Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:39 pm on 10th September 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 3:39 pm, 10th September 2018

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, of course, to others who take a very close interest in this situation. I can assure him that there is no shortage of efforts by the United Kingdom Government on this matter, whether here, in capitals abroad or at the UN.

The hon. Gentleman accurately describes the situation, which has become desperately familiar, regarding the conduct of events in Syria, where civilian populations have been put at risk. We estimate that the Idlib region now has some 3 million inhabitants, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria. The number of extremist fighters is reckoned to be quite small—perhaps 15,000, with maybe a further 25,000 to 35,000 opposition fighters—and that number is dwarfed by the number of people in Idlib itself. As our excellent permanent representative said at the UN last week, there are more babies in Idlib than there are terrorists. That is why we need to concentrate our efforts on humanitarian relief and assistance, and to try to find a negotiated way out of the situation.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I am not sure it is technically possible to track every air strike. Certainly we know when they have happened, but I am not sure how we would be able to find out from where they are being directed or anything like that. The obvious nature of the air strikes is very clear: they are from the Russian and the Syrian regimes. No one else is up in the air, so we all know where they are coming from.

The UN is actively considering any measure that might assist civilians. If there are corridors, there are questions to be asked about such things as how they would be made secure and policed, and we will give every consideration to that. No suggestion has been made for any military intervention in relation to that. If it were to be done with United Kingdom involvement, that would be a military intervention on Syrian soil, which would have obvious consequences. That has not yet been contemplated.

In terms of consequences and accountability, sanctions are already in place against Russian entities and that will continue to be the case. Last week at the Security Council, the permanent representative read through details of the units of the Syrian army that were involved in the Idlib operation, together with the names of their commanders, and made it very clear that accountability would follow. I think that that was a bold and necessary step. [This section has been corrected on 12 September 2018, column 4MC — read correction]

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the potential of chemical warfare, the truth is, of course, that we have seen it elsewhere. The permanent representative spoke about the failure to deal with chemical weapons usage, saying last week:

“As of March 2018, the OPCW”— the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

“fact finding mission had confirmed 13 cases of likely chemical weapons use in Syria since it was established in 2014. And in terms of allegations, the fact finding mission have recorded at least 390 allegations. After more than four years of work by the declaration assessment team, the OPCW still is unable to verify that the Syrian declaration is accurate.”

She continued:

“And we’ve heard many times that there are ‘gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies’
in Syria’s account of its declaration under the CWC.”

We can be fairly clear that those weapons still exist and are available in Syria. Of course, we have seen instances when conventional military action has been followed towards the end by chemical weapons usage. We have made it very clear through the UN and partners that appropriate action would be taken if that were the case. We are all also aware of disinformation campaigns being launched to say that such a chemical weapons attack is being prepared by other sources. There is no credibility to those accounts, they will not be used as a smokescreen should chemical weapons be used, and people will be properly held accountable.