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House of Commons Hansard
28 November 2016
Volume 617

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

  • We are appalled by the entirely preventable humanitarian catastrophe now taking place in eastern Aleppo and across other besieged areas in Syria. The UN Under-Secretary General, Stephen O’Brien, has described what is happening in Aleppo as an “annihilation”. Over the weekend, Syrian regime forces captured several opposition-held districts of Aleppo, potentially bisecting the besieged eastern part of the city, and there are reports of further advances today.

    The regime’s two-week assault on Aleppo has been backed predominantly by Iranian and Shia militias. There have been unconfirmed reports of Russian airstrikes, but our understanding is that since airstrikes resumed a fortnight ago, the vast majority have been by the regime. During that time, hundreds have been killed and thousands more have been forced to flee. The last functioning hospital was put out of action on 19 November. Humanitarian access has been deliberately blocked by the regime and its allies for over four months now, leading to the 275,000 civilians in eastern Aleppo facing imminent starvation. Across the rest of Syria, there has been almost no progress in delivering the UN humanitarian plan for November. The latest UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid was agreed by armed opposition groups last week, but the regime is still blocking it. This is just the latest of many failed efforts.

    I make it clear to Russia that using food as a weapon of war is a war crime. So, too, is attacking civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals and schools—another favoured tool of the regime and its backers. We call upon those with influence on the regime, especially Russia and Iran, to use that influence to end the devastating assault on eastern Aleppo and to ensure that the UN’s humanitarian plan can be implemented in full. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said this morning, that requires an immediate ceasefire and access for impartial humanitarian actors to ensure the protection of vulnerable citizens fleeing the fighting. All those involved in the siege and assault on Aleppo have a responsibility to change course to protect civilians.

    Addressing the dire situation in eastern Aleppo and the wider Syrian conflict is a priority for this Government. I spoke to Britain’s ambassador to the UN this morning to discuss what more we can do in the Security Council to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the conflict. There can be no military solution to this conflict. What is needed is for the regime and its backers to return to diplomacy and negotiations on a political settlement, based on transition away from President Assad.

    The Government stand ready to engage fully in discussions and offer whatever support we can in the quest for a political settlement, working in partnership with the international community, including Russia. We need to maintain international pressure to that end. That is why we are strong supporters of the recent EU effort to extend 28 new sanctions designations against the regime in October and November. In the meantime, we continue to work with our key partners to look at every option to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians, especially those in Aleppo.

    For as long as the regime and its backers deny humanitarian access, whether by land or air, such options, I am afraid, are difficult to come by. By the same token, the real solution is straightforward: the Syrian regime must simply agree to allow UN aid agencies to access those in need. All that is needed is the decision from Damascus, nothing more.

  • Last week, I and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) welcomed the head of the Syria Civil Defence force, the White Helmets, to Parliament. Raed Saleh told us of the terrible situation in Aleppo: the lack of food, the lack of medical supplies, and the constant bombing by Assad and the Russians. Since then, the situation has worsened. A renewed assault by Assad has recaptured a large part of the city, as the Minister described, forcing thousands to flee with just the clothes on their backs.

    This morning, I was sent a statement from the White Helmets, which read:

    “Dear Friends in Britain,

    Aleppo is in a state of emergency. 279,000 people have been under siege for 94 days. In the last 13 days the Syrian Regime and Russia have launched more than 2,000 airstrikes and unleashed a variety of banned weapons…

    We are calling on you, as the friends of the Syrian people to act. The Syrian Regime and Russia are refusing to let aid into the city so we are calling on you to airdrop aid to provide urgent relief to the starving civilians trapped…

    We can not believe that one of the world’s most powerful countries, in the full glare of the media, will allow 279,000 people to be starved and bombed to death.”

    My question is this: is the counsel of despair that we heard this morning from the Defence Secretary on the radio really all we have left? There is something we can do. We can airdrop aid into the besieged areas, as the White Helmets are calling for and as a cross-party letter signed by 126 Members of this House has demanded. I ask the Minister to respond to that letter to the Prime Minister here. We can renew the push in the UN for the creation of a humanitarian corridor to get help to civilians. Will the Minister confirm that he raised that in his conversations with our ambassador?

    The Government have always said that airdrops are a last resort and I understand that, but Gareth Bayley, the UK special representative for Syria, has tweeted about Aleppo today, saying:

    “Situation in #Aleppo could not be more dire: every hospital out of service; official food stocks run out; nowhere for civilians to run”.

    He called Aleppo “a coffin”. Does the Minister agree that the Government need an urgent strategy to protect civilians? When hundreds of thousands of civilians are being starved and bombed into submission, we must consider airdrops. It is time for the last resort.

    What Britain stands for on the world stage is being challenged. This is a test. There is no risk-free course of action left, but I believe there is a right course of action. Let us not stand and watch as one of the great cities of the world is destroyed. Let us not allow 100,000 children to starve in eastern Aleppo.

    When Kosovo was under attack, Britain led the response. When people in Sierra Leone cried out for our help, Britain led the way. The people of Syria need us to show that leadership. Jo Cox said that our response to Syria would be “emblematic” of our generation, and “how history judges us”. Her words are ever more true today, so let us not fail.

