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Wednesday 4 November 2020

Westminster Hall debate on the humanitarian situation in Syria

There were some nine thousand words spoken in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on the humanitarian situation in Syria, but it seemed hard to find one word that was new, despite this being the first Commons debate on Syria since February.

Read a transcript of the debate.

Watch a video of the debate.

All of the contributors tried to paint vivid pictures of the horror and despair. While these were accurate as far as they went, they were not new and not very helpful. Despair with no remedy will not move people to action.

What remedies were discussed? Alison McGovern echoed the late Jo Cox’s call for the UK’s diplomatic, defence and development strategies to be united in aiming to protect civilians, but didn’t propose specific actions.

Tom Tugendhat called for the UK to work with allies in the region, even where those allies are problematic. That is of course already happening, but in what way and to what end is not always clear.

Wera Hobhouse focused on the Turkish invasion of Afrin, northwest Syria, and the displacement of very many Kurdish people from there, as raised with her by Kurdish constituents. Wera Hobhouse had the date of the invasion confused—it was not at the start of this year but the start of 2018. The beginning of this year saw Turkey prominent in a different role, helping defend Syrians in Idlib against the Assad regime.

Turkey is one of the problematic allies that Tom Tugendhat alluded to earlier. It has backed unaccountable armed groups that have carried out atrocities, notably against Kurdish people, but it has also given limited protection to millions of Syrians displaced to Idlib by the Assad regime’s deliberate campaign of killing and displacement.

Arguably a major factor in how bad the Syrian situation has become has been the division between Turkey and its NATO allies. The fault for this does not lie on one side alone. In the Coalition war against ISIS, because of the desire by the US government to avoid direct conflict with the Assad regime, the US and UK gave military support to the PYD, an offshoot of the PKK which is an enemy of the Turkish government. This was done under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.

The remedy to having problematic allies must include greater engagement focused on increasing accountability for all forces on the ground: Turkish-backed forces, the SDF, US and UK forces. This is essential for any sustainable outcome in those areas still outside Assad regime control. In light of this need, it is unfortunate that at the same time as a few MPs were debating Syria in Westminster Hall, the UK Government was pushing forward the Overseas Operations Bill in the House of Commons to limit accountability for UK forces.

In his contribution to the debate, Anthony Mangnall talked about sexual violence, and the need for accountability. For these and all the other crimes of this war, accountability must ultimately mean accountability to those directly impacted, not just limited accountability to foreign or international courts.

Rushanara Ali and Jim Shannon both talked about refugees, one about refugees in the region, and the other about refugees resettled in the UK. Both also talked about the coronavirus threat to people inside Syria and to refugees in the region. Jim Shannon made a practical suggestion to send some of the unused ventilators in the UK to areas of Syria that are in great need.

David Linden focused on how UK anti-immigration policies make it dangerous and deadly for refugees to reach safety, even when they have family in the UK. And Anna McMorrin lamented the drop in UK aid to Syria this year, and called for it to be maintained.

When you look at UK aid policy alongside the UK’s often brutal immigration policy, it can look as though the UK’s aim in giving aid is less about alleviating suffering and more about containment.

Anna McMorrin questioned the effectiveness of sanctions in deterring Assad regime and Russian forces from bombing hospitals, schools, and markets. In fact, there have been no UK sanctions imposed on Russian individuals for crimes in Syria.

The UK currently implements EU sanctions on Syria, and James Cleverly repeated the Government’s undertaking that they will implement their own sanctions regime after the Brexit transition period.

Last month Human Rights Watch published a report on Syrian and Russian Strikes on Civilian infrastructure in Idlib. They named several Russian officers as well as Syrian officers with command responsibility for targeting civilians. The Human Rights Watch list overlaps with names that Syria Solidarity UK published last year. The UK Government should now sanction these individuals without further delay:

  • General of the Army Sergei Shoigu
  • General of the Army Valery Gerasimov
  • Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoy
  • Col.-Gen. Sergei Vladimirovich Surovikin
  • Col.-Gen. Andrei Nikolaevich Serdyukov
  • Lt-Gen. Alexander Yuryevich Chaiko.

It was disappointing that in the nine thousand words of debate yesterday, there was little on the UK’s military role, or the particular humanitarian responsibilities that flow from it. In our Twitter thread prior to the debate, we pointed to two areas of responsibility: Rukban camp and Raqqa.

We would have liked MPs to ask why the Coalition military strategy in the Tanf zone in southeast Syria leaves out the humanitarian component, failing for years now to fulfil legal duties to civilians in Rukban camp under Geneva Convention IV Article 55.

We would have liked MPs to ask why civilian victims of the Coalition strategy in Raqqa—a strategy that bottled them up with ISIS and then pulverised the city street by street—why those civilian victims can’t get the most basic compensation, and still live in ruins?