With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Afrin.
We are closely following developments in Afrin and wider north-western Syria. Over the weekend, Turkish and affiliated forces have continued their territorial gains and are now approaching the town of Afrin itself. We are concerned about recent reports of rising civilian casualties.
The Government have called for de-escalation and the protection of civilians, while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. We will continue to push for a reduction in violence and for consideration of the humanitarian needs of the population in the affected areas. The Prime Minister has raised the need for protection of civilians and proper humanitarian access with President Erdoğan, as has the Foreign Secretary with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. The Turkish Government have assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are working to prevent civilian casualties.
UK-funded partners have been delivering humanitarian assistance in Afrin, including health and protection services. Some of those activities have been suspended due to current hostilities, but our partners continue to meet needs where they are able and are pre-positioning supplies to help to meet the needs of those fleeing the area. That includes health supplies, blankets and food. UNICEF, other UN organisations and the World Health Organisation have temporarily suspended all activities in Afrin due to the recent military action.
As the Foreign Secretary said in his statement of 26 February, we are concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the operation in Afrin. We urge all parties to respect the law of distinction between civilian and military targets, to facilitate access for life-saving humanitarian aid and to allow freedom of movement for those caught up in the violence, in accordance with international humanitarian law.
The Syria conflict will soon enter its eighth year. The UK continues to make every effort to achieve our goals in Syria of defeating the scourge of Daesh and achieving a political settlement that ends the suffering and provides stability for all Syrians and the wider region. There ultimately needs to be a transition to a new, inclusive, non-sectarian Government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict, but we are pragmatic about how that might take place. Syria’s future must be for Syrians to decide.
As the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor in Syria since 2011, the UK is at the forefront of the humanitarian response and is providing life-saving support to millions of people. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK support has delivered 26 million food rations, 9.8 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines and 10 million medical consultations. Last year alone, we provided clean water to more than 5 million people and contributed towards the formal primary and secondary education of more than 700,000 children affected by the crisis.
Ultimately, however, the only way to end the conflict is through a negotiated political settlement. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has emphasised, including to his Turkish counterpart, the importance of a political solution and the defeat of Daesh. That must continue to be at the forefront of international efforts, and we are concerned about the possibility of the diversion of Kurdish fighters from this crucial fight. We remain committed to working closely with Turkey and other allies to find solutions in Syria that provide stability and bring to an end this terrible conflict. I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for advance sight of it.
Here we are again: Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa, today Afrin, and perhaps soon Ghouta. Again and again, we stand here in this House while troops march into a city in the region with little regard for international law or civilian protection, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk. Again and again, we express in this House our concern, alarm and anger, but it is never enough. It is just not enough. Time and again, those fighting in Syria are consistently failing to take precautions that protect civilians.
Just seven weeks ago, Turkey launched its so-called Operation Olive Branch, to remove what it saw as the Kurdish threat from Afrin. The Minister says that the protection of civilians must be balanced with “Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders”, but we must be clear: the incursion is neither legitimate nor justified. It should never have been allowed in the first place and has no basis in international law. An olive branch? There could hardly be a less suitable name for the assault.
Since then, even the most conservative reports estimate that several hundred Kurds have died. Shamefully, the Turkish forces have used artillery and other explosive weapons to target civilian areas. The Kurdish Red Crescent reports that in the month after the attacks started, 93 civilians were killed, 24 of them children, and 313 civilians were wounded, 51 of them children. UNICEF reported this morning that more than 1,000 children have died across Syria in just the first two months of 2018. The use of artillery and explosive weapons against residential areas is clearly prohibited by international humanitarian law. It is unforgiveable that they are still being used. This is not an olive branch. It is a stick to beat the Kurdish community with.
The situation is evolving rapidly, so let me set out three particular concerns for the days ahead. According to reports, Turkish forces are advancing on Afrin right now, so we must do whatever we can to protect civilians. First, there are real concerns that when Turkish forces enter Afrin, there will be widespread atrocities as they seek to root out those they call terrorists. It is particularly disturbing to hear reports that at the centre of the assault, working alongside the Turkish army, have been some of the very same jihadists whom the Kurdish forces worked so hard to drive out of northern Syria.
Given the call by those in Afrin for civilians to form a human shield around the city, a siege and an assault on the city are likely to cause severe civilian casualties. What are the UK Government doing to apply pressure on Turkey to stop the assault and to respect international law? Will the Government make it absolutely clear to Turkey, as a NATO ally, that anything less is unacceptable, and that we can never excuse throwing around the word “terrorism” to justify human rights abuses?
Secondly, The Washington Post has today reported accounts of thousands of Kurds already fleeing from the city of Afrin, fearing for their lives and what will happen if or when the city falls. What reassurance will the Minister provide that refugees and internally displaced people will be granted safe passage, and that the international community, including Britain, will step up to the plate and provide immediate humanitarian aid and long-term support?
Thirdly, let me turn to access for humanitarian aid and for the human rights monitors who can act as one of the greatest deterrents against civilian atrocities. What steps are the Government taking to urge Turkey to allow access for independent monitors to ensure that civilians are protected and that perpetrators of abuses are held to account? Now that UK-funded partners and UN agencies are suspending humanitarian activities, what steps are the Government taking quickly to restore full humanitarian access to Afrin, so that the UK and other partners can get aid in and save lives?
Those in the Kurdish community across the UK are watching, and they deserve to know that the UK is doing absolutely everything we can to help civilians in Afrin.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and for the way in which she has approached this subject. She poses some questions that it would be difficult for any Government to answer, but I will do my best. This is an area where the United Kingdom is not present on the ground, where it is difficult to get information out, and where UN workers are not able to operate. There is a limit on what we can actually deliver, but there will be no shortage of effort in trying to do everything that she recommends in terms of protecting civilians.
The hon. Lady is right to say that, once again, this is another part of the overall Syrian tragedy. Whatever the particular circumstances may be, it can all be traced back to a war waged by a President on his own people that will enter its eighth year in just a couple of days’ time. In his oral report to the Security Council on 12 March, the Secretary-General of the UN said:
“Syria is bleeding inside and out. There should be only one agenda for all of us: to end the suffering of the Syrian people and find a political solution to the conflict.”
We would all echo that, however hard it might be.
Let me deal with some of the points that the hon. Lady raised, particularly about the way in which this is seen. She gave a picture of how she perceives the situation and how the Kurdish community see it. We are not here to answer for the Turkish authorities, but they plainly take a different view. Their aim is to oust from the territory the YPG, which they see as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers party—the PKK—which is a proscribed terrorist organisation in Turkey and the United Kingdom. That is how they see their situation, which is why we refer to their territorial considerations and security concerns. The most important thing for us at the moment is to do all we can to bring that part of the conflict to an end and to protect people.
On the hon. Lady’s questions, first, in relation to any further assaults, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have both been in contact with their respective partners, and our ambassador made representations to the Turkish Government just three days ago on the up-to-date circumstances. I assure the hon. Lady and the House that everything we do is designed to persuade the parties to de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible, and to allow humanitarian access and meet all other needs there.
Secondly, on what happens to people who flee and whether there are supplies, we have worked with partners to make sure that there are supplies in the area. We cannot get close in to Afrin, but we are doing our best to make sure that the UN agencies and others active in the area have supplies available if people are able to leave. We would wish them to be able to leave—I mentioned in the statement the distinction between civilians and those considered to be fighters—and we will be doing all we can in relation to that.
Thirdly, on access for monitors and the like, we would of course advocate that and we wish to see it, but the brutality and grimness of the war in that region means that there is a gap between anything we would seek in our deliberations in the House and what may be happening on the ground. I wish I could promise the hon. Lady that we will not be back here soon, but I do not think I can. I can, however, promise that we will do all we can to meet the humanitarian needs in the conflict. We recognise the pain being inflicted in the region, which can only end, as the Secretary-General has said, with a political resolution that will encompass all the various elements of the conflict.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, during which he said, “The Turkish Government have assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are working to prevent civilian casualties.” I take that to be diplomatic code for “We don’t believe you,” and that is supported by all the evidence coming out about the way in which the Turks are conducting this operation. The wretched truth is that our Kurdish allies in the war against the enemies of civilisation are being brutally treated by a NATO ally. Is there anything else we can do about it?
The UK has consistently raised the need to protect civilians and to de-escalate the operation. I repeat: the Turkish Government have assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are working to prevent civilian casualties. We believe the Turkish Government, and we will hold them to their statement.
