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US Troop Withdrawal from Northern Syria
Tuesday 08 October 2019

(1 week, 1 day ago)


Commons Chamber
Department for International Development
Mr Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:41 p.m.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa if he will make a statement on the US troop withdrawal from northern Syria.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (Dr Andrew Murrison) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:42 p.m.

We are consulting the US on its response to the proposed Turkish military action in north-east Syria. The Foreign and Defence Secretaries both spoke to their US counterparts yesterday. The US position, including any movement of US troops, is of course a matter for the US Government. However, the US Department of Defence said in a statement yesterday that the US does not endorse a Turkish operation in north-east Syria. We have been consistently clear with Turkey that unilateral military action must be avoided, as it would destabilise the region and threaten efforts to secure the lasting defeat of Daesh. As members of the global coalition, our focus remains on securing the enduring defeat of Daesh. We will continue to work with the US and other international partners to that end.

Mr Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Ellwood - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:44 p.m.

I first declare an interest: I am a dual-US national.

The US is our most trusted and valued ally. We share the same vision in wanting to shape the world around us to defend international standards and values. It is why we stepped forward in the first place to form the international coalition to defeat Daesh, to which the Minister referred. That bond—that friendship, that trust—means that we have a privileged relationship with the US that enables us to be honest and speak out if there are differences of opinion. Today is one such case.

The President’s decision to remove US troops from northern Syria goes against official and congressional advice and will leave the Syrian Democratic Forces exposed to the expected Turkish offensive to establish a 30-km safe zone in northern Syria. These are the same Kurdish forces who worked with us to defeat Daesh. Essentially, they were our boots on the ground. Now it seems we are turning our backs on them. If this goes ahead, it will be no orderly handover. The Kurds will fight to defend their land. If the zone is secured, Turkey intends then to move over 3 million refugees who are currently in Turkey into the zone, fundamentally altering the ethnic makeup of the region.

If anything must be learned from previous interventions, it is that we do not abandon the very people who stepped forward to help before the job is done. General Petraeus has said that it is no longer good enough to defeat the enemy; we have to enable the local. We need to learn from Iraq in 2003, Afghanistan—Charlie Wilson’s war and after 9/11—and Libya. If we create a vacuum, it is quickly filled by stakeholders who pursue a very different agenda.

Further to the Minister’s or the Secretary of State’s conversations, will the Prime Minister be speaking to the President on this matter? Has the Minister or the Foreign Secretary spoken to our coalition allies about this fundamental change in US foreign policy? The Minister says that the placement of US troops is a matter for that country, but the US is part of an international coalition. We will only defeat the challenges around the world if we work and stick together. What impact will this decision have, therefore, on our efforts—Department for International Development efforts—to help provide aid to this war-torn country?

The Minister talks about discouraging Turkey from crossing the border in some form of invasion and creating that safe zone. What actions will the international community, or indeed Britain, take if such an action does, in fact, take place?

More generally, does the Minister acknowledge that the character of conflict has changed? These are not soldiers in uniform, but radicalised extremists committed to pursuing their jihadist agenda. Many of these fighters come from across Europe, including from the UK. Simply denying dual nationals the ability to return to the UK is not enough to keep our nation safe. Does the Minister therefore agree that the international community must design a better long-term legal solution to this challenge, which will not go away?

Neither the SDF nor Turkey has the desire to properly process the number of detainees and foreign fighters. If Turkey invades, the SDF will fight back, and these camps, such as that at al-Hawl, will get caught in the middle, with thousands deliberately released or able to escape. We will then see the emergence of Daesh 2.0.

We must have the strength and resolve to ask our closest ally to reconsider. Let us also exhibit our own international leadership by energising the same international community that so swiftly came together to defeat Daesh militarily and that now needs to stay the course to stabilise the region we helped to liberate. Otherwise, why did we step forward in the first place? Our world is getting more dangerous, and the threats more complex. The international community must stick together.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker - Hansard

Order. The right hon. Gentleman speaks with very considerable authority on these matters, and that was part of the rationale for granting him his urgent question. He rather gently pointed out to me that it was his first urgent question, so I granted him some latitude, because I think the House wanted to hear from him, but other colleagues cannot expect comparable latitude. Two minutes does not mean four minutes.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:47 p.m.

Nevertheless, Mr Speaker, I think the eloquence of my right hon. Friend probably justified the time he took.

I will try to address some of the points my right hon. Friend made. I absolutely agree with him about this being primarily an issue about Daesh. To answer his question about foreign fighters and others, my worry would be that this will divert the SDF from its activities against Daesh in the Euphrates valley—absolutely, 100%.

