I beg to move,
That this House has considered international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.
The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), with whom I co-chair the friends of Syria all-party group, joins me in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate. We are both concerned that on occasions, motions such as this can appear to be hand-wringing and to focus on the concept that something must be done. We are anxious today to encourage the Government to pursue all avenues and options, as I know they are extremely anxious to do.
The House will be particularly grateful to the Foreign Secretary for responding to the debate himself. On the earlier occasion when you granted an emergency debate on these matters, Mr Speaker, he returned to the House and made his first major speech from the Dispatch Box. I believe his presence signifies the concern of Foreign Office Ministers about the tragedy that is Aleppo today.
I wish to cover three points this afternoon. The first is the current situation in Aleppo. Secondly, I have some specific suggestions for the Government to consider together with our allies, and thirdly some observations on how this crisis could develop in 2017 and the action that the international community should take.
I start with the position on the ground today. We are able to monitor what is going through Twitter and other social media to some extent, but in particular, the reports of the United Nations and its agencies, and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, are likely to be extremely accurate. They have reported over lunchtime that there is clear evidence of civilians being executed—shot on the spot. There are dead bodies in the street that cannot be reached because of gunfire. In the last couple of hours, we have heard that probably more than 100 children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families are trapped in a building in east Aleppo and under heavy fire.
We learn from totally credible independent sources inside Aleppo that all the hospitals have been deliberately destroyed with barrel bombs and bunker-busting bombs, and that in case the people in those hospitals were not destroyed by those munitions, cluster munitions, which are anti-personnel munitions, have also been used. There are pop-up clinics in underground locations, which are suffering nightmare conditions, with people lying on the floor and pools of blood everywhere. Doctors and nurses are wearing boots because there is so much blood on the floor, and casualties are moved in and out as fast as they possibly can be because there are grave dangers to them from being in those locations. The ambulances of the White Helmets have been specifically targeted, and there is now no fuel available for them.
In the mid-afternoon yesterday, a 10 km by 10 km zone was the centre of the fighting in Aleppo. It is contracting, and at 10 o’clock this morning it was probably less than half that size. There are approximately 150,000 civilians crammed into that area, and very large numbers of them are children. Large numbers are stranded in the open and looking for shelter. The only food available is dates and bulgur wheat. Water has run out, and there is no electricity. Last night, people were flooding into that enclave. As I have said, there are credible reports of executions and the removal of groups of adult males.
The right hon. Gentleman paints an absolutely grim picture of the current situation in Aleppo. Two years ago, I travelled to Srebrenica with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). We visited an exhibition in Sarajevo of pictures from Srebrenica and pictures from Syria, and they were indistinguishable. When we hear of summary executions, disappearances of men and boys, unmarked graves and the types of atrocities that the right hon. Gentleman is describing, does he not believe that we risk this being the Srebrenica of our generation?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will come to directly.
The terrified civilians in Aleppo are of course sophisticated, educated people from what was one of the great cities of the world. With 2 million people, it is 6,000 years old and has treasured Islamic civilisation and artefacts within it. A senior Aleppo resident, terrified, said this morning:
“The human corridor needs to happen. If the British Government is serious about fighting terror, they can’t ignore state terror. Doing so creates so many more enemies and if they offer but empty words, nobody will ever believe them in future.”
Ten years ago, this country, along with the entire international community, embraced the responsibility to protect, a doctrine that said that nation states great and small would not allow Srebrenicas, Rwandas and other appalling events such as those in Darfur to take place again. That responsibility was signed up to with great fanfare and embraced by all the international community, great and small. Yet here we are today witnessing—complicit in—what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.
That is the situation today. I come to my second point, which is to put specific actions to the Government, which I know they will wish to consider. First, there is an urgent need for humanitarian teams to be deployed and given unfettered access to Aleppo once Government forces there are in control. That is essential if we are to avoid the same circumstances as Srebrenica—the precise point that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has just made. There is a very serious danger, from the position I have described, that such events are already taking place, so it is essential that those teams are deployed.
We need to get food, medicine, fuel and medical services into east Aleppo immediately. We also need to have independent humanitarian eyes and ears on the ground, not only to give confidence to terrified civilians—who, I remind the House, are caught out in the open in temperatures that are predicted to fall below minus 4° tonight—but to avoid possibly false allegations of war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law by Government forces and their military associates. It is not easy to see why Russia and Syria would wish to resist that, unless they do not wish the world to know or see the actions that they are now taking in Aleppo.
The second action that I hope the Government will evaluate and support is organising the evacuation to comparative safety, in United Nations buses and lorries, under a white flag and in a permissive environment, of the people who are wounded or have been caught up in this terrible catastrophe. It is clear that the United Nations has the capacity, with available vehicles, to move north up to the Castello road and then west to Bab al-Hawa, near Reyhanli, on the border, which Clare Short, the distinguished former International Development Secretary, and I visited earlier this year. There are hospitals in Bab al-Hawa, and there are significant refugee facilities on the Syrian side of the border. They are easily resupplied via the Reyhanli crossing by international humanitarian actors, and that route out of the nightmare of eastern Aleppo should be made available as fast as possible.
Britain is in a pivotal position at the United Nations to try to convene an acceptance that that action should be taken. We are hugely respected on humanitarian matters at the UN. Matthew Rycroft, the permanent representative to the UN5 on the Security Council, is extremely effective in what he does. The current National Security Adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, a key United Nations operative for many years, has great convening power, and there are senior UK officials at the United Nations. The head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, who worked with me at the Department for International Development, plays a pivotal role. The British foreign service is respected and admired around the world, and, in supporting Staffan de Mistura and Jan Egeland, has an absolutely pivotal role to play in trying to convene the consensus that is now urgently required.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making a powerful and important speech. Does he think the Syrian regime would allow those very necessary humanitarian interventions without counter-attack and disaster?
Yes, I believe that if the Russians could be persuaded at this point that they have nothing to lose from allowing international humanitarian actors into Aleppo, the Syrians would agree. If they do not, the world must ask why they wish to hide from purely humanitarian action.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the importance of international pressure. He will have seen as we all did the grotesque story on the front of the Morning Star suggesting that what is happening is the “liberation of Aleppo”. While such scandalous propaganda on behalf of Russia is being put about within the UK, is it not all the more important that we have that international pressure so that we open the eyes of everyone in the world to what is happening?
I confess to the hon. Gentleman that the Morning Star is not on my morning reading list. In view of what he has just said, I am most unlikely to add it.
Will the Foreign Secretary commit today to Britain’s using every sinew of the immensely impressive diplomatic machine I described to secure a consensus on those two actions in these last moments for Aleppo?
I am sorry I cannot stay for the whole debate—there is a concurrent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I agree with my right hon. Friend about the efforts to relieve the situation in Aleppo, but a year ago 20 nations—the International Syria Support Group—sat around a table and produced an agreement on the future of Syria. Does he agree that our efforts must also return to the politics of getting the whole international community into the same place on the future of Syria?
My hon. Friend is right that the support group has proved to be a cumbersome and not entirely effective mechanism, but his central point is absolutely correct.
I come to my third and final point, which is on the House looking to the future. What can we do as part of the international community to bring the catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian people to an end? By an incredibly unfortunate sequence of events, the international community has so far been completely unable to help. The United Nations has been hobbled by Russian actions, using the veto, which it has the privilege to use on the Security Council, to shield itself from criticism and to stop international action on Syria.
The Kofi Annan plan originally put forward by the UN was, in my view, tragically and wrongly rejected by the American Government. The Russians in their turn have shredded a rules-based system, which will have cataclysmic effects on international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights. The Americans have been absent. Crucially, President Obama made it clear that, were chemical weapons to be used, it would cross a red line and America would take action. Chemical weapons were used and no action was taken by the Americans.
This House, in my view, was ill-advised to reject the former Prime Minister’s motion in August 2013 for British action. I hope the Government keep an open mind about putting another resolution before the House, as is necessary.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the powerful case he is making and the leadership he is demonstrating, but would he concede that the 2013 motion was not on a comprehensive plan to bring peace, and that if a motion is brought before the House, it should be on a comprehensive, UN-backed plan to deliver peace and not on such a narrow issue?
I hope that, if there is a chance for Britain, with its pivotal role at the United Nations, to support a UN-backed force, if necessary with military action, Britain will very seriously consider it, and that such a proposition will be put before the House of Commons.
I was listing the unfortunate coincidence of events that has hobbled the international community, the fourth of which is that the Arab states in the region are irredeemably split on what should happen in Syria. Europe has become dysfunctional, facing inwards and not looking outwards, and focused on the symptoms of the problem—the refugees—and not on the causes. A resurgent Russia is pursuing its interests. The House should understand Russia’s interests and respect them, even as her actions are rightly condemned, and as we confront it when it breaches humanitarian law, as it has undoubtedly done in Aleppo.
There are only two ways in which this catastrophe will end. There will either be a military victory or there will be a negotiation. There will not be a military victory, so at some point there will be a negotiation and ceasefire to enable bitterly antagonistic foes to negotiate. When that time comes, Britain has the experience, the connections, the funds and the expertise to assist. The great powers must support that negotiation, however difficult it is, and put pressure on the regional powers to do the same. It is essential that we provide, through our position at the UN, the strongest possible diplomatic and strategic support to that process.
There will come a moment, too, when President-elect Trump and President Putin discuss these matters. As is widely recognised, there are indications that the two men can do business. I hope that the United States lifts its veto on Assad being part of any negotiations—Assad is part of the problem, and therefore by definition part of the solution—and that Russia uses its power to stop the conflict on the ground while both combine to defeat ISIL.
Finally, I ask the Foreign Secretary: will he intensify the efforts of his office to collect evidence, especially now, of breaches of international humanitarian law and war crimes, so that individuals as well as states, no matter how long it takes, can be held to account one day for what they have done?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this emergency debate. I compliment the right hon. Gentleman for speaking with his customary force and authority, and for the way in which he has spoken up for the people of Aleppo persistently. Labour Members will always remember that he took up Labour’s fight to meet the 0.7% aid target after he became International Development Secretary in 2010. If, following the Chancellor’s words yesterday, we need to resume that fight in the coming years, I am sure that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will be on our side again.
Since our previous emergency debate on Aleppo just over two months ago, every worst prediction that was made that day has happened. We all warned that the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime would only intensify, and so it proved. We all warned of the increasing humanitarian crisis, with thousands of civilians still trapped in Aleppo, desperately short of food, water, medical supplies and shelter. That crisis has only got worse. Finally, we all warned that, if nothing changed, eastern Aleppo would be destroyed by Christmas, and that is exactly what is coming to pass.
It was depressing to read in recent days the accounts of the talks that have taken place in Washington—they are said to have been going on for months—about the technical options for making airdrops of humanitarian supplies into Aleppo. The subject was raised recently in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South. According to The Guardian, the last meeting on the subject of airdrops collapsed because of fears that, by the time any airdrop took place,
“there would be no one…left to save”.
It was equally depressing and chastening to read the text sent yesterday by a doctor in eastern Aleppo, which he described as his “farewell message”. He wrote:
“Remember that there was once a city called Aleppo that the world erased from…history”.
Although we all condemn Russia and Assad for their actions in eastern Aleppo—we must ensure that one day they are held to account—and we equally condemn Iran and Hezbollah for the role that they have played in the massacre, we must remember the words of that doctor, who blamed not only those directly responsible for destroying his city, but the world as a whole for allowing it to happen. This has been a global collective failure every bit as great as Srebrenica. On that point, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
What do we do now? I believe that the answer boils down to four points. First, we must take every diplomatic step to press Russia and Iran to allow safe passage from eastern Aleppo, not just for the remaining fighters and their families, but for medical professionals, journalists and others. Many will have watched the extremely moving “Inside Aleppo” films on Channel 4. They were filmed by a 25-year-old mother and Aleppo citizen—not a camera woman or a journalist—who is married to a doctor whose professional duties have kept them in the city, even after many of the other civilians have fled. It is difficult to imagine the terror that they feel, but we have read their messages for ourselves.
We must make it clear to Russia and Iran that those civilians must be given safe passage from the city or be protected if they remain. I have been told by several sources, including journalists, the UN and the Red Cross, that there is a makeshift building—some might call it the last remaining hospital; others might say that it is simply a building that people have moved into in the last few days—inside which hundreds of children and injured people and 110 medical staff are trapped. Following negotiations with the Russians and the Syrian Government, the Russians have said that while the fighters and their families will be allowed to leave, the so-called civilians and activists will not. The “activists” they refer to are medical staff. Why would medical staff not be allowed to leave? According to the Russians, they must remain in the city, presumably to face the shelling. They presumably have a high chance of being massacred by the regime or at the very least detained. How can it be that men with guns can leave eastern Aleppo, but men with stethoscopes cannot?
It might be that the men with guns have a high chance of being killed in some future conflict, whereas the citizen journalists and humanitarian doctors and nurses to whom my hon. Friend refers would be credible witnesses in any future criminal proceedings, and Russia and Syria have every incentive to make sure that their evidence is never given to the world.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that, in many ways, echoes what was said earlier about the importance of allowing aid workers and independent people into the area to bear witness to what is going on.
Secondly, once the fighting in Aleppo has ended—an end might well come very soon—how will we get humanitarian relief to the citizens still in eastern Aleppo and to those who have fled elsewhere, particularly as the temperatures begin to plummet and the need for shelter and blankets becomes as great as the need for food, water and medical supplies? As I have said, there is also a need for witnesses to the aftermath. If Russia and Assad continue to block road convoys into the area, surely the Government must finally accept that we have reached the point of last resort—that point at which the previous Foreign Secretary promised that airdrops would be used. If we fear that manned flights might be too dangerous, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—
The Minister sits and shakes his head, but if we fear that such flights might be too dangerous, the Government must consider using unmanned drones or GPS-guided parachutes.
I am really concerned about the idea that we might send our aircraft into airspace that is contested and hostile. As I know, they fly low to drop the aid, and they can be taken out by ground fire, not just missiles. I suggest that all those people who wish this to happen sign their names and perhaps travel on the RAF aircraft, because the action would be extremely dangerous.
There is a live debate about this, which is why I also pray in aid solutions such as unmanned drones or GPS-guided parachutes, which can carry much more than unmanned drones. We know that the Government are actively considering all these proposals. If airdrops are not the answer to delivering humanitarian aid, I hope that the Foreign Secretary will tell us what is, because inaction is simply not an option.
I congratulate those who have secured this debate. A UN spokesperson stated this morning that there had been a “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo. If that does not mean that we have reached the point of last resort, does my hon. Friend, like me, want to hear from the Foreign Secretary exactly what that point would be?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I could not have put it better myself.
Thirdly, once Aleppo has fallen, attention will at some point turn to Raqqa and other cities where Daesh is currently in control or attempting to take control. Civilians are trapped in those cities as well, and they will be just as vulnerable as the civilians in Aleppo to bombardment, the use of chemical weapons and the humanitarian effects of any siege. To what extent, if at all, will there be co-operation with Russia, Iran and pro-Government forces, if and when their attention turns to fighting Daesh? If the answer is none, how will we stop Raqqa and other cities turning into repeats of Aleppo?
My hon. Friend refers to other cities in Syria. Is it not clear that the Assad regime and the Russians have focused all their resources on destroying eastern Aleppo and allowed ISIL/Daesh to retake Palmyra? Does that not show their real priorities?
In some ways, that takes me to my fourth and final point. The impending fall of Aleppo must raise the question: what exactly is the Government’s current thinking about Syria? Increasingly across the country, we are seeing what the Foreign Secretary has called moderate rebel groups either defeated by pro-Assad forces or signing truce agreements with them. It has been claimed that more than 1,000 such local truce agreements are now in place. Do the Government believe that the moderate rebellion is still taking place or has any chance of succeeding? If not, what endgame are the Government now working towards?
In September, the Defence Committee published its report on the Government’s military strategy in Syria and concluded that the goal of creating new leadership in Syria that was
“neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other”
was too ambitious to be achieved “by military means alone”. That remains a wise judgment, yet the Government seem to be even further away than they were in September from squaring this particular circle.
These are desperately dark and terrifying hours for the people of Aleppo. They are hours of shame and disgrace for the Governments of Syria, Russia and Iran, who have perpetuated this vicious assault, and they should be hours of deep sorrow and reflection for every international institution and Government who failed to stop it happening and did not do enough to help the people of Aleppo while there was still time. Even now, there are still things that we can do. There are still important lessons to learn and important questions for the Government to answer about where we go from here. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will take this opportunity to answer some of those questions today.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We will begin with an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on speaking with such passion and compassion for the citizens of Aleppo, and on bringing to bear his experience as one of the country’s outstanding International Development Secretaries. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate; it is good to see my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary here to respond to it.
What we have heard already moves us to tears: the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo; the reports today of residents being shot on sight; and the barbarous assault by the Syrian army, Iranian militias and Russian airpower that the Morning Star, as we have heard, describes as a “liberation”. Let me offer my support and gratitude to the incredibly brave people who are risking their lives as doctors and White Helmet workers in that war zone. I support everything that has been said about what we need to do to get aid into Aleppo, or to provide some kind of ceasefire so that civilians can get out of Aleppo.
The whole concept of an emergency debate suggests that this tragedy has somehow come upon us out of the blue and that there is an almost natural aspect to it, but that is not the case. The Syrian civil war has been waged since 2011, so this is something that we could have foreseen and done something about. We are deceiving ourselves in this Parliament if we believe that we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria. The tragedy in Aleppo did not come out of a vacuum; it was created by a vacuum—a vacuum of western leadership, including American and British leadership. I take responsibility, as someone who sat on the National Security Council throughout those years, and Parliament should also take its responsibility because of what it prevented being done.
There were multiple opportunities to intervene. In 2012, David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, devised a plan for a much more aggressive intervention in Syria, providing lethal support to what was then clearly a moderate opposition in the Free Syrian Army. That approach was rejected. Britain provided support for flak jackets, medical kits and so forth, but it was clear throughout 2012 and 2013 that there was not a parliamentary majority in this House for providing lethal support to that opposition so that they could shoot down helicopters and aircraft, and fire back with sophisticated weaponry.
