(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Aleppo, Syria.
The Syrian conflict has entered its sixth year. As a result of Assad’s brutality and the terror of Daesh, half the population have been displaced and more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, estimates that as many as 400,000 people might have been killed as a direct result of the conflict.
Our long-term goal is for Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government capable of protecting their people from Daesh and other extremists. Only when that happens can stability be returned to the region, which is necessary to stem the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe.
We have been working hard to find a political solution to the conflict. There have been three rounds of UN-facilitated peace negotiations in Geneva this year—in February, March and April. The latest round concluded on 27 April without significant progress on the vital issue of political transition. We have always been clear that negotiations will make progress only if the cessation of hostilities is respected, full humanitarian access is granted and both sides are prepared to discuss political transition.
The escalating violence over the past two weeks, especially around Aleppo, has been an appalling breach of the cessation of hostilities agreement. On 27 April, the al-Quds hospital in Aleppo city was bombed, killing civilians, including two doctors, and destroying vital equipment. More than a dozen hospitals in the city have already been closed because of air strikes, leaving only a few operating. The humanitarian situation is desperate. According to human rights monitors, at least 253 civilians, including 49 children, have been killed in the city in the last fortnight alone.
At midnight on Friday, following international diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia, a renewed cessation came into effect in Latakia and eastern Ghouta in Damascus. We understand that this has reduced some of the violence in Latakia, but the situation remains shaky in eastern Ghouta.
The situation in Aleppo remains very fluid indeed. The Assad regime continues to threaten a major offensive on the city. There were some reports of a cessation of attacks overnight, but we have received reports indicating that violence has continued this morning. We need swift action to stop the fighting. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is speaking to Secretary Kerry today to discuss how we can preserve the cessation.
We look to Russia, with its unique influence over the regime, to ensure that the cessation of hostilities does not break down. It has set itself up as the protector of the Assad regime, and it must now put real pressure on the regime to end these attacks. This is crucial if peace negotiations are to be resumed in Geneva. These negotiations must deliver a political transition away from Assad to a legitimate Government who can support the needs and aspirations of all Syrians, and put an end to the suffering of the Syrian people.
We also need to inject further momentum into political talks. We therefore support the UN envoy’s call for a ministerial meeting of the International Syria Support Group to facilitate a return to a process leading to a political transition in Syria. We hope that this can take place in the coming weeks. The UK is working strenuously to make that happen, and we will continue to do so.
I have to say that, once again, it is a shame that the Secretary of State cannot be here personally for an important discussion on this matter. I hope that that will be noted.
Without international action, on current trends, at the end of this short debate, another two Syrian civilians will be dead and four will be badly injured. On Friday, desperate doctors in Aleppo appealed for international help to stave off further massacres and the potential besiegement of that city, fearing a repeat of the horrors of Srebrenica. In the light of this, does the Minister agree that it is the Syrian authorities who are primarily responsible for these horrific ongoing abuses, continuing their long-standing policy of targeting civilians in rebel-held areas? Does he also agree that we now urgently need a mechanism, with clear consequences, to deter further barbaric attacks on civilians? I have raised repeatedly in this place the need for a no-bombing zone; will he now look again at that?
What is the UK doing to work with all those with an influence over parties to the conflict, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Russia, to put pressure on all sides to stop all attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals? Does the Minister have evidence that Russian forces have been directly involved in the latest air strikes? If they were, does he agree that it is surely time for fresh sanctions against Russia? Is it not now also time for his Department, along with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, to look again at airdrops to besieged communities? Why can we not join forces with our European allies to get food to starving people? Would not airdrops also put the regime under renewed pressure to grant more traditional and reliable land access?
On accountability, is the Minister’s Department involved in collecting evidence to enable eventual war crimes trials, as we did during the Balkans conflict? I understand that the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, which is funded by the UK and US Governments, has evidence to link abuses to the highest level in the Syrian state.
On refugees, given the escalation of the violence in Aleppo and the lack of medical care now available there, what more can the UK do to get the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way? Surely, given what we know about the horror which many of the refugee children in Europe have fled, it is now time to end the Government’s shameful refusal to give 3,000 unaccompanied children sanctuary here in the UK.
