Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the situation in Syria and Iraq following Turkey’s invasion of Syria.
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to discuss the recent events in north-east Syria, and their implications for the wider region, and to ask a number of questions of the Minister. I start by saying how grateful I am that he is in his place today. This issue is of such importance that I believe it is important that we see him respond to the questions that will be posed. I also thank those noble Lords who have stepped forward to speak today. We have an excellent range of contributions ahead; I look forward to hearing the many points that will, I am sure, be made in our short debate.
I am realistic about the role of the United Kingdom in the region, and in the current power politics and power diplomacy at play in Syria and its neighbourhood. However, the current situation is so unacceptable and so strategically disastrous that it is right that we have a voice and take a view. As a country, we must act where we can to influence affairs. The emergence of a new vision for a global Britain may well be about the promotion of British trade and the sale of British goods around the world, but it must also be about our security and our values. That is why these important events demand our attention.
My first point is that while the actions of the current Administration in the United States of America might be unpredictable at times, what has happened in these past two weeks was entirely predictable. Turkey threatened regularly to take the action that it has, while the USA has, from time to time over the last few months, indicated that it might allow it to do so. My first question is about those few months. What representations did the UK Government make, inside NATO or bilaterally, to either Turkey or the United States, to try to deter what we have seen emerging over recent days?
The outcome, of course, was also predictable. We have seen our allies, the Kurds, abandoned. We have seen over 160,000 people, including around 80,000 children, displaced from their homes and now at serious risk. We have seen religious minorities, already persecuted by some of the armed gangs operating in the area—at times in close co-ordination with the Turkish army—now displaced from their ancestral homelands. We have seen captured fighters from Islamic State, or Daesh, potentially let loose. We have seen British children in some of these camps at serious risk and not yet able, or assisted, to return home. We have seen the possible use—or allegations, at least—of chemical weapons by the Turkish army. At the end of the day, those who have in recent times stood against democracy and human rights and for other forms of action—Syria, Russia and, indeed, Turkey—have been strengthened in their positions, regionally and globally. This is a desperate state of affairs and it poses a number of questions for the Government.
The first question relates to security. It was estimated by the United States Government in a public announcement yesterday that at least 100 IS, or Daesh, fighters have already been released from the camps. This figure was minimised by the spokesperson for the United States Government who announced it. He is clearly not aware that even one suicide bomber can cause carnage on the streets of Europe or North America, or indeed in the region, in Iraq or elsewhere. Our first priority has to be the continued capture of those IS, or Daesh, fighters, and the protection of those who guard them in the camps. What action are the Government taking as part of the coalition to ensure that this will be the case?
Secondly, we need to commit right now to reviewing our role, not only in a coalition that seems to be struggling to hold together with a proper sense of purpose in the region but in relation to what is acceptable within NATO. I do not advocate action against Turkey’s membership of NATO but I do think that, despite the fact it is a NATO member, we need stronger action on arms sales to Turkey, if this is the purpose to which those arms might be put.
In relation to our values, I am horrified by the idea that Turkey could use this military exercise to return hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria—who fled the Syrian regime and the violence, torture and chaos that has gone with the conflict over the last few years—back to within the Syrian border, and potentially, given the agreements of recent days, place them back under the jurisdiction of the Syrian Government, the Syrian army and their Russian allies. It would clearly be contrary to international law and to our expectations of a country that still aspires to join the European Union—even as we leave—and is a member of NATO. What representations have the Government made, and what action shall we take, to ensure that international law on refugees is upheld by the Turkish Government and that they do not forcibly repatriate refugees from their territory back into Syria, where they might be in grave danger?
Although we had many opportunities yesterday, for which I am sure we are all grateful, I want to use this opportunity to again ask the Minister for an update on the position of British children, both orphans and other unaccompanied minors, who are in these camps with those who were either fighting for or living with Islamic State, or Daesh. What opportunities will there be in the coming days to repatriate all these children back to the United Kingdom?
