Remarks by Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for the Middle East, to the APPG Friends of Syria, 27 November 2017.

Alistair Burt joined our meeting on Monday, Last Men in Aleppo: What role can the UK play in Syria? The meeting was chaired by Alison McGovern MP, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria.

Alistair Burt:
Alison, thank you very much indeed, and thank you all for coming and being supportive of the Syrian people.

I’ve had long history with this, some of you will know. I was the minister in the Foreign Office between 2010 to 2013, so not only am I responsible with the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, for the Middle East now, but I was around some years ago, so my engagement has been long-lasting, and seen this start, and having a sense of what the inevitable conclusion would be from a very early stage. I met with representatives of the opposition over the years, and I saw, as some of us did in Parliament, the process it went through.

It was clear from a very early standpoint that the regime would have one narrative, in terms of attack from outside, whereas all of you, all of us who understand the situation know that wasn’t what happened, that isn’t how it started. It started with people on the streets calling not for the removal of Assad but calling for simple reforms, and they were met with murder and violence, and the same repression that had marked the regime’s history with his father before him. And attempts afterwards to portray a narrative of Islamists coming in from outside, and that it was him for stability against the rest, were nonsense. Of course once conflict began there were others who came into the equation, as we all know very well, but I don’t think anything should remove completely the situation of how it began, and how the regime responded, and why the United Kingdom’s position needs to remain  very clearly one that does not accept a ruler that turned against his people in such an extraordinary murderous fashion.

And then as the conflict continued, the barrel bombs, the inequity of what was happening, the depressing situation of August 2013 when to my mind there was an opportunity to do something about it, not to take military action per se, in a way that nine out of ten people who wrote to members of Parliament believed and stopped us from taking action. Be in no doubt about that, the public mood was very clear: don’t have anything to do with this, don’t have anything to do with this, Houses of Parliament. For reasons we all understand very well, the long shadow of the past was clear, I don’t make any more comment about it than that. But the loss of an opportunity at that stage to put something that might have weighed in the balance and assisted a process of negotiation, not a military campaign that would have resulted in a victory one way or the other, but at least would have made the regime realise that it might not be able to win necessarily, and therefore some other solution, a more peaceful negotiated solution, would have some point. That opportunity was lost with circumstances to follow that we all know very well.

During that period therefore, the United Kingdom has been able to do what it could in relation firstly to the refugee crisis, the largest ever response from a British government to a crisis, 2.46 billion pounds spent, mostly looking after refugees who were forced to flee Syria and have been adopted in neighbouring countries, all of whom have taken extraordinary care of those who’ve come to them in one way or another, at some political cost to them, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon in particular. And the United Kingdom has been very active there. I have some fairly hefty statistics: Since February 2012 we’ve delivered over 26 million food rations, 10 million medical consultations, 9 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines. It would have been best if none of them had been needed at all, but we’re not where we would like to be. And I think that response from the British people has been quite remarkable, and it will continue as long as there is need.

There have been some outstanding landmarks, of course, of which the White Helmets is clearly one. In the darkness that is Syria, the ability of the White Helmets, and the courage of those who have been part of it, has been remarkable. We’ve supported financially, in terms of 45 million pounds, which may have helped in the contribution to the 100,000 lives saved, but also I think we’ve been supportive morally when the fake campaign began about them from the regime in order to discredit them. The United Kingdom has always been very clear in terms of its support for them and what they were doing. So to that extent I think we’ve tried to do our best.

The circumstances now are largely out of the United Kingdom’s hands. The facts on the ground place the greater opportunity for Russia and Iran to assist in the making of peace. We will have a responsibility because the financing of reconstruction, finally, is unlikely to be completed without substantial support from the West, from the United States and the United Kingdom, from the European Union, and clearly that is a negotiated reconstruction based on a political solution and a settlement which gives some rights to the Syrian people so that after so long, after so much misery, they can have a system in which they have a say, and in which they rightly have the decision about who will lead them in government. No-one pretends that process is going to be straightforward or easy.

You’ll be aware that the opposition had a successful meeting in Riyadh in the last few days, have regrouped around a refreshed opposition stance, which they will take to the Geneva talks fairly soon, and we continue as a government to give our backing very wholeheartedly to Mr Staffan de Mistura, in the attempt that he is taking.

The violence is decreasing to a degree, but in certain places it’s as bad as ever. The attacks in Eastern Ghouta, the so-called de-escalation area where a market was hit within the last few days, shows that the Regime still knows where to aim things, and that situation remains as aggressive and unconscionable as ever. So in so far as the political circumstances in the next year look like providing some form of answer, I think the United Kingdom would feel that there is an opportunity.

