To ask the Foreign Secretary what action the UK Government are taking on the conflict and humanitarian situation inside de-escalation zones in Syria following attacks on civilians in the last week.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for raising this vital issue.
In seven years of bloodshed, the war in Syria has claimed 400,000 lives and driven 11 million people from their homes, causing a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. The House should never forget that the Assad regime, aided and abetted by Russia and Iran, has inflicted the overwhelming burden of that suffering. Assad’s forces are now bombarding the enclave of eastern Ghouta, where 393,000 people are living under siege, enduring what has become a signature tactic of the regime, whereby civilians are starved and pounded into submission. With bitter irony, Russia and Iran declared eastern Ghouta to be a “de-escalation area” in May last year and promised to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the truth is that Assad’s regime has allowed only one United Nations convoy to enter eastern Ghouta so far this year and that carried supplies for only a fraction of the area’s people. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in eastern Ghouta in the last week alone and the House will have noted the disturbing reports of the use of chlorine gas. I call for those reports to be fully investigated and for anyone held responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria to be held accountable.
Over the weekend I discussed the situation with my Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sa’ad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon. Earlier today, I spoke to Sigmar Gabriel, the German Foreign Minister, and I shall be speaking to other European counterparts and António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, in the next few days. Britain has joined with our allies to mobilise the Security Council to demand a ceasefire across the whole of Syria and the immediate delivery of emergency aid to all in need. Last Saturday, after days of prevarication from Russia, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2401, demanding that
“all parties cease hostilities without delay”
and allow the
“safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid”
“medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded”.
The main armed groups in eastern Ghouta have accepted the ceasefire, but as of today, the warplanes of the Assad regime are still reported to be striking targets in the enclave and the UN has been unable to deliver any aid. I remind the House that hundreds of thousands of civilians are going hungry in eastern Ghouta only a few miles from UN warehouses in Damascus that are laden with food. The Assad regime must allow the UN to deliver those supplies, in compliance with resolution 2401, and we look to Russia and Iran to make sure this happens, in accordance with their own promises. I have invited the Russian Ambassador to come to the Foreign Office and give an account of his country’s plans to implement resolution 2401. I have instructed the UK mission at the UN to convene another meeting of the Security Council to discuss the Assad regime’s refusal to respect the will of the UN and implement the ceasefire without delay.
Only a political settlement in Syria can ensure that the carnage is brought to an end and I believe that such a settlement is possible if the will exists. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is ready to take forward the talks in Geneva, and the opposition are ready to negotiate pragmatically and without preconditions. The international community has united behind the path to a solution laid out in UN resolution 2254 and Russia has stated its wish to achieve a political settlement under the auspices of the UN. Today, only the Assad regime stands in the way of progress. I urge Russia to use all its influence to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table and take the steps towards peace that Syria’s people so desperately need.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for that response. Last week, 527 people were killed in Ghouta, including 129 children. The bombardment killed over 250 people in just two days—the deadliest 48 hours in the conflict since the 2013 gas attack, also on Ghouta. This House failed them then; now surely we must find the courage to act. Right now, a team led by British surgeon, David Nott, is ready to evacuate 175 very sick children from Ghouta and 1,000 adults needing life-saving treatment. The UK could take them. Will the Government commit to doing that?
The EU is today announcing stronger sanctions on regime officials. Will we also impose sanctions on Russian individuals and companies involved in the conflict? Will we have the courage to recognise what is blindingly obvious—that for all the so-called agreement to new resolutions, the Security Council is broken while one of its permanent members flouts the basic laws and systems of order that it was created to uphold, and that, in these dreadful circumstances, being cowed into inaction by this strangulated body is a greater violation than seeking to act even without its authorisation? Will we work with any and all nations committed to returning humanity to Syria to consider the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ghouta, or for peacekeepers to allow aid to get in, or indeed, for strikes on the forces responsible for these atrocities, like we failed to authorise in 2013?
The men and women of Ghouta who lie in pieces, deliberately targeted by Assad’s Russia-enabled bombs, and the dead children whose faces are altered by the chlorine gas that choked them should not be strewn in the rubble of eastern Ghouta. Those bodies should be piled up in this Chamber and lain at the feet of Governments of every single nation that continues to shrug in the face of this horror.
