Sunday, 16 October 2016

Analysis of the Debate on Aleppo in Parliament this week - no easy options but plenty of resolve

This weeks debate on Aleppo highlighted some stark truths about the current conflict in Syria. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson MP, captured the main points extremely well:

"Let me spell out some of the consequences. At this moment, the 275,000 inhabitants of eastern Aleppo are under siege. They are isolated from the outside world, subjected to constant bombardment, and prevented from receiving humanitarian aid. Their power and water supplies have been cut off in what has become a signature tactic of the Assad killing machine: the besieging of civilian populations. What we are now seeing in eastern Aleppo is the biggest and, potentially, the deadliest siege since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war more than five years ago.

Last week the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warned that eastern Aleppo might be “totally destroyed” by the end of the year. In the past two weeks, at least 376 people—half of them children—have been killed, and another 1,266 have been injured. Every hospital in eastern Aleppo is believed to have been bombed, some more than once, and several have been put out of action. Hospitals have been targeted with such frequency and precision that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this must be deliberate policy. As the House will know, intentionally attacking a hospital amounts to a war crime.

It is time, I think, for all these incidents to be properly and fully investigated with a view to assembling the necessary evidence and ensuring that justice is done—and, yes, I say in answer to questions that have been raised by several Members today that we do think that there could be advantage in the procedures of the International Criminal Court. I remind the House that in recent history, war criminals have been successfully prosecuted decades after their offences.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke of the will of the House. I am afraid that that was absent three years ago when, as several Members pointed out, we took an historic decision not to intervene. I hope that we will show a different measure of resolve this afternoon. Those who are conducting this bombing and who are, in my view, culpable of these crimes should realise that the mills of justice grind slowly, but they grind small.

The same penalties should apply to those involved in deliberate attacks on humanitarian convoys. As many Members have pointed out, on 19 September a UN aid convoy was destroyed near Aleppo and at least 20 people were killed. The vehicles were clearly marked, and the convoy had official permission from the Assad regime to deliver those desperately needed supplies. Satellite photographs that are in the public domain leave no doubt that the convoy was struck from the air. The incident took place after dark; by Russia’s own account, the war planes of Syria’s regime cannot strike targets after dark, and—also by Russia's own account—its aircraft were in the vicinity at the time. All the available evidence therefore points to Russian responsibility for the atrocity.

I trust that the UN board of inquiry will establish exactly what happened, and we in the United Kingdom Government stand ready to help. I emphasise that it is the UK which, week after week, is taking the lead—together with our allies in America and France, and all like-minded nations—in highlighting what is happening in Syria to a world in which, I fear, the wells of outrage are becoming exhausted.

I listened to the passionate speeches from the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the co-chair of the all-party friends of Syria group, who is carrying on the tradition of Jo Cox, whom we mourn. I listened to all the speeches that made the point that there is no commensurate horror among some of the anti-war protest groups, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley: I would certainly like to see demonstrations outside the Russian embassy. Where is the Stop the War coalition at the moment?
It is up to us in the Government to show a lead, and week after week in the UN we are indeed doing what we can to point out what the Russians are up to and to build an international understanding of what is going on in Syria. I believe that we are having some effect. As Members have pointed out, the Russians have now been driven to mount a veto in the Security Council to protect their own position five times. This is not some anti-Russian campaign; we are not doing this out of any particular hostility towards Russia. Indeed, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, did his utmost to negotiate an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that would at least have reduced the killing. Anyone who has studied the Lavrov-Kerry talks will know that John Kerry threw himself into that task in a Herculean way. However, on 3 October, he was driven to abandon his efforts by the attack on the aid convoy and the pounding of Aleppo, which destroyed all hopes of a ceasefire. The US Secretary of State has concluded, I think rightly, that Russia was determined to help Assad’s onslaught against the women, children and families of Aleppo regardless of any agreement
We are in constant touch with our French colleagues about this proposal. 