And no-one has won in this conflict. You can’t talk about any side winning when so many people have been killed, when there has been so much destruction that will take more than one lifetime to repair. And to say politics and past decisions are where they are, but we want to make sure that we can be part of a political settlement that will give some rights to the Syrian people, and part of a physical reconstruction when the time is right to assist people in getting back with their lives.

But it has been a grim and miserable few years in which one of the very few shining lights has been those whose film we have been able to see, and whose representatives I’ve met from time to time over the past few years. So thank you for the opportunity Alison and I hope that’s an honest and straightforward an account as far as I can of what I’ve experienced over the past few years, but of course I am very happy to answer any questions or listen to any comments.

Alison McGovern:
Thank you minister. I will just come round to comments or questions. Could you just say your name and where you come from?

Liam Walpole:
Liam Walpole, from the Remote Control Project. You touched on it, Minister, slightly. How do you think the UK Government can better link up the military strategy with the political strategy? If you look at Syria, look at Iraq, we have to a certain extent achieved a lot of stuff militarily, but now we come to the difficult part in terms of securing a political settlement.

How do you think we’ll be seeing the NSC working, that was brought in under the Coalition government, and see the CSSF working as well? Looking at the lessons of the past, Iraq, Libya, how do you think we can go forward and make sure, as Ms McGovern said earlier, we never have these situations again? How can we improve the situation? How can we prove to people that we can actually learn the lessons and effectively link a military response with a political solution?

Alison McGovern:
Good question. I’ll take a few.

Jeff Smith:
Jeff Smith, I’m MP for Manchester Withington. You’re as honest as ever Alistair, and there is a great deal of respect for you across the house for this. Maybe I could take issue with you on one thing that you said. When you said in this conflict, no one has won it, it kind of does feel looking from the outside like somebody has won, and it’s not the right people.

I guess I’ve watched from growing despair and a feeling of helplessness in recent times, and it’s just immensely frustrating for us all, and I’m guessing it is for you as well, that we don’t seem to be able to be having any influence internationally. I just wondered if you — I suppose the question is what actually can we do? Are there avenues we can pursue within the UN and elsewhere to put pressure on the regime and others to try and get a solution that works for the people of Syria?

Alison McGovern:
A couple more people.

Clara Connolly:
My name is Clara Connolly from Syria Solidarity UK. I just wanted to refer you, Mr Burt, to an article in Syria Notes, which is circulated to all MPs, and it’s talking about the campaign in East Ghouta, because as these speakers have pointed out, what happened in Aleppo last year is still happening in other places, including East Ghouta, and indeed in Idlib where a million civilians are in imminent danger.

In May ’16 the UK promised that if the Assad regime would not lift the sieges, it would itself organise airdrops with the UN. That deadline passed with no action taken. But if we’re talking about specific things the UK could do to influence the peace to come, hopefully the peace to come, and to play a role in protecting civilians between now and then, that is one thing the UK not only could do, but promised to do. So I’d like to ask you Mr Burt if now the hunger sieges in East Ghouta and other places could be lifted by providing air drops of food, which we know are eminently practicable and easy to do.

And secondly if, in order to protect the evidence and to bring people to account, if the UK radar systems could actually track, record, and publish those aeroplanes which are bombing civilians. Now again you referred, Alison, and you referred, Kinda from Airwars, to the difficulty of knowing who to blame. Well actually it’s not that difficult because you can track these planes, as indeed the US and UK have done. The US has published occasionally the radar information they have on bombing attacks. It is easily done. So Mr Burt I’m asking you to do two things: one, drop food to besieged civilians, which you promised to do in May 2016, and two, track by radar and publish the data of air raids, bombings of civilians, including your own actually. Thank you.

Alistair Burt:
Let me deal with those three if I may.

The first question. I think almost every conflict throws up lessons to be learned, and different ways of doing things. I think the coming together of a National Security Council, an NSC strategy, was long needed, and in a way was a response to what had been seen under a previous government as a not very well constructed structure of decision making and analysis, and moving it to a more conventional one. The same problems occur no matter what your structure is, the limitations on what you can and can’t do, but a more formalised structure I think is a good thing, and it does bring an opportunity to bring together various political aims with what’s happening militarily.

