(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Turkey and Syria.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and thank him for raising this issue in the House. I can tell him, and all Members, that on 9 October, following the US announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the region, Turkey launched a military operation in north-east Syria. Turkish troops have pushed into northern-Syrian towns and villages, clashing with Kurdish fighters over a stretch of 125 miles. The UN estimates that at least 160,000 people have been displaced in less than a week.
From the outset, the UK Government have warned Turkey against taking this military action. As we feared, it has seriously undermined the stability and security of the region. It risks worsening the humanitarian crisis and increasing the suffering of millions of refugees, and it also undermines the international effort that should be focused on defeating Daesh. On Thursday 10 October, I spoke to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and expressed the UK’s grave concerns. On Saturday 12 October, the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan to reinforce those concerns and urge restraint. I addressed the issue at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday. Yesterday, the EU released a statement, which we joined, condemning Turkey’s unilateral military action and calling on it to withdraw its forces.
The UK Government take their arms export control responsibilities very seriously. In this case, we will of course keep our defence exports to Turkey under careful and continual review. I can tell the House that no further export licences to Turkey for items that might be used in military operations in Syria will be granted while we conduct that review. Yesterday, as Members will know, the US signed an Executive order to impose limited sanctions on Turkey, including against senior members of Turkey’s Government. The EU considered this and, on balance, decided against sanctions at this stage; however, we will keep the position under careful review.
As we condemn this military intervention, it is only right that we also recognise some of the legitimate concerns that Turkey has—
What legitimate concerns?
I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, if he is willing to listen.
It is only right that we recognise some of Turkey’s legitimate concerns in relation to the 3.6 million refugees that it has taken from Syria, and its concerns about the threat to its security from the PKK at its southern border with Syria. For decades, Turkey has been a staunch ally in NATO and one of the largest contributors of military personnel. With close partners, we must at times be candid and clear. This is the not the action that we expected from an ally. It is reckless and counterproductive, and it plays straight into the hands of Russia and, indeed, the Assad regime, so the UK Government call on Turkey to exercise maximum restraint and to bring an end to this unilateral military action. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing further pursuit of this important issue, and I thank the Secretary of State for his response.
In just a week, we have seen the map of north-east Syria redrawn, following the ill-thought-through foreign policy change by President Trump that has triggered a tragic series of events that are now undermining international efforts to contain Daesh. It has forced a counter-Daesh ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to resort to asking the Assad regime for help, giving Russia and Iran ever greater leverage in determining Syria’s future, while simultaneously diminishing any remaining influence the west can claim to have over the country’s future. In the fog of confusion, thousands of hard-line jihadist fighters are now able to escape and regroup to fight another day. If Turkey’s safe zone is allowed to go ahead, 3 million Sunni Arab refugees will soon be moved there, fundamentally changing the ethnic make-up of north-east Syria. As so often in conflict, tens of thousands of displaced civilians are attempting to flee the fighting, with many killed and injured.
Direct conflict between Syria and Turkey is now just another notch closer, so I request that Britain steps forward with increased determination to help to resolve this unfolding crisis. I have the following questions for the Secretary of State. What discussions has he had with his US counterparts to invite them to re-engage with the international community on the future of Syria? They cannot back out of their international responsibilities. Does he agree that membership of NATO comes with responsibilities? Will Turkey’s actions be reviewed with our NATO allies? Has he spoken with his French and German counterparts to better co-ordinate a European response in relation to any sanctions and, indeed, further arms embargoes? What efforts can be made to seek a UN Security Council response to these unfolding events? Will he concede that we need to address the absence of any legal convention to process IS fighters, including family members, as well as orphans? Let us give the United States their due: they are actually taking back orphans from that region, and we should do the same.
Finally, we speak of the erosion of the rules-based order. Does it not send a worrying message to Russia, given its resurgent activities in eastern Europe, and to China, with its claim over much of the South China sea, if the west does not have the resolve to defend international standards when they are breached by a NATO ally?
I share many of my right hon. Friend’s concerns, which he expressed both eloquently and powerfully. He made the point about the destabilisation of the region, which is absolutely right. Like him, I am concerned that this takes our eye off the ball when it comes to the overriding focus that we should have in counter-terrorism terms on Daesh. It is also set to make the humanitarian situation worse.
My right hon. Friend made a number of other specific points, which I will try to address in turn. We will not recognise any demographic change that is brought about as a result of this incursion. I have been very clear with the Turkish Foreign Minister that any returns must be safe and voluntary. We are also engaged with all our partners—the US and the EU—as my right hon. Friend asked, and he will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday adopted conclusions that condemned the Turkish military action for all the reasons that he has raised and that I have made clear. He has also called for a genuine political transition, in line with the Security Council resolutions and the 2012 Geneva communiqué, to be negotiated by the parties within the UN-led Geneva process. Given one of the other points he made, I think that it is worth pointing out the continued efforts of the international community, including at the UN Security Council, to stop this military unilateral action, which we agree is urgently required.
I thank both you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing it. As he and I and many other colleagues warned last week, the situation in northern Syria has gone from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic and horrifying since the Trump Administration withdrew their troops and gave a green light to Turkey to invade. As we have seen, it is not just Turkey’s airstrikes and artillery barrage that have caused the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians, but the barbaric actions of the jihadi death squads, armed and supported by Turkey, which are now freely operating inside Rojava. May I ask the Minister whether, as part of the Government’s welcome review of arms sales to Turkey, which I believe is worth £1.1 billion, they will look specifically at whether any of the arms that our country has supplied to Turkey have ended up in the hands of the jihadi militants?
It is clear to anyone with any understanding of the situation in Syria that if the Kurds did not have the support of the US and faced another Turkish invasion, they would be driven reluctantly into the hands of Assad and Russia simply for their own protection, and, sadly, that has proved correct. Was the Foreign Office in any way surprised at what has recently happened? Yet again, it prompts the question, which I hope the Secretary of State will answer today, about the Government’s strategy on Syria. It seems likely that responsibility for tackling the Daesh remnants, escapees, and sleeper cells will fall, not to the coalition, but to the Kurds and the Assad regime between them. It seems likely that the Kurds will be brought into the constitutional reform committee, and that once the other areas are stabilised, there will be a merciless assault on the areas of Idlib held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, at which point the war will effectively be over. Again, I ask the Secretary of State: what is the Government’s strategy? Was he surprised when the Defence Secretary seemed to be a dog in the manger on the word “condemn” yesterday at the NATO summit? Was he concerned that The Times reported his comments as ones that seem to be giving support to the Turkish action, and will he make it clear that we certainly do not support the Turkish action? Finally, may I ask him this very specific question: before Donald Trump took his catastrophic decision to withdraw US troops from Rojava, did he inform the British Government?
Let me say at the outset that we share the right hon. Lady’s concerns about the worsening humanitarian situation, about the impact that the Turkish intervention has on stability and about the terrorism threat on the ground and more generally. She asks about the export regime. She will know that we have one of the most rigorous and robust export licence regimes in the world, but we keep it under constant review and will continue to do so—particularly in relation to this instance—in the way in which I have described.
The situation on the ground has been very fluid, but we are deeply disappointed with Turkey’s decision. The right hon. Lady asks what we need to do now. Well, we now need—more than ever—to have closer co-operation between our international partners, and that means the US and the EU. We do not accept the frankly inaccurate characterisation of the UK’s position in Monday’s EU Foreign Affairs Council. We work with our partners. There were different views, but we always want to ensure that we take a balanced approach, as our EU partners did. The most important things are the conclusions that were agreed, and which I have set out at some length.
The situation also shows that we need NATO now more than ever. I gently say to the right hon. Lady that that is one of the reasons that it is so irresponsible that the leader of the Labour party has called for us to come out of NATO.
No, no, no—take that back!
No; that is well known. We need to be strengthening NATO, not weakening it, as well as working very closely with our UN partners and agencies.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State know of any other policy decision by any ally that has so exposed our troops in combat, weakened our alliances in the region, undermined our essential security partnership in NATO and empowered our enemies in Russia and Iran? Will he perhaps also tell me what he will be doing to ensure that the UK invests more fully in our own defence and security to support the multinational alliances that keep us safe and extend the security that our people rely on around the world?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, raises a number of good points. No, I cannot think of an occasion when such a close NATO ally has behaved in such a way. It raises concerns about the humanitarian situation and the counter-terrorism situation. My hon. Friend is also right to point out that it is all the more reason—an impetus—for us to invest in our military. We are one of leading members of NATO that are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, and we are committed to investing; and he will have heard the Chancellor’s comments on future investment. We also need to recommit and reinvigorate the NATO alliance because it is not clear to anyone—at least on the Government Benches—what would replace it.
I am not the Leader of the Opposition’s biggest fan, but I think that cheap pot shots at a time like this are utterly unnecessary and demean the office of Foreign Secretary.
This is a brutal and unnecessary conflict. There is a needless humanitarian catastrophe and a refugee crisis, which the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out, but which has been made much worse. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly says, this will have a deep impact on our future ability to build alliances, and alliances that we need—not least given the boots on the ground that the SDF provided.
The Defence Secretary has said that
“Turkey needs to do what it sometimes has to do to defend itself”.
Maybe the Foreign Secretary can tell us exactly what that means.
The Secretary of State mentioned keeping sales of arms under careful review. We have seen how well that has gone in Yemen over the past three years. The UK has leverage here. Why have Germany, France, the Netherlands, Finland and the Czech Republic stopped arms sales, and not the UK?
Finally, will the UK take its responsibilities seriously? We should all pay credit to the bravery of the humanitarian organisations and journalists such as Quentin Sommerville, who discovered in Syria British orphans of parents who had joined IS; surely children do not carry the sins of their parents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. We share his concern, which I think is shared across the House, in relation to refugees. It is clear that the humanitarian situation will be compounded, not made any better, by Turkey’s intervention, which also has much broader implications for stability. He is wrong in his comments about export licences. Exports of military arms to Turkey that might be used in this operation have been suspended subject to the review that will take place. In relation to unaccompanied minors or orphans, assuming that they would represent no security threat, that is something—[Interruption.] Of course, but the age of minors goes right the way up to close to 18. We would be willing to see them returned home if that can be done in a safe way given the situation on the ground.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his question and support him in his comments. The UN estimates that there are some 1.6 million people in need in that area of north-east Syria, and since this started this week, a further 200,000 are on the move. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend consulted the Secretary of State for International Development. In other places where the Assad regime has taken back control of an area, access to humanitarian agencies has declined and information about circumstances has become almost impossible to get. It is absolutely essential that this does not happen in future. Will the British Government make sure that that is the case?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has a lot of experience in this. I pay tribute to the work he did at the Foreign Office. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for International Development. We will be engaged, and we are already engaged, very closely with the UN agencies and the non-governmental organisations on the ground. The concern that he raised is absolutely spot on. We share it and we are doing everything we can to alleviate it.
There can be no doubt that it was the sudden announcement by the US Administration of a decision to withdraw their troops that has led to what Turkey has done, yet we discover that the United States is now imposing sanctions on Turkish Ministries and senior Government officials. The Foreign Secretary said that we need to be clear and candid with our allies, and I appreciate what he has said to the Government of Turkey about what they are doing, but could I encourage him to be equally clear and candid with the US Administration, whose policy at the moment, frankly, has perplexed their allies and friends and is making a bad situation much more dangerous?
I thank the Chair of the Brexit Committee. I would share many of his concerns in relation to this. The key point right now is to be working with our allies right across the transatlantic spectrum, with NATO, the US and our European friends, to try to exercise maximum restraint and maximum leverage on Turkey. Both in this case and more generally—because we will see a whole range of threats posed to this transatlantic alliance—we need to work out that some of the differences between us pale into insignificance compared with the challenges and the threats we face. This is one such example. We must redouble our efforts to cement the NATO alliance and work together collaboratively.
In some respects, NATO has never been stronger—budgets are increasing and readiness is improving—but these actions by Turkey and recent reports of the atrocities being committed by Turkish troops, combined with recent decisions on defence procurement, are incompatible with the values and undertakings of a NATO partner. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will do everything he can to ensure that this issue is gripped within NATO and that any British citizens who are legitimately in that region are protected?
I thank my right hon. Friend. The Government share her assessment. NATO has never been stronger, but it also faces unprecedented and novel threats and strains within it in relation to burden sharing but also the different political views that are there. In relation to Turkey itself, she makes quite an important point in relation to, I think, the arms purchases from Russia. We need to be very careful to exercise absolute clarity with our Turkish partners and allies to be clear that they must end this incursion, but equally—I think this is the point she was making—to avoid driving Turkey into the arms of Russia and President Putin.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this urgent question and agree with everything he said. I want to raise with the Secretary of State a specific humanitarian consequence of what is happening, which is about access to water in north-east Syria. I am told that the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are responding to urgent concerns around the city of Hasakeh, which has a population of 400,000 and may start to run dry shortly. Can he work with colleagues in the Department for International Development to address that as a matter of urgency?
The hon. Gentleman is right. The action by Turkey and the way it has caught not only its international partners but the UN and other agencies on the ground off guard, if I can put it like that, has created a whole range of humanitarian challenges, including the one that he raises. I will speak to the International Development Secretary, and we will work closely with the agencies—the UN and the NGOs on the ground—to ensure we do everything we can to alleviate that.
I commend the Foreign Secretary on his sober and sensible response to what is, after all, a geostrategic disaster. The most immediate threat to British and European security will arise from the escape of Daesh terrorists as a result of the increased conflict in the area. Can he reconsider with his Cabinet colleagues our approach to taking back the people who are of British or European origin and making them face British and European justice, rather than leaving them at risk in the area, and bringing back their families, so that we do not see them raised as another generation of terrorists to threaten us in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We certainly want to see those responsible for atrocities and crimes given justice in the region, so far as that is practical. One of the key points that has come out of the latest turn of events with Turkey is that that has become more, not less, difficult. In relation to the question of returns, we do not want to see foreign fighters returning to this country, but as I made clear in an earlier answer, we are looking at whether orphans and unaccompanied minors who bear UK nationality can be given safe passage to return to the UK, because, as he said, it is utterly unfair that such innocents should be caught in the crossfire.
The Foreign Secretary will no doubt have seen the casualties from Turkey’s assault on northern Syria on our TV screens. Can he give an unequivocal condemnation from the Government of Turkey’s invasion, and can he tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that people in northern Syria are being protected from the invasion by Turkey?
The hon. Gentleman raises concerns, as others have. As I mentioned earlier, we have, along with our EU partners, condemned Turkey’s actions. We have done that because of the humanitarian situation and the impact on refugees and on the broader stability that so many Members are concerned about. We will look at doing what we can to get the swiftest end to that military incursion, which will put us in the best position, given the circumstances, to alleviate the worsening humanitarian situation.
What steps are my right hon. Friend and his Department taking to encourage dialogue between Syria, Turkey and the whole region to try to resolve this crisis? Jaw-jaw is much better than war-war.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a wider international effort to see a genuine political transition in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the 2012 Geneva communiqué. Within the UN-led Geneva process, aside from the immediate concerns about security and the humanitarian situation, we want to see scope for a political transition, and we will encourage the dialogue that she mentioned with that in mind.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, the permission slip for this action was the decision by President Trump to withdraw US troops from the area. General David Petraeus reminded us last week that the Kurds have done most of the fighting and most of the dying in the battle to destroy the ISIS caliphate—a battle that most of us in this House supported. Given these events, what message does the Foreign Secretary think is being sent to those who have stood alongside this country and the United States in the battle against ISIS and the ideology that it represents?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point in a very cogent way. We do recognise some of the concerns Turkey has in relation to the PKK, but I think this sends the wrong message to our allies and destabilises the broader coalition in favour of tackling Daesh.
May I press the Foreign Secretary a little further on the answer he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis)? The Government’s position that they did not want to see British foreign fighters returned to the UK may well have been sustainable when those fighters were incarcerated and under lock and key, but if those foreign fighters, as a result of US and Turkey’s action, are now free to roam that area and potentially attack United Kingdom interests both at home and overseas, I am not sure that policy is sustainable. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to review it in the light of these events and see whether a different policy is required to keep the United Kingdom and our people safe?
I thank my right hon. Friend, and I understand the point he makes. We have made representations on this very clearly to the Turkish Government; I have made them to the Turkish Foreign Minister. We do not want to see foreign fighters return to the UK. We think the right course is for them to face justice in the region, if that is possible and practical. Of course, however, he is right to say that, given the fluid situation, we will have to keep all of this under review.
On Radio 4 this morning, there was harrowing testimony from a British woman who is a volunteer ambulance driver in the region about the atrocities that she has witnessed. There is a big Kurdish community in Scotland, and they have a community centre at Dumbryden in my constituency. I know that the Kurdish community in my constituency will be very keen to know, as I am, what assistance the UK Government are giving, as opposed to UK volunteers on the ground, and what steps the UK Government are taking to prevent such atrocities from being perpetrated against civilians by our NATO ally.
The hon. and learned Lady makes a very powerful point, and I pay tribute to her for the work she does with her community centre for the Kurdish community here. I think a lot of hon. Members in all parts of the House will be in a similar position. The best we can do, given this dire situation, is seek to end Turkey’s military incursion as soon as possible, continue to talk with all our partners and allies—right across the spectrum from the United States through to our European partners—and work very closely with the UN agencies to try both to prevent those atrocities from happening and to provide the humanitarian help that many so sorely need.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his very clear statement of condemnation today, but of course part of President Erdoğan’s calculation in this brutal assault is that this will be the entirety of our response from this House. Will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about what he thinks the consequences will be for Turkey of US sanctions, and whether he is considering further measures that may persuade Turkey that its assault is brutal and should be ceased?
I thank my right hon. Friend, but I cannot speak to the US position. That is for the US, but it has clearly taken its decision, and that is now very clear. On our side, what we want to do is focus on sending a very clear unequivocal message to Turkey that it must bring an end to this military intervention, that it is not going to help Turkey with its sometimes valid concerns that it has, that we are not going to allow demographic change to be unilaterally foisted on the region, and that we would not recognise any return of refugees—I think Turkey has taken 3.6 million refugees and rising, and we are not going to see them returned, or accept or recognise that—unless it is done in a safe and voluntary way. We will have to keep working with all of our partners and redouble our efforts.
Of course, it will not be without consequence for Turkey —a historic, stalwart, staunch ally—to have undertaken this behaviour. Equally, as I mentioned, there are legitimate concerns that Turkey has had. It has felt that it has not been listened to, and we need to encourage Turkey to do the right thing and start behaving the right way, and work with it, rather than force it into the arms of Assad or President Putin.
President Erdoğan has long planned this attack. There have been proposals to put millions of people—refugees who are in Turkey—across that border. The American Administration, by giving a green light, have destroyed the credibility of their international alliances; strengthened autocrats, demagogues and dictators, including Putin, Assad and the Iranians; and undermined our international security. Is this not the worst possible time for us to be leaving the European Union, when we need our European partners and friends to work with us in these difficult times?
While we differ on Brexit, I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it is why we have been engaged with our EU partners. We engaged closely on the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions on Monday. We have set out clearly our shared condemnation of Turkey and the measures that now need to be taken for Turkey to withdraw and come back into the NATO fold.
ShelterBox is a great charity based in my constituency, working now with its partners on the ground in north-east Syria to provide a desperately needed humanitarian response. While the public are being very generous in their donations, they and I would like to know how much public money is being committed to this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
I thank the hon. Lady for all the work that her constituents do and their generosity, and I thank the charitable organisations that work in her constituency. We cannot expect voluntary contributions alone, or even predominantly, to address the scale of the humanitarian suffering that we will now see in Syria. Not only DFID and the Foreign Office but all our international limbs of Government are working closely with all our international partners. I can write to her with the exact amount of money that we are putting into humanitarian relief and aid in that conflict, but it is substantial, and we will continue to do it.
The whole House will agree with the words that the Foreign Secretary spoke about the actions of Turkey, but the whole world knows that they are happening only because of a decision made by the President of the United States. Has the Foreign Secretary or anyone in the British Government conveyed to the White House the view that his decision is not just the action of a very bad ally of the Kurds but the action of a poor ally of the UK?
We make clear our views on all these issues right across the range, even when we disagree, to all our partners, as I have made clear in relation to Turkey. The same applies with all our NATO allies. The point now is to bring our allies back together and see a bit more unity of purpose in dealing with the terrible conflict in Syria, the overarching strategic threat that we all face from Daesh and alleviation of the humanitarian crisis that we all agree is utterly deplorable. It needs to be alleviated both for the individuals affected in the region and for the knock-on effects that it will have on the region and indeed Europe.
What is the risk that UK ISIS fighters will now be freed to fight and kill again? Is my right hon. Friend receiving accurate information on the status of UK ISIS fighters, and indeed ISIS fighters and their security? Are we going to have to fight the ISIS campaign all over again?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right to raise that concern about foreign fighters. We have made it clear to our US partners, and I have made it clear to the Foreign Minister of Turkey. The situation on the ground is fluid to say the least, but we have to make sure that the Turkish intervention is brought to an end as quickly as possible to avoid precisely the eventuality that he describes.
For the record, Mr Speaker, my party absolutely does not support the sale of arms to any regimes that carry out human rights violations. The plight of the orphans and the young people is truly appalling. They are frightened and they are alone. What they are going through right now does not bear thinking about. There is a question mark over the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. We do not know how long it will be there for. May I make a plea to the Government to extend that scheme, show compassion, take these young people and settle them in safety here among all of us who care for them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will of course take on board his concerns. I can see that they are deeply held and expressed with genuine and sincere passion. I have already explained the situation in relation to unaccompanied minors and orphans, but we will take on board his concerns. We keep the situation under review.
The Foreign Secretary, in his reply to the initial question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), talked about the PKK threat to Turkey across its southern border. When I was there four weeks ago, we could see no evidence of that. What evidence does the Foreign Secretary have for there being a threat across the southern border? The PKK was undoubtedly responsible for giving the SDF the capacity to help stop ISIS in 2014, but since then, from what I could see, particularly with the agreement to allow joint Turkish and American patrols 5 km into the area it controlled over the border, it was bending over backwards to make sure there was no threat or provocation to Turkey from Syria in the south.
My hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on intelligence matters, but what I can say is that we understand Turkey’s broader concern in relation to the PKK. The point I was making on both that and the refugee situation is that Turkey has been dealing with some of the implications of the conflict in Syria for a long time. It has now taken over 3.6 million refugees. I think we could do with showing at least some empathy and understanding of what the scale of that involves. I say that by way of setting the context that we need to take a clear-sighted and long-term view. We have been absolutely clear in our condemnation of the action Turkey has taken, but we need to try to get Turkey to come back into compliance by coming out of Syria, ending its military action, and working within NATO rather than at odds with it.
The Foreign Secretary refers to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees taken by Turkey. I understand that, and I understand the comments made last week by his colleague the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, when I asked him during the previous urgent question why we do not take more refugees through the resettlement scheme. He said that the UK actually takes very many refugees compared with other countries. However, do the 3.6 million refugees in Turkey not make the case for greater use of refugee resettlement, so that more refugees worldwide can take safe and legal routes to places of safety and the responsibility is shared around the world? Only 28 countries worldwide take refugees through the UN resettlement route. Only about half a million have been taken worldwide so far this year. Will the Foreign Secretary talk to his counterparts to increase that number of countries, so that more countries are willing to take refugees by resettlement?
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, which is that we need to reinforce our international efforts to have a genuinely international approach to the refugee crisis and an equitable approach to those who are bearing the burden of it, while having at the forefront of our minds the terrible suffering that the individuals involved are going through.
My right hon. Friend has been clear on Turkey and refugees. President Erdoğan has reportedly said that he would flood Europe with refugees if the United Kingdom and other European Union allies were to take action against Turkey. Will he confirm that that is completely unacceptable from the Government’s perspective, and that he will take appropriate action if necessary to impose sanctions and other means if President Erdoğan carries out his threat?
At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday, I made the point very clearly that that is not the kind of language we expect from a NATO ally. I have explained the position on sanctions, and we will keep it under review. Within the EU, we decided on balance not to go down that path. I agree with my hon. Friend that the refugees in the region cannot be used as some kind of geopolitical pawn against other international partners, particularly European allies.
The anger of the Kurdish community in Scotland and the UK is replicated in a letter I have sent, which has been signed by over 70 cross-party Members of this House. Is it UK Government policy that there should be a no-fly zone across northern Syria, and what is the Foreign Secretary doing to achieve that? Can he assure us that an arms embargo is being reviewed on a daily basis? Some of us believe that there should not be any arms sales to Turkey at all.
The concerns relating to a no-fly zone are partly principled and logistical, but they are also about the practicality of enforcing it on the ground. We have made it clear that we have suspended arms exports of anything military that could end up being used in Syria. We will keep the situation under review for that period. The key thing now—the overarching priority—is to get Turkey to withdraw and end the intervention, and then we can look with our international partners at how we take the country and the region forward.
My good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), makes exactly the right point. I wish to restate that it is totally unacceptable that any refugee could be used as a bargaining chip. Can we have a strong, united statement across Europe, if needs be, to say that that is the case? There are other refugee camps, such those with the Rohingya, where, if sheer volume of numbers gives any country the right to use them as a bargaining chip, we will go down a very slippery slope. I understand the sensitivities over Turkey and the sheer volume of numbers, but it is important that internationally, we say that refugees have rights and no country has the right to have some control over their destiny in that way.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If she looks at the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions from Monday, she will see that the EU gave a very clear message on that. It is a violation of international law to treat refugees in that way. It is totally unacceptable, particularly among allies and friends.
What a contrast between the former President Ford and his treatment of the Vietnamese, when 130,000 Vietnamese were repatriated to the USA under Operation New Life, and President Trump, who has treated his allies, the Kurds, with total contempt and has left them to the mercy of the Turks. There has already been mention of war crimes and people being murdered—the elected representatives of the Kurds. While the US has dallied and neglected its allies, Syria has stepped in. Does it not concern the Minister that while the USA has run away, Syria has filled the gap?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we should be worried about not just the humanitarian and security situation on the ground, but the negative message that we are sending to our partners and allies, and indeed our future partners and allies. They need to know that we are dependable and reliable and that we stick with them.
We have heard reports that our brave allies, the Kurds, have a staggering 100,000 jihadi fighters under lock and key. First, could my right hon. Friend confirm that that figure is true? Secondly, what exactly are he and other NATO countries doing about these fighters? If they do escape—I believe some have—all hell will break loose. What exactly are we doing with these 100,000 fighters?
I cannot verify that precise figure, I am afraid—I would want to check the best information that we have. We are working with our international partners. We have given a very clear message to Turkey about what we expect, and we will obviously have to keep the situation under review. There is no point in kidding ourselves that the action of Turkey has not made things more difficult in relation to foreign fighters that are held in detention—it has—and we will have to work with our international partners, above all in the interest of making sure that we protect UK security.
I could not work out from what the Secretary of State said whether the UK had advocated sanctions at the EU level and that that had been countermanded by other countries —whether we had played that sort of leadership role or whether there was a more consensual process. It would be really helpful to understand whether his Government will continue to pursue sanctions at the EU level, if that is indeed their policy. If so, which mechanisms will he use to try to advance that? When will his Government abandon their policy of only helping EU citizens when they leave Syrian soil? Obviously, unaccompanied minors cannot do that on their own. Which exact mechanisms exist in the region to have that justice for those potentially guilty foreign fighters that he referred to, because I cannot see any?
I share many of the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed. On the UK position, clearly within the EU there are different views on precisely what action should be taken. We joined the conclusions condemning Turkey’s military action. As I said, we will keep the issue of sanctions under review. On balance, the EU decided against going down the sanctions route at this stage, given all the competing considerations that I set out, but we have said that we need to continue as an international community to make efforts to resolve this, including through the UN Security Council.
It is sad to see the urgency of the question be met with such mealy-mouthed languid complacency. All this talk of reviewing potential future arms sales and of not pursuing sanctions—we even have a Defence Secretary apparently offering some legitimacy to the actions of the Turkish Government—means nothing, does it? From where I am sitting, the Government are feart to say boo to a goose, and, frankly, the Kremlin cannot believe its luck.
As is often the case, the hon. Gentleman is confusing bluster with sensible, concerted action in the region. [Interruption.] Let me answer the two questions. On arms, we have suspended sales while we conduct a review, so he is not right to say that they are continuing. On sanctions, the question, which has rightly been raised by other EU partners, is whether it would have a deterrent effect on Turkey and how effective it would be in achieving our overarching goal of ending the military incursion. That is what the Government are working towards.
I am very grateful for the great sacrifice our Kurdish friends and allies have made, and I am concerned about the long-term impact of Britain being seen as a country that does not fully protect its friends and allies. What specific actions are the British Government taking to protect the Kurdish community in northern Syria and prevent a humanitarian crisis?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the humanitarian and security situation and the message we send to the people we partner and ally with. It is important they know that the UK sticks to its word. We are working with all our partners and allies in the region to bring an end to the Turkish incursion in the way I have described in several responses to hon. Members on both sides of the aisle, and we will continue to do so.
I am extremely disappointed that, as I understand it, Britain held Europe back from going further in applying sanctions. If that is the case, it is deplorable. Has the Secretary of State met or communicated with our friends and allies in the SDF and the north-eastern Syrian authority? I understand that Ministers refused to meet them a few months ago when I brought its leader here. Tomorrow, I will be holding a briefing with generals and the co-leader of the authority in Parliament. Will he come—or send a representative—so that he can hear what they are saying, rather than just listening to dodgy intelligence about the PKK?
The hon. Gentleman is not right to describe the UK’s position in that way. We worked with our EU partners and came up with a substantive set of conclusions that we could all agree.
Did you push to go further?
On sanctions, the hon. Gentleman will understand that the balance of opinion was against taking action now, but we will keep the issue under review.
Mr Russell-Moyle, you are a cheeky chappy, it has to be said. This will be widely acknowledged. You are chuntering from a sedentary position to no obvious benefit or purpose, other than to reiterate the point you have already made on your feet. There is no need to repeat it from your seat, but I think you are addicted to so doing.
The Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2017 produced a report on the UK’s relationship with Turkey. One of its recommendations was for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make a determined effort to persuade Turkey not only to recognise Kurdish territory but to show restraint both in northern Syria and with the Euphrates Shield project. What determined efforts has the Foreign Office made since that report to persuade Turkey to do so?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is reading and raising these issues very carefully. It makes the point about why even now, with this disappointing and very serious situation, we need to try to exert influence on Turkey in the right direction. We expect NATO to do the same and all our allies across NATO. We must use all our efforts to encourage and promote and to coax, cajole and persuade Turkey to desist as soon as possible from its current incursion and come back and work with a joint plan, which is the most likely to be effective in bringing an end to the conflict in Syria and tackling the overarching strategic threat we all face from Daesh.
Colleagues, I now call an exceptionally well-behaved Member, a very model of decorum in the Chamber at all times. I am referring of course to Mary Glindon.
I never thought that would be me, Mr Speaker. Thank you.
The KRG and Kurdistan have been at the forefront of defending everyone from Daesh. They have taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and they took in more than 1 million Iraqi refugees when Mosul was attacked. They are a democratic, tolerant nation. What are we doing to support these important allies and protect them against Turkey’s military action?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern. She is experienced and expert in this area. We will work with all our partners, both internationally and on the ground, to try to alleviate the situation. However, I accept the premise, and I will not pretend that it has not become significantly more difficult, given what Turkey has done.
Over the years, the Kurds have been our most important allies in the fight against Daesh. Today I fear that we are complicit in their betrayal, abandoning them to their fate at the hands of the Turkish state. What discussions did the Foreign Secretary have with the Trump Administration before the decision to withdraw US troops? What did he ask of the Trump Administration, and what reply did he receive?
