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Syria: Protection of Civilians in Afrin

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement given by my right honourable friend Alistair Burt in the House of Commons yesterday. The Statement is as follows:

“I would like to update the House on the situation in Afrin. We are closely following developments in Afrin and wider north-western Syria. Over the weekend, Turkish and affiliated forces have continued their territorial gains and are now approaching the town of Afrin itself. We are concerned about recent reports of rising civilian casualties.

The Government have called for de-escalation and the protection of civilians, while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. We will continue to push for a reduction in violence and for consideration of the humanitarian needs of the population in the affected areas. The Prime Minister has raised the need for protection of civilians and proper humanitarian access with the President of Turkey and the Foreign Secretary has done so with the Foreign Minister. The Turkish Government have assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are working to prevent civilian casualties.

UK-funded partners have been delivering humanitarian assistance in Afrin, including health and protection services. Some of these activities have been suspended due to the current hostilities, but our partners continue to meet needs where they are able and are pre-positioning supplies to help meet the needs of those fleeing the area. This includes health supplies, blankets and food. UNICEF, other UN organisations and the World Health Organization have temporarily suspended all activities in Afrin due to the recent military action.

As the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement of 26 February, we are concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the operation in Afrin. We urge all parties to respect the law of distinction between civilian and military targets, facilitate access for life-saving humanitarian aid, and allow freedom of movement for those caught up in the violence, in accordance with international humanitarian law.

The Syria conflict will soon be in its eighth year. The UK continues to make every effort to achieve our goals in Syria: defeating the scourge of Daesh and achieving a political settlement that ends the suffering and provides stability for all Syrians and the wider region. There ultimately needs to be a transition to a new, inclusive, non-sectarian Government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. But we are pragmatic about how that might take place. Syria’s future must be for Syrians to decide.

As the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor in Syria since 2011, the UK is at the forefront of the humanitarian response and is providing life-saving support to millions of people. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK support has delivered 26 million food rations, 9.8 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines and 10 million medical consultations. Last year alone we provided clean water to over 5 million people, and contributed to the formal primary and secondary education of over 700,000 children affected by the crisis.

However, ultimately the only way to end the conflict is through a negotiated political settlement. The Foreign Secretary has emphasised, including to his Turkish counterpart, the importance of a political solution and the defeat of Daesh. This must continue to be at the forefront of international efforts and we are concerned about the possibility of the diversion of Kurdish fighters from this crucial fight. We remain committed to working closely with Turkey and other allies to find solutions in Syria that provide stability and bring to an end this terrible conflict”.

I commend this Statement to the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

As we have seen over the weekend, the Kurdish community across the United Kingdom is watching, and it needs to be reassured that the United Kingdom is doing everything it can to try to alleviate the terrible humanitarian crisis that is developing. Time and again, those fighting in Syria are consistently failing to take precautions that protect civilians. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations said to the Security Council on 12 March:

“Syria is bleeding inside and out. There should be only one agenda for all of us: to end the suffering of the Syrian people and find a political solution to the conflict”.

Alistair Burt, the Minister of State for the Middle East, said the best opportunity for peace and security is,

“to support the Geneva process … and to work as hard as we are diplomatically to get the parties to find a better answer to the conflict”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/3/18; col. 677.]

What is the Government’s latest assessment of the Geneva process? Does the Minister believe that there will be a political solution and that Daesh will be defeated when Turkey sees its priority as stopping the Kurds rather than getting a political solution? The Statement says that the protection of civilians must be balanced with,

“Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders”.

We must be clear that the incursion is neither legitimate nor justified and has no basis in international law. According to reports—and as the Minister himself said—Turkish forces are right now advancing on Afrin, and there are real concerns that when they enter there will be widespread atrocities as they seek to root out those they call terrorists.

The Government said that although we cannot get close to Afrin, the UK is doing its best to make sure that United Nations agencies and others active in the area have supplies available if people are able to leave. Will the Minister update us on the efforts to work with our allies, especially the EU, to enable people to leave? In addition, can we do more than simply urge all parties to respect the law of distinction between civilian and military targets? Surely one way is to make it clear that no one can act with impunity in breach of international humanitarian law. Human rights monitors can act as one of the greatest deterrents against civilian atrocities and can ensure that perpetrators of abuses are held to account.

Alistair Burt said that the Government intend to hold the Turkish Government to account for the representations they have made about preventing civilian casualties. What specific steps will the Government take to do that—that is, just how do we hold them to account? The Government say Afrin is an area where the UK is not present on the ground, from where it is difficult to get information out, and where UN workers are not able to operate. Therefore, what steps are the Government taking to achieve a more unified multilateral approach with our EU partners in order to urge Turkey to allow access for humanitarian aid and independent monitors? Finally, what steps are the Government taking to quickly restore full humanitarian access to Afrin so that the UK and other partners can get aid in and ultimately save lives?

