Live Urgent Question: Syria Business Questions

Live Urgent Question: Syria

Live coverage of Labour MP Diana Johnson asking an urgent question on the International Syria Support Group plans to commence air drops to besieged areas in Syria.

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stronger Welsh Assembly and as a consequence we believe all lembers


should be involved in that discussion. Not here. Urgent


question, Diana Johnson. Thank you Mr Speaker. I want to ask


the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the Syria support group


plans to make airdrops to bdsieged areas in Syria.


Mr Speaker, I have been askdd to reply. My right honourable friend


the Foreign Secretary is giving evidence to the intelligencd and


Security committee of this house this morning. My honourable friend


the Minister for the middle east is travelling abroad or ministdrial


business. The Government's objective remains a political settlemdnt,


which allows Syria to becomd a peaceful state with an incltsive


government, with which we c`n look to work to tackle extremists. It is


only when this happens that we will see stability returned to the region


and the flow of people fleehng Syria and seeking refuge in Europd stop.


To achieve that goal we need to get political negotiations betwden


Syrian parties back on track. The international Syria support group


has made clear in order to create the best environment for talks to


succeed, there needs to be both a comprehensive cessation of


hostilities leading to a full ceasefire, and sustained, unfettered


access for humanitarian aid. Talks are now paused because progress on


both those tracks has been insufficient. That is why wd are


pressing hard for an end to the current violations of the cdssation


of hostilities, the majoritx which are down to the Assad regimd. That


is also why we need to see `n improvement in humanitarian access


to both besieged and hard to reach areas inside Syria. Both of these


points were agreed by all mdmbers of the international Syria support


group in Munich in February this year. But in light of the continuing


dire humanitarian picture, `t the meeting at Vienna in May, the


Foreign Secretary proposed humanitarian airdrops by thd world


food programme to besieged `reas in Syria, if access could not be


achieved by road to the beghnning of June. That deadline, of course, has


now passed. We welcome the `rrival of some limited aid over thd last


few days in specific areas, and we know the Syrian government has


agreed, in principle, to allow land access by the United Nations to the


majority of areas requested for the month of June. Such progress that


we've seen is undoubtedly the result of international pressure, hncluding


from the possibility of airdrops, but we believe it is crucial now


that the ISG should hold thd Assad regime to account delivery of those


commitments. The Kingdom officials are meeting with their ISG


counterparts and also with TN officials in Geneva today, to


continue that work and the TN itself is pressing the Assad regimd to


allow airdrops if access by road is not permitted. We remain cldar


airdrops are a last resort. Land access is more effective, more


efficient and safe, both for those the aid and for those delivdring it.


The UN has plans in place to begin airdrops of they are needed, but it


is clear in an environment hs dangerous Syria this is not ideal.


We will continue to support the UN in their efforts but if we `re not


allowed to land access for those aid drops, the ISG should consider


carefully what further steps might be taken to deliver the aid that is


so desperately needed. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Thank you for


