Before we start exchanges on the urgent question to the Secretary of State for International Development, I wish to record my thanks to the Secretary of State, who is here to answer the question. I am sure that the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), would have done a most admirable job in her stead, but it is much appreciated that she has come here. I want also to record my thanks to the Chair of the International Development Committee, which was scheduled to be hearing from the Secretary of State now but has courteously volunteered to postpone its sitting until half-past 5 in order that she, and the Minister, can be here in the Chamber. That is a very good sign of respect for the Chamber and for the importance of the subject, as well as for the questioner, and I am most grateful for it.
Thank you for your kind words, Mr Speaker, which are appreciated. I am very grateful to you, and to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), for the chance to discuss this important matter here in the House today.
No one who has seen the pictures coming out of Madaya over recent days can say this this atrocious situation is anything other than utterly appalling. The situation is deliberate and man-made. The Assad regime has besieged the town since July, causing horrific suffering and starvation. I should remind the House that the UK has been at the forefront of global efforts to help ensure, from day one, that people suffering inside Syria have been helped over the past four years.
I would like to update the House specifically on what is happening now. The House will be aware that there are reports that a humanitarian convoy is delivering enough food to all those in Madaya for the next month. In fact, the aid on this convoy is UK funded. We have allocated about £560 million to help people inside Syria. That is partly delivered out of Damascus, which is about 40 km from Madaya, with the consent of the regime, as well as across borders from neighbouring countries, without regime consent. This sits alongside all the work that we are doing to help Syrian refugees across the region and outside Syria. Our overall response of just over £1.1 billion for Syria and the region is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis, and it makes us the second largest donor after the US.
We have lobbied hard for UN Security Council resolutions 2165 and 2191, which has now been superseded by resolution 2258, enabling the UN to deliver aid across borders without the consent of the regime. That is absolutely pivotal for us in order to be able to get to the people we need to get to. We have to remember—this is a very important point for the House—that the people of Madaya are not alone in facing these horrors. In fact, they represent just 10% of those people in besieged areas and just 1% of those living in so-called hard-to-reach areas in Syria. About 400,000 people now live in besieged areas like Madaya, and about 4.5 million in total live in hard-to-reach areas across Syria.
Across Syria, Assad and other parties to the conflict are wilfully impeding humanitarian access on a day-by-day basis. It is an outrageous, unacceptable and illegal mechanism to use starvation as a weapon of war. The most effective way to get food to people who are starving and to stop these needless and horrific deaths is for Assad and all parties to the conflict to adhere to international humanitarian law, so right now I call on the Assad regime and all parties to the conflict to allow immediate and unfettered access to all areas of Syria, not just Madaya.
We will not stop in our fight, whether it be through hard work on a political solution that will deal with the root cause of the problem or through our humanitarian efforts, which provide immediate, life-saving relief. This shocking situation underlines the vital work of aid agencies and shows how important it is that they can have the assurance of knowing that they have the resources to keep going. It also underlines the importance of next month’s Syria conference in London, which we will co-host. I look forward to further questions from Members.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. I am sure she will agree with the following quote:
“In order to break the siege, you need to first break the silence surrounding it.”
Those words were spoken by an individual in Yarmouk—a camp in Syria’s capital, Damascus—which was besieged for two years by the Syrian Government, causing a reported 200 people to die of hunger. It should not have taken an international outcry on this scale to agree what is a nominal agreement on access to just one small community of 40,000 people out of up to a potential 1 million currently living under siege in Syria.
As we know all too well, it is the Assad regime that is primarily responsible for the policy of sustained, systematic starvation of the population of Syria. Of the areas under siege, 52 are under Assad control, two under rebel control and one under ISIS, so let us be clear: he is responsible for 99% of those areas under siege.
I would be honoured if the Secretary of State could reply to a few questions. First, UN Security Resolution 2165 states that
“United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines”.
Does she agree that, to date, the UN has not pushed the envelope and used that clear authorisation to break the siege not just in Madaya, but country-wide?
Secondly, will the Secretary of State demand answers from the UN on why it is still waiting for permission from Assad when resolution after resolution states that that is not necessary? It has the authority and the mandate to go in right now. Thirdly, will the Secretary of State ask the head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs why certain besieged areas are not yet classified as such? For example, why is even Madaya not classified as besieged in the latest OCHA report to the Security Council?
