May I start, Mr Speaker, by saying it is an honour to be the first Member at the Dispatch Box to congratulate you on taking the Chair? You will not have an easy task, but I am confident that with your technical expertise and your long experience and good humour, you will do an absolutely superb job.
The UK has consistently opposed Turkish military action in Syria. We condemned it with our European partners and we are concerned about the impact it will have on stability, on the humanitarian crisis and also on the counter-Daesh effort.
Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in congratulating you on your election yesterday. It is fantastic to see you in the Chair.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Abandoning the Kurds, who led the fight against IS, has seen over 10,000 refugees fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan on top of the 1.5 million displaced people it is already generously caring for, so will he increase humanitarian work and the Kurdistan region’s ability to defend itself against Daesh? Does he agree that this has also strengthened Iran and its proxy terror arming Hezbollah, and that Israel, the middle east’s only democracy, must be protected from that threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has followed this subject for a long period and has experience and insight. We are worried, and our main concerns are around the humanitarian situation and the stability of northern Syria. Notwithstanding the removal of Daesh leader al-Baghdadi, which we welcome, we are worried about the medium-term impact on counter-Daesh strategy in the region. So while we welcome the ceasefire brokered by Vice-President Mike Pence in relation to northern Syria, we are also seeing an accommodation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime and indeed Presidents Erdoğan and Putin, and that is counter both to our counter-terrorism efforts but also to the humanitarian plight that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises.
May I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?
Save the Children has identified around 60 British children who are stranded in north-east Syria. The Government have said that we owe them a duty of care. No matter what their parents may have done, these are innocent children, and some are now malnourished and some are suffering from life-threatening illnesses. What are the Government doing to ensure that those British children are repatriated?
The hon. Lady is right to say that the first responsibility is of course with any parent or prospective parent who would take their children out to a conflict zone. We have made it clear that we are willing to repatriate unaccompanied UK minors or orphans where is no risk to UK security. We would consider carefully individual requests for consular support more generally and subject to national security considerations, but of course the UK has no consular presence in Syria from which to provide assistance, and that makes it very difficult to help, but we respond on a case-by-case basis.
We talk to all the parties and players involved. Obviously there is an important NATO component. The US withdrawal of troops is, of course, a matter for them, but we note that a small residual number of troops are going to be left for counter-Daesh operations. We support the deconfliction mechanism that is in place to try to ensure that the airspace can be correctly and properly policed.
It is an honour, Mr Speaker, to be the first Back Bencher to be called from the Government Benches during your Speakership. I made my remarks about your predecessor a matter of formal record, and I hope I can now get called, which would be agreeable.
On this very serious issue, having recently been to the region may I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to engage with the local leadership there when they make themselves available at ministerial level? On the conduct of the Turkish military operation, there is now pretty incontrovertible evidence that white phosphorus has been used as a weapon against civilians, if not other chemical weapons, either by the Turks or by their Syrian auxiliary allies. This is a matter of immense seriousness; will the United Kingdom Government now hold Turkey and her allies to account?
Your tenure and leadership, Mr Speaker, are already producing changes on the Back Benches, which are hugely welcome. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned that we ensure we are engaged with key figures on the ground in northern Syria. In relation to white phosphorus, we are very concerned by the reports—which have not yet been fully verified, as we have said—and we want to see a swift and thorough investigation by the UN Commission of Investigation. That is what we are pressing for.
Before the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), stands up, may I be the first London MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what international discussions are occurring with the Turkish Government in order to ensure a long-lasting peace?
I have spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan on 12 and 20 October, and we have made it clear that we are not willing to see demographic changes on the ground that would alter the balance in northern Syria. We are concerned about the humanitarian situation. It is welcome that the ceasefire is broadly holding, but we now need to see measures for a credible medium-term approach that allows us to continue to press our overarching aim to see Daesh defeated in the region and that is also fair and just in relation to the humanitarian crisis, particularly to those who have been displaced or lost their homes.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, may I be the first Scottish MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? On 16 October, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the UK was failing to attend meetings to discuss the situation in Syria, not least the increase in migration and the refugee crisis. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what possible benefits there can be from failing to attend these meetings? What are the foreign policy implications of this, and will he change his mind about non-attendance?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are in close contact with all our bilateral partners, that we engage with our EU partners and that we have raised this situation in the UN Security Council. I have discussed it at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the UK will be attending the next ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh on 14 November in Washington.
I am glad to hear that. The Brexit Secretary told us that the UK would only attend meetings of the EU Council where there was
“a significant national interest in the outcome of discussions, such as on security”.
The situation in Syria strikes me as something that affects security as well as foreign policy, so I ask the Foreign Secretary again: will he change his mind, given that there are 27 key partners in there? It is increasingly striking that there are no benefits from leaving the European Union, but even worse, could it be that we have a Government so blinded and dogmatic over their commitment to turn away from Europe and embrace Trump that they will not even bother to turn up for these meetings? Does he not agree that this is having security and foreign policy implications right now?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the blinkered prejudice is all on his own side. I have attended EU Gymnichs before the meetings with Foreign Ministers, because when we have security issues of course we want to engage with our EU partners. The reality is that we will continue to do that once we have left the EU, because we want to be strong European neighbours and allies as well as giving effect to the referendum in this country.