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Northern Syria: Turkish Incursion

Volume 800: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2019


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

“On 9 October, following the US announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the region, Turkey launched a military operation in north-east Syria. Turkish troops have pushed into northern Syrian towns and villages, clashing with Kurdish fighters over a stretch of now 125 miles. The UN estimates that at least 160,000 people have been displaced in less than a week.

From the outset, the UK Government have warned Turkey against taking this military action and, as we feared, it has seriously undermined the stability and security of the region. It risks worsening the humanitarian crisis and increasing the suffering of millions of refugees. It also undermines the international effort that should be focused on defeating Daesh.

I can tell the House that, on Thursday 10 October, I spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and expressed the UK’s grave concerns. On Saturday 12 October, the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan to reinforce those concerns and urge restraint. I also addressed the issue at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday and, yesterday, the EU released a statement, which we joined, condemning Turkey’s unilateral military action and calling on it to withdraw its forces.

The United Kingdom Government take their arms export control responsibilities very seriously and, in this case, of course, we will keep our defence exports to Turkey under very careful and continual review. I can tell the House that no further export licences to Turkey for items which might be used in military operations in Syria will be granted while we conduct the review.

Yesterday, as honourable Members will know, the US signed an executive order to impose limited sanctions on Turkey, including against senior members of Turkey’s Government. The EU considered this and on balance decided against sanctions at this stage. However, we will keep the position under careful review.

It is only right that, as we condemn this military intervention, we also recognise some of the legitimate concerns that Turkey has in relation to the 3.6 million refugees that it has taken from Syria and its concerns around the threat to its security from the PKK at its southern border with Syria.

For decades, Turkey has been a staunch ally in NATO, one of the largest contributors of military personnel. But with close partners, we must at times be candid and clear. This is not the action we expected from an ally. It is reckless and counterproductive and plays straight into the hands of Russia and the Assad regime. The UK Government call on Turkey to exercise maximum restraint and bring an end to this unilateral military action”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Anyone who heard the first-hand account on the “Today” programme on the radio this morning will be extremely shocked by the consequences of this illegal action. Clearly it is time for a very strong, robust response. I am concerned that the Foreign Secretary in the other place constantly referred to our robust export licence regime and said that we would keep the matter under review. Surely it is now time to say that there will be no more arms and that we will ensure there is a proper review of our existing exports, to ensure that British arms were not used in this terrible attack.

First, I welcome the noble Lord back to his rightful place; it is good to see him back on his feet. I assure him that we are looking at the situation very closely. We take our arms export control responsibilities very seriously. As I said in repeating the Statement, we will review our situation regarding exports to Turkey and keep it under careful consideration. I also assure the noble Lord that no further export licences will be granted to Turkey for items that might be used in military operations in Syria. This is currently under review; I can give him that reassurance. Of course, the other important thing to bear in mind is that we continue to raise the deep concerns we have bilaterally. As I said in the Statement, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with the plight of 160,000 displaced people adding to what was already a crisis on the ground. This is in dire need of resolution. Turkey really needs to show restraint and we need to ensure support for those refugees who have now been additionally displaced in the region.

My Lords, this is indeed an extremely dangerous situation. Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Collins—I am also very pleased to see him back—the Statement says that the Minister’s right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary,

“addressed the issue at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday”.

However, although his speech mentioned various trouble spots around the world, I find absolutely no mention of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, or even of Syria itself. He makes reference to the,

“relatively minor disputes between us”.

Did the Minister just talk about being “candid and clear”? Is the Statement not misleading on this very important matter?

Not at all. While hearing what the noble Baroness said, I know for a fact—and said so in the Statement—that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to the Turkish Foreign Minister. The noble Baroness will also recall that, after the initial announcement from the US, he spoke to Secretary of State Pompeo. He has dealt with this issue robustly and continues to do so. Turkey is an ally. It is important that we have candid exchanges with it and what I said in the Statement stands.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that his statement about arms exports sounds awfully like weasel words? How on earth do you define which arms might be used in a major military operation such as this? Could he therefore say how the position we are taking compares with the position taken by the French and German Governments, which, as far as I know, have cut off all arms supplies? Could he also comment on whether, with the gathering criticism of Turkey’s action, it might be useful to go back to the United Nations and see whether we can get a more clear-cut position there than we were able to when we tried, quite rightly, last week?