Fourthly, does the Secretary of State agree with me, Médecins sans Frontières and other aid agencies that one-shot distribution to Madaya and other places will not alleviate the problem in the months to come or deal with the wider issue country-wide? Sustained and ongoing access is needed. What measures will the Government take from today to make sure that that pressure is maintained?
Fifthly, does the Secretary of State agree that, as the second largest donor, we have a critical role to play in making sure not just that next month’s donor conference is successful in raising the significant amount of money needed, but that that aid actually reaches Syrian children? We play a welcome role as the second biggest donor to the country, and it is critical to get access.
Finally, does the Secretary of State agree that, if the UN fails to negotiate and agree sustained, ongoing access to those populations under siege, we should start contingency planning for RAF food drops? It has worked before—we have seen it happen. I was an aid worker for more than a decade and I have seen the difference that airdrops can make. Will she investigate whether that is a viable option at this time?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I underline that all parties to the conflict, including Assad, are besieging various parts of the country, so I condemn all of them.
The hon. Lady mentioned OCHA, which is the UN relief organisation that co-ordinates the overall response of UN agencies on the ground in such situations. I spoke to Stephen O’Brien earlier today to go through the latest UN assessment of the situation on the ground. At that stage, the aid convoy had reached the town lines, as it were, but had not passed the border of the town. There are some reports that the aid convoy has now gone into the town.
As much as anything else, the challenge on the ground is to have a viable UN operation that can be carried out safely. In fact, 42 UN aid workers and people delivering aid on its behalf have already lost their lives in the Syria effort, and 40-plus aid workers and UN workers have lost their lives delivering humanitarian aid in Yemen since mid-December. The reality is that we need some sort of agreement on the ground, because if we do not, it will simply be unsafe to deliver aid. Indeed, if there is no agreement with warring parties on the ground—incidentally, such an agreement is part of international guidelines in this area—there is a real danger that the aid will end up in the hands of the very people who are causing the misery in the first place.
I assure the hon. Lady that everyone working on the crisis—I have been involved with it for some time—has no thought in mind other than to get aid to all the people who are desperately in need. That is why we condemn utterly the fact that international humanitarian law is routinely being broken. We often have challenges in reworking aid access when territory switches from one military group to another, and we have to work through such difficulties on the ground every day. It is important to take safety into account, because if we do not, there is a real danger that any system to deliver aid within Syria and similar countries will break down entirely.
I can assure the hon. Lady that there are such discussions. I have regularly and routinely pushed UN agencies on their need to remain impartial, but not to get into unnecessary and inappropriate negotiations, if I may call them that, with the regime. They should not have to make choices about where they deliver aid; aid should go to where it is needed. I and the UK Government, through me or through officials, reiterate that point virtually daily. The UN system agrees with that, but we also need to make sure that UN workers are safe.
The issue of how to protect people caught up in this crisis will be at the heart of the forthcoming conference. That will sit alongside two other strands: one is to have a pledging conference to make sure that UN agencies and non-governmental organisations can get the significant resourcing they need to deliver aid on the ground; and the second is about education and the kind of jobs needed for the people caught up in the crisis, so that remaining close to home in the region is a viable option for them.
The hon. Lady highlighted the children caught up in this crisis. If there is a face of this crisis, it is one of a child. If we look at the people who are left in Madaya, we can see that they are predominantly women and children, which is why the situation unfolding there is so dreadful. As she pointed out, that situation is one of many in Syria right now that, all too often, are happening away from the cameras.
The hon. Lady was right to raise the issue of ongoing access. Frankly, the transparency of the media reporting about Madaya and the profile that the town has received have helped to ensure that the regime felt it needed to provide access. I condemn the fact that it takes the BBC, Reuters and other news agencies to have to report what is going on there for the regime to respond. Such an approach is outrageous, unacceptable and illegal.
There are many things in this world—including at the UN Security Council, which I had the privilege of chairing in November—on which we cannot agree. Finding a long-term peaceful resolution to the Syria crisis will obviously be complex and require significant diplomatic effort, but one thing on which we should be able to agree is the need for adherence to international humanitarian law. I assure the House that I will continue to press for that right through this crisis until we find a peaceful resolution in Syria.
