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Syria: Russian Redeployment and the Peace Process

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the announcement by Russia that it is redeploying the main part of its force from Syria, and on the implications of this for the peace process.

We have, of course, seen the media reports of a Russian withdrawal of forces, including a report this morning that the first group of Russian planes has left the Hmeimim air base to return to Russia. However, I should tell the House that, as far as I have been able to determine, none of the members of the International Syria Support Group had any advance notice of this Russian announcement, and we have yet to see any detailed plans behind Russia’s announcement yesterday.

We do not yet have any independent evidence to verify Russia’s claims that military withdrawals have already begun. We are monitoring developments closely, and it will be important to judge Russia by its actions. It is worth remembering that Russia announced a withdrawal of forces in Ukraine which later turned out merely to be a routine rotation of forces. If this announcement represents a genuine decision by Russia to continue to de-escalate the military conflict, to ensure compliance with the cessation of hostilities and to encourage the Syrian regime to participate in peace negotiations in good faith, it will be welcome.

Now is the time for all parties to focus on the political negotiations, which resumed in Geneva yesterday. Only a political transition away from Assad’s rule to a Government representative of all Syrians will deliver the peace Syrians so desperately need and so ardently desire and give us a Government in Damascus able to focus on defeating terrorism and rebuilding Syria. There can be no peace in Syria while Assad remains in power. Russia has unique influence to help to make the negotiations succeed, and we sincerely hope that it will use it.

Since it came into force on 27 February, the cessation of hostilities has resulted in a significant reduction in violence in Syria. However, there have been a significant number of reports of violations, including the continued use of barrel bombs, which we have been discussing with our partners in the ISSG ceasefire taskforce in Geneva. We have serious concerns that the Assad regime has been using the cessation of hostilities to pursue its military objectives and that it is not serious about political negotiations. Swift action to address these violations is therefore vital to reduce the violence and show the Syrian people, including the Syrian opposition, that both Russia and the Assad regime are abiding by the terms of the cessation of hostilities. Failure to do so threatens the prospects for continued political negotiations.

We look to Russia, as guarantor for the regime and its backers, to use its unique influence to ensure compliance and to make clear to the Assad regime its expectation that it must negotiate in good faith. After investing so much in Assad, Mr Putin must show the world that he can exercise control over his protégé. At the same time, we call for complete and unfettered humanitarian access across Syria and an end to all violations of international humanitarian law, in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.

We are relieved that desperately needed aid convoys are now arriving in some besieged areas of Syria, including some of those named in the International Syria Support Group agreement of 11 February in Munich. It is imperative that that continues and, in particular, that access is provided to Darayya, which has not yet seen any deliveries. The Assad regime must lift all sieges and grant full and sustained humanitarian access across Syria.

No one will be more delighted than I if, after five months of relentless bombing, Russia is genuinely winding down its military support to the brutal Assad regime, but, as in all matters relating to Russia, it is the actions, rather than the words, that count. We shall be watching carefully over coming days to see whether the announcement’s potential promise turns into reality.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that reply. The conflict in Syria has now raged for five years. Half the population have fled their homes. Neighbouring countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 360,000 people have lost their lives, mostly at the hands of President Assad, and Russian airstrikes have killed 1,700 civilians in the past six months alone.

Yesterday’s announcement of the withdrawal of Russian forces will be cautiously welcomed by all of us, but I agree with the Foreign Secretary that it needs to be carried through, in particular if it is going to support the ceasefire and de-escalate tensions. The Foreign Secretary has told the House that he has received no direct information about the likely timescale and extent of the withdrawal, but will he comment on the statement attributed to a Russian Defence Minister, who said that Russian forces will continue to attack so-called terrorists, a term which Russia has used in the past to cover airstrikes on the Syrian opposition? Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what discussions, if any, he has had with Foreign Minister Lavrov about this?

How might the withdrawal of Russian aircraft change the type of missions that the RAF and others in the anti-Daesh coalition are undertaking in Syria? Given the Foreign Secretary’s latest assessment of the ceasefire, the extent to which it is holding and the violations to which he referred, what action are the British Government and other Governments proposing to take? Does he agree that a full withdrawal would improve opposition forces’ confidence in the ceasefire and help to ensure their full participation in the peace process?