We have a role as a major international humanitarian force in providing humanitarian assistance for those displaced. There are serious concerns about basic services, such as the provision of water, in some of the affected towns. Having visited the internally displaced persons camps in Syria and northern Iraq in the summer, I know the pressure that they were already under. Thousands of people have already crossed the border into Iraq. What action is being taken using UK resources, inside Iraq and inside Syria, to help address the humanitarian needs that will undoubtedly develop?
Finally, what action will we take in the coming days, weeks and months to reinforce the international system? Will we continue to press for the justice required by those immediate victims, particularly the Yazidis and other persecuted religious minorities? What action will be taken to provide justice for them and to try members of Islamic State/Daesh for their rapes, beatings and murders in attempting to carry out genocide against the Yazidis and others? However difficult it might be, we cannot ignore the alleged use of chemical weapons, not just by the Syrian regime but now by the Turkish Government as well. What action will we take to try to ensure that anybody who is alleged to have used chemical weapons is successfully investigated and, if necessary, prosecuted?
My Lords, this is a very topical issue and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, on promoting this debate. Just when some people believed that things could not get any worse in the Syrian theatre, it now seems that the real danger is that they are indeed getting worse.
From the start, the United Kingdom’s policy has been a classic example of tramline thinking and assuming that the future will be like the past. First, right at the start, there was the Arab spring, which everyone thought would be like the Prague spring. The very word “spring” was misleading; people thought that dictators would fall and democracy would blossom. None of that has happened. Secondly, Syria was assumed to be the same as other Arab countries with tyrants overthrown, when of course it is really quite different. Thirdly, there was inadequate taking into account of the realities of the digital age, when foreign and international policy issues are working out quite differently from in the past. That applies to the whole range of foreign policy, as a matter of fact.
Right from the start, we were warned by ex-ambassadors of great distinction in this House—at least two of them, if not more—that we were on the wrong track. I have nothing but huge admiration for the Minister who will answer, and this is nothing to do with him at all, but the truth is that our policy has been an unmitigated disaster. We have now got to the point where NATO is being threatened in a very dangerous way. There are huge threats to the supply lines and security of the NATO structure. America has shown itself to be an utterly unreliable and erratic ally, changing its policy from day to day. Russia is in the driving seat. I suppose all one can say on that is, “Good luck”, because it too will be sucked into the quagmire in due course. I expect that, in the end, it will find the same experience as it has in Afghanistan. However, for the moment, it is riding high and in cahoots with Turkey, so far as one can make out.
What is the way forward out of all this? I think there are just two things we can do. First, we can at least understand Turkey’s fear of PKK terrorism. No one likes terrorism, or bombs going off in their territory; we have to understand that. That does not mean for a second that we can condone what Turkey is doing in trying to grab the top part of Syria. It does not mean that we condone for a second the summary executions and the violence that has been shown in the last few weeks. Maybe it will stop for a few days, but there is no guarantee that it will not resume immediately.
Secondly, I believe the British should continue to support the Kurds in every way we can, although it is bound to be limited. They are old friends and allies and we have given them certain undertakings in the past which I believe we should now try to stick to, limited though our abilities and capacities are in this whole muddled scene. Let us at least rescue some principle out of this whole imbroglio. That is my plea to the Minister and I would dearly like to know whether we will indeed give the support we can to the Kurds, even while they are being attacked from all sides, by Assad, Russia and Turkey. They are our friends. We should stick by our friends.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale. He is absolutely consistent in addressing violent conflict and promoting development internationally. This debate is another example of his consistent commitment. There are some things about which we should be consistent and others that we should change. I want to speak about some of the things that ought to be changed that are not being changed, and those things that we ought to be consistent about.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, talked about the disastrous policy that we have adopted in Syria. I come back, as I have done repeatedly since the start of this whole sorry episode, to my warning that the British Government’s adoption of a policy of getting rid of Assad as a primary requirement was a disaster. It was always going to be a disaster. I was not the only one who issued warnings in your Lordships’ House. Others who knew the region said the same thing and the Government refused to listen. It is time for the Government to understand how disastrous that has been and to change that policy.