In 2013, of course, this House of Commons took a decision not to back a Government motion to authorise airstrikes when Assad used chemical weapons, breaking a 100-year-old taboo—we established it in the west and it survived the second world war—that you do not use chemical weapons, as well as crossing a red line that the President of the United States had established.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that such lethal force would have overcome the Iranians, the Russians and Assad? Does he really think that if we had provided more munitions, this was a winnable war?
On the narrow point, in August 2013, we were responding to the use of chemical weapons and providing airstrikes as a demonstration that the use of those weapons was completely unacceptable and that a red line had been crossed—and, indeed, that the west had established that red line. Of course, once this House of Commons took its decision, I believe it did have an impact on American politics. We cannot have it both ways—we cannot debate issues such as Syria and then think that our decisions have no impact on the rest of the world. I think that that did cause a delay in the American Administration’s actions and did cause Congress to get cold feet.
This is where I want to begin to draw my remarks to a close, because I know many Members want to speak. The last time I spoke from the Back Benches was in 2003, from the Opposition Benches, when we were debating intervention in Iraq. We all know the price of intervention. My political generation knows the price of intervention: the incredibly brave servicemen and women who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of civilians who died in those conflicts; the cost to taxpayers in this country; the chaos that inevitably follows when there is intervention in a country; and, of course, the division in our society, our families and our communities.
I believe, however, that we have come to a point where it is impossible to intervene anywhere—we lack the political will, as the west, to intervene. I nevertheless have some hope for what might come out from this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is that we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening. We did not intervene in Syria, and tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result while millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world. We have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of ISIS, which we are now trying to defeat. Key allies such as Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised, and the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowing fascism to rise in eastern Europe and creating extremist parties in western Europe. For the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked it out of the middle east in the 1970s, Russia is back as the decisive player in that region. That is the price of not intervening.
Let us have our debate, and let us do everything that we can to help the civilians of Aleppo. Let us hope that the new American Administration and the new Secretary of State work with the Russians to get the ceasefire, but let us be clear now that if we do not shape the world, we will be shaped by it.
I thank those Members who have already spoken and made remarks that I agree with. It is an honour to speak after the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne). I have vigorously opposed so many times in this House everything that he has put to us. Today, I respect his very thoughtful and important contribution.
I rise today with one purpose, which is to persuade the Foreign Secretary that if he chooses to listen to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and take the action that he suggested, he will do so with wide support across this House. Overnight, we have seen reports of the fresh hell that Aleppo has become. We hear this message from the White Helmets:
“100,000+ civilians are packed”,
as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said,
“into a tiny area. Bombing and shelling relentless. Casualties unimaginable. Bodies lie where they fell.”
Last night, we heard the final distress call. Today, we decide whether to answer.
The situation in Syria is so dire and the need so urgent that we must not waste further time in deliberation and delay. It is as simple as this: civilians in Syria cannot be left to the mercy of Assad. Ban Ki-moon was very clear in his message yesterday that we all have an obligation
“to protect civilians and abide by international humanitarian and human rights law.”
He went on:
“This is particularly the responsibility of the Syrian government and its allies.”
Like the Secretary-General of the UN, we here all know what President Assad and his allies are doing to the people of Aleppo—and the Government know it, too. A letter of condemnation signed by our Prime Minister last week described the bombing of hospitals and children being gassed. It described these acts as war crimes. These are strong words, but strong words will not rescue a single child while Assad continues to drop bombs on their heads. The Prime Minister rightly condemns the Russians for their
“refusal to engage in serious peace talks”,
but I say it is time for our Government also to rethink their efforts.
As has been said, we can now clearly see the consequences of our inaction. We have asked our Government to step forward with a strategy to protect civilians. Without this, we can see the consequences: so many bodies that the White Helmets can no longer count them, let alone mount a rescue. So our inaction must now become action, which is why, 18 days ago, when I asked Members of this House from all parties to sign a letter to the Prime Minister in support of getting aid to Syrians—by air, if necessary, as a last resort—I was unsurprised, though very glad, that within one day, 100 Members had agreed to put their names to such a request. Very quickly, that number had risen to over 200 and is now 221 if we count all parliamentarians—Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Scottish nationalist, Social Democratic and Labour party, Democratic Unionist party, Plaid, Green; Mr Speaker, who cares what party we are today? Human beings are being slaughtered without mercy, and I say, never mind party policy; that is a sin against nature itself.
So what should the Government do? We know that Russia will continue to frustrate the UN process by using its veto to protect Assad. Strongly worded letters from our Prime Minister and others are worth nothing if we are not prepared to back them up with actual action. First, we need to get the vulnerable out of there. Children, medics, the injured and the disabled urgently need safe passage to somewhere with shelter, food and basic medical facilities.
Secondly, as 221 parliamentarians are begging the Government: get aid in—by whatever means we can. The reality in front of our eyes is this: even to save a single life, aid is required. We know it is there, and even at this late stage we must do what we can to get it to people.
Thirdly, we must protect those left behind. The Government must press with the full capacity of the British legal profession for UN monitoring, or even just British monitoring, of the atrocities now being committed. If we offer Syrian civilians so very little, the least we can do is promise that, however long it takes, Assad will see justice.
We have all heard the Government’s usual lines on this: they say they are doing all they can, they are keeping their options open, and nothing is off the table. That is not good enough. We are calling on the Government to put something on the table. The reality is that by delaying we are not keeping our options open; we are closing them off. Every day we miss a chance to do what is right.
I am sure that the Government will put out another press release telling us how tragic the fall of Aleppo is, but then Assad will move on, maybe to Idlib or somewhere else, and then somewhere else, and the whole thing will play out again; and we will see more bombed-out hospitals, more dead children, more war crimes, and no doubt more well-written press releases from Governments.
So I have two final questions today. First, will the Foreign Secretary support the call of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for an immediate ceasefire to evacuate the children and medical staff still trapped in the rubble of east Aleppo? Will the Government help make that happen, yes or no? Will they go further and do everything possible to secure a more permanent ceasefire and humanitarian access in Aleppo?
The Foreign Secretary knows that the support is here in this House for airdrops of aid if the Government give it their backing. As I have said, more than 200 hon. Members have signed a letter in support of that; the only obstacle is the question of action from the Government. If that is the wrong option and we need another way to open humanitarian corridors, all I ask is for the Foreign Secretary to come back to this House with a strategy to protect civilians.
Secondly, will the Foreign Secretary commit here and now that the Government will not stand by as the Syrian regime moves on to the next city, because does anybody seriously believe that if we allow Assad to have his way now, he is going to stop?
I want to finish by reminding the Foreign Secretary that, alongside the bombs and the gas, the Assad regime has been dropping propaganda leaflets into eastern Aleppo in recent weeks. These leaflets tell the people there that the world has abandoned them and there is no hope. It is up to us to show that that propaganda is a lie. We must show the desperate people of Syria that there are still people in this world who have not forgotten them—people who will honour the commitments we have made in international law and will stand with them against barbarism.
Aleppo may have just hours left, but there are still souls alive in Syria who we can help. If we do nothing—if we just stand by and watch—thousands more people in Syria will die in agony, and millions in Britain will live with the shame of our inaction.
The Foreign Secretary sits on the Treasury Bench. For more than six years, I have sat here on the Opposition Benches with my Labour friends, and I am deeply proud of my party. Yet I have to tell the Foreign Secretary that if he chooses to act—if he chooses to offer a hand in friendship to people in Syria—there will be no Front Benches or Back Benches, no Government Benches and Opposition Benches; there will simply be all of us here—British citizens, representing the British people, wanting him to act, not in the worst of our country’s traditions, but in our best, and wanting him, on behalf of all of us, and for the sake of those in Syria who cannot escape and who desperately need safety, in our name and for them, begging him, to lead.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The time limit on Back-Bench speeches will for now be reduced to six minutes.
I would very much like to see a humanitarian corridor going to eastern Aleppo, but may I talk about the practical requirements needed to establish such a route, and to get people to safety without anyone fighting to achieve it? I will give a few thoughts based on my experience of frequently having had to do that job in the 1990s.
Everyone present knows that this would be a very difficult operation and would require, at least, Syrian Government and Russian approval. Clearly the route must be free from air and ground attack. Without this, establishing a safe route into and out of Aleppo would be impossible. That is the first, and probably most vital, prerequisite for achieving success, and I suppose our diplomats are working overtime on such matters as I speak.
I also take it as a given that this operation would be done under the United Nations flag. Of course, therefore, every vehicle would be emblazoned with the UN cypher, and be operating under the moral authority of the world’s forum, but in truth, forces fighting on the ground may not be under effective control of even their own side. In such circumstances, small fighting groups often act independently and, if so, they could cause huge loss of life.
In Bosnia I used small teams led by a liaison officer to prove that we could use routes before allowing convoys to go down them. This was dangerous work and it was a job that involved convincing every commander of every roadblock that it was to be open. I have to say that if we were to suggest such a thing, we may well have to send our officers on the ground to do it. I would support that.