Given the continuing concerns expressed by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others, what will be the impact of both the ceasefire and any withdrawal on the international community’s ability safely to provide the humanitarian aid to which the Foreign Secretary referred, in particular to the towns and areas that have been besieged? With the UN commission of inquiry on Syria due to report this week to the United Nations Human Rights Council on potential war crimes committed by all sides, what prospect does he see for any suspected war crimes being referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council, given that Syria is not a signatory to the Rome statute?

Finally, what recent discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with other members of the ISSG and Staffan de Mistura about the prospects for the latest round of peace talks taking place in Geneva? Does he agree that both Russia and Syria need to ensure that all the issues are on the table if the Syrian people are to see peace and stability finally return to their war-torn country?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As he rightly says, it is now five years since this terrible civil war began, and he correctly set out the scale of attrition that the Syrian people have faced over that time. He referred to the remarks attributed to Defence Minister Shoygu that Russia would continue to attack terrorists. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that is exactly the formula used by the Russians in the past when attacking the moderate opposition. They have always asserted that they conduct airstrikes against terrorists only, so it is not terribly reassuring that, a few hours after the announcement of the withdrawal of their military forces, their Defence Minister is saying that they will continue to attack terrorists.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I have had no such discussions since the announcement was made, although I have spoken to American colleagues to assess what information they have. The UK mission in Syria will not change as a result of withdrawal of Russian forces; UK airstrikes are exclusively targeted against Daesh, primarily in the east of the country, and will continue to be so targeted.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the latest assessment of the ceasefire. We held a meeting in Paris on Sunday, in which we reviewed the situation on the ground. The reality is that, after a lull in the level of airstrikes immediately after the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, they have grown steadily. On 10 March, we assessed that Russian airstrikes were at the same level as they were before the cessation of hostilities, but there is evidence that the Russians had redirected the focus of their airstrikes so that they were more convincingly targeted against Daesh and al-Nusra targets than had previously been the case. If Russia carries out a full withdrawal of its forces—and I do not think even the Russian announcement is suggesting that would take place—that will certainly change the balance of power and military advantage on the ground in a very significant way.

It is not the Russians who have been impeding access for humanitarian aid, but the Syrian regime, and so the question is about how much leverage the Russians have over the regime and how much of that leverage they are prepared to exercise. One could speculate about whether this announcement is, in fact, an exercise by Russia in reminding the regime of its position as a client, operating at Russia’s will.

On the ICC, there are two major impediments. The first, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, is that Syria is not a signatory to the ICC convention. The second is that Russia holds a veto in the Security Council. Therefore, although we all seek to bring those responsible for the terrible crimes that have been committed in Syria to justice, I would advise him not to hold his breath just for the moment.

Finally, on ISSG discussions, the ISSG has not met in ISSG format recently, but we have had opportunities to talk to Staffan de Mistura about the agenda for the peace talks in Geneva. We are very satisfied with the sensible approach he is taking, which recognises that, to put it bluntly, as soon as we get to the difficult subjects, the talks may run into extreme difficulty, and which therefore seeks to begin by discussing some less controversial subjects to try at least to generate some momentum before we come to the more difficult issues. I have to say again that the sticking point is transition. We are clear, and resolutions of the ISSG are clear, that the way forward has to be through a transitional regime, which moves us from the current position with Assad in power to a new position with Assad out of power. The Russians, the Syrian regime and the Iranians still do not accept that principle, and unless and until it is accepted, the talks going on in Geneva may linger for a while but they will not ultimately be able to make significant progress.

The Foreign Secretary refers to Russia sending a message to Assad. Does he agree that this is potentially helpful as far as the peace process is concerned by ensuring that Assad does not overplay his hand in the peace talks? Does the Foreign Secretary also agree that the actual threat to the peace process comes from across the border in Turkey, which is no longer led by a constructive and rational partner in the process? The actions of President Erdogan should be giving all of us the gravest concern as he presides over a disintegrating democracy and a war on part of his own people.

