(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the political and humanitarian situation in and around Idlib in Syria.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his urgent question and congratulate him on securing it. The United Kingdom is extremely concerned about the escalating military action by Russia and the Syrian regime, which is putting at risk nearly 3 million civilians who have sought shelter in Idlib and the surrounding area. The past few days have seen dozens of Russian and regime airstrikes against areas of Idlib. Over the weekend we received reports of three hospitals, two White Helmets centres and an ambulance system being attacked and put out of service, leaving thousands with no access to medical care. Civilians, medical facilities and aid workers must be protected; they are not a target.
It is vital that a humanitarian catastrophe is avoided. The UN has been clear that a worst-case scenario in Idlib would
“overwhelm capacities and…create a humanitarian emergency at a scale not yet seen through”
the conflict, with up to 900,000 people displaced. We have therefore been supporting the urgent diplomatic efforts being made by Turkey and the UN. I spoke to my Turkish counterpart on 4 September, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan on 27 August to discuss the situation. Of course, the situation is considered by the UN Security Council very frequently.
It is deeply disappointing that Russia and Iran rejected President Erdoğan’s calls for a renewed ceasefire at the Tehran summit last Friday. Russia and the Syrian regime also rejected similar calls by ourselves and others at the UN Security Council on the same day. We urge them to reconsider and instead to find a negotiated way forward to avoid an entirely man-made disaster.
The UK has pledged additional humanitarian assistance and medical support. We are also backing innovative early-warning technology to save lives in communities threatened by airstrikes. Finally, along with the United States and France, we have been clear that we will respond swiftly and appropriately if the Assad regime repeats its appalling use of chemical weapons.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and the Minister for responding to it. There is a significant risk in this House that our current focus on Brexit and many other issues means that Parliament, the Government and, indeed, the media pay far too little attention to the horrific scenes and repeated brutal attacks on civilians and humanitarians that we are seeing in places such as Syria and Yemen. In that regard, I commend the efforts of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) to constantly bring to our attention the situation facing Syrian civilians. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who chairs the International Development Committee, for making an application today for a urgent debate on Yemen, which I support.
As the Minister said, this weekend has sadly seen a further grim descent into violence in and around Idlib, which many of us predicted. Russian and Syrian jets have resumed intensive airstrikes after the failure to agree a ceasefire. It is alleged that on Saturday regime forces carried out attacks with artillery and rocket shelling for over three hours. Yesterday, Syrian army helicopters and Russian air forces conducted 60 strikes for over four hours, including with barrel bombs, typically filled with high explosives and shrapnel, on Habeet, Abdin, Hasraya, Al Zakat and many other villages around Hama and Idlib. It is therefore crucial that we understand what the UK Government’s political, humanitarian and military strategy is, given the breakdown of the talks and the horrific scenes.
The Minister mentioned the work of the White Helmets. In the past few hours, I have seen video footage showing horrific attacks on their brave workers, who are under fire from indiscriminate artillery and cluster bombs. We cannot and must not simply wring our hands and say, “It’s all very difficult.” Millions of civilians are trapped in the province, including people who have been displaced from other parts of Syria by the Assad regime. Hospitals have been targeted, in violation of international law. Schools have been hit, and children have been injured and killed. Barrel bombs have been used, in violation of UN Security Council resolution 2139 and others. We led an international fight against cluster munitions, yet we have seen them used in Syria and Yemen.
With a staggering 5.3 million children in need of assistance across Syria, Save the Children and other agencies have warned that hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced in this initial offensive, piling pressure on an already overstretched humanitarian response. This has been echoed by the UN Secretary General and many of the humanitarian agencies responding to 3.9 million people already living in and around Idlib, with many of the population having fled places such as eastern Ghouta with almost nothing.
