(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the security situation in Syria.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for bringing this urgent question to the House. We are deeply concerned by the crisis in north-west Syria, where the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Over 900,000 people have been displaced while fleeing the regime and Russian bombardment. They are fleeing northwards and being squeezed into increasingly dense enclaves. With camps full to capacity, many are sleeping in the open, in temperatures well below freezing.
Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Aleppo since
The UK has condemned, and continues to condemn, these flagrant violations of international law and basic human decency. Following UK lobbying, in August 2019 the UN Secretary-General announced a board of inquiry into attacks on civilian infrastructure supported by the UN or that were part of the UN deconfliction mechanism, which we continue to support. We look forward to the publication of the results as soon as possible.
We have repeatedly pressed—including at the UN Security Council—for an immediate, genuine and lasting ceasefire. We have called a number of emergency council sessions on Idlib in New York, most recently on
As the Foreign Secretary noted on
Despite this political obstruction, the UK remains an active leader in the humanitarian space. In the financial year 2019-20, the Department for International Development has allocated £118 million to projects implemented by organisations delivering cross-border aid, primarily into north-west Syria, including into Idlib. This has helped to provide hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people with food, clean water, shelter and healthcare, including psychosocial support.
We have provided funding to response partners, including the UN, to pre-position essential supplies to support innocent families and civilians displaced by conflict and are supporting all our partners to respond to this humanitarian crisis.
Before I begin, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question? I also thank my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Alison McGovern, who I know also put in for this urgent question.
For almost a decade, we have seen the terrible events unfold in Syria and have occasionally offered a limited response to Assad’s barbarism, but since August 2013, the west has taken a strategic back seat.
I welcome the Minister to his place. He and I attended the Munich security conference. I hope that, next year, we will have a larger British contingent. The theme at that conference was the failure of the western project. It was an admission of the loss of common understanding of what it means to be part of the west—what we believe in, what we defend, and what we fight for. Nowhere is that more applicable than in what is happening in Syria, where Russian-backed Syrian forces, as has been outlined, continue to adopt the same brutal tactics that we saw in Homs, in Hama and in Aleppo, causing so much misery to millions. The latest escalation has seen almost a million people displaced, including women and children.
As we saw in the reports on Sky News over the weekend, Assad continues his advance, deliberately bombing hospitals and causing infants to freeze in the cold winter. Yet again, attempts by the UN Security Council to secure a ceasefire are vetoed by Russia. The prospect of a bloodbath grows higher, as does that of a direct conflict between Turkey and Syria. The words come again from the west, but we continue to watch on.
May I ask the Minister to please answer these questions? Given the UK’s P5 status, what is our role? Has Turkey, a NATO ally, requested any support? Indeed, has any been offered, such as introducing a no-fly zone to prevent helicopters from dropping barrel bombs? There is talk of a summit on
On the growing influence and power of Russia, does the Minister share my concerns that the UN will go the way of the League of Nations if its ability to adjudicate internationally is not repaired? Finally, is he not concerned that the west’s growing reputation for hesitating is giving ever greater influence and confidence to non-western alliances to pursue their own agendas, as they know that the west is likely to respond only with words?
We will soon celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe, reflecting on a time when Britain did not flinch from its international duty and from stepping forward when other nations hesitated. If global Britain is to mean anything in this dangerous and complex world, now is the time to show it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those points. I was pleased that he, too, attended the Munich security conference, where I met representatives not only from the Syrian region but from the wider international community, which, as he says, takes the situation in Syria incredibly seriously. I very much regret the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure by the regime and by Russian forces.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the history—the League of Nations. On Russia’s veto at the United Nations, there is of course countervailing pressure. It is better to have as wide representation at the United Nations as possible. The veto is part of the mechanisms put in place in 1945 at the creation of the UN to ensure that as many people as possible could be around the table, but I do not think that anyone at the time envisaged the veto being used to protect regimes such as Assad’s, which has been regularly targeting civilians and their infrastructure.
The United Kingdom is part of the small group on Syria, which includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. It is particularly important that Arab nations be represented on that small group that discusses the situation in Syria. There is a challenge, of course, in balancing the UK taking what my right hon. Friend might describe as a more active role, and the need for a sustainable solution that is agreed both by the protagonists in the region and by the surrounding nations, but we are certainly making sure that the UK voice is heard on the international stage, and that our actions are felt on the ground, particularly on the humanitarian front. Since 2011, we have been one of the largest bilateral donors, and we remain at the forefront of the humanitarian response. To date, we have committed £3.1 billion in response to the Syria crisis—our largest response to any single humanitarian crisis.
