Government Policy on Syria

– in the House of Commons at 6:52 pm on 15th June 2022.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Solloway.)

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 7:01 pm, 15th June 2022

Madam Deputy Speaker, I begin my contribution this evening by, through you, thanking Mr Speaker for allowing me the time for this debate. It is more than poignant to rise in this House this evening, the night before the sixth anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox MP. Having requested a debate on Syria, which I did for a little while, it must have been fated that a slot would be available this week, given Jo’s incredible contribution to raising the alarm in this House and beyond about the terrible events occurring in Syria. She warned that if we did not stand for our principles in the face of those who would trash the rights of civilians in wartime, it would change our world, and not for the better, and she was right.

To compound the distress, the last time I led a debate on Syria in Westminster Hall, it was chaired expertly by Sir David Amess. Words simply cannot express how much we all miss them both and how indebted we are to their families for the great contribution and sacrifice Sir David and Jo both made. We think of their families tonight and wish them strength and love.

The argument I wish to make to the Minister this evening is that by turning away from conflicts such as that in Syria, we allow the world to be a more dangerous place. It should be obvious to everyone in this House that the situation that Syrian civilians have faced over the past decade—with human rights utterly obliterated at the hands of the Syrian regime, aided by Russia—is now echoed in the brutality that the Ukrainians have seen at the hands of the Russians.

The Minister’s fellow Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister, James Cleverly, said:

“Russia’s actions in Ukraine will be familiar to millions of Syrians who have suffered at the hands of the Assad regime, with Moscow’s backing. In both countries, Russia has been responsible for violations of international humanitarian and international human rights law.”

A person could be forgiven for wondering whether those words mean anything any more. When Bashar al-Assad’s regime, shielded by Russia, is responsible for chemical weapons use, arbitrary detention, torture and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, what do those words really mean? When Ukrainians see cities destroyed and siege tactics used yet again to starve people into submission, what do those words mean?

Our country has been central to the crafting of international humanitarian and human rights laws. The rights of non-combatants in the face of aggression are meant to mean something, as are the right to be treated in a hospital without bombs falling on the very doctors trying to help and the rights of refugees. Demonstrating that our words—whether articulated through the UN declaration of human rights, or the promises rightly made in the sustainable development goals by a Conservative Government and supported in every corner of this House—are not empty, but full of meaning for starving Syrians or starving people anywhere shows that we care for others in this world, but also that we are always prepared to stand up for our beliefs in the face of aggression.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate; I spoke to her earlier. I understand that 9.3 million Syrians have become food insecure since 2020 and more than 80% of Syrians are living below the poverty line. Does she agree that we have a duty of care to do more to help those victims of war and terror? Our Government have met their obligations in the past, and hopefully they will do so even more in future.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I am about to say and makes the point well. It would be good if the Minister could update the House on the diplomatic approach that we will take. If we in this House turn away from our principles, we lose sight not just of the Syrian people, but of ourselves. We honour our history, our culture and our interests by standing up for our values and their implementation. As I mentioned, the then Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree, said:

“The best thing for the UK to do is to ensure that the violence stops”.—[Official Report, 24 February 2020; Vol. 672, c. 28.]

As I said, it would helpful if the Minister could use this opportunity to update the House on the current strategy.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She will probably be aware that there has been a resurgence of Daesh activity in northern and eastern Syria. In relation to the point that she has just made, does that not also underline the need for the United Kingdom and its allies to pay close attention to what is happening today in Syria?

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Where we take away our focus and shift our eyes, we leave a vacuum. Whether it is Daesh or any other form of terrorism around the world, if we are not involved in the world—not that we can do everything, but if we are not doing all we can to prevent the rise of terrorism—in the end, the House will have to pay attention to it. It is far better to have a plan and a strategy for dealing with it.

