Syria

– in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 1st March 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jo Cox Jo Cox Labour, Batley and Spen 12:37 pm, 1st March 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The Syrian conflict is now almost in its sixth year. As a result of Assad’s brutality and the terror of Daesh, more than 250,000 people have lost their lives, half the population have been displaced, and more than 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid.

Russia’s military intervention last autumn compounded the violence. Russia claims to be targeting terrorists, yet it has carried out strikes on moderate opposition groups and civilians. More than 1,300 civilians have been killed and 5,800 injured by Russian or regime airstrikes since the start of Russia’s campaign.

Our goal is for Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government capable of protecting their people from Daesh and other extremists. Only when that happens can stability be returned to the region, which is necessary to stem the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe. The last few months have seen some progress towards that. The International Syria Support Group came together at the end of 2015 in Vienna to help to facilitate a return to a process leading to a political transition in Syria.

In December, opposition groups came together to form the higher negotiations commission, representing the widest possible range of opposition views, and nominated a team to negotiate with the regime. Proximity talks between the regime and opposition began under UN auspices in January, but were paused as a result of a deteriorating situation on the ground. The ISSG met again in Munich at the Munich security conference on 11 February, agreeing that there should be a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access to named locations in Syria. Since then, the US and Russia have agreed at the highest levels on the terms of a cessation of hostilities. The agreement was codified in UN Security Council resolution 2268 on 26 February.

The cessation of hostilities is an important step towards ending the terrible violence in Syria and bringing a lasting political settlement. It came into force on 27 February. Since then, we have seen a reduction in violence, which is of course a huge step forwards, but we need to see that sustained and to see a reduction in the number of reported violations.

We have received reports of a number of violations, which we have passed to the UN and the ISSG co-chairs in Geneva. We need swift action to reduce those violations. We look to Russia in particular to use its influence with the regime to ensure that the cessation endures and that there are no further violations. It is crucial that the opposition see action being taken in response to allegations of violations to ensure their commitment and that of their Syrian constituents to the process.

It is essential that the cessation of hostilities supports the wider political process. We support UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s plans to resume peace negotiations on 7 March. Those negotiations must deliver a political transition away from Assad to a legitimate Government that can support the needs and aspirations of all Syrians and put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.

At the same time, we call for complete and unfettered humanitarian access across Syria and an end to all violations of international humanitarian law, as set out in UN Security Council resolution 2254. We are relieved that desperately needed aid convoys are now arriving in some besieged areas of Syria, including those named in the Munich ISSG agreement of 11 February. It is imperative that that continues.

The international community and particularly Russia, which has unique influence, must put pressure on the Assad regime to lift sieges and grant full and sustained humanitarian access. As I have said, there must be a political solution to the crisis in Syria. It is imperative that the steps I have described are implemented by all parties and that the cessation of hostilities endures. The UK is working strenuously to make that happen and will continue to do so.

Photo of Jo Cox Jo Cox Labour, Batley and Spen

I thank the Minister for updating the House on such a vital issue. The cessation of hostilities in Syria that began on Friday is a much needed ray of hope in this tragic civil war, yet, as he has set out, it faces serious challenges after growing reports from international non-governmental organisations and the media of numerous violations of the truce. Syrian opposition leaders have claimed that it was close to collapse over the weekend and the French Government have urgently called for a meeting of the monitoring group amid allegations that Syrian and Russian forces have seriously breached its terms. In this context, will the Minister set out specifically what action the UK is taking within the ISSG to ensure robust and transparent monitoring of the cessation agreement?

Secondly, is the UK joining efforts led by France for urgent action in the ISSG on the growing reports of violations of the cessation agreement by Assad and by Russia? Indeed, will the Minister address how it is even conceivable that the monitoring of the agreement is being jointly conducted by Russia, the same party that is responsible for the vast majority of recent civilian deaths? If the reports of Russian and regime violations are verified, what measures will the UK pursue to force a change in the calculations of both Putin and Assad? The UK has a critical role to play in giving everybody confidence in this system, in particular that the violations will be called out and the agreement protected. Are the Government considering, for example, further targeted sanctions against Russian entities in the event of further violations?

Further, what is the UK’s assessment of the mobilisation of Assad’s forces and militias to encircle Aleppo? Is this not a direct violation of the cessation agreement? Can the Minister confirm that the cessation agreement covers those areas where al-Nusra or any other Security Council-designated terrorist group is mixed with the moderate opposition? If the cessation holds this week, can the Minister confirm that negotiations on political transition will be at the very top of the agenda at the meeting in Geneva next week?

Finally, in the light of the reduction in violence, many Members of this House are deeply concerned about the lack of access to besieged areas inside Syria, particularly Daraya just outside Damascus, where people are starving to death. There is no ISIL or al-Nusra in Daraya, and it is unacceptable that the Assad regime, with the backing of Russia, is preventing this lifesaving aid, paid for by the British taxpayer, from getting to the most vulnerable. Do the Government and their partners have a deadline by which aid will reach Daraya and other besieged areas?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I begin by paying tribute to Jo Cox and her commitment to this area. She is co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Syria, and I acknowledge the work that she does in raising these matters in the Chamber and elsewhere. The House is all the wiser for it. She raises a series of issues and I will do my best to answer them, but, as I have done in the past, I will write to her with more detail.

On the hon. Lady’s last question, about making sure that aid gets through, I am pleased to see that I am joined here and supported by my colleagues from the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence. As the hon. Lady knows, we hosted the Syria conference a couple of weeks ago in order to make sure, first, that the funds were available for the United Nations organisations to get to the necessary areas to provide the aid and assistance once the cessation of hostilities had taken effect. There have been varying degrees of success in trucks getting through. She will be aware that we have to get confirmation from the regime that the trucks can have safe passage. Airdrops have been used for the first time but have been less successful, for obvious reasons—factors such as who receives the kit on the ground, the weather conditions, where the supplies land, and ownership of the supplies once the drops take place all present difficulties, but further drops will take place in the future.

The hon. Lady asks what more can be done. It is imperative that those who are putting together the ceasefire, which is happening at the highest level from the telephone calls between President Putin and President Obama, create and co-ordinate the verification model. That is not fully in place. This is a highly complex task because of the number of players involved across Syria and the challenges in making sure that verification can take place. The UK is pushing the ISSG co-chairs to investigate all allegations. We are using our own capabilities to feed into the system any violations that we become aware of so that they can be investigated. We have sent additional staff to the UN in Geneva to assist in this effort, and we are negotiating and discussing these matters with our UN Security Council colleagues.

The hon. Lady talked about the difficulties in Aleppo. The situation is concerning. In the lead-up to the cessation of hostilities, people took advantage before the cessation came into effect on 27 February. As I said in my opening remarks, it is imperative that Russia shows leadership and shows that it recognises that it has a unique place and unique influence with the Assad regime, to make sure that the purpose of the cessation of hostilities, which is to allow that political transition, is achieved.

The hon. Lady asked about the talks taking place with Staffan de Mistura on 7 March. It is critical to get the parties together. They broke apart last time because of the continued bombing that took place. It was the UN envoy who closed the meeting down before somebody walked out again. We do not want to see that repeated, which is why we are encouraging parties to resume those discussions, taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities that is in place, and we hope they are successful.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Notwithstanding the wholly understandable scepticism of Jo Cox about Russian intentions, the fact is that this ceasefire would not have happened had it not been pushed for quite hard by the Russians, alongside the United States. The Minister referred to verification mechanisms, but what practical military-to-military co-ordination is going on between the Russians and the coalition to ensure that any breaches of the ceasefire are immediately understood and brought to an end and that, as far as possible, the ceasefire is properly observed, without accidents happening and with both sides knowing what the other is doing?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, raises an important point, which I will divide in two, if I may. There is a deconfliction system that makes sure that the coalition’s aircraft and involvement are separated from Russia’s, and that has now been in place for some time. However, what we are talking about here is a verification mechanism for the cessation of hostilities. The verification process has yet to be put in place; it is still being agreed by the co-chairs—Russia and the United States—and details will emerge soon.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I very much welcome the urgent question from my hon. Friend Jo Cox, and I pay tribute to her excellent work on this issue.

The world community is watching the ceasefire very closely, and we all want it to be successful, not least to allow humanitarian aid into areas blighted by the conflict, but also to give a boost to the tentative peace talks. As the ceasefire has now been in operation for a few days, I would like to ask a number of questions.

First, the letter from the Syrian National Council to Ban Ki-moon alleged there were 15 breaches of the ceasefire by Russia and the Assad regime. Following that, France called for an urgent meeting of the International Syria Support Group. Will the Minister confirm when the group will meet? What powers does it have to make a ruling on breaches of the ceasefire? Does it need unanimity to do so?

