Syria — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:48 pm on 11th June 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:48 pm, 11th June 2012

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for repeating the Statement on Syria made earlier in the other place by the Foreign Secretary.

If anyone was in doubt as to the seriousness of the situation in Syria, a simple examination of the facts should be enough to convince them of the scale of the horror that we are witnessing. The conflict in Syria has been raging for 15 months. The death toll is now estimated at more than 15,000. As the Minister has today told the House, two weeks ago, the village of al-Houlah was the scene of one of the worst reported massacres. United Nations observers on the ground have confirmed that at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women. I join the Minister in praising the work of UN monitors in attempting to document those events. They have been repeatedly shot at and obstructed in trying to carry out that important task.

This is not some historical conflict; it is unfolding in real time, documented on television screens and YouTube footage, so I welcome this opportunity to scrutinise the Government's response. Fifteen months on, instead of approaching its end, if anything, in recent weeks, the conflict seems to be entering a new and bloodier phase. The Assad regime continues to show utter contempt for the value of human life, perpetrating a violent and brutal crackdown on innocent people across Syria, for which the regime must ultimately be held to account

However, expression of revulsion in response to that slaughter is not enough. Let us be candid and admit that the international community is dangerously divided in its response to the conflict and that division is drastically hampering the effort to stop the violence. The point of consensus for the time being is the Kofi Annan peace plan, but by any reckoning, the UN-backed plan has so far failed to bring an end to the violence. Do the Government think that increasing the number of monitors and boosting Mr Annan's resources would improve the prospects of that plan succeeding?

To date, the Annan plan has been judged to be the only option on the table, but, as the Minister rightly said:

"The Annan plan is not an open-ended commitment".

What are the time limits and tests for the Annan plan? How much slaughter is required before the international community acknowledges that the plan has failed and begins to formulate an alternative means of ending the crisis? Of course, further diplomacy is needed if the divisions in the international community are to be overcome, but the difficulty of the task must not detract from its urgency. What is the Government's assessment of the recent judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who is in his place, our former high representative in Bosnia, who said of the Government's strategy for dealing with the crisis:

"I don't think that is wise diplomacy"?

As the Annan plan is currently not working, the challenge is to ask what beyond the Annan plan can be done, even accounting for the divergence of views in the international community. There are several steps short of military intervention that should be considered to sharpen the choice facing the Syrian regime.

First, on the financing of the regime, without a comprehensive oil embargo in place, Syria is still able, in principle, to export oil to countries outside of the EU and US. What discussion has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of India, who do not have bilateral sanctions in place and who have allegedly recently been approached by Syria to purchase Syrian oil? The Syrian regime is also still able to import diesel from countries such as Venezuela, which allows the regime to sustain its military operation, including tanks, through such foreign imports. What is the likelihood of a comprehensive oil ban being agreed at the UN and, failing that, what pressure have the Government put on countries considering trading with Syria in that way?

Secondly, there is the security situation and support for the opposition. There are steps that, without breaching the arms embargo, could alter the realities on the ground, such as blocking the communications of Assad's forces and choking off his remaining finance by neighbours such as Lebanon enforcing the Arab League sanctions which they have previously agreed.

The Syrian military is one the key pillars still sustaining the political regime in Syria and the newly appointed head of the SNC, Abdel Basset Sayda, was right to call for mass defections from the regime in one of his first statements since taking control. What is the Government's assessment of the present rate of such defections, and what steps can be taken by the international community to encourage and facilitate them further? Does the Minister agree that more should be done to publish internationally the names of any officers ordering atrocities as a clear signal of intent that they will face the full force of international justice for their crimes? The Minister mentioned al-Qaeda as operating in Syria. What is the British Government's view of the scale of that activity?

I welcome the Foreign Secretary's recent visit to Russia. Can the Minister tell your Lordships' House whether he believes that the Russian position is likely to shift significantly in the immediate future as the situation deteriorates further? I welcome, too, the Government's comments on the Friends of Syria group and news that a further meeting of the group is planned. Alongside that group, how effective does the Minister think that an international conference on Syria-as has been suggested by Russia-would be, and does he share our concern that it may simply allow the regime to play for time?

The Minister said that the Prime Minister intends to raise the issue of Syria at the G20 in Mexico. In the light of statements from a Chinese Minister earlier today that the situation in Syria should not be on the agenda at the G20, can the Minister give us the Government's assurance that they are taking all the necessary steps to ensure that appropriate time is found to discuss it?

The Minister says in the Statement that if the Annan plan is not implemented, the UK Government will argue for a new and robust UN Security Council resolution aimed at compelling the regime to meet its commitments under the plan. How will the British Government endeavour to shift the view of Russia, in particular, to allow for agreement in the Security Council for the passing of such a resolution?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is growing by the day. The Foreign Secretary talked at the weekend of the British Government having committed £8.5 million to help alleviate the humanitarian situation. This morning, the Times newspaper reports that a group called the Union of Free Syrian Doctors is questioning that commitment and says that help for doctors trying to get medical supplies in through Turkey has come only from a one-off donation by France and from private individuals. Can the Minister use this opportunity to clarify that case? Finally, what thoughts have been given to creating large humanitarian enclaves for civilians-safe areas in countries such as Turkey or Jordan?

All of us in the House have the same objective. We want the violence ended and the Syrian people free to decide their own future. In the 1990s, the world failed to act to prevent a genocide in Rwanda. The Foreign Secretary warned at the weekend that the bloodshed resembles that of Bosnia in the 1990s. Within weeks of the conflict starting in Bosnia, thousands of refugees were herded into concentration camps and suffered appallingly at the hands of the Bosnian Serbs. Those crimes were broadcast around the world at the time, just as the slaughter in Syria is being relayed on our screens today.

In Bosnia, it took three years and the massacre of 8,000 people at Srebrenica before a bombing campaign led to a peace settlement. Despite the best efforts of Kofi Annan, no effective diplomatic response to this crisis has yet been agreed by the international community. After Rwanda and Bosnia, we said never again. The coming weeks and months will determine whether the international community meant it.