As Jim Shannon mentioned, we know that many millions of people—in fact, most of the Syrian population; I think it is even worse than he said—are facing acute food insecurity. The number is 51% higher than in 2019. Record numbers of people need humanitarian assistance, and food prices have risen by more than 800%. That is mainly attributed to ongoing fuel shortages, increasing global food prices, inflation, and, of course, the Ukraine crisis. Against that backdrop, the World Food Programme has been forced to reduce food rations in all areas of Syria due to funding constraints. We face the perfect storm. If the Minister can, will she touch on the steps that the UK Government are taking, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to ensure the renewal of resolution 2585 before it expires shortly on 10 July 2022 and ensure that the crucial crossing point at Bab al-Hawa remains open for the delivery of humanitarian assistance?

As well as there being a huge number of internally displaced people, many of whom are suffering in the most dreadful humanitarian conditions, the Syrian refugee population is now the largest in the world at 6.8 million. I appreciate that some of this is the Home Office’s responsibility, but will the Minister update the House on international discussions about support for that population and on the UK’s view of the future for Syrian refugees in the world?

It is ludicrous to expect the burden of supporting that number of people to continually fall on just a few countries. In response to a public outcry, the Conservative Government previously created a specific scheme to help to support Syrian refugees, but that is over now and in the past. We need to learn the lessons of the Homes for Ukraine scheme and our response in that case, so I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate the direction that we might be taking.

Speaking personally, I am inspired by the Syrians I meet in the United Kingdom. I think of the Syrians who work in the NHS in Merseyside as doctors. My hon. Friend Kim Leadbeater also mentioned to me Razan Alsous, a Syrian refugee she knows who has created a great business with Yorkshire squeaky cheese, and a fellow Syrian restaurateur, Khaled Deakin, who is creating a mobile restaurant in Exeter. Refugees bring their contribution, and they make our country strong, not weak.

I want to finish by asking the Minister about Syrian civil society here in the UK, because the route to peace and democracy in Syria will be very long. While at times it will seem that the British Government can do very little to bring about change in Syria, we do now have so many British Syrians and Syrian civilians here in the UK who will be an indispensable asset in building the first steps on the long path towards a different future for Syria. Could the Minister say what work the Foreign Office is currently undertaking to engage with Syrians in the UK and British Syrians? There are many issues where the perspective of our fellow community members in the UK who have a deep connection to Syria may well be of huge benefit and insight. I am sure the Minister will herself have learned a great deal from speaking with them and understanding their priorities, not least in working towards justice and putting down a path for prosecution for the horrific crimes committed against civilians in Syria.

Finally, I want to say something about this House, because we are often reactive when it comes to such crises. When an emergency happens in the case of Syria or of Ukraine, we all want our say, and that is only right in a democracy, but these crises and conflicts have a sustained impact on the world around us, be it in Syria or any other conflict that has seen such abysmal treatment of our fellow human beings. We in this House must have the persistence and seriousness of purpose to give effect to our values and to defend our interests, and the moral discipline to see things through to the end. News cycles can move on; we must not.

Jo described Syria as “our generation’s test”, but when you fail a test, you learn your lesson, and we must do that not just for the Syrians, who deserve better from us all, but for every victim of every conflict wherever they may be, so that we may see them not as a victim of some foreign war, but very much as the business of this House.

Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 7:12 pm, 15th June 2022

Can I say how grateful I am to Alison McGovern for securing this very timely debate? I pay tribute to her for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary friends of Syria group, and for her passion for Syria, as evidenced in her speech.

I also want to pay tribute to the legacy of Jo Cox and her commitment to the people of Syria, noting, as the hon. Member mentioned, that it is the anniversary of her horrific murder tomorrow and the fact that Sir David Amess chaired the last debate on this subject. As she said, they are both sorely missed by this House.

Bashar al-Assad and his allies, including Russia, have inflicted terrible suffering on Syrians for over 11 years now. Children born in Syria in the last decade have been subjected to terrible violence, hunger and deprivation. The UK Government continue to call for an end to this suffering through full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254, a nationwide ceasefire and progress towards an inclusive, representative political process.