The devastation in Afrin represents a new front in the ongoing and devastating Syrian crisis—a seven-year civil and proxy war that has killed an estimated 500,000 people. As we all know, the laws of war strictly prohibit attacks targeting civilians or civilian structures, unless they are being used for military purposes, yet since Turkey’s aggressive airstrikes began, the local Kurdish health authority estimates that 220 civilians have died and more than 600 have been injured. The UN has said that the Afrin district, as well as nearby northern Aleppo, has a population of over 320,000, of whom the majority are classified as being in need and over 100,000 are now internally displaced.
To bring this home to my constituency, I have been speaking to a constituent of mine, a Syrian refugee called Kawa from the Afrin region, who was close to tears when he explained what is happening to his family. He told me his family are not safe. It is possible to contact them only every few days, but he spoke this morning to his brother, who said they are under siege and do not know what to do. They have no water, no electricity and not enough food. In his village near Afrin, every window has been shattered by bombs, and many homes are booby-trapped with explosives. Yesterday, his neighbour was killed by a bomb just by opening his front door. There is no safe place to go. These are civilians.
Will the Minister set out how the UK intends to put pressure on Turkey to end unlawful attacks and ensure respect for international humanitarian law? As a key member of the UN Security Council, what progress have the Government made in bringing about a political resolution in accordance with resolution 2254? Finally, on 20 February, the President of Turkey said that Turkey would “cut external aid” to Afrin. What are the UK Government doing to increase aid to the region and ensure that that vital aid gets there?
The hon. Gentleman started with a brief description of the horrors of this conflict, and in that he is absolutely right. The greater horror is that we have seen in recent times the shredding of the international norms on which we have tried to work for the best part of 70 years since 1945. If the UN Security Council cannot prevent conflict or bring it to an end, if we have moved away from the norm on the use of chemical weapons and that norm is not adhered to by parties on the UN Security Council and if we have seen the tactics of siege and hunger come back into modern warfare, then we risk losing everything that the international order put together after the horrors of the second world war was designed to prevent. Almost every conflict we now come across in the middle east has echoes of that. Unless we find a way to restore that international order, we will be debating this issue longer and it will give rise to the question what on earth states can do in response that does not go back to the old ways of dealing with conflict, which was a case of, “My stick has to be bigger than yours,” in order to prevent something. We all thought we had moved away from that, but maybe not.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s three questions, we will continue to talk to our NATO partner about its need for security and how this operation may be assisting it, and about the distinction it is drawing between humanitarian casualties and the need to protect civilians, and those from whom it seeks to protect its population.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s second question about diplomatic efforts, we are doing everything we can to support Staffan de Mistura. There have been some efforts recently. The Sochi and Astana process has come to an end, which means that the Geneva process is now the best bet for the political resolution.
On aid, £2.46 billion is the largest support that the United Kingdom has ever given to protect refugees in a conflict situation. There will be no shortage of support for those who need it, but the best way to help them is to bring the conflict to an end.
Several have come about recently. The Syrian negotiation committee, which reformed after meetings in Riyadh, now represents Syrian opposition and has Kurdish representatives, in order to present a united front at the Geneva talks. The failure of a secondary process—the Astana process—means, as I said earlier, that there can be more concentration on Geneva. I understand that the special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is working on a series of boxes so that people can talk about different things and gradually come back together. Most importantly, we continue, through UN efforts and resolutions, to demand humanitarian access and an end to conflict in conflicted areas. Attention should not be moved from the damage done and horrific circumstances in eastern Ghouta, and we call on all parties with a hand in that to desist from it. We also recognise that the seeds of Daesh have not been extinguished and, if any sense of that is lost, the conflict with them will re-arise as well.
Is it not the case that Mr Erdoğan is using the cloak of respectability—NATO—to hide an alliance with al-Qaeda on the ground and engage in this barbarous murder and slaughter of innocent men, women and children? Should not the British Government be absolutely clear that he must now end this offensive, and has not the time come to stop selling arms to this man, who is behaving like a despot?
We have been consistent in our calls for the situation to be de-escalated from the very beginning. Turkey is a NATO partner that relies on its partners for help and security. However, within recognising its territorial concerns and its concerns about its own security, we do indeed call for an end to the operations.
This is an appalling and vindictive vendetta by Turkish forces against our strongest allies on the ground in the battle against Daesh and AQ. Is there absolutely no chance of a UN-brokered ceasefire so that perhaps we can put in peacekeeping forces to protect civilian people?