My right hon. Friend will understand that we are talking to all our interlocutors at the moment. This situation is very kinetic and very fast-changing, and we of course need to ensure that, so far as we can, we influence our partners in the way that he has just described.

As I understand it, the US withdrawal, if it happens, will be fairly small-scale. It will involve a small number of troops in the immediate vicinity of the border. That is our understanding. We do not support any incursion by Turkey into north-west Syria.

My right hon. Friend will know from previous outings at the Dispatch Box of the extent, breadth and depth of support for the crisis in Syria. We are among the top few in terms of our financial contributions to that awful humanitarian disaster. I hope that that begins to address some of the points he raised.

Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:48 p.m.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), along with all those other Members who sought to pursue this issue today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle).

The number of UQ applications you had on this issue today reflects the range of concern and, indeed, anger across the House about the Trump Administration’s decision to open the door to a Turkish invasion of northern Syria and to the subjugation of the Kurdish people in Rojava— the very people who led the fight against Daesh and who lost 11,000 brave fighters in the process. Donald Trump is not just abandoning those Kurdish allies; he is betraying their sacrifice. Of all the great and unmatched ways in which he has shamed his office over the last three years, this is one of the very worst.

However, simple expressions of anger will not help the Kurdish people now, so I have four specific questions for the Minister. First, in answer to critics of the decision, Donald Trump said yesterday:

“The UK was very thrilled at this decision … many people agree with it very strongly.”

Will the Minister make it clear today that that is a lie? Can he explain what, if anything, the Foreign Secretary said yesterday to Mike Pompeo that might have given Donald Trump that impression?

Secondly, will the Minister agree to table emergency resolutions at this afternoon’s UN Security Council meeting and tomorrow’s North Atlantic Council meeting prohibiting Turkey from taking any action on the ground or by air to increase its military incursions into northern Syria? Will he redouble our efforts through those bodies to reach a genuine peace settlement, a political solution and the negotiated withdrawal of all foreign forces?

Thirdly, will the Minister also work through the UN Security Council and the High Commissioner for Refugees to make it clear to Turkey that it must not use the American withdrawal as a green light to forcibly resettle non-Kurdish Syrian refugees in the Rojava region in an effort to change its ethnic composition?

Finally, will the Minister insist, as a matter of urgency, that Kurdish representatives are finally invited to join the Syrian committee on constitutional reform so that they are able to stand up for their own rights?

An old rule of middle east conflict is that, one way or another, the Kurds will always get sold out. Donald Trump may be following that rule in the most brutal of fashions, but we must unite today, both here and at the United Nations, and say that this time we will not let it happen.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:51 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her questions. As for the tweet, I have no idea where that came from. It certainly is not based on the conversation that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had with Secretary Pompeo last night. Let me be quite clear that we would be opposed to any incursion by Turkey into Syria. The right hon. Lady refers to what is technically called refoulement, which is proscribed under international law, and we would most certainly be against any attempt by any state to engage in social engineering, ethnic cleansing or demographic change.

The right hon. Lady referred to the constitutional committee, and she will be aware that Geir Pedersen led on that at the UN General Assembly and that it will be stood up on 30 September in Geneva. It will be three pillared, with the pillars being the opposition, the regime and independence. Our position would be that all citizens in Syria should be fully represented. There is only one way of making progress in Syria, and that is through an inclusive political process.

Mr Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con) - Hansard

I rise to support the urgent question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). This is surely an issue on which we should be, in many senses, bolder and more public about our disagreement. In America, as the Minister will know, General Petraeus has made it absolutely clear that this is the wrong move and the Republicans themselves in Congress are absolutely opposed to it, so this is not an issue about Trump versus just the usual political sources. It is a real problem that we could abandon a key ally in the destruction of the caliphate and then release them to the mercies of Turkey. Can we make it clear, publicly, that we disapprove of this—not just to the Americans but, more importantly, to the Turks? Will we also make it clear that if the Turks do carry out their threat, we would consider it to be an aggressive act against ourselves as much as we would one against the Kurds?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I have said in plain terms that we would resist any incursion into Syria, and the reason for that—well, there are many reasons for it—is that it will divert attention away from the principal threat to this country in relation to this conflict, which is Daesh. It would potentially divert efforts by the SDF from its operations along the Euphrates valley to the north-west of the country. That would not be helpful and would destabilise the situation, and I think that that is probably behind a lot of concern that has been expressed in Washington. We will continue to work with our allies to push that agenda, because it is right, and if we are going to restore any sort of equanimity in Syria, we need to be united in this particular fight.

