Amanda Milling – 2022 Speech on Syria

The speech made by Amanda Milling, the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, in the House of Commons on 15 June 2022.

Can I say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this very timely debate? I pay tribute to her for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary friends of Syria group, and for her passion for Syria, as evidenced in her speech.

I also want to pay tribute to the legacy of Jo Cox and her commitment to the people of Syria, noting, as the hon. Member mentioned, that it is the anniversary of her horrific murder tomorrow and the fact that Sir David Amess chaired the last debate on this subject. As she said, they are both sorely missed by this House.

Bashar al-Assad and his allies, including Russia, have inflicted terrible suffering on Syrians for over 11 years now. Children born in Syria in the last decade have been subjected to terrible violence, hunger and deprivation. The UK Government continue to call for an end to this suffering through full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2254, a nationwide ceasefire and progress towards an inclusive, representative political process.

Much of what we have seen play out in Syria, such as the crushing of dissent, attacks on civilian targets and a brutal conflict that has displaced millions, is now being replayed in Ukraine. Peace is a necessity for Syria, its people and us all.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than half a million people, displaced 60% of the population, and collapsed the Syrian economy. Under Assad’s regime people have faced arbitrary detention, brutal torture and indiscriminate attacks. There is clear evidence that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people on at least eight occasions, and has the capability to conduct further attacks. Russia continues to shield Assad from accountability for his crimes, through disinformation and false narratives. Along with Iran, Russia has provided significant military support to the Syrian regime. The conflict has also created space for Daesh and other extreme groups to operate in, which continues to pose one of the most significant global terrorist threats, including to UK citizens.

The UK has responded to the situation in Syria by delivering our largest ever commitment to a single humanitarian crisis to date. We have committed a total of £3.8 billion since 2012, including up to £150 million pledged this year. Even so, aid is struggling to keep pace with the growing need in the region as the conflict continues. Today more than 14 million people are in need of assistance. Access issues and politicisation are complicating delivery, putting those in need at further risk. As the hon. Lady said, in July the UN Security Council will hold a crucial vote to renew the UN’s mandate to deliver aid cross-border into Syria. Russian cruelty in the past three years has blocked that in the Security Council, and reduced UN access to a single border crossing. I visited Turkey last week to see first hand the importance of that issue, and to raise awareness. We are calling on all Security Council members to renew resolution 2585 and to provide cross-border aid at next month’s vote. We thank our allies and partners for their continued support.

The UK also supports efforts to maintain the current ceasefire in north-west Syria, including Turkey’s efforts to protect civilians. We will continue to support Syria’s neighbours, so that they can meet the needs of Syrians seeking refuge. As they are so often, women and girls are the worst affected by the conflict. They also face horrific gender-based violence, including sexual violence. Support for women and girls is at the heart of UK foreign and development policy, through three innovation pilots that seek to prevent violence by targeting the widespread inequality that denies women ownership of land and access to economic resources and opportunities. We continue to push for a more robust global response to gender-based violence. The conflict is also denying Syria’s children their basic human right to education, impacting a whole generation of young people. Since 2018, the UK-funded Syria education programme has reached more than half a million children, supporting 85% of children in lower primary school to be enrolled in schools in the north-west.

Just as we are consistent with aid, so will we continue to hold Assad’s regime and its backers to account, including by sanctioning those close to him, and through our support for international law. There can be no impunity for violations of international, humanitarian and human rights law. Since 2012 the Government have contributed more than £40 million to gather evidence and help victims of human rights abuses and violations, including through the UN. We welcome the release of any detainees, but the regime has denied independent verification of its recent amnesty on prisoners, and there are still 130,000 who remain unaccounted for.

Our position on the regime’s abhorrent use of chemical weapons during this conflict is well known. The UK has full confidence in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and its investigations, which have attributed multiple attacks to the Assad regime. We will continue to push Assad to comply with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

On the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) about Daesh, threats from terrorist and extremist groups rooted in Syria remain. The UK is a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh. We remain committed to ensuring it cannot resurge in the region, working with the coalition and our regional allies.

I also want to pick up on the hon. Lady’s comment about civil society. We recognise the contribution of Syrians in the UK. The Government support and work closely with Syrian civilian society, especially in terms of upholding human rights.

In conclusion, the UK is committed to supporting the people of Syria. They have not been forgotten. We are clear that the UN-led political process, led by special envoy Pederson, is the only pathway to bring the peace that Syrians need and deserve. The Assad regime craves legitimacy, but continues to bring suffering and oppression to its people, and to stall the political process as it pursues self-preservation over genuine political reform. Until the regime participates in that process in good faith, we will not engage with Assad and will discourage others from doing so. Meanwhile, the UK will continue to deliver lifesaving and life-sustaining humanitarian assistance to protect women and girls, and to hold the regime and its backers to account.