My hon. and gallant Friend speaks with great knowledge about the issues. Of course, UN Security Council resolution 2401 is already in effect, which calls for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria to allow for humanitarian aid and medical evacuations. However, as I said to the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), if calls for ceasefires—including even those in UN resolutions—are not based on practicalities on the ground, they are just disregarded, the impact being that international norms lose all effect. Of course, there should be an opportunity for the situation to be brought to an end so that there can be humanitarian access and the political negotiations that the UN Secretary-General has spoken about can encompass all the various conflicts in Syria, which is the only thing that will bring matters to an end.
My Kurdish constituents are deeply distressed and angry about what is happening to civilians in Afrin. Hundreds of people are being killed, and hundreds of thousands are being injured or are fleeing and being displaced. What hope can the Minister give to those people who are suffering so badly?
The hon. Lady will be aware, as we all are, of the recent press reports and the Sky News coverage over the weekend. I can give her the absolute assurance that the United Kingdom Government, through their repeated representations, are seeking to have the conflict de-escalated. We have been very clear in our contact with our NATO partner and ally so that this part of the conflict can come to an end as swiftly as possible.
It seems to me that we have misread the Syrian civil war from start to finish. The facts on the ground are that Assad is winning the war: he is going to take eastern Ghouta and is now allied with our allies, the Kurds, in resisting a naked invasion from Turkey, which could involve the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. Although the Turks have been very generous in providing safe refuge for millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey itself, surely we should call out this invasion for what it is and, at this crucial moment, stand by the Kurds, without whom we would not have been able to defeat Daesh.
My hon. Friend is correct in recognising the extraordinary contribution of the Kurdish people across the region, through Syria and Iraq, in pushing back Daesh at a crucial time. However, the complexities of the politics in that area—in parts of Syria and in Iraq and in Turkey—are what has led to the present situation. The history of the conflict in Syria, about which I have a certain amount of knowledge from 2010 onwards—not least the opportunities missed in 2013, when history might have been different had other things happened—is complex and difficult on all sides. All I can do is assure my hon. Friend that we will do all we can to seek to de-escalate the conflict, protect Kurdish civilians and achieve a resolution.
The Foreign Affairs Committee went to Turkey in January 2017 and had meetings with President Erdoğan and his senior Ministers. It was made very clear to us that Turkey intended at some point to relocate hundreds of thousands of the 3 million Syrian Arab refugees who were in Turkey, into the areas on its border in the north and to prevent the Kurds from having a contiguous area under their control. Why did the international community not do more to stop that, and is the Minister really serious when he thinks that there will be a political solution and that Daesh will be defeated when Turkey sees its priority as stopping the Kurds rather than getting a political solution?
I am not sure that I know the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s very good question based on his knowledge of the area. As I said a moment ago, the different aspects of this conflict, and the different reasons that some states are taking action, go back many years and are intended to sort out many difficulties and issues brought to light by the conflict against Daesh and the break-up of Syria. It is not possible for the United Kingdom to say to other states what the end lines drawn on the map will be. Countries have concerns about terrorist activity. Turkey has been clear about that in relation to the PKK—a proscribed organisation both there and here—and we respect that in a NATO ally. However, as I have said in relation to what is happening in Afrin, we have been clear with our determination that there should be a de-escalation. And yes, we do call for a resumption of the negotiations between Turkey and the PKK—they only ended in 2015—to see whether there is a chance to bring that together. Perhaps the situation is not quite as hopeless as we sometimes feel when we look at the map.
I welcome the tone and content of the Minister’s statement, but it is depressing to be back in the House talking about yet more horrors in a country that has seen more than its fair share of them over the past seven years of this conflict. Can he reassure me on what efforts the UK will take to protect civilians if there is a protracted Turkish siege of Afrin?
We have consistently raised the need to protect civilians and to de-escalate the operation. We want to see the safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services that are urgently needed across the region and in Syria as a whole. We will continue to press for that. My hon. Friend can be assured that, although we cannot predict the outcome, he can be absolutely certain of the efforts we will make to try to de-escalate the situation and to have a humanitarian situation that protects civilians and hopefully sees them safer.