My final question comes from a doctor in Ghouta who spoke to a British journalist yesterday, his voice apparently thick with exhaustion and resignation. He said:
“I have a question for the world. What number of victims does the world need to show responsibility. Its moral responsibility. Its legal responsibility. To stop these crimes.”?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the continuing and campaigning interest that he has shown in this matter. He speaks for many people in this country in his indignation and outrage at what is taking place.
Let me take some of his points in turn. On the evacuation of medical cases, particularly children, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in discussion about that very issue with David Nott, to whom the hon. Gentleman rightly alludes. On the point about holding the perpetrators to account and perhaps even bringing Russian agents to justice, we will certainly gather what evidence we can, knowing that the mills of justice may grind slowly, but they grind small. We will want in the end to bring all those responsible to justice.
On his central point that we in this country and in the west in the end did not do enough to turn the tide in Syria and that we missed our opportunity in 2013, no one can conceivably contradict him. We all understand what took place and the gap that we allowed to be opened up for the Russians and Iranians to come in and support the Assad regime. We all understand the failure that took place then, but we also have to recognise that there is no military solution that we can impose. It is now essential that the Russians recognise that, just because Assad is in possession of half the territory of Syria, or perhaps 75% of the population of Syria, does not mean that he has won. He has come nowhere near to a complete military victory and I do not believe that it is within his grasp to achieve a complete military victory. Nobody should be under the illusion that that is what will happen. Nobody should be under the illusion that the suffering of the people of eastern Ghouta is simply the sad prerequisite or precursor to an eventual Assad military victory. I do not believe that that is the case. I believe that it will prove almost impossible for the Assad regime to achieve a military victory, even with Russian and Iranian support.
The only way forward—the only way out of this mess and this morass—for the Russians is to go for a political solution. The Sochi experiment did not work. Now is the moment to encourage that regime to get down to Geneva and begin those political talks, which I believe will have the support of the entire House.
I call Tom Tugendhat.
I was going to wait, Mr Speaker.
That is very decent of the hon. Gentleman, but if he feels a question welling up in his breast, he should share it with the nation.
Many hon. Members wanted to ask questions early, so I was going to wait and allow them to do so.
We are saving the hon. Gentleman up for the edification of the House.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is correct in saying that, in the end, it will be a political and diplomatic solution, but do we not have a responsibility to demonstrate to the world that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated? At the very least, are limited strikes to deny the Assad regime the ability to continue this horror within our responsibility?
Many people in this country will share my hon. Friend’s sentiments, and many people will believe that the United States of America did exactly the right thing when it responded to the abomination of the attack at Khan Sheikhoun in April with the strike at the Shayrat airfield. If the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons produces incontrovertible evidence of the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime or its supporters, I would certainly hope very much that the west will not stand idly by.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for securing it.
During the Opposition day debate in the House a month ago, I warned of the Assad regime’s impending criminal assault on eastern Ghouta. Sadly, that is exactly what we have seen in recent weeks. Whatever words we use to describe the assaults, and even if we say, as UNICEF said last week, that there are simply no adequate words, one thing must be made clear: because of the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, the targeting of hospitals and medical centres, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and the alleged use of chemical weapons, the assault is simply a war crime and there must be a reckoning for those responsible.
In the brief time I have, may I ask the Foreign Secretary three questions? First, all hon. Members welcome the UN Security Council statement calling for an immediate ceasefire, but it was clear to anyone reading the text with care that it in fact excluded military action against terrorists. That will allow Assad and his allies to justify continuing their assault against the jihadist armies of Jaysh al-Islam and Tahrir al-Islam inside eastern Ghouta. It will also allow Turkey to justify continuing its assault on Afrin. To stop the assault on eastern Ghouta, therefore, should the UN not instead be clear that there must be a temporary cessation of all military action within Syria, and not the conditional cessation that Assad and his allies are using to justify continuing their assault?
Secondly, I ask the Foreign Secretary what practical discussions there have been at the UN and elsewhere about opening a corridor from eastern Ghouta to Mleiha or Harasta, both to allow access for humanitarian relief and to allow civilian safe passage out of the city.