  • First, may I say how grateful I am to the hon. Lady for her work in raising this matter in the House through urgent questions and by working with other colleagues as well?

    I had the opportunity to meet the head of the White Helmets at the same time as the hon. Lady. He stressed his frustration that the west—indeed, the world—was not doing enough as we saw the annihilation of an historic city. It is a city that goes back to the sixth millennium. It is the financial centre of Syria, its largest city, and now condemned, almost, to ruin.

    The hon. Lady touches on the letter, now with 126 signatories. I made it clear in my statement that we are looking at all options, but she must understand that, as has been repeated in this House, unilateral or even multilateral aid drops would place us in harm’s way, in what is already a complicated air environment. The question therefore has to be asked whether that is the best and safest way of getting aid to where we need it to go. We are not ruling out options, but we have to ask ourselves whether introducing British aircraft into that air environment would compound or improve matters, and whether there are other, safer ways of getting the aid in.

    The hon. Lady also raises a larger point, namely what Britain and the international community are doing. She also mentioned the work of Jo Cox. We all agree in this House that Britain has the ability and the aspiration to play a significant role on the world stage. In August 2013 we had that opportunity and we blinked. We had an opportunity to hold Assad to account. As a result we have ended up with a situation where both Russia and Daesh have now come in. The question I pose to this House—

  • What are you doing now?

  • The question I pose to this House, and to the right hon. Lady who is screaming from her seat, is that, unless this Parliament gives the Executive the support we need, our hands are tied in terms of what we can do. I therefore turn to the Labour Front-Bench team, who I think are of a different opinion to some behind them, and say that Britain wants to engage on this, but five resolutions have been vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia, so we need to look at other opportunities. We can do that only if we have the full support of this Parliament. I hope we will get that so the Executive can lean into this challenge in the way Jo Cox would expect.

  • The whole House will welcome the Minister’s unequivocal statement on behalf of the Government that Russia is committing war crimes in Aleppo and in Syria. The position in Aleppo is unclear today, but there are two things we can surely say. Will the Government put in their undoubted diplomatic efforts and bend every sinew to secure unfettered access for UN and humanitarian support? Secondly, will they also bend every sinew to secure a ceasefire, so that negotiations under UN auspices, through Staffan de Mistura, can begin?

  • I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for engaging with this and doing his best to make sure that Parliament is up to date and involved in what is happening in Aleppo. He touches on the issue of war crimes. It is important to understand that it is unlikely that we will be able to hold the perpetrators to account today or tomorrow, but we will hold them to account in the months and years to come. We are keeping lists so as to understand who the military leaders are who are conducting the air attacks, no matter what country they come from, and all those participating in these crimes and supporting the Syrian regime must remember that their day in the international courts will come. We are collecting that evidence to make sure we can hold them to account.

    On the important question of airdrops, the UN has tens of thousands of pieces of kit and material that it wishes to get into these areas, but it is being denied access by the Syrian regime. We cannot enter the regime’s airspace, or use its roads, without its permission. If we sought to do so without its permission, we would end up with exactly the situation we had on 19 September, when a UN-led convoy moved into Aleppo and was destroyed from the air by Russian aeroplanes.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). As she made clear, there is no more urgent situation in the world right now than the humanitarian crisis in east Aleppo. With no functioning hospitals to handle the mounting civilian casualties, food supplies exhausted and tens of thousands of people already facing starvation, we truly have reached the point of last resort, and the Government have previously made it clear what that should mean. The former Foreign Secretary said in June:

    “While air drops are complex, costly and risky, they are…the last resort to relieve human suffering across many besieged areas.”

    To be clear, nobody in the House underestimates the complexity and risks involved, but with no alternatives and thousands facing death if they do not get immediate supplies of food and medical equipment, these are risks that we must be prepared to take. Will the Minister take the urgent steps required today to agree a plan for airdrops by British planes with the UN and our international partners, as has been called for by the White Helmets, whose representatives I too met last week? The UN’s humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, was asked at the weekend what plan B was if Russia and Assad kept up their criminal assault on east Aleppo and continued to block supplies of aid by road. He said:

    “Plan B is that people starve. And can we allow that to happen? No, we cannot”.

    He is quite right, and I hope that the Minister will agree.

  • Britain’s humanitarian effort should be praised by everyone in the House. We are providing £2.3 billion—that makes us the second-largest donor— £23 million of which is going directly to UN organisations geared to making sure that the aid gets to where it is most urgently required. We are now debating the tactics of how to get the equipment into place, and the hon. Lady is advocating that British aeroplanes—Hercules aircraft or otherwise—go into Syrian airspace and make those drops.

  • They would be shot down.

  • They would be shot down, as my right hon. Friend says. I am not even aware that the UN has requested airdrops. I am not saying that they will be ruled out or who should do them. It may be that we can co-ordinate and make them happen. They are not being dismissed; I am simply telling the House that it is hugely complicated. I have been in the armed forces and involved in several airdrops, so I know that very often, when the drop zone is particularly small, the kit lands in the wrong place and goes to the very people we do not want to receive it. As I touched on before, the scale of the aid required means that an enormous number of sorties would have to be conducted; but with transport trucks, we could get the aid to the exact locations, if they are given the permissions. I am sorry to labour the point, but were we to conduct airstrikes, it would require Syrian support. If we can get that support, it is better that it be for the trucks, which could get through to the exact people requiring the aid.

  • I think my hon. Friend meant airdrops rather than airstrikes, but he is right that we can be proud of what we have done as a country for those who are in the camps surrounding Syria. Today’s urgent question is about those who are trapped in the most hideous situation in Aleppo.

    What I believe Members are trying to convey to the Minister is that we regard this as possibly one of the most urgent issues in global politics today. We think this is an opportunity for the British Government to show leadership, to convene likely partners, to kick-start the peace process and the peace talks, while at the same time coming to the House with some concrete ideas about how we can alleviate the appalling, biblical suffering of the men, women and children in what remains of one of the great cities of Syria.

  • My right hon. Friend gives me licence to pay tribute to the neighbouring countries of Syria for the work they have done in taking on board literally millions of refugees—Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan in particular. One reason why we organised the Syrian support conference this year was to make sure that there were funds available so that those countries can look after those refugees, ensure that they are educated and have the health services they need and make sure that they can eventually move back to Syria once the guns fall silent.

    My right hon. Friend talks about Britain wanting to do more. I hope that what I said earlier is not being misconstrued. My request is that I want and would like to, but we are at the will of Parliament when it comes to ensuring that it happens. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are shouting, but the Leader of the Opposition had five opportunities to vote on Syria, but we ended up not having the opportunity to check Daesh before it had been created and to hold Assad to account. We cannot afford to go down that road again. If there is appetite in this House, I absolutely welcome it.

  • Order. I entirely understand that passions are running high. It might help the House to know that I intend to call everyone, so there is no need for any hon. Member to speak from her seat, when she will have the opportunity to speak on her feet in due course.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker.

    I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this urgent question and, indeed, on the work she has done to get cross-party support for calling on the UK Government to authorise the airdropping of aid. A quarter of a million people, including 100,000 children, have been trapped in deteriorating conditions in Aleppo’s eastern district since the summer. There are no functioning hospitals; there is no more food. Independent observers have estimated that yesterday alone, at least 219 civilians were killed.

    I understand that finding a practical and political solution to this horrific, almost unimaginable situation is complex and challenging. I say to the Minister, however, that no practical challenge should be too tough and no political obstacles too insurmountable to do the right thing by these people whose suffering is growing day by day. Who could fail to be moved by the seven-year-old Bana al-Abed who was tweeting live from Aleppo, asking for help when bombs were falling on her. That is a serious call for help, and we must act. What discussions have taken place with Russia to demand that it sign up now to the agreement brokered by the UN to provide aid? What practical assistance has been offered by UK forces to support the delivery of aid?

  • On that last point, as I say, we are doing all our work through the UN agencies, which are best placed and neutral. There is an important difference in that if we start to act as a unilateral operator in this very difficult, complex and multi-sided environment, we could be seen and labelled as some form of antagonist by the Russians and, indeed, the Syrians. That is the main complication. Alternatively, we can do things neutrally through the United Nations and on a humanitarian ticket, which is why we are pushing forward our efforts and our funds to support the work of the UN.

    The hon. Lady’s other point has been raised before, and I view it as well summarised by two pictures that I have used before in this House. The first is of Omran Daqneesh, the boy photographed after being bombed. He was alive and hon. Members may recall he was thrown in the back of an ambulance. The other stark image that reminds us of the hell of Syria is that of Alan Kurdi, the poor boy who was washed up on the Turkish beach. Is that the choice that we are leaving the people of Syria? I do not want that. I very much want us to do more, and I hope that—together—we will be able to achieve that.

  • I have organised airdrops in a benign environment. That is the ideal situation, because airdrops are not high but low, and aircraft carrying them out are very vulnerable. If the House wants airdrops to be carried out in a non-benign environment, it must expect our aircraft to be brought down. If that is the risk that this Parliament wishes to take, let it please, in future, vote for it—and everyone in the House should take responsibility for that vote when an RAF aircraft containing seven or eight people is brought to the ground and everyone is killed: that is the responsibility that the House will have to bear.

  • My hon. Friend, with the experience that he brings to the House, articulates the challenges that we face. We must work with the United Nations, and receive its advice on how best to get the aid in. I do not rule out the use of airdrops, but it must be a last resort when we are unable to get the trucks in by gaining permissions on the ground.

  • I think that, in truth, all of us in the House, and in the world, feel ashamed by the fact that we are unable to bring food and medical supplies to the 250,000 people who are trapped in eastern Aleppo, including, as we have heard, 100,000 children. They are in harm’s way today. I understand—we all understand—the difficulties involved in airdrops, such as the one raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), but back in the summer—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)—the then Foreign Secretary told the House that agreement had been reached for airdrops to be used if necessary. I simply say to the Minister that if this is not the last resort, given what is being reported every day, what on earth is?

  • I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and the work that he has done in this regard, and I have listened carefully to what he has said. I spent some time discussing what we could do with Matthew Rycroft, head of the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations in New York. Unless we have permission for aircraft to enter that space—not necessarily British aircraft; any aircraft—the dangers that those aircraft are likely to face will be considerable. We need to weigh up the options to ensure that we are content for those risks to be taken.