It is possible that the Russian announcement is intended as a message to the Assad regime to say, “Don’t overplay your hand. Get to the negotiating table and engage.” It is also possible that it is intended as a message to the moderate opposition to do what is expected of them, because it has not been that easy to persuade them to attend the Geneva talks when Russian bombs have still been raining down on their positions. That is all positive, but unfortunately none of us knows what the intent of Mr Putin is when he carries out any action, which is why he is a very difficult partner in any situation such as this.

On the question of Turkey, I will just say this to my hon. Friend: Turkey remains an important NATO ally and a vital security partner for the UK. When we look at events in Turkey, we can refer, as he did, to recent legislative changes and actions of the Administration, but we should also acknowledge the terrible challenge that the Turkish people are facing from terrorism, with multiple deaths from the attack in Ankara on Sunday, hundreds of security force members killed over the past nine months, and many civilians—more than 100—also killed. We must understand the challenge that Turkey faces, and I assert, as we do in relation to every country, the right of the Turkish people and the Turkish Government to defend themselves when they face that kind of terrorist attack.

It is almost five years to the day since the uprising against Assad. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, 11 million people displaced, and 80% of Syria’s children damaged by the civil conflict. When the House debated these issues two weeks ago, there was a huge amount of scepticism across the Chamber about the ceasefire. There have been significant breaches, but it has resulted in a huge diminution of violence. It is the only ceasefire we have. Following on from the question from the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), is not the most credible explanation for the Russian announcement that it will pressurise the Assad regime into taking a more flexible attitude in the peace talks? If that is the case, instead of having the caveats first and then the welcome, would it not be better if the Foreign Secretary had the welcome and then the caveats—since it is not only the only ceasefire we have; it is the only peace process we have?

I think that we all start out with hope and we end up with experience. In dealing with Russia, putting the caveat first is probably always sensible. That is a credible interpretation of what Mr Putin has done, but, unfortunately, unlike with almost every other party with which we work in these situations, we have no insight at all into Russia’s strategy, Russia’s thinking and Russia’s tactics, so we are left guessing. Here we are, 24 hours later, none of us, including the Americans, with whom Russia apparently craves a bilateral partnership over Syria, has any real insight into what the purpose of this move is.

May I invite my right hon. Friend to admit that we have probably been unwise to have become hooked on the rather simplistic notion that the removal of Bashar al-Assad is a prerequisite for any solution at all in Syria? Is it not the case that, even with this change in Russian tactics, any progress towards peace is bound to retain many messy elements within it? Where does the Foreign Secretary think that his supposed Government for all the Syrian people—be it transitional or long-term—will come from?

I cannot agree with my right hon. Friend. We assess that the removal of Bashar al-Assad is an absolutely essential prerequisite for peace. That is not just a moral judgment that someone who has presided over the displacement of 12 million of their own people, barrel-bombed them, poison-gassed them, and killed 360,000 of them should be removed from any power; it is also a pragmatic judgment that we want a reconciliation between the different factions within Syria. The truth is that those fighting against the regime are not going to lay down their arms unless and until they are given an assurance that Bashar al-Assad will not be part of the future in Syria. Of course, my right hon. Friend is right that it will be messy, and that there will be many stumbling blocks along the way, but it is possible to envisage a transition that will see the infrastructure of the state remain in place, but with Bashar al-Assad replaced with another figure, possibly from within the Alawite minority community, as head of a transitional Administration.

The Foreign Secretary is quite right to treat this Russian announcement, along with all Russian announcements, with extreme caution. However, if this move does turn out to be positive, will that not vindicate both the robust approach that Britain and the European Union have taken towards President Putin, and the decision taken by this House to extend the highly successful RAF mission in Iraq to Syria?