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The UN Security Council Resolution 2401, announced on 24 February, was jointly negotiated with the Russians and was greeted with relief as it allowed for a ceasefire in order to deploy humanitarian aid convoys to all besieged areas, including eastern Ghouta. However, it was apparent straightaway that the Syrian regime’s concession of a five-hour ceasefire window was a mockery of any so-called humanitarian gesture, as it allowed scant time for supplies to be loaded on to lorries, the necessary permissions to be sought and put into place, and for the aid to be delivered where it was needed. On top of that, medical supplies were removed from lorries, leaving civilians without necessary and essential supplies. This has been the appalling situation since 25 February. Finally, yesterday, the US permanent representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, made a statement condemning the action of the regime, adding that the US could be forced to act unilaterally. I am puzzled as to the timing of today’s Statement to both Houses. Is it in response to the US’s statement yesterday, and if so, do the Government share the view that the ceasefire was a failure, and does it imply our acquiescence in the US’s sabre-rattling? Can the Minister at the very least articulate the Government’s view of Nikki Haley’s threat to take action?

We are all shocked by the situation in Afrin. Reports of the shelling of villages and residential areas are deeply troubling. Violence in the Afrin region escalated after the Turkish Government announced on 20 January the start of a military offensive codenamed “Olive Branch”, which in my view is a macabre choice of name. Between 22 January and 21 February the Kurdish Red Crescent reported 93 civilians killed, including 25 children, in attacks by the Turkish military. A further 313 civilians were wounded, including 51 children. Meanwhile, Kurdish YPG forces shelling in Azaz have allegedly killed four people.

The use of artillery and other imprecise explosive weapons in civilian areas is prohibited by international humanitarian law and all parties should cease such attacks immediately. I hope that the Government have conveyed that message to Turkey in the strongest possible terms. The Kurds have been key allies in our fight against Daesh and I think that all noble Lords will be appalled by the attacks that they are now facing. The Minister will be aware of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in 2015, which states that the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. Does the Minister therefore agree that such a process must involve Kurds in Syria? Finally, the Kurdish region has already accepted around 2 million refugees and internally displaced people. What assessment have Her Majesty’s Government made of the impact that the Turkish military operation will have on this group?

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions. Let me start with the Geneva peace process, which has been referred to, as well as UN Security Council Resolution 2254, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, referred. It called for inclusive talks which we believe offer the only possible long-term solution. Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Syria, is working hard and effectively against a background of incredible difficulties and complexities to try to get those talks started again. There have been a number of rounds in Geneva and there will be future rounds, but in particular as a result of the Astana and the Sochi processes coming to an end, this is in effect the only show in town. We have to make sure that all of the parties to the conflict become parties to the peace by urging them to progress through the process.

The noble Baroness referred to the statements made yesterday by the US permanent representative to the United Nations, and of course she will be aware that a change of personnel has been announced, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson being replaced by Mike Pompeo. We now wait to find out whether that will bring about any change in the dynamic here. Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness were right to point out that this is a global crisis and we need to work multilaterally. We have to be quite honest in these situations about the limitations we face as regards acting independently on the ground. We must work with our EU colleagues, our NATO allies and, crucially in this context, with the UN Security Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what we are doing at the Security Council. Of course, UNSC Resolution 2401, also referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, is for a 30-day ceasefire period from 7 March. We have not given up hope of that and we still want to hold the parties to it. It was agreed so that humanitarian aid could reach millions of people who are in desperate need. In these situations, it is very easy to be frustrated at being powerless in the face of such incredible injustice and human suffering. In such circumstances you need to take every opportunity you have, and we would certainly regard UN Security Council Resolution 2401 as an opportunity. UNSCR 2165, which was very much pushed by the UK at the UN Security Council, also represented an opportunity to allow humanitarian access into Syria to provide relief, without the permission of the Syrian Government.

As I have mentioned, there has already been contact between the Foreign Secretary and the Turkish authorities. We have urged them to embark on de-escalation. We believe it is right that they do, and we can do nothing other than to keep pressing and urging them. We very much recognise what the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said about this diverting attention from the fight against Daesh. For all of those reasons, we must persevere through an incredibly difficult and complex situation, with the lives of the civilians in those benighted areas and our responsibility to them uppermost in our minds.

My Lords, the horror and the tragedy of the situation throughout Syria and in Afrin are beyond speaking about. I should say that I am proud of the British Government’s humanitarian efforts and that we are the second aid donor there, and I hope our aid is successful.

I would like to ask two questions of the Minister. The first is: what, if any, legal basis or excuse do the Turks claim for their invasion of this part of Syria? It seems to be an astonishing, illegal act. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly—and I am not pretending there is an easy answer to this—there is the situation regarding NATO. Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was a stalwart ally against the Soviet Union. We now have difficulties with Russia and yet, for the first time in the 70 years of the alliance’s history, on the one side we have Turkey attacking Afrin and on the other side, looking straight at them, we have American assisting troops. Is that not the case? If it is, we should all be hugely concerned about our future security. I am not pretending it is easy, but what action can NATO take in this situation? The Minister talked about the United Nations. What action can the EU take to support NATO?

