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Syria — Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:29 am on 31st January 2013.

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Tabled by Baroness Falkner of Margravine

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the potential escalation of regional conflict in the Middle East in the light of reported Israeli air strikes near the Lebanese-Syrian border.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat 11:37 am, 31st January 2013

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, we are aware of the reports of a possible Israeli air strike in the vicinity of the Lebanese-Syrian border on the evening of 29 January. We are looking into these reports, but it would be unhelpful to speculate at this stage on the implications of this reported incident.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wonder if my noble friend will agree with the two following propositions: first, that that pre-emptive strikes breach international law and will undoubtedly heighten tensions in the region; and, secondly, that while the benefit to Israel's security is likely to be short-lived, the likelihood of pushing the beleaguered regime into even more ruthless actions against its opponents is increased, and risks drawing chemical weapons into the equation. In light of that, will my noble friend tell the House why the United Kingdom Government seek to request a further relaxation of the EU arms embargo tomorrow against this backdrop? Do they believe that putting further arms into the equation will actually help the situation?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

As noble Lords will be aware, I try whenever I come to the Dispatch Box to provide as much detail as I can in relation to any Question that is asked. It is important to be as open and frank as possible with your Lordships' House. Unfortunately, in relation to this matter, we are still looking at these reports. It would be wrong for me to speculate about the implications of what may have taken place and of what has in fact taken place.

However, I note the point that my noble friend makes in relation to the arms embargo. We have taken the position that there should be flexibility in the arms embargo both in relation to the period of time that it operates and to its specifics. That does two things. It sends out a clear message to Assad that we intend to keep the pressure on him to try to resolve this crisis. It also gives us flexibility, as part of the wider EU, to ensure that we can respond appropriately to the situation as it changes on the ground.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Chair, EU Sub Committee F - Home Affairs, Health and Education

My Lords, will the Minister inform the House as to whether, if it turns out that the Syrian regime was transferring arms or military material to any organisation in Lebanon other than the state armed forces, it would have been acting contrary to Security Council resolutions?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I do not want to answer the noble Lord's supplementary question by speculating. I can say that on two occasions we have had specific questions on the issue of chemical weapons and their transfer. I said on those occasions that we had made clear to Syria what its obligations were in relation to any chemical or biological weapons that it had. We have also made it clear that we have worked with the regional powers in the area to make sure that the borders around Syria are properly protected to ensure that there is no movement or transfer of biological and chemical weapons. Of course, we have made clear our views to the Syrian authorities, who have sent back some reports that they do not intend to use chemical and biological weapons. But we will continue to make our concerns heard.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, I accept that the position is as yet unclear, but does the Minister agree that if this convoy was taking weapons to be used by Hezbollah against Israel, Israel had not only a right under Security Council resolutions but also a right under the charter of self-defence, knowing the record of Hezbollah against Israel?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The noble Lord is aware that we have in the past raised concerns about any weapons that may be passing to Hezbollah, about where those weapons may be coming from and about comments that have been made by Hezbollah about where they may be receiving weapons from. I hope that the House feels that I am not being evasive, but it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on what has happened, the implications of it, what someone may do in response and the implications that that would have in relation to international law.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative

While I appreciate that the Minister obviously does not want to speculate until there is a clearer view about this, and while I am the first to be critical of Israel when occasionally it overreacts and overresponds with undue rigour, do the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Anderson, not have a point? The shipping of weapons to Hezbollah, which already has thousands of rockets, is an extremely dangerous and destabilising act in the Middle East. Anything that furthers the position of Hezbollah, which is a state within a state in Lebanon, and makes it more ready to be highly provocative, as it has proved in the past, against Israel, will add to the difficulties in the area. Does she appreciate that we need to watch this very carefully and in a balanced way?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My noble friend, as always, makes an important point and comes at it with great expertise. He will, however, be comforted to know that whatever has happened on that border, we understand at the moment that the blue line between Israel and Lebanon remains calm and that the work of UNIFIL continues in the region in the way that it has done until now. I can, however, say that any transfer of arms to Hezbollah would clearly be a violation of Security Council Resolution 1701.

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the difficulty in answering the Question without adequate information at this stage is well understood on all sides the House. But there will be an anxiety both about the prospect of Hezbollah attaining additional weaponry and about the proportionality of what has happened. When will the Minister, in her judgment, be able to come and give a full Statement to the House about the facts so that we can have a proper discussion?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

As the noble Lord is aware, I am here most days, so I am available most days to answer any Questions that may arise. The Minister with responsibility for this particular region is my right honourable friend Alistair Burt. I will be obtaining updates on this tonight and in my weekend Box and, if further information comes to light, of course I shall update the House.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, I agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said and I also understand the reluctance of the noble Baroness to speculate. However, one thing about which we need not speculate is that the Russians have made a very forthright statement about these reported air strikes. Can the Minister tell us what bilateral exchanges we are having with the Russians about this very worrying situation, which could grow more serious on a daily basis?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I do not have any information about the specific bilateral discussions we are having in relation to this particular incident. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that we are having constant discussions with the Russians in relation to the situation in Syria. These matters are now arising because we are failing to deal with the crisis in the region. We must deal with the issue of Syria. We keep taking this back to the United Nations. The Prime Minister has made his views very clear and I have repeated them on many occasions at this Dispatch Box. We are trying to seek agreement at the United Nations to move matters forward. In the mean time, Russia is one party with whom we seek to move further forward.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, may I revert to the question of the arms embargo on Syria? Is the Minister aware that it was reported on the news this morning that the Foreign Secretary, in consultation with the French, would be arguing for the lifting of that arms embargo? Does the noble Baroness not agree that that would be a very serious escalation in our involvement in what is frequently described as a Sunni/Shia war, and that we ought to be very careful before getting involved with a group of very nasty people indeed in Syria who are aiming-as apparently we are-to remove the legitimate and secular Government of Syria?

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Where I disagree with the noble Lord is that I would not describe the current regime in Syria as one that is legitimate and represents the views of the Syrian people. I can assure him that no decision has been taken by the Government to change the nature of our assistance to the national coalition. We understand absolutely the concerns he has raised in relation to further arms. Our purpose in putting forward the amendment to the arms embargo is to create the space for and increase the chances of a political settlement. It is not to exacerbate the militarisation of the conflict which is already happening.