May I say to my right hon. Friend how glad I am that our country is the second biggest donor to Syria and that Britain has sponsored the aid convoy to Madaya? Does she agree that the appalling and unspeakably cruel acts that have been visited on mainly women and children in Madaya and elsewhere amount to a fundamental breach, even in such a barbaric conflict, of all the laws of war, and are thus war crimes? Does she agree that those responsible will be brought to justice, and that the British Government will see to it?
Part of the unfolding horror of the Syrian civil war has been the tactic of siege and counter-siege. The Secretary of State will be aware that only 10% of the UN’s requests to deliver aid to people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas were granted, yet that is where 4.5 million Syrians live. The Opposition absolutely support her call for Syria and other combatants to offer humanitarian access and to stop flouting international law. Does she agree with me that while in the short term we have to get aid to these communities and we have to get Syria and other combatants to stop flouting international law, in the medium term there has to be a political solution and an end to the horrific civil war in Syria, and that must involve not just the west and the UN, but the key regional players on the ground?
I do agree with that. If this situation shows us anything, it is that Assad can have no place in Syria’s future. How can people living in besieged areas such as Madaya ever realistically be asked to live under the leadership of a man who is willing literally to starve them to death? The only way in which we will tackle this situation is through tackling the root cause of the conflict. That will require a regionally owned response in the end. Of course, it requires other countries, such as Russia, to be around the table. I want to hear condemnation of these breaches of international humanitarian law from all those people who have stood alongside the Assad regime. They need to play their role in helping us to get aid through to the people who need it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), my near neighbour in west Yorkshire, on securing the question. The horrors of Syria transcend party politics. I am proud that the United Kingdom is taking the lead in delivering humanitarian relief in Syria. I visited Domiz refugee camp on the Syria-Iraq border. Will the Secretary of State continue to rule absolutely nothing out in helping civilians in Syria, even if it means looking seriously at Royal Air Force aid drops?
We do not rule anything out. The key thing that we always consider is what is the most effective way to get to the people in need. The challenge when using military assets, particularly in the context of the airdrops that are being discussed, relates, as much as anything else, to the practicalities of dropping food and water from what would need to be very great heights to do it safely, while targeting them at the people who actually need them, as opposed to risking them ending up in the wrong hands. Additionally, there is the need to make sure that there are the logistics on the ground to get that aid from wherever it arrives to the people who are most at risk of death and starvation.
Right now, what will hopefully be happening, not just in Madaya but in two other besieged communities quite close by, is not only that food has got into the town, but that it will be directed to those—particularly children—who are most acutely malnourished. As the House will start to see, this is not just about how we get food and supplies into a community and area; it is about ensuring that we have people on the ground to distribute that aid fairly.
People in Scotland and across the country have been horrified by the images and stories coming from Madaya, and we condemn the use of starvation as a weapon of war. People are calling for airdrops. We were told about the logistical capabilities of the RAF and the precision with which it could hit military targets, so why cannot those logistical skills and precisions be applied to the dropping of food? Does the Government aid that the right hon. Lady mentioned come from the £1 billion of aid announced by the Prime Minister, or is it from previously committed funds? If we are to rely on land convoys, how can we at the London conference—and, indeed, beforehand—ensure preparation so that as soon as access to those sites is assured, land convoys can be mobilised as quickly as possible?
I mentioned some of the challenges of using different routes, other than those on the ground—as I said, Damascus is literally 40 km from the town of Madaya. The issue is not about whether there is sustenance and humanitarian supplies in the area—it is there—but about ensuring that we get it from the centre of Damascus to those people who are starving. That is why this situation is so utterly atrocious and should be condemned. Food is within the proximity of the people who need it, and it is being prevented from getting there routinely. UN agencies made seven requests last year to get into Madaya, and only one was permitted by the regime.
