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House of Lords Hansard
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Syria: Withdrawal of US Troops
08 October 2019
Volume 799

Statement

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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 withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria. The Statement is as follows:

“We are in close consultation with the US on its response to the proposed Turkish military action in north-east Syria. The Foreign and Defence Secretaries both spoke to their US counterparts yesterday. The US position, including any movement of US troops, is a matter for the US Government. However, the US Department of Defense said in a statement yesterday that the US does not endorse a Turkish operation in north-east Syria. We have been consistently clear with Turkey that unilateral military action must be avoided, as it would destabilise the region and threaten efforts to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh. As members of the global coalition, our focus remains on securing the enduring defeat of Daesh. We will continue to work with the US and other international partners to that end”.

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My Lords, it has long been a concern that, due to Turkey’s veto, Kurdish representatives have been excluded from the Geneva and Astana peace processes, and are now excluded from the Syrian committee on constitutional reform. Will the Minister insist that in all future talks about Syria’s future, Kurdish representatives have a guaranteed seat at the table? Unfortunately, I understand that the US had not even notified the UN in advance of the decision to withdraw. In any contact that the Foreign Secretary has with our US allies, and indeed others, including the Turkish Government, will the Government ask that all parties engage through the proper international institutions?

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My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, yes, of course we are making that point very clear. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday, when the threats of a Turkish military incursion were raised as a serious concern. The noble Lord raised another valid point: the SDF has been a key partner in the defeat of Daesh and now, as we seek to bring stability to the region, we must stand by our coalition partners. We have not defeated Daesh yet—perhaps geographically we have, but the ideological base is very much still present.

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My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for his reply. Will the UK raise this at the UN Security Council? In this incredibly dangerous situation, will the Government provide any assistance, if necessary, to the Syrian Democratic Forces to enable it to maintain security at the seven camps that hold ISIS fighters? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of any further Turkish invasion of north-east Syria on UK military operations against ISIS and the security of British humanitarian organisations in the region?

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My Lords, the noble Baroness and I often discuss this, both within and outside the Chamber. To put it on record and to be absolutely clear, first, we do not support the proposed Turkish action. We are working very closely with international partners. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is seeking a call with the Turkish Foreign Minister in that respect. On support for the global coalition, the SDF continues to receive support. It has been extremely consistent and, indeed, integral to the defeat of Daesh. The gains made should not be lost.

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My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what consultation took place from the US side with the British Government, given that we have resources deployed in that area? Secondly, it is not about whether it is the right of the Americans to withdraw their troops—of course it is—but whether we have made representations that we do not wish them to do that. Have we done that? Do we feel no shame at all that our principal ally is abandoning those who have died to enable us to defeat IS?

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My Lords, first, as I said, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary of State Pompeo and relayed our concerns to him directly. We have also made very clear that we do not support any unilateral action by Turkey, which is also an ally. We will continue to work with our allies in the region, not only in support of what has been achieved on the ground but to bring stability to Syria as a whole.

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My Lords, the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench was absolutely right to draw attention to the risk of the sudden release of ISIS prisoners, which could undo the huge gains achieved in recent years. Will the Government reconsider their policy on the widows and children of ISIS fighters, particularly those who originated from this country? Other European states have taken back some of their people; surely we should do the same.

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My Lords, the Government’s position on foreign fighters has consistently been and remains very clear: those who have committed crimes should face justice for their actions. We have also been clear that foreign fighters should face justice in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which will often be the region where the crimes took place. I can reassure the noble Lord that we continue to work closely with all key partners in this respect, including on ensuring the safety and security of UK citizens as the Government’s number one priority.

I am acutely aware—I had meetings to this effect on the margins of the UN General Assembly—of the issues the noble Lord raises about camps, including those in Syria. I understand that one camp currently holds up to 40,000 either combatants or families of Daesh. That is of deep concern. It is an issue not just for Syria or Iraq; there is a global challenge and we need to be ready to face up to it.

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What is the United Kingdom Government’s long-term policy towards the Kurdish people? As we know, they were the one nation left after the First World War with no territory of their own. They are split among five nations, many in hostile environments. What is our long-term policy towards the Kurdish people, who have helped us so much in the fight against Daesh?

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Wherever the Kurdish community is, we have continued to campaign and advocate for its important inclusion in any future settlement, whether in Iraq or Syria, which have made, as we have seen, certain gains— although recent events in Iraq have caused concern. We continue to ensure that all minority communities, whatever country they are in, including the Kurdish community, continue to receive vital rights of representation and are fully engaged and involved in all processes. As for immediate support, as I have indicated, the SDF has been part of the global fight against Daesh and remains an important coalition partner.

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I understand every word of the question, but I do not understand the answer. What is our policy towards the Kurds? Do we have no shame about betraying them now? Have we made any representations to the United States? Will we be making any representation to the Turks?

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I challenge the noble Lord; I do not agree with him. It is not we who have made any declarations; it is the United States. It is entitled to make decisions of its own. The United Kingdom remains a committed partner to ensuring that we bring peace and stability to Syria. As I have said, we stand by the SDF and our Kurdish partners, in both in Syria and Iraq. That position is clear and I am not sure why the noble Lord is so confused.

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The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, asked what representations Her Majesty’s Government are making to the Turkish Government as well. Clearly, the United States has a sovereign right to withdraw its troops, but Turkey remains a NATO ally. Do we not have some leverage to talk to Turkish leaders to try to ensure that their actions against the Kurds do not lead to any further reprisals, going beyond what is happening in Syria in any case?

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I agree with the noble Baroness. She is quite right to say that Turkey is a partner in NATO. We provide continued support for many Syrian refugees who have taken refuge in Turkey, which has supported the Kurds and other refugees from Syria. We will continue to raise our concerns. On this specific issue, the rights of the Kurdish community—indeed, any minority community—should be part and parcel of any future settlement found in Syria, as we continue to campaign for greater stability, and in representation in Iraq.