Much of what we have seen play out in Syria, such as the crushing of dissent, attacks on civilian targets and a brutal conflict that has displaced millions, is now being replayed in Ukraine. Peace is a necessity for Syria, its people and us all.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than half a million people, displaced 60% of the population, and collapsed the Syrian economy. Under Assad’s regime people have faced arbitrary detention, brutal torture and indiscriminate attacks. There is clear evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people on at least eight occasions, and has the capability to conduct further attacks. Russia continues to shield Assad from accountability for his crimes, through disinformation and false narratives. Along with Iran, Russia has provided significant military support to the Syrian regime. The conflict has also created space for Daesh and other extreme groups to operate in, which continues to pose one of the most significant global terrorist threats, including to UK citizens.

The UK has responded to the situation in Syria by delivering our largest ever commitment to a single humanitarian crisis to date. We have committed a total of £3.8 billion since 2012, including up to £150 million pledged this year. Even so, aid is struggling to keep pace with the growing need in the region as the conflict continues. Today more than 14 million people are in need of assistance. Access issues and politicisation are complicating delivery, putting those in need at further risk. As the hon. Lady said, in July the UN Security Council will hold a crucial vote to renew the UN’s mandate to deliver aid cross-border into Syria. Russian cruelty in the past three years has blocked that in the Security Council, and reduced UN access to a single border crossing. I visited Turkey last week to see first hand the importance of that issue, and to raise awareness. We are calling on all Security Council members to renew resolution 2585 and to provide cross-border aid at next month’s vote. We thank our allies and partners for their continued support.

The UK also supports efforts to maintain the current ceasefire in north-west Syria, including Turkey’s efforts to protect civilians. We will continue to support Syria’s neighbours, so that they can meet the needs of Syrians seeking refuge. As they are so often, women and girls are the worst affected by the conflict. They also face horrific gender-based violence, including sexual violence. Support for women and girls is at the heart of UK foreign and development policy, through three innovation pilots that seek to prevent violence by targeting the widespread inequality that denies women ownership of land and access to economic resources and opportunities. We continue to push for a more robust global response to gender-based violence. The conflict is also denying Syria’s children their basic human right to education, impacting a whole generation of young people. Since 2018, the UK-funded Syria education programme has reached more than half a million children, supporting 85% of children in lower primary school to be enrolled in schools in the north-west.

Just as we are consistent with aid, so will we continue to hold Assad’s regime and its backers to account, including by sanctioning those close to him, and through our support for international law. There can be no impunity for violations of international, humanitarian and human rights law. Since 2012 the Government have contributed more than £40 million to gather evidence and help victims of human rights abuses and violations, including through the UN. We welcome the release of any detainees, but the regime has denied independent verification of its recent amnesty on prisoners, and there are still 130,000 who remain unaccounted for.

Our position on the regime’s abhorrent use of chemical weapons during this conflict is well known. The UK has full confidence in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and its investigations, which have attributed multiple attacks to the Assad regime. We will continue to push Assad to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

On the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr Jones about Daesh, threats from terrorist and extremist groups rooted in Syria remain. The UK is a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh. We remain committed to ensuring it cannot resurge in the region, working with the coalition and our regional allies.

I also want to pick up on the hon. Lady’s comment about civil society. We recognise the contribution of Syrians in the UK. The Government support and work closely with Syrian civilian society, especially in terms of upholding human rights.

In conclusion, the UK is committed to supporting the people of Syria. They have not been forgotten. We are clear that the UN-led political process, led by special envoy Pederson, is the only pathway to bring the peace that Syrians need and deserve. The Assad regime craves legitimacy, but continues to bring suffering and oppression to its people, and to stall the political process as it pursues self-preservation over genuine political reform. Until the regime participates in that process in good faith, we will not engage with Assad and will discourage others from doing so. Meanwhile, the UK will continue to deliver lifesaving and life-sustaining humanitarian assistance to protect women and girls, and to hold the regime and its backers to account.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.