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Syria: Air Drops

Volume 773: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in the House of Commons earlier today by my right honourable friend David Lidington.

“The Government’s objective remains a political settlement which allows Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government with whom we can work to tackle Daesh and other extremists. Frankly, it is only when this happens that we will see stability return to the region and the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe stop.

To achieve that goal, we need to get political negotiations between the Syrian parties back on track. The International Syria Support Group has made it clear that, in order to create the best environment for talks to succeed, there needs to be both a comprehensive cessation of hostilities, leading to a full ceasefire, and sustained, unfettered access for humanitarian aid.

Talks have now paused because progress on both those tracks has been insufficient. That is why we are pressing hard for an end to the current violations of the cessation of hostilities, the majority of which are down to the Assad regime. It is also why we need to see an improvement in humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas inside Syria.

Both those points were agreed by all members of the International Syria Support Group in Munich in February this year. However, in the light of the continuing dire humanitarian picture, at the most recent ISSG meeting in Vienna on 17 May the Foreign Secretary proposed humanitarian air drops by the UN World Food Programme to besieged areas in Syria if access could not be achieved by road by the beginning of June. That deadline has now of course passed. We welcome the arrival of some limited aid in Darayya and Muadhamiya over the last few days, and we note that the Syrian Government have agreed in principle to allow land access by the UN to the majority of areas requested for the month of June. Such progress that we have seen is undoubtedly the result of international pressure, including the possibility of air drops.

We believe it is now crucial that the ISSG holds the Assad regime to account for the delivery of those commitments. UK officials are meeting their ISSG counterparts and UN officials in Geneva today to continue that work, and the UN is pressing the Assad regime to allow air drops if access by road is not permitted.

We remain clear that air drops are a last resort. Land access is more effective, more efficient and safer both for those needing the aid and for those delivering it. The UN has plans in place to begin air drops if they are needed, but it is clear that, in a complex and dangerous environment like Syria, this will not be straightforward.

We will continue to support the UN in its efforts, but if the regime is not willing to allow sufficient land access or air drops to those in such desperate need, the ISSG must consider very carefully what further steps might be taken to deliver the aid that is so desperately needed”.

I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the response to this morning’s Urgent Question. I am sure we all agree that the most important thing is to focus our attention on the plight of those 582,000 people—men, women and children—who have been denied access, some since 2012. The conditions in those areas must be absolutely appalling and dreadful—it is difficult to imagine—and it is important that we keep highlighting that.

The noble Baroness said—and I heard the Minister in the other place, the right honourable David Lidington, say—that this afternoon British officials will meet their ISSG counterparts to consider the response of the Assad regime to the UN request for access. There is no doubt that the best outcome is agreed land access. That is the most effective way to get support in there. But what will happen if the Syrian Government refuse permission or impose further unnecessary delays? Will we be able to persuade others that air drops are appropriate as a last resort? And what timeframe are we considering? As each day and each week go past, the conditions in these areas will become intolerable.

I heard the right honourable David Lidington say that Russia and Iran have the power to influence the situation. Apart from the discussions in the ISSG, what efforts are the Government making to put pressure on Russia and Iran to use that influence more appropriately? What can we do about that?

There is no doubt that political progress towards a settlement is made a great deal more difficult while Assad deliberately uses the denial of humanitarian aid as a political and military weapon. I know that the noble Baroness shares my view and I hope she will confirm that there will be no hiding place for individuals who flagrantly breach international humanitarian law.

My Lords, I shall respond to that last point first. The noble Lord is right: I join him in saying that there should be no impunity for those who breach international humanitarian law. However, it is a question of how and when one deals with that. He knows that this Government have put their resources where their mouth is and have committed money to enabling very brave people to gather, across Syria, information which we hope can be used in future judicial proceedings to hold to account those guilty of these atrocities.

It is important that we take stock of the United Nations request for land access to the four areas to which the Assad regime has so far refused the UN access. Once we see the result of that, we will know more about the timetable and about what happens next, but clearly, as land access is more secure, particularly for those receiving the aid as well as for those delivering it, that would be the best outcome. We have made it clear that the UN would then have to consider the application to Assad to deliver air drops. How it would do that and the viability of those air drops would be up to the UN to determine. Of course, we have to take into account that both Assad and the Russian Government have air defences in place in Syria, so if they were not to consent, we would enter a very dangerous process.

