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Syria: Humanitarian Situation

Volume 789: debated on Monday 26 February 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in response to an Urgent Question asked in the other place today. The Answer is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I am grateful to the honourable Member for Barrow and Furness for raising this vital issue.

In seven years of bloodshed, the war in Syria has claimed 400,000 lives and driven 11 million people from their homes, causing a humanitarian tragedy on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world. The House should never forget that the Assad regime, aided and abetted by Russia and Iran, has inflicted the overwhelming burden of that suffering. Assad’s forces are now bombarding the enclave of eastern Ghouta, where 393,000 people are living under siege, enduring what has become a signature tactic of the regime, whereby civilians are starved and pounded into submission. With bitter irony, Russia and Iran declared eastern Ghouta to be a ‘de-escalation area’ in May last year and promised to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid. But the truth is that Assad’s regime has allowed only one United Nations convoy to enter eastern Ghouta so far this year, and that carried supplies for only a fraction of the area’s people. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in eastern Ghouta in the last week alone and the House will have noted disturbing reports of the use of chlorine gas. I call for these reports to be fully investigated and for anyone held responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria to be held accountable.

Over the weekend I discussed the situation with my Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, and Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon. Earlier today, I spoke to Sigmar Gabriel, the German Foreign Minister, and I shall be speaking to other European counterparts and the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, in the coming days. Britain has joined with our allies to mobilise the Security Council to demand a ceasefire across the whole of Syria and the immediate delivery of emergency aid to all in need. Last Saturday, after days of prevarication from Russia, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2401, demanding that,

‘all parties cease hostilities without delay’,

and allow the,

‘safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid’,

along with,

‘medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded’.

The main armed groups in eastern Ghouta have accepted the ceasefire, but as of today, the warplanes of the Assad regime are still reported to be striking targets in the enclave and the UN has been unable to deliver any aid. I remind the House that hundreds of thousands of civilians are going hungry in eastern Ghouta, only a few miles from UN warehouses in Damascus that are laden with food. The Assad regime must allow the UN to deliver those supplies, in compliance with Resolution 2401, and we look to Russia and Iran to make sure this happens, in accordance with their own promises. I have invited the Russian ambassador to come to the Foreign Office and give an account of his country’s plans to implement Resolution 2401. I have instructed the UK mission at the UN to convene another meeting of the Security Council to discuss the Assad regime’s refusal to respect the will of the UN and implement the ceasefire without delay.

Only a political settlement in Syria can ensure that the carnage is brought to an end, and I believe that such a settlement is possible if the will exists. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is ready to take forward the talks in Geneva and the opposition are ready to negotiate pragmatically and without preconditions. The international community has united behind the path to a solution laid out in UN Resolution 2254, and Russia has stated its wish to achieve a political solution under the auspices of the UN. Today, only the Assad regime stands in the way of progress. I urge Russia to use all its influence to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table and take the steps towards peace that Syria’s people so desperately need”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question. Since the UN resolution, we have seen continued indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, the targeting of hospitals and medical centres and the use of starvation as a weapon of war. There can be no impunity for those responsible for what are quite clearly war crimes. I hope the Minister will agree with that.

The Government have said that they will convene another Security Council meeting to discuss Assad’s refusal to accept the ceasefire. It appears that, by excluding military action against terrorists, Assad and his allies have used this to justify continuing their assault against the jihadist armies in eastern Ghouta. An hour ago, the BBC reported that President Putin had ordered a pause in the assault, starting on Tuesday, and to include the humanitarian corridor. The pause is from 9 am to 2 pm local time—a pause that simply is not good enough. Does the Minister agree that, to stop the assault on eastern Ghouta, the UN should be clear that there must be a temporary cessation of all military action within Syria?

My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Lord. The perpetrators who are committing these acts need to be held to account. Indeed, that sentiment was aired by the Foreign Secretary in the delivery of the Statement. I also remind noble Lords, in answer to the specific questions raised by the noble Lord on the issue of the Syrian regime’s continued bombardment of eastern Ghouta, it is notable that the main armed groups there, including Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, have both accepted the terms of the ceasefire. I agree again totally with the noble Lord on the announcements in the news media from the Russian President, although I have not heard the full announcement yet. Having a small window to bring aid and critical medical assistance to the suffering people of eastern Ghouta is not good enough. The resolution stressed, as did the discussions in the Security Council, the need for a 30-day ceasefire, and that is what we are continuing to press for. Indeed, that is why we have asked the Security Council to reconvene.

My Lords, the Government have done everything available to them to try to bring these matters to a head. We should not be surprised at the starvation, barrel bombs and the use of chlorine gas. These are jointly and severally war crimes, and they appear to be being committed without any consideration of the consequences for those who are subject to them or the possible legal consequences to those who are presiding over them. I do not know how many more dust-caked children emerging from the ruins of their homes we have to see before President Assad can be persuaded. The harsh and unpalatable truth is that only Russia is in a position to persuade him. Were Russia to withdraw its support, Assad’s position, and that of the Syrian Government, would be substantially weakened. I hope that when the Foreign Secretary meets the Russian ambassador, he impresses on him the responsibility that will attach to Russia if it does not take action to get Assad to call the dogs off.

The noble Lord raises a very important point and, indeed, the key to the solution. The Assad regime has persisted with its bombardment because of the cover provided by Russia in particular. Let us not forget that Security Council Resolution 2401 was unanimously accepted, and we are now asking Russia to stand by the commitment it gave in that international forum to ensure that we have a ceasefire, not for a few hours—as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said—but for the 30 required to do what is necessary for the long-suffering people of Eastern Ghouta.

My Lords, will the Minister be so kind as to explain why it was that, when President Macron and Chancellor Merkel intervened with President Putin over the weekend and pressed him to give effect to this resolution, which as the Minister said, was unanimously accepted, the Prime Minister did not join that démarche? Are we behaving now as if we have already left the European Union?

We will continue to have strong relations with both France and Germany. I applaud the efforts of both Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, but equally, as I have already said, Britain has been doing its part. We have been working with partners—European partners—and, as I said in the Statement, there are other players, including Iran and Turkey, that have an interest. We are continuing to raise these concerns with them as well. We will work with all like-minded partners, and explore every avenue to resolve this conflict, which has been going on for far too long, and the human suffering that goes with it. We will continue to work with all partners, including our European allies to ensure that happens.

My Lords, normally in the seven years of this Syrian civil war, when there has been a siege there have been attempts to broker not just a ceasefire but an evacuation of the civilians of that particular geographical location, leaving aside the fighters—whereby, afterwards, that fight may resume. It does not seem evident to us this time why the civilians have not been prioritised for evacuation, as we have sought the ceasefire, which I very much welcome—and I encourage the conversation with the Russian ambassador to express all the sentiments that the Minister has expressed.

I assure the noble Baroness and the House that we are looking specifically at the humanitarian situation. She will recall from a similar Question last week that there are about 700 people acutely in need. We have implored all agencies—and I alluded earlier to the proximity of the UN relief which is available—and it requires that dedicated action to ensure that that corridor can be opened up. Of course, evacuation of those who need the most essential medical assistance will be prioritised.

My Lords, from the very beginning we derecognised the Syrian regime and have refused to have anything to do with it. It is a civil war at this stage and, to try to bring to an end the unspeakable barbarity that is going on, can we not at least have a temporary diplomatic mission in Damascus? It would make every sort of sense and give us some influence.

I do not agree with my noble friend, for the practical reason that I have already highlighted—that the biggest influence on the Assad regime is that of the Russians. We have been working extensively with other European partners and other allies and directly with the Russians to ensure that we get the ceasefire that is required. It now needs Russia to be true to its word at the Security Council to ensure that we can sustain, retain and ultimately deliver the peace that is required to the conflict. As for the Assad regime itself, we believe that there needs to be a transition to a new Government who can protect the rights of all Syrians, and we will continue to work in Geneva in that respect.

My Lords, as previous interventions and the Statement itself have made clear, Russian influence is crucial in this situation. As we await the meeting between our Foreign Secretary and the Russian ambassador, in the meantime what contact are we having at any level with the Russians, or have we nothing to add to the pressure that must be being put on them by our European partners to get them to influence the Assad regime in the way we want? If we do not achieve that—and we cannot subcontract it to anyone else—there is no possibility that the ceasefire will hold.

As I have said, the role of the Russians is essential—I agree with the noble Lord—to the ceasefire, which is not even holding, in that it has not started effectively. I am sure that many noble Lords heard as I did on the radio this morning the gentleman who was in the basement and who went out and first described the chilling atmosphere that was very quickly interrupted by bombing and then artillery fire. Clearly, the ceasefire has not happened.

On the noble Lord’s specific question, of course we are working at all levels with Russian officials. Indeed, we work very extensively with them in the UN Security Council, and it was as a result of us working together with our partners in tandem—not by contracting out but by working in unison—that we got the desired result of a unanimous resolution at the Security Council, supported by the Russians.