The money I mentioned is part of how we fund aid convoys such as the one seen today. We fund UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, and the Syrian Arab Red Cross is also part of the convoy that has been organised. We work with the International Committee of the Red Cross on its operations, and the Syria conference in London in February is important because it will give us a chance to discuss some of these important issues and press for better adherence to international humanitarian law. It will also mean that we can replenish the kind of funding that those organisations need to keep going.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s condemnation of those who are refusing to let the convoys through. What action is her Department taking to ensure that there is proper documentation, so that the International Criminal Court can step in and send a clear signal that those who breach international law in this way will be prosecuted?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and one challenge of these besieged areas is that it is hard to find out what is going on inside them. It is therefore hard for us to understand exactly what the humanitarian needs are. As she says, that makes following up these atrocities all the harder. However, whether for this kind of atrocity or for some of the sexual violence that we see in such conflicts, there is increasing recognition across the international community that such crimes should be tracked, monitored and logged. Those are precisely the discussions that we had with the UN and agencies on the ground, so that when we finally get some kind of peaceful resolution in Syria, these atrocities will not simply be swept under the carpet—they will be dealt with.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on securing this urgent question, and I welcome the strength of the Secretary of State’s response and the fact that the UK is once against at the top of the queue in providing much-needed aid. I understand that today’s convoys contain food, which is urgent. Will she say what the position will be for medical supplies and medicines for those who are besieged, because that is also of great importance and will make a difference?
It is not only food but nutritional supplements for children, and I understand that there may be some medical supplies as part of the convoy, too, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) about making sure we have ongoing access to these areas. That is why adherence to international law is so important. In the end, that is the only way we can guarantee reaching people—including the other 360,000 people who are not in Madaya—not just today but in the future.
The House will know—indeed, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed it out—that the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that only 10% of the requests made for the delivery of aid to the besieged areas were granted by the Assad regime last year. As my right hon. Friend has indicated, the Security Council has passed a resolution to authorise the delivery of aid without permission from the Assad regime. Is she confident that the resolution can be effected? What steps can be taken to ensure the convoys can get through, and that those who are in charge of operating them are sufficiently protected?
The Security Council resolution and the discussion around it has been specific about which borders can be used as cross-border aid routes. This means there is accountability and that we can check to ensure those border routes remain open. The critical challenge is that even when convoys are able to leave Damascus and get across the border, will they always be able to get to the place they need to? The reality is that we want them to do that safely and reliably. We do not want to send aid not knowing whether it will get to the people who need it. Possibly the worst thing would be to see scarce resources of UN agencies falling into the hands of the very people who are committing atrocities. We have a structure in place. The key is to make sure it is stuck to by all the warring parties concerned. In the end, the only thing that will really solve the Syria crisis is a political resolution. That is what we all must aim for. What we have seen in Madaya tells us why the sooner we reach a solution, the better.
We all know how many great voluntary aid organisations there are in the UK. One based in Slough that I particularly admire is Khalsa Aid, a Sikh-led organisation that provides aid to people—from the victims of flooding in the north of England to victims of situations like the one we are discussing. Ravi Singh, the founder and chief executive of Khalsa Aid, wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence some time ago requesting that the RAF agree to drop up to £50,000 of food aid that Khalsa Aid is sponsoring. He has yet to receive a reply. The Secretary of State for International Development has argued that RAF drops are not the most efficient way to deal with this, but I am absolutely certain that failing to respond to this kind of initiative is completely unacceptable and makes it less likely that great organisations such as Khalsa Aid will want to step up. What is she going to do about it? Will she speak to her colleague the Secretary of State for Defence?
The hon. Lady makes her point very well today in the Chamber. I will follow it up with the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), who is here today, has said to me that she will follow it up. I pay tribute to the many faith-based charities that are playing a key role in working on the ground with local communities in what is an incredibly challenging situation. We will follow up the points that the hon. Lady has set out.
The Secretary of State will know very well that Madaya used to be a holiday resort for the denizens of Damascus. To see it today is heart-breaking. Will she talk a little about the help being offered by our friends and allies in the region to the communities that are so badly affected? I am thinking in particular of Lebanon, which is barely a few kilometres over the mountains from Madaya, and Jordan. Will she also say a little about the requests made for help from our Gulf allies and the support she has received from the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Minister with responsibility for the middle east, who is in his place? Unless we approach this in a more universal fashion, we will struggle to find a solution.
We are supporting countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which have been hugely generous in accepting millions of refugees—alongside Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, whose contributions have been perhaps less recognised—by helping refugees with food, shelter, medical support, counselling—in some cases—and, in Lebanon and Jordan, with education. Critically, we have also worked with host communities, many of which have seen their populations double in size. Members can imagine the strain that puts on public services, food prices and labour wages, for example.
