehensive approach to tackling Isil and I believe that approach should command the support of the entire House.

Shadow foreign office minister John Spellar pressed Mr Lidington on which countries would attend a conference in Paris on Monday.

And he said: "What steps are now being taken to ensure any international efforts to tackle Isil are coordinated by the international community and there is a clear regionally led approach?"

Mr Lidington replied: "The question of attendance at the Paris meeting is, for self evident reasons, a matter for the French government... I can say 10 Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia have publicly announced their support for the United States and international efforts."

Mr Lidington said while the Government hoped Iran would play a positive role, it was proceeding cautiously given the country's controversial nuclear programme and past support for the Assad regime.

Mr Lidington failed to answer questions from MPs on the legality of the proposed US action in Syria despite questions from MPs.

Labour's Mike Gapes (Ilford South) suggested the apparent division between Mr Cameron and Mr Hammond over the issue was due to legal advice stating that air strikes in Syria would be illegal.

But Mr Lidington said the questioning was academic as no decisions have been made about British involvement in Syria.

Mr Gapes said: "The minister said that the Government welcomes the statement made by president Obama.

"President Obama was very clear - the United States will engage in air strikes not just in Iraq but also in Syria.

"It's been suggested that the reticence and division between the Foreign Secretary and No 10 relates to legal advice that military action in Syria and air strikes in Syria would be illegal.

"Can you clarify? Is it the view that the military action proposed by the Obama administration in Syria would be legal under international law? And if that is the case why could there therefore be no involvement of the UK in similar legal action against Isis in Syria as well in Iraq?"

Mr Lidington replied: "The basic fact is that no decisions about UK military action have been taken or are being asked of us at the moment.

"And so much of the line of questioning is somewhat academic at the moment.

"As both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said in the House is that there are differences, not least important logistical differences between the situations in Iraq and in Syria and what is the case is the immediate challenge from Isis to a legitimate democratically-elected government comes in Iraq.

"That is why, at the invitation of that government, we and other allies are giving priority to that particular case."

In another answer, Mr Lidington said the Government would not need to ask permission of Syrian president Bashar Assad if it were to take action in the country.

He said: "We don't recognise Assad as providing the legitimate government of Syria so that question would not arise."

Tory Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon), a close ally of the Prime Minister, said all options needed to remain on the table.

Mr Zahawi said: "It's worth reminding ourselves of the facts on the ground.

"The Kurds have a 600 mile border with Isil. Of course working with the Iraqi army and with the Sunni tribes they have to be front and centre in this fight against Isil.

"But again in Syria the Free Syrian Army is working to squeeze Isil and it's very important that we keep all those options open and it's only sensible policy that we actually discount nothing in terms of our support in either country."

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