Iraq and the wider Middle East

Part of Point of Order – in the House of Commons at 5:32 pm on 24th January 2007.

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Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 5:32 pm, 24th January 2007

We have heard already this afternoon about the moving meeting that took place in the Palace of Westminster in November, at which King Abdullah spoke. He talked about the potential for three civil wars in the region and said that we were poised on a knife edge in each situation. The first is of course Lebanon, and the events of the past 48 hours have been truly horrific. There have been deaths and injuries, there are rumours of a coup d'état and real instability. At best, if the situation calms down, the economic impact on the country and the threat of further emigration is greater than ever. The situation in Iraq has been well rehearsed and, as far as Palestine and Israel are concerned, we know that there are still enormous tensions in the west bank between Fatah and Hamas.

We are in an unvirtuous circle, as King Abdullah described, with the potential for a domino effect leading to a conflagration in the whole region. Underpinning that depressing picture are the tensions between Sunni and Shi'a Islam well beyond the borders of Iraq in a way that has never happened before historically. Moreover, if Iraq is dismembered, Turkey has significant concerns about what will happen with the Kurds. We have also talked this afternoon about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, and the real fear that now exists in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

I shall complete this depressing picture by talking about the situation in Israel, where there is something approaching political paralysis and a real crisis of confidence. What happened last summer means that the Israelis' traditionally aggressive response to hostility may no longer work. All the elements that I have identified are interconnected, so how do we break what is a depressing cycle of events?

A new foreign policy development is that nations do not speak to other countries or bodies that they dislike. It could be argued that that approach was quite successful for the US in the cold war, although what happened in Cuba suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, that very black-and-white approach to the middle east has infected British thinking.

Terrorism is the scourge of our age: it destroys human life and pays no regard to civilians, but no terrorist group can compete with military powers. The ideological and religious terrorist activity, such as that pursued by al-Qaeda, is focused on a way of life rather than any given territory. In contrast, the impetus is territorial for groups such as the IRA, the Tamil Tigers, the Basque separatists—and even Hamas and Hezbollah.

Terrorism is a murky world. There are overlaps and distinctions are not precise, but history has shown that, in certain circumstances, we can do business with organisations that fall into the latter category. In that connection, we think of our contact with people such as Jomo Kenyatta or Archbishop Makarios. However, even if a settlement were achieved between Palestine and Israel, I fear that the tension would not diffuse for many years, because countries such as Iran use Israel as a whipping boy for their own ambitions.

I mentioned the new foreign policy approach that says that countries should not talk to people whom they dislike, but another confusion arises when countries are bracketed and cemented together as some sort of axis of evil even when that is not appropriate. An example of that is the way in which Iran and Syria have been bracketed together. Their societies are very different, even though they have given their joint support to Hezbollah. They grew together only because of their clear dislike of Saddam Hussein.

When the late President Assad went to Geneva in 2001, he was convinced that he had a deal that would lead to the normalisation of relations between Syria and Israel in return for the Golan Heights and some limited access to the sea of Galilee. There are different interpretations as to what went wrong, but the Syrians believed that it was due to some act of Israeli involvement. The result is the situation that faces us today.

Syria is a constitutionally secular society. Although I would not for a moment want to defend its actions, especially in Lebanon, it holds a totally hostile view of Islamic religious fanaticism, and membership of the Muslim brotherhood is illegal. Moreover, it protects its Christian minority, and it has taken in tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and given them protection and safety. However, the Syrians' attitude to Israel is very much governed by the fact that they believe that by supporting Hezbollah they can continue to punish Israel for what they consider to be occupation of Syrian territory. That is the heart of the difficulty.

There is a lively debate in Israel about how that country should react. The Syrians have said that they are prepared to talk without preconditions, and that they want to exchange ambassadors. Problems remain, such as Syria's support for Hezbollah, but it must be in Israel's interest at least to explore the possibilities for constructive involvement, given Syria's links with Hezbollah, its long-standing relationship with Iran, its good relations with the Iraqi Government, and its total rejection of Islamic fundamentalism. That involvement would at least supply one element of the jigsaw puzzle that needs to be put together if order and stability are to resume in that part of the world. Foreign Ministers from Spain, Germany and other countries have gone to Damascus to discuss the possibility that I have set out, and I welcome the fact that they have brokered a meeting between the Hamas leader in Damascus and Abu Mazen.

How should we proceed? The Beirut declaration exists, of course, and we have talked about the Quartet, but I draw the House's attention to the Neighbourhood Forum—an initiative started in 1998 by the Turks and the Jordanians that involves all the countries surrounding Iraq. Their Foreign Ministers hold regular meetings, which include EU and UN representatives. Of course, we in the west want the involvement of moderate Arab countries—as happens in that group—such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The forum is desperately needed to break the logjam and make a breakthrough. The role of Turkey is important as part of the forum and as a great ally of ours. Turkey has an excellent relationship with Israel and with the Arab world, which could be hugely beneficial.

When we consider the history of the middle east, we find that grand designs for solutions to its problems never work. Patient hard work and negotiations are the solution, but we need a starting point. We need to get the United States involved, but we have to persuade the Americans that the dialogue must extend beyond the limits of the course of action they have chosen.

This is a truly depressing time. In 1956, Lady Eden said she felt as though the Suez canal was flowing through the drawing room of No. 10 Downing street. Today, it must feel as though the Tigris, the Euphrates and the River Jordan are flowing through that self same room. The terrible thing for us is that, as a result of the circumstances of the past few years, our reputation in the region has been very much degraded—although of course we still have good friends in the area and we need to maintain those relationships.

We have the most skilled diplomats of any country, but they have been rather sidetracked over the past few years. Our skilled diplomats, with their unique historical understanding of the middle east, should come together and work with people in organisations such as the Neighbourhood Forum to try to break the logjam and start a dialogue. We really need to do that.

Unfortunately, since the invasion of Iraq, human rights and democratic underpinnings in many parts of the Arab world have deteriorated. The time has come for the British Government to act more persuasively and independently, as they always used to do in the region, and to work with our friends in some sort of forum to move the process on. The Government should not give the impression that we are always beholden to others in our approach to resolving the terrible problems in the region.