Finally, while I appreciate that it is the view of some in the House that the suffering of eastern Ghouta can be stopped only by yet more western military intervention, I believe that that would simply prolong and deepen the war. Ultimately, we can end this dreadful conflict and the suffering of all the Syrian people only through genuine peace talks involving all non-jihadi parties and the agreement of a political solution, so may I ask the Foreign Secretary this: what is Britain doing to drive this process forward?
As I am sure the right hon. Lady will appreciate, United Nations Security Council resolution 2401 was, in fact, a considerable success of diplomacy, given the position that the Russians had previously taken. I think that it represents a strong commitment to a ceasefire on the part of the entire international community. It is now up to the Russians to enforce that ceasefire, and to get their client state to enforce it as well. That is the point that we are making, and the point that we will definitely make to ambassador Yakovenko. As for the issue of humanitarian corridors, I think that all these ideas are extremely good and we certainly support them, but it will take the acquiescence of the Assad regime to achieve what we want.
The right hon. Lady asked about the UK Government. The UK Government have been in the lead in Geneva and the United Nations in driving the process of holding the Assad regime to account through Security Council resolutions, and we continue to do that. We are calling again for the Security Council to meet to discuss the failure to implement resolution 2401 today. As the right hon. Lady knows, the UK Government are part of the Syria Small Group, which is working to counterbalance what has turned out to be a doomed—or perhaps I should say “so far unsuccessful”—Russian venture at Sochi. That is because we think it is our job to bring the international community together. I am not talking about the Astana process or the Sochi process. We should bring the members of the international community together, as one, in Geneva, with a single political process. That is what the job of the UK Government is, and that is where we will continue to direct our efforts.
Thank you for your patience, Mr Speaker. I am extremely grateful.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the urgent question. May I share with him the disappointment that I am sure many Conservative Members feel as a war continues and Stop the War does not protest outside the Russian embassy, but stays silent about the brutality that we are seeing?
My right hon. Friend rightly said that Britain should be at the centre of this process. May I ask him what conversations he has had with Minister Zarif and Minister Lavrov over the last few days, given that Minister Lavrov was instrumental in first blocking and then delaying the UN process? May I also ask him whether it is true that both President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany have spoken to President Putin of Russia? What contact have we had with Russia over the last few days?
I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that we are directing all our conversations and all our energies to getting the Russians to accept their responsibilities. I cannot go into the details of the contacts that we have had with them over the last few days, but suffice it to say that we believe that it is overwhelmingly in their interests to begin a political process. I feel that if they do not do that, they will be bogged down in this conflict for years, perhaps decades, to come. There is no military solution. There are 4 million people in Syria whom Assad does not control, and whom the Russians do not control either. We are therefore exerting all the influence we can to bring the process back to Geneva, where it belongs.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for requesting it.
This is a multi-faceted war. Robert Fisk of The Independent has warned that it is Ghouta today, but it will be Raqqa later. We welcome the united approach of the UN Security Council to this critically urgent issue, and, indeed, the efforts of the UK Government in helping to secure it. However, there is concern about the fact that the resolution does not make it clear how the ceasefire will be enforced, how the injured will be evacuated, and how returning aid workers will be protected. Will the Financial Secretary provide some clarity on that, and might he think about working to achieve an improved resolution?
We know that, yesterday, both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron spoke to the Kremlin to urge Russia to use its influence to ensure the ceasefire is respected. Following on from the question of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), what representations are the UK Government planning to make to Russia to ensure the ceasefire is announced and, indeed, implemented, and especially for safe corridors, in which Russia could play a big part?
With Syria and Turkey now disagreeing over whether the ceasefire applies to Turkish forces in north-west Syria, and Iran insisting it does not apply to parts of Damascus, there is a real risk that the limited scope and clarity will lead to the ceasefire being disregarded. Can the Secretary of State confirm if there will be any further discussions aimed at ensuring there is zero ambiguity among all parties as to what the ceasefire entails, especially given Robert Fisk’s warning that the bombing in Ghouta will not end any time soon and, indeed, that there are other cities further down the line that will, when the dominoes start to topple, suffer the same fate?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the safe return of aid workers is paramount, and we are working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to ensure that that is possible and that people can go about their jobs looking after the humanitarian needs of the victims in safety. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the need to bear down on Russia and make it clear to the world that Russia bears responsibility for bringing its client state to heel and delivering it to the talks in Geneva—and, as I have said many times to the House, that is pre-eminently in Russia’s interests.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this ceasefire is absolutely vital not only to get humanitarian aid in, but to aid the medical evacuations across Syria and especially in eastern Ghouta?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and she will have heard the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) detail some of the suffering taking place in eastern Ghouta, including the signs that hundreds of children are victims, some of them perhaps now of chemical weapons. It is crucial that those victims receive the medical attention they need, and, as I told the House just now, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is working with the doctors concerned to see what we can do.
