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Andrew Mitchell moves Parliamentary debate on Aleppo and Syria


Andrew Mitchell leads an emergency debate on Aleppo and Syria and calls for the west to tackle Russia and enforce a no-fly zone and protect the citizens of eastern Aleppo from Russian bombardment.

12.49 pm

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo and more widely across Syria.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this emergency debate on the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo and more widely across Syria. Although it was I who moved the motion applying for the debate under Standing Order No. 24, it has the strong support of the all-party parliamentary group for Friends of Syria, particularly my co-chairman, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I am most grateful to them for the work that they do in the all-party group.

I am particularly pleased to see that the Foreign Secretary is present. The whole House will be grateful for the importance that he attaches to the debate. He has written and spoken about Syria, and I know that it is a subject on which he feels strongly. We are very pleased that the House is to hear from him this afternoon on what I think will be his first debate as Foreign Secretary

Yesterday, Mr Speaker, you had a choice between a Standing Order No. 24 application for a debate on Brexit and another for a debate on Syria. Everyone in the House will know that you made the right decision, and you explained your reasons, but I now submit that the effects of the crisis in Syria on our children and our grandchildren will be every bit as great as the effects of Brexit. Today’s debate will be watched by many people: civil society across much of the world will take an interest in the tone and the view that the House of Commons adopts this afternoon, and that is a very good thing.

At about 10 o’clock this morning there was a series of further air raids on civilian areas in Aleppo, and there are already reports of yet further casualties, maimings and deaths. As we look back at the Syrian crisis over recent years, we see that, at every turn, progress towards a solution has, alas, eluded us. First, at a relatively early stage, there was the plan put forward by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General, who stated specifically that as Assad was part of the problem he would by definition be part of the solution. Kofi Annan believed that Assad should be part of the negotiations, but that was vetoed by the Americans, and indeed—alas—by the British Government. Now, many years later, we understand how important it is that Assad should at least be present at the initial negotiations. He is not going to be beaten militarily, in my view, and it is clearly right for him to be there for the early part of the negotiations, as the Syrian opposition accept. However, more time has been lost.

Secondly, there was Obama’s failure to stand by the red lines that he had clearly asserted on the use of chemical weapons. That was a disastrous decision, and one from which we will suffer in the future.

Thirdly, there was the failure to provide safe havens. Much of civil society believed in the importance of providing refuge for the—now—more than 5 million ​Syrian men, women and children who are on the move in Syria, having been driven out of their homes. Those safe havens could, with political will, have been set up in both Idlib, which is in the north of Syria, and Daraa, which is near the Jordanian border in the south. We could, as many people have advocated, have set up no-bombing zones, but we have not done so. Today, 5 million people in Syria and 6 million outside are on the move, often unprotected, unfed and unhoused. That is the reality: nearly half the country’s population of 22 million are on the move, either inside Syria or beyond its borders.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that, militarily, there is no reason why we could not enforce a no-fly zone when so many people are being affected? The helicopters that are dropping barrel bombs could easily be brought down by rockets based in Turkey or Lebanon, or, indeed, by our own type 45s in the Mediterranean.

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend knows far more about such military matters than I do. That is my understanding of the position: that a no-fly zone—and I will say more about this later—is perfectly feasible. It is question of whether the international community has the political will to face down the Russians and the Syrian helicopters by setting one up.

Fourthly, there was the failure to secure unfettered access for the United Nations. It is unprecedented in recent years for those bent solely on looking after their fellow citizens to be unable to gain unfettered access to very dangerous zones. This gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the extraordinary bravery of those who work in the humanitarian world, doing nothing other than try to assist their fellow human beings and bring them sustenance, help, medicine and support.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)

What roles does the right hon. Gentleman envisage for Syria’s near neighbours and for the west, including Britain, in the protection of people in the safe havens to which he referred earlier?

Mr Mitchell

That is an extremely good point, and I shall come to it shortly.

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Is not the tragedy of Syria that none of us can imagine a future Syrian Government who would have both the power to take charge and the wisdom to govern in a peaceful and unifying way?

Mr Mitchell

I shall come to that point as well, but let me say now that the whole purpose of the efforts of the International Syria Support Group—and those of other elements, under Staffan de Mistura—is to answer the question that my right hon. Friend has so eloquently posed.