Among reported breaches of the ceasefire, the most worrying was a reported gas attack in the Irbin area, with indications of a link to the Assad regime. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are aware of that attack? What special provisions are in place to investigate chemical weapons attacks?

One key problem is a lack of agreement on which groups are terror organisations and what action is allowed. Will the Minister explain whether that will be discussed at the International Syria Support Group?

To address the humanitarian situation, we need access to areas where there are no hostilities. Will the Minister explain what steps have been taken to establish the geographical demarcation of the ceasefire?

Over the past six months, Russia has repeatedly acted to prolong the conflict. What discussions have there been with our allies in the EU to put pressure on Russia to abide by the ceasefire?

Saudi Arabia also has a key position of influence. It is especially concerning, therefore, to hear of a possible Saudi response to Russian action. Has the Minister made any representations to the Saudi Government about that?

Finally, may I ask about the status of the group Ahrar al-Sham? I understand that it was not a signatory to the ceasefire but had indicated that it would abide by it. However, it now claims that its headquarters in Idlib were attacked in a Russian airstrike—a claim backed by several sources. Will the Minister confirm whether the group is considered to be outside the terms of the ceasefire by the UK and the US?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Lady asked a series of questions. First, the latest UN Security Council resolution—resolution 2268—which confirmed the cessation of hostilities, underlines the importance of a previous one, resolution 2254, which is all about the ability to gain access to various areas where ownership is sometimes confusing. That is done on a very local basis to make sure that agreements take place and that UN and other convoys have the series of permissions they need, so that they are not halted at checkpoints, with the food being taken from them and used as a weapon of war. It is difficult for me to give a comprehensive reply for the whole of Syria, but these things are done on an area-by-area basis. The method for taking deliveries also reflects the threat level. Clearly, there are areas surrounded by Daesh, where it is impossible to have such agreements.

The hon. Lady spoke about the chemical weapons attack. A number of UN organisations are looking into a wider piece to do with the use of chemical weapons across Syria. They are in the process of completing a report to the UN, which is due shortly. If I may, I will write to her with more details on that.

On the work being done to provide international humanitarian aid, I go back to the conference we had, where we were able to garner an awful lot of support, including from Saudi Arabia, for making sure that money is filtered through the various UN organisations so that they can get through to the various locations.

The hon. Lady mentions a number of other extremist groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, and there is Jaysh al-Islam as well. They have not been considered as moderate; they have not been included in the discussions, and they were not represented in the talks where the Saudis brought the moderate groups together.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

May I just ask where the Foreign Secretary is? I know he is very busy, but the House of Commons must always come first. We are at least owed an explanation.

May I suggest that the Labour and Conservative establishments, in being such an outrider for the overthrow of unpleasant authoritarian regimes—whether Gaddafi’s, Assad’s or Saddam’s—have merely provided an opening for far worse, totalitarian movements? It is also arguable that we have had very little influence in the latest round of peace negotiations, as the Americans cosy up to the Russians. Will the Foreign Office now at least accept that there may be some merit in Assad being allowed to go gracefully in elections, however imperfect?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

First, may I say that I will not take it personally that my hon. Friend feels I am not adequate to answer today’s question? This is an urgent question, and the Foreign Secretary was not able to get here. I will certainly do my best to convey to him the fact that my hon. Friend would have loved to see him instead of me.

On the transition process, we ended 2015, after five years of hostilities, with opposition groups coming together for the first time. For the first time, we had international stakeholders, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, around the table at the Vienna talks discussing these matters. That was the first time a transition process was discussed, the first time an 18-month process was to be put in place and the first time life after Assad was actually considered.

It is important to recognise that it must be for all the people of Syria to decide their fate, whether they are Kurds, Druze, Alawites or Sunnis. We must remember that 80% of the deaths in Syria have been caused by Assad and his regime. That is why we say that it would be inappropriate for him to participate in the long-term future of the country. The whole purpose of bringing these organisations together to discuss the democratic process is that they will decide the transition away from Assad.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (International Affairs and Europe)

May I join the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, in urging that the correct policy for Her Majesty’s Government is to give every facility to the rapid establishment of a verification regime? We can engage in tit-for-tat allegations about who is breaching what, but this is the only ceasefire we have. The Minister will know that there were reports this morning from Kurdish forces about our NATO ally using the ceasefire as an opportunity to build up forces against them, so the establishment of the verification regime is key.