I know that the Minister takes these issues very seriously, and he has already set out a number of the steps that the UK Government are taking, but could he answer a few questions? Is he tracking, and will he publish details of, air attacks on civilians from wherever they come? What UK military support could be used to support the maintenance of humanitarian corridors, or to prevent the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the use of chemical weapons? What will be the consequences for Assad, Putin and other belligerents if these violations of international humanitarian law continue, whether through the use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs or cluster munitions, all of which are equally wrong? What assessment has the Minister made of the potential for such attacks to be carried out? What sanctions have been issued against individual Russians and others who command responsibility for operations in Syria? Will the Minister say a little more about his discussions with the Turkish Government? What discussions have there been about the permissions for NGOs to operate in Turkish-held areas? Many are not registered in Turkey and may need assistance to be able to carry out operations in those areas with one of our allies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. These are incredibly serious issues. I hope that the whole House and the country will be looking at them very closely.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, of course, to others who take a very close interest in this situation. I can assure him that there is no shortage of efforts by the United Kingdom Government on this matter, whether here, in capitals abroad or at the UN.
The hon. Gentleman accurately describes the situation, which has become desperately familiar, regarding the conduct of events in Syria, where civilian populations have been put at risk. We estimate that the Idlib region now has some 3 million inhabitants, many of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria. The number of extremist fighters is reckoned to be quite small—perhaps 15,000, with maybe a further 25,000 to 35,000 opposition fighters—and that number is dwarfed by the number of people in Idlib itself. As our excellent permanent representative said at the UN last week, there are more babies in Idlib than there are terrorists. That is why we need to concentrate our efforts on humanitarian relief and assistance, and to try to find a negotiated way out of the situation.
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, I am not sure it is technically possible to track every air strike. Certainly we know when they have happened, but I am not sure how we would be able to find out from where they are being directed or anything like that. The obvious nature of the air strikes is very clear: they are from the Russian and the Syrian regimes. No one else is up in the air, so we all know where they are coming from.
The UN is actively considering any measure that might assist civilians. If there are corridors, there are questions to be asked about such things as how they would be made secure and policed, and we will give every consideration to that. No suggestion has been made for any military intervention in relation to that. If it were to be done with United Kingdom involvement, that would be a military intervention on Syrian soil, which would have obvious consequences. That has not yet been contemplated.
In terms of consequences and accountability, sanctions are already in place against Russian entities and that will continue to be the case. Last week at the Security Council, the permanent representative read through details of the units of the Syrian army that were involved in the Idlib operation, together with the names of their commanders, and made it very clear that accountability would follow. I think that that was a bold and necessary step. [Official Report, 12 September 2018, Vol. 646, c. 4MC.]
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about the potential of chemical warfare, the truth is, of course, that we have seen it elsewhere. The permanent representative spoke about the failure to deal with chemical weapons usage, saying last week:
“As of March 2018, the OPCW”—
the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—
“fact finding mission had confirmed 13 cases of likely chemical weapons use in Syria since it was established in 2014. And in terms of allegations, the fact finding mission have recorded at least 390 allegations. After more than four years of work by the declaration assessment team, the OPCW still is unable to verify that the Syrian declaration is accurate.”
“And we’ve heard many times that there are ‘gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies’ in Syria’s account of its declaration under the CWC.”
We can be fairly clear that those weapons still exist and are available in Syria. Of course, we have seen instances when conventional military action has been followed towards the end by chemical weapons usage. We have made it very clear through the UN and partners that appropriate action would be taken if that were the case. We are all also aware of disinformation campaigns being launched to say that such a chemical weapons attack is being prepared by other sources. There is no credibility to those accounts, they will not be used as a smokescreen should chemical weapons be used, and people will be properly held accountable.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that in all the international councils the immense moral authority that Britain has in this matter is exercised to the full? After all, we are, through our taxpayers, looking after more of the 11 million displaced people from this conflict than the whole of the rest of Europe added together. Will he also be sure to make it clear that the bombing of hospitals in Idlib, each of which is clearly marked with a red cross on its roof, is a war crime, and that the individuals engaging in those attacks will be held to account, however long it takes?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The United Kingdom has spent some £2.71 billion on supporting those in Syria who have been displaced. We have provided food, healthcare, water and other life-saving relief to the internally displaced. Since 2012, we have delivered more than 22 million food rations, 9 million relief packages, 9 million medical consultations and 5 million vaccines to those in need across the country. The work of the Department for International Development is commended all round.
The determination was increased last week. On 17 August, I announced a further £10 million in additional emergency and medical support for Idlib. My right hon. Friend’s point about health centres is well made—we have more documented evidence of recent attacks on health centres. This is unacceptable. The deliberate targeting of health centres is against international humanitarian law, as he said, and that should be spelt out every single time.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth on securing it. I can only echo what he said about the terrible bloodshed and humanitarian crisis that is looming in Idlib, the urgency for all sides to work to find some form of peaceful political solution to avert it, and the importance of holding those responsible for war crimes to account.
