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Syria: Eastern Ghouta

Volume 789: debated on Thursday 22 February 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to respond to the crisis in Eastern Ghouta in Syria.

My Lords, Eastern Ghouta has become hell on earth. We are appalled that the Assad regime has held the enclave under siege for many years and has now escalated its bombardment. People are dying from starvation or lack of medical treatment. The United Kingdom Government have continued to press the regime and its enablers through all international fora to end this unthinkable situation. We call on Russia to agree a UN Security Council resolution for humanitarian access later today.

My Lords, we are witnessing a crisis unfolding in front of us, with more than 300 people killed in the last few hours and much larger numbers of innocent civilians injured and maimed. Indeed, I understand that a third of the hospitals have been deliberately taken out through targeted bombing. If the ceasefire is agreed and implemented, what plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to help with the evacuation of those who have been injured and the provision of humanitarian aid? If the ceasefire is not agreed or implemented, what plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to put further pressure on the Assad regime to stop this terrible suffering that is going on?

The right reverend Prelate is right to raise this. I think that all of us have been shocked by the images that we continue to see. If I may digress, I will pay brief tribute to the White Helmets in particular, who are working in intolerable conditions, often helping their own family members. As regards the right reverend Prelate’s two questions, of course we hope that we will reach a resolution today. There was a discussion yesterday, and both Sweden and Kuwait are pressing specifically for a vote on a humanitarian Security Council resolution, which will also include a 30-day cessation.

As the right reverend Prelate will be aware, the area is very near Damascus, and UN agencies—whose efforts we will of course support—are already set up to immediately evacuate the 700 or so people who have been listed as in need of urgent attention and also to provide humanitarian assistance. If, regrettably and challengingly, the Security Council resolution is not reached, I assure all noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate, that we will continue to press through all agencies, including not just the Syrian regime but also Russia, which has a major role to play in this. It is backing the Assad regime, and we will continue, both bilaterally and through international fora, to press Russia for an early resolution.

My Lords, the stories we heard on the radio today are incredibly shocking. But we cannot go on with parallel peace processes with the Russians and the UN. Surely we need global leadership now to bring all sides together and focus on it. Will the Government provide that global leadership and make a clear statement—as I said on the previous occasion—that people cannot act with impunity?

On the second point, the noble Lord knows that I agree with him totally. People must be held to account, and the United Kingdom is already seeking to collect evidence of the inhumane acts which have been committed during this conflict in Syria. On his earlier point, I believe strongly in the United Nations. The key interlocutors in this respect include Russia, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, so I believe strongly that the United Nations is the place where resolution can be reached. Indeed, the other talks in Astana that the Russians were leading have also stalled, so I believe strongly that the United Nations remains the right forum in which decisions can be reached and lasting solutions achieved.

My Lords, someone with relatives in Damascus said to me this morning that there was a real danger that rampant carnage would continue, as in Aleppo, until there was almost no one left. Clearly, we need to act, as the Minister has indicated, collectively putting pressure on Russia to secure a ceasefire and to lift the siege and get the armed fighters out. Is this not an instance where we should deploy UN monitors if we manage to secure that situation?

On the latter point, I agree with the noble Baroness. As I said, the UN is already set up, and the district of Eastern Ghouta is very near Damascus, so agencies are already set up to act promptly. I also agreed with the noble Baroness’s earlier point: we need international action on this. The Government have repeatedly asserted—I acknowledge the support we have received from across the House—that the Assad regime is unrelenting in its brutality. As the noble Baroness pointed out, we have seen this in Homs and in Aleppo. This must stop. There are 400,000 people under siege in Eastern Ghouta; 200,000 are children. The world needs to act, and we will play our part in that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Eastern Ghouta has been occupied by ISIS and other jihadist groups, such as the Army of Islam, which have been bombing Damascus for years—I saw that bombing coming in when I was last in Damascus— and that recently the shelling on Damascus has become so intense that the sky is blackened, especially over Christian areas, and reports are coming in that many people have been killed and injured in Damascus itself? Does the Minister therefore agree that one of the best ways forward would be for those who support the jihadis, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to encourage them to accept the peace arrangements that have been offered to them by the Government of Syria, which would shorten the suffering which everyone sees and knows is horrendous?

The noble Baroness talks about peace, and of course any initiative which is aimed at that is important. But let us be clear. She raises an important point about groups that operate within Syria. She knows that I am aware of this and that I support ensuring that they are not armed in a way which can cause further destruction to Syria. But at the same time, when we look at the situation in Syria today, the continuing war has been caused by the persistence of the Assad regime. It is backed by Russia, which is why we are imploring Russia to take action. What we are seeing happening in Eastern Ghouta is because of what the Assad regime is doing. It needs to relent in its bombardment, and action needs to be taken so that we can get the 700 people who need medical aid out and provide humanitarian assistance to the 400,000 under siege.

My Lords, one has only to look at every civil war there has been to know that they are bloody and merciless. There is no doubt that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, some of the opposition parties are not democratic at all; they are far from it. Some are even worse than Daesh—they are really bad. Does the Minister not agree that we have to be very careful of making judgments? There are no good guys in this—there are victims but no good guys. Both sides are horrible and we need to be very careful of making judgments. We have to try to get a balanced answer to help the victims.

My Lords, on the point about good guys, many voices and many representatives within the Syrian opposition want to see a pluralist, non-sectarian, democratic Syria emerge, and we continue to work with them. Of course, there are other people working on the ground—but, as the noble Lord pointed out, there are also those with sinister intent who are following the Islamist agenda of hijacking a noble faith, misrepresenting it and using it to extend the civil war. That is also unacceptable. I agree with the noble Lord that we have always to tread carefully in civil wars, but I am sure he would acknowledge that the Assad regime bears the brunt of the responsibility for the situation in Syria.

My Lords, this may seem a little odd but, given the recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, which is not exactly a marriage made in heaven, would it be possible to make an approach through Turkey, or involving Turkey, to apply pressure on the Russians in a way that, given the political delicacies there, might aid the pressure that we need to bring on Syria?

From our perspective, we have a direct relationship with Russia. I certainly feel that we should bring pressure to bear in two ways. One is bilaterally. As the right reverend Prelate will be aware, the Foreign Secretary recently visited Russia, and the ongoing civil war in Syria was very high on his agenda in the discussions. The second way is, as I have already indicated, through the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member. I am pleased that, as the penholders, Kuwait and Sweden are taking forward the current UN Security Council resolution, which we hope will be supported by all sides. We would also encourage Turkey to exert whatever influence it can to ensure a cessation of the hostilities.

My Lords, is it not clear that the good guys in this matter are the civilians, who are being subjected to action that can be described only as war crimes? Is it not right to remember that, based on the Nuremberg principles, those who preside over the commission of war crimes or are complicit in their use are as guilty as those who commit them?

The noble Lord is right to raise that issue—history has taught us many lessons. Everyone who is in a position to bring about the cessation of violence in the civil war in Syria should make every effort to do so. I totally agree with the noble Lord. There are good guys—they are the civilians in Syria, and we must bring peace for their sake.