Yes, I am quite convinced that President Putin recognises only strength; he does not do shades of grey. Everything is black and white. You are either standing up to him or you have caved in in front of him. The action that the European Union took in imposing sanctions against Russia over Ukraine surprised the Russians; they did not expect that the European Union would be able to establish unanimity to do that. It surprised them even more that we have managed to renew those sanctions twice, and we are coming up to the point where we will renew them again. It has also surprised the Russians that the coalition has held together in respect of the battle against Daesh. Therefore, doing what we know is right, sticking to our guns, working with the Russians where they are prepared to align with our objectives and being clear about our requirement of the Russians to comply with their obligations under international law is the right way in which to proceed. I do not think that seeking concessions to or favours from Mr Putin is a way forward; it simply does not work like that with him.

In these very early days of the ceasefire and the talks in Geneva, does my right hon. Friend agree that, in cautiously welcoming this reported withdrawal of Russian troops, we should not lose sight of the need for the ongoing humanitarian aid to be delivered to those who need it in Syria and the region, and for securing a peaceful long-term political solution to the problem?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are two reasons why the humanitarian aid must go on being delivered and getting into parts that it has not yet reached. The first and obvious reason is that people on the ground desperately need it, but, secondly, it is to enable the opposition who are at Geneva to stay there and carry on talking. They find it very difficult to maintain their legitimacy and credibility with their supporters on the ground if no humanitarian aid is getting through and regime bombs and Russian bombs are still falling on them.

The Foreign Secretary said that he has not talked to Mr Lavrov. Is that because Mr Lavrov is refusing to take his call, or that he has not yet tried? If it is the latter, why not?

Again, experience is the answer. I have not tried to make the call, and I am in no doubt that I could predict quite confidently the outcome of such a call to Foreign Minister Lavrov. I have had many conversations with him over the course of our regular meetings at Syria-related events, none of which has been fruitful.

It is depressing to calculate the sum total of human misery that has resulted from Russia’s intervention in this bloody civil war, which has gone from vetoing attempts by countries to get an early resolution to Assad and a transition Government in place through to, as one non-governmental organisation put it to me, the bombing of a hospital four times by Russian planes. May I re-emphasise what my right hon. Friend says by asking him to treat with huge caution this move and to hold Russia responsible for any war crimes that it commits in the future?

My hon. Friend reminds us of an important fact. If somebody who has gone into another country, bombed civilian populations and destroyed hospitals and schools then decides, five months later, that they have done enough, let us not give them too much praise. It is a bit like that question, “Did he stop beating his wife?” The fact that the Russians are there in the first place is something that we must continually protest about, and we certainly should not give them any credit for simply withdrawing from those illegal activities.

Despite Russia’s announcement, many countries remain committed to military action in Syria. In the past five years, we have seen an escalation in the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the wider region, and the refugee crisis across Europe. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell the House what proportion of Government spending relating to the crisis has been spent on military action as compared with the provision of humanitarian aid and the building of a long-term peace solution for the people of Syria?

I cannot give the hon. Lady the precise figures, but we have contributed over £1.1 billion of humanitarian aid to Syria and the neighbouring countries to support displaced persons and refugees. Our military operation, which has been running in Syria since the vote in this House a mere three months ago, has so far cost a tiny fraction of that. I do not want to mislead the House by giving a figure, but I am certain it will only be in double figures of millions.

Given Russia’s history over the past 30 years of changing horses at the last moment in order to seek a different outcome, would my right hon. Friend now be advising President Assad to double his bodyguard?

The relationship between President Assad and President Putin is a subject of great speculation among colleagues on the International Syria Support Group circuit, but I am clear that the situation is the same as it has always been. I have said this in the House before. President Putin could have ended all this years ago by a single phone call to President Assad, offering him some fraternal advice about his future health and wellbeing.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we should be cautious about these latest developments, but does he believe that Assad is now in a stronger position than he was six months ago?

In military terms, certainly. The Russian intervention has prevented the collapse of regime forces, has restored morale among regime forces, has allowed the regime to take ground, consolidate positions, move forces around in a strategically significant way, and has damaged and demoralised opposition groups. There is no doubt at all about that. If there is a genuine withdrawal of Russian air cover, the question is how long that improvement can be sustained, because we know that the Syrian regime forces are fundamentally hollowed out after five years of civil war, and without the Russians there to stiffen their spine it is not clear how long they will be able to maintain the initiative.