While I am a huge fan of President Obama—indeed, I worked for him in North Carolina in 2008—I believe that both he and the Prime Minister made the biggest misjudgment of their time in office when they put Syria on the “too difficult” pile and, instead of engaging fully, withdrew and put their faith in a policy of containment. This judgment, made by both leaders for different reasons, will, I believe, be judged harshly by history, and it has been nothing short of a foreign policy disaster. However, there is still time for both men to write a postscript to this failure. Does the Minister agree that it is time for the leaders of both our countries, even in the midst of two hotly contested political campaigns, to launch a joint, bold initiative to protect civilians, to get aid to besieged communities, and to throw our collective weight behind the fragile peace talks before they fail? I do not believe that either President Obama or the Prime Minister tried to do harm in Syria but, as is said, sometimes all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work as chair of the all-party friends of Syria group? It is important that the House is kept up to date with the fluid events taking place in that country. Let me qualify her remarks: the Foreign Secretary is returning from an important visit to Latin America; otherwise, he would be in the Chamber responding on this very important matter.
The hon. Lady raised a number of issues and I will do my best to go through them efficiently. First, I absolutely concur with her: it is Syria that is very much responsible for the significant number of deaths of people in the country of all religions, particularly the Sunnis. That is why we call on Russia to use its influence to bring Assad to account and to make sure that we can get access. Following the previous ceasefire, we gained access to about a third of the areas that we could not previously get to. We hope that we can unlock the situation and get access in the forthcoming days.
The hon. Lady mentioned methods of delivery, particularly airdrops. There are places in Daesh-held territory where it is possible, because of air superiority, to fly slow and low enough to drop aid packages accurately, but that is not the case for some of the conurbations and communities in the built-up areas. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city by some margin, and not only are the opposition and the Assad Government there; al-Nusra is there as well. Without the regime’s support—it has air superiority—we cannot carry out the airdrops that the hon. Lady would like. It is better to get agreement from Assad to take trucks straight into those places so that they can go directly to the people in need. Airdrops can land randomly. They often get into the wrong hands and do not help the very vulnerable whom we wish to support.
The hon. Lady mentioned the role of other countries, including Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister al-Jubeir is in Geneva with John Kerry at the moment, playing his role. Let us not forget that it was Saudi Arabia that brought together the opposition groups in the first place in December, which began the three rounds of talks that have taken place.
The hon. Lady talked about the importance of collecting evidence. We had a very good debate two weeks ago about genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. We are playing a leading role in making sure that people are brought to justice. As we saw in the case of the former Serbian-Bosnian leader, Radovan Karadžic, sometimes the process takes many years, but we are actively and heavily involved—we are likely to make more effort—in making sure that we collect the evidence as we speak.
The hon. Lady made an interesting comment about placing Syria on the “too difficult” pile. I ask the House to consider how different Syria might look if, in August 2013, we had voted in favour of punitive bomb strikes. Daesh did not even exist in Syria at that time—it had no foothold whatsoever. Instead, this House stepped back from that decision, and I think that we will live to regret that.
Back in February, President Assad described retaking the whole of Syria as
“a goal we are seeking to achieve without hesitation”,
but he was slapped down by the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, who said:
“I heard President Assad’s remarks on television…Of course, they do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking”.
The Foreign Secretary has admitted that he does not get much out of his conversations with Foreign Minister Lavrov. Does the Minister think that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has the necessary capacity satisfactorily to read Russian interests and intentions?
The key relationship that has developed and that allows us to place greater emphasis on Russia—whether it be Putin, Lavrov or Bogdanov—is that with John Kerry. The closeness with which he is working with the Foreign Secretary shows that we are playing our part as well. From a humanitarian perspective, we are the second largest donor to the country. We are playing our part on the humanitarian aspect as well as with regard to the military. We are very much at the forefront of activities but, ultimately, it is not for the Americans or the British but for Russia to determine that it is going to place pressure on Assad to allow access to the very areas into which we need to get humanitarian aid.
I thank the Minister for his response and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) on securing this urgent question. In the short time that she has been in the House, she has consistently stood up for the people of Syria who are caught in this appalling conflict.
The whole House can unite in condemning last week’s air strikes and shelling in Aleppo. In particular, as is recognised by the Geneva convention, there is never any justification for attacking hospitals. The bravery and commitment of the medics who remained in Aleppo stand in sharp contrast to the cowardice and brutality of the Assad regime, which once again showed its indifference to the population of Syria. Despite the actions of the Assad regime, we must remain committed to the peace talks and to a political solution to the current conflict.
