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Volume 802: debated on Monday 24 February 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on the security situation in Syria:

“We are deeply concerned by the crisis in north-west Syria, where the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Over 900,000 people have been displaced, fleeing the regime and Russian bombardments. They are fleeing northward and being squeezed into increasingly dense enclaves, with camps full to capacity.

Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Aleppo since 1 January this year. The UN human rights office has confirmed that 93% of those deaths were caused by the regime and its allies. International humanitarian law continues to be ignored, with civilian infrastructure being hit, probably as a result of active targeting. As recently as yesterday, the White Helmets reported that Russian warplanes hit a children’s and women’s hospital in the village of Balioun in Idlib.

The UK has condemned, and continues to condemn, these flagrant violations of international law and basic human decency. Following UK lobbying, in August 2019 the UN Secretary-General announced a board of inquiry into attacks on civilian infrastructure supported by the UN, or that were part of the UN deconfliction mechanism, which we continue to support. We look forward to the publication of the results as soon as possible.

We have repeatedly pressed for an immediate, genuine and lasting ceasefire, including at the UN Security Council. We have called a number of emergency council sessions on Idlib in New York, most recently on 6 February alongside the P3, where the UK ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, reiterated our clear call for a ceasefire and our support for Turkey’s efforts in this regard. There is overwhelming support for this in the Security Council, and we regret very much that the Russians continue to obstruct the possibility of agreement.

As the Foreign Secretary noted on 31 January, only a political settlement in line with Security Council Resolution 2254 can deliver a lasting peace for Syria. The United Kingdom will continue to support the efforts of the UN special representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to this end. We regret that the Syrian regime continues to stall this process, despite the cost to the Syrian people and the loss of Syrian lives.

Despite this political obstruction, the UK remains an active leader in the humanitarian space. In the financial year 2019-20, DfID has allocated £118 million to projects implemented by organisations delivering aid cross-border, primarily into north-west Syria, including Idlib. This has helped to provide hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people with food, clean water, shelter and healthcare including psychosocial support.

We have provided funding to response partners, including the UN, to pre-position essential supplies to support innocent families and civilians displaced by conflict and are supporting all our partners to respond to this humanitarian crisis”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that response to the Urgent Question. In the other place, the Minister repeatedly asserted that we will work with our allies to hold the Assad regime to account for breaches of international humanitarian law. What practical steps are being taken to ensure that Assad and his international allies answer for the war crimes committed in this conflict, and that we as a country will remain determined, for as long as it takes, that they will face that day of reckoning? What practical steps are being taken to plug the enormous humanitarian spending gap required to help those innocent civilians who have been forced to flee the violence in Idlib?

Finally, our friends in the Kurdish community, while no friends of the jihadists and their Turkish allies in Idlib, may equally be forgiven for looking at the developments of recent days and wondering if it will be their turn next. What action is the Minister taking at the international level to ensure long-term protection for those northern Kurdish communities?

My Lords, I shall take the last question first. I am sure that the noble Lord shares—indeed, all noble Lords will do so—the sentiments that we pay tribute to the courage and sacrifices made by the Kurds in particular. We pay tribute to the work of the SDF in successful efforts that were made against Daesh in Syria. I assure him that we remain very much committed to the fight against Daesh and regard the SDF very much as a partner in this fight.

The noble Lord asked about the practical steps we are taking. First, on 5 February, the former Minister for the Middle East and North Africa visited Ankara to discuss the situation specifically in Idlib with Turkish government Ministers. Last month, the United Kingdom hosted a meeting of special envoys of the small group on Syria, which includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, ourselves and the United States, to discuss the situation in Syria, including specifically the need for de-escalation in Idlib. As I said in the Statement, we have repeatedly used our position at the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Council to call on Russia and the regime to end the offensive, adhere to specifically agreed ceasefires in Idlib and, importantly, respect obligations under international humanitarian law, which was the first point that the noble Lord raised, particularly with reference to the Assad regime. I am aiming to travel to the UN Human Rights Council tomorrow, and my statement will reflect those concerns.

