Syria - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 29th March 2018.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 3:50 pm, 29th March 2018

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing today’s debate. He has been determined to raise these issues over the past few weeks, through Oral Questions as well as today’s debate. As we have heard, seven years of bloodshed has claimed more than 400,000 lives, driven 11 million people from their homes and caused a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. Of course, since the beginning of the war the United Kingdom has had a proud record as the second-largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in Syria, providing life-saving support to millions of people. The UK has delivered 26 million food rations, 9.8 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines and 10 million medical consultations. Last year alone the UK provided clean water to more than 5 million people and contributed to the formal primary and secondary education of more than 700,000 children affected by this crisis.

However, as we have heard in the debate this afternoon, it is not enough simply to talk about aid for Syria, important and essential as that is: we must also focus on diplomatic efforts to support the peace process. I think the Minister is in a difficult position, as a DfID Minister. I know that he wears another hat, as a Treasury Minister, but perhaps this afternoon he should be wearing an FCO hat as well. I have no doubt that his response will focus on those diplomatic efforts. Of course, we have seen welcome progress in the fight against Daesh—although from today’s Statement in the other place the Government clearly remain concerned about pockets of Daesh elements in Syria—but for the people of Syria, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, acknowledged last week, the violence continues and the humanitarian situation remains dire. When the Government made the case for military intervention in Syria three years ago they did so purely on the basis of the need to stop Daesh establishing a safe haven in the country. With Daesh losing 98% of its territory, as the Statement said, I ask the Minister what the current objective of our intervention in Syria is.

The Government have also confirmed that UK military personnel are involved in so-called stabilisation activities in what the United States calls, “liberated areas” in northern Syria. With that being the case, when do the Government intend to come back to Parliament to seek a fresh mandate for the new military involvement in Syria? As we have heard, Eastern Ghouta, besieged by the Assad regime, is a particularly tragic example of the ongoing violence. Only this week Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, became one of the few international observers to visit the bombed-out suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, describing it as, “one of the top five difficult places” he had been to over the past six years as president of the International Red Cross. In an interview for an article following the visit, he says:

“The residents of Eastern Ghouta are living an ‘underground life’, forced into shelters to escape the bombing. People are pale and cannot even manage the ever-growing number of dead bodies”.

The ICRC’s latest struggle, the article continues,

“is to get medical aid into Eastern Ghouta: The Syrian government periodically allows flour bags and food parcels but blocks trauma kits and basic medicine, such as insulin, from entering the area”.

In the interview, Maurer points out,

“the lengths that the ICRC goes to push the Syrian government to expand the scope of aid delivery”.

The article continues:

“The organization has provided 3 million people with food across Syria in the past year, and more than 1 million people have been able to access health care services … In Eastern Ghouta alone, tens of thousands of people benefit from food, clean water, and hygiene kits provided by the ICRC”.

In addition, the article says the ICRC are clear that this is,

“impossible to deliver without working with the Syrian government”.

However, it continues that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent —the ICRC’s local affiliate—is:

“On the one hand … legally linked to the government; on the other, it is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and committed to its principles”.

Finally, in the interview, Maurer says that it was always his assessment that,

“the chances of doing better assistance and protection to the Syrian people was outweighing the risk of having a leadership which was close to”,

the Assad Government.

Many UK NGOs have expressed concern for aid partners in Eastern Ghouta; one has already lost two staff members in recent attacks, and some are now displaced to the UNHCR camps and have had to surrender their ID cards. The NGOs are concerned that they, and others working for NGOs in those areas, will be considered activists by the Syrian Government and targeted by them. As we have heard, internally displaced people from Eastern Ghouta have been transferred to collective shelters run by UNHCR, and it has been reported that they have also been required to hand over their IDs to the Syrian Government’s army.

This is a potentially difficult and dangerous situation, particularly for those working for NGOs, who may be considered enemies of the state. I hope the Minister can reassure us that we are seeking assurances from the Syrian Government that NGO members working in opposition areas taken by the Assad army are not criminalised, and are allowed to carry out humanitarian and other life-saving work. I think we all want to understand that, on the part of our Government and our allies, the fullest effort is being made to ensure that there is full humanitarian access for aid relief to all areas of Syria. I hope the noble Lord can reassure us on that point.

Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin has created a fresh displacement crisis in the north of Syria. The UK Government Statement that we considered said that the protection of civilians must be balanced with,

“Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders”.—[Official Report, 13/3/18; col. 1561.]

I hope the Minister agrees that this incursion is neither legitimate nor justified, and that it has no basis in international law. Around 98,000 people have been displaced from the area, the majority of whom are women, children or elderly. Meanwhile, both in Afrin and among the displaced population, humanitarian needs are very high and host communities are being stretched even further.

Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the Middle East, has said—and no doubt the Minister will repeat this—that the best opportunity for peace and security is,

“to support the Geneva process … and to work as hard as we are diplomatically to get the parties to find a better answer to the conflict”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/3/18; col. 677.]

What is the Government’s latest assessment of that process? What have we been doing at the United Nations? How do we move things forward? Does the Minister really believe that there is potential for a political solution and that Daesh will be defeated, when Turkey sees its priority as stopping the Kurds rather than getting a political solution? These are the issues on which we need to hear from the Government.

We know that the crisis in Syria has created one of the biggest refugee crises and that the host nations in the region need support and aid for their economies, which are seeking to support millions of refugees. I have asked the Minister this question before, and received a very positive response, but I would be grateful if he could update the House on what additional support the Government are able to provide in the region. These refugees have been in the host nations not for weeks or months but years. We need to ensure that those host nations are not left in a difficult situation, with the crisis expanding.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted the horrific evidence of the torture, the mass hanging and the crimes that have been perpetrated against thousands of Syrian citizens and refugees. All the speakers in the debate have made it absolutely clear that such crimes cannot be committed with impunity. We must ensure that those who are responsible for crimes against humanity are held to account. The Minister needs to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and tell him what we are doing, in addition to ensuring that there is evidence, to ensure that there are processes in place to hold these criminals to account. I hope the Minister will be able to respond to these key areas but I know that all noble Lords in this House are totally committed to one thing: supporting not only the humanitarian efforts that are being made by the United Kingdom but all efforts to achieve a peaceful solution.