Of course there also has to be a plan for the worst case when things go wrong. In Bosnia I could send my own troops in, but we cannot send troops into Syria. These convoys would be on their own, and they would be dependent on Syrian military and militia goodwill, and of course that of the Russians.
If we are successful and get a humanitarian convoy out of Aleppo to a place of safety, we will be responsible for the people in that convoy. We have heard already today of people being “executed.” I hate that word; they are murdered. Execution is a judicial process; those people have been murdered. We would have responsibility for ensuring these people’s safety.
Establishing a safe humanitarian corridor can be done, given determination and the will and consent of belligerents. We cannot fight our way in—well, we could if we were up to it, but we are not—but let me be clear: this will not be easy and requires a huge number of preconditions to be met.
Finally, may I remind this House that if Members suggest that we should lead humanitarian convoys into Aleppo, we will bear responsibility for whatever happens, good or bad?
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said that what is happening in Syria shames the Assad regime, Iran and Russia; it shames all of us in this House and every political party in this country. It shames the democratic world, the United States, and the United Nations, and if we do not do anything about it—let us not kid ourselves that Assad will stop here; Idlib will be next—that will be the end of the rules-based global order we thought we had achieved after the horrors of Srebrenica, with all the grave consequences that will entail for our future peace and security.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way for the moment.
There have been so many missed opportunities. As the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), said in his excellent speech, many people across the world have been calling for action against Assad since he started slaughtering his own people five years ago. In August 2013, after the international outrage at his use of chemical weapons, we had the chance, but we blew it; the Conservatives blew it, we blew it—every political party in this House blew it. The former Chancellor was absolutely right when he said that that had a direct impact on what the United States did then, with President Obama fatally withdrawing from the red line he had drawn on the use of chemical weapons, with absolutely horrendous consequences, not just now in Syria, but for the future of our world to come.
At any stage since that calamity, the Government could have come back to this House with proposals for safe areas, no-fly zones and, most recently, aid drops, but they did not. Just two weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury made it quite clear that we would support airdrops. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), hid behind the excuse of not having parliamentary authority, but he did not even seek it, which has been a pattern of this Government over the past few years. As a desperate aid worker told the BBC yesterday, it might now be too late.
We now have the disgusting spectacle of a combination of far right and far left from around the world, united only in their contempt for democracy and human rights, celebrating what they call a “liberation”. Why do we constantly forget the lessons of appeasement, whether from the 1930s or more recently from the Balkans? Statements on Syria from Conservative Ministers have sounded just like the ones I remember from when they were dealing—or not dealing—with Milosevic as he rampaged through Bosnia. When will we understand that dictators such as Assad and Putin only respect strength and the credible threat or use of force? When will we realise that Russia’s strategy is to weaken and divide the free world and that driving the biggest refugee flows into Europe since world war two is a deliberate part of that plan? When will we admit that Putin is already achieving what he cannot achieve militarily through cyber-warfare and propaganda?
The motion that we are debating is welcome, but it is pathetic. It refers to the House considering “international action” in Aleppo. There will no international action, because there is no political will, either here or in the other countries where such will is necessary.
Is my right hon. Friend as anxious as I am? With Putin and Russia linked to interference in the American election, with the bombing of Syria leading to a refugee crisis in Europe and with many central European countries looking inward, like we are, Putin’s expansionist tendencies and desire for a warm port should make the Foreign Secretary think carefully about the actions from this point on onwards.
I completely agree. We have not even begun to wake up to Russia’s cyber-warfare. Its interference in the American presidential elections is now proven. It probably interfered in our own referendum—we do not have the evidence for that yet, but it is highly probable. It will certainly be involved in the French presidential election. There are already serious concerns in the German secret service that Russia is already interfering in the upcoming elections. We have to wake up to this, but when?
Finally, the tragedy today is the tragedy of the benighted people of Aleppo issuing desperate, and probably futile, last-minute appeals for help to the outside world. The tragedy tomorrow will be all of ours for failing to stop this happening and for the consequences. Shame on us.
There is no doubt that the civilian atrocities taking place at the hands of Assad and Putin in Aleppo are among the worst that we have witnessed in decades. As a teenager watching the horrors of Rwanda or Srebrenica, I used to think, “Why don’t they do something?” Well, “they” are now us, and what are we doing? We have turned our face away. It is three years since this place voted not to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people. It is 15 months since little Alan Kurdi was found face down on a beach in Turkey. It is a year since we rightly voted to take action on ISIS in the east of Syria and nine months since Jo Cox was granted an urgent question on breaches of the then ceasefire. It is two weeks since we stood here and discussed aid drops and safe passage. What have we actually done to save a single civilian life in Aleppo? Nothing.
We are watching a fascist dictator, backed by a corrupt global power, use chemical weapons and barrel bombs against his own people for daring to want a better life and a better Government. Have we turned away because of more important local issues or because of the siren call to first look after our own? When we talk of “our own”, that should not stop at our constituency boundaries nor, I am afraid, at the white cliffs of Dover. All humanity is “our own” and we have a responsibility and a duty to act. We are not so poor as a nation, financially or morally, that we should turn our backs on what we see on distant shores, not least because it will eventually find its way to us, whether in the form of terror on our own streets or refugee families seeking sanctuary in our estates. We cannot be frozen by the guilt surrounding well-intentioned military action of the past, as the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) so eloquently said. If we are left disappointed or ashamed by difficult and lengthy struggles in Iraq, we must learn the right lessons, which are there in black and white in Chilcot, that when the potential for military action arises we should not commit until it is clear that it can be achieved. We should properly prepare for what comes afterwards and work better with regional partners. Those are the lessons to learn. We should not turn our backs and leave innocent citizens to the bombs and chemicals of despots.
The world is getting smaller by the day and we must play our part in it. We must decide what that part is and what duty we owe to humanity. That duty now looks to be two things. First, as we have heard today, we must get people out immediately. Medics, children, mums—citizens—are trapped and we have to evacuate them as soon as possible. We must get humanitarian aid in as a matter of emergency. We have to urge international action to call an immediate ceasefire. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, we must identify the war crimes and bring people to account. Secondly, we must pledge never again to turn our backs, never again to be ground down or put off by the length or difficulty of the struggle, never to give in to moral equivalence between brutal fascist dictatorships and a people’s struggle for self-determination and freedom. We must pledge never to be so determinedly full of self-indulgent self-loathing for the west that we do not believe that we can play a positive role for the good of the world. Never again should we lack a sense of responsibility to humanity, wherever it is and however hard the struggle.
It is a pleasure to follow a wonderful speech, but we have said “never again” so many times. We mean it when we say it, but then, a few months or years later, it comes to nothing. It is this House’s responsibility to stand up and show hope for the future, optimism and a way through the current problems, but like my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) I feel a sense of sorrow, shame and anger about where we are today.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. When the historians look at this situation, does he agree that it will probably represent a catastrophic failure of western policy that has significantly changed the world for the worse? It is inevitable that a distinct reckoning will come at some point for the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there will be a reckoning. The question now is about when it will come, on what grounds we will fight and whether, even at this last stage, we will be prepared to stand up for ourselves and the values that we preach in this House but are so rarely prepared to defend when push comes to shove.
Although it will in no way aid what little career I have left in my party, I want to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Hatton—
“Tat” rather than “Hat”.
In truth, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) gave the speech that should have been made at the Opposition Dispatch Box, showing a level of understanding about the issues that makes me hope that he has a future in his party and that he will return. Although great, the problems that we face in this country pale into insignificance compared with other problems we face. There is the threat of a tyrannical regime in Russia that has effectively created a global system that has rules but no consequences. We must understand how we have enabled that to happen if we are to have any hope of being able to right this situation before it is too late.
Let us remember how moderate the 2013 proposal was. The regime had used chemical weapons and we said that there must be a red line. There was absolutely no thought-out plan, but the idea that we should—[Interruption.] I will deal with the Government side in a minute. There was the idea that we should do nothing, which is what we did, because there was no thought-through plan. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) showed modesty and frankness about the Government’s failure to get that vote through the Commons. The most lamentable and damning part of the former Prime Minister’s legacy is that he rushed into that. I still feel sick at the idea of the then Leader of the Opposition going from that vote into the Whips Office and congratulating himself and them on stopping a war. Look what is happening today and what has happened over the past three years—the slaughter shames us all, no matter on what side we sit and no matter what our actions were at the time. We are shamed as a nation by this.
We then saw the Russian move into the country, with no UN mandate and no request, yet we allowed it to happen. President Obama said, “Oh well, they’ll come to regret that.” The Russians are not regretting it, because they have been able to show through that and through the highly discriminate slaughter—I was going to say indiscriminate, but it is not—they are perpetrating on citizens that they are able to get away with pretty much anything at the moment, without any sense that there will be come-back. Of course we should talk about the need for justice, bringing people to account and to courts, but the Russians do not respect this. There is no way that they are going to give up their people to bring them to trial. So for all the talk now, rightly, about what extra aid we can bring and what, finally, we can salvage for the people who are left in Syria fearing for their lives, this will ultimately come down to whether we can restore a world with consequence or whether, as the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) suggested, we are now seeing the irretrievable breakdown of the United Nations, just as the League of Nations was destroyed in the 1930s.
The UN is broken over this. People can say, “Let’s have a UN-backed resolution”, but there is no way that Russia currently, when it fears no consequence, is going to bow to the will of the rest, so we have to restore a sense of consequence. Of course that will be difficult, and people will say, “Oh my goodness, you’re inflaming the situation. Oh look, you’re going to start world war three”. However, Russia is not a country that wants a war, but it will continue to push as long as it knows that it will meet no resistance.
Where will this happen next? Will it be a NATO nation? Will it be on our shores? Let us not forget that the Russians have redrawn, by force, the borders of a European country for the first time since the second world war—and what we have done? Not very much. I understand that the Prime Minister is focused on the UK’s exit from the European Union, and rightly so, but this is not a world where we can have one focus and we can leave the difficult decisions beyond the European borders to other people. With genuine respect to the Foreign Secretary, I say that I have seen his understanding on these issues and I have seen him nodding along, but at the moment we have understanding without the capacity to act. So I implore not simply him, but the Prime Minister to look up at what is happening, to understand the role of leadership that she has in this country and on the world stage, and to let us restore a sense of dignity, rules and consequence to the global order.
As I stand here speaking to the House, I feel humbled but wracked with guilt: guilt that tonight I get to go home and kiss my children, while Syrian parents are burying theirs; and guilt that I am not on the front line with my medical colleagues from the Red Cross, whom I stood with for many years, shoulder to shoulder, in many a humanitarian crisis. Those colleagues are pulling bodies out of wreckage, at certain risk of murder. They are desperately fighting to save lives, without resources, using rags to stop bleeding and with eyes streaming from chlorine gas. I have guilt when I ask myself whether in Britain we on these Benches have done enough for the innocent people of Syria and I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that we have.
My guilt is tempered only by the hope that today my voice, along with those of colleagues from both sides of the House, may be heard and action will be taken. I have said it before and I will say it again: the sound of a parent losing a child is an international language. It penetrates one’s skull—it is a dagger through the heart—but it is a language that we are not hearing here in this Chamber. Why have we not heard it? Why do we sit here with inaction? We are close to a time when all we will be able to say is, “It’s too late.” But we stand here today with a last chance for the Government to be able to say, “We did something.” Something is better than nothing—to date, all we have is nothing.
I was in the House in 2013, when we voted in this House to do nothing. At that time, 2 million women and children were in camps, 5 million Syrians were displaced within Syria and Assad had slaughtered 150,000 of his own people. If we as a nation will not take action, the UN will not take action and all the most powerful nations in the world will not take action, what hope did those people have and what hope do they have today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. With the greatest of respect, let me say that I was not in the Chamber at that time and I am talking about what we can do now and the responsibility that we have to humanity here today. Many of us, from both sides of the House, have called again and again for humanitarian aid drops and been met with, “Air drops are a last resort”. The time for last resort has come and gone. I am calling today for a strategy from the Government on how they will protect the civilians left trapped in Aleppo, many of whom know their fate and many of whom have been begging their loved ones to kill them because they fear what will happen to them if they are captured. Today is the day when we need action. We need negotiations now for provision to be put in place for those in Aleppo to leave and get to a safe haven. That city was once thriving, just like our own, but it has been reduced to rubble and death. The only thing that separates them from us is where they were born. What makes their lives worth less than ours? What makes their children’s lives worth less than ours? We will be worth less if we just stand by. One question we need to ask ourselves is: in the twilight of our own lives, will we be able to look at ourselves in the mirror, in the privacy of our own minds, and know we really did all we could? Our choice is simple: will we be governed by fear or will we be led by our conscience?
I spoke earlier of my experience visiting Sarajevo and Srebrenica two years ago and of the exhibition that I saw, but one thing that will never leave me was entering a musty room in a mortuary where bags full of bodies and skeletons were still being examined 20 years after that crisis. These were people whose graves had been disinterred and attempts had been made to hide the evidence, and their families were still not able to get closure on the atrocities committed at that time, when the world stood by. When I hear the stories of men and boys being disappeared, of summary executions, of mass graves and of attempts to hide the evidence and to kill those who were witnessing the evidence, I have all the same fears that we will be looking in one of those mortuaries 20 years from now, wondering just what on earth we did.
That leads me to reflect on the decisions that we in this House have made. I have to reflect on whether the decision I took in 2013, with other people in this House, was the right one. I sat through that entire debate, and I did not feel that the Government came forward with a comprehensive plan or that they had clarity about where they were going, but I have to accept that our decision may well have been wrong.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) that the real question was: why did we not act in 2011? Why did we not act right at the beginning of this conflict? Why were we trying to make decisions when already hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost and when already this conflict had spiralled out of control? We have to look at not just one decision, but the collectivity of the decisions that we took over time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and for the contribution that he is making. I have felt incredibly proud to listen to many of the speeches that colleagues have made during this debate. I hope and pray that the actions that follow this debate are as great as the speeches. Once this two-hour debate is finished, we will have a five-hour debate on the Neighbourhood Planning Bill. Does he, like me, have a sense of how ludicrous we will look when we are discussing that?
Absolutely. I also fear that many will ask where the rest of the House is today. Where is the Prime Minister? Where is the Leader of the Opposition? [Interruption.] I know that the Leader of the Opposition was here, but in a such a debate, we should have senior people in our country standing up and taking part and taking responsibility for the decisions of this House.
All our hand wringing will do nothing to solve the problems that we face today and that the citizens of Aleppo face right now. I wish to turn now to Russia. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) said about Russia. We have to end this fetishisation of Russia by both the populist right and the left and make it face up to the consequences of its action. We must stand up against what it is doing and make it recognise that there are consequences for stepping over these lines and that there will be a response. I must ask the Foreign Secretary a sincere question. We have heard the Government say that they have been doing all they can to bring action against Russia, but the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, said this week:
“No, we didn’t discuss at all sanctions”—
at the EU Foreign Affairs Council—
“and there was no member state asking for additional work on sanctions”—
against Russia. I would like some clarity from the Foreign Secretary on what efforts have been made on this matter. Those sanctions were having an impact. What other member states support him?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern over the incoming US Administration and some of the individuals’ relationships with Russia? Does it not highlight the need for the UK Government to press seriously on the sanctions issue?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, much of what the new President-elect has said about Russia is deeply worrying and should concern us all, not least whether he is willing to stand up for NATO allies and against aggression in the east of Europe.
I wonder why we have not done more to support the efforts of other countries in the United Nations. We talk about the failures of the UN Security Council, but there are other means by which we can authorise action. The “Uniting for Peace” resolution process has been used before, and Canada has been pushing it this week. The General Assembly took a vote and made a decision. Why are we not at the forefront of leading those efforts when the Security Council fails? I fear that if we do not take such action we will see the breakdown of all those systems of international agreement.
Fundamentally, we can make a difference today. I make this appeal to the Foreign Secretary: what are we doing to secure a ceasefire, even a ceasefire of a few hours, to get out the injured, the women and children, the aid workers and those others who are trapped? The UN is there and ready to assist. It can get the people out, but we need the agreement of Russia and others. If the Foreign Secretary is saying that we cannot do airdrops, what can we do with our military assets to provide air cover for UN aid convoys leaving Aleppo? UN convoys have been attacked in the past, so what can we do to provide the assurance that they will not be attacked leaving the scene of this atrocity? What can we do to provide access for neutral humanitarian monitors—those people from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other organisations—to ensure that the evidence is not destroyed and that those who are responsible for these atrocities cannot cover up what they are doing?
What can we do to ensure the evacuation of the White Helmets—people who have been responding and doing amazing work there on the ground. I have read some disgraceful things in recent days about the work of the White Helmets. I can tell Members that they are not true and that those people are helping to save lives. I am proud that we are supporting them, and that Jo Cox supported them and that her foundations supports them now. Any suggestion that those people are doing anything other than a good job is simply unacceptable.
Finally, we must look at the precedent. If we see what is happening in Aleppo today, we can see that it will happen also in Dara, Raqqa and Idlib. If this is the approach that we are going to take and we are not going to stand up at this moment, we will only see these kind of atrocities played out again and again over the weeks and months to come. We must stand up and show that we have some common humanity. We have to do the extraordinary and step outside our natural caution and our fear of these events. People are dying right now and we need to act.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
The war in Syria and the slaughter of more than 450,000 innocent civilians, overwhelmingly by Assad’s barrel bombs, is without a doubt the 21st century’s most shocking and deplorable bloodletting. The carnage has been unparalleled since Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The international community’s response has been lamentable. Parliament’s reaction to events, which started in 2013, has been feeble. Assad, Russia and Iran’s response has been criminal and the repercussions and shock waves will be felt for decades.
What we need to hear from the Foreign Secretary today is this: what are the Government doing with their allies to push for a meaningful immediate ceasefire and safe passage for any remaining civilians, of which there are believed to be between 50,000 and 80,000? I have a 15-year-old son. He is nearly my size, but—he will not thank me for saying this—he is still a child. If he was leaving Aleppo, what chance would he have of getting through Assad’s soldiers and surviving that experience? There are hundreds of thousands of civilians out there who are worried about their children.
We heard from the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is no longer in his place, about his concerns with airdrops, which clearly cannot be undertaken lightly. We need to hear from the Foreign Secretary what recent acts of consideration the Government have given to airdrops and the solutions that do not involve pilots advocated by the Opposition. Are those airdrops relevant to other parts of the country? Even if they are not relevant in Aleppo, other parts of Syria are clearly still under siege and may benefit from airdrops.
The Foreign Secretary needs to tell us what the Government are doing in relation to documenting human rights abuses. From a sedentary position, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has indicated that the Government are working on that issue. I hope that we can hear as much as possible about that. The Government, for very obvious reasons, may not want to reveal how that is being documented, but we do need to hear what work is being done.
We also need to hear what work can be done to hit the Russians where it really hurts them. Clearly, we will not engage in military action with the Russians, but what we can do—the Government will have an opportunity with the Criminal Finances Bill—is hit them in their pockets. Many Russians love to spend their money in the UK. They love to buy properties here; love to buy their cars here; and love to send their children to school here. That is an area where the Government can do something. The Magnitsky amendment that is being proposed to the Criminal Finances Bill is about seizing the assets of foreigners who have committed gross human rights abuses. I want to hear from the Foreign Secretary that the Government will support that amendment, because we know that many of the Russians involved in Syria will have assets here that we could seize.
The Government of Syria have tied themselves to Russia and Iran, which see it to their advantage to encourage Syria’s atrocious behaviour and so perpetuate Assad’s reliance on their support. Assad’s position, for the time being at least, is secure. What new initiatives can the UK, working with its allies, offer to help bring the fighting to an end. Some call for the creation of an enclave in eastern Syria, which would be free of Assad and ISIS forces and which is, as I understand it, where the Kurds and the UK and French special forces are active at the moment. Could such an enclave provide part of a solution?
Only after the violence stops will people begin to recover from the trauma of this horrible war and only then will it be possible for Syrians to think and talk productively about how to begin transforming Syria into a country in which all its people can live in security and dignity. The UK must be prepared, if it is allowed, to play its part then. Will we be ready?
As we have heard, in the opposition areas of Aleppo, people are fearing retribution for all—men, women and children alike. There are reports of extra-judicial killings, mass detentions and arrests. Just a few minutes ago, the BBC reported that the UN’s human rights office said that it has reliable evidence that in four areas 82 civilians were shot on sight. We all fear that this is just one example.
All this adds horribly to the imperative for urgent international action. With hindsight, we can see that when in 2011 the peaceful Syrian democracy movement was largely ignored by the international community, it was inevitable that others, wedded neither to peace nor to democracy, would step in. The regime’s response was predictable, not least given the vicious response of the President’s late father, Hafiz al-Assad, to previous uprisings, such as the one in Hama in 1982, where reportedly 20,000 people were killed, the vast majority of them civilians, and the city was destroyed by heavy weapons.
Some years ago, a very close relative of mine spent some time in Syria, working in Damascus in the education system. She tells me that the memories of Hama were very live even at that time, 20-odd years later. Terror was being used as a deliberate part of the regime’s armoury, as it has been since the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963.
The White Helmets now report that tens of thousands of people are trapped as indiscriminate attacks, both ground and air attacks, continue with even greater ferocity, following on from the previous inhuman attacks on the very weakest points, deliberately targeting hospitals, water and food supplies, and aid convoys.
My colleagues in Plaid Cymru support the calls for an immediate ceasefire and safe passage for civilians and rebels out of Aleppo.
The international community has largely failed the people of Syria so far. One redeeming aspect is this Government’s current policy of commitment to material aid. I am happy to salute them for that. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore agree that now is not the time to cut the foreign aid budget?
I fear that the current inhuman conflict is sowing the seeds of future horrors in Syria, the middle east and western Europe, so, irrespective of the humanitarian argument, it is very much in our interest that we take action on the side of humanitarianism, democracy and eventual peace.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me. I follow on from the many excellent speeches that we have heard in today’s debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), I have visited—in my then role as chair of the all-party group on genocide prevention, alongside you, Mr Speaker—Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and, more recently, South Sudan, and I have seen there the long, painful process of rebuilding in countries where genocides have taken place.
One of the many problems when genocide and war crimes take place is that there is a fog of war around them. I remember living and working in Brussels during the Rwanda genocide and not really understanding, as I was reading the newspapers in French, what was happening between Hutu and Tutsi, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, but seeing the people fleeing from Rwanda and later from Zaire, now DRC.
In the Syrian conflict, however, there has been no lack of information. Everything has been appearing on social media. People have been live tweeting their own suffering and their own death. That is why the citizen journalists and the humanitarian workers are more feared by the regime and by the Russians than the rebel fighters. We have seen the images—images that I personally would rather not have seen—of dead children who were murdered in Homs and Hama in 2011 and 2012. We in the west, in particular the US and the UK, drew a red line by saying that we would intervene if chemical weapons were used. That fatal vote in August 2013, as the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne) said, has had long and very significant consequences.
Our inaction created the political space for the Russians to move in and to offer to decommission the chemical weapons. We have all seen how successful that decommissioning process has been—we have watched as sarin gas, chlorine gas and napalm have been dropped on schools and hospitals in Aleppo and throughout Syria. We have seen the Russian propaganda campaign of misinformation and their pretence of being honest brokers when the west failed or stood by.
Our inaction also opened up military space—Assad released the jihadis from jail to go out and create mayhem in his country. It served as a recruiting sergeant for 30,000 jihadi fighters from more than 100 countries to go and fight for Islamic State, and it served to create the geographical space where Daesh could claim its caliphate, and groom and lure our own young people to go over there and waste their lives as jihadi brides or jihadi fighters. They now find themselves stuck there in the horror of a nihilistic death cult.
The result has been political space captured by the Russians and military space given to Islamic State-Daesh, enabling them to create mayhem in the region and to export it to Turkey and to Iraq where, let us not forget, Mosul has been under Daesh rule for two years, notwithstanding the long and painful efforts of a coalition trying to take back the space in Iraq. The export of chaos from Syria has resulted in 11 million refugees, 7 million of them in their own country, and 400,000 dead. We cannot claim that we did not know what was happening. That toll has been the result of our own political inaction.
It is a bitter irony that this country went to war in Iraq over weapons of mass destruction which were subsequently found not to be there, possibly having gone over the border to Syria, where we see that they have been used. Now, when we see weapons of mass destruction being used in Syria, we are not prepared to take action. How weak, how diminished, how futile is the rules-based international order. We see Secretary of State Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, telling the US Secretary of State to “stop whining”. That is the contempt in which Assad and Putin hold western powers in the region.
When the Foreign Secretary replies to this debate, will he tell us how the workers of UK charities who are currently in east Aleppo will be evacuated and rescued? They have not been spoken about in the debate. When we had our first debate on Syria in October, I contacted Bana Alabed and Omar Ibrahim, who was a neurosurgeon working in east Aleppo. Bana Alabed is still alive.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically detailed and important speech. Will she say a little more about the fate of civilians who have put themselves at risk?
Absolutely. Civilians have put themselves at risk as citizen journalists, going out while the bombs are falling and filming what is happening. There is also solidarity between our national health service and Dr David Nott, whose foundation is doing excellent work, training people in Turkey to go back into the hell hole that is Aleppo or that is Idlib to perform life-saving surgery.
I have been in contact with Omar Ibrahim during this debate and I have been telling him what we are doing. He has live tweeted to us and shared what he is doing; it is only fair to live tweet back. I said that we are calling on the US and Russia to create safe corridors for humanitarians and civilians to leave. His response is, “It will take a lot more than calling.” These are people facing imminent death or torture from the pro-Assad regime. We have seen the pictures of the 100 or so civilian men and boys in that compound with the Syrian army general in front of them. We do not know their fate. We are back to Bosnia, back to Srebrenica. When we say never again, we must put force behind those words.
I would like to conclude by asking the Foreign Secretary what the Prime Minister will do at the EU Council this weekend. Will she work with our European allies and our NATO allies to make sure we get a speedy humanitarian resolution to this conflict?
I would like to start with a quote from a constituent’s letter. Dr Amer Masri left Damascus a few years ago and now works as a researcher in Edinburgh. He says:
“It is a shame for the free world to see the massacres and mass executions happening to the civilians that are trying to flee Aleppo right now and no action is being taken.
I am very, very disappointed and heartbroken that the free world has left civilians who chanted the values the west believes in like freedom, democracy and dignity, and they are left starving and facing the Russian, Iranian and Assad regime brutality alone. We are left alone.
I urge the UK not to bomb Syria but we need aid drops. It is not too late. There are besieged areas in Damascus suburbs, besieged areas all over Syria. Use these planes to create safe corridors to protect the civilians—not to bomb them.”
I cannot add to the many comments that have been made on both sides of the House that sum up the despair and frustration that people in this country and others feel about the situation in Aleppo. However, I want to reflect on the fact that it is just over a year since we had a vote in this House on whether to join military action in Syria. Those of us on the SNP Benches opposed that motion, yet we were assured that if we voted to join that military action, we would cut off the head of ISIS, provide air support for 70,000 ground troops and be part of co-ordinated military action that would lead to and enhance a political solution. It is now terrifyingly obvious that none of those things has come to pass.
Another thing suggested was that joining that military action would give this country and this Government greater leverage in trying to influence events as they unfolded in Syria. It seems terrifyingly obvious that that is not the case either, and I am sure that there are many in this House, and many throughout the country watching their television screens, whose main feeling is one of frustration at the apparent impotence of our Government when it comes to getting involved and doing anything.
I think that some people—perhaps not those sitting on the Government Front Bench, but certainly some people in the Foreign Office—need to go on an assertiveness training course. They need to speak a lot more loudly and more emphatically than they have thus far. I would like to see this country leading, not following; not being a bystander watching the discussions of others, but getting involved, getting our hands dirty and trying to sort the problem out. After all, if this problem was not caused by France and our own country, whose problem is it? We have a responsibility to the world to show leadership, and I hope very much that we will do that.
Along with many in this House, I am very angry at, and opposed to, the actions that Russia has taken militarily in recent months. However, I would say this to the House: the way forward is not going to be to demonise President Putin, to try to move to a new cold war or to try to pretend that Russia does not have legitimate interests in the region. I would like to see firm but emphatic engagement with the Russian authorities and an insistence from this Government that they need to be part of the equation and part of the plan.
We should call Russia to account and insist that humanitarian aid is prioritised and that corridors are allowed so that it can be delivered. We should stand up and be seen to be doing that. Let us get on the planes. Let us have the shuttle diplomacy. Let us be seen to speak out for the people of this country, to lead international opinion and to put pressure on the Russians and others who are trying to make a bad situation worse.
We also need to call out the Turkish Government on their actions in this affair, because they have been none too helpful. Turkey’s support for the al-Nusra front has created a fig leaf of credibility for the Russian military’s excuse that the people of eastern Aleppo are somehow in a terrorist enclave that needs to be liquidated. That is unhelpful, as is the hostility of the Turkish Government to pretty much any sentiment expressed by the Kurdish population in the region.
So, let us take action now to deliver the humanitarian aid, to make sure there is a ceasefire that can be policed and, most of all, to make sure that war crimes, if they have been committed, will be recorded and that those responsible will be brought to book in the future.
Order. The hon. Gentleman, whom I am about to call, needs to sit down by 3.23 pm so that I can call the Foreign Secretary, from whom I think the House will very much want to hear.
Here we are once again: once again congratulating the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing an emergency debate on the situation in Syria; once again hearing from both sides of the House of the atrocities and the unimaginable horror of life in the city of Aleppo; once again asking the same questions to the Government. Where is the head of the snake that our bombs were going to cut off? Why is the United Nations so powerless in the face of this disaster? Why is it that we can drop bombs, but not bread?
In the time I have, I want to reflect on the situation on the ground, on some of the practical solutions we have heard about and on the role the Government can play. We hear that the Assad forces are on the brink of seizing control of the city, but in doing so, it seems they are playing out the ancient saying: they have made a desert and called it peace.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I have very little time.
Quite how the word “victory” could apply to the almost utter destruction of a city and to the death and displacement of so many people is beyond me and, I suspect, most of us. The destruction continues, with both sides responsible for atrocities and horror. The number of people displaced within the country and over its borders is greater than the population of Scotland and just slightly greater than the population of London.
While we recognise the humanitarian contribution the United Kingdom has made, there must be more it can do. That must extend to the welcome it provides to the Syrian refugees who make it to the United Kingdom—20,000 refugees from Syria over the lifetime of this Parliament is simply not enough. It would be helpful to hear from the Government how they want to work with humanitarian organisations on the ground in Syria and in neighbouring countries. Local organisations have a much deeper reach and much better understanding of the immediate situation than multilateral or bilateral agencies.
In Aleppo itself, as many Members have said, we now surely require an urgent and specific response. We on the SNP Benches have repeatedly called for aid drops, and the Government have repeatedly said that that would be an option of last resort. Well, what is the penultimate resort? What is preventing these aid drops? No food has been delivered to Aleppo for seven months. What alternatives are the Government pursuing?
We have heard repeatedly of the risks and of the difficult logistics of aid drops, but we have also heard of the proposals from graduates at the University of Aleppo about how the United States joint precision airdrop system could be deployed. I have asked the Minister written questions about that. It would be helpful to hear from him what discussions the UK is having with the US and other allies about the applicability of that system, and whether it presents a more secure way of delivering aid by air.
The Minister might also be aware of proposals in recent days from members of the Disasters Emergency Committee and other non-governmental organisations for use of an air bridge system to deliver aid by helicopter to safe landing sites identified by the White Helmets and others. In their letter to the Prime Minister, the agencies cite the UK’s role in the 1948-49 Berlin airlift, when over 2 million tonnes of cargo were delivered to 2 million residents of West Berlin. Will the Prime Minister be responding to that letter from some of the most respected aid agencies in this country?
The agencies also make the point that UN Security Council resolution 2165 authorises the UN to undertake cross-border aid delivery without the permission of the Syrian Government. Indeed, the International Syria Support Group, of which Russia remains a member, called on the World Food Programme to use air bridges and airdrops if land access continues to be denied. So what steps are the Government taking to be ready when, or if, the situation stabilises?
Yesterday I spoke at a conference for Syrian refugees living in my constituency and across Edinburgh, and I met an accomplished artist from Aleppo, Nihad Al Turk, who berated me for the lack of action on all our parts. Has my hon. Friend just described practical steps that we could take at this stage of last resort so that perhaps the next time I meet this gentleman, and other Syrian refugees, in Edinburgh I will have something concrete to say?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend. That is the point: concrete, specific proposals are brought forward and we get told, “No, they’re not practical—they’re not possible.” So what are the alternatives? How will this aid otherwise be delivered?
As other Members have said, this situation brings into question the entire multilateral system and the role of the UN Security Council in its seeming inability to respond to the regime. The Government will be aware of statements signed by faith leaders, and a statement co-ordinated by Amnesty, supported by over 200 civil society organisations, calling for a greater role for the General Assembly of the United Nations and a special emergency session of the assembly
“to demand an end to all unlawful attacks in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, and immediate and unhindered…access”
for humanitarian aid. Will the UK Government support this call? As I said in the previous debate, the UK’s position on the Security Council is supposed to be one of the great advantages of the Union—Britain’s force in the world—so how is that diplomacy going to be used as a force for good?
SNP Members have repeatedly said that if we can drop bombs in Syria, we should be able to drop bread. The need is great, and the technology and the solutions are there. If stability comes, irrespective of the horrific circumstances, then aid must be allowed in. The Government must be preparing now so that as soon as an opportunity arises they can show leadership and begin to help people to rebuild a city and their lives which currently lie in ruins.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing this debate on a matter that the whole House feels so strongly about. I listened very carefully to all the speeches and found myself greatly in agreement with much that has been said by Members on both sides of the House.
After five months of siege and almost a year of bombardment, we are now reaching the end of the siege of Aleppo, and Assad’s forces are doing their utmost to stamp out the last embers of revolt. The dictator’s militias have carved paths of destruction through crowded streets destroying hospitals, severing water supplies and herding thousands of people from their homes. I will come in a minute to what we have tried to do as the UK Government, what we continue to do and what we will do in future. I will also, of course, discuss the tragic limitations that we have faced in our actions so far.
First, it is worth going back and remembering how this tragedy has unfolded. As long ago as July, the regime sealed off eastern Aleppo and then defeated two abortive efforts to break the siege. Bit by bit, Assad tightened the noose. The last UN convoy entered eastern Aleppo on 7 July. The last food rations were handed out on 10 November. The last functioning hospital was targeted by an airstrike and knocked out of action on 19 November. Some 275,000 men, women and children were then trapped in eastern Aleppo without food, medical care, or even, in many cases, electricity and water. In this piteous condition, they endured ceaseless attack from air and ground, notably by barrel bombs dropped from Syrian military helicopters.
I know that time is short, but it is worth reminding the House of exactly what a barrel bomb is and why it makes such a hideous weapon. Imagine a metal drum filled with petrol and explosives, and laced with nails and jagged shards of metal. These objects—[Interruption.] People watching and listening around the world may not know what they are. These objects are loaded on board helicopters, which then hover over civilian areas. The men on the helicopters simply light the fuses of the barrels before rolling them out of the door, leaving them to fall to the ground where they shred and incinerate any human being with range. There is no guidance system or targeting. Barrel bombs have no military purpose; they cannot be dropped near a frontline for fear of striking friendly forces. Their sole purpose is to murder civilians. Scores of these awful weapons have been used against the people of eastern Aleppo by Assad every day.
The collapse of the rebel-held districts began on 26 November and has gathered pace. In the areas recaptured by the dictator, we have already heard reports today of hundreds of young males being separated from their families and marched away to an unknown fate. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights today reported that civilians have been “killed on the spot”.
As this tragedy has unfolded, the Government have sought to reduce the suffering with every diplomatic and humanitarian lever at our command. I must tell the House that we have used every effort at the UN. Even today, we are, along with the French, calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council. I know that our excellent ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, will be conveying at the UN many of the sentiments expressed in the House.
On 8 October, we tried to secure a UN resolution that would have urged a ceasefire. It demanded that
“all parties immediately end all aerial bombardments of…Aleppo”.
That resolution was vetoed by the Russians. On Monday of last week we tried again, throwing our weight behind a draft resolution co-sponsored by Egypt, Spain and New Zealand that urged a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow the evacuation of casualties and the delivery of aid. Once again, Russia vetoed the resolution, joined by China. I think that the House will join me in condemning those in Moscow and Beijing who would not allow the people of Aleppo even a seven-day respite. I must say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield that I have had information from Aleppo—I am sure that other Members have, too—that even today the Russians are blocking the evacuation of the injured and of medical staff from the very zones they are attacking.
Given what the Foreign Secretary has said about Russia and China’s behaviour and their failures, what will the consequences be for Moscow and Beijing?
We are gathering all the information that we think will be necessary for the prosecution of those guilty of war crimes, but the diplomatic pressure must continue. It was asked earlier what we are doing in the EU; I can tell the House that the UK stood up at the last meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council and argued for tightening sanctions against Russia in respect of Syria as well. I wish that the rest of the EU would follow suit.
Last Saturday I broke off a visit to the middle east to fly to Paris to discuss these matters with Secretary Kerry. I pay tribute to John Kerry for his efforts, but they have not prevailed. We jointly demanded that the “regime and its backers” allowed the UN to deliver aid “with immediate effect.” Assad has doggedly refused to allow the UN to deliver supplies to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are now starving. He is content for his own people to be reduced to starvation, even though there are UN warehouses full of food within easy reach.
What specific action to protect civilians will the Foreign Secretary tell the Prime Minister that she should propose to our European colleagues when she goes to the European Council next week?
What the Russians need to do—this is what our European colleagues should do as well—is to institute an immediate ceasefire. It is up to the Russians, and, I am afraid, to the Assad regime, to institute a ceasefire. I will come in a minute to the deficiencies and problems that our decision in 2013 left us with today. Many Members have sought to find fault with the UK Government and what we have tried to do. Given that we are contributing £2.3 billion of aid, many Members have asked an entirely legitimate question: why we do not fly in aid ourselves? Labour Members have asked that very question: why do we not drop aid on eastern Aleppo from the air? Many have spoken in favour of airdrops. In recent weeks since we last discussed this matter in the House, we have studied that option with great care. Working with my colleagues across Whitehall, and working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and the RAF, I must tell the House that we have come up against some hard realities.
When the Foreign Secretary complains, as he repeatedly does, about Russian behaviour and Russian vetoes, does he understand that he sounds exactly like the Conservative Foreign Secretaries in the early 1990s who said exactly the same thing about the Balkans? We subsequently had a Labour Government who showed leadership, assembled a coalition and got American support to do something to stop the genocide. What is he doing?
That comes a little ill from a Labour Member because the right hon. Gentleman remembers fine well that the Labour party was whipped to oppose any action in 2013.
I want to return to the current situation because Members have asked some very reasonable questions that I think I must answer.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I make some progress, because I have very little time left. For airdrops to be accurate, they must be conducted at low level and low speed. Russia has deployed its most advanced jet fighters and surface-to-air missiles in Syria, which makes it impossible for us to carry out airdrops without Russian permission. Even if Russia were to give its consent, our aircraft would still have to fly over areas of Syria that are hotly contested by a multitude of armed groups, including Daesh and al-Qaeda. They would make every effort to shoot down a British plane, and a lumbering, low-flying transport aircraft would be a sitting duck. We came reluctantly to the conclusion that airdrops over Syria, under those conditions, would pose too great a risk.
When it comes to drones and other devices, we still face the problem that the Syrians and the Russians control the airspace. Of course it is possible that circumstances might change, so I will not rule out any option for delivering aid today, but nor will I give false hope. As things stand, we would be risking the lives of our aircrew if we tried to drop supplies into eastern Aleppo.
I pay tribute to those who have made brave efforts to evacuate wounded children. All those efforts depend on Russia and the Assad regime, and it is up to them to agree a truce. By far the most effective way of delivering aid would be for them to give permission to the UN to distribute the supplies that are piled high inside its warehouses. As long ago as December 2015, Russia voted in favour of UN resolution 2254, which urged all parties to
“allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria”.
Russia must now obey the very resolution that it supported and compel Assad to allow the UN to feed his people—[Interruption.] I say to Opposition Members who are objecting to this that if we take the pressure off Russia, we are serving the purposes of the Assad regime.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I am afraid I will not.
There is another inescapable reality that Members must accept. On 29 August 2013, this House voted by 13 votes not to use force against Assad, even after he had poisoned hundreds of his people with sarin nerve gas. We, as a House of Commons and as a country, thereby vacated the space into which Russia stepped, beginning its own bombing campaign on behalf of Assad in 2015. Ever since that vote, our ability to influence events in Syria, to protect civilians or to compel the delivery of aid has been severely limited. The dictator was left to do his worst—along with his allies, Russia and Iran—and the bloodiest tragedy of the 21st century has since unfolded.
I must say—the House should listen to this—that Assad’s conquest of Aleppo will not mark the end of the war. The victory will turn to ashes in his mouth, because even if he reimposes his rule over the rubble of that city, about two thirds of Syria will remain outside his control. Millions of Syrians are viscerally hostile to the rule of a tyrant who has the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands. Already Daesh has taken the opportunity created by Assad’s assault on Aleppo to surge forwards and capture again the ancient Roman city of Palmyra. Assad has repeatedly said that his aim is nothing less than the re-conquest of “every inch” of Syria. If he is allowed to pursue that goal, I fear that this war will continue for more years, and victory will still elude him.
My question to those who ask what we would do—let us turn the question around—is: do Russia and Iran want to stand behind Assad in this futile and indefinite struggle to subdue Syria? Do they want to be with him siege for siege, barrel bomb for barrel bomb and gas attack for gas attack, as the tyrant reduces his country to ashes? In the months or perhaps years ahead, does Russia still wish to be dispatching warplanes to bomb Syrian cities while casting vetoes in the Security Council on behalf of Assad, a man for whom it has no great regard?
The Foreign Secretary mentions the vote in 2013; I will live with that for the rest of my life. May I ask again the question that I asked him earlier? There is no pressure on Russia at the moment, so why does he not tell the Prime Minister to go to the European Council and propose action that is led by the UK and supported by our European allies?
I can tell the hon. Lady that we are doing everything that we can within the constraints we face. I have described the restrictions on military options, which I think most people in this country understand.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I am afraid that I must now wind up.
I hope that Russia will see sense and join us to secure the transition away from Assad that is the only hope for a peaceful Syria. It is up to them—the Russians and Iran—and they have the future of Syria in their hands. This is one of the darkest hours in Aleppo’s four millennia of recorded history. One day, that city will rise again, and one day, Britain will be among the countries that help to restore Aleppo to the greatness it once had. That day might seem far off now, but it will come all the faster if the Russians and the Iranians do the right thing, abandon their puppet, and promote the peaceful and political solution that is the only way forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the emergency debate, may I seek your advice? There has clearly been a profound re-examination of some of the arguments that led to the result of the vote in August 2013, when Parliament was recalled during a recess. Will you advise me whether there may therefore be a case for the Government to come back to the House with a substantive motion to reflect the changed circumstances since that time?
It would absolutely be open to the Government to return to the matter, and to put before the House a substantive motion for a debate and a vote. Such an opportunity most certainly exists.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During my speech, I requested that the Foreign Secretary describe the actions he has taken to evacuate the staff of UK-based humanitarian organisations. He failed to answer that point. Will you, on behalf of the House, seek answers from the Foreign Secretary on that specific point, which is of the utmost gravity and urgency? [Interruption.]
All I can say to the hon. Lady is that I have just heard the Foreign Secretary indicate from a sedentary position that he will write to her. Might I politely ask that the Foreign Secretary place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House, because I think his answer will be of interest not only to the hon. Lady, but to many Members on both sides of the House?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am not sure there is anything further, but I will indulge the right hon. Gentleman.
I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he would support the Magnitsky Act amendments to the Criminal Finances Bill. I wonder whether he might be willing to indicate that he will respond on that point.
He might. I say to the right hon. Gentleman and any other Member who feels that his or her point has been inadequately addressed, or not addressed at all, that I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will study what has been said by colleagues and that, if he feels there are points that are unaddressed, he will write to all such colleagues. I am quite sure that the Foreign Secretary will do that.
We have to leave it there for now. We cannot continue the debate at this time, although there is plenty of scope for doing so subsequently.
Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 10 October 2016 (Neighbourhood Planning Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration and proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion, at today’s sitting, five hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.—(Gavin Barwell.)
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)