The second thing that the western world has done consistently and that we need to change is betraying the Kurds. In 1920, under the treaty of Sèvres, there ought to have been a Kurdish state, but in the subsequent treaty of Lausanne, they were abandoned. They have been abandoned time after time after time and have now been abandoned again by the United States, which benefited so enormously from their courage and commitment in dealing with Daesh. That betrayal of the Kurds is something that has not changed, but must be changed, not just for good moral reasons but for political and strategic reasons too.
There are some things that are changing, but it were better they did not. When Mr Erdoğan became Prime Minister of Turkey, before he became President, I visited on quite a number of occasions and met his Ministers, police, security forces and so on. He was interested in applying the Northern Ireland experience to the Kurdish problem and started down that road. There were talks for a period of time and then, in a characteristically emotional outburst, he threw his head up, abandoned the whole business and turned everything on its head. That is a change that we need to stop.
The other change also emerges from Turkey. Turkey has been our ally, but it is not behaving like an ally now. It is not behaving like an ally in its relationships with Russia and its obtaining of weapons. It would have been inconceivable some years ago for a NATO ally to obtain weapons in that way. It is a signal that things are going the wrong way in Turkey’s relationship with us. However, there may be worse to come because, in the last few weeks, there have been indications from Turkey that it may wish to obtain nuclear arms. What are the Government doing to inquire after this question and to address it? We know the Saudis have been talking in similar terms and that they have relationships with Pakistan. Turkey talking in such a way, along with the breakdown of the treaty with Iran and the situation in Israel, creates a situation that is potentially globally catastrophic. I hope that the Minister can indicate that HMG are taking it seriously.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, for initiating today’s debate and giving us the chance to return to questions that a number of noble Lords raised during the debate on the gracious Speech. I raised these questions on 16 October—at col. 116—and earlier today, in the Oral Question answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie. I will ask the Minister a specific question at the outset which I put to the noble Baroness earlier today. It concerns the camp at al-Hawl, which is just a few miles from the so-called safe zone. It is a desolate place where some 68,000 ISIS family members are held and where the ISIS flag has been flying again in recent weeks. What are we doing to ensure that those inside those camps are kept there and that they are brought to justice in due course? It would be utterly inconceivable to talk about a war on terror and the pursuit of justice if we allowed them simply to walk away.
The Minister will recall that I sent him and raised in earlier interventions a list of known jihadists fighting alongside the Turkish army in this conflict. What is being done to evaluate the credibility of those names and how are we holding Turkey to account?
Other noble Lords have referred to Turkey’s NATO membership. I took the trouble to look at what a new applicant to NATO would have to do to satisfy membership. Turkey today is very different from the Turkey that joined NATO in 1952. Candidates need,
“to have stable democratic systems, pursue the peaceful settlement of territorial and ethnic disputes, have good relations with their neighbours, show commitment to the rule of law and human rights”.
I hope the Minister will say, on the basis of Turkey’s actions in northern Syria, which of those criteria still apply to it.
I hope the Minister will also address some points that I have put to him through Written Questions and in correspondence. What assessment has he made of reports that 13 year-old Mohammed Hamid Mohammed, admitted to Tal Tamir hospital following the bombing of Ras al-Ain by Turkey, is a victim of white phosphorus? Do the Government intend therefore to refer this issue to the International Criminal Court to seek justice for the reported violations of the Geneva conventions and the Chemical Weapons Convention?
What assessment have the Government made of whether the execution of Hevrin Khalaf, the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party, constitutes a war crime, along with the claim by the Syrian Democratic Forces that nine executions of civilians have been carried out since the invasion of Syria by Turkey?
What information have the Government received about the plight of religious or political minorities, referred to by the noble Lord in his introductory remarks, who are at risk from genocidaires in north-east Syria? What action are they taking in accordance with the requirements of the convention on the prevention of genocide to protect them and to bring the perpetrators to justice? What progress are they making in establishing international judicial mechanisms to bring those responsible for genocide to justice? What steps are they taking to assist other national partners in planning an exit strategy for Christians, Yazidis and other minorities who now might face genocide?