On our broader efforts in the region with Gulf partners, it is worth saying that Kuwait has hosted the last three pledging conferences on Syria and is co-hosting the one in London next month. It has played a role in marshalling the overall efforts and humanitarian resources in the region. Needless to say, however, we all need to do more. This is a protracted, ongoing crisis, and not only does it require day-to-day lifesaving support of the nature discussed this afternoon; but we need to see children in school and young people with the ability to find work and support themselves. If we cannot deliver those basics, we should not be surprised if people leave the region to try to build their lives elsewhere.
This weekend in The Daily Telegraph, a Mr David Blair made an unwarranted and ill-informed attack on the Royal Air Force, going as far as to suggest that the absence of airdrops was due to the RAF. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to our forces and make it clear that the absence of airdrops is due to political and practical problems and nothing to do with the capabilities of our forces?
The hon. Lady has set out very clearly just how much work the RAF has done and the challenges of carrying out airdrops in this particular situation. DFID and the MOD have never had a closer working relationship in providing humanitarian support to those who most need it around the world. Whether in tackling Ebola, responding to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or saving the lives of people on Mount Sinjar by dropping water, the MOD, and the RAF in particular, have played a critical role, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.
I thank the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) for her urgent question and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her answer and all the work she and her Department are doing 24/7. Will she make it a top priority to send food not just to Madaya but to wherever there is the opportunity to do so? Does this not show the importance of the UN system? Whatever its faults—there have been many—it is the only game in town, and the UK must support it in every way possible and encourage our friends, our allies and indeed the whole world community to do the same.
I agree wholeheartedly. It shows that in such circumstances our main leverage is the existence of a rules-based international system. Human rights are universal. It is occasionally argued at the UN that sovereignty is more important than human rights, but human rights do not depend on where someone is; they are universal and apply to people wherever they are, including in Madaya.
Have the UK Government had discussions with Russia about stopping Assad dropping bombs on people in Madaya as soon as aid has been delivered, and about whether it would allow the RAF to drop food supplies in Madaya, the other two places the Secretary of State mentioned and elsewhere, if the aid trucks fail to get through?
The Vienna process at last gives us a chance to get the right people around the table—the people who will need to reach some kind of an agreement if we are ever going to see peace in Syria. Russia clearly has a role to play in helping us to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis. The most important thing that Russia could do right now to help would be to ensure that the Assad regime, which it is propping up, complies with international humanitarian law. That, in the end, is what we need to see happen. Ultimately, no amount of RAF airdrops can make as big a difference, frankly, as getting the Assad regime to comply with international humanitarian law in Syria.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on asking the question and the Secretary of State on her detailed response to it. With our engagement in Afghanistan, this country has very recent experience of driving convoys through hostile territory. If we are to achieve what the Secretary of State wants to achieve—getting aid to where it is needed, not where we are given permission for it to go—there needs to be an element of force protection for the convoys, in terms of a certain degree of hardware and armoured capability within the convoys, to demonstrate that the UN really does mean business. In that respect, may I ask the Secretary of State what negotiations are taking place with the Ministry of Defence and the United Nations to see how we might have a hard convoy of that sort? Following on from the thoughtful question posed by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), were there to be Russian vehicles in some of those convoys, that would seem to suggest an element of protection from the Syrian forces.
I recognise the points my hon. Friend is making; the challenge in what he suggests is that the impartiality of UN agencies is the main reason they are able to get on with the kind of work they do. The reality is that it would be extremely difficult to get any kind of acceptance around the UN Security Council table of a particular military force supporting a particular convoy. There is a security aspect to what we look at in ensuring that the UN convoys can get to where they are going, but as we see with the loss of humanitarian workers on some of those convoys, it is an immensely dangerous role for any of them to play. We should pay tribute to the humanitarian workers who, in spite of those dangers, are out there right now, crossing lines into territories where they may lose their lives getting support to people who need it.
It is a terrible irony that, on the day that the UK Government announce the first use of Brimstone missiles—the ones we are told minimise civilian casualties—we are forced to watch children starve to death in Madaya. If the convoys do not get through, does the Minister agree that if we have the ability to drop bombs, then surely we have the ability to drop bread?