But of course the particular limitations are when you can do something militarily and when you can’t. And we get almost inevitably into the second question from Jeff in relation to that feeling of frustration and helplessness. What the last few years have obviously taught us is that the UN Security Council system with its present system of vetoes, has not proved adequate to a task of dealing with a conflict in which one or other permanent members of the Security Council have an interest, because wherever that conflict may be, if there is the ability to put in the veto it hampers whatever authority the UN might have.

In conflicts where there isn’t a major player with a different view — I raised this at a conference recently, being quite worried that we have special representatives to the UN who work incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances, but the UN structure isn’t delivering at the moment, and having some cross people respond quite strongly — when the stars are lined up, Colombia for example, where the UN has done a terrific piece of work and helped in peace-building, then the UN system works well. But if people don’t want things to happen, then at the moment it would appear that the UN gets stuck, with the consequences which we’ve seen, hence the frustration.

Again, the Syria conflict has illustrated that as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, there is public hesitation about the use of armed force, which I don’t think Parliament has yet got to the bottom of. We don’t know as a parliament what we would take action on now. We have an interesting dilemma as to what is executive action and what must be passed by Parliament. I’m quite sure that the deployment of troops as a considered decision will now always have to go through Parliament. I think that seems to be clear. Rapid action against an immediate assault might be dealt with in an executive manner, but I am not sure if there is as yet a national consensus about where we would deploy troops in the wider British interest, if it’s overseas. We’d defend Gibraltar, we’d defend the Falklands, we’re all fairly clear about that, but beyond that? What would the British public now stand?

We know what they wouldn’t stand in 2013, and it was very clear, but my sense, political sense, is that at that time there was very little to weigh in that balance that says intervene, non-intervene. It was all about intervening is all bad. People had forgotten Sierra Leone, Bosnia. All they could think of was Afghanistan and Iraq, therefore, ‘please British Government, don’t do anything.’ Because what you do can possibly be worse than what’s already happened. Well, we now know that there are consequences of not intervening as well, or of not putting together something that would counter brute force when exerted upon its population. So maybe that would provide, should there be an opportunity in the future, some reconsideration.

But essentially this is a country that does not want to work through conflict; we want to work through conflict resolution, and we’ve got to have the tools to do the job. And I think the Foreign Affairs Committee, and others internationally, must look at the structure of the international order to see whether it still works, because although peace will come, it comes at such a cost after such a time, that the cost is indescribable, you almost think is there a better way of doing it? Of connecting the politics of the situation?

But remember as always whereas every single person in this room wants to see peace, there are others around the world who do not, and for whom conflict serves a purpose, and if they are determined to do that it makes it extremely difficult for others to counter them. The regime was determined to wage war against its people. The Russians were determined to protect an ally. The Iranians were determined to do the same. No matter what the cost. And we were in a situation where we, the West and others, were not prepared to put people in the way of that.

And the price has been paid, and that’s the blunt truth of it, and if that’s to change maybe we can have a different direction from the British people, but I doubt it, so we have to do politics and diplomacy better, and we have to convince states that the way in which they can gain advantage is not through conflict but through something else.

So that’s the wider issues. To turn to the more particular, madam.

We looked really hard at airdrops, and DFID looked hard at airdrops as well, and the conclusion was come to that although you say they are practicable and easy to do, that isn’t the advice that we’ve had. And airdrops are inconsistent, it doesn’t provide the sustained degree of support that a community would want. Clearly access by road is by far the best. It doesn’t mean that anything is permanently ruled out, but we did look very hard at airdrops, and the conclusion was, not just from the UK but from other elements of the international community, they just would not work effectively and consistently. And that’s why they’ve not been done, and so it’s not a question of saying we promised something that we could do and we’re not doing it, the government looked at whether it was practicable and the right thing, and at present we don’t think it will do the job, and that’s why the decision was made.

I’m sorry, your second question was — you had two questions?

Clara Connolly:
Tracking the —

Alistair Burt:
Tracking, yes. Well, insofar as there is a huge determination amongst all those who have been forced to be confined to their activity here to support the population, to do what it could politically and diplomatically, there is a great determination to bring people to justice. We moved the UN resolution recently in relation to Da’esh and what it was doing, but the regime will have to face judgement as well for what it’s doing. And I’m sure all information which is being collected will be available for that process in due course.

Forgive me, I genuinely do not know in detail what is collected and what is not, but as virtually everything is tracked these days I don’t doubt that information is available, whether or not it’s sufficiently indisputable. As you know, every raid or every attack that takes place, there is more than one party that claims responsibility or claims that somebody else has done it. Finding accurate information in these circumstances is always very difficult. But I do know that there is a great determination to make sure the regime does face justice for its actions. All information is being collected which will be used to that effect.