Stephen Gethins Portrait Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) (SNP) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:54 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for securing this question and for his comments, and I thank other colleagues for theirs. The SDF has been critical in the defeat of the murderous death cult Daesh. One of my concerns relates to what this move says about our future commitment to allies and about UK foreign policy when we are seeking those boots on the ground. President Trump’s policy is ill-thought-out, with one Pentagon official describing it as a blatant betrayal. What does this mean for UK forces still on the ground? Will he comment on reports that the SDF was compelled to demolish defensive fortifications? Finally, what discussions is he having with his Turkish counterparts, particularly on the humanitarian impact? We know from Save the Children that thousands of children and other refugees need access to food and medicine, so what is he doing to secure that? Is now the time to repatriate the innocent British children who have been stuck in Syria?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:55 p.m.

The US has to answer for itself. I cannot answer for the US or for President Trump—

Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:55 p.m.

Give it a go.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:56 p.m.

The right hon. Lady tempts me, but I am going to resist.

The US, I believe, is talking about seeking to redeploy 50 servicemen at the moment. I have no information on forts, so I cannot answer that question. As for boots on the ground, we need to be careful. The UK does not have regular boots on the ground in Syria; we do not do that. The hon. Gentleman was right to raise international development and Turkey, and he will be aware that we have been a major donor to this particular crisis through the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey. We are also considering at the moment what our response to FRiT 2 will mean, particularly in the context of our imminent departure from the European Union.

Mr Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:57 p.m.

My right hon. Friends and the right hon. Lady spoke for the entire House on the important issue raised in this urgent question. Does the Minister understand that Britain must take responsibility for its own nationals and not use some device to evade that responsibility, nor must we leave them swilling around in ungoverned space where they can do ill in countries less well governed than this, but where they are also a danger to the people in this country? Does he understand that we may well be talking about approximately 40 people, of whom maybe as many as 30 are children? Will he raise this matter immediately with the Foreign Secretary and with his colleagues in Government to see whether we can get a change of policy and an urgent resolution of that particular issue?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:58 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is obviously an expert in such matters. There are two categories of individual: those in detention camps and those in al-Hawl, who are, in the main, the families of detainees. It is important that justice is served as close as possible to any alleged crime, and we are taking that forward with those in the region. As for the minors, it is the Government’s intent that innocents should be protected at all times. He will appreciate the difficulties that that poses in the context of Syria, but we are quite clear that minors need to be handled properly and humanely, and that will be our intent.

Ann Clwyd Portrait Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:59 p.m.

I am afraid that the Kurds are being stabbed in the back once again, as they have been so many times in the past. We have a responsibility, and we should stand up. We need to know what is going on day by day. We cannot wait for the Queen’s Speech and all that; we need to know what is happening today and what the Minister will be doing today. Otherwise, the Kurds are going to be left to die, as they have been so often in the past.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I understand the right hon. Lady’s frustration. We must be clear that we cannot act alone and that we have to act with our partners. That is the reality. The Kurds are not being stabbed in the back by the United Kingdom, but US actions are obviously a matter for the US. I hope that my remarks have provided my understanding of the extent and scope of what is in the President’s head, so far as I can, and it seems that some of the more exaggerated claims have probably been overdone. However, the right hon. Lady is right that the situation is highly kinetic and that things change from moment to moment. If things do change further, I rather suspect that I will be back in his place before too long.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 12:59 p.m.

The Minister will be aware that one principle of military action is the need for surprise, but we normally try to surprise the enemy, not our friends. Here we find ourselves surprised by the actions of our most important ally, and our allies on the ground have been surprised by the possibility that they may find their homes under serious threat from another of our important military allies—Turkey. Will the Minister please assure me that our other allies in the region are being assured that the UK will not make a pattern of being a fair-weather friend but will commit to our allies seriously and properly?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:01 p.m.

The only point I would make about surprise is that President Erdoğan has, of course, threatened this on a number of occasions, and he has previous in relation to Afrin. This has not come out of the blue, but I agree that we need to ensure that we do everything we can to understand our colleagues’ thinking on these matters so that we can act in a relatively joined up way, if possible.

Stephen Twigg Portrait Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:01 p.m.

As ever, it is innocent civilians who will suffer the consequences of the humanitarian disaster that will follow this decision. May I press the Minister to respond to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)? It really is time for us to table this at the United Nations Security Council.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:01 p.m.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that commitment at the Dispatch Box, but the point has been well made and will be considered. I am sure what he suggests has merit, but we will have to examine it fully.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:02 p.m.

