Syria policy risks UK troops and leaves Kurds at 'mercy' of Turkey: Labour MP
LONDON - A Labour MP has used his visit to Syria to accuse the UK of risking the lives of British soldiers in the country for a foreign policy it cannot explain.
Speaking on a visit to a Kurdish-controlled area of northern Syria, close to where a British special forces soldier was killed last week on a mission to capture an Islamic State group leader, Lloyd Russell-Moyle told Middle East Eye that British policy in the country was "at sea" and that London had left Kurdish fighters "at the mercy of the Turks and their Islamist allies in Syria".
He said: "Britain's foreign policy in the region is clearly at sea because the government does not know which side it is on. The Americans, with whom we are embedding UK soldiers, say they are staying one day and leaving the next."
In an apparent reference to the death on Friday of SAS Sergeant Matt Tonroe, 33, a sniper embedded with American forces, he added: "Why is the government risking the lives of British soldiers to defend a foreign policy it cannot explain?"
Tonroe was killed by an improvised explosive device while on a mission to capture an Islamic State leader, the Pentagon said on Monday. A US soldier, Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, 36, was also killed in the attack and five other soldiers were injured.
His comments came as confusion rises in Washington about future US involvement in Syria. The US president, Donald Trump, has said he wants "out" of the country as soon as possible, while defence officials said they were already planning a withdrawal. The US has been the principal backer of the Kurdish forces in the north against IS, and is currently operating with them in Manbij, which Turkey has threatened to invade.
Russell-Moyle travelled to northern Syria on Tuesday as part of a Labour Party delegation, and pledged to stand with the region’s Kurdish-led authority in the face of Turkish aggression.
Russell-Moyle, who said he informed the Labour leadership of the trip in advance, told MEE: "The Kurds were offered Russian patronage if they abandoned Britain and the West. They refused. Now Britain, with which they fought Islamic State, has turned its back on them, leaving them at the mercy of the Turks and their Islamist allies in Syria."
We want to say we are with you side by side
- Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour MP
The Labour delegation visited Kobani to attend a memorial to Kurdish fighters and saw evidence of the destruction wreaked by the Islamic State. It also visited surrounding villages and saw the "impact of Turkish rocket" attacks.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a longtime supporter of the Kurds, and recently attacked Turkey for causing "civilian casualties" in Syria and condemned a new £100m UK-Turkish arms deal.
Last month, Turkish forces seized Syria's Afrin region, driving out the Kurdish YPG militia that Ankara has labelled as a terrorist organisation.
Turkey has threatened to march further east. It sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency on Turkish soil.
Since the start of Syria's multi-sided conflict, the YPG and its allies have carved out autonomous cantons in the north, setting up a federal system of government. Their power grew after taking vast territory from the Islamic State (IS) group with US help - though Washington opposes their political plans, as does the Syrian government.
"We're here for a long-term relationship with you, where we can support you against all the people who are trying to destroy your liberty," said Maurice Glasman, a Labour peer in the House of Lords who is part of the delegation.
Syrian Kurdish leaders say they seek autonomy as part of a decentralised Syria, rather than secession.
Abed al-Karim Omar, a top member of the self-administration in the north, said the British group that arrived on Tuesday marked the first such public, high-level delegation.
"There were meetings previously not declared," he said. "But this is the first visit in this official way." The MPs would discuss Afrin and the tens of thousands residents displaced there, Omar added.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Syria's Manbij, Kurdish-led fighters have dug trenches and US-led coalition soldiers are patrolling the area after Turkey threatened to overrun the northern city.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch an attack on the city, near which US troops are stationed as part of their support to a Kurdish-led alliance fighting the militants.
Pro-Ankara Syrian rebels control territory to the north and west of the city held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance.
The rebels control Jarablus near the Turkish border to the north, as well as Al-Bab to the west of Manbij.
The Labour delegation arrived via Baghdad and Irbil, where they met with Iraqi ministers, British officials and Kurdish leaders. It also attended the funeral of Dilovan Barzani, twin brother of Nechirvan Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdish prime minister.
A FCO spokeswoman told MEE:“We are aware that a small delegation, including two Labour parliamentarians, Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP and Lord Maurice Glasman visited Northern Syria on Tuesday, 3 April. The Government had no involvement in, and provided no encouragement for, the delegation’s visit to Syria. We continue to advise against all travel to the country.”