The Russian Defence Minister has announced that, starting tomorrow, there will be a daily humanitarian pause from 9 o’clock in the morning until 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that limiting the bombing to 19 hours a day, as opposed to 24, will be of scant comfort to the residents of “hell on Earth”, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has described eastern Ghouta? What further action is the Foreign Secretary prepared to take, above that which he has already described to the House, to ensure that Russia abides by the terms of the resolution it supported—a humanitarian pause for 30 consecutive days to ensure humanitarian aid gets in? Is not the reason we are having this discussion today that in the past the words of the west have failed to have any impact whatsoever?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I remember him making a passionate speech on that very subject. It is a great shame that at a critical moment this House did not give this country the authorisation to respond to the use of chemical weapons, which we might otherwise have done. From that decision all sorts of consequences have flowed, and it has put Russia in the position it now finds itself in. The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is absurd for the Russians to say they are going to desist from bombing for a certain number of hours per day. There needs to be a complete ceasefire, there needs to be an end to the carnage in eastern Ghouta, and Russia needs to be held to account—and the Russians who are responsible for this will eventually be held to account, because we will make sure there is in the end some judicial process that allows us to hold those responsible for war crimes to account.
This is the same neighbourhood where, following another chemical attack in 2013, President Obama rubbed out his own red line, and this place—wrongly in my view—turned its back and abandoned these people to their fate. When Russia breaks the terms of the resolution and when President Assad breaks international law and gasses his people again, both of which will happen, are we going to carry on with this merry dance and with warm, angry words and stomping our feet, or are we in this country eventually going to say that enough is enough and actually do something?
When such questions are posed in this House, there is often cheering and noises of assent from the Benches on both sides, and I have to say that I share that sentiment. I would like to see us in a position to do something and not to allow the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished, but I remind the House of what happened in 2013 when we did have that choice. We had that option then, but we failed to take it. Let us not let the people of Syria down again.
May I seek two points of clarity from the Foreign Secretary? He says that we must “bear down on Russia”. Can he tell us explicitly whether anyone from his Government has sought to contact President Putin directly about the situation in Ghouta? He also says that he has met his Turkish counterpart. Did he ask him explicitly about Operation Olive Branch, and did he discuss ensuring that, whatever the Turkish forces are doing, our Kurdish allies are able to receive aid?
Unfortunately, I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Lady about any contact between this Government and President Putin over the past few days. I certainly have not had any myself, but as I told the House, the Russian ambassador has been invited to come, and contact has certainly been made with Sergei Lavrov—[Interruption.] I will just make this point to the hon. Lady. In the end, there must be a political solution to this crisis, and it is up to the Russians to deliver their client. That is the best way forward.
I thank the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for bringing this urgent question to the House. As far back as 2017, the United Nations said that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on more than two dozen occasions. Would my right hon. Friend now concede that, sadly, due to their regular use over the past few years, chemical munitions are now an accepted weapon of war in the modern era?
No, I do not think that anybody in this House would want to concede that. We do not concede that chemical weapons are an acceptable weapon of war, and we want those who use them to be held properly to account.
The Foreign Secretary said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) that if there were further evidence of the use of chemical weapons, he hoped that we would not stand idly by. So why are we standing idly by while civilians are being slaughtered in their hundreds now, in flagrant breach of a binding United Nations resolution?