My noble friend is right to point to the complexity of the situation that we face there. He invites me to make the case for Turkey. I do not particularly want to do that but, by way of explanation, it would take a different view of the linkages between the PYD and the YPG to the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organisation that is proscribed both in the UK and in Turkey. Turkey sees the links there. From that perspective, it also has to be said that Turkey is host to the largest number of refugees from Syria of any country—some 3 million—and all accounts are that the way in which it looks after those refugees is exemplary. We can explore those issues, but we certainly do not believe that there is a justification for this. That is why we have called for the de-escalation, and we will encourage all other NATO allies to do the same.

My Lords, the Minister will have a lot of sympathy because we all recognise the complexity of this and the frustration that we have at the failure of international policy, not least because of the policies of Russia over recent years—a point I have made before. But there is a different issue, which my noble friend Lord Collins raised, about the policy regarding the Kurdish situation and Turkey. It has always been a concern that Turkey, as a close NATO ally, as has been pointed out, has an ongoing problem with the Kurds. It is certainly not helping itself by what it is doing now; it will make it far worse to solve. I ask the Minister again, as my noble friend Lord Collins did: are the Government trying to get a policy on the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds? It is not for us to intervene, but it is for us to say that the problem with the Kurdish minority in Turkey will be made infinitely worse by what is happening now in Syria.

As I said, we do not draw the parallel that the Turkish Government does between the PYD and the YPG. We believe that they have been courageous fighters against Daesh and have been very effective in that role. We do not recognise the links. Those points have been made. We have made the point that the battle against Daesh, which is crucial for stability in the region, is far from won and that this is a diversion of essential resource from that effort. This might not directly answer the point the noble Lord raised, but in the current context it is probably as far as I am able to go.

My Lords, this Statement is almost two months too late. The Turkish attack began on 20 January, supported by Leopard tanks and by militias containing many members of al-Nusra and ISIS. The attack was completely unprovoked. It has killed and wounded hundreds of people and displaced thousands of civilians. Turkey could have protected its border and its security by negotiations; it did not even attempt such a thing. Will Her Majesty’s Government condemn this brutal and vicious attack, which may well prolong the Syrian civil war? Will they re-examine Turkey’s right to remain a member of NATO and the Council of Europe?

Our Government rightly say that the Syrians must decide their own future. How can they possibly do so when Russia, Iran, Turkey and the USA have their own forces inside Syrian territory, and Israel makes constant air attacks whenever it feels a need to do so? It is surely not enough to boast about our aid for Syria since the war began. Will our Government become more realistic and press for the removal from Syria of all foreign forces, including volunteer fighters, money and weapons?

I appreciate the noble Lord’s frustration. I know that he has visited the region and seen for himself in Aleppo the horrendous situation on the ground when these sieges take place. But, on the limited options we have as to what we can do, I do not think it is fair to discount the aid effort—the £2.46 billion that has gone there to provide relief. It is important.

We can work in three ways. One is humanitarian, providing emergency relief, and that is what I talked about in the Statement. The second is diplomatically, and I have outlined some of the ways in which we have been trying and continue to try to do that, with Turkey directly, through the UN Security Council and encouraging resumption of the talks. I have to say that there is also a military dimension to this: we have been part of the global coalition which has sought to attack the scourge of Daesh in that area, which is a massive cause of the instability that we see. So it is not just one, it is all. What I am trying to communicate to the noble Lord is that we are, to the best of our ability, trying to exert the maximum leverage we can in each of those areas, with great difficulty.

My Lords, when David Cameron was Prime Minister he made a pledge that by the year 2020 we would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees. The figure I have heard is that by 22 February this year we had welcomed 10,538. So we are half way there but we are also three-quarters of the way since the pledge was made. I ask the Minister whether we can really open that door: we still have nearly 10,000 promises yet to be fulfilled. I suggest also that when that promise—that pledge—was made, nobody envisaged that four years on there would still be this slaughter, this total catastrophe, in Syria. Can we get away from thinking that the 10,000 promise was a target or a ceiling, and work according to need instead, such as in Idlib and all these other places? This past fortnight I believe that about 900 people have been killed, including at least 100 children. Can we somehow spur the Government on to get that pledge fulfilled and if necessary—and it is necessary at the moment—go beyond it?

I thank the noble Lord, first, for recognising that David Cameron’s pledge, and Her Majesty’s Government’s pledge, of resettling 20,000 refugees is on track to be delivered. Of course, there are other dimensions to this. What we faced when we were having those debates was the equally horrendous situation in the eastern Mediterranean, where people were often being smuggled and exploited by people smugglers into making perilous journeys across into Greece. Through the EU facility for refugees in Turkey, which was a €3 billion facility to which we contributed €328 million, we were trying to help in that area. Of course, again, we are providing help in the areas around Syria—in Jordan and Lebanon as well. So I hope the noble Lord will at least accept that we are working, again, on three different levels: in the region, through the Turkish facility; in the refugee camps with the UNHCR; and fulfilling our obligation to bring refugees here. We will continue to keep that under review.

House adjourned at 7.03 pm.