3 November 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on the humanitarian situation in Syria

James Cleverly responds to a debate on the humanitarian situation in Syria and outlines the UK support for a UN-facilitated political process as the only way to reach a lasting and inclusive resolution to the conflict and calls on countries with influence over Assad regime to press the regime to engage with the UN process.


The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate. She has regularly spoken with great passion on this issue publicly and I know that she has written about it on a number of occasions over the years. In the margins of the Chamber, she has spoken with me directly. The passion that she displayed today reflects her long-standing concern on the issue—a baton that, as she said, she picked up from our dear lost friend, Jo Cox, and I am very grateful that she did so.

I am also grateful for the contributions of other hon. Members, who outlined in various ways the humanitarian catastrophe that we are seeing in Syria and enumerated the pain and horror that so many Syrians are experiencing. I have made notes and will try to respond to the points raised, but if I cannot cover them all, I invite colleagues to correspond with me to fill in any gaps in my speech. I shall focus on three main issues, which I hope will cover the majority of what was raised: the human impact of this brutal conflict; the restrictions on aid and the non-engagement in peace resolution; and, ultimately, the UK’s humanitarian response.

The impact of the Syrian conflict is wide-ranging and horrific. It affects not just Syria but bordering countries and countries beyond the region. More than half a million Syrians have lost their lives and 5.9 million women, men and children have lost their homes and are displaced across the country, many living in squalid, makeshift camps. We have seen in previous years the impact of winter weather on those people. Some 6.6 million Syrians are refugees abroad. Within Syria, covid-19 continues to rampage and 9.3 million Syrians cannot afford basic food supplies as the economy suffers and the value of the currency plummets, as several colleagues, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), highlighted.

The conflict’s destructive consequences seep out beyond Syrian borders. The crisis has exacerbated economic pressures in neighbouring countries and many Syrian refugees have travelled to Europe, including the UK, as was mentioned by several hon. Members. Syria’s humanitarian crisis will only worsen while the Assad regime continues to violate international humanitarian law, while it continues to attack civilians, while it continues to flout its chemical weapons obligations and while it continues to hinder humanitarian access.

Our position on Assad’s chemical weapons use is unchanged. As we have demonstrated, we will respond swiftly and appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, which have had such devastating effects on its own people. We welcome the first report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons investigation and identification team, which found the Syrian Arab air force responsible for three abhorrent chemical weapons attacks in March 2017.

The UK has provided £11 million to support accountability for war crimes, which is one of the calls made by the hon. Member for Wirral South. Some claim that our sanctions are causing Syria’s suffering. That is a lie that the Russians have peddled for years.

Alison McGovern

Ever so briefly, as the Minister has kindly answered my question, can he confirm that he has ministerial oversight of that evidence-gathering process?

James Cleverly

Yes, that is part of my ministerial responsibilities. I let other colleagues know that I will not take any further interventions, otherwise we will overrun.

Russia has invested heavily in a disinformation campaign to protect its regime from accountability. The UK continues to implement EU sanctions in Syria and we will implement our own sanctions regime after the transition period. It is worth remembering that there are no sanctions on food or medicines and that there are humanitarian waivers so that essential items can get in while the tools for further oppression cannot. If Russia wants those sanctions lifted or for the UK and our allies to fund Syria’s reconstruction, it must first press Assad to agree to a political settlement.

The UK believes strongly in a UN-facilitated political process as the only way to reach a lasting and inclusive resolution to the conflict, as per UN Security Council resolution 2254. Special Envoy Pedersen has our full support. However, the Assad regime has not seriously engaged with the UN process. We call on those who have influence over the regime, including the Russian Government, to press for that engagement. That shows the importance of our aid and diplomacy working together.

Unfortunately, we have been appalled by Russia and China’s repeated use of vetoes at the UN Security Council to remove border crossings that are vital to the delivery of humanitarian aid in northern Syria. The loss of the al-Yaarubiyah crossing has already created a critical shortfall of medical supplies. It is essential that the resolution be renewed and the lost crossings revived. The UK will keep working to ensure aid reaches those most in need. We will not accept that aid deliveries from Damascus can effectively replace cross-border delivery until it is unhindered and needs-based.

Some countries may turn their back on the Syrian people in favour of politicking, but not us. The UK has committed more than £3.3 billion in response to the Syria crisis since 2012. Across Syria and its neighbours, UK aid has funded 28 million food rations, more than 19 million medical consultations and more than 13 million vaccinations delivered through UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. Our support in Syria targets those in the most acute need, including displaced Syrians living in camps. Our funding helps provide life-saving supplies such as medicine and shelter, water, food and essential hygiene support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) rightly raises gender-based violence, and the UK has supported the UN and NGOs in providing direct support to victims. The UK has allocated £33 million to help humanitarian partners tackle covid-19, and UK aid is helping north-east Syrian communities recover from Daesh’s brutal occupation. Many countries have turned their backs on the Syrian people; the United Kingdom is not one of them and we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them in their time of need.