The UK is, and will remain, a powerful and passionate voice calling internationally for a ceasefire and the de-escalation of conflict in the region, both at the UN and through the small group on Syria.
What is happening today in Idlib fills us all with horror and dismay, but it should also fill us with frustration, because it was clear that this stage of the conflict was coming. Seventeen months ago, in response to another urgent question, my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary, warned us of
“the terrible bloodshed and humanitarian crisis that is looming in Idlib,” and spoke of
“the urgency for all sides to work to find some form of peaceful political solution to avert it”—[Official Report,
We have not seen that urgency from the international community, and now we see all the terrible consequences of that. Hundreds of thousands are being forced to flee their home; innocent civilians are being targeted by Assad’s airstrikes; there is indiscriminate bombing of jihadist-held towns and cities; and Turkey is being drawn ever deeper into the conflict—the number of its casualties continues to rise. Those are just the immediate consequences.
What does the Minister expect to happen once the Syrian Government forces are in full control over Idlib? Does he expect, as many analysts do, that the jihadists of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham will give up on their campaign of territorial control and open battles and instead commit to a long-term campaign of terrorist insurgency and guerrilla warfare? How will he and the international allies respond to that development? What action has been taken on an international level to respond to the fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria, and to ensure that the innocent civilians fleeing for their lives and from the regime’s onslaught on Idlib at least have some safety and shelter to flee towards?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate as to what might happen. I am uncomfortable doing so. This is a complicated and difficult situation, and rather than speculating, Her Majesty’s Government are trying to prevent the worst of what is already a terrible humanitarian crisis from becoming even worse. I have already mentioned the actions that we are taking at the multinational level, both in our position on the UN Security Council and within the small group on Syria, and I do not think there is much more I can add to my statement on that.
With regard to what we are doing specifically in response to the humanitarian crisis, as I said, we have already committed £3.1 billion to this. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, we have provided over 28 million food rations, over 18 million medical consultations and over 12 million vaccinations. Our aid provides life-saving support to millions of Syrians, supporting refugees to remain in the countries in the region, and enabling the host communities to accommodate them. I think there is almost certainly unanimity across the House that we need a ceasefire and de-escalation, and for the regime forces, backed by the Russians, to stop targeting civilians so that a sustainable political response can be negotiated. That remains our position, and that is what we will continue pushing for on the international stage.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place. From one still-Chairman to one ex-chairman, may I ask him whether, when we hear words such as, “There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria”, he recognises that what we are watching is the military solution to the conflict in Syria? The problem is that it is being written in the blood and the death of Syrian civilians, and our voice, sadly, is too quiet in that. I recognise that he has recently entered his post. I hope very much that he will inject life into Britain’s strategy in Syria, because there is an opportunity for Britain to speak out and to partner with important allies in the region and in Europe to make our voice heard, and I know that he can champion that. What is he going to do to make sure that Britain’s voice is heard even after this war is tragically won by a brutal dictatorship in Damascus?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about my role in this. The challenge that we have with regard to Syria is the complex relationships between the protagonists on the ground. Our priority has to be to impress on the Syrian regime in Damascus, and its Russian allies, that the first thing that has to happen is that the targeting and attacking of the civilian infrastructure has to stop. We know that this is a well-established tactic. The brutalisation of civilians on the ground really has to stop: that has to be the precursor to anything else.
We respect and support Turkey’s position. We hope that the language that we have heard recently from both Turkey and Syria about a further escalation of conflict does not come to pass, and that not only will we have our enduring commitment to humanitarian support, but we will push at UN and other levels for an international response that sees a sustainable, peaceful future for the people of Syria. But the first thing that has to happen is that the violence has to stop.
The situation in Syria is quite simply a humanitarian catastrophe, with babies and young children dying in the freezing cold, and Assad’s regime and its allied militias using rape and sexual violence against girls, women and men as a weapon of war. Western powers must not stand by and turn a blind eye to these actions. The UK ambassador to the UN said that what the Syrian Government are doing on the ground is
“protected by a Russian veto” and called on Russia to
“end its support for this murderous campaign and the barbaric Syrian Government.”
Russia’s indifference to human life and to its obligation to protect it must be challenged directly. Will the Secretary of State respond to calls from my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford, who called on the UK Government in his letter on
The hon. Lady is right that the humanitarian situation in north-west Syria is intolerable. At the international level, we have sought to maintain routes for humanitarian aid going into Syria. That has to be done with international co-operation and without Russian vetoes. She reinforces my—and, indeed, the Government’s—concern about Russia’s actions on this, and we call on Russia to de-escalate and to allow humanitarian aid to reach the people who need it through as many routes as possible. That remains our position, and we will continue to push this at the international level.
