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Civilians in Syria

Volume 600: debated on Monday 12 October 2015

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

Every decade or so, the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation —their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us. We have been tested by the second world war, the genocide in Rwanda and the slaughter in Bosnia, and I believe that Syria is our generation’s test. Will we step up to play our part in stopping the abject horror of the Syrian civil war and the spread of the modern-day fascism of ISIS, or will we step to one side, say that it is too complicated, and leave Iran, Russia, Assad and ISIS to turn the country into a graveyard? Whatever we decide will stay with us for ever, and I ask that each of us take that responsibility personally.

To date, neither side of the House has a record to be proud of. Let me start with my party. One of the reasons it is such an honour to be standing on this side of the House is the deep, deep pride that I have in Labour’s internationalist past. It is pride in the thousands of people from our movement who volunteered to fight tyranny alongside their fellow socialists and trade unionists in the Spanish civil war; pride in the leaders of our party—and Robin Cook in particular—who demanded action to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and elsewhere, in the face of outrageous intransigence from the then Conservative Government; and pride in the action we led in government to save countless lives in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In recent years, however, that internationalism has first been distorted, and now risks being jettisoned altogether.

My heart sank as I watched in 2013 when, following President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, we first voted against a military response and then supported taking military options off the table. Responsibility for the mishandling of that critical vote, which had such far-reaching international implications, falls principally on the Government, but we on these Benches carry some culpability for letting Assad ride roughshod and unchallenged across what should have been a sacrosanct red line. As a result, the international community lost all credibility in our subsequent efforts to stem the spread of, and the suffering in, this horrific civil war. Indeed, our failure to intervene to protect civilians left Assad at liberty to escalate both the scale and the ferocity of his attacks on innocent Syrians in a desperate attempt to cling to power.

I understand, of course, where our reticence comes from. It comes from perhaps the darkest chapter in Labour’s history, when we led this country to war in Iraq. Many Members in all parts of the House have been scarred by that experience, and understandably so; but let us all be clear about the fact that Syria is not Iraq. I opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning because I believed that the risk to civilian lives was too high, and their protection was never the central objective. I knew, as we all knew, that President George Bush was motivated not by the need to protect civilians, but by supposed weapons of mass destruction and a misguided view of the United States’ strategic interest.

I marched against that war, and have marched against many others in my time. Indeed, before I joined the House I was an aid worker for a decade with Oxfam. I have seen at first hand the horror of war and its brutal impact on civilian populations. I have met 10-year-old former child soldiers with memories that no child should have to live with. I have sat down with Afghan elders with battle-weary eyes. I have held the hands of Darfuri women, gang-raped because no one was there to protect them. From that experience, alongside a horror of conflict, I have the knowledge that there are times when the only way to protect civilians requires military force. I might wish that it were not so, but it is. That is why I firmly believe that the Labour Government were right to champion the adoption, in 2005, of a landmark global commitment to the best and most fundamental of our human ideals: the responsibility to protect civilians. I still firmly believe that a legitimate case can be made for intervention on humanitarian grounds when a Government are manifestly unwilling or unable to protect their own civilians. Sovereignty must not constitute a licence to kill with impunity.

The history of Iraq hangs over us all, and it should, but its legacy is awful enough without supplementing it with a new one of ignoring the slaughter in Syria. We must not let it cloud our judgment or allow us to lose sight of our moral compass.

The war in Iraq led to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of civilians. Its legacy must be to make us all put the protection of civilians at the centre of our foreign policy, not to make us sit on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands more are killed and millions flee for their lives.

I am greatly concerned about the persecution of Christians in Syria. Some 600,000 Christians have been displaced from Syria. They have been given the ultimatum of “convert or die”. Does the hon. Lady feel our Government could do more to put pressure on Assad and parts of ISIS to make sure the persecution of Christians stops?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come on to that subject later in the speech.

I shall now turn to the Conservative party’s record. For four years the Government have categorically failed on Syria, and it is not just the UK that should be judged so harshly. The failure to develop and then implement an effective strategy on Syria left this conflict free to create a horrendous European refugee crisis and provide a haven for the barbarism of ISIS to take root, allowed chemical weapons to be used unchallenged and even emboldened Russia. In particular, since the Prime Minister’s mishandling of the 2013 Syria vote, the Government have let this crisis fester on the “too difficult to deal with” pile. There has been no credible strategy, nor courage, nor leadership; instead we have had chaos and incoherence interspersed with the occasional gesture. Indeed, it has been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy and a stark lesson on what happens when we ignore a crisis of this magnitude. Britain—with our proud tradition in international affairs, our seat on the UN Security Council and one of the best diplomatic, humanitarian and military services in the world—has been a political pygmy in this crisis.

None of us has a proud history in this affair. If we are to put this right, we must put that behind us; we must put party politics to one side and focus on what really matters—the protection of Syrian civilians.