  • I have immense sympathy for my hon. Friend. The people of Syria could have had no better friend than him and the Government over the past few years, and I fully appreciate the difficulty in which he finds himself. Whatever we may have asked of the Prime Minister—I signed the letter as well—it is important for us to remember that the United Kingdom is not the perpetrator here and that we are seeking to do something good in very difficult circumstances.

    May I follow up the question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn)? In May, the International Syria Support Group, which includes the United States and Russia, agreed that if by 1 June the United Nations had been denied humanitarian access to any of the designated besieged areas, it would call on the World Food Programme to immediately carry out a programme for air bridges and airdrops. If it was possible at that time, in those circumstances, for people to secure the agreement that my hon. Friend is seeking for airdrops, is it not possible—bearing in mind that we are at the last resort—to redouble those efforts to receive the permission that he, and those whom we would be asking to drop the food, require to proceed?

  • The work of the International Syria Support Group has been difficult, and has been tested. The most recent meeting took place at the United Nations General Assembly, and I attended that meeting with the Foreign Secretary. It was clear that Russia was starting to split away from its intent to provide support and to seek a political settlement, which had been the purpose of bringing the group together. Again, we are left with the problem of gaining the necessary permission for the aircraft. However, I will certainly consider what my right hon. Friend has said, and I will write to him with more details.

  • I have a lot of time for this Minister, but he should not rewrite the history of what happened in 2013. As one of the Labour MPs who did support action against Assad back then, may I gently point out to him that two of his colleagues who were recently Foreign Office Ministers, a former Secretary of State on his own Benches, the Labour Front-Bench team and Labour Back Benchers are all calling for the Government to bring something back to the House on airdrops, so why does he not just do it?

  • I will answer that in two parts. First, why do we not just do it? Because of the very challenging issues that we face. We do not have permission to send in aircraft. We saw what happened to the Russian aircraft that wandered into Turkish space. It is a volatile environment and we would need to gain the permissions at this point to make that happen. On the other part, I do not wish to antagonise the House and try to rewrite the history. It is as much the Government’s fault for failing to win across all parliamentarians. For me, that is the biggest error from our Government—we did not take with us Parliament itself. We collectively need to work together to ensure we are all up to date and, in that way, the Executive can be empowered to do such things, whether no-fly zones or airdrops. However, only with the will and support of Parliament can we make that move forward.

  • Has any estimate been made of the willingness of refugees to return to Syria if the regime prevails?

  • Yes. My understanding is that the absolute majority wish to return to Syria. That is their homeland, where they grew up and where they want to return to. That is one of the reasons why—this is debated regularly in the House—the amount of money that we spend in taking on refugees in this country, compared with the amount of money we pour into looking after refugees in the region, is not the same—we cannot offer the same support—but the same amount of money goes 20 times further per number of individuals. That is why we invest so much in supporting Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Those people want to stay in the region, where the language is similar and from where they can return as quickly as possible once the fighting stops.

  • The Minister knows that I respect him and I know that he wants to do more, but I have to say that for a Minister of the Crown to stand at the Dispatch Box and effectively read from a Kremlin press release in saying that any aid mission will be shot down is a poisonous and sickening counsel of despair. He has said that he wants parliamentary backing for us to do more—for a unilateral or multilateral mission. He has that, so why do the Government not have the courage of their convictions and make sure that this can be another Kosovo, rather than another Rwanda?

  • First, in Kosovo, we had troops on the ground. It was a very different situation there. We had control of the airspace—the environment was very different. I will check what I said in Hansard, but there is the possibility that a British aircraft could be shot down. [Interruption.] If I said anything near that, I correct myself and use this opportunity to say that we would be putting British air personnel in harm’s way. I hope that that is something with which the hon. Gentleman would concur. Therefore, it is a point that colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces must consider when they make a recommendation to the Foreign Office on whether or not this is practical.

  • The Minister’s frustration is both palpable and entirely understandable. It goes back to the August 2013 vote. Times are somewhat changed. The parliamentary Labour party is perhaps of a different complexion and others have come into this Parliament since then. Would he think it sensible for the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and 10 Downing Street perhaps to go away and come back in 10 to 14 days with a proposal to put before the House, so that this matter can be fully considered and debated—all the concerns that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces may have and the concerns that other people with military and other experience may have, which have been spoken about this afternoon—so that we can reach a single answer to what is a hugely complex problem?

  • I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is important that we are able to move forward on this and be aware of the consequences of our doing nothing. I sit here with the briefings I receive and the responsibility I have as Minister for the middle east, and I am very conscious of the comments, the concerns and the anger expressed here today. We have to work with what is the art of the possible and what is the art of the legal as well, but the Foreign Office is looking at various options, and I hope we will be able to advance this, better understand it ourselves, and—dare I say it?—better understand and better educate the British public, so we take them with us, which was a concern back in 2013 as well. We were all haunted by what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq: was this another situation we were going to get sucked into? Things are different now, as my right hon. and learned Friend says, so, absolutely, we should move forward on that note.

