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International Syria Support Group: Airdrops

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the International Syria Support Group’s plans to commence airdrops to besieged areas in Syria.

I have been asked to reply, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is giving evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee this morning, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is responsible for the middle east, is travelling abroad on ministerial business.

The Government’s objective remains a political settlement that allows Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government with whom we can work to tackle Daesh and other extremists. Only when this happens will stability return to the region and the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe stop. To achieve that goal, we need to get political negotiations between the Syrian parties back on track. The International Syria Support Group has made it clear that in order to create the best environment for talks to succeed, there needs to be a comprehensive cessation of hostilities leading to a full ceasefire, and sustained, unfettered access for humanitarian aid. Talks are now paused because progress on both those tracks has been insufficient. That is why we are pressing hard for an end to the current violations of the cessation of hostilities, the majority of which are down to the Assad regime. It is also why we need to see an improvement in humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas inside Syria. Both these points were agreed by all members of the International Syria Support Group in Munich in February this year.

However, in the light of the continuing dire humanitarian picture, at the most recent ISSG meeting in Vienna on 17 May, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary proposed humanitarian airdrops by the UN World Food Programme in besieged areas in Syria if access could not be achieved by road by the beginning of June. That deadline has of course now passed. We welcome the arrival of some limited aid in Darayya and Muadhamiya over the last few days, and we note, too, that the Syrian Government have agreed in principle to allow land access by the United Nations to the majority of areas requested for the month of June. Such progress as we have seen is undoubtedly the result of international pressure, including from the possibility of airdrops. Nevertheless, it is now crucial that the ISSG should hold the Assad regime to account for delivery of these commitments.

United Kingdom officials are meeting their ISSG counterparts and UN officials in Geneva today to continue that work, and the UN is pressing the Assad regime to allow airdrops if access by road is not permitted. We remain clear that airdrops are a last resort. Land access is more effective, more efficient and safer, both for those needing the aid and for those delivering it. The UN has plans in place to begin airdrops if they are needed, but it is clear that in a complex and dangerous environment such as Syria, this will not be straightforward. We will continue to support the UN in its efforts, but if the regime is not willing to allow sufficient land access or airdrops to those in desperate need, the ISSG should consider very carefully what steps might be taken to deliver the aid that is so desperately needed.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. As the Minister has pointed out, this is a clear humanitarian issue. There are 582,000 people living in besieged areas in Syria. The conditions for the men, women and children in these areas is beyond what many of us can comprehend. In the words of the UK’s special envoy to the UN,

“It’s a concept from medieval times: starvation as a weapon of war and purposefully withholding lifesaving medicines.”

That is what the Assad regime is doing. As the Minister confirmed, the British Foreign Secretary gave a deadline for that to stop, and that deadline expired a week ago. Since then, aid has reached a few areas, but that aid has not always included food, and we know that children are still starving.

The Foreign Secretary said that the International Syria Support Group would commence airdrops into besieged areas if aid was not allowed in by 1 June. He argued that that had the support of Iran and Russia, and he indicated that their support would be sufficient for airdrops to commence. Yesterday, however, the UN briefed that it had made a request to the Syrian Government to commence airlifts, not airdrops. It seems as though airlifts or airdrops are subject to the whim of the Assad regime. The Foreign Secretary made a promise to the people in those besieged areas and sent a clear message to the Assad regime.

As the humanitarian situation appears to be bleak and the position of Assad seems to have been strengthened, will the Minister answer these four questions? First, the current proposal appears to be for airlifts to be led by the World Food Programme, with the consent of the Assad regime. Can the Minister confirm whether there is a timetable for that to happen? If there is no consent from the Assad regime, what will happen next? Secondly, what happens if the Syrian Government refuse permission for that to happen? Thirdly, is the position of Iran and Russia the reason why airdrops have not occurred? If so, did the Foreign Secretary overstate their position on 24 May, or did they subsequently change their position? Finally, what implications does the Minister think the ISSG’s failure to agree to airdrops has for the Syrian peace process?

On the hon. Lady’s last point, there is no question but that the appalling humanitarian situation inside Syria makes it more difficult to have any hope of rebuilding a modicum of trust that might lead to political progress. I agreed with her description of what is going on inside Syria on the ground, and of the attitude taken by the Assad regime. I do not think anyone should be under any illusions about the fact that it is deliberately using the denial of access to humanitarian aid as a political and military weapon.

It is important that the United Nations, which is accepted by all as impartial and peaceful in intent, should be in the lead both in the talks with the regime and in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Given the nature of the military conflict inside Syria and the nature of the air defences, both Syrian and Russian, that are available, the best outcome would be agreed terms of access, either over land or by air, for the World Food Programme assistance. That is what was agreed and is happening with regard to an area that is being besieged by Daesh forces in one part of Syria. That would be better than other powers trying to intervene.

As I said earlier, if the Assad regime does not deliver on its commitments, the ISSG will have to return to this matter. We will have to take stock during today’s meeting in Geneva of how far the talks between the UN and the Assad regime have taken us and what chances there now are. Iran and Russia made commitments earlier this year to support the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people who are in need. Those are the powers that have influence over Bashar al-Assad and his regime, and it is their responsibility to use that influence to save the lives of these people who are in such desperate need of assistance.

Order. I intend to run the exchanges on this question until 11 o’clock, but not beyond that. I know that colleagues will take their cue from that advice.

The Minister is right that Russia is the key to this. Only Russia can persuade the Assad regime to acquiesce. What steps are the Minister, the Department for International Development or both of them together taking to put pressure on Russia to do just that?

Russia is the key player in terms of influence over Assad and, of course, the key sponsor of Syria’s military capability. We use every opportunity, both within the ISSG, of which Russia is a full member, and in other diplomatic exchanges with Russia at official and ministerial level, to emphasise the importance of Russia delivering on the commitments she has made.

Some towns in Syria have not received food aid since 2012. We have an absolute moral responsibility to protect civilians who are suffering the wider effects of a conflict in which the UK is now an active participant. No expense has been spared in dropping UK high-tech missiles on the country, but it is bread, not bombs, that the people in Syria need, and it is incumbent on us to do all we can to make sure that they get it. May I ask the Minister why eight days have passed since the UN deadline, with no tangible action? Are we really asking for permission from Assad to feed the very people he has starved? The Minister will be aware that malnourished and sick children need specialist care that cannot be provided by airdrop. What action are the Government taking to re-establish road access to these desperate people?

It is the United Nations that is talking to the Assad regime about getting access, the United Nations that has the good offices to make those approaches, and the United Nations that is in charge of delivering the humanitarian assistance. That is the way forward that we judge at the moment is most likely to lead to a successful outcome that is safe for those receiving the aid and those delivering it.

There are parts of Syria where high-level airdrops of humanitarian assistance might be of help if we could not get overland access, but that is not a precise way of giving help. There are other parts of Syria where the nature of the conflict, or the densely populated urban character of the communities we are trying to help, means that we would have to bring in helicopters and could not rely on high-level airdrops at all. That again emphasises the complexity of the task and why the best outcome, for all its imperfections, would be the UN securing access, with the agreement of the regime, either over land or, failing that, for airborne assistance.

What material support is the United Kingdom giving the United Nations in preparation for access being granted, as we hope it will be?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have committed very large sums—£2.3 million—to humanitarian assistance in the crisis in Syria and its neighbouring countries. We are ready to provide additional support, if the UN wants it, for an expanded airdrop operation in the besieged areas.

As the Minister knows, the holy month of Ramadan began on Monday. There are millions of Syrian refugees in the countries immediately adjoining Syria. Will he confirm that our humanitarian efforts are continuing, so that those people are helped where they are, rather than having to make the perilous journey to the Greek or Turkish border?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of this. After all, people in the camps moved across the Aegean last summer because the United Nations was not getting sufficient funds to maintain either food rations or hours of schooling at previously agreed levels. We are certainly committed, and we are pressing all the countries and international organisations that, at the recent London conference on Syria, committed themselves to spending more to deliver on those pledges fully and promptly.

We welcome the opposition High Negotiations Committee’s suggestion that there be a Ramadan truce inside Syria. We hope that that might be an opportunity to stop further bloodshed.

It is depressing that starvation is again being used as a weapon of war, particularly when one man, President Putin, could make one phone call to his friend, President Assad, to remove many of the barriers to international aid. Assuming that the UN gets permission to deliver international aid, have we offered the use of British military bases, particularly those in Cyprus, to allow that delivery to happen quickly?

We have not been asked to provide that kind of assistance to the UN. Obviously, we would consider any request that we received from the UN seriously and sympathetically, but my understanding is that the UN would prefer to use civilian airports, because that would emphasise to all parties the humanitarian, rather than political, nature of the flights.

Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law lives in London. He is a retired doctor. He used to boast—he has boasted to me—that he had considerable influence over his son-in-law. Has anyone in the Foreign Office met Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law? That might be one additional approach that we could try.

I do not know whether there has been a recent conversation with Assad’s father-in-law, but I will ensure that that point is noted in the Foreign Office, and will perhaps write to the right hon. Lady.

The UN said on Thursday that helicopters would have to be used as air bridges in 15 of the 19 besieged areas because they are densely populated. In reality, the UN, working with the World Food Programme, would use helicopters, which need permission to land. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that means that it is vital to use diplomatic channels to urge Russia to insist that Syria open up those channels?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. This is an important test of Russia’s professed commitment both to the UN and its humanitarian aid work, and to a political solution in Syria.

If Assad and Russia’s shameful blocking of aid by land and air continues, will the Government redouble efforts with our allies to ensure that Assad is eventually brought to justice for crimes against humanity and war crimes?

The first objective must be to secure humanitarian assistance to those who are in desperate need. Then we need to achieve a strategy for a political settlement in Syria. When that is in place, there will indeed need to be a time when individuals who are responsible for the most appalling crimes can be held to account.

My right hon. Friend makes important points, and I am pleased that I agree with everything he says—not something I have usually done of late when he has been at the Dispatch Box. Will he join me in praising the work of our former colleague, Stephen O’Brien, who is now the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator in this area?

I am very happy to do so. Stephen was a good friend of mine when he was a Member of the House, and while he served here he had a sincere and enduring commitment to international development and humanitarian assistance. He is showing real dynamism and leadership in his work on behalf of the UN.

The Opposition are right to raise the nightmare of the humanitarian consequences of this situation, but are not the Government absolutely right to proceed with the greatest caution in a situation with wholly unpredictable consequences, and particularly to reject the facile solutions of military interventions, even when they are put forward by a past Prime Minister with a record of shooting first and thinking later?

In terms of this urgent question, the key objective must surely be to find the means by which we can get humanitarian aid to those who need it as quickly and effectively as we can; I hope that we can all agree on that point.

The question of what Russia can do has already been raised. Can the Minister provide examples of what the Russians may have done so far, or give any positive news, that would suggest that they may be about to change their approach?

I would like to be more encouraging in my response, but so far the Russian approach has been frankly disappointing. The United Nations has been allowed access to help people who are besieged by Daesh forces, but those people are loyal to the Assad regime, so the Russians and the regime have been happy to allow that humanitarian assistance. A real test of Russia’s intentions is whether it will bring to bear the pressure that it could on Assad to act before the people we are talking about suffer further.

The Minister has confessed that children are dying for want of food and medicine. May we concentrate on the primacy of the United Nation’s role, and on those fantastic people in the International Rescue Committee, Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children who have real expertise? Is he regularly consulting those people on the ground?

The Department for International Development is in regular contact with those organisations, as is the United Nations, which has long-standing relationships with all international humanitarian non-governmental organisations. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a large proportion of the British Government’s aid assistance to humanitarian causes in Syria and the surrounding states is channelled through precisely the organisations he has listed.

The vexed complexities that the Minister has referred to, and the acute sensitivity of current UN efforts, are understood by the Syrian refugees whom I met in my constituency on Sunday, and they explained the dire plight of their starving compatriots. Their basic question to me as a Member of the House is this: why can powers not marshal the capacity and resolve to supply the means of life, given that we have shown that we can deploy the means of death?

One must take into account the military realities on the ground. We are talking about a regime in Syria that is besieging most of the communities whose plight we are discussing. The regime has formidable air defences of its own, and Russia has deployed its own air defence measures inside Syrian territory. For that reason, we believe that the safest and most effective means of providing humanitarian access would still be for the UN to agree terms under which that aid can be delivered. If that proves not to work, we must return to this issue, as I have indicated.

The conditions on the ground are clearly very challenging. As the Minister has said, many of the besieged areas are built-up, urban areas with no suitable space for a drop zone, and obviously high-altitude drops could harm people on the ground. Will he continue therefore to press for access for aid delivered by truck convoy and helicopter?

I thank the Minister for his statement. According to the UN, 600,000 people are in danger of starvation, but the Syrian Government say that airdrops are not necessary because there is no starvation, so there is clearly a difference of opinion. We need to secure support from the Syrian Government and the Russians. We in Britain pride ourselves on our tradition of helping others, both domestically and abroad. If we cannot secure land access and if the only way is by air, will the Government support the UN in pushing ahead with that to ensure that there is not a humanitarian crisis and that people do not starve?

Yes. It was my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary who pressed at the previous ISSG meeting for airdrops to be considered as a last resort, and if we cannot secure the access that the UN, with our support, is seeking, we will have to return to that possibility.