I want to press the Government specifically on how they intend to respond if there are any reports over the coming weeks, accompanied by horrifying, Douma-style images, suggesting a use of chemical weapons, particularly because of how the Government responded after Douma without seeking the approval of the House and without waiting for independent verification of those reports from the OPCW. If that scenario does arise, it may do so over the next month when the House is in recess.
We know from Bob Woodward’s book that what President Trump wants to do in the event of a further reported chemical attack is to commit to a strategy of regime change in Syria—and, indeed, that he had to be prevented from doing so after Douma. That would be a gravely serious step for the UK to take part in, with vast and very dangerous implications not just for the future of Syria, but for wider geopolitical stability.
In light of that, I hope that the Minister will give us two assurances today. First, will he assure us that if there are any reports of chemical weapons attacks, particularly in areas of Idlib controlled by HTS, the Government will not take part in any military action in response until the OPCW has visited those sites, under the protection of the Turkish Government, independently verified those reports and attributed responsibility for any chemical weapons used? Relying on so-called open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups is not an acceptable alternative. Secondly, if the Government intend to take such action, thus escalating Britain’s military involvement in Syria and risking clashes with Russian and Iranian forces, will the Minister of State guarantee the House that we will be given a vote to approve such action before it takes place, even if that means recalling Parliament?
The co-ordinated action that was taken earlier this year with the United States and France was not about intervening in a civil war or regime change; it was a discrete action to degrade chemical weapons and deter their use by the Syrian regime in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering. Our position on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond appropriately to any further use by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons, which have had such devastating humanitarian consequences for the Syrian population. The right hon. Lady may recall that there are circumstances, depending on the nature of any attack, in which the United Kingdom Government need to move swiftly and to keep in mind, as their utmost priority, the safety of those personnel involved in a mission. I am not prepared to say at this stage what the United Kingdom’s detailed reaction might be or to give any timescale, because the importance of responding appropriately, quickly and with the safety of personnel in mind will be uppermost in the mind of the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who has done so much to stand up for the voiceless in this matter. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that there is much that this country can and should do? Only recently the Prime Minister stood where the Minister sits now and talked of the attacks we had faced from Russian chemical weapons. Should we not also stand up to the Russians, who are financing this war, and to banks such as VTB that are trading on our markets and raising debt in this country? Is it not outrageous that these people are allowed to exploit our assets, property and laws to finance a war in Syria that is leaving hundreds of thousands injured and many more millions displaced, and that is fundamentally destabilising not only our interests but those of our partners around the world?
Russia has an important role at this stage of what will likely be the end of the formal conflict in Syria. It is taking part in attacks that appear indiscriminate—in relation to targeting civilians—and all the fears are that the civilian damage and humanitarian distress that we have seen in other parts of Syria will be repeated. There is an opportunity to prevent that. The United Kingdom has called on Russia and Iran to do all in their power, with the Syrian regime, to prevent it. This is an opportunity for Russia to step forward, to do what is right on the international stage—even at this stage—and to assist in Syria’s transition to something different. The United Kingdom remains determined to use any diplomatic measures and other sanctions at its disposal to ensure the conduct necessary to provide a more peaceful solution to the troubles in Syria and to end a conflict that has done so much damage.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answers and I commend the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing the urgent question and for the well-informed and passionate way he set out the background. He reminded us of the humanitarian catastrophe that is happening even as we speak.
May I press the right hon. Gentleman on something about which I asked the Minister for Europe and the Americas on 24 July? When the House voted in December 2015 for military action in Syria, it was in expectation that that would help in the establishment of an interim Government in about six months. Clearly that prediction went badly wrong, and it is not enough for the Government to say, as they did last time, that these predictions are difficult. Will the Minister for the Middle East say what lessons we learning about the reliability, or otherwise, of such predictions, especially if, as now seems might be the case, we are heading towards a scenario where the House is once again asked to give its consent to military action?