Those are legitimate questions that have been put to the Minister in writing. I hope he will take this opportunity to actually answer them.
My Lords, we should remember that the Turkish attack of 9 October was unprovoked and not authorised by the United Nations or NATO. It included undisciplined militias, whose previous record in Afrin was appalling. White phosphorus inflicted serious burns in at least 15 to 20 cases. This must be investigated. Kobane, which heroically resisted ISIS, was attacked by Turkey. Water supplies and hospitals were damaged. The ceasefire therefore came as a merciful relief, but it has been broken by both sides. It needs independent verification and should be made permanent. Will UN observers be available for this?
There should be clear principles for the future. Displaced local people must be enabled to return. Property rights should be respected. No refugees from other parts of Syria should be settled in the so-called safe zone, even temporarily, without their explicit consent. Secondly, Turkish, Russian and Assad forces should be restricted to the frontier area, which is 20 miles deep.
A huge task exists for UN agencies to help restore water supplies, hospitals, schools and IDP camps. Local authorities should be fully involved in this. Such reconstruction should have a guaranteed budget.
Will Her Majesty’s Government call on Turkey to compensate Syrian civilians for those killed and seriously wounded? Will compensation also be available to local authorities for damage to civil infrastructure? Will Her Majesty’s Government work, as a permanent member, for a UN Security Council resolution providing for ceasefire observations and full access for UN agencies to all of Rojava east of the Euphrates?
For too long, Syria has been a free-fire zone for outside states and factions with almost unlimited resources. It is high time that international law was reasserted. This must be in the interests of the Syrian people. Agencies such as NATO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe might have useful roles in this. British and European military exports should be resumed only if the ceasefire is maintained and Turkish forces withdraw from Syria. The same should apply to any sanctions.
I stress the value of the US/Turkey statement of 17 October:
“The two countries … pledge to uphold human life, human rights, and the protection of religious and ethnic communities”.
Perhaps we should all use our moral senses to imagine and then to work hard to improve what now exists.
My Lords, what is happening in north-east Syria is a tragedy for many thousands of individuals, most of them ethnic Kurds who were our allies quite recently in fighting IS. That is not in doubt. Were it to lead to IS terrorists escaping from confinement, it would adversely affect our own security—that is also not in doubt. That the power relationships in the region and even more widely have been thrown out by two of our allies, the US and Turkey, to our and their long-term detriment, can hardly be gainsaid. Noble Lords might think that that is quite a score for an ill-considered telephone conversation between President Trump and President Erdoğan and the series of intemperate and ignorant tweets that followed it.
Our own role in all this has hardly been glorious. We have not been consulted by our closest ally, even though some of our own Armed Forces were involved. Our attempts to stop the Turkish military operation have been brushed aside. We are still dithering about taking back orphans and young children who are British and whose lives are now at risk.
Here are one or two questions that I hope the Minister can answer. First, is it the Government’s view that, if the Turks were to force Syrian refugees to return to Syrian territory that their troops have now occupied, that would be contrary to the refugee convention and to their obligations under international law? Secondly, is it the Government’s view that, if Turkey were to remove the Kurds from that territory to make way for Syrian Arab refugees, that would amount to ethnic cleansing and thus potentially be a war crime?
Thirdly, however sympathetic one might be to Turkey’s suffering over recent years from terrorism—I am myself so—how on earth can pushing the effective border some 30 kilometres to the south solve that problem? Might it not very well make it worse? Fourthly, and most important to us, how can the damage to the confidence of those who depend for their security on their alliance with the United States be restored?
This whole sorry story has started as badly as it could have done. What do the Government intend to do to ensure that it does not end in an even worse place? President Trump would have us believe that it is all a strategic triumph. Is that the Government’s view?
