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Volume 645: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary what steps he is taking to save civilian life in the conflict in Syria.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is travelling. I hope that the House will appreciate that Syria does not fall within my ministerial responsibilities, but I will of course endeavour to answer the urgent question and the questions that follow as best I can.

The situation in Syria is of course a humanitarian catastrophe. Over 400,000 people have been killed, and half of Syria’s 11 million population have been displaced. In these appalling circumstances, the UK has been taking all steps possible to save civilian life, and as the second-largest bilateral donor to the humanitarian response there since 2011, the UK is at the forefront of the response, by providing food, healthcare, water and other lifesaving relief. So far, we have committed £2.71 billion in response to the Syria conflict, which is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. Through our £200 million Syria Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the UK has also provided a range of support to Syrian civilians and their communities to help save lives, bolster civil society and counter extremism. This includes our support to the White Helmets.

The White Helmet volunteers have played a particular role in saving over 115,000 lives during the conflict, at great risk to their own. They have faced particular protection risks as a result, with many killed while doing their work. It was for that reason that, as the Foreign and International Development Secretaries set out on Sunday 22 July, the UK has worked with our international partners to facilitate the rescue and relocation of a group of White Helmets volunteers and their families from southern Syria. We continue to call on all parties to protect civilians in the Syrian conflict. That includes using the multilateral organisations, including the United Nations Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council and the International Syria Support Group. The UK has also been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen global norms on chemical weapons and, of course, to deter their use.

Ultimately, there needs to be a political settlement to end the conflict. Syria’s future must be for Syrians to decide. The UK will be pragmatic about the nature of that settlement, and we will continue to support the UN process to achieve it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary announced that the Government will help to provide safe passage for the White Helmets, as the Minister has said. They will come to the UK and other safe countries via Israel and Jordan. This is the latest development in a conflict that has been going on for seven years. We have watched as Assad’s barbaric regime bombards helpless civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. The White Helmets are some of those who choose not to fight and it is correct, therefore, that we give them sanctuary. But before I ask about that specific announcement yesterday, I want to ask the Minister what more we will do, because the situation is urgent. There are three major problems that the Government need to give attention to.

First, there are several million people in the northern city of Idlib today. Hundreds of thousands of people have been pushed there by the Syrian regime, following the siege of Aleppo and the bombardment of other towns. These internal refugees are all now waiting for what comes next, and if Idlib is a repeat of Aleppo, the consequences for life—of children particularly—will be utterly horrific. I would like the Minister to explain what discussions are going on inside Government to respond specifically to that threat. As a member of the UN Security Council and one of the biggest aid donors to civilian protection in Syria, what efforts will the Government make now to deter Aleppo-style attacks on hospitals and schools, and how will we prevent further use of chemical weapons?

Many expect the Syrian Government to repeat its previous barbaric use of its bombs and its chemical weapons on Syrian civilians over the summer. I am simply asking the Government to do something to try to protect people.

Secondly, the Minister mentions the aid we have given, but we need to make sure it is getting into Syria. Last week, the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) and I visited southern Turkey, where we met 20 or so Syrian doctors who had escaped Syria for a short while to receive training from British trauma surgeon David Nott. These doctors have a target on their backs just for doing their job—which is an impossible job to do but made immeasurably harder simply because they lack the basic supplies that British taxpayers have paid for to get to them. We need to make sure that we carry out diplomatic efforts to get that aid across the border.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight and I brought back a letter from those doctors. They say in this letter that they are bracing themselves for a summer of death, so whether it is by doing all we can to deter the bombardment of Idlib, or simply using our influence, as I have said, to get supplies across the border to these doctors, we must help.

Finally, please can the Minister tell the House what support the White Helmets will now be offered? What will the scale of that help be? Will other vulnerable humanitarians in Syria be offered similar assistance? There are others from international NGOs trapped in Syria who require safe passage out. Can we guarantee resettlement for all of those who need it, and work with border countries to get them out and to the UK?

I know this is difficult. I know that there are many in this House who will simply say there is nothing we can do. But I think that with political will there is a way to help, and it will cost us very little to try. Surely, saving one life alone would be worth the attempt.