As a member of the Syria Support Group, Britain has a crucial role to play, particularly in supporting the US-Russia ceasefire talks. Britain ought to be an active contributor to that process. As a leading EU country, we can wield real influence as a member of Russia’s most important trading bloc. What discussions are ongoing at an EU level about exerting pressure on the Russians to redouble their commitment to the ceasefire? As the Minister has stated, Russia is in the strongest position to tell President Assad to stop killing civilians in Aleppo.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen, may I ask what specific steps the UK Government are taking with key allies such as Saudi Arabia to encourage the Syrian opposition to recommit to the peace process? Will the Minister comment on reports that the Assad regime used the ceasefire to move troops and prepare for an assault on Aleppo? May I ask whether the negotiations under way in Geneva include provisions for additional monitoring so that all sides can have confidence that a new ceasefire agreement will be genuine?
At the heart of the conflict is a humanitarian disaster of an almost unimaginable scale. Can the Minister assure the House that the UK is pushing for humanitarian access to be at the heart of any new ceasefire agreement? Finally, will the Minister comment on recent reports of an increase in collusion between the Assad regime and Daesh, with the Assad regime stepping back from confronting Daesh in a number of areas while continuing to trade with it and therefore providing vital funds for its campaigns?
I welcome the tone in which the hon. Lady raises these important questions. We have had a series of debates on the matter, and I concur with the hon. Lady in welcoming the work that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) has done in her role as chair of the friends of Syria all-party group.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) mentioned the Geneva conventions. They are part of collecting the evidence that is necessary in the longer term to bring the culprits to account. That work is ongoing with a number of non-governmental organisations that Britain is supporting. If I may, I will digress to pay tribute to the White Helmets, an organisation that Britain helps to fund, which helps to dig people out of the rubble. Its members are based in these very dangerous areas and are trained to save the lives of civilians who are caught up in them. They go into those disastrous areas with the necessary technology to try to pull survivors out.
The hon. Lady mentioned the role of the EU. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, is a member of the ministerial working group, and she is very much engaged on the matter at the highest level. As I mentioned, the group will be meeting in the very near future.
The hon. Lady talked about the importance of the Syrian opposition and its cohesion. I had the opportunity to meet the president of the Syrian opposition in Istanbul only a couple of weeks ago. The Syrian opposition was pessimistic at that point about the progress that was being made, and now we have seen events unfold. Given its disparate nature and the wide agendas that it follows, the fact that the group has stayed together is an indication of its determination to say, “We do not want to be part of Daesh, but we also do not want to have Assad as our leader.”
The hon. Lady is right to indicate that there is huge collusion, as a matter of convenience, between Assad and Daesh. Reports are coming out that in Palmyra, for example, a deal was struck that Daesh would retreat from that area and the Assad regime would be able to claim that retreat as a victory, but clearly something else was happening behind the scenes.
The hon. Lady alludes to the fact that there have been oil sales. The Assad regime is short of oil supplies and Daesh has crude oil that it can sell, which is another area of mutual convenience. Thankfully, the work we have been doing right across the board on counter-Daesh initiatives is preventing Daesh from being able to produce its oil and therefore to gain financially from sales or, indeed, to use the oil itself.
What is the Government’s current advice to the military opposition to Assad other than Daesh, given that the Government have been sympathetic to the opposition in the past, but it now finds itself in an extremely difficult position?
I made it clear in my opening remarks that a political solution is needed in relation to the Assad regime. We need to move forward with a transition process to ensure the eventual removal of Assad, which will allow the country to unite to take on Daesh itself. However, the two are not mutually exclusive—we can continue our campaign to destroy Daesh. We have already seen the liberation of Ramadi, and I hope that we will see the liberation of the city of Mosul in the near future.
This is an urgent question, but it would be helpful if we heard more of a tone of urgency in the Government’s response. The destruction of the infrastructure in Aleppo is so wanton that we are beginning to wonder whether there will be anything left worth fighting over. The first priority has to be a ceasefire so that humanitarian aid can be supplied to those desperately in need. Are the Government making or supporting preparations to deliver aid as soon as any window of opportunity arises? The second priority has to be a longer-term peace settlement. It would be useful to hear what role the Government see themselves playing in a process currently dominated by the US and Russia. Finally, we must support those fleeing conflict. I therefore echo the calls for the Government finally to show some humanity and to reconsider their position on accepting unaccompanied refugee children from Europe.