My Lords, it goes without saying that we are at a critical juncture. While the focus of international attention—and outrage—has rightly been on the nature of the US withdrawal from north-eastern Syria, our attention should also be on those at risk from the latest outbreak of violence. An estimated 300,000 people have now fled violence in northern Syria—almost double the figure stated by the Foreign Secretary in his response to an Urgent Question last week in the other place. Reports continue to surface of widespread casualties, including from the alleged use of white phosphorus munitions in Turkey’s aerial and artillery bombardment of Kurdish forces, with innocent civilians, including children, among the victims.
Turkey’s incursion has upended the fragile security of the region and poses grave questions about the fate of an estimated 100,000 ISIS militants in detention within areas under Kurdish control. The agreement struck between President Putin and President Erdoğan is intended to create a 30 kilometre-deep exclusion zone along the Turkey/Syria border, not only to tackle the perceived threat from Kurdish militants but to repatriate some or all of Turkey’s sizeable population of some 3.5 million Syrian refugees. I want to focus my remarks specifically on the issue of these refugees.
For more than three years, Turkey has generously hosted the world’s largest population of refugees, with close to 4 million refugees and asylum seekers residing within its borders, including more than 3.5 million Syrians. This equates to around 20% of the total Syrian population and almost two-thirds of all Syrian refugees worldwide. With the civil war in Syria entering its eighth year, the prospects for their repatriation from Turkey appear limited; and public opinion at the ballot box inside Turkey has begun to turn against the refugees.
We in the West must also acknowledge our own responsibility. Three years on, the EU has yet to meet its own pledge, as part of the deal struck with Turkey in 2016, to pay Ankara the second instalment of funding to help Turkey meet the costs of hosting such large numbers of Syrian refugees. But even against this backdrop, we must recognise that it is an extreme response to growing consternation within Turkey over the long-term viability of such a large refugee population. Also, President Erdoğan’s apparent intention forcibly to repatriate large numbers of Syrian refugees within the exclusion zone threatens to undermine the good will he and his Government have fostered through their role in supporting vulnerable refugees.
As we have heard this afternoon, the current situation requires our urgent attention. Already, it is becoming clear that, like any conflict, the incursion will create winners and losers. The losers will be those Syrians, including Kurds, from whom so much has already been taken. The winners will be Russia, Assad and ISIS. That cannot be in our national interest. Turkey has been an important ally in a volatile region, but we must make it plain that Turkey’s actions risk further destabilisation and will potentially place millions of Syrian refugees in intolerable danger. We must encourage Turkey to show restraint. I ask my noble friend the Minister to outline what plans he has to encourage Turkey to do so and to think again about the forced repatriation of Syrian refugees.
The fate of millions quite literally hangs in the balance.
My Lords, I have looked at the Order Paper and, perhaps like Ronnie Corbett, I know my place and it is before the Official Opposition.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for putting down this urgent topic for debate. This very short debate has been both overarching and detailed. Noble Lords have made plain their concerns about what is following from President Trump’s extraordinary decision to give the green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria. The Americans are rightly seen as having betrayed their Kurdish allies. Following my noble friend Lord Alderdice, may I ask what exactly is our policy towards Syria now and what do we make of the pressure on NATO? What consultation is going on with the Americans in the aftermath of their decision? What joint approach are we taking with other EU countries? Is the Foreign Secretary not even attending the relevant EU meetings, and why, I ask again, did the Foreign Secretary not raise Turkey’s action in his speech at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Does the Minister agree that this move has given Russia extraordinary extra influence in the region, although I note what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has just said?
Nearly all US forces have now left Syria but they have not gone home—they are mostly redeployed in western Iraq. The US and Turkey have reached a deal on a ceasefire which lasts until only next Tuesday. Neither the Syrian regime nor the SDF were parties to the agreement. Turkey has said that military operations will resume if the SDF has not withdrawn. May I therefore ask what plans there are for deconfliction between the Turkish armed forces, the Syrian regime forces and the SDF in this circumstance?