granting this urgent question this morning to stop as the Minister has


pointed out, this is a very clear humanitarian issue. Therefore our


582,000 people living in besieged areas in Syria. The conditions for


the men, women and children in these areas are beyond what many of us can


comprehend and in the words of the UK's envoy to the UN is a concept


from medieval times, starvation as a weapon of war and purposely


withholding life-saving medhcines and yet this is what the Assad


regime is doing. As the Minhster confirmed, the British Forehgn


Secretary gave the deadline for this to stop and that deadline expired a


week ago. Since then, as thd minister said, aid has reached a few


areas but this aid is not always included food, and we know children


are still starving. The Fordign Secretary said the internathonal


Syria support groups would commence airdrops on to stop and that


deadline expired a week ago. Since then, as the Minister said, aid has


reached a few areas but this aid is not always included food, and we


know children are still starving. The Foreign Secretary said the


international Syria support groups would commence airdrops into


besieged areas if aid was not allowed in by the 1st of June. He


also argued that had the support of Iran and Russia and indicatdd their


support would be sufficient for airdrops to commence. Yesterday the


UN were briefing they had m`de a request to the Syrian government to


commence airlifts, not airdrops It seems airlifts and airdrops are


subject to the whim of the @ssad regime. The Foreign Secretary made a


promise to the people in thd besieged areas and sent a clear


message to the Assad regime. As it appears the humanitarian situation


seems to be bleak and the position of Assad now seems to be


strengthened, click the minhster answer these four questions. The


current proposals appear to be the airlifts to be led by the world food


programme and with the consdnt of the Assad regime. Can you confirm if


there is a timetable for thhs actually happen, and if there isn't


a consent from the Assad regime what will happen next? What happens


if the Syrian government to refuse that position to happen, and


thirdly, is the reason airdrops have not occurred because of the position


of Iran and Russia? Did the Foreign Secretary over state their position


on the 24th of May, or have they subsequently changed their position?


What indications does the Mhnister think the ISS G to agree to airdrops


has for the Syrian peace process? On the Lady's last point, there is


no question that the appallhng humanitarian situation inside Syria


may any hope of trying to rdbuild a modicum of trust that might lead to


political progress more difficult still than it already is. I agree


with her description of what's going on on the ground inside Syrha and


the attitude taken by the Assad regime. I don't think anyond should


be under any illusions they are deliberately using... The ddnial of


access to humanitarian aid `s a political and military weapon. I


think it is important that ht is the United Nations, which is accepted by


all as impartial and peaceftl in intent, should be in the le`d, both


in the talks with the regimd and in the delivery of humanitarian


assistance, given the naturd of the military conflict inside Syria,


given the nature of the air defences, both Syrian and Rtssian,


that are available. The best outcome would be agreed terms of access


either over or by air, for world food programme assistance to go in.


That is what was agreed and what is happening with regard to an area


that is being besieged by D`esh forces in one part of Syria. And


that would be better than other powers trying to intervene. But as I


said earlier, if the Assad regime does not deliver on its comlitments,


then I think the ISSG will have to return to this, we'll have to take


stock during today's meeting in Geneva as to how far those talks


between the UN and the Assad regime have taken us and what the chances


now are. Iran and Russia made these commitments earlier on this year, to


support the delivery of hum`nitarian aid to those people who are in need.


They are the powers that have the influence over Bashar al-Assad and


his regime. It is their responsibility to use that hnfluence


to save the lives of those people who are in such desperate nded of


assistance. I intend to run the exchangds on


this question until 11 o'clock but not beyond. I know colleaguds will


take their cue from that advice The Minister is quite right that


Russia is the key to this. Only Russia can persuade the Ass`d regime


to acquiesce. What steps is he taking, or are they taking together


to put pressure on Russia to do just that? Russia is the key plaxer in


terms of influence over Ass`d and Russia is the key sponsor of Syria's


military capability. We use every opportunity, both within thd ISSG,


where Russia is a full membdr, and in other diplomatic exchangds with


Russia, both official and ministerial level, to emphasise the


importance of Russia delivering on the commitments she has madd.


There are some towns in Syrha that have not received aid since 201 and


we have a moral responsibilhty to protect civilians who are stffering


the effects of this. No expdnse has been spared in dropping high-tech


missiles, UK high-tech misshles on the country, but it is bread and not


bombs that the people in Syria need at this time. It is incumbent on us


to make that happen. Can I `sk the Minister Y eight days have passed


since the UN deadline with no tangible action customer can I ask


the Minister, is it really the case we are asking for permission from


Assad to feed the very people he himself has starved? Administer of


course, will be aware that malnourished and sick children need


specialist care which cannot be provided by airdrops. Can I ask what


action the Government is taking to re-establish road access to these


very desperate people? It is the United Nations th`t is


talking to the Assad regime about getting access. It is the United


Nations that has the good offices to make those approaches and the United


Nations which is in charge of delivering the humanitarian


assistance. That is the way forward, that we judge at the moment is most


likely to lead to a successful outcome, and one that is safe, both


for those receiving the aid and those delivering it. There `re some


parts of Syria where high-ldvel airdrops, if you could not get


overland access, might be of help. But high-level airdrops of


humanitarian assistance are not a precise way of giving help. There


are other parts of Syria whdre the nature of the conflict, or the


densely populated, urban ch`racter of the communities we are trying to


help, mean that you would h`ve to bring in helicopters and not rely on


high-level airdrops at all. That again emphasises the complexity of


this task and why, for all hts imperfections, the best outcome


would be if the UN can secure access, agreed by the regimd for


either overland or failing that are airborne assistance.


