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Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2018


Asked by

My Lords, we welcome the progress made in the fight against Daesh, including the liberation of Raqqa. However, the Syrian crisis is far from resolved; violence continues and the humanitarian situation remains dire. Eastern Ghouta, besieged by the regime, is a particularly tragic example. A political settlement remains the only solution to bring sustainable peace to Syria and we support the UN Geneva process. All parties must work constructively towards a political agreement.

I thank the Minister. This is not, as Neville Chamberlain said of somewhere else,

“a faraway country of which we know very little”.

In the past week, 237 people have been killed in Syria, 37 of whom were children. Over 10,000 were killed last year and nearly 3,000 of those were children. At the same time, some of the national and international agencies have been forced to withdraw, having given so much help to alleviate this terrible catastrophe. I make special mention of the White Helmets, who have done great work. Is it not time that the Dubs amendment—originally covering 3,000 children, with the number reduced to 480—should be restored to its original total of 3,000? We cannot turn our backs. These are people in the worst humanitarian crisis since the war. I ask the Minister: will he press somehow to restore 3,000 as the aim for accommodating and welcoming these children?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the situation in Syria, although I do not agree that it is something that we know little about. Tragically, we know a great deal about it because of the things that we see every day in the media—the unfolding crisis and the continuing suffering of the Syrian people. Over 400,000 people, including many children, have now died. As I am sure the noble Lord will be aware, we have established the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, which will settle up to 3,000 at-risk children and their families by 2020. In terms of overall resettlement, by December 2017 a total of 10,538 people had been resettled under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme since it began in 2014 and a total of 570 people had been resettled through the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme since it began in 2016.

My Lords, the Government’s position was that they would never deal with Assad and that they want to see him removed as part of any deal. Given that that is not going to happen, will the Government change their position as far as Assad is concerned?

The Government’s position is very clear. We do not believe that the Assad regime, or indeed Assad himself, can be involved in the future of Syria, and we have said that it is for the Syrian people to choose a transition arrangement. We are imploring all parties, including the Russians, the Iranians and all those who have influence over the Assad regime, to move forward so that a peaceful transition can be reached. In terms of dealing directly with the Assad regime, our position does not change: we do not believe that there is a future for Syria with the Assad regime in place.

My Lords, no one would disagree with the noble Lord’s sentiments about the need for a peace settlement involving all parties. We have recently seen Turkish forces in Afrin and it is possible that they are moving on to other towns where the US has military bases. We could be facing a scenario where two NATO allies are supporting different sides in a conflict and exacerbating the situation. What role are we playing in NATO and the UN in trying at least to bring our allies together, rather than just opponents?

I assure the noble Lord that we are following very closely the developments in Afrin and in the wider northern and western Syrian provinces. We call repeatedly for de-escalation and for the protection of civilians. We are using our good offices through NATO and the UN and through bilateral exchanges directly with the Turkish Administration to call for that very de-escalation.

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that in the provision of humanitarian aid to those displaced in this conflict the Department for International Development’s understanding of vulnerability includes religious persecution? Will he also give an assurance that the Government will continue to ensure that the UNHCR’s procedures and criteria for determining refugee status recognise religious persecution as a distinct category?

The Government are very cognisant of religious persecution in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, I returned from Iraq only a couple of weeks ago. I visited Mosul and met directly with Christian representatives as well as those of the Yazidi community and heard first hand about the heinous crimes that have been committed against young women and children. I assure the right reverend Prelate that all forms of persecution against all people throughout Syria and Iraq are taken into account, and those issues are fully considered by all agencies, including the UNHCR.

My Lords, will the Government call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces, together with foreign fighters, from Syria? Is this not absolutely necessary to enable the Syrian people to decide their own future?

Indeed. The commitment of Her Majesty’s Government to the Geneva process includes exactly that call for all foreign forces to be withdrawn. Ultimately, we all wish to see a political settlement in Syria where the people themselves choose their leadership.

What assessment have the Government made for the Geneva peace process—to which the Minister referred—in the light of the sacking of Tillerson and the appointment of Pompeo in the United States, and the re-election of Putin? Does he think that this will makes things easier or more dangerous?

The election of President Putin was a matter for the Russian people, and the selection of Cabinet members in the US Administration is very much a matter for the President of the United States. We believe that it is important for all members of the Security Council—particularly its permanent members—to be committed to the Geneva process, and to other processes. Indeed, the Astana process, which Russia has been overseeing with Turkey and Iran, should also feed in to ensuring the peace settlement we all desire.