The hon. Gentleman asks three questions. First, on restructuring, one of the reasons why we co-hosted—along with Kuwait, Germany, Norway and the United Nations—the important conference that took place in February was exactly to make sure that we could collect the necessary pledges from around the world. Over $11 billion, a record amount for any single day, was pledged to provide such support, most of which is going to the refugees, but there are also other initiatives.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the need for a political track, which I have already mentioned. It is not for us to determine that track. This is part of why the opposition coalition has come together, and it is exactly what the talks in Geneva are all about.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 3,000 children. That issue has already been mentioned, and I apologise for not previously touching on it. We are doing our best to help to stem the flow of refugees from the source itself. There is a huge question to be asked when EU member states, it is felt, cannot look after refugees and we are taking refugees from other EU member states. We have put in extra funding to make sure that, no matter where the refugees come to, they are looked after to absolutely the same standards. We do not want to add to the problem by encouraging more people, including children, to make the perilous journey along the various routes. As I say, the UK is helping to provide better support. Indeed, we are sending out teams to the various refugee camps to make sure that they have the necessary standards that we would expect if the refugees were in this country. I would add that we are honouring the Dublin convention, as hon. Members will be aware, which allows the transfer of children from other member states if they have a direct family connection in this country. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, who is sitting on the Front Bench, concurs.
The news from Aleppo emphasises that Assad must not be part of the endgame in Syria. To what extent would my hon. Friend say that Russia has also come round to that view, and what more can be done to get Russia to rein in its ally, Assad?
Those who are familiar, as I know my hon. Friend is, with the long-term historical relationship between Russia and Syria will be aware that this is an area of the world that Russia sees as its sphere of influence. Syria supported the Soviet Union during the cold war and Assad’s father trained as a MiG pilot in Russia. There are strong ties between the countries. I would advocate that Russia recognise that although it wants to keep its influence, it is not so wedded to Assad the individual. The political transition must move forward and the people of Syria must determine who their next leader will be.
Is it not clear that although Daesh is, of course, a murderous group run by outright murderers and psychopaths, the Syrian Government have for some time been carrying out crimes against humanity on a far greater scale—aided and abetted, moreover, by a member of the United Nations Security Council?
I concur with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman says. We took steps to hold Assad to account when he crossed a line by using chemical weapons. We wanted to take action, and we came to this House, but I am afraid that this House decided that that was not the action that was needed. We need to recognise that there are occasions when a few countries in the world can stand up to dictators such as Assad, and the rest of the world looks to countries such as Britain to act. We did not at that juncture.
As the Minister has said, in particular in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), Russia is absolutely central to finding any kind of long-term solution in Syria. That is absolutely correct. Yet in all our attempts to talk to Russia we discover that there is an absolute brick wall between us.
Last week, members of the House of Commons Defence Committee were in Moscow, but the Russian Government would not speak to us. Lines of communication have broken down. Does the Minister agree that now may be the time to put aside, temporarily, our perfectly reasonable objection to and outrage at the illegal annexation of Crimea, and say to the Russians that we need to talk to them about Syria and that for now we should park our differences on other matters?
I am aware that the Defence Committee made efforts to visit Moscow, which would have been an important visit—
We were there last week.
What I am trying to say is that what my hon. Friend has put his finger on, in tying the two issues together, is exactly what we should recognise. The sanctions against Putin are coming from the very countries to which the refugees are moving. We need to be a bit more astute in recognising that from Putin’s perspective the issue of Ukraine and the Crimea is linked with what is happening in Syria.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the draft statement circulating among non-governmental organisations working in the Aleppo area, which says that there is a
“complete absence of the fundamentals of safe humanitarian intervention, and the absence of a clear mechanism to monitor and document violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law”.
Is that the case, and can he tell us more?
As the right hon. Lady is aware, getting access to Aleppo is very difficult indeed. We are collecting intelligence for the long term. She is right to highlight the complexities of this large city. The al-Nusra Front is based there, and Assad has taken advantage of the ceasefire to move weapons systems up to the area. That is why it is all the more important that we get Russia to exert its influence to make sure that Assad comes back to the table.