What material support is thd United Kingdom giving at the moment to the


United Nations, improper aeration for, as we hope, access being


granted? -- in that preparation As my honourable friend knows we


committed very large sums, ?2.3 million of humanitarian aid


assistance to help the crishs in Syria and its neighbouring


countries. We are ready to provide additional support, if the TN wants


that from us, for an expanddd airdrop operation to the besieged


areas. Mr Speaker, the homely -- the holy


month of Ramadan began on Monday, as the Minister knows. There are


millions of Syrian refugees in the countries immediately adjoining


Syria. Could he confirm that our humanitarian efforts are continuing


so that these people are helped where they are, rather than having


to make the perilous journex to the Greek and Turkish border? I agree


with the right honourable gdntleman about the importance of this. After


all, the reason why large ntmbers of people moved from the camps across


the Aegean last summer was that the UN was not getting them sufficient


funds to maintain food rations or hours of schooling at the previously


agreed levels. We are certahnly committed and we also are pressing


all countries and international organisations who committed


themselves to spend more at the recent London conference on Syria to


deliver fully and promptly on those pledges. I would also say in respect


of Ramadan, we welcome the opposition's high negotiation


committee that there should be a Ramadan trees inside Syria. We hope


this might be an opportunitx to stop further bloodshed. It's depressing


to against the starvation bding used as a weapon of war, particularly


when one man, President Puthn, could make one phone call to his friend


President Assad to remove m`ny other barriers to international ahd.


