With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Afrin.
We are closely following developments in Afrin, and wider north-western Syria. Over the weekend, Turkish and affiliated forces have continued their territorial gains, and are now approaching the town of Afrin itself. We are concerned about recent reports of rising civilian casualties.
The Government has called for de-escalation and the protection of civilians, while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. We will continue to push for a reduction in violence, and for consideration of the humanitarian needs of the population in the affected areas.
The Prime Minister has raised the need for protection of civilians and proper humanitarian access with President Erdogan, as has the Foreign Secretary with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu. The Turkish Government has assured the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that it is working to prevent civilian casualties.
UK-funded partners have been delivering humanitarian assistance in Afrin including health and protection services. Some of these activities have been suspended due to current hostilities, but our partners continue to meet needs where they are able, and are pre-positioning supplies to help meet the needs of those fleeing the area. This includes health supplies, blankets and food. UNICEF, other UN organisations and the WHO have temporarily suspended all activities in Afrin due to the recent military action.
As the Foreign Secretary said in his statement of 26 February, we are concerned about the humanitarian consequences of the operation in Afrin. We urge all parties to respect the law of distinction between civilian and military targets, facilitate access for life saving humanitarian aid, and to allow freedom of movement for those caught up in the violence, in accordance with international humanitarian law.
The Syria conflict will soon enter its eighth year. The UK continues to make every effort to achieve our goals in Syria: of defeating the scourge of Daesh, and of achieving a political settlement that ends the suffering and provides stability for all Syrians and the wider region.
There ultimately needs to be a transition to a new inclusive, non-sectarian government that can protect the rights of all Syrians, unite the country and end the conflict. But we are pragmatic about how this might take place. Syria’s future must be for Syrians’ to decide.
As the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor in Syria since 2011, the UK is at the forefront of the humanitarian response, and is providing life-saving support to millions of people. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK support has delivered 26 million food rations, 9.8 million relief packages, 8 million vaccines and 10 million medical consultations. Last year alone, we provided clean water to over 5 million people, and contributed towards the formal primary and secondary education of over 700000 children affected by the crisis.
However, ultimately the only way to end the conflict is through a negotiated political settlement. The Foreign Secretary has emphasised, including to his Turkish counterpart the importance of a political solution and the defeat of Daesh. This must continue to be at the forefront of international efforts, and we are concerned about the possibility of the diversion of Kurdish fighters from this crucial fight. We remain committed to working closely with Turkey and other allies to find solutions in Syria that provide stability and bring to an end this terrible conflict.
I commend this statement to the House.