Therefore, the noble Lord is right to ask about the influence of Russia and Iran. They are both members of the ISSG, and Russia has played a leading part in agreeing to the cessation of hostilities and to humanitarian aid being delivered. Via our work through the ISSG and other organisations such as the UN and the Human Rights Council, we continue to impress on Russia the importance of using its influence to persuade the Assad regime to do what the whole world sees as the only right thing—to allow aid to be delivered to the areas that have been starved and bombed as a political weapon. That is a disgrace.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the importance of the ISSG holding the Assad Government to account. However, she mentioned that Russia is also part of that. How do Her Majesty’s Government envisage that we can hold the Assad regime to account? In the shorter term, how can we deliver humanitarian aid if Russia and the regime are not willing to allow drops?

My Lords, as I outlined a moment ago, the decision-making process has to depend upon the discussions being carried on today, not just with the ISSG but with the UN. It is a matter of what is the safest and most effective way of delivering aid. However, the Assad regime should be under no illusions and neither should Russia. The allies who have united against Daesh are united against the attempt to subvert democracy in Syria as a whole. Therefore, it is important that Assad takes note of the determination of countries that are united in the ISSG, which includes the UK, to deliver humanitarian aid. I pay tribute to the organisations that stand ready to do that.

My Lords, is there any evidence that Russia will be co-operative in the United Nations Security Council and not block an initiative? Is there any evidence that Russia is acting positively in respect of pressure on the Assad regime?

The noble Lord raised a very good point and I am not able to give him a very positive answer—I wish that I could. The signs so far from Russia are that it promised to step down some of its military support for the Assad regime, for example, and then did not. There was much brouhaha about President Putin’s announcement over a withdrawal but the Russian drawdown of military equipment in Syria, I am advised, has been limited to some fixed-wing aircraft and personnel. The number of attack helicopters able to provide closer combat support to regime troops has increased. If that is the message that Russia is giving to the Assad regime, it is not a message that encourages Assad to do what is right, which is to allow humanitarian aid to all.

My Lords, the Minister has been characteristically measured in introducing this subject and in responding to questions. Does she agree that the use of air drops would essentially be a decision borne out of desperation? Must we not also consider the risks involved? First, there is a risk that the material to be delivered could fall into the wrong hands. Secondly, there may be physical risks to the citizens to whom aid is to be delivered if a drop goes awry. Thirdly—the noble Baroness hinted at this a moment ago—this is potentially a very hostile air environment and there could be risks both to aircraft and aircrew. In all the circumstances, may we take it that Her Majesty’s Government’s attitude at the Security Council will take full account of these risks and will accede to the notion of air drops only if they believe that there is no other possible viable alternative?

I agree entirely with the way in which the noble Lord has outlined the risks involved in the delivery of humanitarian aid which is so desperately needed. There are areas, for example, in the middle of Damascus that have been besieged and starved for three years. Getting access there, if Assad agreed to it, is a simple matter—he is standing in the way—but the risks internationally are great. Assad is computing those risks too. What we say to him is: the world will not stand idly by and allow you to continue bombing, starving and using chemical weapons against your people. We are six years into the conflict, and it must stop.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that it may be necessary to move matters rather more forcefully at the United Nations and that a resolution authorising air drops and requiring the Assad regime to permit those air drops would compel the Russians to take a position on that, which they can probably avoid doing so long as merely diplomatic channels are being used? If they veto it, they will be vetoing the provision of supplies to starving people, and that will have a cost to them. If they do not veto it, they are supporting the use of air drops, and that has implications for their own military involvement. Would it not be better, fairly soon, to move matters in a more purposeful way in the Security Council?

The noble Lord, with his experience of being our representative in the United Nations in New York, has hit on one of the options that are available. Meetings are going ahead today, and I hope that advances can be made through the ISSG and that Russia will use its undoubted influence over the Assad regime to achieve the right objective. However, clearly all countries will be considering the variety of options available.