The fifth failure lies in the surrounding countries, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Although they have acted heroically in dealing with the extraordinary number of people who have fled across the borders, often under gunfire, there has been a lack of support from the international community for countries whose populations have ballooned, given that one in three of ​the people in Jordan and Lebanon has fled from Syria. Britain has undoubtedly done her stuff. I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State for International Development is present; she can be extremely proud of the Department that she has inherited for the outstanding work that Britain has done in helping refugees in the surrounding countries—more, I might add, than has been done by the whole of the rest of the European Union.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con)

My right hon. Friend may well be aware that, in a fairly short space of time, far more Syrian than Lebanese children will be being educated in Lebanese state schools. Does that not speak volumes for the hospitality of the Lebanese?

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend has made his point with great eloquence.

We are not using the opportunity—if I may put it in that way—to provide an education for the children in the camps, given that they at least constitute a captive audience. Every child in a camp in one of the surrounding countries should be receiving an education. There should be education and training, and, indeed, there should be opportunities for the countries that are receiving all the refugees to have free access to the European Union for their goods and services. That is not happening. Moreover, because some countries have failed to pay their dues to the United Nations in some of the camps, the children and adults there are receiving only half the rations that they should be receiving, and they are down to starvation rations at that.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

I recently received a parliamentary answer from the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), on the subject of air drops. He stated:

“The use of air drops to deliver aid is high risk and should only be considered as a last resort when all other means have failed”.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would seem that “all other means” have indeed failed?

Mr Mitchell

Not in respect of the camp. On the basis of my knowledge of these matters, I think that my hon. Friend the Minister of State was right to say that air drops should be used only as a last resort, but clearly they should be used if we reach that point.

The sixth and final barrier to progress has, of course, been the reception of refugees in Europe, where there has not been proper processing. Many of these people have cast themselves into the hands of the modern-day equivalent of the slave trader in the hope of reaching a more prosperous and safer shore. I think that Europe as a whole—which, admittedly, has its inward-facing problems—has failed to address this problem adequately, and to show proper solidarity with Greece and Italy as they tackle a very severe problem.

There are only two ways in which this can end: a military victory by one side or the other, or through negotiation. I submit that there is no way in which a military victory will be secured by any side in Syria. We must therefore hope that the fighting stops as soon as possible in order to create the space in which negotiations for the future can take place. We have all seen the heroic work that has been done by Staffan de Mistura, and the ​backing provided to him and the International Syria Support Group is essential. I will say more about that in a moment. To bring about a cessation in fighting we need the influence of the United Nations, of the great powers and of the countries in the region who have influence over some of the protagonists, in particular Iran and the Saudis. Where a country is able to exercise influence to stop the fighting and create the space for politicians to engage, in Geneva and elsewhere, it is absolutely essential that it should do so.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

I commend my right hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that the Russian military has a deep history with the Syrian military, and that it is in Russia’s gift to deliver a peace process? When we visited Russia as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Russian politicians kept reminding us they wanted to be taken seriously by the whole world and that they were a serious power. In order to be taken seriously, however, they really should be following the rule of law and international law. They should not be aiding and abetting war criminals such as Assad.

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.

The extraordinary misfortune of timing that I mentioned is being exacerbated by international attention being elsewhere. In Europe, Brexit, the issues with the euro, Greece, the German banks and the focus on migration have all meant that the focus has been on the symptoms rather than the causes of this conflict. In the United States, politicians have turned in on themselves as the election approaches, and Obama has underwritten an isolationist approach. However, there are people such as Senator Lindsey Graham and Secretary Kerry who are seized of the importance of this moment in tackling what Russia is doing. Then of course there is Russia, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) has alluded. It is behaving like a rogue elephant, shredding international humanitarian law and abusing its veto powers in the UN Security Council. It is using the veto to protect itself from its own war crimes.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)

The right hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly compelling case. The situation in Aleppo is beyond appalling. Does he agree that our own Government should follow the example of the French in supporting a referral of Russia to the International Criminal Court? Also, I completely understand the case that he is making for a no-fly zone, but does he recognise the risks involved in establishing such a zone? How would he best protect against the risk of an expansion of the mission if it were not initially successful?

Mr Mitchell

I shall come on to the hon. Lady’s second point in a moment. On her first point, I agree with her. The UN Secretary general called for such a referral only yesterday.

The attack on the convoy marked a new low, with 18 humanitarian workers killed, food and medicines destroyed and warehouses and medical facilities seriously damaged. We should be clear about what is happening in Aleppo. The Russians are not attacking military ​formations. They are not engaging with militias and fighters. They are attacking hospitals and a terrified population, which is now down from 2 million to under 250,000. People are hiding in the cellars and the rubble that is Aleppo today. Last week, the M10 underground hospital was attacked by bunker-busting bombs to break through its roof and by cluster bombs aimed specifically at harming and injuring individual people. The location of that hospital was known to every combatant. There is no doubt that attacking that hospital was an international war crime.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly strong case. When it comes to Russia, are we not living in some kind of parallel universe? On the one hand, we see the Russians dropping bunker bombs on hospitals. On the other, we are allowing them to come and trade in our country as though nothing was going on. Do we not need a general review of our relationship with Russia?

Mr Mitchell

The Russians are doing to the United Nations precisely what Italy and Germany did to the League of Nations in the 1930s, and they are doing to Aleppo precisely what the Nazis did to Guernica during the Spanish civil war.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)

I join my right hon. Friend in supporting no-bombing zones, as well as aid drops in memory of our former colleague and my Yorkshire neighbour, Jo Cox. On the issue of no-fly zones, I served in the Royal Air Force on the no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Does he agree that one message we could send out from this House today would be that, using our E-3 Sentry AWACS reconnaissance aircraft, any war crimes perpetrated by air forces would be identified and logged, and that the perpetrators would feel the full force of the law as a result?

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend is on to an extremely good point.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op)

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Guernica. In the 1930s, there was united condemnation of what the Nazis and their air force were doing in Spain in support of the fascist regime. Is it not time that we had a united, unambiguous, explicit, direct condemnation of what Putin is doing in support of Assad in Aleppo at this moment, not just from the Government but from the Opposition Benches unanimously?

Mr Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is on to an extremely good point. What is needed is a concerted effort by the international community uniting to make Russia feel the cost of its support of and participation in the barbaric bombardment of Aleppo.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. His comparison with the actions of the Nazi regime and the League of Nations is very powerful. Is this not a warning to the United Nations that unless ​it fulfils its duties and faces up to the atrocities that Russia is perpetrating, it might well go the same way as the League of Nations did?

Mr Mitchell

That is the very point I was making.

We should single Russia out as a pariah. Like any bully, the Kremlin craves relevance, and it is winning as long as no one stands up to it. Russia must be confronted for its attacks on innocent civilians, both diplomatically and using hard power including sanctions and economic measures. We must seek to build support for multilateral military action to discharge our responsibility to protect. This is not about attacking Russia. It is about defending innocent civilians. It is about basic humanitarian decency and protection from the kind of barbarism and tyranny we hoped we had consigned to the last century.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab)

I completely concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s words about Russia and the atrocities that it is committing against the people of Syria, but should we not also look at this in the context of Russia’s previous actions in Ukraine and Crimea? Ought we not to remember that Russia as a state is increasingly out of control? It is not playing by the rules, and we absolutely have to confront its behaviour internationally.

Mr Mitchell

The hon. Lady makes an extremely powerful point. We cannot do this alone. We must use Britain’s outstanding connections, not least through our diplomatic reach, our membership of NATO, our relationship with America and our centrality in the European firmament—Brexit notwithstanding.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab)

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, not only for securing this debate but for allowing so many interventions. Would it not be appropriate for the Government to bring forward a debate asking this House to put forward its views on Russia’s behaviour not only in Aleppo but in previous situations? We need the Government to lead on such a debate, so that the House can send out the very clear message that we are watching what Russia is doing and will not forget what it is doing, and that, when it comes to it, we will see those responsible answering for their war crimes.

Mr Mitchell

I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that, by having this three-hour debate today, we are moving some way in that direction.

I have a number of specific questions for the Foreign Secretary to address when he answers this debate. First, he has said that the UK is taking the lead on sanctions on Russia. Will he tell the House what steps the Foreign Office has taken towards increasing bilateral or EU sanctions on Russia itself? Secondly, there are plans for a new addition to the Nord Stream gas pipeline running from Russia to western Europe—Nord Stream 2—allowing Russia to bypass transit countries and, therefore, transit costs in eastern Europe. Will the Foreign Office be working with our east European allies to block the new pipeline?

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab)

I presume that we are talking about the gas pipeline that runs from Kurdistan through Turkey and the Black sea and bypasses Ukraine ​and the eastern provinces. The signing of that deal was agreed yesterday between Erdogan and Putin. A relationship seems to be building up between those two. Does the right hon. Gentleman have any view on that, because that movement of Turkey towards Russia is concerning?

Mr Mitchell

The Foreign Secretary has recently been in Turkey. I am sure that the House will be interested in his comments.

My third question for the Foreign Secretary is, what work has been done to catalogue and record human rights abuses—both individual and collective—in Syria? Will he update the House on the work of the Foreign Office, which was started and commissioned by the National Security Council in 2011, to collect evidence that can be used in the future to hold human rights abusers to account no matter how long it takes?

Fourthly, what steps has the Foreign Secretary taken with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to explore the feasibility of imposing and enforcing a no-fly zone over specific areas in Syria? Does he agree that, with the use of naval and air assets in the eastern Mediterranean, it is entirely possible both to monitor and enforce a no-fly zone with our allies? What steps will he take to make it clear to the international community that a no-fly zone is a matter of will and not of practicality?

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

I have operated under a no-fly zone. It is practical and it can work, but it is quite difficult at a low level. That requires us to have seriously good surveillance over the target areas. If we have that, we can deal with it. We cannot have just a no-fly zone; we need good surveillance as well.

Mr Mitchell

I have no doubt that the Foreign Secretary will want to comment on those remarks, to which my hon. Friend brings his expert knowledge and understanding.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)

As one of the four Opposition Members who did not oppose military action on that fateful day in August 2013, I fully support any measure to impose a no-fly zone. I assure the Government that, if they were to bring forward such a proposal, I will vote with them, and I guess quite a lot of my colleagues will do so as well.

Mr Mitchell

That is extremely welcome news both inside the House and outside.

I have one final point on the no-fly zone. Will my right hon. Friend make a specific point of meeting the former Prime Minister John Major to explore his experiences in imposing a no-fly zone and a safe haven in northern Iraq during the 1990s?

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Given the discussion that there is over a no-fly zone, does he share my concern that Russia has moved very advanced surface-to-air missile systems into Syria when clearly Daesh or the al-Nusra front do not have a fast-jet capability. At whom might those missiles be targeted?

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but those S-300 missiles do not affect the viability of imposing a no-fly zone.​

My final question for the Foreign Secretary is, what steps are he and his Department taking to support and enhance the work of the International Syria Support Group? Staffan de Mistura has said that the suspension of bilateral negotiations between the two chairs, US and Russia, “should not and will not” affect the existence of the group. What steps is Britain taking to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to the International Syria Support Group? This group includes all of the five permanent members, Italy, Turkey, Japan, Iran, and the key Arab countries. It represents the UN, the EU and the Arab League. It needs to be greatly expanded. There should be an office, for example, working with and adjacent to the Geneva talks. It should carry out work on the key ingredients for a peace whenever that may come, and we should give very strong support to it.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

May I add a question to the ones that the right hon. Gentleman has posed to the Foreign Secretary? He has spoken very powerfully. Members of the House have described Russia as a pariah. He has compared it with the Nazi regime of the 1930s. Is it not utterly ludicrous that, in two years’ time, the greatest sporting spectacle on earth—the World cup—will be held in Russia, but not a single country is pulling out of it? If we are really serious about sending a message to Putin that is heard on the ground, should we not be questioning whether the World cup should take place in Russia?

Mr Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I hope that when he is considering sanctions, both economic and otherwise, the Foreign Secretary will have a view on that.

The international community faces a choice. Are we so cowed and so poleaxed by recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan that we are incapable now of taking action? Was all the international handwringing after Rwanda, Bosnia and Srebrenica when we said “never again” just hot air? Is all the work on the responsibility to protect—RtoP—which was unanimously adopted by the United Nations Security Council and agreed by the entire international community just so many words? Let us at least be clear here among ourselves. We have a choice: we can turn away from the misery and suffering of children and humanity in Aleppo; we can once again, on our watch, appease today’s international law breaker, Russia, and continue to find eloquent excuses for inaction; or we can be seen to take a lead to explore the situation energetically and with determination with our allies in NATO, Europe, America, and the United Nations and refuse to take no for an answer. We can look at every possible way of ending this barbarism and this tyranny, which is threatening the international rules-based system, destroying international order and engulfing the Syrian people.

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