There have been ongoing concerns about the safety and welfare of Syrian refugees on or near the Turkish border. There is the prospect of a safe zone being set up, but how can the Minister guarantee that these people will be safe? There are fears about forcible repatriation or relocation from Turkey into Syria, which will be challenged. What representations are being made on their behalf?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:02 p.m.

My hon. Friend refers to the forcible repatriation of refugees, and clearly we would strongly oppose such a thing. I made it very clear to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that we would oppose anything that looks like ethnic cleansing or demographic change. All those things are absolutely not appropriate, and we will resist them.

My hon. Friend will be aware of our effort in support of Turkey through the FRiT process, which will endure on our departure from the European Union. Turkey has done a good job in supporting refugees on its territory, and we will continue to support it in doing that. Turkey has a strong tradition of humanitarian assistance and, so far, it has acted well for refugees, and we want to encourage it in that process.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:03 p.m.

I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on north-eastern Syria, and we were in al-Hawl a month ago. I do not want to disagree with the Minister, but this is not primarily an issue of defeating ISIS; it is also about defending an area that has promoted democracy and gender equality, and that has been an ally, too. Will we now suspend the sharing of security and intelligence information with Turkey so that it cannot use that information against one of our allies? Will we bolster support for the SDF to ensure it has the resources it needs? And will we go to NATO to ensure that Turkey cannot invoke article 5 if there is a backlash?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I do not think we are into article 5 territory. We continue to support the SDF and the coalition. The principal intent here is the fight against Daesh, which is a clear and present danger that threatens us all. We will do everything in our power to ensure that fight continues and is unaffected by this latest news. It is important that we keep our eye on the ball in that respect. As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, there is a lot of ongoing work against Daesh along the Euphrates valley, and it is important that that work continues. This latest news risks destabilising that work.

Alistair Burt Portrait Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Ind) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:04 p.m.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for raising this question.

Security depends on stability and consistency, and the decision taken by President Trump does not help that. It is a reminder, if any is needed, of the dangers of the United Kingdom pivoting too close to United States foreign policy at a time of inconsistency, rather than staying close to our European allies.

May I ask for further reassurance on the global coalition against Daesh? The communications cell, which does the vital work of dealing with the ideology, is based in the United Kingdom. Anything that might give Daesh supporters a sense that the United States is weakening in its commitment against Daesh could be used against the coalition and will materially affect those who are carrying on the vital communications work here. Can the Minister assure me that the United States realises that that coalition work is essential and that it will remain committed to it, no matter what its decision in this case may be?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:05 p.m.

My right hon. Friend’s point is well made. I cannot give him that assurance because I am not the US, but I am sure his point will have been heard by our interlocutors. He refers to our allies in the coalition and elsewhere, and he will be aware that we are working very closely with our E3 partners—probably more closely than we have for some considerable time. Some might think that is something of a paradox, given our imminent departure from the European Union, but it remains true nevertheless. Particularly in the region for which I have geographic responsibility, I have been struck by our close working relationship with France and Germany.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:06 p.m.

Syrian civilians have suffered again and again in this conflict. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), may I ask the Minister what we will do? Will we review all the Government’s policies at this crucial point to see whether we can do a little more to accept more refugees from the region?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:07 p.m.

I have alluded to our support for the humanitarian situation. I suspect I will be quizzed on this further when I appear before the Select Committee on International Development in a few minutes’ time. I am proud of the contribution made by the British people. We are in the top few countries in our support for the humanitarian situation in Syria.

I am also proud that, by 2020, we will have resettled 20,000 Syrians, including in my constituency. That is a sign of the generosity and big heart of the British people. It is a fair contribution, and it is an indication of the UK punching above its weight on international development.

Crispin Blunt Portrait Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:07 p.m.

I was in north-east Syria just three weeks ago with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) and, at least then, it would have come as news to the leaders in the region that there was any engagement on the justice measures apparently being taken forward on the ground.

I am sure the Minister understands the scale of Kurdish resentment following the operation against Afrin, and therefore the scale of Kurdish resistance that there would be if there were a Turkish incursion. He has just said that we would resist any incursion into Syria and that we support the SDF and the coalition. What will we actually do to deter Turkey from making the profound mistake of this planned intervention in north-east Syria?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:08 p.m.

Turkey is a major NATO ally, and it is a good friend of this country. We have some leverage with Turkey, as a friend and as a partner, and my hon. Friend will understand that this is currently in the diplomatic space. He is tempting me to make all sorts of contingency preparations, which I certainly will not do at the Dispatch Box. This is clearly a dynamic situation, and we will have to respond to whatever happens, but our message to Turkey is, “Please don’t do this. It will deflect attention from what really matters here: first, defeating Daesh, and secondly, restoring this poor, benighted country to some sort of equanimity.”

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP) - Hansard

The Kurdish diaspora has a sizeable presence in Scotland, with a community centre at Dumbryden in my constituency. I know they would wish me to remind the UK Government of the debt we all owe the Kurds in relation to defeating Daesh, so can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom Government recognise that they have a moral obligation to help the Kurds, rather than just leaving them to their fate?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:09 p.m.

Of course, the SDF is part of the coalition against Daesh. I admire our Kurdish friends and partners enormously, and our posture has not changed at all. We are talking here about the possibility of Turkey moving into north-west Syria—we do not know how far that incursion is going to be—and the fact that the US has said that in those circumstances it would withdraw 50 of its people from the immediate area. So we need a sense of proportion on this, but of course we have to react to circumstances.

Dr Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:10 p.m.

I am sorry to disagree with my friend the Minister, but saying, “Oh well, it is only a withdrawal of 50 people” is like saying, “Oh, well, it is only the withdrawal of HMS Endurance before the invasion of the Falkland Islands.” Is it not a fact that if the green light is given to Turkey, under its Islamist regime, to attack our allies, it will be an act of treachery and betrayal not dissimilar to what happened in 1944 when Stalin basically gave the green light to Hitler to crush the Warsaw uprising?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:11 p.m.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. I disagree with his analogies, although we will be able to discuss that in some depth, perhaps when we have more time. The Government have been clear where we are on this: we would oppose any incursion by our good friend and NATO ally Turkey into Syria. He is tempting me to speculate on what we might do in the event that this happens. A lot of his remarks are probably better addressed to the US, and no doubt the US, which I am sure listens carefully to him, will have heard his remarks.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:11 p.m.

The right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and others have rightly spoken about getting international co-operation on persuading President Trump of the error of his ways. We have friends in the US; we know that General Petraeus and elements of the Republican party disapprove of Trump’s activities. Could we not use a back-door approach, via our friends and parking our tanks in his back yard, to get the President to change his mind? With an eye on the next election, that might work.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:12 p.m.

I am not sure which election the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but it certainly would not be the UK Government’s job to interfere in US elections, presidential or otherwise. He has rightly referred to opposition to this particular thing in Washington, and I am sure that, as his voice is no doubt influential on the Hill, he will be listened to carefully.

Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:12 p.m.

When the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and I were on the ground in Syria three weeks ago, the SDF was clear in its appreciation for the help of coalition countries, including the UK and US. Given the resurgence of ISIS, particularly around Deir ez-Zor, and the fact that after nightfall great swathes of north-east Syria are no-go areas for the SDF, will the Minister confirm that we will redouble our efforts in supporting the Syrian Kurds?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:13 p.m.

We do support the SDF, which is an important part of the coalition—it is clearly central to it. As I said in my earlier remarks, the worry is that this recent news, if it is carried forward, will detract attention from Daesh along the Euphrates river. That would be extremely bad for the stability of Syria and for the rest of us.

Thangam Debbonaire Portrait Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:14 p.m.

The Minister rightly says he is proud of DFID’s support in the region and he rightly speaks of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, but that is 20,000 people from Syria over the course of five years, and we have only one year’s commitment from the Government so far about what is going to happen after the end of that scheme next year. With 12 million displaced people from the Syrian war so far, and the possibility of refoulement and new refugees from this action ahead of us, will he not now consider asking his Government to redouble efforts and increase the number of people coming to this country for resettlement? Why should we not want to be the best country in the world for welcoming refugees, and allow them to come through safe and legal routes?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:15 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. She talks about being the best, but I think we probably are that. If we look at the sum total of our contribution to this, we see that it is extraordinary, and I am really proud of it. I am proud of it on behalf of my constituents and hers, because they are the ones who ultimately provide this contribution—she and I do not. If she looks at the humanitarian package in Syria objectively—I am more than happy to sit down to discuss it with her—she will share my view that we are doing extremely well, and we will continue to do so.

Mr Bob Seely Portrait Mr Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:15 p.m.

I wish to declare an interest: I have worked alongside the peshmerga—men and women—in northern Iraq, and I consider them to be impressive soldiers and incredibly generous hosts. My question to the Minister is: if this is just about a redeployment of 50 servicemen, is he saying that this crisis is overblown? It seems to me—I am not trying to trap him into a trick question—that if the Turkish army and the Syrian Kurds are at each other’s throats at any point along their extensive border, it is a potentially extraordinary state of affairs both in respect of ISIS soldiers, and the stability and humanitarian aspects of this problem.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:16 p.m.

Yes, we are obviously responding to events and what we are being told, but the information available to us is that this is envisaged as being relatively modest. I have to say to my hon. Friend, whose experience in these matters is broad and deep, that he will know that the matter is extremely kinetic and may very well change. However, we have to be consistent; we oppose any move into Syrian territory by Turkey—that is the wrong thing to do. I would probably leave it at that, but obviously this matter is evolving and we are going to have to respond as we find the situation at the time.

Mike Gapes Portrait Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (IGC) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:17 p.m.

The Turkish President has recently improved his relations with Putin, and the Russians and the Iranians who are fighting on the side of Assad will also have views and interests in respect of what is happening. Is not the danger of what President Trump has done that it reduces the influence of other forces in the region and means that the autocrats and demagogues are dominant in this conflict?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:17 p.m.

We want to make sure that autocrats and demagogues are not dominant in this conflict. The hon. Gentleman talks as though action has been taken, but my understanding is that that is not the case yet, so we are talking about what might happen. What we have done is say that we do not believe that what has been discussed is the right way forward. We believe we have to ensure that Turkey does not go ahead with this, as it would be unhelpful. If it does not go ahead with it, presumably the US will not carry out the action that has been talked about and which the President has been tweeting about.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:18 p.m.

The only way to stand firm against this recent scourge that is Daesh, ISIS, call it what you will is by doing just that—standing firm. As a former soldier, I must say that to withdraw now seems like an act of betrayal to the Kurds, who are brave allies and whom I do not want to see on our TV screens fighting for their lives in the days to come. Will the Minister assure me that if there are any British soldiers on the ground, they will not get caught up in the fighting—if there is some—between the Kurds and the Turks?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I think I can give that reassurance. As I said in response to an earlier question, we do not have boots on the ground. Let me be clear: that means we do not have combat soldiers on the ground. I am grateful for the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to clarify that point. We have others, as part of the coalition, who engage, for example, in training, and across the middle east we have UK servicemen engaged in the fight against Daesh. That will continue. Our No.1 imperative is the defeat of Daesh, and we have to celebrate the fact that the coalition has been very successful against Daesh in achieving a substantial degradation in that malign organisation. That will continue.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker - Hansard

For the benefit of those observing our proceedings, let me explain that I now call the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, otherwise known as President Moon.

Mrs Madeleine Moon Portrait Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:19 p.m.

I thank the Minister for his statement, which has been very clear. He said that the issue has now moved into diplomatic discussions; this weekend, and over the next few days, it will also be moving into parliamentary discussions, as the NATO Parliament will be meeting here in London. I assure the House that parliamentarians from across NATO—the alliance is not involved in Syria but allies within it are—will be discussing this issue and talking to the Turkish representatives and the American representatives who will be at the conference. Across Parliaments throughout the alliance, discussions such as this one are taking place, and they are so important to the sending of clear, concise messages to the Governments who will be making decisions that will impact on all our countries and on the Turkish and Kurdish communities within them.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She serves with great distinction as chairman of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. No doubt conversations will be had over the next few days and will particularly note Turkey’s status in NATO.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:21 p.m.

I, too, have had the privilege of seeing the work of the peshmerga combating Daesh on the frontline—for me, it was in northern Iraq—and also the work of the Kurds supporting internally displaced persons in the region. Will the Minister assure me that, in addition to speaking to officials at the top of the US Administration, our interlocutors will engage with officials in Ankara to say that any Turkish incursion into northern Syria is unacceptable?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:21 p.m.

Yes, of course. My hon. Friend will be aware, because he knows how these things work, that those conversations happen all the time. There can be no room for confusion in the minds of our Turkish interlocutors as to where we stand on this matter. We clearly have something of a privileged position with our good friends the Turks, given their status as a firm ally of this country and as a member of NATO.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard

Many of the 50,000 Kurds who live in this country live in my constituency, and they are in a state of absolute anguish about what is about to happen to their families in Rojava. Will the Minister of State agree to meet Kurdish representatives from my constituency in the next 24 hours, so that he can hear what they are going through?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:23 p.m.