Let me first turn to two of the arguments that do most disservice to a serious discussion of this crisis. First, please let us stop casting the humanitarian, diplomatic and military responses as mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not. If we are serious about addressing this crisis, we need to stop pretending that any one of them offers a panacea and instead weave these strands into a coherent strategy. Secondly, let us not be duped into believing that we need to make a choice between dealing with either Assad or ISIS. On the surface, this may seem appealing, but it is not an option. There is no choice.

We can, and must, address both Assad and ISIS for two principal reasons. First, a sole focus on ISIS will not end the conflict and the threats to our interests. The Assad regime ignited, and continues to drive, the violence in Syria. This year alone, it has killed seven times more civilians than ISIS, so a strategy that only focuses on ISIS will not end the fighting or the threat to regional stability. It will not stem the tide of desperate refugees pouring into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or trying to get into Europe.

Secondly, and crucially, a myopic focus on ISIS will not lead to its defeat. It will not work. Assad is ISIS’s biggest recruiting sergeant, and as long as his tyranny continues, so too will ISIS’s terror. Indeed, a sole focus on ISIS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians risks inadvertently strengthening the jihadis’ narrative, which is fuelled by the idea that the west is colluding with Shi’a forces in Tehran and Damascus in a crusade to subjugate Sunni Arabs. That is why, to make good on our past failures, to protect our interests and to live up to our proudest traditions, we need urgently to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy.

I believe that there are three core elements to such a strategy, none of which is easy and all of which are critical. First, I shall talk about the humanitarian aspect. Four years on from the start of the conflict, there are now 240,000 dead—some credible estimates put the figure at over 330,000—and more than 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The scale of the human disaster is breathtaking. One area in which the UK Government have shown considerable and commendable leadership is in the regional humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, where we have led the way with the US and our European partners. I now urge the Government to go further.

As the Minister will be aware, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are in the region and those countries are buckling under the strain. The G20 summit in Turkey in November should be marked by the launch of an ambitious plan to meet refugees’ urgent needs, to invest in their education and livelihoods and to support Syria’s neighbours in reconstruction and development. Equally important is the UK’s response to the refugee crisis, which has, to date, been woefully inadequate. Taking 20,000 refugees over five years is simply not good enough; it sends an awful message about how seriously we take civilian protection. Whether it is the response to the drownings in the Mediterranean or our offer to take Syrian refugees, the Prime Minister has been pushed into climbdown after climbdown, embarrassed into action by the humanity of the British public. It is time for him to lead, not follow.

But let us be clear that, no matter what our humanitarian response is to this crisis, it will never be enough. It cannot end the conflict. That is why we also need to invest far more in diplomatic efforts to find a political solution. There are clearly no easy answers, but we can at least be clear on the principles. First, this needs to be a much higher-level conversation. We saw some improvement in that respect at the UN General Assembly last month and in the reopening of the UK’s embassy in Tehran. However, the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister need to make it clear that ending the conflict in Syria is their No.1 international priority, and to challenge other world leaders to match their commitment.

Secondly, we must not let the urgent need to find a political solution cloud our judgment about what a credible one looks like. If four years of continuous vicious conflict have taught us anything, it is that the current regime is no longer capable of bringing peace and stability to Syria. Whatever its exact complexion and character, and whatever the complex negotiations and compromises needed to get there, a credible political solution has to involve a transition to a new Government that represent all Syrians and that enjoy sufficient trust and legitimacy that all but the delusional fanatics of ISIS will be willing to lower their guns and work together to rebuild their country. Russia’s recent intervention makes the route to a political settlement more complicated but it does not change the necessity for one. A political solution is the only way to end the conflict between the regime and the opposition in Syria. Only when that conflict has ended can ISIS and the handful of other extremists allied to al-Qaeda be defeated.

The third element of the strategy has to be military. While I do not believe that there is a purely military solution to this conflict, I do believe that there will be a military component to any viable solution.

The threat from ISIS—to the region, to the west and to Syrian and Iraqi civilians—is real and growing. I do not believe it to be ethical to watch from the sidelines as Syrian villages are overrun by ISIS fighters who make sex slaves of children, terrorise minority groups and slaughter fellow Muslims. In addition, their call for individual sympathisers to attack westerners anywhere and anytime requires a robust response.

The estimated 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, many of whom hold western passports and can therefore travel freely in Europe, present a real and serious threat to us here in the UK. In addition, ISIS’s spread to new havens in Libya, the Sinai peninsula, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere convinces me of the need for active UK involvement—but only if that is part of a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians and end the conflict.

