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Turkey: Kurds and Yazidis in Syria

Volume 791: debated on Wednesday 23 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of allegations of genocide by Turkey against the Kurds and Yezides of Afrin province in Syria, made by 13 organisations, including the Kurdish Red Crescent; and what action they will take.

My Lords, we have followed the situation in Afrin closely. We are aware of the displacement of large numbers of civilians and of reports of civilian casualties in Afrin. It is vital that those civilians who have been displaced from Afrin are able to return safely and voluntarily. We continue to make this point strongly in our close dialogue with Turkey about Syria, and Turkey has assured us of its commitment to respect international law in its operations.

My Lords, I am glad to hear about dialogue on return, but is it not the case that more than 100,000 locals have been driven out of Afrin? Kurds and Yazidis are being murdered while Turks from Turkey, Syrian refugees from Turkey and displaced Syrian Islamists from elsewhere are being settled there. Is that not strong evidence of genocide and of conduct unworthy of a NATO ally, partly executed by ex-members of Isis and al-Nusra and paid for by Turkey? Will the Government use all their influence to stop this?

The UK has called for de-escalation and the protection of civilians while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. In relation to allegations of genocide, it has always been the position of the UK that that should be determined by the judicial authorities. I should make it clear that the UK has seen no credible evidence of genocide, but, on the general point made by the noble Lord, the UK has a close engagement with Turkey and that manifested itself most recently in exchanges between the Prime Minister and President Erdoğan when he visited this country between 13 and 15 May.

My Lords, I shall pick up the last point about the recent visit by the President of Turkey. Knowing the obvious paranoia in Ankara about the aspirations to some sort of Kurdish statehood, which is not going to happen in south-east Turkey, and about what is happening in Syria and in Iraq, did the Government raise this with President Erdogan? What sort of approach does the Minister think the international community, particularly in Europe, can take in relation to the deteriorating situation in Ankara?

As I said earlier, it was an important development and an illustration of the strong relationship which the United Kingdom has with Turkey that at the recent visit the Prime Minister, as I indicated, raised a number of issues and in particular had a wide-ranging discussion with President Erdogan on foreign policy issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Iran, Turkey’s role in Syria and the importance of NATO unity to counter aggressive Russian action.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the presence in London in particular of a very large number of British-Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin gives us a particular interest in what happens in northern Syria and south-eastern Turkey, that the role that Kurdish forces have played in the defeat of ISIS on the Syria/Iraq border strengthens that interest and that, if there is to be any long-term solution to the Syrian conflict, it has to include a degree of autonomy for Kurds in northern Syria and probably also for Kurds in south-eastern Turkey? Are we making arguments like that to the Turkish Government?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the United Kingdom supported the United Nations Security Council resolution which called for a ceasefire across Syria, the only exception being continued operations against Daesh, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups as designated by the Security Council. The noble Lord will also be aware that the United Nations-led Geneva process, which is the principal peace process mandated by the UNSCR, remains the forum for a lasting political settlement. We expect all parties to be able to participate in that forum.

Can the Minister say what the nature is of the relationship between the British Government and the Turkish Government, bearing in mind that Turkey is a key strategic player in the region?

I thank my noble friend for that observation. It is indeed the case that Turkey is a key ally of the United Kingdom and a vital strategic and trade partner. I remind your Lordships that, in the very recent airstrike to degrade the use and capability of chemical weapons in Syria, Turkey was very supportive and was a helpful ally.

My Lords, in the discussions with the Turkish Government, has the Minister raised the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister who said that the city will not be handed back but that a council will be established which will remain until stability is restored? What is the assessment of that period? Will we see Turkey occupying Afrin for a considerable time into the future?

The noble Lord will be aware that, in Afrin, governance is administered by a Turkish-backed local Syrian council that was elected on 12 April. Indeed, the UK has urged Turkey to ensure that, under that administration, civilians are protected and the humanitarian needs of the population are considered. As I said earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, it is vital that those who have been displaced from Afrin are able to return safely and voluntarily.

Fifty years ago, Parliament passed the Genocide Act. Unnatural modesty forbids me from mentioning the name of the person who piloted it through the House of Commons. How seriously do we take our obligations under that statute? Do we regard it as part of living law from day to day?

We take all obligations in respect of alleged breaches of international law very seriously, and we have always regarded the United Nations as an important forum for addressing these issues. The United Kingdom believes that allegations of genocide are for international judicial authorities to determine. As the noble Lord is probably aware, the International Criminal Court does not have territorial jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria, because Syria is not a state party to the Rome statute.