Order. I am going to run this urgent question until about 4.15 pm, so speedy questions and short answers will be very helpful. I call Mark Pritchard.
On the issue of displaced persons, widows, orphans and refugees in camps in northern Syria, does the Minister share my concern that some of those camps—some of which are funded by British taxpayers—are becoming a refuge for former ISIS leaders’ wives, who are running a new ISIS regime in those camps, making it a one-stop shop for the radicalisation of more people, including children? What is being done to ensure that the British taxpayer is not funding ISIS mark 2?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The position of the UK Government and the Department for International Development is clear: we take a zero-tolerance approach to our funding being diverted and used to facilitate international terrorism or violence. We will continue to monitor the situation in these camps as best we can. We do not have a full diplomatic or embassy structure in Syria, for obvious reasons, but we will ensure that UK money is well spent.
When the Minister describes the United Kingdom as
“an active leader in the humanitarian space” in relation to Syria, does he understand how that sounds to the Syrian diaspora, whose suffering we have discussed so many times in this House? As my hon. Friend Mr Mahmood put it, we knew that this was going to happen, and in that sense, we in this House are all complicit in what is going on in Syria. Every time a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box with nothing new to say and only regret, it is brutal for the people in Syria who right now are freezing as bombs fall on children’s heads. Has the Minister asked the United Nations Secretary-General to go to Idlib himself, to show leadership on behalf of the world? If we can do nothing else in this country, can we not take in some more Syrian refugees?
I have not had a chance to speak directly with representatives of the United Nations, but we have pushed and, as I said, our ambassador to the UN has made clear the UK position on Russian involvement and the Syrian regime’s targeting of civilians, which is unacceptable; she has made that point in no uncertain terms. The simple truth is that there are millions of displaced people both internally in Syria and in neighbouring countries. The best thing for the UK to do is to ensure that the violence stops so that, where possible, people can return to their homes. That has to be done at the international level.
While I completely understand the hon. Member’s passion for the UK to take in more refugees, the simple truth is that the numbers of displaced people in the regime would be impossible for the UK to host, and that that would not be a credible response to this situation. The UK is working and will continue to work at the international level to de-escalate the situation in Syria, and we will continue to help refugees in the region, as I say, in one of the largest humanitarian efforts this country has made.
May I congratulate my successor on his appointment? In my opinion, it is the best job in Government. Apropos his recent visit to Munich, did he discuss with our German partners their ambition to think to the future and to start to build homes to which refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan can safely and with dignity return? While it is understood that we should not in any way do anything that will support the murderous Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, will he assure the House that we are thinking about what will happen when the war-fighting phase stops, mercifully, and we can look forward to a future in which refugees can return home voluntarily and with dignity?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I have to say that, having been called to the House to make this response, it does not necessarily quite feel like the best job in Government just yet, but this is a very important topic, and a really sensitive and important part of the world, and I thank him for the work he did when he was the Minister in the Department.
I did not get the chance to speak with German representatives specifically on the issue that my right hon. Friend has brought up, but I did speak with a number of European colleagues while at the Munich conference. We will ensure that the UK continues to play an active and engaged part within the international community both to de-escalate and, ideally, to stop the conflict in the region, and to build a sustainable, peaceful future for the Syrian people.
I welcome what the Minister said about the recent attacks on hospitals. He will be aware that there have been at least 578 such attacks on healthcare facilities, resulting in 890 deaths of medical personnel in the course of this conflict. Will the Government treat that as a war crime at the highest level, and in particular will they refute the suggestion from the Assad regime that all healthcare facilities in Idlib have been rendered inoperative and therefore are not civilian objects in terms of international humanitarian law?
The international community has a long-standing position on the targeting of both civilians and civilian facilities, and we condemn in the strongest terms—as I have said, our representative at the UN has done so—both the Assad regime and the Russians’ targeting of civilian resources and civilian establishments. We also make it clear that, while there are concerns about potential terrorists and foreign national fighters in the Idlib region, this gives no cause at all for either the Russians or the regime in Damascus to suggest that the targeting of these civilian facilities is appropriate. It is not. We condemn it and we will continue to do so.
One of the groups the murderous Assad regime now relies on is Hezbollah, supported by its Iranian paymasters. Does my right hon. Friend share the concern of a number of us who were in the region last week and heard from several sources about Hezbollah trying to replicate what they have done on the Lebanese border and stockpiling hundreds of thousands of missiles targeting Israel? Does he agree that that can only mean more bad things for the people of Syria and the people of Israel?
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern. I saw the reports of rocket exchanges going into Israel from Syria. Obviously, the Government want to see peace in all parts of the region, including Israel, and we want to ensure that there are no pockets for terrorists, which is one of the key reasons why peace and stability in Syria is such an important issue.
Following on from what was said by the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, Mr Ellwood, what the Government are trying to do in terms of humanitarian aid is very laudable, but, as has been said, we are in danger now of the United Nations beginning to look like the League of Nations. Is a possible solution the one suggested by the right hon. Gentleman: that we look at how we can use NATO and Turkey’s involvement with NATO to provide some sort of cover for the people of Idlib, because clearly the Russians in the Security Council are not going to suddenly agree to actions that we would like to see taken? It is not just about humanitarian aid and good words in the Chamber; it is also about something happening on the ground to stop the killing of innocent people.
I understand the point the hon. Member makes. I think the international community would be concerned about committing military forces, which could have the impact of increasing, rather than decreasing, the violence in the area.
We have stalemate in the Security Council with one permanent member saying “No.” What is the feeling in the General Assembly, which is an alternative means of getting some idea of what the UN really thinks?
In December 2015, the majority of Members in this House were persuaded to give approval to military action in Syria on the basis of two assurances: that it would effectively end the Daesh threat of terrorism in the states of the United Kingdom, which has not come to pass; and that it would probably lead to a transitional civilian Government in Syria within about six months. I understand that the Minister cannot go into details here, but can we have an assurance that a thorough and honest assessment has been done and will be reported to Members in an appropriate forum to make sure that we understand that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have learned lessons from those forecasts, which turned out to be disastrously over-optimistic?
The situation that we saw in terms of Daesh’s control of the ground in Syria is now completely different: Daesh has largely been defeated on the ground. That is for the good. Obviously, the current situation in Syria is far from what any of us would want, but we are now looking to address the issues, as I have discussed—the Syria regime targeting civilians and the support from Russia. However, I do think it is to be welcomed that Daesh’s control of large parts of Syria—at one point it controlled an area the size of the UK—is no longer the case.
In 2013, we were asked to bomb one side in the Syrian civil war and, in 2015, we were asked to bomb the other. Do the Government accept that this is a war between monsters on the one hand, like Assad, and maniacs on the other, like the Islamists? Other than the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurds, who are we supporting in this war? Are the Government now saying that we support Turkey’s invasion, which suppressed the Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurds, who were our only allies?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria. Members of the House, or people outside, who seek simple solutions—the idea that there are obvious good guys and obvious bad guys and we just need to pick a side—will be disappointed. What we will work towards is a de-escalation of violence, support for internally and externally displaced people, and a sustainable political solution for Syria.
Amid the grim litany of war crimes in the Syrian civil war, the continued deliberate bombing of hospitals is particularly shocking. I applaud the Government’s humanitarian effort—as I am sure the whole House does—but the more we and international allies and the UN call for a ceasefire and are ignored, the more we demonstrate that we are completely unable to protect the civilians on the receiving end of those bombs. Have there been any recent discussions with allies about whether a no-fly zone could make a contribution to the protection of those civilians?
We are pressing for an end to aerial strikes against civilians in north-west Syria. On the specifics of a no-fly zone, no-fly zones have to be enforced and the risks of military escalation in the north-west are in no one’s interest. We are, therefore, sceptical that such a position would command international consensus, so we will continue to push, with our international friends and allies, to encourage the de-escalation of violence in the region.
Following on from the question by my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb about Hezbollah, may I ask my right hon. Friend—I congratulate him on his new role—what assessment he has made of the threat to Israel with the resurgence of Hezbollah in Syria? What help are the Government giving to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees?
Conflict and political instability provide a traditional hiding place for international terrorists. That is one of the reasons why we are looking to stabilise the situation in Syria. At the moment, the main concern seems to be in north-west Syria, rather than north-east Syria, where Kurdish forces have most recently been proactive, but we will continue to work with all our international allies to reduce safe havens for terrorism, reduce conflict and protect the people of Syria.
The Minister, a few moments ago, I think suggested that he had not spoken personally to senior UN officials. May I urge him to do so, particularly Mark Lowcock, not least given that he is a former permanent secretary of his own Department and is playing a crucial role in this crisis? Perhaps he could discuss with him the situation of refugees. Although he said that they should stay within the region, Turkey has made clear that it will not accept further refugees. Other countries already have millions and he is making clear that Britain will not take any more either, so where should they go?
The situation is that Turkey is already host to over 3 million Syrian refugees. The best thing we can do is to bring a speedy end to the violence in the region. Challenging though that is, that is the best thing for us to do to create a situation where refugees can return to their country of origin.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his position. I had the pleasure of working with him very closely over the past three years and I am delighted for him. Can I ask him to ask the officials at the Foreign Office to give him as quickly as possible a risk assessment of the possibility of article 5 having to be triggered if a pushback against Turkey, a NATO ally, happens?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Our desire at the moment is to reduce the risk of further conflict, particularly any conflict that might spill over international borders into a NATO member state.
The Minister is clearly aware that there is great pressure on the countries surrounding Idlib, many of which have taken millions of refugees. He is also clearly aware that the situation on the ground in north-west Syria is dire and that it is often difficult to get humanitarian aid to those who need it most. So will he not reconsider the suggestion made by my hon. Friend Alison McGovern that we take more refugees on the resettlement route? That is not the whole 12 million—she did not ask for us to take them all. She just asked whether we could take some more. There is no reason for us not to do that. Will he not consider that?
The UK is, and always has been, a hospitable country and we do take international refugees. However, the idea that the UK taking some more refugees will fundamentally change the situation on the ground is unrealistic, so our focus must be to de-escalate the situation in the region, end the violence and stop the targeting of civilians. That is the only real, sustainable way to reduce the pain and suffering of the people of Syria.
This House failed to act in 2013 and that was a real turning point. Since then, Assad, Iran and Putin have cynically, shamefully and systematically worked to massacre and displace civilians in Aleppo and now in Idlib, flagrantly breaking international humanitarian law, as I saw when I attended the UN peace talks in Syria. The truth is that we are not on the ground and there is not much that we can do, but will the Minister confirm that, behind the scenes, the UK continues to make a significant contribution to track 2 and track 3 negotiations and to holding Putin, Assad and Iran to account?
The UK has been clear that the actions of the regime and its Russian backers are completely unacceptable and completely fly in the face of internationally accepted norms. We will continue to push that at the UN level and in other places to make sure that our position, and the position of our international partners, is left in no doubt in the minds of Assad and Russia.
The situation is clearly deteriorating, and the Minister just described it as intolerable. Even though it is hardly believable that things are getting worse, they plainly are and there is an imperative to act, so what more can he do—what practical steps will he commit to—to protect the innocent civilians on the ground? Why will he not commit to taking more Syrian refugees as part of an international humanitarian response?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago: the numbers of Syrian refugees coming to the UK will not fundamentally change the situation on the ground. The UK will continue to act with international partners at the UN level and at others to de-escalate the situation and to push to end the violence and the targeting of civilians, because that is the only real, sustainable way to address the situation in Syria.
One of the most significant abuses of the Geneva conventions and the rules of law has been the primary targeting of hospitals by Russian air power and Syrian artillery. Why are we not calling them out more by naming and shaming units and using the UN to do so?
Our representative at the United Nations has spoken in no uncertain terms about how wrong the behaviour of the regime and the Russian backers has been in targeting civilian facilities and civilians. I am very proud of the fact that the UK has supported the humanitarian efforts in the region. We will continue to do so and have committed to doing so in future, but ultimately, the only sustainable solution is a political one in which the regime in Damascus and its Russian backers understand that their actions will not be accepted at the international level.
On that note, the UK has a very proud history of standing up for international humanitarian law. What steps are we actively exploring to ensure that those responsible for this bloody war are held to account?
As I say, we continue to work with international partners. We have made it very clear that the regime has stepped well beyond any internationally recognised bounds. We welcome the EU’s adoption of new listings under the Syria sanctions regime—18 businesspeople and two entities have been listed. The UK will continue to work with the international community to ensure that those who profit from the conflict are held to account.
The international coalition against Daesh is still in existence. Until that risk has been completely eliminated, I can foresee only that we will work internationally to achieve that.
This is one of the worst humanitarian situations since the war: 6.2 million internally displaced people, 5 million externally displaced people. Surely it is high time this country stepped up to the plate and used its considerable influence with the United Nations. Will the Minister therefore consider having discussions with the Secretary-General to build an effective, broad-based alliance, so that we can begin a peace plan that will effectively begin the end of this humanitarian crisis?
The Government will continue to work with international partners to seek a consensus, to address the actions of the Assad regime and to put in place a politically sustainable future for the people of Syria. I have no doubt that we will continue to do so at the UN level and others.
My right hon. Friend’s question is characteristically pithy. I happen to disagree. We still have significant influence on the international stage and we will use it to ensure that this conflict is brought to an end as quickly as possible.