We now hear reports of even more possible war crimes, in a region with an appalling toll already. So what assessment have the Government made of the reports of Turkish use of white phosphorous against civilians, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Alton and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and the use of political assassination by Turkish or Turkish-backed forces in north-east Syria? Have the Government looked at the likelihood that the Syrian regime will round up thousands of political opponents following its renewed control over north-east Syria?
President Erdoğan has declared his intention to settle 1 million to 2 million Syrian refugees in the occupied the zone, as other noble Lords have mentioned. Does the Minister agree that as the occupying power, Turkey does not have the right to confiscate land to re-house refugees, and neither should people be forced into an area from which they have not come, as the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Hannay, have just mentioned?
There are seven camps in Syria where Daesh fighters and their families are being held, and we know that the SDF warns that it can no longer guarantee security. We discussed in Questions yesterday the position of British citizens, particularly children; I look forward to the Minister’s response.
America’s actions have just made an incredibly unstable region even more dangerous. If this does not illustrate why we need to work together internationally and not retreat into “America first” or “England first”, it is difficult to think of what would.
I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I too would like to thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to return to this highly topical and important issue this week. What we have seen in the last 48 hours is what many saw coming after the unilateral US withdrawal: a stich-up over territory between Turkey, Russia and the Assad regime, with the Kurds, as ever, caught in the middle. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, reminded us, throughout history the Kurdish people have been betrayed in brutal conflicts and have repeatedly been ignored when suffering at the hands of others.
As our allies, what role does the Minister believe there is for the Kurdistan Regional Government in future peace negotiations? Sochi may mean an end to the fighting and displacement of people that we have seen over the past fortnight, but it will not solve the humanitarian crisis facing that region. We need to work urgently through NGOs operating on the ground to get support to those who need it. Thousands of Kurds are fleeing with frantic urgency. The Bardarash refugee camp, in Iraq, alone has reported that more than 7,000 Kurds have arrived, with many thousands more attempting to reach similar locations. Can the Minister detail what support and advice the Government are offering to the Iraqi authorities to assist with this crisis?
Throughout the conflict in Syria, NGOs have operated on the ground to provide crucial humanitarian support to save lives and alleviate suffering. Can the Minister explain what support is being offered to these organisations to promote the safe delivery of aid? Many of us have heard on the “Today” programme the first-hand account of a British citizen giving support. What advice is being given to UK citizens who are part of these organisations and remain in the region? What steps has the UK taken to seek international agreement for humanitarian corridors, to allow for the safe evacuation of civilians?
The Government’s review of arms sales to Turkey is welcome, but it will not put an end to UK arms being used in the conflict. Last week, the Minister assured this House that the UK had a robust regime for our arms and defence exports and would continue to look at the situation very carefully. He told the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that he would examine the French and German policy and consider whether we could have concerted action. Are we taking similar action? Have we considered halting existing licences, as Amnesty International now suggests? As many noble Lords have said, Kurdish forces have been safeguarding security, ensuring that thousands of militants are not able to roam freely and cause havoc in the region. This instability may mean that many will escape. What assessment have the Government made of this risk to the future security of the region, and what is the Government’s strategy to deal with it?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for this timely opportunity to debate what is a very fluid but very worrying situation in northern Syria. I am also grateful for the exchanges that we have had outside of your Lordships’ Chamber on this matter. He has long shown a keen interest in the plight of displaced people in Iraq and Syria, and I pay tribute to his efforts in that regard. I share his vision of the relationship that we have, and the role that the United Kingdom plays is not diminished but remains an active one, as it should be. It covers issues beyond just humanitarian support; it includes issues of security. He and other noble Lords have heard me time and again, I am sure, agreeing about the importance of stressing our credentials as an advocate of human rights, wherever we are operating in the world and wherever we see human rights abuses.