Assuming that the Russian withdrawal does take place—I understand there is no certainty in that—will UK and US air forces take over Russian targets against Daesh with the intention of ensuring that there is no reduction in the intensity of action against Daesh as a result of Russian withdrawal?

I do not think I can comment at the Dispatch Box on what will drive US and UK targeting decisions, but I can say this. The Russian air force operates largely within a part of Syria that is heavily protected by the Syrian integrated air defence system. The Russians can fly there because they are operating in what is for them a permissive environment, not least because Russian technicians control the Syrian air defence system. It would not be the same for US, UK and other coalition partners. I do not think there can be an assumption that western members of the coalition will be able to take over all the targeting activity against Daesh that is currently being carried out by the Russians.

While I acknowledge that Assad is principally to blame for the starvation of his own citizens, and therefore the departure of the Russians is unlikely to have much effect on humanitarian aid, does the Foreign Secretary envisage there being any new humanitarian aid initiatives to ensure that aid reaches the parts of Syria that are currently being starved?

The humanitarian aid is there. It is ready to move; it is in trucks. The World Food Programme has the resource it needs. The food, the medical supplies and so on are ready to go in. The issue is simply access. Principally, that is to do with regime obstruction. In some places it has been overcome; in others it is still a problem. UN people are working day and night on the ground to try to resolve it, but it is a case of literally progressing through one checkpoint and then trying to negotiate the next.

Following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), the Kremlin says that the Russian presence in Syria is to counter terrorism, although there are no terrorist groups with fighter jets. Is it not the case that if Russia is serious about de-escalating the situation in Syria and moving towards a peaceful and political solution, it will also withdraw its surface-to-air missiles—the S-400 system?

Our understanding is that the S-400 system was probably deployed to protect Russian installations and was part of the protective bubble that the Russians put around their installations in Syria—their air bases and naval port. We will obviously have to wait to see the extent, if any, of the withdrawal that has been announced and whether it includes those weapons.

In seeking further clarity on this deeply cynical announcement, can the Secretary of State or his US allies clarify whether the Russian Government have set out any conditions linked to their withdrawal that would negatively impact on the political negotiations? Given the tens of thousands of incredibly vulnerable Syrians who exist up and down the country, is it not time to think again about a NATO-backed no-bombing zone, particularly along the border with Turkey, to protect civilians?

As far as we are aware from the Russian statement, there is no conditionality attached to it. Just as the Russian intervention was a unilateral action, announced by Russia, so the withdrawal is a unilateral action—no negotiations or conditionality.

The hon. Lady asks me about no-bombing zones. The problem with a no-bombing zone is the same, essentially, as the one I identified for my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly). Syria has a very capable ground-to-air integrated defence system, which makes it difficult for anybody’s air force, in a non-permissive environment, to enforce a no-bombing zone. It is not impossible that, with the use of stand-off weapons, some kind of no-bombing zone around the borders of Syria would be enforceable, but it would involve complex issues. It has been raised; it has been discussed; but so far volunteers to police a no-bombing zone have not been rushing forward.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned Iran. He knows that the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have vastly contradictory views of Syria, especially on the future of President Assad. Will he use his good offices to ensure that those two countries get around the table to negotiate, as we saw in Vienna, because until there is greater dialogue between those two regional powers, the tensions that we have witnessed over the past five years will continue?

My hon. Friend is right that Iran and Saudi Arabia have fundamentally different views about the future trajectory of Syria, but they are both part of the ISSG. They did both come to the table in Vienna and sit there for two days, or whatever it was, and talk to each other, and they are both still showing up to regular ISSG meetings. It does not mean they agree with each other once they get there, but it is progress that they are at least sitting around the same table.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the humanitarian convoys on the ground in Syria. More of them are getting through, but it is nowhere near the continuous and unimpeded access that both international law and the United Nations need. What is his assessment of how this latest Russian announcement will provide further opportunities to put pressure on the Syrian regime to allow more humanitarian aid through?