Will the Minister tell us in more detail about the urgency of attempts to bring in humanitarian relief? Which convoys have been allowed through and which have been stopped? Which airstrikes have been successful and which have not? Given the overwhelming urgency of the humanitarian crisis, the House would appreciate it if the Minister could find a way to provide Members with exact detail on that.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I have gone into some detail about the urgency of the humanitarian relief work. This is partly why a cessation of hostilities was needed. In places such as Madaya, people have resorted to eating pets, such is their plight. Thanks to the agreement between Lavrov and John Kerry at the Munich security conference, which led to discussions between Putin and President Obama, we have seen this build-up of a cessation of hostilities. I was cautiously optimistic when I saw President Putin make a rare live appearance on Russian television stating his commitment to ensuring that a cessation of hostilities came about.

However, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, experience shows that whenever a deadline is put into a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities, there is then an effort by hardliners—by opportunists—to take advantage of the period before the deadline comes into force to gain territory, to further their lines and to make a greater impact, so that when the hostilities cease they are in a stronger position. That is exactly what we have seen in this case. We require every country, whether it be Turkey, Russia or Assad’s regime, to hold fast—to recognise that the world is watching and that although the humanitarian situation is absolutely dire, there is an international community that wants to help and can do so only if it has access to the various areas that I have articulated.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is there any evidence whatsoever that Assad would be willing to go graciously? Does not all the evidence show that he is determined to stay in power? As for Russia, would it not be right to conclude that it has never really been interested in using its military might against Daesh, because first and foremost it wants to consolidate in every possible way the Assad regime, which, as the Minister said, has been responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in the past 25 or 30 years? Russia has a large moral responsibility for what is occurring on the ground.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I partly agree with the hon. Gentleman. He makes very clear, as I have, the atrocities that Assad has inflicted. That is why we believe there is no long-term place for his involvement. What has happened is the recognition that there needs to be a very clear transition process. We should not just be talking about Assad. Assad and his cohorts—his family and so forth—have a firm grip on the top of the regime. It is simply not possible to remove the individual man and then assume that life can move on; it is far more complex than that, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware.

We should also recognise—though this is no excuse for Russia’s behaviour—that Russia has had a long-term interest in the country since 1946, when it started to train the new Syrian army after Syria gained its independence. Syria backed the Soviets during the cold war. Assad’s father trained as a MiG pilot in Russia. There is a bond between the country that we cannot ignore, and that is why Russia is there, but we need it to use its influence in a positive way. We need Russia to recognise the damage Assad has done and the fact that the people of Syria deserve better than this. When I say “the people of Syria”, I mean all of Syria, not just one particular grouping or sectarian area.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee

The Government have placed great importance on the need for the 70,000 moderates they estimate are taking on Assad to swing round and take the ground battle to Daesh, given that we all accept that airstrikes alone will not succeed against Daesh and it is becoming increasingly evident that there are already too many aircraft chasing too few targets. What progress is being made with those plans, and are the Government still convinced that there are 70,000 moderates left?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The point about the 70,000 moderates has been raised before. The figure is an estimate. We should understand that this is a very divided group of people who have been standing up to Assad since the Arab spring. They are the pockets of resistance that had a choice, when Assad started to bomb and kill his own people, either to go extremist—to go fundamentalist—or to say, “No, I want something different. I do not want to be part of the Ba’ath party in the future; I want the freedoms that I am seeing develop in other parts of the Arab world.” They are disparate. They are in Aleppo in the north, through to Idlib, through to parts of Damascus, and down to Daraa in the south. Those pockets of people have stood up, and they have now come together by participating in the Geneva talks that are taking place thanks to the leadership of Saudi Arabia. So yes, they are not united in the sense that we would like them to be, but we are moving forward, and they now need to be part of the process that works out what the country looks like post-Assad.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

In my view, the people of Syria have paid a really dreadful price for our failure to act three years ago after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, and even earlier than that.

I want to ask the Minister about a glimmer of hope: the elections in Iran and the impact they might have on the situation in the middle east and in Syria in particular. Does he think that what has happened in Iran vindicates the policy that his Government, the previous Labour Government, Europe and President Obama have pursued with the Iranian regime?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

On the first point, there is no point in saying so now, but many of us will look back at how different life would have been, and how things would have changed, had we taken different action on a punitive strike. The reason why Assad is back in play now is that Russia has backed him. He was falling—we were seeing his slow demise—and Russia came back in to support its person. That is why we are in the position that we are in today.

The right hon. Gentleman asks a very relevant question that is slightly outside the scope of this subject, but with your permission, Mr Speaker, I will say that we are cautiously optimistic and welcome what has happened in Tehran. There are only early results yet, but with the moderates in the Assembly of Experts and in the Majlis itself, this is the first opportunity for the people of Iran to have a say in the future of their country.

However, Iran will be judged by its actions because of its proxy involvement with Hezbollah in Lebanon, in Damascus in Syria, in Baghdad in Iraq, in Sana’a in Yemen, and in Bahrain. If we see changes there, we will know that we are working with a different Iran, but until then we should expect the same.

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble

I pay tribute to Jo Cox for raising this issue. Following John Kerry’s statement that it may be too late to keep Syria whole, will the Minister update the House on any conversations he has had with his American counterpart on the possible partition of Syria?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

It is for the people of Syria to determine their future as to how the country needs to be managed and should be governed. We are at the very, very early stages. It would be wrong to go further than that. History shows that Britain has not always been in the best place to make its assessments, not least in this particular patch of the world.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

Russia has absolutely no desire, I am sure, to bring hope or humanitarian relief to many areas of Syria; rather, it wants to increase fear and despair, and cause the collapse of the Opposition. I am also sure that it hopes that the peace period will bring a greater influx of refugees fleeing from Syria towards the west. Are we monitoring whether that is happening? Are we using our intelligence and surveillance capability as part of that monitoring given the apparent need for observation of what the Russians and the Assad regime are doing, in violation of the peace process?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Lady, who follows these matters very seriously in the Committees that she is involved with, puts her finger on a very important point. This is not just about Syria; it is also about the wider strategic implications of what is happening elsewhere, including the role that Russia is playing on the international stage, not least in Ukraine and Crimea, and the consequences of the influx of refugees and its political impact across Europe. We are not in any way blind to that. That is all the more reason why we need to continue our pressure at the United Nations Security Council in making sure that a verification mechanism comes into play as soon as possible.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

It is a moral outrage to take the life of any non-combatant. What estimate have the Government made of the number of non-combatants killed by Russia, and can the Minister reassure my constituents that the Royal Air Force is not responsible for any deaths of non-combatants?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I can confirm the latter part of my hon. Friend’s question. The rules of engagement that we follow are very robust indeed. As I said in my opening remarks, we estimate that more than 1,300 civilians have been killed either by Russia or by Russian-supported airstrikes, and another 5,800 have been injured.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

On the subject of airdrops, could the Minister confirm whether the RAF have been involved in them; whether they are taking place with the formal agreement or just the acquiescence of the Russians and Assad; and whether they could be scaled up if Assad and Putin continue to starve Syrian civilians?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The coalition does a lot of planning in order to establish the best mechanism to provide aid relief in any particular area. The RAF itself has not been involved in airdrops per se; the United States has been leading on that. As I have said, they have had a marginal effect. They are subject to weather conditions and to who is on the ground to receive the actual aid. It is then a matter of luck as to how that aid is distributed. Often it is unfairly distributed, because the strongest end up grabbing the kit and taking it away with them. That is why the preferred mechanism is to get permission to go through the various checkpoints and deliver the aid by truck.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

May I also pay tribute to Jo Cox, who has done a lot of work on this issue over the past few months—and, indeed, over many years in her previous incarnation—and to the Minister, who has done an awful lot of work in the region? We have spoken a lot about the pressures that the Russians have brought to bear on the legitimate opposition to the Assad regime. Could he also tell us about the pressures they have brought to bear on our allies in the region, and what he is doing, working with the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Jordanians and, indeed, the Turks, to ensure that we deliver a peaceful solution for Syria, not a wasteland made by Russian bombs?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right to mention the impact that the situation in Syria is having on its neighbours. We should all pay tribute to the generosity of countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in so many refugees. The whole House will appreciate and support the fact that much of the funds we provide are going to those other countries as well.

One of the major changes that took place at the Syrian conference was that to employment opportunities for Syrian refugees so that they are not a burden on domestic employment situations. That happened partly because of the funding that is coming through and the opportunities being created by other countries. We are doing our best to make sure that Turkey plays its role—which is complicated, given its relationship with the Kurds—in moderating its actions and making sure that the cessation of hostilities lasts.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour/Co-operative, Barrow and Furness

Russia’s aggression and flagrant violations of international law in a number of areas have strained and limited bilateral relations over recent years, and yet the Government say that they are urging Russia to play a more constructive role in the Syria conflict. Will the Minister outline the ways in which the Government have contact with the Russian Federation at present?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I travelled with the hon. Gentleman on a visit to Kiev a couple of years ago, so I am familiar with his knowledge and understanding of and interest in these matters. It is important to recognise that. There are a series of opportunities when the international community comes together, and Foreign Minister Lavrov, John Kerry and our Foreign Secretary are now able to meet on a regular drumbeat. The International Syria Support Group is one such opportunity and it will meet later in March. There are also counter-ISIL coalition conferences, the most recent of which took place in Rome, and the Munich security conference includes not only public statements, but private bilateral opportunities. The most recent conference was different, however, because it was important to recognise the involvement of President Putin and President Obama. That is why I think the world was hoping that the outcome would be more optimistic.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I, too, want to pay tribute to my near neighbour, Jo Cox, for continuing to bring to this Chamber the plight of the Syrian people. All sides must respect the ceasefire. What discussions has the Minister had with the Turkish Government about reports that Turkish forces have been shelling Syrian Kurds?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am aware of those reports and we have encouraged Turkey to recognise the importance of the cessation of hostilities and the opportunity it gives for further political engagement, which will itself be an opportunity to solve some of the problems that Turkey is enduring. We do not want people compounding the problem by taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities in order to gain ground, so we have been working with Turkey to encourage it to recognise the cessation of hostilities.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Labour, Wirral South

Both the Minister and my hon. Friend Jo Cox have brought to the attention of this House serious offences to human dignity. The people of Syria must know that we see what is happening to them. The Minister has previously indicated that the international community is working to a timetable. Could he update us on that?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

It is for Staffan de Mistura to bring the parties together and they will recommence their discussions on 7 March. It is not my timetable. It was first agreed at the Vienna talks as a tentative idea for an 18-month transition programme. We need to recognise, however, that that was prior to the Russian bombings, which unfortunately led to the January talks falling apart. I hope there will still be a programme of transition in 18 months, but it is for the UN-led talks to confirm whether it is still on track.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

The most credible and consistently effective ground forces against Daesh in both Syria and Iraq are our friends the Kurds, and yet time and again our NATO ally Turkey uses any excuse, including the present ceasefire, to attack and degrade them. When will Her Majesty’s Government take this issue seriously, call in the Turkish ambassador and say that that behaviour is simply not acceptable on any level, that we will not be able to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq without the Kurds, and that Turkey needs seriously to think again?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend articulates the complexity of the challenge we face in Syria, with so many moving parts, organisations and entities pursuing separate agendas, which makes it very difficult indeed. The situation between Turkey and the PKK—which is a listed terrorist group, including from a British perspective—is recognised by this House, and we encourage Turkey to recognise and honour the cessation of hostilities. I join my hon. Friend in recognising the incredible work that the Kurds in Iraq have done in order to hold back Daesh and liberate territory. They will play a pivotal role in the eventual liberation of Mosul, which will be significant for Iraq to move on to a new chapter.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I commend Jo Cox as well. Last week the Defence Committee visited the middle east, where all our discussions focused on Syria and how to bring about a peace process and agreement. We welcome the current peace agreement, but the issue of Turkey came up in each of the countries we visited. Its position is to destabilise the situation in the middle east. It has a truly hedonistic attitude and some very strange bedfellows, both politically and militarily. What discussions have taken place with Turkey to ensure that it stops buying oil from Daesh-controlled territories and selling it for them, and that it stops attacking coalition forces? If it wants to be part of the coalition, we need its help.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I can confirm that Turkey does not purchase oil from Daesh. Black market oil is moved along the porous border—there is no doubt about that—and every effort is made, including by Turkey, to make sure that that is cut down. We should not forget that only a few weeks ago Daesh committed a terrible attack in Istanbul, so Turkey is as committed as everybody else to participating in the coalition’s efforts to defeat Daesh.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

After five years of death and destruction, I welcome the fact that there is finally a ceasefire and some hope for the future. Given the extent of the war crimes and the brutality that have marked out the war, can the Minister reassure me that an individual’s involvement in the transitional process will not give them immunity from later facing justice?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and efforts are being made to ensure that all war crimes are collated. That will not be forgotten, and we will be returning to the subject in a serious way once the cessation of hostilities has moved forward.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Defence)