I absolutely commend the hon. Lady, both for her question today and for the fact that she recently personally visited the region, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). She has thus seen at first hand what is going on, and speaks with authority in asking this urgent question.

There is no difference, I think, across the House; we all share a deep, basic human concern for the horror of this conflict, which has gone on for seven years. I recall its start when I was a DFID Minister, and was in the forefront of many of the fundraising conferences we had to try to turn as much as £1 billion on a sixpence at the beginning of the 2010 to 2015 Government, in order to focus on this sudden, ghastly—and now long-standing —conflict. We completely share the hon. Lady’s attitude and indeed much of her analysis.

First, on the White Helmets, this is a very important opportunity for us to issue our thanks and appreciation. They have been extremely brave. They are community-based civil society people, who put themselves at risk to do basic things, such as be first responders, clear the rubble and rescue the injured. They do so having been demonised in particular by the Russians, who have even accused them of carrying out chemical weapons attacks themselves.

It has been an absolutely remarkable feat of extraction to take the White Helmets out of southern Syria. We give enormous thanks to the Israelis for the efforts they made once requested by us, our international partners and the Americans. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who had only been in the job for two days, was absolutely significant in discussing this with President Trump, when he was with the Prime Minister at Chequers, to try to persuade him to put a request to the Israelis to do it. Clearly, that has worked, and as a result many of hundreds of White Helmets and their families have been extracted from southern Syria.

The broader issue the hon. Lady describes is of course much more challenging. I totally understand what she says about the need, as she would put it, “to do something”. We are all frustrated at the difficulty of getting access for humanitarian purposes in territory that is increasingly controlled by the Syrians, the Russians and the Iranians. The delivery of the humanitarian aid we have on offer is perhaps more difficult now than it was when the conflict was at its height, because there are fewer pockets through which we can actually and easily deliver the aid we want to deliver. We are, for instance, talking to the hon. Lady’s former colleague David Miliband and the International Rescue Committee, which has its own people there, separate from the White Helmets. Wherever there are people delivering humanitarian aid, we want to give them maximum access and maximum protection.

On spending, we remain the second biggest donor in the conflict, and this is the largest budget we have ever given to a single cause of this sort. Our efforts will continue, and I am sure that the Minister for the Middle East will be making further statements in the House once we resume after the summer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, which the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) so eloquently set out.

It is clear that there is a further catastrophe looming for the millions of people who live in Idlib. As the Minister said, the UK Government have the outstanding record on supporting those caught up in this catastrophe through humanitarian relief. Will the Minister assure the House that, with others, he will continue to liaise and seek assistance not only for the hundreds of thousands of brave people caught up in this looming crisis, but in particular for the many very brave humanitarian workers and actors who have often put their lives on the line to support those caught up in this situation? As with the work done with the Israeli Government, they urgently need to be able to rely on the international community to help them specifically in the coming days and weeks.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He of course was at the forefront of the initial aid effort in Syria, when he was Secretary of State for International Development and I was his hard-worked minion in that Department, at the beginning of the conflict. He is absolutely right that we have to maintain access for humanitarian efforts. We have so far committed £2.71 billion in response to this crisis. We have provided over 27 million food rations, 12 million medical consultations, 10 million relief packages and over 10 million vaccines. We are going to continue with our efforts. At the Brussels conference in April, we pledged to provide at least £450 million this year and a further £300 million next year to help to alleviate the extreme suffering in Syria and to provide vital support to neighbouring countries, which have taken up so much of the consequential effects of this horrid conflict.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I apologise for my lateness.

Before I say anything else, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to those affected by the fires in Greece and the floods in Laos. We send our best wishes to the authorities in those countries which are responding to those tragedies.

Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing it and on bringing to the House such important and impassioned insights from her recent visit to the Turkish border, along with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely). I can only endorse what she says in terms of the need to increase flows of medical supplies and equipment to those doctors and first responders working to save civilian lives in Syria. I thank the Minister for his response on that point, but I would like to reiterate one specific question asked by my hon. Friend, about the safety of the doctors. She talked about doctors feeling as though they had targets on their backs. I think that is something we need to respond to specifically.

As we all know, no amount of medical supplies and equipment will be sufficient if we reach the point in coming weeks where Assad and his foreign backers seek to capture not just Idlib but northern Latakia. If the assaults go ahead, the loss of life in those areas will be catastrophic, and the humanitarian crisis from civilians fleeing the violence will be just as devastating. The question is: what are we doing, in this country and as an international community, to prevent that from happening? I believe, as most Members do, that the only solution guaranteed to stop that loss of life and to end the suffering of the Syrian people is a peace deal brokered between all parties and predicated on the withdrawal of all foreign powers.

That, however, raises another grave question: who will broker such a deal? It simply cannot be left to the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks to stitch up an agreement between themselves, and it cannot be left to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump to decide Syria’s fate in a room by themselves. We need the resumption of the Geneva peace process. We need all parties around that table and we need to protect the interests of all communities, including our Kurdish allies. against Daesh; otherwise, they risk being sold down the river once again. I therefore ask the Minister what progress is being towards the urgent resumption of those talks?

I echo the right hon. Lady’s expressions of concern about the fires in Greece and the floods in Laos. She is of course absolutely right. We are all very saddened to learn that a country to which so many of our own citizens go at this time of year has already suffered 50 deaths as a result of raging fires in this period of very dry weather.

I omitted to respond to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on the question of the 21 doctors who had written to the Foreign Secretary. The letter has been received and has been passed to the Secretary of State for International Development, who will answer in due course in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

The right hon. Lady is right that there can only be a political settlement, but there is no magic wand that the UK can wave on its own to try to solve the problem. It has been one of the most protracted and insoluble conflicts I have ever seen, as someone who has watched the middle east and the near east for over 30 years. It is the one to which there is no obvious answer, compared with so many of the difficult protracted differences that exist in the region. More territory is controlled now by Mr Assad and his associates than before. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Idlib and the north-west is now particularly vulnerable. We are perhaps seeing movements towards the foot of the Golan Heights near Quneitra where, if there is a conflict with the Israelis, it would obviously be very serious indeed. Ultimately, the solution is a political one. That means the United Nations and engagement of a sort with Russia, which I am sorry that Russian actions have put into reverse over the past few months. But a political effort with all responsible and interested countries is the only way to overcome this conflict.

I am saddened to hear the Minister say that this will take a political solution, because, sadly, the solution we are seeing is not a political one. The solution we are seeing is being bought by ammunition on the battlefield, by violence and by force. Sadly, we are seeing it spread not just from the population centres we have seen in the past, but to areas like Idlib and down to the border.

The truth is that, if we are not willing to engage in a balance, if we are not willing to stand up to Russian and Iranian violence and to close off the routes for weapons to the Syrian regime, the political solution of which we speak will be bought on the battlefield and not around the table. Will my right hon. Friend at least concede that we should now be doing an awful lot to help the Turkish Government, who will be taking on vast numbers of refugees from Idlib, and the Jordanian Government, who are already bearing far more than their share of the burden?

First, I pay enormous tribute to Jordan not only for helping with the extraction of the White Helmets, but for being prepared to take some of them, along with many tens, even hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens, who, over the last few years, have gone to the likes of Jordan and Lebanon. Without the generosity of such neighbours, many, many people would be caught in the conflict by having to stay there. Those countries having admitted so many—actually, millions of—Syrian citizens is something that the world will be able to look back on over the years as a great humanitarian act. I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the necessity of trying to stop the flow of weapons, but in terms of doing anything on the ground or from the air, I hope that he will appreciate that it is not my role today to commit to any such action in the way he hints at in his question.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I add my congratulations and thanks to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for the thoughtful, compassionate and very well-informed way in which she asked her questions. About 2.7 million refugees are in and around Idlib right now. They have all fled from other parts of Syria and have nowhere else to go. If Idlib turns into carnage, many of those 2.7 million people, including possibly 1 million children, will be left with no hope. As we have heard often enough, the situation is becoming desperate, and it is more desperate now than it has ever been.

I have often criticised Israel here and elsewhere in this building, so I have no hesitation on this occasion in commending and thanking Israel for the speedy and effective way in which they got so many of the White Helmets, and vitally, their loved ones, out of the danger zone. However, we should be under no illusions as to why the White Helmets and medics in Syria are in such danger: they will be the witnesses who bring Assad and his colleagues to account for crimes against humanity when, at some time in future, this horror on earth begins to settle down. It is so important to protect the witnesses who will hold the killers to account, so that those who commit mass murder will always know that they will be brought to justice sooner or later.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, a number of countries have established their own national mechanisms for the prediction and prevention of mass atrocities, either at home or elsewhere. The UK Government to date have not. Do they have any plans to join countries such as the USA in implementing such a strategy? Secondly, in December 2015, when the House was asked to agree military action in Syria, we were told that this would help to establish a provisional civilian Government in Syria, hopefully within six months. We are now two years past that expected date and a civilian Government of any kind is further away than ever. Have the Government done any assessment to establish why the predictions that they made in December 2015 were so catastrophically off-target, and what are they doing to make sure that similar predictions will be a bit more reliable?

The hon. Gentleman is slightly unreasonable in saying that our predictions have to be reliable, in the way that he describes, as if it were entirely in our gift. We are dealing with a horrid, ghastly international conflict in which we are a player, in some ways, but we are not there on the ground in a way that can influence things as he wants. However, there is one area on which I strongly agree with him—that is, the question of accountability. We are absolutely committed to supporting efforts to pursue accountability for human rights abuses and war crimes in Syria, and there undoubtedly have been such.

We strongly support the work of the United Nations’ IIIM—the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism—which investigates and collects evidence of the most serious crimes committed in Syria. We have contributed £200,000 to the start-up costs of that organisation, and we are funding non-governmental organisations that collect evidence for future prosecutions. We are also supporting the important work of the independent UN Commission of Inquiry, which is reporting on violations and abuses, and we have been in the lead on successful diplomatic efforts to strengthen the capability of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to prevent the further use of chemical weapons and to attribute responsibility to those who might use them.

The £2.71 billion contribution to the Syrian aid effort is the single biggest act of humanitarian assistance in our nation’s history. Will my right hon. Friend continue to ensure that a suitable proportion of that support goes to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which are doing such important work on the ground to provide life-saving support?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. From the very beginning of this conflict, when we were looking at so many displaced people, a significant fraction of the humanitarian aid—or at least, the DFID budget spending—went to surrounding countries that were so generously accommodating to those who had fled, so it is inevitable that a large part of that budget will continue to go to such countries. Of course, in an ideal world, we would like to see Syrians return to their homes, but those have been so devastated that people would be going back only to rubble in many cases. It is inevitable that a lot of displaced Syrians will remain outside their former country for a long time to come.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on bringing this matter to us today. Is it not a fact that what the Russians and the Assad regime are doing is driving out moderate forces, forcing them away and, as a result, increasing the territory that is under the control of Daesh affiliate Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed? Does that not indicate that this is not an agenda that we could in any way support in any negotiated process? Is it not time that the international community as a whole called the murderers and liars in the Russian regime and the Assad regime to account?

The hon. Gentleman is very well experienced in this area and speaks with authority in the House. A lot of what the Russians have done is absolutely contemptible. They have continued close military co-operation with the regime, in spite of the atrocities committed by it, including the use of chemical weapons. To go back to what we were discussing earlier, they have demonised the White Helmets as bad people and agents of the west, and as people who have committed atrocities themselves, when in fact, they are the most generous-spirited, decent citizens that we could ever hope to find anywhere in the world, in many ways. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw the difference between what is right and what is wrong in this conflict.

The war in Syria has haunting similarities to past conflicts when the international rules-based order was unable to deal with the parties taking part in them—including, in particular, the Spanish civil war. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give me that, as rebel forces and refugees are driven towards Idlib, work will be done to ensure that we do not see that city become another Srebrenica?