Let me say at the outset that the Government have been clear that we oppose Turkey’s military action in Syria. My noble friend Lord Howell, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and several other noble Lords, made the point that Turkey does have some legitimate concerns relating to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees. We pay tribute to the fact that it is hosting these refugees, and Her Majesty’s Government have helped to support the refugees. We also recognise the threat posed by the PKK to security on Turkey’s southern border. However, I share the views of the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Hannay, and of my noble friend Lord Howell that a Turkish military operation would, as we all feared, seriously undermine the already fragile stability and security of the region. There is a worsening humanitarian crisis, and the incursion has increased the suffering of millions of people. We feared that it would distract the international community from defeating Daesh—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised that issue—which should be our primary focus, and it has. We also feared that it would play into the hands of Russia and the Assad regime, and the frank assessment is that it has done so. That is why we repeatedly appealed to Turkey not to take this step.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, when we were debating this previously, and in his discussions with me, commented that we have acted within the context of the UN Security Council. Other members of the Security Council shared this view. When we met on 10 and 16 October, they warned of the severe risk of Daesh fighters dispersing and expressed concern over the possible further deterioration in the humanitarian situation. It is therefore deeply regrettable that Turkey went ahead with its operation, not heeding the appeals of its friends and NATO allies. Sadly, those fears are being realised, as we have seen. While it is a fluid situation, at least 160,000 people have been displaced and dozens killed, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, a number of Daesh detainees appear to have escaped from prisons they were being held in by Kurdish fighters.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, also raised the deeply concerning issue of credible reports of the execution of civilians by Syrian armed groups supporting the Turkish operation, including the killing of the politician Hevrin Khalaf on 12 October. I put on record that we utterly condemn these incidents and have made clear the need to investigate them fully. We also condemn incidents of shelling by the YPG into Turkey, which has also been concern which I am sure noble Lords share, which has resulted in civilian casualties on the Turkish side. We call on all sides to respect their obligations towards civilians under international humanitarian law.
We welcome the ceasefire brokered by the United States, and in the area of the Turkish operation so far it has held. It is also important that this cessation of hostilities continues.
We also note the agreement reached between Turkey and Russia on 22 October. This agreement clearly has significant implications, and we are seeking further information—the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, among others, raised this issue—on its potential impact on the civilian population.
Several noble Lords asked about specific UK action, and I just want to lay out some of the steps that we have taken so far. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, rightly raised concerns about the relationship that we have with Turkey. Turkey is a partner. We have security interests, on aviation security and humanitarian support, and, as the noble Lord reminded us, Turkey is a NATO ally. In this regard, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary expressed our grave concerns to the Turkish Foreign Minister on 10 October. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan two days later, urging restraint and offering UK support in negotiations towards a ceasefire.
The Foreign Secretary has also addressed the issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, mentioned the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on 12 October, and it is my understanding that that was certainly part of the discussions—I know that she has raised this issue before. Regarding another question that she raised, on 14 October we supported our EU partners in the EU’s statement condemning Turkey’s unilateral military action, calling on Turkey to withdraw its forces. We also joined with fellow European members of the UN Security Council to request a discussion of the situation at the Security Council on 10 and 16 October. As I have said before, I have been directly involved in the discussions with our European partners, not just on this issue but on how we continue to strengthen co-operation with all European members of the Security Council.
The noble Lords, Lord McConnell, Lord Hylton and Lord Collins, mentioned arms export licences. On 15 October, the Foreign Secretary announced that no further arms export licences would be granted for items that might be used in the military operations in Syria until we have completed a thorough review. That position remains.
The Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan again on 20 October, expressing his hope that the ceasefire agreed with the United States would be made permanent. The Prime Minister invited him to meet, alongside President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, to discuss the current situation and broader issues, including counterterrorism and migration. That was something that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister directly offered to the Turkish president.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised the issue of humanitarian aid, and I know that is a concern of many noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Howell talked of the UK’s role. While I respect his position, I am sure that he would acknowledge that when it comes to humanitarian support, the UK has really been at the forefront in providing assistance to many of the suffering people of the region. That also was the case in northern Syria before the Turkish actions. The UK has already committed £40 million to the region in this financial year to help address some of the most acute needs, including those issues noble Lords raised: water, food, shelter and healthcare. We are hopeful that this money can be spent as planned.