I must say bluntly to the House that if Russia continues on its current path, that great country is in danger of becoming a pariah nation. If President Putin’s strategy is to restore the greatness and glory of Russia, I believe that he risks seeing his ambition turn to ashes in the face of international contempt for what is happening in Syria. Russia tries to justify its onslaught on Aleppo by saying that its sole aim is to drive out Jabhat al-Nusra, or Fatah al-Sham as it now calls itself, which is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. No one questions that these people are terrorists, but their presence in that city cannot justify an assault on 275,000 innocent people, still less the imposition of a siege, which is, by its very nature, a wholly indiscriminate tactic. I agree with the phrase of Staffan de Mistura who said that the Russians should not be able to use the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra as an alibi.

I will come to the way forward for Aleppo in a minute. Let me remind the House of all the ways in which the UK is trying to be of use and trying to salve the situation. Like other Members, I pay tribute to the White Helmets, who rescue men, women and children from the rubble of bomb sites. Many Members have met them. Funded partly by the UK Government, they are doing an heroic job. Of the 3,000 volunteers, 142 have been killed in the line of duty and 400 have been wounded.
Britain is at the forefront of this humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis. We have pledged £2.3 billion—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis—which makes us the second largest donor after the US. We can be proud in this country of the help that we are giving to hundreds of thousands of people. Britain has done a huge amount to mobilise the international community.In February, we co-hosted a conference and secured pledges of more than $12 billion, which is the largest amount ever raised in a one-day conference.

Let me answer the question about whether we are taking enough refugees asked by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). Yes, of course we should take our share, and we are doing so, but Members will agree that the overwhelming priority is to help those nearest the centres of conflict in the berm and elsewhere and to keep them as near to their communities as we can.

Others have spoken about no-fly zones, or no-bombing zones. I have every sympathy with those ideas and the motives behind them. We must work through all those types of options with our allies, especially as this House is not committed to putting boots on the ground. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) said, we cannot commit to a no-fly zone unless we are prepared to shoot down planes or helicopters that violate that zone. We need to think very carefully about the consequences.

We must consult on this as widely as possible, and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield suggested, I will certainly be talking to everybody involved in the 1991 effort to provide no-fly zones over northern Iraq. We must ensure that we have innovative ways of getting aid into Aleppo and, as several Members have said, we must step up the pressure on Assad’s regime and on the Russians through sanctions. I listened carefully to what was said. The House will accept that there is a certain friability in the European resolve to impose sanctions on Russia, given the large dependency of many European countries on Russian gas. It is vital that our country remains at the forefront of keeping that resolve from crumbling, which is what we are doing.

In the long term the only realistic solution is to persuade both sides to agree to a ceasefire and then to work towards a political solution. It is of course true that that process has been stopped since April, when the ceasefire was destroyed. That does not mean that the process is dead, and it must not mean that the process is dead. On the contrary, this country and this Government have worked to keep that flame of hope alive and have worked for a settlement. On 7 September we hosted a session in London with the high negotiations committee of the Syrian opposition, which set out a detailed and progressive vision for how to achieve a transition in Syria towards a democratic, pluralist administration in which the rights of all communities in that country would be respected, but would also preserve the stability and institutions of the Syrian state while getting rid of the Assad regime.
We  cannot get rid of the jihadi fighters from eastern Aleppo as long as the population of Aleppo is being bombed in a ruthless aerial bombardment that is driving people into a position in which they will do anything to fight and resist the Assad regime. Our best hope is to persuade the Russians that it is profoundly in their interests to take the initiative, to win the acclaim of the international community, to do the right thing in Syria, to call off their puppets in the Assad regime, to stop the bombing, to bring peace to Aleppo and to have a genuine ceasefire. That is the way; that is the prelude. I am perfectly prepared to look at Staffan de Mistura’s proposals for leading out al-Nusra and all the rest of it, and perhaps to bring in a UN contingent—that all sounds eminently sensible—but a ceasefire and the end of the Russian bombardment has to come first. 

I think that millions of people in Syria are yearning for that outcome and for a return to talks. I hope that they will hear the passion of this afternoon’s debate. They will recognise that, of course, there are no easy solutions and no pat answers to this. They also know that this House and our constituents are disgusted by the behaviour of Assad and his regime. I hope that in Moscow and Damascus they will hear the message from British MPs that we are willing to consider anything honestly and practically that can be done to bring peace and hope back to Syria. I am grateful to all Members who have spoken so passionately this afternoon."

The full debate on the situation in Aleppo can be found here: