24 February 2020
James Cleverly responds to urgent question on the security situation in Syria

James Cleverly responds, on behalf of the Government as Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, to an urgent question on the security situation in Syria.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the security situation in Syria.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for bringing this urgent question to the House. 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 while fleeing the regime and Russian bombardment. They are fleeing northwards and being squeezed into increasingly dense enclaves. With camps full to capacity, many are sleeping in the open, in temperatures well below freezing.

Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Aleppo since 1 January this year. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 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—including at the UN Security Council—for an immediate, genuine and lasting ceasefire. 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 the region. There is overwhelming support for that 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 this year, only a political settlement in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 can deliver a lasting peace for Syria. The UK will continue to support the efforts of the UN special representative for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to that end. We regret that the Syrian regime continues to stall the 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, the Department for International Development has allocated £118 million to projects implemented by organisations delivering cross-border aid, primarily into north-west Syria, including into 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.

Mr Ellwood

Before I begin, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question? I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who I know also put in for this urgent question.

For almost a decade, we have seen the terrible events unfold in Syria and have occasionally offered a limited response to Assad’s barbarism, but since August 2013, the west has taken a strategic back seat.

I welcome the Minister to his place. He and I attended the Munich security conference. I hope that, next year, we will have a larger British contingent. The theme at that conference was the failure of the western project. It was an admission of the loss of common understanding of what it means to be part of the west—what we believe in, what we defend, and what we fight for. Nowhere is that more applicable than in what is happening in Syria, where Russian-backed Syrian forces, as has been outlined, continue to adopt the same brutal tactics that we saw in Homs, in Hama and in Aleppo, causing so much misery to millions. The latest escalation has seen almost a million people displaced, including women and children.

As we saw in the reports on Sky News over the weekend, Assad continues his advance, deliberately bombing hospitals and causing infants to freeze in the cold winter. Yet again, attempts by the UN Security Council to secure a ceasefire are vetoed by Russia. The prospect of a bloodbath grows higher, as does that of a direct conflict between Turkey and Syria. The words come again from the west, but we continue to watch on.

May I ask the Minister to please answer these questions? Given the UK’s P5 status, what is our role? Has Turkey, a NATO ally, requested any support? Indeed, has any been offered, such as introducing a no-fly zone to prevent helicopters from dropping barrel bombs? There is talk of a summit on 5 March. Is Britain even invited to that? What discussions has he had with our European partners, particularly on what options we can consider that bypass a stagnant United Nations? Does he now agree that the west’s inability to commit to any post-military phase after the counter-Daesh offensive has actually given Russia greater autonomy in shaping Syrian events?

On the growing influence and power of Russia, does the Minister share my concerns that the UN will go the way of the League of Nations if its ability to adjudicate internationally is not repaired? Finally, is he not concerned that the west’s growing reputation for hesitating is giving ever greater influence and confidence to non-western alliances to pursue their own agendas, as they know that the west is likely to respond only with words?

We will soon celebrate the 75th anniversary of victory in Europe, reflecting on a time when Britain did not flinch from its international duty and from stepping forward when other nations hesitated. If global Britain is to mean anything in this dangerous and complex world, now is the time to show it.

James Cleverly

I thank my right hon. Friend for those points. I was pleased that he, too, attended the Munich security conference, where I met representatives not only from the Syrian region but from the wider international community, which, as he says, takes the situation in Syria incredibly seriously. I very much regret the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure by the regime and by Russian forces.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the history—the League of Nations. On Russia’s veto at the United Nations, there is of course countervailing pressure. It is better to have as wide representation at the United Nations as possible. The veto is part of the mechanisms put in place in 1945 at the creation of the UN to ensure that as many people as possible could be around the table, but I do not think that anyone at the time envisaged the veto being used to protect regimes such as Assad’s, which has been regularly targeting civilians and their infrastructure.

The United Kingdom is part of the small group on Syria, which includes Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States of America. It is particularly important that Arab nations be represented on that small group that discusses the situation in Syria. There is a challenge, of course, in balancing the UK taking what my right hon. Friend might describe as a more active role, and the need for a sustainable solution that is agreed both by the protagonists in the region and by the surrounding nations, but we are certainly making sure that the UK voice is heard on the international stage, and that our actions are felt on the ground, particularly on the humanitarian front. Since 2011, we have been one of the largest bilateral donors, and we remain at the forefront of the humanitarian response. To date, we have committed £3.1 billion in response to the Syria crisis—our largest response to any single humanitarian crisis.

The UK is, and will remain, a powerful and passionate voice calling internationally for a ceasefire and the de-escalation of conflict in the region, both at the UN and through the small group on Syria.