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Andrew Mitchell leads Parliamentary Debate on Aleppo

Andrew Mitchell opens an Emergency Debate in the House of Commons on international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered international action to protect civilians in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.

The hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), with whom I co-chair the friends of Syria all-party group, joins me in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate. We are both concerned that on occasions, motions such as this can appear to be hand-wringing and to focus on the concept that something must be done. We are anxious today to encourage the Government to pursue all avenues and options, as I know they are extremely anxious to do.

The House will be particularly grateful to the Foreign Secretary for responding to the debate himself. On the earlier occasion when you granted an emergency debate on these matters, Mr Speaker, he returned to the House and made his first major speech from the Dispatch Box. I believe his presence signifies the concern of Foreign Office Ministers about the tragedy that is Aleppo today.

I wish to cover three points this afternoon. The first is the current situation in Aleppo. Secondly, I have some specific suggestions for the Government to consider together with our allies, and thirdly some observations on how this crisis could develop in 2017 and the action that the international community should take.

I start with the position on the ground today. We are able to monitor what is going through Twitter and other social media to some extent, but in particular, the reports of the United Nations and its agencies, and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, are likely to be extremely accurate. They have reported over lunchtime that there is clear evidence of civilians being executed—shot on the spot. There are dead bodies in the street that cannot be reached because of gunfire. In the last couple of hours, we have heard that probably more than 100 children who are unaccompanied or separated from their families are trapped in a building in east Aleppo and under heavy fire.

We learn from totally credible independent sources inside Aleppo that all the hospitals have been deliberately destroyed with barrel bombs and bunker-busting bombs, and that in case the people in those hospitals were not destroyed by those munitions, cluster munitions, which are anti-personnel munitions, have also been used. There are pop-up clinics in underground locations, which are suffering nightmare conditions, with people lying on the floor and pools of blood everywhere. Doctors and nurses are wearing boots because there is so much blood on the floor, and casualties are moved in and out as fast as they possibly can be because there are grave dangers to them from being in those locations. The ambulances of the White Helmets have been specifically targeted, and there is now no fuel available for them.

In the mid-afternoon yesterday, a 10 km by 10 km zone was the centre of the fighting in Aleppo. It is contracting, and at 10 o’clock this morning it was probably less than half that size. There are approximately 150,000 civilians crammed into that area, and very large numbers of them are children. Large numbers are stranded ​in the open and looking for shelter. The only food available is dates and bulgur wheat. Water has run out, and there is no electricity. Last night, people were flooding into that enclave. As I have said, there are credible reports of executions and the removal of groups of adult males.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

The right hon. Gentleman paints an absolutely grim picture of the current situation in Aleppo. Two years ago, I travelled to Srebrenica with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). We visited an exhibition in Sarajevo of pictures from Srebrenica and pictures from Syria, and they were indistinguishable. When we hear of summary executions, disappearances of men and boys, unmarked graves and the types of atrocities that the right hon. Gentleman is describing, does he not believe that we risk this being the Srebrenica of our generation?

Mr Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will come to directly.

The terrified civilians in Aleppo are of course sophisticated, educated people from what was one of the great cities of the world. With 2 million people, it is 6,000 years old and has treasured Islamic civilisation and artefacts within it. A senior Aleppo resident, terrified, said this morning:

“The human corridor needs to happen. If the British Government is serious about fighting terror, they can’t ignore state terror. Doing so creates so many more enemies and if they offer but empty words, nobody will ever believe them in future.”

Ten years ago, this country, along with the entire international community, embraced the responsibility to protect, a doctrine that said that nation states great and small would not allow Srebrenicas, Rwandas and other appalling events such as those in Darfur to take place again. That responsibility was signed up to with great fanfare and embraced by all the international community, great and small. Yet here we are today witnessing—complicit in—what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.

That is the situation today. I come to my second point, which is to put specific actions to the Government, which I know they will wish to consider. First, there is an urgent need for humanitarian teams to be deployed and given unfettered access to Aleppo once Government forces there are in control. That is essential if we are to avoid the same circumstances as Srebrenica—the precise point that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has just made. There is a very serious danger, from the position I have described, that such events are already taking place, so it is essential that those teams are deployed.

We need to get food, medicine, fuel and medical services into east Aleppo immediately. We also need to have independent humanitarian eyes and ears on the ground, not only to give confidence to terrified civilians—who, I remind the House, are caught out in the open in temperatures that are predicted to fall below minus 4° tonight—but to avoid possibly false allegations of war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law by Government forces and their military associates. It is not easy to see why Russia and Syria would wish to resist that, unless they do not wish the world to know or see the actions that they are now taking in Aleppo.​

The second action that I hope the Government will evaluate and support is organising the evacuation to comparative safety, in United Nations buses and lorries, under a white flag and in a permissive environment, of the people who are wounded or have been caught up in this terrible catastrophe. It is clear that the United Nations has the capacity, with available vehicles, to move north up to the Castello road and then west to Bab al-Hawa, near Reyhanli, on the border, which Clare Short, the distinguished former International Development Secretary, and I visited earlier this year. There are hospitals in Bab al-Hawa, and there are significant refugee facilities on the Syrian side of the border. They are easily resupplied via the Reyhanli crossing by international humanitarian actors, and that route out of the nightmare of eastern Aleppo should be made available as fast as possible.

