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Syria: Idlib Attacks

Volume 798: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given in another place by my right honourable friend Andrew Murrison. The Statement is as follows:

“We are extremely concerned by the current escalation of violence in north-west Syria and appalled by the senseless attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools. The UN has confirmed that, since the end of April, at least 25 health facilities, including at least two major hospitals, and 37 schools have been damaged due to airstrikes and shelling in north-west Syria. These attacks are a clear breach of international law. We call in the strongest possible terms on the regime and Russia to cease these attacks and help end the suffering for those in Idlib.

The current escalation in violence is causing immense suffering to a civilian population that is already highly vulnerable. Even prior to this current escalation of violence, nearly 2 million people in the region have already been forced to leave their homes at least once, and nearly 3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the support we are providing to assist those in such dire need across north-west Syria. Last year alone, the UK provided over £80 million in humanitarian assistance in the region, including supporting the provision of food, shelter and other essential items for those caught up in the conflict. We are continuing that support this year too.

In response to the recent situation, DfID’s partners are scaling up their humanitarian response to meet the growing needs on the ground, including supporting health facilities. A further escalation of violence, triggering waves of displacement, would be likely to overwhelm an already stretched humanitarian response. So, once again, I call on all parties to cease violence in Idlib, to respect previously agreed ceasefires, and to bring an end to the needless and deplorable attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools in the region”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the response to the Urgent Question in the other place. I agree that the NGOs and DfID’s partners are doing a terrific job under incredibly difficult circumstances. However, as she has said, there is clear evidence of breaches of international humanitarian law. What are the Government doing to ensure that this does not continue with impunity? What are we doing to support efforts not only in the peace talks, which are really important, but to ensure that proper evidence is gathered so that we can hold the people responsible fully to account?

I join with the noble Lord in paying tribute to the people who are working on the ground in such a difficult situation, and he is quite right to say that it is important that we find out who is responsible and hold them to account. At the moment, we do not have clear evidence, but at least some of the attacks have obviously been organised by people with access to sophisticated weapons, including a modern air force, and we are investing in the investigation into that through organisations such as the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism in order to gather that evidence and hold these people to account.

My Lords, I would also like to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Answer and to pay tribute to DfID and those working in the area. Can she tell us why the UN seems to be refusing to name those who have bombed the hospitals? Can she also say what plans there are to cope with people who may indeed be displaced once more and who now have absolutely nowhere to go, especially as the Turkish border is closed?

As I have said, we are still gathering evidence in order to understand exactly who is dropping these bombs. As OCHA recently said in its update to the UN, the people who have dropped the bombs are the ones who know. It is very important that we support the independent investigation, and we will continue to do so. On the terrible humanitarian crisis which is ongoing for people who have already been displaced at least once, we are at the forefront of the response and we are providing life-saving support to the millions of Syrians who are suffering even more now that the hospitals and medical centres where they are going for help have been targeted. I would also say that the level of targeting of hospitals and schools is off the scale. While we cannot say at the moment that we understand that these facilities are being deliberately targeted, that is absolutely what we are investigating.

My Lords, I welcome what the noble Baroness has just said about upholding ceasefires. First, will Her Majesty’s Government be rather more active than they have been in the past to ensure that all parties adhere to their written agreements? Secondly, is the noble Baroness aware that members of al-Nusra, which is the leading militant group in Idlib province, has frequently used hospitals and schools as cover for their operations? Is this not disgraceful, and should it not be far more widely known?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about ensuring that we use our position on the international stage to its greatest effect. We continue to do that at the UN Security Council by advocating for the protection of all civilians, aid workers and indeed journalists in Syria. We were instrumental in convening two emergency UN sessions on Idlib held on 10 and 17 May, and another one is taking place today where we hope to see further action. We must continue to press all sides to return to the ceasefire agreement which was made in September 2018 in Sochi. I also agree with the noble Lord that if people are using hospitals and schools in this way, that is entirely unacceptable. However, we should also remember the complete unacceptability of bombing these civilian infrastructures which provide such protection to people in Syria.