Surely we have to accept Syria as it is. Whether we like it or not, Assad is not going to go away in a hurry. He has the only army on the ground capable of defeating ISIL, and he has just as much support as all the hundred other warring factions. If we undermine him, an authoritarian, we will unleash worse totalitarian forces. Is it not significant that any progress this week has been as a result of contacts between America and Russia, yet our Government have put the Russian Government in complete deep freeze? We are denying them visas, we are not talking to Lavrov, we have absolutely no influence—because of our obsession with Russia and getting rid of Assad, we are not actually propelling peace forwards. We must drop the present policy and try to co-operate with the Americans so that Russia can get peace.
I do not agree with what my hon. Friend has said, but I agree with the direction of travel he wants. Russia has influence over Assad. We are speaking with the Russians. John Kerry is in Geneva along with Lavrov, al-Jubeir and others, acknowledging the urgency of getting a renegotiated cessation of hostilities so we can get humanitarian aid back in.
The Minister referred to the long term. Can he tell us how long is long term? He also made reference to the vote in this House in 2013. Is not the real failure the fact that our Government and the United States Government did not impose no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors when they could have done in 2011 and 2012? Now it might be very difficult to do so. That is the real failure. Non-intervention is not necessarily the best policy.
I am a former soldier, and I looked at the idea of no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. I even wrote some papers on it when I was on the Back Benches. The trouble is: who implements them, and what authority would they have to be in the country? We wanted to take Syria through the UN Security Council to the International Criminal Court, and guess who vetoed it: China and Russia. That is the difficulty we have. We have to ask ourselves how we would implement and enforce such a no-fly zone. I concur with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman says, but these are the realities of where we actually are.
I think that the most important concern with unaccompanied children is their safety, and I am beginning to wonder whether we might not have our policy the wrong way around. Three thousand children wandering around Europe can easily be picked up by traffickers; 3,000 children in the middle east can be kept safely in camps. I am wondering whether we should look at our policy anew.
The concerns expressed about the 3,000 children are absolutely sincere. The solution, however, is not simply to remove the challenge from the area, but to solve the challenge in the area. We cannot endorse the idea that it is acceptable for other EU states not to meet the basic requirements for looking after refugees. By taking those refugees, we would simply be providing more space for further refugees to come in, and that is not a long-term solution.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The Minister was diverted from the path of virtue by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). No doubt the intentions were good, but we were straying somewhat from the terms of the UQ. As the Minister and others know, I have facilitated much discussion on the matter of refugees. I rather imagine that there will be more, and no doubt people will think, “And so there should be”, but it would be best today if we could stick to the terms of the UQ that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) applied for and that I granted.
The Minister quite rightly spoke about the influence of Russia, but what pressure is being put on Iran, which has equally supported the Assad regime, both directly and through proxies such as Hezbollah? Has the Foreign Office or the international community opened up that dialogue with Iran and, as part of the Iran deal, put pressure on it to make sure that it actually responds?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. If Iran is to take a more responsible role on the international stage, following the nuclear deal, we expect it to act in a more honourable way, whether in Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad or Sana’a. We have not seen that to date. He is right to say that Hezbollah continues to play an important role, but we are also seeing a difference of opinion between what Iran is looking for and what Russia is after.
When we hear at first hand from charities and NGOs that run hospitals in places such as Aleppo of those hospitals being bombed repeatedly by the regime and by Russian forces, the temptation is to come to this place and rage against the system, using those well-worn words, “Something must be done.” But in reality this is a most complex situation. What we want to hear—I think I heard the Minister allude to it this morning—is that everything is being done to work with the Russians to create a framework whereby safe areas and, if possible, air corridors for delivering aid can be secured. There must be a way of ensuring that it is humanitarian aid, even if that means having a Russian at Akrotiri to see what goes on the wretched plane that is delivering it.
My hon. Friend and I discussed these things over the weekend, and I know he has been following events closely. Indeed, he knows people working in the region. It is important we look for a longer-term solution around access to the humanitarian corridors. As I mentioned, the Foreign Secretary is speaking with John Kerry this afternoon, and I hope we will have more to report as time elapses.
I think I heard the Minister say in his reply that 49 children had been killed in recent hostilities. If I am correct, will he repeat those facts to the House, so that everybody is clear about what is happening? Will he say what the Government are doing to make sure there is medical care for children in Aleppo?
I am happy to confirm what I said before. According to human rights monitors, at least 253 civilians, including 49 children, have been killed in the city of Aleppo in the last fortnight alone. As I have said a couple of times now, the situation in Aleppo is fluid, because of the advances the Assad regime wants to make. Taking this most northern city, a key prize, has been a long-standing objective of the regime, and it would have a huge impact were the city to fall from the coalition.
It is important that we do what we can to provide access and make sure that areas such as hospitals are not bombed. We need to consider the case for giving grid references to make sure that such areas are protected and recognised, not least because a breach of the Geneva convention could be involved.
My hon. Friend has twice said that in order to break the logjam we must have a political transition in relation to the Syrian Government. Will he enlighten the House as to what that means? Unpalatable as it might be, could it mean that Assad or some of his key Alawite officials have a role in a temporary transitional government?
When the Syrian International Support Group came together in Vienna for the first time, it discussed a process of transition to allow the various and diverse stakeholders across the country to determine the timetable. A timetable of 18 months to two years was put forward, but these things are always in the realms of speculation. I certainly hope that the Geneva talks, which is where these negotiations need to take place, will resume discussions on this issue.
Will the Minister set out what the Secretary of State said in his representations to the Russians following the al-Quds hospital bombing, which was a gross violation of international humanitarian law? Did he ask them to tell Assad to stop, and what was the Russians’ response?
I was not privy to the exact wording used. If I may, I will ask the Foreign Secretary, who arrives back this afternoon, to write to the right hon. Gentleman directly.
More than five years of conflict is too long, and Members across the House will support the Government and the international community in their efforts to bring peace to this war-torn country. What progress are the Government making in shaping plans for post-conflict reconstruction in Syria?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It has been five years, but the difference over the last five or six months has been that negotiations have taken place and the stakeholders have been brought around the table. The international community, including Iran, Russia, the United States and France, as well as representatives from the EU and the UK, have all been around the table. That had not happened in the previous five years. The coalition and opposition groups have also come together. That is the major change on the previous five years. The London Syria conference was an important step in looking at the detail of what the international community must do, and be ready to do, once the guns eventually fall silent.
Together with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), I was in Moscow last week, and one of the things I found most difficult was that we had no shared understanding of history or of language and diplomacy. I therefore find it incredibly concerning that we are talking in vague words about how to bring Russia genuinely to the table for discussions—through proxies, if not by ourselves. May we have some more detail about what such a plan would be?
I must have misunderstood, because I thought that the visit did not take place. I am pleased to know that the hon. Lady was able to make it to Moscow. I look forward to hearing any further reports she or the Committee might produce on what they learned from their discussions there. She is right to place the focus on Russia itself and the need for us to have a better understanding of Russia’s intentions—of Putin’s intentions, effectively. Much of this is not the old regime; it is more about this President making his mark, often in an attempt to provide distractions from the domestic mess his country is in.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance that the Government are committed to gathering evidence relating to crimes against humanity, but will he update us on what protection is being given to Christian communities and other refugees in the countries neighbouring Syria?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the plight of the Christians, not least in Mount Sinjar and then in other areas with the Yazidis. We saw devastating attacks by Daesh as they cleaned these areas out. We had a comprehensive debate on these matters only a couple of weeks ago. It is important for us to collect the evidence, which is what we are doing. I shall not name the NGOs involved; that would be wrong and place them in danger. We are carrying out a lot of work, however, to make sure that we can collect the necessary forensic and legal evidence, which will then allow us to make the case at the UN Security Council and take this matter forward.
We all condemn the bombings of civilians in Aleppo, but what specific action is the UK taking, in conjunction with our European partners, to try to kick-start the peace process, which, as others have mentioned, is now seriously in the mire?
I do not want to repeat myself, but the first thing is to get support for the humanitarian initiative that needs to take place in the area. We are the second-largest donor there. The Syria conference was critical in helping refugees—not just in Syria, but in Lebanon, Jordan and indeed Turkey, and I would like to pay tribute to those countries. This is critical. As we speak, talks are taking place behind the scenes to try to pressurise Russia and make sure that Lavrov and Putin recognise that they are best placed to allow humanitarian access and to prevent the bombing of the civilian areas.
I very much welcome the Minister’s statement. According to the BBC website, John Kerry has said that the Syrian conflict is now “out of control”. If that is the case, why is the Minister optimistic that the current talks will lead to a solution? Aleppo is the last stronghold of the opposition. If that falls, one may ask why the opposition should take part in any further discussions in Geneva.