I recognise the point the hon. Gentleman is making, but those operations are very different in nature. One of them can happen from literally thousands of feet up, but if we are going to get bread, water and medical supplies to the right people, that is an entirely different RAF operation, requiring aircraft to fly much, much lower, which is why it is so hard to do effectively. That is why, in the end, we have to get the system that is there to work. That is why we have international humanitarian law. We should not let up on this. We should make sure that the political system that is in place delivers for the people on the ground. As we are seeing, when pressure is brought to bear, that is what happens.
The abhorrent use of siege as a weapon of war is a symptom of Assad’s war without law and a war without end in Syria. He has reduced his economy to a wartime economy, based on disappearances, looting, and arms and people smuggling. The London conference, which the Secretary of State is organising, is an important step in the plan for peace and the economic reconstruction of that country. I wrote to the Prime Minister before Christmas, and copied her in, asking how UK-based people from Syrian civil society could be involved in that conference, so that the voices from Madaya and all the other besieged towns and cities in Syria can be heard in the conference, rather than it just being a top-down process. I wonder whether she has had a chance to look at that.
I did see the hon. Lady’s letter, for which I thank her. I can reassure her that civil society is a core part of the conference; we will make sure that those voices are very much heard when the conference takes place. I will write to the hon. Lady, ensuring that she is responded to formally.
I thank the Secretary of State for her assurances today. However, can she confirm that consideration is actively being given to the use of food drops by the RAF, which we have done before, so that those who are starving—and are just six miles from the border with Lebanon and a 40-second flying time away for the Hercules transport aircraft—can have some hope of aid being delivered to them much more swiftly than it currently is?
I repeat my earlier answer—that convoys are getting into Madaya now and that the key issue is safety on the ground. I am sure the hon. Lady would not want any airdrops to fall into the hands of the people who are besieging the affected communities. It is not a question of just doing an air drop; it is not as simple as that. We need to ensure that we use the most effective route so that we get the help to the people who are starving on the ground. That is why we are using the routes that we are. I can assure the hon. Lady that we of course look at all options. There is no doubt, however, that the most effective option is to enable the UN agencies to get on with the work they are there to do.
The local authority and charities in my constituency are willing, ready and able to take refugees, but they are being told by the Home Office that none will arrive in our region until April. Why that delay, and can she do anything about it?
We are, of course, relocating people from the region, saving them from having to put their lives into the hands of the people smugglers. The hon. Lady raises the issue of her particular local authority. I am not familiar with the details, but I am happy to make sure that the offer made is followed up and responded to.
This is a hugely concerning issue, and the besieged people in Madaya are starving while we talk tactics. What specific action has been taken to secure the agreement of all parties to permit the necessary access for food, medication and other vital supplies by whatever means necessary to reach the residents of Madaya and other places where civilian populations are being besieged?
As I set out earlier, my discussions with Stephen O’Brien, who heads up the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, are going on daily. Then, of course, we have the London Syria conference in early February, and the issue of the protection of civilians will be a key part of it.
One of the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that I read about the situation in Madaya clearly states:
“we saw pure hunger and despair in people’s eyes…We saw mothers not able to breastfeed their new-born children because they lacked adequate food for themselves to produce milk.”
That was in October, and we now hear of people having to eat dogs and cats, along with all the other appalling things we have seen on the news. As the right hon. Lady says, the Assad regime must bear the brunt of the blame for this situation, but it is also clear that other groups such as Hezbollah are involved in the blockade, too. What would she say about that, and what is being done to encourage those other groups to abide by the very basics of humanity?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that it is not the Assad regime alone that is breaking international humanitarian laws. Some areas that we find it hard to reach are held by Daesh, for example. Two of the nearby communities in Fua and Kefraya are not being besieged by the Assad regime, whereas Madaya is. All of this is unacceptable. It all represents a breach of international humanitarian law, which is why I roundly condemn it. There is no place for people who are civilians to be caught up in this situation. It is horrific in the 21st century to see the images that we have seen over recent days. An even more shocking fact than that, if it is possible, is that these cases represent only the tip of an iceberg of the suffering in Syria.
Rather than asking the Secretary of State to waste time explaining to the Scottish National party what would happen to a food parcel if we tried to deliver it via a Brimstone supersonic missile, may I ask her to focus more on the issue of Russia? Specifically, what have the United Kingdom Government done to try to persuade Russia to be a constructive force in this regard, and what more can she do from here?