My Lords, most sadly it has become apparent that a small number of British children are in this region, having been taken out there by their parents. The scant information we have is that we think they are in the north-eastern part of Syria. Can my noble friend please assure us that DfID is doing its best to locate these British children so that they can be kept out of harm’s way while we try to solve what is perhaps a legal lacuna as to what is in their best interests and whether to bring them home?

My noble friend raises an important point. Sadly, due to the conditions in Syria, getting accurate information about what has happened to British children there is extremely difficult. We continue to attempt to build and improve on the information we have. We have no people on the ground ourselves, but we are working closely with our international partners to try to improve that information and to understand how many British children are in Syria.

My Lords, there are 1 million children in Idlib province currently under threat of being bombed. I saw a terrible video this morning of two little boys screaming to the White Helmets, “Please help my little brother”, who was buried. The film showed a little boy of about four being dug out from under the rubble. I do not know his religion or faith; I do not care. The point is that this aerial bombardment can be done only by Assad forces and Russian forces—al-Nusra and others do not have aeroplanes—so we know who is doing it. Human Rights Watch has commented. Why are we not coming out and condemning this? Why is the United Nations not condemning Assad’s regime and the Russians for what they are doing? Also, do the Government have concerns now about the risk of escalation given the report yesterday, I think it was, of a Turkish military post just over the border being hit? What is the comment on that?

My Lords, I spoke earlier about the importance of using our position at the UN to make progress on this. As I said, there is a meeting today, and we very much hope to see some progress on that. It is important that we work closely with our international partners on this, move as one and gather the evidence. The important thing is to ensure we see a de-escalation in the violence there, but we need to be realistic about what leverage we actually have.

On Turkey and the reports that the noble Baroness mentions, we are of course closely monitoring the situation in north-east Syria. We are concerned about the humanitarian impact of any possible Turkish military action on both the civilian population and, indeed, humanitarian actors. We have made our concerns clear to Turkey on that and remain in close contact with our partners to ensure we have contingency planning in place to protect locally based humanitarian aid workers and civilians and to ensure that all their needs are met if we see any military action.

My Lords, I add my gratitude to all the NGOs working in these very difficult circumstances—especially Islamic Relief, an organisation that has been there right from the outset of the emerging conflicts. It is doing amazingly outstanding work.

Is the Minister aware that the civilian casualties extend to the huge number of women incarcerated in Syrian prisons? To the best of my knowledge, there were 13,000; there are now at least 8,000. An organisation called Conscience Movement has looked into this and reports that a massive number of women have been raped, tortured and widowed—many of their partners have been killed—so what are our Government doing to ensure that some international representation is made to bring attention to this terrific, ongoing impact on particularly vulnerable women?

I join the noble Baroness in praising the work of Islamic Relief. We were delighted recently to aid-match the funding for its Ramadan appeal. It does incredible work, both in Syria and around the world.

I had not seen the figures on women in prisons. Of course, violence against women and girls is abhorrent wherever we see it. One of the important things is to ensure that, when we face humanitarian crises, our response takes that into account from the outset. I recently attended a conference in Oslo to ensure that humanitarian aid properly takes into account how we can help women from the very outset of a crisis.

My Lords, is it not entirely incredible that after years of this type of attack, where the pattern is exactly the same in each province of Syria, and considering that within a matter of hours of the bombing of the ships in the Gulf intelligence services were telling us who was responsible, how can we possibly not know, specifically and precisely, whether it is the Russians or the Syrians who are bombing—29 medical facilities in Idlib alone? I ask my noble friend to take that back to her right honourable colleague in the other place for clarification because it is just incredible.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is of course important that we have an independent investigation and that is what we are investing in. It is also important that we, as part of the international community, act together on this. As I said, there is an additional meeting of the UN Security Council today to discuss this point and I very much hope to see progress on understanding exactly who is responsible for this action and on holding them to account.