I have several hundred constituents who hail from this part of the world, many of whom tonight are fearful for their loved ones in the city of Afrin. I have to tell the Minister that they expressed to me an increasing sense of betrayal that this Government and their allies are happy to welcome, indeed praise, the sacrifice of the Kurdish people in the fight against international terrorism, yet when it comes to upholding their political rights they are met with silence. Is it not the truth that the time has come to stop the pretence that the Turkish invasion of Afrin has anything to do with protecting Turkish territorial sovereignty and to admit that it is all about degrading the aspirations of the Kurds in any political settlement that will one day follow the end of this conflict?
The hon. Gentleman puts his own case and I recognise that. It is not the view of the United Kingdom Government. We recognise the territorial concerns of Turkey, but equally we have been very clear on the humanitarian impact of the conflict and on the opportunity to find a political resolution to the issues that have beset the area for too long. That solution will not come about through conflict; it will come about through political dialogue, which is of course made more difficult by the circumstances. That is why the United Kingdom continues to urge de-escalation, humanitarian access and relief for the families of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, about whom he speaks so eloquently.
The Turkish Government have assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that they are working to prevent civilian casualties, but reports show that they are actually increasing. Can the Minister confirm how the UK will ensure that civilians are protected from a Turkish siege of Afrin city?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but the honest answer to her question is that I cannot ensure it and the United Kingdom Government cannot ensure it. That would be to suggest something that we just do not possess and it seems inappropriate for me to do so. All I can say is, along with others in the international community, we will continue to make the representations we can. We moved for a ceasefire in Syria in general, UN resolution 2401, which the Secretary-General spoke about just a few days ago. We worry that these norms are not adhered to. In the immensely complex situation of northern Syria—its Turkish border, what has been experienced in Turkey over the years and the long-standing conflict—the United Kingdom Government can give an assurance on none of this. All we can say is that we are very clear that humanitarian considerations must come first. There must be humanitarian access. The best way to deal with almost any of the conflicts that have arisen in the area is through political dialogue, not the escalation of conflict that will lead only to the resurgence of conflict as soon as this one is over.
The Minister is right to urge restraint from Turkey and other partners in the region. What is the Government’s assessment of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s conclusion on the link between the PKK and the YPG, which is central to understanding what is driving Turkey? Does he share my fear that in Afrin and other areas of Syria there may be a long period where the protection of civilians is under threat while we try to get a political settlement and decent governance across areas that are war-torn at present?
Once again, the hon. Gentleman speaks with great knowledge of the area. He asks two particular questions. As I said in evidence to the Select Committee, the United Kingdom recognises some similarities in terms of ideology between the PKK and the YPG, but not the direct link that is claimed by Turkey. That is why we proscribe the PKK, but not the YPG. We are aware of the issues of similarity in origin of ideology and what people claim, but we do not see the link in the same way. But his second point regarding the long-term nature of this is entirely real. The longer the conflict as a whole goes on, the more there will be the opportunity for issues of long standing to be settled with the disruption that is currently taking place in Syria. That is why the best opportunity for peace and security all around is to support the Geneva process, as we are, and to work as hard as we are diplomatically to get the parties to find a better answer to the conflict. As the region amply shows, the only certainty in the region is that, if arms are taken up by one group against another, sooner or later the other group will take up arms against the other as well.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for the eloquence of his answers, which reflect the view of so many Members: desperate sympathy for the Kurds, who have been fighting Daesh and Islamic jihad for years—frankly, often on our behalf—and the sense of helplessness we all feel about what is happening in Afrin. My question is on the considerable investment, money and humanitarian aid the United Kingdom has put into the area. Are there any specific additional elements of humanitarian aid that he feels the Government could perhaps provide to help the people who are suffering in Afrin?
At the moment, no. I think the honest answer is that I cannot see anything that we could currently add that would make a significant difference beyond what we are already seeking to do. I have been quite clear that we need to make preparations to ensure that when there is access, or when civilians leave the area, there are the food, water and medical supplies that people need. We are consistent in supporting UN resolution 2401 to seek access and the de-escalation of conflict to allow opportunities to be created both for dialogue and to protect the people. If there was anything new that we could think of to add to it we would, but meanwhile we are working with all the partners we can to seek to de-escalate and get the humanitarian access that is crucial.
We should all be appalled by the scenes affecting civilians in eastern Ghouta and Afrin, but our ability to influence the operational military tactics of Daesh, Assad or Russia in those situations is very limited. However, Turkey is a member of NATO. Can the Minister say whether there has been direct contact between the Defence Secretary and his counterpart in Turkey and, indeed, military-level—officer-level—contact about conduct, tactics and the importance of Turkey adhering to international humanitarian law?