As I said, even if the Russians do withdraw forces, I do not think that will have a direct impact on the ability to get humanitarian supplies into the country. Obviously, the thing that will most assist in that is a continuation of cessation of hostilities. What happens on the ground next depends on how any Russian withdrawal takes place, over what time period, and how the regime responds to that. The cynic may suggest that the Syrian regime has used the last two weeks to prepare for this moment; although we did not know it was coming, perhaps the Syrian regime did and perhaps it is prepared for it.

The intervention by Russia in Syria was a surprise to the west, and this withdrawal, if it is genuine, is also a surprise. Russia’s interventions have been unhelpful but influential. Can my right hon. Friend advise me what steps we can take and are taking with our allies to stop Russia setting the agenda in Syria?

That is a good question and a very difficult one to answer. All the western partners in this enterprise play by the rules of the international system and are transparent about their intentions. We had a debate in this Parliament—a discussion that went on for a couple of years before we got to the point of deciding to engage in airstrikes in Syria. The entire world knew about the debate in the UK and where the fault lines were in that debate. Unfortunately, Russia is a state in which all power is concentrated in the hands of one man. There is not even a politburo any more, just a single man. Decisions are made apparently arbitrarily, without any advance signalling and, as we are now seeing, can be unmade just as quickly. That is not a recipe for enhancing stability and predictability on the international scene. It makes the world a more dangerous place, not a less dangerous place.

The Foreign Secretary is right not to seek to spin Putin’s announcement, but to wait for sound evidence. If, however, it does serve to recondition some of Assad’s assumptions about the negotiations, and if it also means that elements in the opposition feel a bit more encouraged about the worth of their purpose in the negotiations, should we not take the opportunity to make the dialogue more inclusive, not least in respect of women? I note that the UN special envoy met the women’s advisory group at the weekend.

Yes, our intention is that the dialogue should be inclusive, representative of all faith groups and all ethnicities within Syria, and also representative of civil society including, of course, women. We should not forget that before this horror started, Syria was, bizarrely, one of the most “liberal” countries in the middle east in terms of tolerance of religious minorities, tolerance of secular behaviour, and the role of women and their participation in society, the professions and employment. We would certainly need to get back to that as Syria re-normalises in the future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest problems we face is that we have no idea of the military resource that Russia put into Syria, and therefore have no way of understanding whether it has withdrawn or not? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the western allies must take this into consideration when moving forward in the next weeks and months?

I am not sure that I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I think we have quite a reasonable assessment of the military resource that Russia has in Syria and we will be able to now monitor whether that resource is being genuinely withdrawn or simply rotated.

Given that Daesh has not been the main focus of Russian airstrikes, to what extent does my right hon. Friend think the Russians would advocate a partition of Syria?

It is a subject of speculation whether the immediate objective of the Assad regime and of the Russians is to carve out some kind of Alawite mini-state in the north-west of Syria, but as I have said several times, because we have no dialogue on these things, and because Russia is completely untransparent about its motives and its plans, we can only speculate.

For any peaceful transition in Syria, along with the Russian withdrawal, Iran would need to withdraw its militias, military personnel and military advisers who have been supporting the brutal Assad regime. Do we have any news on that? I declare my interest, as recorded in the register.

Our views are that my hon. Friend is right. Clearly, for a sustainable peace in Syria, the Shi’a militias and their Iranian sponsors and advisers will have to be stood down, just as the Russians will have to withdraw their forces. But we have no indication yet that we are going to see a matching announcement from Tehran, announcing the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces from Syria.

Given the experience in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine when forces that looked like Russian forces, were armed like Russian forces and behaved like Russian forces arrived but were disavowed, what confidence do we have that this will be a genuine withdrawal and that we will not see forces carrying a Russian flag disappear, only to be replaced on the ground by forces that look suspiciously like them?

I cannot rule that out, but what we are primarily talking about here is air forces, and that trick is a little more difficult to perform in the case of advanced strike aircraft. We cannot rule out the possibility of Russian-sponsored irregular forces playing some future role in the conflict.