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Volume 774: debated on Thursday 13 October 2016


Asked by

Since the Syrian regime declared on 19 September that the cessation of hostilities was over, the regime and its backers, including Russia, have carried out brutal assaults on eastern Aleppo and on other fronts, killing hundreds and hitting a humanitarian aid convoy. Humanitarian access is severely restricted across the country. We are urgently working with international partners on what can be done, diplomatically and practically, to reduce the violence and improve humanitarian access.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that I visited Syria with my noble friend Lord Hylton and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, at the invitation of Christian and Muslim leaders? We visited many places, including Aleppo, and met a wide variety of people, including the Syriac Patriarch and the Grand Mufti, opposition Ministers, professionals such as the doctors’ society in Aleppo, and IDPs who had fled to Latakia from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebels, who use cluster bombs and chemical weapons and perpetrate atrocities, including beheadings. Everyone we met is profoundly disturbed by the commitment of western Governments, including that of the UK, to impose regime change, as they believe that there is no viable moderate armed opposition and so there would be a takeover by extremists, leading to a chaotic situation such as exists in Iraq and Libya. They plead for respect for their right to determine their own future. What assurances can the Minister give to these people?

My Lords, I am aware that the noble Baroness and one or two other parliamentarians, against the direct advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, travelled to Syria. I put my trust in the evidence gathered by the independent UN commission of inquiry and other credible reporting, such as that by Human Rights Watch, which makes clear that the Assad regime bears overwhelming responsibility for this crisis. Indeed, his regime is responsible for between 85% and 90% of the deaths. We should not fall for the Assad regime’s spurious argument that it can protect minorities—it cannot. Assad’s actions have fuelled sectarian violence, and his regime is ultimately responsible for the deaths of about 400,000 civilians. He has shown that he is incapable of maintaining control of his country or of effectively countering the threat from Daesh and other extremists. So long as Assad is in power, the fighting will not end. The Syrian people do indeed deserve a more accountable, inclusive, representative form of governance—but it is one that Assad cannot offer.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there must be a better way of influencing the Russian Government than demonstrations outside the Russian embassy? Has the Minister made an assessment of a proposal from the UN’s Syria envoy to personally escort 1,000 jihadist fighters out of eastern Aleppo? Would that not better address the issue of Russian behaviour in bombing eastern Aleppo than demonstrations outside the embassy?

My Lords, in this country we have a proud history of having the freedom to demonstrate peacefully on public property to express our views. I hope that that will continue. We have the great privilege here of being able to express views which are then recorded. That is not the case for many, and it is not the case for those in Syria. We should bear that in mind.

I will continue by answering the particular point about the offer by the UN special envoy. We welcome de Mistura’s ceaseless efforts to find ways to address the situation in Aleppo. His latest update did include the suggestion of escorting fighters from Aleppo; that was heartfelt. The prelude, however, would have to be a genuine ceasefire. That is what we are seeking, and there will be meetings this weekend to resume diplomatic exchanges.

My Lords, has my noble friend seen the report that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has drafted about her visit? When she has, will she accept my view—without endorsing it—that it at least suggests that we may not be getting from our media an entirely balanced view about the full horrors of what is going on in both east and west Aleppo? Will she undertake to have a look at it and maybe circulate it to some of her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

My Lords, I have made it clear that we are in possession of very clear evidence of the brutal attacks by Russia and Assad. I will not comment on media balance; I know that it is a matter that this House has pronounced on in relation to many issues, and it is right that it will continue to do so. There is no doubt that the credible evidence gathered by the United Nations points to the fact that Assad is not the solution for the future. We should remember that.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that just 1.5% of those admitted so far under the Government’s Syrian refugee resettlement scheme from refugee camps are Christians, despite Christians making up 10% of the Syrian population, largely because Christians find the refugee camps themselves far from safe for them. What will the Government do to prevent their own scheme unfairly discriminating against one of Syria’s most persecuted and desperate and fastest-disappearing minorities?

My Lords, I last met the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, in Geneva on 13 September to discuss the refugee crisis, and I raised these issues then. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for doing so again today as it gives me the opportunity to say that when we work with the UNHCR we make sure that the priority is to give assistance to those most in need. I am also aware that it is important that those who feel that they may be at risk if they register may be assisted to feel that they are secure to do so. We will continue to look at these issues.

My Lords, I had the privilege to read the draft report produced by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. I would like to supplement the question just asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. In the report a number of observations are made relating to faith groups, religious groups and other voluntary groups working in Syria, and there are some very interesting recommendations. Will the Foreign Office please look at it very carefully and respond to that part of the report?

My Lords, at the Foreign Office we look at evidence that has been collected in an independent manner that can be verified. I always listen to evidence gathered by noble Lords because I know that noble Lords, from all parties and none, take their responsibilities to this House very seriously. I will continue to look at evidence but I would say that the weight of international evidence is clear: Assad is responsible for 85% to 90% of deaths.