A number of constituents have contacted me regarding the situation in Aleppo and the civilians trapped in the city. Parliament has been debating this issue on a regular basis with an emergency debate granted yesterday in Parliament by the Speaker, following on from the emergency debate on 11th October, an Urgent Question last week, initiated by my colleague Alison McGovern MP, Chair of the APPG on Syria; in addition to Foreign Office, International Development and Defence questions.
With the innocent civilians of Aleppo living in a modern hell, and their situation getting more desperate by the day, we need an ever more urgent and concerted effort by the international community to end the violence on all sides, institute and maintain a UN-led ceasefire, and create safe corridors so vital aid can be delivered.
Deliberately-targeted, attacks on civilian targets or humanitarian aid convoys, whether by Russian or Syrian forces, are clear war crimes for which there can be no excuse, and for which they must be held to account.
There are a clear set of actions which Labour believes must be taken immediately. First, we must take every diplomatic step to press Russia and Iran to allow safe passage from eastern Aleppo, not just for the remaining fighters and their families, but for medical professionals, journalists and others. We must make it clear to Russia and Iran that those civilians must be given safe passage from the city or be protected if they remain. Following negotiations with the Russians and the Syrian Government, the Russians have said that while the fighters and their families will be allowed to leave, the so-called civilians and activists will not.
The “activists” they refer to are medical staff. Why would medical staff not be allowed to leave? According to the Russians, they must remain in the city, presumably to face the shelling. They presumably have a high chance of being massacred by the regime or at the very least detained. How can it be that men with guns can leave eastern Aleppo, but men with stethoscopes cannot?
Secondly, once the fighting in Aleppo has ended how will we get humanitarian relief to the citizens still in eastern Aleppo and to those who have fled elsewhere, particularly as the temperatures begin to plummet and the need for shelter and blankets becomes as great as the need for food, water and medical supplies?
There is also a need for witnesses to the aftermath. If Russia and Assad continue to block road convoys into the area, surely the Government must finally accept that we have reached the point of last resort—that point at which the previous Foreign Secretary promised that airdrops would be used. If we fear that manned flights might be too dangerous, the Government must consider using unmanned drones or GPS-guided parachutes. We know that the Government are actively considering all these proposals. If airdrops are not the answer to delivering humanitarian aid, the Government must will tell us what is, because inaction is simply not an option.
Thirdly, once Aleppo has fallen, attention will at some point turn to Raqqa and other cities where Daesh is currently in control or attempting to take control. Civilians are trapped in those cities as well, and they will be just as vulnerable as the civilians in Aleppo to bombardment, the use of chemical weapons and the humanitarian effects of any siege.
The impending fall of Aleppo must raise the question: what exactly is the Government’s current thinking about Syria? Increasingly across the country, we are seeing what the Foreign Secretary has called moderate rebel groups either defeated by pro-Assad forces or signing truce agreements with them. It has been claimed that more than 1,000 such local truce agreements are now in place. We need to know whether the Government believes that the moderate rebellion is still taking place or has any chance of succeeding? If not, we need to know what endgame the Government are now working towards?
In September, the Defence Committee published its report on the Government’s military strategy in Syria and concluded that the goal of creating new leadership in Syria that was “neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other” was too ambitious to be achieved “by military means alone”. We believe that that remains a wise judgment, yet the Government seem to be even further away than they were in September from squaring this particular circle.
These are desperately dark and terrifying hours for the people of Aleppo. They are hours of shame and disgrace for the Governments of Syria, Russia and Iran, who have perpetuated this vicious assault, and they should be hours of deep sorrow and reflection for every international institution and Government who failed to stop it happening and did not do enough to help the people of Aleppo while there was still time.
Even now, there are still things that we can do. There are still important lessons to learn and important questions for the Government to answer about where we go from here.
I want to assure my constituents that I will continue to work with the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, and colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet and Parliament to do what we can to address the appalling suffering in Aleppo.