I do not believe that we are standing idly by. To say that we are doing so is to do a grave disservice to the work of the many hundreds of British people working in the Department for International Development and in our military who are doing all sorts of things on a budget of about £2.5 billion. We are the second biggest contributor to humanitarian relief in this area, and to say that we are doing nothing does a grave disservice to the efforts of this country. If the right hon. Gentleman is seriously advocating military intervention, which seems to be the position being taken up by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), he and the hon. Lady need to be clear about what they are advocating—[Interruption.] I have to say to the House that the last time military intervention was seriously proposed, a very modest proposal was put to the House and the House rejected it. If it is the view on the Labour Benches that Labour Members would now support military action—[Interruption.] They are making an awful lot of racket, but I am asking them a serious question. If it is their view that they would now support military action in Syria, I think they should be explicit about it—[Interruption.] They are chuntering away at me and accusing the UK of not doing anything in a way that I think is gravely disrespectful to the huge efforts that are being made by this Government.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the president of the Council of Europe recently had to resign due to a visit to see Assad without the Council’s knowledge and with the support of Russian MPs. What, if any, direct relationship should there now be with the Syrian regime?
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question about relations between the Council of Europe and the Syrian regime. I think there should be no such relations at the present time.
It is crucial that those who commit international war crimes know that the world is watching and that we will not forget. What steps are being taken to enable UN monitoring forces to ensure that careful records are kept of attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure and of the indiscriminate killing of women, men and children, so that the perpetrators of such crimes can ultimately be held to account?
The hon. Lady asks an important question. As I said to the House, careful records and tabulations are being made of exactly what is happening with a view to holding the perpetrators to account.
The overwhelming majority of abuses in Syria have been committed by the Assad regime and his backers. Will the Foreign Secretary assure us that everything will be done to ensure that those who flout international law and human rights laws will be held properly to account?
We will certainly do everything we can both to gather the evidence that is necessary and to hold the perpetrators to account.
It is good that the UN Security Council has passed a resolution, but why should President Assad fear the Security Council? What will it do to enforce the resolution?
The answer has already been given several times in the House this afternoon: the greatest fear and constraint upon Bashar al-Assad and other members of the Assad regime are the eventual consequences that they will face in terms of prosecution for war crimes.
Meanwhile, just up the road in Afrin, our friends the Kurdish peshmerga, without whom we would not have been able to defeat ISIS, are being backed by Assad’s military forces against a Turkish invasion. Whose side are we on there?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I neglected to answer that part of the question from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). We view the Turkish incursion into Afrin with grave concern. Everybody understands Turkey’s feelings about the YPG and the PKK, and everybody understands Turkey’s legitimate need to protect its own security. However, we do have concerns about the humanitarian consequences in Afrin, which I raised with my Turkish counterpart yesterday morning. We are also concerned about the possibility, which seems to be happening, of the diversion of Kurdish fighters, who have been so effective against Daesh, from the eastern part of Syria back to Afrin and the Manbij gap area to take on the Turks. We simply do not welcome that diversion in the fight against Daesh.
Last week, I met with Dr Ahmad Tarakji, the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which is supporting the 100 doctors left in eastern Ghouta, where the benighted people are being bombed, besieged and starved into submission. When the International Development Secretary discusses the doctors in eastern Ghouta, will she also undertake to channel funding into SAMS? It exists on $35 million a year, which is tiny in DFID’s funding landscape, and those doctors are the last human rights defenders in eastern Ghouta. We are funding the White Helmets, so why are we not funding SAMS?
That is an excellent question. As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the SAMS hospital is where we received the evidence of children arriving with symptoms as though they had been poisoned with chlorine gas, so we applaud and support the work of SAMS. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has told me that we will certainly look at what we can do to fund SAMS.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. In 1995, in relation to the Srebrenica massacre and genocide, the international community authorised international humanitarian military action. Will he clarify whether a similar threshold has now been met in relation to taking action in Syria? If so, it is now for the international community to decide whether or not it wants to take that decisive action.
The concept of international humanitarian military action, as was employed after Srebrenica, is certainly one that many people have considered. In all candour, I must say to the House that we are not at that point at the moment. I appreciate very much the sincerity of the demands from Opposition Members, if I have understood their sentiments correctly, for a more robust military posture, with airstrikes perhaps—I do not know quite what is being recommended—but I would be misleading the House if I said there is a strong will in the international community to engage in quite that way. In response to the individual use of chemical weapons perhaps, but not a sustained military engagement.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly said that trying to sort this out will involve getting the Russians to bring their clients, the Syrians, to the peace negotiation table, and we seem a very long way from that. Given its importance, will he tell the House whether the Prime Minister has talked to President Putin to express our strong wish in this country that that should happen?
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows very well, the Prime Minister is in regular contact with President Putin of Russia and has repeatedly made clear the view of the British Government that there is only one way forward, which is for the Russians to put pressure on the Assad regime to get to the negotiating table. I think that view may at last be gaining ground in Russia, because the Kremlin has no easy way out of this morass.
I am sure the Foreign Secretary has noticed that the very fact a ceasefire in eastern Ghouta on humanitarian grounds has been announced in Moscow says it all for who exactly is pulling the strings in this situation, and who should be taking responsibility for the slaughter. Does he agree it is vital that the UK Government, along with their allies, work to ensure that the resolution is fully implemented, and not just for five hours a day?
The House has spoken as one on that matter this afternoon, and that is what we will continue to convey to Moscow.
The Foreign Secretary just said that the Prime Minister has regular discussions with President Putin, but has she had recent discussions with President Putin, as we know full well that both President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have? If the Prime Minister has not, both sides of the House urge her to have those urgent conversations.
I will, of course, make sure that the views of the House are communicated to the Prime Minister. I can tell the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister has regular contact with her Russian counterpart and has repeatedly made that point.
Given the slaughter in eastern Ghouta, and given the regret expressed on both sides of the House, including by the Foreign Secretary, does he not agree that the time is long overdue that we urgently review how this House makes different sorts of decisions about intervention and about what sorts of intervention to take?
If the hon. Lady is saying that she would like the right to approve such interventions to be once again taken back by the Executive and not necessarily to be a matter for the House of Commons, that is a very interesting point of view.
Three years ago, the YPG and the YPJ had already defended Kabone against the better-armed Daesh forces and took the fight to Raqqa and won. Why are the British Government now effectively supporting a similar brutal offensive by the Turkish army against those same Kurdish forces in Afrin province? Has it got anything to do with the recent £100 million fighter jet deal signed by Turkey and British arms exporters? Will the Foreign Secretary today call for a de-escalation zone in this part of Syria?
I must correct the way the hon. Gentleman has expressed it. The UK is not effectively supporting the Turkish incursion in Afrin. As I said to my Turkish counterpart yesterday, we have grave reservations about humanitarian suffering and the consequences for the struggle against Daesh.
The Foreign Secretary attempted to make party political points earlier on. May I just ask him to go back and read a previous Foreign Secretary’s answers to me and other Members—some on his own Benches—calling for no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012? His Government—the coalition Government—refused intervention at that time. Is it not a fact that the Russians are in the dominant position they are now because people failed to support the democratic and, at that time, peaceful Syrian opposition?
Of course I mean absolutely no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, who, in common with Members on this side of the House and from across the House, took a different view in 2013—on the other hand, that was not the prevailing view. I seem to recall, unless my memory fails me, that it was the then leader of the Labour party who took a contrary view. As a result of that decision, we see this particular political conjuncture in Syria, in which Russia, as Members from across the House have said, has the dominant role.
One of the agitators in the region is Iran. What engagement has the Foreign Secretary had with his Iranian colleagues in order to try to find a way through this crisis?
I spoke to my Iranian counterpart on Friday, I believe it was, about what Iran could do, both in the Syrian theatre and in the region more widely, to promote the cause of peace. I hope that the Iranians will use their considerable influence to do that.
The pro-Assad media organisation al-Watan yesterday reported, unequivocally, that Russian jets were involved in striking targets in Ghouta. Is it the Foreign Secretary’s understanding that in recent days Russian jets have struck targets and broken the ceasefire that the Security Council called for just on Saturday, in its resolution?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I have to say it would be shocking if the Russians were to be convicted in the eyes of world opinion of breaking the ceasefire that they signed up to in New York. I will study the evidence that he has cited and we will certainly be putting it to the Russians.
The Foreign Secretary is right in one regard: this is an amoral Russian leadership backing this immoral and wicked Government in Syria. But he is missing one point: the Russians are particularly vulnerable on one count. I refer not to bombing them, but to economic sanctions. The word from the American Treasury and from many Americans is that Europe and Britain have gone soft on sanctions. We need Russia to be totally isolated by the toughest sanctions that this world has ever known. Will he renew sanctions of an extreme kind?
The hon. Gentleman will know very well that it is actually the UK that is in the lead in the EU in calling for Russia to be held to account, not just for Ukraine, but for what it is doing in Syria.