I think that, for the first time, we can welcome the fact that, as a result of the Vienna talks, Russia is now one of the countries around the table. However, we want to see—I want to see—the actions that have led to the situation in Madaya condemned roundly by all countries. The United Kingdom has condemned what has been happening, and I want countries such as Russia to do the same.
There can be no excuses for what we have seen going on in Syria: none whatever. There can be no excuses for the breaches of international humanitarian law which have been happening day in, day out for the last few years. All countries, but particularly those on the United Nations Security Council and those that have signed the resolutions allowing us to send cross-border convoys, should stand up for the underlying principle of international humanitarian law, and for the free and unfettered access of civilians to life-saving humanitarian supplies.
The horrific events that are unfolding in Madaya are part of a dramatic power shift that is taking place in the region. Russia has carried out more than 60 airstrikes against Free Syrian Army forces in the last 48 hours, and there are huge numbers of Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias on the ground. Is it not time that we were all very clear about the fact that it is for Russia and Iran to direct their puppet regime in Syria to allow freedom of movement of aid to civilians? There is nothing that the RAF can do when the air is not under its control but under the control of the Syrian and Russian forces, unless they agree to freedom of movement. It is in their hands that the alteration of this crisis rests.
The hon. Lady is right to point out that the countries and regimes that are backing the Syrian regime need to be tough on that regime, and need to call it out for its lack of adherence to basic human rights and international humanitarian law. As a result of the Vienna process, we now have countries around the table that need to be around the table, and that gives us a glimmer of hope for the first time, but I think we should be under no illusion about the challenging nature of the diplomatic process that lies ahead. That is all the more reason for us to have a successful Syria conference in London. We must ensure that the necessary resources are there to support people who have been caught up in the crisis in the meantime. The political issues which can make or break our ability to ensure that humanitarian support gets through absolutely must be resolved if we are to be able to take care of the people who have been caught up in this terrible crisis.
I welcome the statement, and the comments that the Secretary of State has made. She has mentioned the United Nations Security Council resolutions a number of times. Resolution 2258 states that the Security Council expresses
“outrage at the unacceptable and escalating level of violence”,
and that it is
“Gravely distressed by the continued deterioration of the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria and by the fact that urgent humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, is now required by…13.5 million people”.
That is an enormous number of people. I welcome the contribution that the United Kingdom is making and the fact that it is the second greatest contributor, but many other countries have signed up to those statements. What efforts can we make internationally to ensure that those other countries do more to live up to them, and to help the poor Syrian people?
Security Council resolutions of that kind are important, because they provide a statement of intent in making clear that we condemn what is going on and that we need to act collectively to at least provide humanitarian support for people. As the hon. Gentleman says, and as I said earlier, the countries that are on the Security Council need to back up those words with clear action. I welcomed the renewal, at the end of December, of the Security Council resolution that enables cross-border deliveries to continue. But that is the first step of putting that plan into action. As he says, we now need countries not only to support that, but to be clear in their condemnation of the Syrian regime and of other warring parties that fail to adhere to basic law.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on raising this political issue, and I welcome the Secretary of State’s condemnation of the Assad regime. She said that only one previous request to the regime to allow the delivery of aid to Madaya was granted, suggesting that the international community has for some time known about the potential for a humanitarian crisis and about the actions of the Assad regime. Does it not demonstrate the incoherence of tackling only Daesh without tackling Assad, when Assad and allies such as Hezbollah are so comprehensively breaching international law? To slightly misquote Harry Patch, the last remaining Tommy, surely this is a war that must end around a table.
That is why the Vienna talks are so important. In the end, it will end with talks reaching a resolution around the table, but let us be clear: a resolution needs to be reached for a Syria that has territorial integrity. Daesh is a clear threat to that. That is why this House passed a motion enabling us to take action against Daesh not only in Iraq but in Syria. Unless we tackle Daesh, there will not be a Syria to regain its freedom and to have peace in the medium term. So there are two strands. One is tackling Daesh and the second is reaching a political resolution on Syria itself. In the meantime, I remain committed, as the Government do, to ensuring that we remain a leading partner in the work to help people who are affected by the crisis and need humanitarian support.