My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord for his response. The IRC and others have described what is happening in Syria as a humanitarian catastrophe—and it clearly is. He has expressed his frustration in terms of what can be done to assist. We have the extraordinary situation of joint Russian-Turkish military patrols in north-east Syria and, at the same time, Russian planes bombing Turkish positions in Idlib. As to what can be done, addressing food prices is of critical importance. They have increased by 60% since September. Even then, an estimated 6.5 million Syrians were already food insecure. Can the Government review sanctions to see if there are ways in which they could mitigate the impact on ordinary civilians? Also, into this comes coronavirus. What assessment is being made of the risks that it may pose to those with reduced immunity who are crowded together in terrible conditions, as well as to those seeking to help them?

The noble Baroness makes some practical points, and I will write to her on her last point on the assessment made on coronavirus. That is a valid concern, particularly given the current situation regarding humanitarian aid. The noble Baroness will be aware that we are deeply concerned that at the UN Security Council, when a resolution was discussed on the humanitarian corridors, it was with great regret and disappointment that two countries—namely, Russia and China—chose to block the resolution. That has resulted in the loss of two of the four crossing points for humanitarian aid. We continue to press, and we support the UN mandate and mission there. As regards sanctions policy, I will take her point back.

Can my noble friend explain—it is obviously a complex situation—the position at the Turkish border? Is Turkey allowing more people through who are fleeing from the present conflict? Can he sort out for us the problem: are we still training and supporting the Kurdish cadres and units? If so, are we finding ourselves simultaneously working with the Turks and against them? How are we going to resolve this effectively?

My Lords, I have said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we continue to support the Kurds and have paid tribute to their efforts. We continue to raise their obvious concerns since the Turkish incursion into northern Syria and the situation with the Kurds. In 2019-20, we intend to provide more than £40 million of aid in north-east Syria, which is focused on reaching those most acutely in need, including life-saving supplies, food, water, shelter and healthcare. As to the support we are providing in north-west Syria, the border is operational and we have allocated over £100 million to projects implemented by organisations delivering aid cross-border from Turkey, primarily into north-west Syria. As to the support we are giving to Kurdish communities, we regard the SDF as a partner, and we have raised the issues and concerns of the Kurdish community directly with the Turkish authorities—most recently during the visit to Turkey of the former Minister for the Middle East.

My Lords, it is common ground regarding what is happening in the indiscriminate bombing of individuals, citizens and hospitals that those doing so are guilty of war crimes. But is it not worth emphasising at this moment that those who direct or authorise such actions are equally complicit in war crimes and, as a result, subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court?

Again, assessments continue to be made on the issue of international humanitarian law. We continue to press all parties on upholding that law and, as the noble Lord rightly points out, it specifies and prohibits attacks on civilians, irrespective of the weapon used. The UN commission of inquiry is the international body that will look into those aspects. As it makes its assessment, I assure him that we support the UN efforts in that respect.

My Lords, I, for one, do not regret voting for military action in Syria when President Assad started to murder his population. The failure of both Houses to support that action has largely said to the murderer Assad that he can do what he wants. One can only get someone into a criminal court if one is in a position to do so, and we are not in that position. The Minister said quite a bit about Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but Syria is essentially a client state of the Iranians. What discussions are we having with the Iranians to persuade them to look towards a peaceful solution in Syria?

My Lords, my noble friend raises concerns on how Syria has been used to promote proxies who are acting within Syria, and concerns have been raised rightly about Iran’s role. I assure him that we continue to impress upon all those who are party to the conflict, and are clear that Russia has an important role to impress upon not just the Syrian regime but the Iranians, that the use of proxies within Syria is continuing the destabilisation not just in that country but in the wider region.

Is my noble friend able to tell the House what more can be done through the ICRC to help with the appalling situation faced by children and women heads of families in the Idlib area particularly, where literally the most vulnerable are the key targets for the Russian attacks?

My noble friend speaks with great insight on this. She mentioned the ICRC, and there are other agencies. We continue to impress on not just Turkey but other partners to ensure that the humanitarian corridors can be retained, sustained and strengthened. The regret, as I said very clearly in the last debate we had on this issue, is that two humanitarian corridors were closed down. That is why certain aid cannot reach the most vulnerable. But we will continue to impress on UN agencies, NGOs working in the region and, most importantly, those countries that have a stake in Syria and have an influence over all parties in Syria, whatever side they are on, to continue to allow humanitarian access to all parts of Syria, particularly to those who are impacted and most vulnerable.