Assuming that we get the abhlity to deliver international aid, have we


offered use of British military bases to allow that deliverx to


quickly take place, in parthcular from Cyprus? We have not bedn asked


to provide that kind of asshstance to the United Nations. Obviously any


request that we might get from the United Nations we would consider


seriously and sympathetically but my understanding is that the UN's


preference would be to use civilian airports because I think th`t would


emphasise to all parties thd humanitarian rather than political


nature of the flights. Bash`r al-Assad's father-in-law lives in


London. He is a retired doctor. In the past he used to boast, `nd


boasted to me, that he has considerable influence over his


son-in-law. Now I wonder if anybody in the Foreign Office has actually


met with Bashar al-Assad's father-in-law, because that might be


one additional approach that we could try? I don't know whether


there has been a recent conversation with Assad's father-in-law but I


will make sure that that pohnt is noted in the Foreign Office and


perhaps write to the honour`ble lady. Mr Speaker, the UN sahd on


Thursday that helicopters would have to be used for a bridge is for 5 of


the 19 besieged areas because they are densely populated. In rdality,


the UN working with the world food programme would use helicopters


which need permission to land. Does my honourable friend agree with me


that we use these diplomatic channels to urge Russia to `sk and


insist that Syria does open up these channels? I agree wholeheartedly


with what my honourable fridnd has said and I think that this hs a


really important test of Russia s professed commitment, both to the


United Nations and its humanitarian aid work and to its professdd


commitment to a political solution in Syria? If Assad and Russha's


shameful blocking of aid by air and land continues, will be Govdrnment


redouble our effort to ensure that Assad is eventually bought to -


brought to justice to face crimes against humanity? I think the first


thing must be to secure alp for those who are in desperate need and


then we need to achieve a political settlement in Syria. When wd have


that in place, I think therd will indeed need to be a time whdn


individuals who are responshble for the most appalling crimes c`n be


held to account. The point hs that my right honourable friend lakes a


very important. I am very pleased that I am agreeing with everything


he says, not something that I usually do of late when he's at the


dispatch box. But would he join me in praising the work of our former


colleague Stephen O'Brien who is now the United Nations emergencx relief


coordinator of this area? I am very happy to do so. He was a good friend


of mine when he was a member of this House and he had, while he served


it, a very sincere enduring commitment to because of


international do well and and humanitarian assistance and he is


showing real dynamism and ldadership in his work, half of the UN now The


opposition is right to raisd the humanitarian nightmare of this


situation but is the Governlent absolutely right to proceed with the


greatest caution in a situation with holy unpredictable consequences and


particularly in rejecting -, rejected a facile solutions of


military interventions even when they operate by a past by Mhnister


with a record of shooting fhrst and thinking later? I think in terms of


the leading question that h`s been asked today, the key objecthve must


surely be to find the means by which we can get humanitarian aid to those


who need it as quickly and `s effectively as can possibly be


achieved. I hope we can all agree on that point. The question has already


been raised with respect to what Russia can do. Can the Minister give


us any examples of what Russia may have done so far that would give us


any positive news that the Russians may be about to change their


approach? I'd like to be able to be more encouraging in my response but


the Russian approach so far has been, frankly, disappointing. We


have seen access allowed to the United Nations to help people who


are being besieged by Daesh forces, but the people there are people who


are loyal to the Assad regile and so the Russians and the regime have


been happy to allow that humanitarian assistance. It is a


real test now of Russia's intentions as to whether they are going to


bring the pressure to bear that they could bring to bear on Assad to act


before those people suffer further. The Minister has confessed that


children are dying for want of food and medicine. Could we concdntrate


on yes, the Prime Minister of the alighted nations -- the Minnesota --


the primacy of the United N`tions's role but also the wonderful people


at Medecins Sans Frontieres who have wonderful expertise in this area. Is


he consulting with them regtlarly? We are in regular contact whth those


organisations, as indeed thd United Nations, which has long-standing


relationships with all the international NGOs. As the


honourable gentleman will know, a large proportion of the British


Government's eight assistance to humanitarian causes in Syri` and the


surrounding areas is channelled reorganisation T has listed. The


text complexity that the Minister has referred to and the UN dfforts


currently are certainly unddrstood by Syrian refugees who I met in my


own constituency, who explahned their dire plight to me, but my


question is why can we not resolved to supply the means of life whenever


we have shown that we can stpply the means of death? One has to take into


account the military situathon on the ground. We are talking `bout the


regime in Syria that is besheging most of those communities whose


plight we are discussing. The regime has available to it able miserable


Ed event of its own -- formhdable air defences of its own and Russia


has also deployed air defences inside Syrian territory. It is for


that reason that we believe the safest and most effective mdans of


providing humanitarian access would still be for the UN to agred terms


through which that aid can be delivered. If that proves not to be


working, we are going to have to return to this issue, as I have


already indicated. Deakin dhsh and is on the ground are clearlx very


challenging -- the conditions on the ground are clearly very challenging


and are often in very built,up, urban areas where there is no


suitable space for a drop zone and obviously high altitude drops where


it could possibly harm the people on the ground. Will the Ministdr


continued to press for access to aid to be delivered by truck convoy and


Kalak opted to people who are besieged? We shall and I will be


continuing that in Geneva this afternoon. According to the UN, some


600,000 people are in danger of starvation. The Syrian Government


say there is no need for adtlts because there is no starvathon, so


clearly we have a different of opinion and we need the support of


the Syrians and Russians because we in Britain proud -- pride otrselves


on helping others here and `broad. If we can't secure the land access


and the only way is by air, is it the garment's intention to support


the UN in pushing ahead with this to ensure there isn't a humanitarian


crisis and people aren't st`rving? It was my right honourable friend


who pressed at the previous meeting for air drops to be continudd -


considered as a last resort and if we can't secure the access for the


UN that we -- they are seekhng and we are supporting in trying to


achieve, we will have to return to that possibility.


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