The Minister is right to say that the statement by the International Syria Support Group is welcome. However, the actions of the Russians rather fly in the face of that, because they are signing up to a transition plan at the same time as bolstering the Assad regime. Can the Minister tell us the extent to which he believes that the Russians understand the level of transition that is required, and whether they recognise that the Assad regime needs to come to an end if Syria is to have a peaceful future?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about making sure that there is a verification process in place. We are doing our part in making sure that we pass information on to the United Nations. A report will go to the Secretary-General of the UN in 15 days, and at 30-day intervals after that, confirming the situation of the cessation of hostilities and any breaches that occur. It is important for the United Kingdom, America and other countries to keep the pressure on Russia to make sure that it recognises its unique position in ensuring that the cessation is honoured, so that we can expedite the political process and alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Conservative, Calder Valley

If the cessation of hostilities holds, and continues to hold, will my hon. Friend explain what impact he thinks it will have on the flow of displaced people within Syria, and on Syrian refugees? Can he elaborate—this may be a little premature—on the role that Britain could play in making sure that Syrian refugees can return home?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am grateful for the question, because it allows me to speak about the success of the Syrian conference that took place a couple of weeks ago in London. In a single day, we gained a record amount of pledges—$11 billion—from across the world. That is important in ensuring that the Syrian people recognise that the international community is ready to support them. Once they see that the cessation of hostilities is likely to last and that a political transition is likely to take place, they will make the decision not to turn their back on their own country—not to flee their country to try to find a better life in Europe.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The right to unimpeded humanitarian aid is set out in international law, but, as the Minister has pointed out, whether convoys even leave depends on the assessment of the situation of the ground and, in some cases, on the assessment of the Assad regime. Can the Minister assure me that he will express to both the Assad regime and the Russians the high importance that the international community places on dealing with this urgent humanitarian crisis in the next few weeks?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am happy to do so, and that can be articulated through the UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura at the talks that will recommence on 7 March.

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the reports from the very few international journalists on the ground in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria that many people, particularly the rebels who are fighting against the regime, are not in favour of the ceasefire precisely because they believe that the regime and Russia will use it to take ground by stealth? That only emphasises the importance of getting aid into those communities and holding the regime to account.

May I take this opportunity to make a request of the Minister and the Government? As we have moved into territory previously held by Daesh, we have discovered at least 35 mass graves in those communities. The UK is a world leader in forensic technology and specialists, and many groups such as the Aegis Trust would like the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to fund and encourage those forensic experts to get on the ground, where it is safe to do so, and uncover and record the terrible crimes of Daesh and the Syrian regime.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I will answer just the latter point, for brevity. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we pay tribute to the British capability, which I have seen with my own eyes in places such as Srebrenica. It is important that we gain the intelligence that is needed to hold these people to account, so that the verification processes actually take place. That can only be done, as we saw in Ramadi, once the area has been made safe from all the booby traps. That work is commencing as we speak.

Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (International Development)

May I say that the Minister has comported himself well at the Dispatch Box today? If there is no cessation of violence in this instance, is there a plan B?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I think it is best to avoid discussion of a plan B. We need to make this work, because the situation has gone on for too long. I began by saying that we are now in our sixth year. There is a recognition that the international community is coming together around the table for the first time. We have not previously had a situation in which Iran and Saudi Arabia—and, indeed, Russia and the United States—have been at the table. We are facing a number of difficulties and complexities, but that should not mean that we do not try to find solutions for the stability of Syria in the longer term.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention)

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker, a dydd gwyl Dewi hapus iawn i chi. Happy St David’s day. Yesterday, Reuters reported that two weeks ago in Brussels, Defence Ministers in the US-led coalition met to discuss ground operations against Daesh. Will the Minister update the House on those negotiations?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Huge success has been achieved and huge progress made in Iraq. We were able to create an indigenous capability. We were able to support and build an Iraqi force, which was able to liberate Ramadi. The next step will be the liberation of Mosul. The work that the Peshmerga is now doing—again, with British assistance—is working well. We are stopping the movement of funding to Daesh as well. Daesh is being squeezed. The consequence of that, which we should be concerned about, is that as we squeeze Daesh in Iraq and Syria, it is starting to pop up in other parts of the world, not least in Libya. We need to be aware of that.