My hon. Friend is right to point out why the Syrian opposition pulled out from the talks. It is pointless sitting down for talks in Geneva when their own communities are being bombed back home. Although the situation has grown out of control and we have seen the cessation of hostilities break down, the whole purpose of John Kerry’s current initiative in speaking with Lavrov and working with our Secretary of State is to get ourselves back on course to ensure that the cessation of hostilities can be resumed. As I mentioned in my statement, we are seeing some signs that that is working.
The recent bombing of hospitals took place in a city that already has a severe shortage of doctors because of the events of the last three or four years. What can the Minister do to ensure that any ceasefire has at its heart not only humanitarian aid, but the resumption of medical facilities to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe?
In the sidelines of the London Syria conference, a number of major NGO workshops and meetings took place. A huge amount of effort has been put in by the Department for International Development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), who is in his place beside me, so that there is a readiness to move in. At the moment, however, the situation is just too dangerous for that to happen on a large scale.
Time is not on the side of the people of Aleppo. On Sunday night, the main and only road for those in the rebel-held east was bombed. If the regime manages to close that route, nearly 200,000 residents will be left trapped, without food or medical supplies. Pressure on Russia is key. I urge the Minister to do all he can to stress to Russia that time is running out.
My hon. Friend has made her point very powerfully. The very fact that we are having this debate means that we have another method of communicating with Russia and saying, “We care. We recognise what is going on. Russia, you need to do more, and currently you are not doing that.”
It is estimated that recent violence in Aleppo has led to the death of a Syrian every 25 minutes. There is grave humanitarian urgency. What progress are the Government making in negotiations on taking aid trucks into Aleppo? If no progress is made, will high-altitude airstrikes and air drops be reconsidered?
The hon. Lady has raised the important question of how we can best get aid into these vulnerable areas. That horrific statistic, of which I too am aware, highlights the challenge that we face. The international community must put more pressure on Russia, and must ensure that Assad is prohibited from bombing those areas so that we can get the aid in.
The best way to convey aid directly to where it needs to go is by truck, but the local checkpoints must give the trucks permission to go through in order for that to happen. Air drops can land anywhere. They often land in precisely the wrong hands, and are then used as a barter and as a means of worsening the situation, because the aid is denied to the people who need it.
Our Sentinel aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles have provided a very complex and detailed picture of Syria from the air. Has evidence been gathered showing who the perpetrators of the attacks on civilians are? If there is such evidence, how is it being presented to the United Nations and to other nations?
I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for his work during a previous campaign. He has a huge amount of knowledge of what the Royal Air Force does, and he will therefore appreciate that the fact that his is an operational question prevents me from giving him a firm answer. However, if he would like to talk to me in the Lobbies, I shall be more than happy to have a quiet chat with him.
The bombing and shelling of civilian areas in Aleppo is sickening, and calls into serious question the Assad regime’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the situation in Syria. So too, however, do the attempts to collude and trade with Daesh, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). What more is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to bring together all sides, and to make it clear that action of this kind is compromising our efforts to secure a peaceful settlement in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman has articulated how complicated Syria is. However, that should not prevent us from playing our part in bringing Daesh to account, along with the international community. We are destroying Daesh on the battlefield, we are destroying their ideology, and we are destroying their ability to get their message out via the internet. We are also providing humanitarian aid and stabilisation capabilities in areas that have been liberated. The piece of the jigsaw that remains difficult is the political situation and the transition in Syria, and that is why it is so urgent for talks to resume in Geneva.
Along with the United Kingdom’s diplomatic efforts and the £2.3 billion worth of aid for the region, there have been reports of collusion between the Assad regime and Daesh in Syria. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that the British airstrikes are focused, and have not resulted in any civilian casualties?
That is another operational question. I know that the rules of engagement that we adopt and with which we comply ensure that we try to avoid civilian casualties at all times, but, if I may, I will write to my hon. Friend giving him more details.
What recent contact has been made with the peshmerga to discuss their role both in defeating Daesh and in building a stable and peaceful future throughout Syria?
The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me licence to pay tribute to the work of the peshmerga in liberating the Mosul dam, for example, and most of Kirkuk and the north of Iraq. It is important that they recognise the importance of working with the Iraqi army to improve the indigenous capability if we are to take Mosul and liberate Iraq from Daesh completely.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We are most grateful to the Minister and to other colleagues.