My hon. Friend, like other right hon. and hon. Members, is absolutely right to point out the dangers that face Idlib if, as it were, the forces of evil drive towards it and we see renewed conflict there. The international community has to focus very heavily on Idlib and make sure that it is not subjected to the kind of military assault that we must at all costs work together to avoid.

I commend the Government for their part in evacuating many White Helmets from dangerous areas. Will the Minister tell the House what action he will be taking in the coming days, weeks and months to locate, communicate with and evacuate many of the humanitarian workers in Syria who are trapped and at very high risk? Will he also commit today in this House, before we break up for the summer recess, that the UK Government will look very seriously at providing resettlement places in the UK for those aid workers?

We have already offered places to some of the White Helmets and, in the past, if I am right, we have offered 20,000 Syrians resettlement opportunities in the UK. We are working, and will continue to work, with non-governmental organisations that will, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, have vulnerable people delivering humanitarian aid in Syria. It is essential that we know where they are and what they are doing and that we do everything we can on the ground, however limited it might be, to work with others to make sure they and their lives are protected.

This country’s resettlement scheme is good and well respected, and last year 6,200 Syrian refugees were resettled here, but 50% of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ estimated 1.2 million refugees worldwide are Syrian, and we can do so much more. We are one of the states parties signatories to the New York declaration of 2016. Sections 77 to 79 state our intention to expand resettlement and encourage other countries to do the same, but last year only 35 countries accepted resettled refugees, so will the Minister please commit to doing all he can both to expand our very good resettlement programme and to encourage others to do likewise so that more refugees come through safe and legal routes?

The House and our voters can be rightly proud of what we have done since the beginning of this conflict seven years ago. Up to the end of March this year, we had resettled more than 11,000 refugees through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. We will also resettle up to 3,000 children and their families from the middle east under the vulnerable children resettlement scheme; up to the end of March, we had resettled more than 700 refugees through the scheme. This is the cause to which we have given the largest ever amount from our own budgets, and we are the second-largest multilateral donor. Our original intention was to help people in and around Syria, so that they did not need to come here, but that has turned out not to be the case, which is why the UK is doing both. We can be proud that we are doing both to a considerable degree.

May I press the Minister about Idlib? What specific initiatives are the UK Government involved with now to try to ensure that, even if Idlib is not a safe zone, at least some protection is provided to civilians there, given we know they will soon be subject to a final assault that will involve barrel bombs or, worse, chemical weapons?

We will work with our international partners to do whatever we can. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about barrel bombs and chemical weapons. We have condemned their use and, as I said, have been at the forefront of strengthening the authority, power and reach of the OPCW in attributing any use of chemical weapons. This is not an easy issue to address. We agree that Idlib is looking very vulnerable, but I will be discussing this with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who is primarily responsible for these issues, and I have no doubt that there will be suitable occasions, when the House resumes in September and then again after the party conference season, to explain our policy in detail, as the right hon. Gentleman requests.

I want to thank the Minister for the Middle East, whom I met last week, with Lord Glasman, to talk about northern Syria in particular. It was a very fruitful meeting. We talked about the importance of getting medical attention to Kurdish fighters, particularly here in the UK. Will the Minister follow up and make sure that the Kurds are involved in any deal made around Idlib and Syria generally? They have not been included in some of the talks so far.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the Kurds and I will convey his views straightaway to my right hon. Friend, who I am sure will be in touch with him, as he has been already in the past.

I thank the Minister for his response this afternoon. Our Government have not been found wanting when it comes to aid, but can he outline the humanitarian aid currently going from the UK and who is monitoring how it is administered to ensure it gets to those who need it most?

I have already explained to the House the quantum, if you like, which over the past few years has totalled £2.71 billion. It takes all sorts of forms—medical, vaccines, relief packages of food, water and so on to meet the basic needs of any human life or existence—but as always with humanitarian aid in a conflict, rather than a famine, the problem is access and humanitarian aid workers being attacked, blocked or prevented, or, even worse, accused of being parties to the conflict when quite clearly they are neutral humanitarian aid workers doing their best for human beings in difficulty. We will work with the UN and other countries and with the many brave organisations inside Syria that manage to get the necessary supplies to people who are desperately starving, thirsty and ill.