Secondly, I welcome the Minister’s mention of something else that I asked about in July: the UK following the lead of others in establishing a national mechanism for the prevention and prediction of, and the rapid response to, mass atrocities, chemical weapons attacks and so on? Will he give us more detail about, or at least an indication of, what he intends to do to keep Members updated and to improve on the response so far?
Finally, given the very clear evidence of the commission of war crimes, does the Minister agree that if there is an all-out, indiscriminate offensive in Idlib, the terrorists there will be able to get away, but the babies—as the Minister said, they outnumber the terrorists—will not? They are the ones who will be left behind to die. In those circumstances, should not such an all-out, indiscriminate offensive be classified as a crime against humanity, because it is clearly designed to cause civilian casualties? Will the Minister give an assurance that the pursuit of all those responsible for war crimes in Syria will also apply to members of the Russian military who are involved, including, if necessary, the commander-in- chief who has given the orders for these atrocities to take place?
The processes to try to bring about a political transition in Syria are still going on, led by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura. Talks are continuing, and have been supplemented, to a degree, by talks that have taken place with those outside the formal process—Turkey, Iran and Russia. Efforts have failed because, on the ground, the regime has been successful, and the cost to it has therefore not been sufficient for it to want to make changes that would bring political reconciliation or political change. Those efforts are still being made through the United Nations. It is clear that a reimposition of the regime in its current form after the conflict is unlikely to bring stability to Syria, and to prevent the opportunity either for extremists to act again or for further civil unrest to occur. If the conflict is to come properly to an end, there will indeed have to be a degree of transition and change in the regime, and that will come through political efforts that are ongoing and will continue.
As for the prediction of events and military attacks, what the United Kingdom has been able to supply—the House will understand that I do not want to go into too much detail—is effectively an early warning system, which can be activated by electronic awareness of potential attacks. It can provide information through social media as well as by more conventional means, which enables people to take evasive action and to hide to the extent that they can. Of course, the best way to avoid civilian casualties is not to employ an early warning system, but to stop the bombing.
That leads me to the issue of war crimes. The designation of a war crime is not a political act, but a judicial act. Certain criteria are clearly laid out through international humanitarian law. There is an independent accountability mechanism—the so-called IIIM—that the United Kingdom is supporting in Syria. It is essential that, at some stage, the world is able to see accountability measures working. If there is impunity, there is injustice, and if there is no accountability, there is impunity. We will work with those systems. Whoever may be liable for war crimes, the United Kingdom will seek to ensure—through international and judicial means—that they are appropriately pursued.
I welcome the Minister’s remarks about chemical weapons. I want to develop the point about the primary and priority targeting of hospitals in Syria—in Idlib, and also during early parts of the civil war—which is one of the most flagrant and obvious violations of the Geneva conventions since the Spanish civil war.
Seven or eight weeks ago, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and I met 20 Syrian doctors, some of whom had been in hospitals that were bombed 30 times by the regime and its Russian backers. The Minister talked of naming and shaming Syrian military units, but he said nothing about shaming Russian and Iranian units that are involved in the same flagrant breach of the Geneva conventions, along with their command chains. Will he confirm that as well as naming and shaming those Syrian military units, he will name and shame individual Russian and Iranian units, pilots and chains of command?
Russia has continued its close military co-operation with the regime in spite of the atrocities that it has committed, including the use of chemical weapons. It has chosen to shield the regime’s use of chemical weapons from international scrutiny. Its repeated blocking of the mandate of the UN-OPCW joint investigative mechanism sent a dangerous signal to the Syrian regime that it could continue to use chemical weapons with impunity.
Russia must change tack. It must end its destructive support for the regime’s military campaign and instead support de-escalation and a political settlement. Of course, when information is available about those who may have taken part in war crimes, the accountability mechanisms that I have mentioned should, and must, come into play.
As has been said by almost every Member who has spoken today, the bombing of a hospital is a terrible war crime, but it is worse than that: doctors in non-regime areas in Syria, including Idlib, lack basic supplies. The Minister has been working on that, so may I ask him about his conversations with his Turkish counterparts and that of the Prime Minister? Have they been asked to make sure that the route through to Syria stays open, and will they help make sure that no doctor in Syria lacks basic medical supplies to save lives?
We have indeed been working extremely hard to try and make sure the supplies are there, and I commend the hon. Lady on her consistent championing ever since the beginning of this business in Syria of the White Helmets, civilian workers and the medical teams who operate there. We have indeed been speaking to Turkey about the efforts that might be made should there first be a movement of population. Turkey recognises that it is the first safe border to the north of the Idlib area and is likely to be called upon to use its resources. We and other international agencies have done what we can to ensure that what is available in the area to support people who are moving will be available. I understand that it is at present still possible to get assistance into Idlib; those humanitarian corridors are still working in a way they did not in other parts of the area. We will do all we can and respond in any way to further pleas for what may be necessary. We are extremely conscious of this, which is why I added £10 million extra on 17 August to the support the UK is giving specifically for medical aid supplies, to make sure they are available to those who need them. Turkey is working extremely hard both diplomatically and practically to try to stop the humanitarian disaster, because as well as preparing for it, we must do all we can to prevent it in the first place.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued use of the UN Security Council veto by Russia has hampered efforts to prevent atrocities, and how can the UN be reformed so we can avoid this situation in the future?
Yes, as we have discussed a number of times in the House, the issue surrounding the Security Council at the moment is quite severe and will be for so long as the major powers use their veto in a manner that prevents action on issues where others are agreed. The power of veto is there for a specific purpose and cannot be gainsaid, but if it is always used to prevent the sort of action the rest of the world deems necessary, there is a risk the Security Council loses the moral authority it seeks to have. As we have seen in places where it has asked for ceasefires and humanitarian access in Syria and been denied, that problem still occurs, so I agree with my hon. Friend.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s assurance that Britain will support a robust response should Assad resort to chemical weapons again, but the sad truth is that Syria represents the worst failing of the civilised world since Rwanda and Burundi, after which we said, “Never again,” so does he think that, when all this is over, there may be a case for an inquiry in Britain into how on earth we allowed this to happen?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a wider question and the Foreign Affairs Committee published something on it today. Indeed, sitting behind him is one of the members of that Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), brandishing a copy of the report, and I know his feelings about it very clearly, and all of us who were in the House on 29 August 2013 remember the circumstances. It would be wrong to pin the blame for everything that has happened in Syria on such a vote and such actions that were taken at the time. The responsibility for the tragedy of Syria lies fairly and squarely at the hands of Assad, the regime and those who have supported it, and we should look in no other direction. None the less, the question about what needs to be found out is real. I am not sure whether an independent inquiry is the right thing to do; we have been over this many times, but the right hon. Gentleman is right that there are lessons to be learned about how we got where we are, and they are essential because the world cannot go on looking on at these dreadful situations and feel as powerless as often we do.
I thank the Minister for his kind words and for reiterating the need to ensure that our military personnel are well protected from the disinformation that is being put out across the world. What can be done to stop the reported rise in attacks on medical facilities? Is the international community able to collect evidence so that we can hold to account these barbarians who are killing children and the sick?
To date, we have reports of some 37 attacks on medical facilities and health workers. These are being documented and detailed. As has been mentioned, deliberate attacks on such premises are a contravention of international humanitarian law. Every effort will be made, and our work with the accountability mechanisms such as the international, impartial and independent mechanism is designed to provide the necessary evidence, should accountability proceedings be held in the future, as we hope they will be.
Is the Minister able to give an indication of how many Syrians, Russians and Iranians are subject to asset freezes and travel bans and of how many cases are being built against those people for prosecutions for alleged war crimes? Would Mr al-Assad and Mr Putin fall into that category? Finally, would not the biggest contribution that the UK Government could make be to expand the family reunion scheme so that we could support more vulnerable Syrian refugees?
The information on who sanctions have been ordered on is public and has been revealed in answers to questions, but I will ensure that it is reissued and made available to the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot remember the number at present. On individual sanctions, we carefully consider for whom they might be most appropriate and what the most effective method might be. What was the right hon. Gentleman’s last point?
On reunion, the United Kingdom will see resettled the 20,000 refugees that were accepted by the United Kingdom, and that programme is proceeding well. We have done a great deal to settle people in the area and to see them returned. The big issue at the moment in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is not sending people to the United Kingdom; it is how safe they will be when they get back to Syria, which is where most of them want to go. There needs to be an adequate programme in relation to that. That is where the focus of our efforts is now, but that can come about only if there is a safe and secure Syria, where certain guarantees have been given by the state so that those who fled will not have reason to flee again.
Idlib is the last major rebel and jihadist stronghold, so this could well be the military endgame as President Assad seeks to finish the job, as he sees it, of re-establishing his regime. I do not know anyone who believes that the rebel forces can possibly win this conflict, so the fighting will end only if they are defeated or killed, or moved out of Idlib. As I understand it, the two main rebel groups are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the National Liberation Front. The first is linked to al-Qaeda; the second to Turkey. Can the Minister tell the House whether both groups are being attacked by Syria with its Russian backers? It seems to me that plans need to be put in place to move those rebel fighters out of Idlib. The alternative is that the Syrian forces will go in and defeat and kill them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, in which there is an awful lot wrapped up. As I indicated earlier, the assessment by the United States and ourselves is that the extremist terrorist groups in Idlib constitute perhaps 0.5% of the population—a very small number, about 15,000 people. There are other groups fighting against the regime that the United Kingdom does not designate as terrorist groups, although they are so designated by the regime. There may be another 25,000 to 35,000 people involved in those groups. As I said earlier, the number of civilians in the area is much greater than the numbers in either of those two groups.
The possibility remains for those groups to surrender, either to Turkish or UN authorities, but for those who continue to hold out against any peaceful or negotiated end, if that proves impossible, there is little doubt that military action or special operations may become part of the future. It is essential to civilians that that does not happen, because they will inevitably be caught up in such activity if it takes place, so the determination is to try to find a way to negotiate an outcome.
My hon. Friend said that people could go elsewhere, but the problem is that Idlib is the end of the line. It is where people have been brought to now. Whatever the solution, it must be an Idlib solution, and we are pressing all the authorities to do all they can for a negotiated surrender solution, if that is possible, to spare lives. However, the most important thing is that those who have had no contact with extremist groups and the civilians who have been caught up in this should be safe and free from the risk of indiscriminate attacks, which should stop now.
I call the man brandishing a report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he once chaired and of which he remains a distinguished ornament: Mr Mike Gapes.
The Select Committee’s unanimously agreed report on “The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention”, published today, says:
“There has been a manifest failure to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocity crimes in Syria.”
It calls for an independent inquiry to investigate the processes that lead to and the consequences of the Government’s decision not to intervene in Syria. We could have intervened in 2011, with humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones, and the Minister referred to the 2013 debate and others. However, why are we quite happy to hold inquiries when we do intervene, such as with Iraq, but not when we do not intervene? As the Committee points out, the consequences of non-intervention by the international community can be worse than those of intervention.
It is obviously too early to give an official response to the Committee’s report, but the hon. Gentleman and I know the circumstances well. There is absolutely nothing to stop a further inquiry by this House into the decisions that were made and why. Indeed, I can remember most of the arguments now. However, he is correct that Syria has demonstrated the consequences of non-intervention in a way that had not been made fully clear before. Many of the political arguments at the time were based on what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I remember the public—it was nine to one—telling Ministers and Members not to do anything.
We now know that there have been consequences of that non-intervention. I do not know what the right forum is to learn still more of that, and I am not sure about the process, but now that the potential damage from non-intervention is established fact, the hon. Gentleman is right that the House needs to consider the consequences of non-intervention as well as intervention. I should add of course that there has been intervention since 2013, just not by the United Kingdom and its allies.
My right hon. Friend has already spoken about Russia’s gross dereliction of duty in its continued wielding of its veto on the UN Security Council. What can we, the Americans and the French—our allies on the Security Council—do to try to resolve this impasse to save the many thousands of civilian lives that will be lost as a result of this dereliction of duty?
Every diplomatic tool is being employed to demonstrate to those currently responsible for actions in Idlib the risk that they are taking—the risk to international humanitarian law, future accountability and the need to avoid both civilian casualties and the use of chemical weapons. That effort is being exercised by the international community as a whole. As I mentioned earlier, the UK was distressed by the fact that a ceasefire and other efforts promoted by the United Kingdom at the UN Security Council last week were not supported by Russia and the Syrian regime.
I am grateful to the Minister for all his responses to questions on such an important issue. Can he expand on his response about how and when action will be taken against those commanders who have been found to be responsible for these illicit attacks, for these war crimes? It is not good enough to say that it will happen at some stage. Will he reassure us that no stone will go unturned and that these people will be held to account, and held to account quickly?