However, I recognise that the situation on the ground is volatile, fast moving and dangerous, and therefore contingency plans must be made and we must understand the lie of the land to ensure that the safety and security of those providing assistance can also be guaranteed. The Department for International Development is in daily contact with local partners, including the UN and local agencies—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked a question on this—to deliver assistance on the ground and to ensure the safety and security of those delivering aid.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, my noble friend Lady Stroud and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, talked of the return of Turkey’s refugees. While we recognise Turkey’s generosity, I make it clear that any return of refugees to Syria must be voluntary and in line with international law. We have made that point in our exchanges with Turkey. I make it explicit for the record that we do not and would not support forced returns to areas that have not yet been declared safe by the UN. Furthermore, we have no intention to support Turkey’s plans for reconstruction in the secure zone, nor do we recognise any demographic change brought about as a result of this incursion.
My right honourable friend the Development Secretary will work with the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Mark Lowcock, and spoke to him on 14 October about ongoing plans on the ground. I am sure that all noble Lords agree that it is essential that humanitarian agencies are able to operate safely. We call on all parties to ensure that principle is upheld.
Several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, raised the issue of British orphans. We are making provision to ensure the safe return of unaccompanied minors and orphans, and we will continue to examine the circumstances of all other identified British citizens on a case-by-case basis.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when he has only minutes left, but can he give us some hint of what British Kurdish training units and British troops are left on the ground in this turmoil in the northern Syrian region?
My noble friend will appreciate that I cannot go into the details of the specific British presence there, but we are working on the ground to ensure that we lend support to our allies. We are very cognisant of the situation of the Kurds.
My noble friend spoke about support in Iraq. I assure him and others that we are extending our support to the Kurdish regional Government and the Kurdish community in Iraq, particularly as displaced people cross the border. We continue to work closely with the Government of Iraq.
My Lords, I am very conscious of time.
Specific questions were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, among others, about white phosphorus. I am fully aware of the worrying allegations that white phosphorus was used against civilians. We are working to establish the full facts.
Co-operation with NATO was raised. While noble Lords will recognise that NATO does not investigate breaches of international humanitarian law, NATO Defence Ministers, including the Defence Secretary, will discuss north-east Syria in their meeting on 24 to 25 October.
A number of other questions were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. If I may, I shall write to him on those issues and on any other questions that I have been unable to cover.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, this is an extensive subject which perhaps requires more than just the time allowed in a Question for Short Debate. I am sure that it is not just me who recognises that; I am sure that we will return to this issue in the coming days and weeks.
Let me assure noble Lords that the UK remains committed to continuing to play our part as a strong ally to the communities across the region. We remain committed to assisting unaccompanied minors and those identified as British citizens to ensure that we can represent them and examine each case.
We have a strong relationship with Turkey, and this should not be underestimated. We supported its application to join the EU. I think that is recognised. I have seen the detail of the discussions that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has had with the President. The nature of that relationship allows us to play a role with Turkey. I am sure that all noble Lords recognise the importance of the invitation that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made to the President of Turkey, while also recognising that our key partners, especially France and Germany, should also be involved in that meeting.
The UK has opposed Turkey’s recent offensive in north-east Syria. As several noble Lords said, it is not an action that we would expect from a staunch NATO ally. It has caused unnecessary further bloodshed and suffering in a region that has already suffered too much, and it has diverted international attention from ensuring the lasting defeat of Daesh.
The UK has been active in pressing Turkey to end its operation. We will continue to make clear to Turkey the depth of feeling in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere about its continued actions. We remain committed to advocating the interests of the local population, including respecting the rights of the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq. We remain committed to the global coalition against Daesh, in which the Kurdish communities and representatives play an important part, and to the long-term stability of Syria, Iraq and the wider region. We will continue in our humanitarian efforts in this respect.
I thank again all noble Lords for their contributions to this vital debate, and I look forward to further discussions on this important matter.