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Syria Peace Talks

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

On 11 February, the International Syria Support Group, meeting in Munich, reached agreement to deliver humanitarian assistance to besieged communities and to implement a cessation of hostilities. I am pleased to say that the first deliveries of aid have now been made, and yesterday there was an announcement of agreement between Russia and the United States on the detailed arrangements for the cessation of hostilities, which will come into force at midnight on Saturday. If that cessation is fully implemented—faithfully implemented—by all the parties, this could be an important step towards a lasting political settlement in Syria.

The bombing of two hospitals and other health facilities in northern Syria is completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international humanitarian law. Does the Minister agree that those responsible must be brought to justice and that that reinforces the need for the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court?

The hon. Lady identifies an incident that has caused widespread outrage across the world, but in her question she has put her finger on the problem: a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a resolution of the United Nations Security Council, one veto-holding member of which is the Russian Federation, so it is unlikely that we will succeed going down that route.

Turkish policy towards Syrian Kurdish forces seems inconsistent with our own; inconsistent with the prospect of supporting Syrian peace talks; and inconsistent with the opportunity to form a united front against Daesh. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment?

My hon. Friend is right that the Syrian Kurds are an important part of the equation and they have to be brought into any enduring solution in Syria, but Turkey has a problem with links between PKK—a terrorist group that is designated as such in both Turkey and the UK—and Syrian Kurdish groups. There are overlaying conflicts here, and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict is a major complicating factor. What we have seen over the past weeks is very disturbing evidence of co-ordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime and the Russian Air Force, which is making us distinctly uneasy about the Kurds’ role in all of this.

With the Russian indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria driving the refugee crisis in a deliberate foreign policy tool to destabilise and weaken Europe, does the Secretary of State agree that now is not the time even to talk about weakening EU sanctions against the Putin regime?

I very strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that now is not the time to send Russia any signals of compromise or of pulling back. The only language that Mr Putin understands is the language of strength and, I am afraid, the language of confrontation. When unacceptable behaviour on the scale that we have seen in Syria occurs, we have to stand up to be counted, however inconvenient that may be for some who have to be counted.

Whether we like it or not, Russia is an essential prerequisite to any successful talks. The American Secretary of State has a close working relationship with the Russian Foreign Minister, talking to him nearly every week. When did the Foreign Secretary last talk to the Russian Foreign Minister and what is he doing to improve his personal relationship with him?

Our relationships with our Russian counterparts are difficult. I last spoke to Sergei Lavrov on 11 February during the Munich International Syria Support Group meeting where he and I had some prolonged and robust exchanges around the table. I do speak very regularly with the US Secretary of State, most recently meeting him on Saturday morning, so I am very much aware of the discussions that he is having with our mutual Russian counterpart. The problem is that Russian policy on Syria is made not in the Russian Foreign Ministry, but inside a tiny cabal around President Putin at the heart of the Kremlin.

What dialogue has the Minister had with our French counterparts as a result of the Syrian crisis regarding the safety and child protection arrangements for unaccompanied child refugees who are at grave risk and who are due to be dispersed from the jungle camp in Calais?

I have had discussions about the situation in Syria with my former French counterpart who retired the week before last and with my new French counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, on a regular basis. The issues relating to would-be migrants accumulated around Calais are for the Home Secretary, and she has very regular discussions with her counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is absolutely right that the Russians are a key part to establishing a meaningful political settlement in Syria. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that does not mean that we give in to the Russians across the rest of Europe and that the NATO commitment in the Baltic states is just as important to counterbalance whatever partnerships we use the Russians for in Syria?

My hon. Friend is right. We are dealing with a raised level of Russian assertiveness—indeed, aggression—in many areas: in the Baltic, in Ukraine, and now in the middle east, and we have to be robust in all areas. He is also right—and our hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was right—that Russia holds the key to the situation in Syria. I have said in the House before, and I shall say again today, that there is one person in the world who has the power to bring the misery in Syria to an end by picking up the phone and making one phone call, and that person is Vladimir Putin.

The whole House will welcome the ceasefire agreement, which is badly needed, but there have been promises from Russia before. The Russians have repeatedly claimed to attack terrorist groups when, in fact, they have attacked moderate opposition forces and civilians, so can the Foreign Secretary set out how breaches of the ceasefire agreement will be assessed?

The hon. Lady has put her finger on the problem. The ceasefire agreement will allow continued operations against Daesh, al-Nusra and associated terrorist groups designated by the UN Security Council, and no one would disagree with that. The problem is that the Russians claim that all their action to date has been against those groups. On the face of it, the Russians could be entering into this arrangement on the basis that they will not change their behaviour at all. Clearly, the cessation of hostilities will fail before it has even got off the ground if that is their intention, so everything hinges on Russian good intentions.

So can the Foreign Secretary explain what consideration has been given to a UN resolution to strengthen the ceasefire agreement and support the peace talks?

First, an arrangement has been agreed between the Russians and Americans for investigating alleged breaches of the ceasefire, and there is a commitment on both sides to working up a co-ordination cell to try to identify legitimate targets that can be struck during the ceasefire. As for the UN dimension, we are looking at that, and we would very much welcome a UN resolution behind the ceasefire. We already have UN resolution 2254, which we agreed on 18 December in New York, but we welcome further UN resolutions. That can only happen if the Russians are prepared to work with us, because they have a veto.