The hon. Lady is making a good and brave speech on this important point. Will she emphasise the point we set out in our joint article over the weekend, which is that the safe havens are not an intervention in the politics of Syria but are strictly a humanitarian measure to ensure safety for those who are fleeing their homes and communities, often under gunfire, and the extreme violence in Syria today? This is the sort of intervention that the United Nations was set up to co-ordinate, and we really must ask why more is not being done by the international community to promote this important initiative, which both of us supported at the weekend.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, and we do share common cause on the need for humanitarian protection for civilians in Syria.

Let me get back to my point about a myopic focus on ISIS being counterproductive. If selective air strikes against ISIS are the only action the west takes in Syria, we will never defeat ISIS—and we could even strengthen it. At least 75% of all civilian deaths in Syria are a result of action by Syrian Government forces; aerial bombardment by the regime is by far the biggest killer, taking around 200 lives every week. It is horrifically indiscriminate; 95% of the victims are civilians. For these reasons, and in the light of the fact that an ISIS-only approach will not protect us from the threat it poses, our objective must be to stop the indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria. Not only would that provide much-needed relief to Syria’s embattled population, who are still being bombarded by 50 to 60 barrel bombs a day, but it could help empower Syria’s remaining moderate opposition, who are essential not only to finding a political solution but to holding back and ultimately defeating ISIS.

Stopping the bombs would also take away a significant radicalising factor in the conflict and could breathe new life into the political process, changing Assad’s calculations and forcing him to the negotiating table. As we saw in 2013, the Syrian Government’s response to the credible threat of force was to make a political deal, not to risk escalation. As such, I believe it is time for the Government urgently to consider deterring the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians in Syria through the willingness to consider the prudent and limited use of force.

A no-fly zone would be an enormous military undertaking, and would entail significant risks, particularly now that Russia has joined the regime in the Syrian skies. But what I call a no-bombing zone, enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences, would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process.

I totally endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said about the hon. Lady making a brave speech. My worry is that she can do nothing without a Security Council resolution, which gives political top cover and the legal right to go into a sovereign country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. I agree that we should try to secure a UN Security Council resolution, but I do not think we should limit ourselves to not acting without one. I believe a no-bombing zone is feasible if it is enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences. This would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process. A well-designed deterrence operation would impose a cost on the Syrian regime for any indiscriminate bombing of civilians—for example, by targeting the military airbases where barrel bombs are stored and flown from. Any attempt by the regime to escalate would trigger additional punitive strikes, rendering aerial bombardment counterproductive. In those circumstances, it is far more likely that Assad and Russia will be forced to the negotiating table.

To conclude, this conflict has proved time and again its propensity to escalate month on month, year on year. For moral reasons—and national self-interest—we can no longer afford to ignore Syria. Indeed, inaction will only see a growth in the number of Syrians killed, the number of refugees fleeing and the potential threat to British national security from ISIS. I urge all Members to look to the best traditions in the history of their parties and to think about the personal role that they can play to protect civilians in Syria and further afield.

The voices of Syrians have been absent from this debate for far too long. They have been asking for protection for years and no one has been listening. It is now time for us to listen and to act.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on securing this important debate. She brings a huge amount of expertise to the House, which is very welcome. I have just returned from the UN General Assembly, where this subject was very much on the agenda. She went into a huge amount of detail, but I am sorry that she chose to wander down a bit of a political path. I will write to her with more details on the issue of British leadership. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, unless we have a UN resolution, it is very hard to march forward. I am afraid that, on more than one occasion, either China or Russia has vetoed attempts to move this situation forward. I also disagree with her about the choice between ISIS or Assad. We have never made that statement—quite the opposite, in fact.

I am sorry that we are debating this matter for only 30 minutes. The sheer number of Members in the Chamber on a Monday evening on a one-line Whip shows that this is a very important matter. I hope that the usual channels are listening, and I urge them to consider a far longer debate on the subject. [Interruption.] Let me finish. We are meeting our 2% of GDP commitment and our 0.7% official development assistance commitment. With a long history in the middle east, we have the ability and desire to do more to assist in this terrible conflict, but we seek consensus over how we might do that. A fuller debate would explore how these matters might be pursued in more detail.

The Syrian civil war is now in its fifth year. As the hon. Lady has said, 250,000 people have been killed, almost 8 million displaced internally and more than 4 million refugees created. This is a crisis caused and fuelled by the Assad regime, which is responsible for the vast majority of deaths. Almost 90% of the civilian deaths are a result of the regime’s indiscriminate bombing, its shelling of urban areas, its siege tactics and its use of chemical and toxic substances. This instability has fuelled a migration crisis that affects neighbouring countries, the wider region and Europe as well.

Assad’s failure to recognise the Sunni people, who make up two thirds of the country’s population, has acted as a recruiting sergeant for ISIL. Today, ISIL poses a threat not just to the region but wider afield to the UK as well. The horrific attacks in Sousse, Kuwait, France, Australia, Turkey and elsewhere demonstrate that the threat knows no borders. But alone, Assad has neither the intent nor the capability to defeat ISIL. The ultimate solution both to the migration crisis and the threats emanating from Syria is a political transition that involves a mechanism for Assad to step down. It is for the Syrian people to decide exactly how that happens. It may be part of a transition process, but the process cannot be open-ended, and Assad can have no part in Syria’s future.

I will not give way, because of the time.

The UK supports the efforts of the UN envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who faces a complex and challenging task. The UN Security Council and the wider international community must support Mr de Mistura’s efforts as he works with the Syrian parties to deliver a political process that brings about an inclusive transition.

No, I will not give way.

The Russian Government’s increased support for Assad has further complicated an already complex situation. They must take responsibility for their part in escalating the Syrian war. By predominantly hitting non-ISIL targets, they will only fuel more extremism and more radicalisation.

We call on Russia to cease its attacks on the Syrian opposition and civilians and to focus its efforts on ISIL. Observers of the middle east will know that Russia’s strong links with and interests in Syria are not new. Secret agreements offering diplomatic and political support were signed even before Syria gained its independence from France. The Soviets offered military help to form the Syrian army in the first place and Hafez al-Assad sided with the Soviets during the cold war and agreed the permanent basing of naval, land and air assets. This is not just about global posturing but Russia’s actions in shoring up a tyrant who was on his way out, and it will lead to Russia’s losing influence in the long term.

It took six days for Russia to strike any ISIL targets at all. More than 85% of Russian strikes have been—

I will not give way. I have made it very clear that time is short and I am answering the hon. Member for Batley and Spen. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will hang on to his seat and I will be delighted to speak to him after the debate.

It is clear that Russia’s priority is not to defeat ISIL but to prop up Assad. Russia has violated Turkish airspace three times in the past week and the UK strongly condemns these provocative violations of NATO members’ sovereign airspace. It is important that allies show solidarity to ensure the inviolability of NATO airspace is respected, so we call on Russia to stop targeting civilians and opposition groups, which are part of the future of Syria. This is Russia’s biggest air deployment beyond its borders since the cold war, with fast jets, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, electronic warfare and air defence systems propping up an ailing Syrian regime whose military is exhausted, depleted and demoralised.

Russia’s entry, with all its propaganda, will no doubt delay a resolution and the political transition about which the hon. Member for Batley and Spen spoke rather than expediting them. It will also widen the extremism footprint for Russia, as significant numbers of foreign fighters supporting ISIL will no doubt react to Putin’s actions.

The hon. Lady mentioned safe zones, and I have taken a lot of time over the summer to consider the issue in detail. We will continue to look at all options along with our allies to protect civilians in Syria. There has been talk of safe or protected zones, no-fly zones and so on, but history tells us that implementing genuinely safe zones is difficult and must be accompanied by an international mandate that would provide the will, the authority and the full means to ensure that they have a chance of being effective. It would also involve significant military commitment. As we have seen, that can be hard to come by from the various Parliaments across the world.

We should also bear in mind the legal justification for intervention in another country has five means. One is a UN Security Council resolution—

I will not give way. The other legitimate means for engagement include article 51 of the UN Charter, or the right collectively to defend others, or intervention to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, as we saw in Kosovo. The final such means is an invitation by the leader, which is what we saw in Iraq.

The hon. Member for Batley and Spen mentioned the humanitarian situation. The UK has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the conflict in Syria. I am pleased to say that we have pledged more than £1.1 billion in aid in response to the crisis in Syria and the region. I visited the Zaatari camp in north Jordan in the summer and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is in her place, has just come back from Azraq. I am pleased to say that we are seeing how well British money is spent. It is clear that refugees want to stay in the region where they have family and cultural ties, and the cost of housing one refugee in the UK equates to supporting more than 20 refugees locally. Let me make it clear that the standard of that support is very different, but that just illustrates the difficult decisions people are having to make in every country about how much money we spend domestically and how much we spend in the region.

The Prime Minister also announced on 7 September the expansion of the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme to resettle up to 20,000 Syrians in need of protection during this Parliament. Since the crisis began in 2011, the UK has granted asylum to nearly 5,000 Syrian nationals and their dependants.

In conclusion, we are well aware that Syria remains the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our time. We must support the desire of ordinary Syrians for a future free of the cruelty of Assad and the barbarity of ISIL. I end by apologising to Opposition Members for not being able to take interventions. As they can see from my notes, I have plenty more to say on the matter—

I will not give way, no. The hon. Gentleman is not going to tease me at this last moment. I invite and encourage a wider debate that lasts longer than 30 minutes, which I would very much welcome—

We can go on later into the night if you want, Mr Speaker, but I think that time is against us. I look forward to debating the matter in further detail. [Interruption.]

Order. The business managers can perfectly well facilitate such a debate, and at whatever hour of the night it took place I should be very happy to be in my place. Obviously a lot of people have things to say and would like to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.