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s good questions, I cannot speak for Defence Secretaries or Defence Ministers. I can say that there has indeed been military contact but not to the extent that he is saying, because it was almost a question about tactics and everything, and that would not be in any way appropriate. The approaches of defence, ambassadors, Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries have been consistent on the de-escalation of the conflict and the need for humanitarian access. That is the approach, but as a NATO partner, other partners are involved as well. The United States has a significant interest in the area and in the conflict coming to an end as soon as possible.
As has already been mentioned by Members on both sides of the House, the Kurds have been key allies in our fight against Daesh. Just in the interests of clarity, do the Government consider Turkey’s continued attacks on Afrin as contravening UN Security Council resolution 2401? If so, does the Minister not agree that condemning them in the strongest possible terms is not only the right thing to do but crucial if we are to restore faith in the international order and any hope of bringing about a political resolution of the crisis?
The hon. Gentleman puts his question very well and goes to the heart of it. If resolution 2401 is to mean what it says, it is a ceasefire for the whole of Syria. The United Kingdom was part of that and it stands by it. As I said earlier, what happens with resolutions now is that, if there is not sufficient will on the ground, we do not get where we need to be and the international order is affected. That is one reason why we are so consistent in talking to our Turkish partner about de-escalation, the need for de-escalation and the need for humanitarian access and in urging all parties in the area to try to find a way beyond the conflict.
Last weekend, a Kurdish constituent dissolved in tears at a local meeting about something else—she was very worried about her family. What can we do to take evidence so that, in future, war crimes can be prosecuted in an international court of justice?
The hon. Lady goes further than I can on this issue. Any war crimes allegations have to be brought to the appropriate authorities. The United Kingdom has worked extremely hard over the past few years to provide the opportunity for those in Syria to collect evidence of crimes, wherever they may be. Again, one can understand her constituent, but throughout that area, there are families in tears over each border about an atrocity committed. This is the tragedy for the United Kingdom as it tries to work with others to bring an end to this and to the violence that begets violence. Only by dealing with this in the manner suggested by the UN Secretary-General will we get an end to it. Individual aspects of justice and accountability are crucially important—absolutely—but we will work for a resolution to the conflict as a whole, which we think is the right thing to do, both for the Kurdish communities in the area and those who feel threatened by terror.
The Minister will be aware that there is a Kurdish community in my constituency, too, as we have discussed this in the recent past. The Kurdish community in Glasgow has a mixture of sadness and anger about the events that are going on in Afrin. Given that the city of Afrin is under siege, with no water and electricity, can I invite him to join Members on both sides of the House in condemning the invasion, which is resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths and more mass displacement in the entire region?
What I can do is make reference to what I said earlier about the return of tactics of siege and ignoring humanitarian norms and international humanitarian law. Conflict is a desperately retrograde step that all communities in the region will suffer from the longer it goes on. That is why the United Kingdom calls unequivocally for a de-escalation in this conflict, humanitarian access and the negotiations and dialogue that are the only thing that ultimately will end the conflict throughout the region.
The Minister said that the Government intend to hold the Turkish Government to account for the representations they have given about preventing civilian casualties. Can I press him on the specific steps that the Government will take to do that? Will they press for independent monitoring and an investigation of any alleged breaches of international law?
On holding people to account, the United Kingdom would hold to account any party that is guilty of any crimes in a conflict in the same way, through international structures and organisations. Monitoring on the ground is exceptionally difficult. We must be entirely practical about this. The holding to account is the same holding to account of any party in a conflict. We have been very clear, as I said. We understand the origins of this and why Turkey has the concerns that it does; but equally, we recognise the risk of the conflict diverting attention from the regime and from Daesh. There is already evidence that, as the conflict in Afrin has grown, others elsewhere are taking the opportunity to start up their operations again, which is just further misery for the people of Syria. I again go back to the Secretary-General and his determination, through Staffan de Mistura, to try to find an overall settlement because, ultimately, that is the only thing that will end the conflict between the parties and the pain that is undoubtedly being suffered tonight in areas of that region.
Does the Minister agree that Turkey’s assault on Afrin was entirely unjustified and had no basis in international law? If he does, what specific steps will the Government take to ensure that Turkey is held accountable for the war crimes being perpetrated in Afrin?