  • Since the critical final phase of the assault on Aleppo started, with which foreign Governments has the Minister discussed the feasibility of airdrops?

  • The question of airdrops has been debated with our allies, the Americans, and is raised at the International Syria Support Group, and I raised it this morning with Matthew Rycroft, our UN head of mission, who is discussing it as our representative in New York.

  • My constituency predecessor, Stephen O’Brien, is head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and has been working hard to call out these war crimes for what they are. Can the Minister reassure me that British air assets—in particular, eye-in-the-sky assets—are being used to gather evidence that can then be available for the international war crimes tribunal, to make sure that, when these people are held to account, we have the evidence to prove it?

  • My hon. Friend raises an important point. If she will allow me, I will not—especially with the Minister for the Armed Forces sitting next to me—go into the detail of how we are collecting that evidence, as that would probably be operationally unhelpful, but I will say that that is exactly what we are doing. But this may take some time; we are identifying those who are responsible, who are those in leadership positions who are giving the orders for these strikes to take place and for the siege of Aleppo to occur. We will hold these people to account.

    I pay tribute to Stephen O’Brien, a former colleague in this House, who is doing a commendable job. We can all be very proud of the work he is doing to highlight the humanitarian plight in what is going on.

  • I was distressed by the implication in the Minister’s remarks that those of us who voted against airstrikes in Syria were somehow responsible for his decision not to put forward airdrops for aid. Frankly, at that point, we were not convinced that the balance of harms was being sorted in the right way. I think if he was today to call for a vote of this House, those who, like me, opposed military strikes on Syria would strongly support any action that can get humanitarian aid to those starving communities. I know that he is talking about this, but what is he actually going to do to get this aid to the people who are starving?

  • All actions should be taken through the UN, as it is the conduit that can be deemed as neutral by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by Russia. I hope the right hon. Lady will understand how our turning up and starting to do these airdrops ourselves would change the dynamics of our involvement in the air in a difficult terrain. That is not to say we do not rule it out; I am just saying that it is a more complicated scenario.

    The UN does conduct its own airdrops—it has that capability; it has a facility to do so—but it only does that where it has the permission of the Syrian regime for those flights to take place. That is the important point.

    On the right hon. Lady’s latter point, I am sorry that this Government did not do more to win people like her across. That was our failure as much as anybody else’s, and that, more than anything, is what we need to learn from what happened in August 2013.

  • As one of the Members of Parliament who has visited RAF Akrotiri and looked into the eyes of the C-130 crews who would be asked to carry out these missions, I think we should be careful to avoid making a “something must be done” response to a situation that shames humanity and that is on a par with Rwanda, Srebrenica and other events us that have shamed us collectively in the west. Learning from those events, could other actions be taken not only to hold Russia to account but to look at what really hurts that evil regime? London is full of people with connections to that regime who are doing business and educating their children in this country. They need to understand that they cannot behave with impunity and seek to enjoy the benefits that we all take for granted in this country.

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s military experience. The role of the C-130 in conducting these airdrops would be exceedingly difficult. As I have said, we do not rule this out, but it would be a huge challenge. He asks what more can be done. At the heart of this is the role of Russia, which is pivotal in being able to exercise influence over Assad, to introduce a ceasefire and to allow access to humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, Russia has vetoed five United Nations Security Council resolutions, thereby preventing even the most basic humanitarian aid from getting through. The Canadians are now seeking to pursue a General Assembly vote, which, if not in an emergency session, would require half the votes. This would be tricky, however, because Russia would use its influence to prevent it from succeeding. We are collectively looking to see what could happen in this dire situation that is reminiscent of Rwanda and Srebrenica. If the UN machine is not working, we have to find ways of circumnavigating it.

  • Can the Minister confirm that the action taken in Kosovo did not have a UN Security Council resolution? Many of us called on William Hague, when he was Foreign Secretary in 2011 and 2012, to support no-fly zones similar to the ones John Major had established to protect the Kurds in Iraq. Is it not time for us all to recognise that we have allowed Russia to get into this position because we failed to act, not in 2013, but in 2011 and 2012, when Assad started murdering peaceful protesters? Is it not time to recognise that the UN Security Council is hamstrung and that we need to act, even without a Security Council resolution, to save hundreds of thousands of lives?

  • Following Rwanda, a new international initiative establishing a duty of care was agreed, under which the international community would not stand by when a leader chose to kill his own people. That agreement was introduced so that comments about acts of genocide and other phrases that came out at the time could no longer be used to justify the hesitancy of the international community to step forward. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we bypass certain legal processes to move forward. In Kosovo, we had troops on the ground and we had collective international, regional and local support. In Kurdistan, a UN resolution backed the action taken there. He has raised a profound question. Should we go into a situation to do the right thing, even though we do not have international legal cover because such cover has been vetoed by a P5 member at every opportunity?