The Foreign Secretary said that there can be no military victory in eastern Ghouta, but I fear that Russia, Iran and Assad are not looking for that sort of military victory. They are looking to weaken resistance and instil fear and tension—not only in the middle east but in north Africa and eastern Europe—and to build a cadre of battle-hardened troops and proven military weapons so that they can impose their order on the rest of the world. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that?
That may indeed be their ambition, but they have not an earthly chance of achieving it.
They are achieving it!
Well, as I told the House, there are still substantial numbers of people in Syria—around 4 million, which is around a quarter of the population—who are not under the regime’s control. Furthermore, the hon. Lady should remember that the Assad regime is basically a minority regime that seeks to impose itself on a Sunni majority in the country. It is sowing the seeds of its own destruction by its continued brutality. It is not a strategy that can work in the long term, which is why a political process has to begin now.
On Friday, I was pressed by the Afrin diaspora in my constituency about the Turkish bombardment and invasion. I understand that today President Macron picked up the phone and spoke to President Erdoğan to remind him that the humanitarian truce applies. From what the Foreign Secretary has said, though, I am still not clear what representations Her Majesty’s Government or the Prime Minister have made to President Erdoğan to underline that the truce does apply.
I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I think I said pretty clearly to the House just now. Yesterday morning, at my initiative, I had a long conversation with my Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, about what is happening in Afrin, the suffering that is taking place there and the UK Government’s strong desire that restraint should be shown—notwithstanding Turkey’s security concerns, which we all understand—and that the primary focus should be on the political process in Geneva and on the defeat of Daesh.
It is now nearly five years since the then American Secretary of State and Russian Foreign Minister came to an agreement about the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. What further diplomatic steps can the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that that happens, including by securing better access for representatives of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, after the Khan Shaykhun episode and the work of the joint investigative mechanism to establish almost certainly the culprits behind that chemical weapons attack, Russia has, alas, vetoed any further such activity by the OPCW. Again, it comes back to the Russians and the question that they must ask themselves, which is what kind of international actor they want to be and how they want to be regarded by the world.
The Foreign Secretary has said that a peaceful solution is possible if the political will exists. What if the political will does not exist? If chemical attacks, including the use of chlorine gas after a ceasefire, are not this country’s red line, will he tell us what is?
I do not wish to go back over the points that I have already made this afternoon about the red line that was, alas, crossed in 2013. Where there is incontrovertible evidence of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime, with the connivance of the Russians, then—to answer the question that has been posed many times—the people responsible for those attacks should be held to account. By the way, it was as a result of UK lobbying and the activities of this Government that after the Khan Shaykhun attack we listed several members of the Assad military and imposed new sanctions on Syria. That is the way forward. To get to the question asked by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), in the end it will be the fear of prosecution, sanctions and being prosecuted for war crimes that will have the most powerful effect on the imagination of these individuals.
I agree entirely with the Foreign Secretary that we must aim for a political solution. Do today’s revelations in the media that we have spent more on our air campaign in the region than we have on humanitarian aid in both Syria and Iraq during the same period show that we should put our money where our mouth is, and prioritise aid, sanctions and peace negotiations, not a costly air campaign next door that does not seem to be working?
Much as I admire the hon. Gentleman’s idealism, I must respectfully disagree with him. I believe that our military campaign has been highly effective in removing Daesh from Raqqa and Mosul. It was invaluable. The UK had the second biggest number of missions in the air campaign, as the House will know, and it was crucial that we did that. At the same time, as I have said to many hon. Members, we should not neglect the towering work of our humanitarian aid workers. We support the White Helmets very generously, for example, and they have saved 100,000 lives, which is something in which the people of this country can take a great deal of pride. Britain is leading in the humanitarian effort in Syria.
In the last decade of bloodshed and tragedy in Syria, we have seen that the old adage that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must holds true today. The latest machination of that has the UN warning that civilians in Afrin are effectively trapped by the ongoing violence. If the Foreign Secretary will not urge his Turkish colleagues to stop the violence altogether, can he not, as an immediate step, urge them to open up corridors to a safety zone that can be guaranteed by the NATO alliance?
We certainly have urged our Turkish counterparts to do everything they can to minimise humanitarian suffering, and I will study the proposal the hon. Gentleman makes.