In all honesty, it would be comforting, both to the House and to the hon. Lady, for me to say what the process will be and that it will be swift and so on, but I do not believe I can say that. Look how long it has taken for there to be accountability for serious crimes at Srebrenica. It depends on the gathering of evidence, and it depends on the willingness of authorities to take part and the willingness of the agencies to bring forward those within their own communities who might have been responsible.
We looked at the Burma fact-finding mission last week, and it is a scar on the world community that it can attribute blame, that it can demonstrate what has happened but that the processes of accountability are incredibly slow. We have done all we can at present to give people the tools they need to collect evidence. The United Kingdom has worked hard to explain to people how they can collect evidence and keep it safe to record crimes, but, ultimately, an accountability mechanism is still needed to bring that forward.
All I was able to say at the United Nations last year, when we moved the resolution on the creation of the accountability mechanism, was that the wheels of justice may grind slow but they grind exceeding small, and they get there. I wish I could say how much quicker it will be, but that tends to be the truth.
I strongly welcome the Minister’s statement that, if Syria should use chemical weapons again, we are ready to act. Is he confident that our allies would stand with us in that endeavour?
A joint statement issued by the United States, France and the United Kingdom made it clear that we will respond appropriately to any chemical weapons attack. Nobody wants to do that, and the warning was intended to prevent it, rather than to give an indication of response.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. I hope that, at some point soon, we can try to find a way out of this political and intellectual cul-de-sac whereby intervention seems to be seen as, de facto, the bad response and non-intervention as, de facto, the peaceful response. Let us look at the lessons we have to learn from Syria.
I have a specific question for the Minister. Will he update us on the possibility of safe exit and assessment points on the border with Turkey and on assistance with triaging people who have to flee so that we can provide more resettlement, possibly in this country?
As I indicated earlier, we are working very closely with Turkey on what the responses would be if a large number of people were to move. Preparations are already in place for the provision of support in safe areas on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey is cautious about a large number of people coming across the border, and we have offered assistance in relation to that. All this is currently being worked out to try to find the best ways in which humanitarian access can be safeguarded and to find how people can be protected. That work is ongoing, and I commit to updating the House whenever anything new is available.
What difference is UK aid making on the ground in this crisis today?
I mentioned this earlier, but I am keen to repeat that the difference we have been able to make is in supplying food, humanitarian assistance and medical assistance to literally millions of people in Syria over a period. Specifically, between January and December 2017, our support in Idlib governorate provided approximately 653,000 people with access to clean drinking water, immunised 1,335,000 children under five, helped 321,000 children access education and provided 398,000 medical consultations. That is just in Idlib; that is the Department for International Development; and that is the United Kingdom’s population getting behind our work.
I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. There is a strong and significant evidential base to show that Assad has given the green light to the gas attacks. I am certain that, as the Minister has said clearly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing everything diplomatically possible to prevent gas attacks, which would have an impact on innocent women and children. As the noose closes around Idlib, what additional aid and practical support will the Minister’s office make available to deal with what will undoubtedly amount to massive casualties?
Without going into detail, I say to the hon. Gentleman that whatever preparation can be made is being made. We are conscious of the risk, and as I indicated earlier, we are also conscious of the fact that should there be an attack, disinformation would be spread about it. We want to make every preparation possible to save lives and treat people should it become necessary, and that is certainly being done by providing the supplies that are available in the area.
What consideration have the Government given to using UK sovereign bases in Cyprus to provide a safe haven for refugees from Idlib?
As I indicated earlier, the issue is not necessarily moving people across the sea to areas either in Europe or elsewhere. We have already seen the difficulties of displaced populations. The effort is appropriately directed towards ensuring that people are immediately safe but then that they are returned to a safer Syria. What the area wants is not more refugees, either in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or elsewhere, but the means and mechanisms for people to be returned to their home areas safely. That will take further negotiation and the absolute commitment of the Syrian regime that people should be safe, so there is a lot to be done. I am not certain that there is any need to evacuate people to UK sovereign bases, because there will be other areas nearby where people would be safer, but it is much easier for people to return to their homes when they have been settled closer to home after displacement than when they have been overseas.