  • I am sure that the Minister is right—for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—to rule out unilateral action, but what did he mean by his attacks on the Labour Front Bench and on people like me who refused to support military action in Syria? What could possibly be achieved by more bombs falling on that benighted country? Surely, our priority should be peace. We should condemn violence wherever it comes from, including the terrible violence inflicted by the Assad regime and the attack on a school in western Aleppo, which has not been widely reported. I hope that the Minister will condemn that attack. If our priority is to strive for peace and end violence, we have to accept—whether we like it or not—that the appalling Assad and his Russian backers are going to stay. We must therefore drop our demand for them to go. We have to engage with everyone—Assad, the Russians, the Sunni rebels—to try to get peace, because that is what the people want.

  • My hon. Friend is familiar with the complex make-up of Syria today given all its history. Once we move forward from this situation, it is likely that there will be a federal model that recognises the country’s differences and groupings. We face a situation today in which Russia is backing and placing all its money on the existing regime. It has a connection and relationship that goes back to 1946, which needs to be honoured and reflected. I say to the Russians—to Bogdanov, to Lavrov and to Putin—that they should have that relationship with the people of Syria, not the Syrian regime. They should have a conversation with Dr Riyad Hijab, the co-ordinator of the free Syrian opposition, and then move forward from there, so that Russia can continue to have a sphere of influence without attaching itself to the tyrant that is President Assad.

  • Next week, Monzer Aqbiq of the Syria’s Tomorrow Movement should be in London. If the Minister has not already done so, will he undertake to meet him to discuss Syria’s future?

  • I would be more than happy to look at that if there is an opportunity to meet. I do make an effort to meet any representatives who come through Syria, including when I am in the region—for example, in Istanbul in Turkey, where the free Syrian opposition is based—to try to engage. I would be delighted to speak to the hon. Lady afterwards to discuss things further.

  • I, too, signed the letter in support of airdrops. As a former RAF serviceman, I fully appreciate the concern for our aircrews from not only the Minister, but my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). Will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister had the opportunity to raise airdrops with Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, when he was at 10 Downing Street last week?

  • I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I think was involved in the air campaign in Kurdistan. He brings a huge amount of expertise to the Chamber. I am unaware of the details, but I know that Syria came up. I will write to him with more details of the conversation.

  • In the letter of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), whom I congratulate on her work on this issue, she points out that the Government said back in May:

    “preparations for airdrops will now take place and go forward rapidly because there isn’t a moment to lose”.

    The situation has worsened significantly since May, so I do not understand what has happened to that enthusiasm. More importantly, my constituents, and those of other Members, are appalled by what they see on the news and do not understand why there is not the same enthusiasm for airdrops as there was for bombing this time last year.

  • I do not want to get drawn into discussing the hon. Lady’s latter point, which is an unhelpful comparison. The will of the House has been made clear and the Executive are looking seriously at what we can do to support the concept of airdrops, but they involve all the dangers and caveats that have been discussed. We take the lead from the United Nations personnel who are on the ground. If we are to do this in a neutral manner, it must be done through the UN. If we step in and start doing things ourselves, our involvement in the Syria campaign will take on a very different perspective, for which we would need the permission and support of this House.

  • I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and point out that the airdrops that are being pushed by many in this House come with huge risks. Does the Minister, who is in a difficult situation, agree that if they are to be done unilaterally we would inevitably need aircraft to deliver, fighter cover above, and helicopters and special forces to pick crews up if they get downed and wounded? We risk the awful prospect of seeing our service personnel being dragged through the streets or killed in some horrific manner by people down there who are behaving like barbarians. Does the Minister agree that there is a lot of concern?

  • My hon. Friend and Dorset neighbour spells out some of the intricacies involved in airdrops. It is not simply about the Hercules transport or C-17 aircraft that would provide that; it is about the air cover required, the emergency operations in case the pilots have to bail out and the rescue missions that may have to take place. We are also left facing the stark challenge of hostages being taken. All those factors need to be taken into consideration, from an operational perspective, in deciding on the best method of getting our aid to where we want it to go. As I say, the UN conducts airdrops, but only when it has clear permission from the Syrian regime.

  • Putin’s standard modus operandi is the excessive use of force, as we saw in the Beslan massacre, in the siege of the Moscow theatre, in Chechnya, in Georgia and in Crimea, and as we now see in the complete obliteration of Aleppo. Is not the really worrying thing for the future, even beyond the situation in Syria, that the robust facing up to Putin, in so far as it has existed at all, is now fracturing? How are the Government going to make sure we maintain a steady, robust course?

  • The hon. Gentleman, who has huge experience and knowledge of Russia, spells out the challenge we face in getting the Russians to come to the table, recognising not only the leverage they can provide, but that there is not a threat in respect of Russia’s continued involvement and influence. He touches on some of the previous events that have taken place, but we could also look at what has happened in the Balkans and the Baltics, and prior to the iron curtain. The sphere of influence that Russia had was enormous. Every time one of these countries then moved forward and swung to the west, Russia lost that sphere of influence, and I believe at the heart of this issue is the fact that the Russians do not want to lose a maritime Mediterranean influence which is so critical to them.

  • I am sure the Minister will agree that the scenes in Aleppo of civilians being targeted and the use of starvation as a weapon of war bring echoes of some dark periods, particularly in the 1930s, which international law was supposed to try to stop. What lessons for the system of enforcement of international law can be taken from this dreadful situation?

  • We are looking very carefully at where international law is left after this experience in Aleppo and indeed across Syria. The UN in New York, the international body that builds alliances and that is designed to bring together states—192 of them—to solve the world’s problems, is now kyboshed because a single permanent member is able to veto absolutely everything. How we can circumnavigate that is a huge question for us to answer.

  • All of Aleppo’s hospitals are out of action, meaning that medics are having to amputate children’s limbs without anaesthetic and to deal with the victims of chemical attacks with just water and oxygen. The Minister asks whether there is a safer way to deliver aid, yet he knows that the Syrian regime has bombed the latest humanitarian convoy which went to the city in September. He knows that there will be no political solution while Assad and Putin think they can win the upper hand through military activity. The residents of Aleppo do not want to die and it is in our power to help them—if not now, when?

  • The hon. Lady, who has shadowed the Department for International Development portfolio and knows these issues well, mentions the 19 September convoy, and I have taken some notes on that. The convoy was approved by the Syrian Foreign Ministry and comprised trucks loaded by the Red Crescent, with enough equipment for 78,000 people. However, it came to a checkpoint, and the UN was told to leave the vehicles and Aleppo residents were told to jump in them. Russian drones were overhead following the convoy all the way until it got into Aleppo territory and then the aeroplanes came in and bombed every single truck. That happened with Syrian permission—it was with approval and they knew exactly what they were doing. I am afraid that this is the regime we are working on, which is why the challenge of looking after those people who are in harm’s way is so difficult indeed.

  • On a way forward in Syria and Aleppo, our key ally is the United States and its President-elect has said that Syria represents influence for Russia. If that view remains, and in line with our consistent view in challenging the Russian aggression, will we chart our own foreign policy position on Syria and the region?

  • As we come to the end of the current Administration, may I pay tribute to the work of John Kerry in trying to bring the various stakeholders and parties together? He has worked tirelessly to make that happen, and I am sorry that there has not been greater progress with the international Syria support group. We wait to see the strategy and approach of the new Administration. I simply say that we need to work closely with our international partners, not least America, to make sure that we can exert greater pressure and influence on Russia.

  • My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) alluded to the words of seven-year-old Bana al-Abed, who said on Twitter last Sunday that her home in Aleppo had been bombed. She went on to say:

    “Under heavy bombardments now—in between life and death. Please keep praying for us.”

    The Minister will know that there are no fully functioning hospitals left in Aleppo and that food ran out in early November. What recent discussions has the Foreign Office had with the United Nations, the EU and other nations of good will about urgent humanitarian relief? Does the RAF not have a crucial and immediate role to play in easing this humanitarian disaster, albeit with the risks that that entails? Our prayers are not enough: it is time to act, and if the Minister did so, a large swathe of the House would be behind him.

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he is speaking on behalf of all Scottish National party Members in his final phrase, but that would be very welcome indeed. The Prime Minister raised the issue of Syria at the last European Council, and our ambassador in New York is also engaged. Britain wants to make sure that it can keep up the pressure in trying to effect an avenue for the aid to get in. If that is not forthcoming, yes, we will have to look at other options.

  • People in Kettering, horrified by the news that 250,000 people in Aleppo effectively have no access to hospital care and face imminent famine, are conscious that that population is equivalent to two and half times the number of people in the borough of Kettering. To get a sense of the scale of humanitarian effort required, would the Minister tell the House how many Hercules aircraft, or how many trucks on the ground, would be required to supply the requisite needs of a population of 250,000?

  • That question is probably more for my counterpart in the Department for International Development, who can supply the details. It is an interesting comparison that needs to be made, but we anticipate that dozens of trucks need to go through daily to keep the people of Aleppo alive and supported.

  • I have a great deal of respect for the Minister, but I am disappointed that there was no statement from the Government today. Does he not believe that it would strengthen the Government’s hand on the world stage in negotiating on airdrops to have the will of Parliament, which should express its view on a Government motion?

  • If we are to move forward we need to work together. We need to take the British nation with us, and we need to work as a Parliament. I hear what the hon. Lady says. We need to make sure that we debate these matters more regularly so that people are prepared to recognise the danger in which we may be putting our service personnel, as well as the options available for us to lean further forward and get the result that we want.

  • The Minister has been candid in his reflections on the vote in the House in August 2013. What direct impact has that parliamentary vote had on policy thinking? If one of our planes is shot out of the sky, we have to be prepared to retaliate.

  • Without revisiting the question too much, I believe that collectively our inability to secure that vote before Russia moved into this sphere, before we even knew what the word “Daesh” meant, was a missed opportunity to hold Assad to account. For different reasons, we blinked, and Government need to learn what more we can do collectively to work together to make sure that we do not repeat that mistake.

  • In his initial answer to the urgent question, the Minister rightly labelled the bombing of hospitals and other acts as war crimes by the Syrian Government forces and Russia. With that in mind, what specific measures can the UK Government take with international partners to hold those responsible to account?

  • A motion was put forward with British support, if not with Britain leading on it, at the United Nations Security Council to slide the matter across to the International Criminal Court, and guess what? It was vetoed by Russia. We are collecting the necessary evidence to make it possible in due course—it may take some time, as I mentioned earlier—to hold to account in the longer term those who are perpetrating the damage and causing the atrocities.

  • The Minister set out in some detail the difficulties that he and his colleagues face in dealing with this very difficult situation, and I appreciate that. He said, however, that the Government were considering a number of options. Given that 100,000 children are on the point of starving and 250,000 people in total are enduring the conditions in Aleppo, will he undertake to come back to the House with a statement next week about the options that the Government are considering and set out what the Government propose to do? The situation is incredibly urgent.

  • I agree with what the hon. Lady says. It is important that we keep the House updated. I, the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development will endeavour to do that on a regular basis.

  • I thank the Minister for his statement. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 225 civilians have been killed, including 27 children, since the latest assault started on 15 November. The Government must do all they can to assist those in Syria now. However, they must also do more to help those who have managed to flee the conflict. Will the Minister please commit to pushing his Cabinet colleagues to accept more refugees from that war-torn country?

  • I touched on that earlier. There is a choice: whether we look after refugees in this country—as we have done for the thousands that are coming this way—or we provide support in the region. The price of looking after one refugee in the UK equates to looking after around 20 refugees in the region. Different standards, absolutely, but I hope the hon. Lady recognises that with £2.3 billion-worth of support, we are playing our part in the region.

  • Like many colleagues, I pay tribute to all our armed forces in service around the world, and I know that no one in this House would ever put them in harm’s way unless there was no alternative. What alternatives is the Minister considering, such as drones or unmanned aircraft, to carry out airdrops? I can think of few other clear-cut humanitarian crises in my lifetime that deserve intervention by the British armed forces in order to save the lives of innocent children at risk from barrel bombs, chemical warfare and starvation.

  • We want to use our influence with our allies and others to work across not just the military aspect, if our military were used, to provide the necessary humanitarian relief, but in the diplomatic corridors to get a political solution. We are not looking at one particular area, but trying to work across the piece.

  • If my postbag and those of colleagues are anything to go by, there is huge public support for scaled-up humanitarian intervention, so what contingency plans are in place so that when or if permission for aid drops comes, they can begin immediately?

  • I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that I will not be able to answer that. It is an operational decision as to how any form of airdrops might be conducted and it must be part of a wider package of humanitarian support for those people requiring aid. It is extremely complicated, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to give a direct answer to his question.

  • I voted against airstrikes in 2013, and I agree with the Minister about the need to deliver aid on the ground, not least because some of the aid that is needed is medical care—physical and mental—which can be delivered only in person. However, I signed the letter that was published this morning, because the people of Aleppo are suffering in the most acute circumstances, and it is no longer acceptable to me or my constituents to stand by. I echo the calls of my right hon. and hon. Friends for the Minister and his colleagues to bring a fully worked plan to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, explaining fully the risks so that hon. Members can take a fully informed decision about the issues we face. I am confident that that decision, reflecting the wishes of our constituents, will be to find a way to alleviate the terrible suffering in Aleppo at the earliest possible opportunity.

  • When we had a meeting, co-hosted by John Kerry and the Foreign Secretary, only a couple of weeks ago, John Kerry gave a press statement saying that he felt there was no appetite to do more, in a general capacity, in dealing with the situation in Aleppo. That was his observation, having not just visited the country but spoken with leaders across Europe. It is important that the debate that we are having here is also held in other capital cities, because that collective effort is what we need to effect change in what is going on in the country of Syria.

  • Everyone is rightly concentrating on the worst foreign aggressor, which is Russia, but the Minister’s opening remarks also mentioned Iranian influence. Given that the Iranian nuclear deal was all about bringing Iran back into the international fold, what are the UK Government doing to stop Iran’s influence in this humanitarian disaster?

  • There was a coincidence in the sense that the opening of our embassy—for different reasons, our embassy was closed— tied in with the signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action. There is much greater dialogue with Iran, so we are able to discuss these issues. Indeed, I spoke to the Iranian ambassador on Friday, covering a wide variety of issues. It is important that Iran is aware that, if it wants to take on a more responsible role in the international community—it has proxy relationships or interests in the region itself—it must advance the way it does business. This situation provides a great example: Iran could show the leadership which, at the moment, we are missing from Russia.

  • What conversations have the UK Government had with the US President-elect, who has a desired policy of rapprochement with Russia and the Assad regime? What consequences will it have for British policy if we have to act more unilaterally given the US President-elect’s current policy?

  • We are looking forward to the confirmation of the President-elect’s nomination for Secretary of State. When that appointment is made, I am sure we will be engaging to encourage America to be as involved in, and committed to, not just this issue in Syria but other challenges we face in the middle east.

  • The Minister has mentioned some of the difficulties in dealing with Russia and has pleaded with it from the Dispatch Box about the actions he would like it to take, but he has not answered the question my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) posed earlier, so will he tell us what discussions have taken place with Russia to demand that it sign up to the agreement brokered by the UN to provide aid? What more can be done to get the talks back on track?

  • This is raised on a regular basis. It was raised by the Foreign Secretary with Foreign Minister Lavrov only last week. Russia has a pivotal role in turning the situation round and allowing access for humanitarian aid, allowing a cessation of hostilities—at least a 10-day ceasefire—and allowing political discussions to recommence.