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Volume 777: debated on Monday 28 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat as a Statement the response to an Urgent Question given in the other place by my right honourable friend Tobias Ellwood, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Statement is as follows:

“We are appalled by the entirely preventable humanitarian catastrophe now taking place in eastern Aleppo and across other besieged areas in Syria. The United Nations Under-Secretary General, Stephen O’Brien, has described what is happening in Aleppo as an ‘annihilation’. Over the weekend, Syrian regime forces captured several opposition-held districts of Aleppo, potentially bisecting the besieged eastern part of the city, and there are reports of further advances today.

The regime’s two-week assault on Aleppo has been backed predominantly by Iranian and Shia militias. There have been unconfirmed reports of Russian airstrikes, but our understanding is that since airstrikes resumed a fortnight ago, the vast majority have been by the regime. During that time, hundreds have been killed and thousands more have been forced to flee. The last functioning hospital was put out of action on 19 November. Humanitarian access has been deliberately blocked by the regime and its allies for over four months now, leading to the 275,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo facing imminent starvation. Across the rest of Syria, there has been almost no progress in delivering the United Nations humanitarian plan for November. The latest UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid was agreed by the armed opposition groups last week, but the regime is still blocking it. This is just the latest of many failed efforts.

I make it clear to Russia that using food as a weapon of war is a war crime. So, too, is attacking civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools—another favoured tool of the regime and its backers. We call on those with influence on the regime, especially Russia and Iran, to use that influence to end the devastating assault on eastern Aleppo and ensure the United Nations humanitarian plan can be implemented in full. As my right honourable friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, the Foreign Secretary, said this morning, that requires an immediate ceasefire and access for impartial humanitarian actors to ensure the protection of vulnerable civilians fleeing the fighting. All involved in the siege and assault on Aleppo have a responsibility to change course to protect civilians.

Addressing the dire situation in eastern Aleppo and the wider Syria conflict is a priority for this Government. I spoke to Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations this morning to discuss what more we can do in the Security Council to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the conflict. There can be no military solution to the conflict. What is needed is for the regime and its backers to return to diplomacy and negotiations on a political settlement, based on transition away from Assad.

The Government stand ready to engage fully in discussions and offer whatever support we can in the quest for a political settlement, working in partnership with the international community, including Russia. We need to maintain international pressure to that end. That is why we were strong supporters of recent EU efforts to extend 28 new sanctions designations against the regime in October and November. In the meantime, we will continue to work with our key partners to look at every option to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians, especially those in Aleppo.

For as long as the regime and its backers deny humanitarian access, whether by land or by air, such options are, I am afraid to say, difficult to come by. But by the same token, the real solution is as straightforward as can be: the Syrian regime must simply agree to allow United Nations aid agencies to access those in need. All that is needed is a decision in Damascus, nothing more”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Minister for repeating the Statement. The conditions in eastern Aleppo are simply horrific. Of the 275,000 people trapped there, 100,000 are children, hiding underground in absolutely appalling conditions and facing imminent starvation. There is no doubt that Russia is permitting war crimes. I welcome the unequivocal Statement from Mr Ellwood in the other place that the United Kingdom will do everything possible to ensure that the individuals responsible for these crimes will be held to account in the months and years ahead. Can the noble Baroness outline the steps we are taking to secure the evidence that will ensure a successful prosecution?

However, in terms of the humanitarian crisis that we face, we do not have weeks and months. The situation is absolutely desperate. In June, the then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said:

“While air drops are complex, costly and risky, they are now the last resort to relieve human suffering across … besieged areas”.

Today, Mr Ellwood said that he would not rule out air drops as a last resort. Surely, from what we have heard described in recent days, we are at that point. The conditions are such that we must be at that point.

The Minister in the other place said that the UK will redouble efforts through all diplomatic means within and outside the United Nations to deliver humanitarian support. What is the noble Baroness’s assessment of our ability to build and maintain sufficient support across all our allies to put pressure on Russia and the Assad regime to allow humanitarian aid and access?

In view of the urgency that we face, will she confirm that the Government will bring back to Parliament a formal Statement as a matter of urgency on all the options being considered and on what progress has been made?