Britain is in a pivotal position at the United Nations to try to convene an acceptance that that action should be taken. We are hugely respected on humanitarian matters at the UN. Matthew Rycroft, the permanent representative to the UN5 on the Security Council, is extremely effective in what he does. The current National Security Adviser, Mark Lyall Grant, a key United Nations operative for many years, has great convening power, and there are senior UK officials at the United Nations. The head of the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, who worked with me at the Department for International Development, plays a pivotal role. The British foreign service is respected and admired around the world, and, in supporting Staffan de Mistura and Jan Egeland, has an absolutely pivotal role to play in trying to convene the consensus that is now urgently required.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making a powerful and important speech. Does he think the Syrian regime would allow those very necessary humanitarian interventions without counter-attack and disaster?

Mr Mitchell

Yes, I believe that if the Russians could be persuaded at this point that they have nothing to lose from allowing international humanitarian actors into Aleppo, the Syrians would agree. If they do not, the world must ask why they wish to hide from purely humanitarian action.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the importance of international pressure. He will have seen as we all did the grotesque story on the front of the Morning Star suggesting that what is happening is the “liberation of Aleppo”. While such scandalous propaganda on behalf of Russia is being put about within the UK, is it not all the more important that we have that international pressure so that we open the eyes of everyone in the world to what is happening?

Mr Mitchell

I confess to the hon. Gentleman that the Morning Star is not on my morning reading list. In view of what he has just said, I am most unlikely to add it.

Will the Foreign Secretary commit today to Britain’s using every sinew of the immensely impressive diplomatic machine I described to secure a consensus on those two actions in these last moments for Aleppo?

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

I am sorry I cannot stay for the whole debate—there is a concurrent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I agree with my right hon. Friend about the efforts to relieve the situation in Aleppo, but a year ago 20 nations—the International Syria Support Group—sat around a table and produced an agreement on the future of Syria. Does he agree that our efforts must also return to the politics of getting the whole international community into the same place on the future of Syria?

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend is right that the support group has proved to be a cumbersome and not entirely effective mechanism, but his central point is absolutely correct.

I come to my third and final point, which is on the House looking to the future. What can we do as part of the international community to bring the catastrophe that has engulfed the Syrian people to an end? By an incredibly unfortunate sequence of events, the international community has so far been completely unable to help. The United Nations has been hobbled by Russian actions, using the veto, which it has the privilege to use on the Security Council, to shield itself from criticism and to stop international action on Syria.

The Kofi Annan plan originally put forward by the UN was, in my view, tragically and wrongly rejected by the American Government. The Russians in their turn have shredded a rules-based system, which will have cataclysmic effects on international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights. The Americans have been absent. Crucially, President Obama made it clear that, were chemical weapons to be used, it would cross a red line and America would take action. Chemical weapons were used and no action was taken by the Americans.

This House, in my view, was ill-advised to reject the former Prime Minister’s motion in August 2013 for British action. I hope the Government keep an open mind about putting another resolution before the House, as is necessary.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the powerful case he is making and the leadership he is demonstrating, but would he concede that the 2013 motion was not on a comprehensive plan to bring peace, and that if a motion is brought before the House, it should be on a comprehensive, UN-backed plan to deliver peace and not on such a narrow issue?

Mr Mitchell

I hope that, if there is a chance for Britain, with its pivotal role at the United Nations, to support a UN-backed force, if necessary with military action, Britain will very seriously consider it, and that such a proposition will be put before the House of Commons.

I was listing the unfortunate coincidence of events that has hobbled the international community, the fourth of which is that the Arab states in the region are irredeemably split on what should happen in Syria. Europe has become dysfunctional, facing inwards and not looking outwards, and focused on the symptoms of the problem—the refugees—and not on the causes. A resurgent Russia is pursuing its interests. The House should understand Russia’s interests and respect them, ​even as her actions are rightly condemned, and as we confront it when it breaches humanitarian law, as it has undoubtedly done in Aleppo.

There are only two ways in which this catastrophe will end. There will either be a military victory or there will be a negotiation. There will not be a military victory, so at some point there will be a negotiation and ceasefire to enable bitterly antagonistic foes to negotiate. When that time comes, Britain has the experience, the connections, the funds and the expertise to assist. The great powers must support that negotiation, however difficult it is, and put pressure on the regional powers to do the same. It is essential that we provide, through our position at the UN, the strongest possible diplomatic and strategic support to that process.

There will come a moment, too, when President-elect Trump and President Putin discuss these matters. As is widely recognised, there are indications that the two men can do business. I hope that the United States lifts its veto on Assad being part of any negotiations—Assad is part of the problem, and therefore by definition part of the solution—and that Russia uses its power to stop the conflict on the ground while both combine to defeat ISIL.

Finally, I ask the Foreign Secretary: will he intensify the efforts of his office to collect evidence, especially now, of breaches of international humanitarian law and war crimes, so that individuals as well as states, no matter how long it takes, can be held to account one day for what they have done?

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