On the noble Lord’s second point, as Minister for the United Nations I can assure him that we continue to look at this through all multilateral fora, including the United Nations. As he acknowledged, we sought to do so only last week. On export licences, I have been clear about any currently being granted to Turkey. He also mentioned the French and German statements. I will look at these in more detail, but I understand that they were for new licences announced by the French and German Governments. I assure the noble Lord that we have a robust regime for our arms and defence exports, and will continue to look at this situation very carefully.

Can my noble friend say whether the American authorities have explained in full their rather convoluted policy on this horrific situation? It is very hard to follow, and the media here seem unable to explain the switches and changes in the White House. Can he also explain what was behind the comments of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, as reported in the Times this morning? Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, I detected a rather sympathetic reference to the Turkish incursions, which sounded extremely strange. Can he explain that?

The withdrawal of US troops is very much a matter for the US Administration. We have made it clear in the bilateral discussions that we have had—including the one I referred to earlier—that this has serious implications, which have been qualified in what we have seen on the ground. We remain concerned about the continuation of the coalition against Daesh, a primary purpose of the global coalition, which we remain committed to supporting.

On the remarks made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I have repeated the Foreign Secretary’s statement that our position with Turkey is very robust. It is an ally. We understand that Turkey has concerns about certain organisations which are also proscribed organisations here in the UK but, at the same time, we did not support the action it has taken and do not do so now.

My Lords, rather a long time ago, I had ministerial responsibility for all arms exports. In view of the immense concern about the situation, would it not be better to stop all arms exports temporarily, pending the review? Then, if the review is satisfactory, the situation can be considered in that light.

I acknowledge the insights and experience of the noble and learned Lord, but I have stated what our current policy is. I restate that we have a robust regime in place and no further export licences will be granted to Turkey for items that would be used in military operations.

My Lords, according to reports I have read, the German Chancellor spoke directly to President Erdoğan, urging him to declare a ceasefire, as others European nations have done, to avoid any more terrible bloodshed and displacement. Have the British Government done the same?

I assure the noble Baroness that, as I said in repeating the Statement, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken to the President of Turkey. We have not only urged restraint but called out that its actions were unexpected and unwarranted. On ensuring that the emerging humanitarian crisis in the region is given priority, let me further reassure the noble Baroness that we will continue to engage directly with Turkey—which, as I have said on a number of occasions, is our ally—to ensure that our views, and the views of you Lordships’ House, are made clear.

My Lords, a few moments ago the Minister said that a principal reason for our involvement in north-east Syria has been the defeat of Daesh. Vast numbers of people have been released from camps in north-east Syria. Some of those whose names I gave to the Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, over the weekend, have been directly associated with Daesh and are now on their way to the streets of Europe. What is the Minister doing to ensure that these people are apprehended as soon as possible, and, more importantly, brought to justice by creating internationally recognised mechanisms under the convention on the crime of genocide?

The noble Lord expresses a concern, shared by us all, about exacerbating the situation of not just those Daesh fighters but the families who were held. I assure him that I am in receipt of his email, which he referred to, and that we are looking at each case very closely. Where people are identified as due for prosecution—for example, if they arrive back in the UK—it will be for the Crown Prosecution Service to look at each matter individually, and appropriate action will be taken against those who committed these crimes.

My Lords, is it not disgraceful how the Kurdish people have been treated in this matter, after the stance that they took against Daesh only a short period ago? What will the Government do to show their sympathy and support for, and understanding of, the plight of the Kurdish people in these appalling circumstances?

I agree with the noble Lord and, as I said from this Dispatch Box only last week, we should keep the plight of the Kurdish community and those who led and were part of the global coalition at the forefront of our minds. They played a vital role in the defeat of Daesh—its geographical defeat, not an ideological defeat—and we stand ready to support them, particularly with humanitarian support. The decision taken by the US is regrettable and not one that we supported. Furthermore, the actions of Turkey are not ones that we support. We will seek to lend whatever support we can to the Kurdish communities on the ground, particularly those being displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance.