Bishop of St Albans raises potential Covid-19 humanitarian crisis in Syria

On 30th April 2020 during a virtual sitting of the House of Lords, the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, asked a question he had tabled about the situation in Idlib, Syria. The response, his follow-up and other questions from Members is reproduced below:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ongoing conflict in Idlib, Syria.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con): My Lords, we welcome the ongoing ceasefire in Idlib and call on all sides to abide by their obligations under the Russia-Turkey agreement of 5 March and to heed UN envoy Pedersen’s calls for a permanent, nationwide cessation of hostilities. We also remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Idlib, with 846,000 people still displaced and at high risk of Covid-19. We have therefore further increased our humanitarian response.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I am grateful to the Minister for his response but, with 84 hospitals destroyed, some commentators are suggesting that in Idlib alone 100,000 people are at risk of coronavirus. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that we have medical equipment, particularly ventilators, in that country to prevent what could be another humanitarian crisis?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The right reverend Prelate is right to raise this important issue. I assure him that we are at the forefront of multilateral action in this respect. The situation on the ground in Idlib has stabilised somewhat and we have already pledged £744 million as part of UK aid to end the coronavirus pandemic as quickly as possible. We will work with international partners to see how best we can make aid work in Idlib.

Lord West of Spithead (Lab): My Lords, there is a very real danger of the fragile ceasefire in Idlib breaking down, not least because Turkey has not met its commitments to demobilise al-Nusra and other jihadi groups in Idlib still pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. Can the Minister confirm that allied forces occasionally bombarded schools and medical facilities in the retaking of Mosul and Raqqa because ISIL was using them for military purposes? Can he also confirm that jihadi groups continue to abuse the protected status of hospitals to use them for storing ammunition and weapons and as command and control centres?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: As the noble Lord is aware, our Government—and I from the Dispatch Box—have repeatedly condemned the actions of these terrorist groups. In that part of the region, in both Syria and Iraq, Daesh is an appalling and disgusting organisation and we stand firm with our coalition partners to defeat it. However, the noble Lord is right: it continues to operate in the region, so we will work with international partners to do what we can to eradicate it from that part of the world.

The Lord Speaker (Lord Fowler): The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, is not here. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover.

Baroness Northover (LD): What realistic assessment has been made of the incidence of the coronavirus in Idlib and in Syria as a whole, and how can testing be increased? Does the Minister agree that an urgent, comprehensive and co-ordinated emergency response plan is now required?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  My Lords, if I heard the noble Baroness correctly, I stand with her in condemning the actions taken by different groups on all sides on the ground, which have caused great suffering to people in Syria. We continue to work to alleviate the human suffering there. I share with the noble Baroness that because of the fragile ceasefire, there is a glimmer of hope—35,000 people have returned to the region—but we also continue to investigate, including with the OPCW, events that have taken place in the past, including the 2017 attack. Again, I reassure the noble Baroness that anyone responsible should be held to account by the international community.

Lord McInnes of Kilwinning (Con):  My Lords, as the third wave of Syrian political talks has been postponed because of Covid-19, and there is no practical aid route from Damascus to Idlib, will the Government support the extension of cross-border aid routes into north-western Syria from Turkey under Resolution 2504, which is currently due to end on 10 July?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  I assure my noble friend that we are at the forefront of this issue. The Foreign Secretary and I, as Minister to the United Nations, have made it clear that we need these humanitarian corridors and they need to be kept open. We have been disappointed by other partners on the Security Council who have sought to close down these routes. However, we will work to ensure that the humanitarian corridors currently open stay open, and we can mandate further routes to open under the UN.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, does it not augur badly for Idlib if Turkey’s indifference to continued killings in Afrin is repeated in Idlib? It illegally occupied Afrin two years ago, and in the last 48 hours a further 50 people, including 11 children, have been killed. If there is to be lasting peace in Idlib—I welcome what the Minister said a few moments ago about holding people to account for things they have done—should we not be doing more to hold a NATO country to account for illegal occupation, the aerial bombardment of civilians, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees and a total disregard for the very values on which NATO itself was founded?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  I assure the noble Lord, in commending his efforts on the ground and on raising this issue consistently, that we continue to raise with all partners, including those within the NATO alliance, such as Turkey, their obligations as members of NATO. However, I stand by what I said: those who have committed any crimes and atrocities should be held to account.

Lord Turnberg (Lab): My Lords, it seems that the Russians were helpful in at least one respect: bringing about a ceasefire. However, what efforts are our Government making to work with Russia to help prevent this disastrous outbreak of Covid-19?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon: The noble Lord is right to raise this. The Covid-19 pandemic around the world has shown the interdependency of states across the piece. We are working multilaterally to ensure that anyone, wherever they are in the world, benefits from what we hope will be a solution found through a vaccine. In the interim, we are providing humanitarian aid. I am proud that we have already given £744 million of aid for these causes, including to organisations such as the World Health Organization. We will continue to work with Russia, as we have previously, through the UN and particularly on the Security Council, to see how we can work together to find lasting peace in Syria.

Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD): My Lords, the international aid that has been offered is clearly welcome. However, given that the health infrastructure in Idlib has been so badly damaged, will the Government do more to hold the Syrian Government to account for the attacks on the health facilities and make sure that they are indeed held accountable under international law?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  The noble Baroness is right to raise this issue. We have condemned the offensive by Syria in Idlib, supported in part by Russia. At the beginning of the year there were flagrant violations of international law by Syria that lacked basic human decency. We hold the Syrian regime to account. It has been responsible for using chemical weapons on its own population, and that is why we do not believe that President Assad should be part of any future solution, although ultimately that will be a decision for the Syrian people.

The Lord Speaker (Lord Fowler): I call the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. We cannot hear her, so will move on to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury,

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab): Perhaps I may press the Minister more strongly on Resolution 2504. All NGOs are really concerned about the routes providing access to Idlib, so what will he be doing before the July deadline to ensure that we get other allies and P5 members to support greater humanitarian access?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  As the noble Lord will be aware, we were really disappointed that Russia and China vetoed that humanitarian Security Council resolution, which had provided cross-border life-saving measures for many people in Syria. We are currently working with partners in the P5 as well as the other members of the Security Council to ensure that we get a resolution that works and which, most importantly, retains and opens further corridors for humanitarian relief on the ground to allow the NGOs, which do an incredible job, increased access.

Lord Howell of Guildford (Con):  My Lords, at least three armies are fighting over Idlib and, tragically, reducing the whole place to rubble. Of course, there is a ceasefire between Turkey and Russia, but that might not last very long. Does my noble friend agree that we will soon have to decide whether to back our, admittedly rather tricky, NATO partner, Turkey, or whether to let the Russia-plus-Assad side prevail, with hideous refugee consequences?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon:  Ultimately, my noble friend is correct to raise that issue. As we would all agree, the conflict has gone on for far too long, and it is important that all sides stand by the Geneva process. There has been a briefing to the Security Council by the new envoy, Mr Pedersen, and it is important that all sides—whether Russia, Turkey or anyone else, including the current regime in Syria—come to the talks in Geneva to find a lasting peace for that country. This conflict has gone on for far too long and it must end now.

via Parliament.uk