The hon. Lady needs to help us to reassure Kurds in this country about the extent of what, as we understand it, is being proposed. This has been threatened before, so I suspect that Kurds will live their lives in a state of constant anxiety, given the very difficult part of the world in which they and their loved ones live. So far as I know, nothing has happened yet, so I do not think we should do anything that would heighten their anxieties. The information we have is that if it happens, Turkey’s incursion into Syria is going to be modest in scope and that the US response to that is going to be similarly modest. Obviously, we have to watch and await events, but I do not think we should do anything that is going to cause Kurds resident in the UK too much anxiety. That would be the wrong thing to do, and I hope the hon. Lady will assist us in making sure that people are given an accurate view of what is going on.

Dr Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:23 p.m.

How many British-born Daesh supporters does the Minister believe remain in Syria?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:23 p.m.

I do not know and I am not going to speculate.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard

There are thousands of Kurds in Plymouth who are equally as concerned as those we have heard about from other Members. They are also concerned about the UK’s role. As well as making it clear that a Turkish invasion is unacceptable, will the Minister specifically look into the military hardware that Turkey will be using, to ensure that no British-built weapons are potentially used in any invasion?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:24 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this particular matter is the subject of a great deal of work in the Departments of State that have responsibility for this policy area. A great deal of heart searching—if I can put it like that—is going on right now to make sure that what we have done in the past is correct and that what we do is correct going forward. He will also be aware that the basis for what we do in this space is governed very strictly by the EU consolidated criteria. That has to be the fundamental way in which we deal with these matters. Notwithstanding the recent past in this respect—the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has established a committee of inquiry—we are confident that, fundamentally, our processes are correct and that they comply with the eight or so articles of the EU consolidated criteria.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) - Hansard

The clear impression is that our closest ally, the United States, is abandoning an ally, the Kurdish forces, to be attacked by another ally, the Turkish forces. Not only is this a strategic and humanitarian error, but it will send a signal around the world that if people trust the United States or the UK, they might be abandoned. Will the Minister undertake to speak to his opposite number in the United States and impress upon them that this is not only a bad move now but a bad strategic move?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:25 p.m.

It really is not for me to be an apologist for the US, but my hon. Friend needs to be a little bit careful about conflating the US and the UK in the way he has. That would be unfair. Let us be clear: the focus of what we understand to be happening at the moment is the 110 km stretch of border covered by the previous US-Turkey security mechanism agreement. It is a fairly narrow strip of land. That is not to justify anything that has been said in recent times, but nevertheless I hope that puts it into some sort of perspective. It would be wrong if we gave any message about the UK—I can speak only for the UK—abandoning our partners in the coalition. That is clearly not the case—it is definitely not the case—and we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the battle against Daesh, which is undiminished.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:27 p.m.

The Minister is assiduous and sincere, but does he understand that hearts sink in all parts of the House when he uses phrases such as any incursion might only be “modest in scope”? Essentially, we will be complicit in the US President’s decision to stab our Kurdish allies in the back. It is not just a moral betrayal but a strategic error to do what the United States is proposing. Do we not need to speak out more strongly at this stage? Otherwise, it will look as if we are complicit.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:27 p.m.

No. The hon. Gentleman, whom I respect very much, needs to be careful. We are not complicit in any action that the US may or may not take. This is a matter for the US. We have made our position absolutely clear—I do not think I could have been clearer from the Dispatch Box than I have been: we are shoulder to shoulder with the SDF and our coalition partners in the battle against Daesh, which is undiminished.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:27 p.m.

It seems to me that the British Government have two points of leverage against Turkey: first, the licensing of arms exports to Turkey, and secondly, a review of Turkey’s NATO membership. If there is a ground offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria, will the British Government explore both avenues?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:28 p.m.

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think I would put it in the terms in which he put it. That is not where we are at the moment. He invites me to speculate; he would expect me to resist speculation. Clearly, we keep matters under review, but what he has suggested is a very severe penalty, either to threaten or to carry out in respect of Turkey. Let us be clear: Turkey is a long-standing and very close ally of this country. With that comes diplomatic leverage that we can exert, and we will continue to do that with our friends and allies the Turks. We have made clear that we think that any incursion into Syria would be wrong. It would be wrong in principle, and in practice I think it would be disastrous in relation to the fight against Daesh.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:29 p.m.

Even a small incursion into the region by Turkey could have a detrimental effect on the Kurdish fighters there and for the communities there. What specific recommendations or representations can the Minister make in relation to women? Kurdish women in that area have suffered terribly through the war, including because of sexual violence.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

There is some sunshine in this is terrible situation, and that is the establishment of the constitutional committee and the work of the special envoy, Geir Pedersen. It is important that when that committee is set up at the end of this month in Geneva, it includes comprehensive representation. That is clearly an issue in relation to what is currently happening in the Idlib governorate and the north-west of the country. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Lady on the importance of the involvement of women; my experience is that when that happens, better outcomes are procured. I hope very much that the committee will include proper representation.

Peter Grant Portrait Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:29 p.m.

It is now just under four years since this House agreed to UK airstrikes in Syria, and it is worth reminding ourselves that, first of all, we were assured that that was part of a strategy that was expected to restore civilian transitional Government to Syria in about six months. The Foreign Secretary who gave that assurance is now Prime Minister, so he is in a position to do something about it, but the success of the airstrikes against an organisation that was accepted to be a grave threat to our lives and to our security could only be achieved because of the involvement of Kurdish soldiers on the ground. Those Kurds have paid a terrible price: around 11,000 of them lost their lives and several times that number were seriously injured. They died not only to protect their territory, but so that British troops did not have to die protecting our way of life. Will the Minister accept that the very least we can do in recognition of the debt we owe to the Kurdish soldiers is to give an assurance that we will not stand back and let things happen to them if we could have prevented it?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:32 p.m.

I think I can give an assurance that the Government will do everything they can to resolve the situation. The hon. Gentleman would expect me to say that, as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I put my faith principally in diplomacy, which is what we are trying to roll out in relation to this situation. It is not pretty—it is messy, it is dirty, it is complicated, and it is sometimes very difficult to plot a sensible way forward, particularly as we are buffeted by events, but we will be quite clear that this is principally a fight against Daesh; it is a fight that we share with our Kurdish friends and allies, and we are shoulder to shoulder with them. We do not let people down, but we are also, I have to say, the victim of perhaps being rather less powerful than once we were in traditional terms, and we must be realistic about what we individually can achieve. What is undiminished is our ability, very often, to exert diplomacy for maximum effect. I like to think that we are extremely good at that, and we will deploy it, so far as we possibly can, in relation to this situation.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:32 p.m.

On Saturday, I met representatives of the Welsh Kurdish community in Newport, who, like other hon. Members’ constituents, are obviously extremely worried and concerned about this news. I simply ask the Minister again to give reassurances directly to my constituents that we will do absolutely all that we can to influence partners and to protect the Kurdish people against any action by Turkish forces.

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:33 p.m.

Yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. We are doing everything we realistically can to try to bring some equanimity to this situation. That has been our position from the start, but we also have to be realistic about what we can individually achieve. We are influential, but we are one of several, and we will continue to work with our friends and partners within the coalition to try to ensure that this goes in an appropriate direction. As I have said on repeated occasions during my remarks, that does not involve an incursion by Turkey into Syria.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP) - Hansard

I refer the Minister to early-day motion 2772, which reflects the strong feelings that have been expressed in this House today and by the Kurdish community, many of whom are in Glasgow South West. May I say to the Minister that, obviously, pleas have been made to Turkey, but pleas in the past have been ignored—and I am thinking particularly of the situation in Afrin last year—and ask him to reflect on that? Is it not time that the Government now immediately suggest to the Trump Administration that they must reverse this policy to protect one of the stable regions in Syria?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:34 p.m.

I think it is important to say—this is what we understand to be the case—that the US is not agreeing with Turkey by potentially withdrawing from this piece of territory, so it is not endorsing Turkey’s action at all. I hope that it will be joining the UK and the rest of the coalition to impress upon Turkey that this is not the best way forward in our principal aim for Turkey and others, which is to defeat Daesh, which poses a threat to Turkey, a big threat to Syria and a threat to the UK and the US, too. As Turkey’s reputation is on the line in this matter, I hope very much that it listens to its friends and allies and desists from this particular course of action. That is the line that we have taken, and I am hopeful that we will have some success in getting it to revise its position in this particular matter.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
8 Oct 2019, 1:35 p.m.

Along with others, I also express great concern over the decision of the President of the United States of America to remove US troops. No one should ever betray our allies—the Kurds—who helped to cleanse Syria of Isis fighters. Turkey’s history of response towards the Kurds in the past has been all-out war, so what discussions has the Minister had with Turkey to prevent its aggression and the threat to democracy and freedom in that area, which will mean potential casualties among women, children and the innocents?

Dr Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison - Hansard

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He tempts me to talk about wider issues relating to the Kurds, and he will know that we have in the past discussed these matters, and will continue to do so, with our Turkish interlocutors at every level in support of our Kurdish friends and allies. It is important that the rights of Kurds, of all groups, of all minorities and of all ethnicities are respected. That is contained within international humanitarian law, and all the conventions to which Turkey is a code signatory. We will use every opportunity to stand up for the rights of Kurds where we see them being abused.