I thank the noble Lord opposite for his questions and, indeed, for his sentiments, which I think strike a chord with everyone in the Chamber. I shall deal first with the issue of war crimes, which he raised. Where it is clear that the Assad regime has committed terrible atrocities in Syria, and where there are allegations of war crimes, we are very clear that they should be investigated. We continue to make the case for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

On the second issue that the noble Lord raised, regarding the potential option of air drops, we have always been very clear that our priority is the protection of civilians in Syria, who are already facing an appalling humanitarian situation. The noble Lord opposite will understand that air drops are an imperfect humanitarian option by their very nature, and that they can be more dangerous and harder to implement successfully than ground access. So there are major challenges with any military option, including air drops, and we would need to consider these carefully in close consultation with our existing partners, with whom we are working closely. The noble Lord will be aware that the United Kingdom is one of 10 partners, all working together to try to improve the situation in Syria.

On the noble Lord’s final point, I am sure that my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have noted his request. I can only reassure him that I will make sure that that request is reaffirmed to the department.

My Lords, we on these Benches recognise that what is now happening in Aleppo is only part of a much longer-term humanitarian disaster. Much of urban Syria has been destroyed. I have seen pictures of parts of Damascus I visited some years ago which are now completely uninhabitable. Meanwhile, the battle for Mosul and the battle for Raqqa are beginning, and it is quite possible that during the course of the latter we shall find Turkish forces fighting Kurdish forces over who takes control. How far are the Government working with other international partners to get a long-term approach to the reconstruction of a country which has in a great many ways been destroyed? I gather that today a number of Syrian Christians were here and talked about the extent to which relations between the different communities in Syria have been extremely badly damaged by the fighting, and the Shia militias do not make it easier than it was.

I congratulate the Government on their continued co-operation with the EU on foreign policy matters, and I hope that that will continue for at least another six months or so. I commend the proposals that we should drop aid to affected areas of Aleppo as much as we can. Can the Minister say something about the longer-term issue of the millions of displaced people across Syria and in the surrounding areas who will require active support for a great length of time to come, and what we and others, including other states in the region, are doing to cope with that humanitarian disaster?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for raising two important points. The first is of course that a solution to this problem has to be found within Syria. The United Kingdom Government, in conjunction with the partners to whom I referred, are using every means availableto them to urge both the regime and those who have influence over it, not least Russia, to acknowledge that. The noble Lord will be aware that the High Negotiations Committee has proposed a vision for Syria which the United Kingdom supports, and we very much urge everyone who cares about the country and who wants a future for it to have serious regard to what that committee has outlined.

I remind the noble Lord that the key partners with whom the United Kingdom operates are the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and that is separate from the global coalition against Daesh, which is another alliance. So a cohort of concerned and influential partners is doing everything it can to try to improve the situation in Syria. However, at the end of the day the solution will have to be found within the country itself.

The noble Lord raises the important issue of the status and situation of refugees—those who have been forced to flee. Of course one can look at the neighbouring countries, not least Jordan, which has been one of the major recipients of refugees and has been providing help on the border. He will also be aware that the United Kingdom is the second biggest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, and we are desperately trying to do our bit to support these people. However, the future beyond the immediate situation largely depends on finding a solution to Syria.

My Lords, I urge my noble friend to seek an early meeting with the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, whom a number of us had the pleasure of meeting this afternoon. He would paint a rather different picture. There is a blot on our foreign policy here, and I urge my noble friend to seek that meeting and to listen very carefully.

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Cormack for his contribution. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend that meeting. I am sure that such a meeting would be of interest, and I would very much hope that the Church would feel able to share with the Government any thoughts that it has. We will all be aware that we are doing what we can to try to assist but, as I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, short of intervening, there is a limit to what we can do in supporting, advising and trying to influence. We are working as part of a partnership.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Islamist military is occupying eastern Aleppo, having inflicted sustained military offences against the civilians of western Aleppo, including using cluster bombs and gas warfare? Is she also aware that the Syrian army is helping 1,500 civilians to flee the fighting in eastern Aleppo, although the Islamist terrorists in control there are trying to stop them leaving, using them as human shields? Everyone whom we met in Aleppo is deeply worried by the West’s commitment to regime change, which would give power to such Islamists, creating a situation similar to that in Iraq and Libya. Is there any chance that Her Majesty’s Government would listen to the people of Syria and reconsider their policy of inflicted regime change?

I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. She will understand that the United Kingdom Government, in conjunction with other powers, are doing what they can in a very difficult situation created by others, who bear a primary and singular responsibility for the appalling situation to which she refers and the appalling suffering that is taking place in Aleppo. We are very clear that the only thing that will change this and offer any hope of improvement is a recognition by the regime that humanitarian help must be allowed into Syria and Aleppo. We are also very clear that the future depends on regime change.