I think it quite wrong to suggest that the UK Government have been complicit in this. The hon. Gentleman should not let Turkey off the hook for its responsibility; the focus should be on condemning that.
We are, of course, engaged, and I have regularly engaged with my US counterpart and, indeed, all our European partners throughout my time as Foreign Secretary. We have expressed our view, both to them and to Turkey, that there should be no unilateral military action by Turkey in relation to Syria.
I note that the Foreign Secretary has not responded to my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) on the question of the starting point for the UK in discussions about sanctions at the EU level. However, may I ask him specifically about what the Defence Secretary said at NATO? Apparently, he said:
“Turkey needs to do what it sometimes has to do to defend itself.”
Is it our position that Turkey’s actions constituted an act of self-defence, or do we believe that this was an act of aggression?
We are absolutely clear that we condemn Turkey’s military intervention, as we did with our EU partners.
First, I think that this is a betrayal of the Kurds on the part of both the west and the Americans. Secondly, the Turks are there in the north and it will be a job to get them out. Thirdly, and more importantly, this will have serious consequences: it could lead to a serious conflict.
We have let the Kurds down badly. The Foreign Secretary should really consider flying to Washington—if we are such an important ally—to meet Congress leaders and the President of the United States face to face, because we are getting ourselves into a dangerous situation.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that I share his concerns. I was in Washington recently, not just to meet members of the US Administration but to talk to congressional members about the whole gamut of foreign policy issues. We are as closely engaged as possible with our US and, indeed, our EU partners. What we need to do now is bring back some unity and some resolve in NATO, among all its partners, and obviously that must include Turkey.
It is quite clear that the Kurdish people feel abandoned. A great many of my constituents are of Kurdish origin. This has left a vacuum, but, according to reports, the Pentagon was not even involved: it was a unilateral decision made by the President. In the wake of the revelations that are emerging about Ukraine, President Zelensky and Donald Trump, does the Foreign Secretary believe that the motives behind that decision with the Turkish President could indeed be personal?
No, I have no reason to believe that that is the case.
Plymouth’s Kurdish community are not just concerned about a military incursion; they are concerned about an occupation, because they know that an occupation will lead to ethnic cleansing, and ethnic cleansing is a crime against humanity. Can the Foreign Secretary say from the Dispatch Box that he will order the UK’s considerable assets to collect evidence, and that if there is evidence of crimes against humanity, he will use it to prosecute Turkey for its illegal actions against the Kurds?
I understand the depth of the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It is not clear to me where he thinks that a prosecution would or would not take place, but as someone was formerly a war crimes lawyer, I would absolutely want any serious violations of international humanitarian law to lead to people being brought to account.
I met a group of Kurdish constituents on Friday, and they were dismayed at what had happened. They were disappointed by what they saw as a weak response from the international community, and they were firmly of the view that the UK had a special responsibility to help to resolve the situation, given our historic influence in the region. The Foreign Secretary says that the situation is under review. Can he tell my constituents what needs to change on the ground in order that he and the EU might consider further action, including sanctions?
The action we want to see changed on the ground is for Turkey to withdraw, and we are looking at what is the most effective means of engaging with Turkey and encouraging it to withdraw as quickly as possible and undertake maximum restraint. We will continue to do that, and obviously we will look closely at all the levers and approaches that we need to take in order to achieve that objective with our European, as well as our American, partners.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I wonder if I could get your assistance. How can I, first, correct the record and, secondly, force the Foreign Secretary to withdraw his thoroughly misleading comments about the Leader of the Opposition’s commitment to NATO? He has never spoken about withdrawing from NATO. Our support for the NATO alliance is absolute and we are committed to spending the 2%. The shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), was as outraged as I was to hear the silly, partisan comments that were being made, and indeed we have been together to see NATO and discuss how Labour would work in future with NATO.
I think that the shadow Foreign Secretary has found her own salvation in the sense that she has made her point with force and alacrity and it is on the record. As for the question of forcing the Foreign Secretary to withdraw, I do not have a list of statements that have been made by particular Members at given times, and therefore I am not in a position to say whether a withdrawal is required. The Foreign Secretary is a cerebral intellectual type—that is his normal approach—but today I could tell that he wanted to mix it. Now, mixing it is a matter of taste really rather than a matter of order, so I think that I have to leave it to the Foreign Secretary, who seems to be resolutely seated, to judge whether he needs to correct the record, but whether he does or not, the right hon. Lady, in her mellifluous tone, has put the record straight as far as she is concerned, and I hope that that is a source of some succour to her as she goes about her daily business.