Syria and the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:36 pm on 1st July 2013.

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Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 4:36 pm, 1st July 2013

My Lords, I welcome this debate but I am extremely regretful of the circumstances that have triggered our discussions. I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing the debate.

Today we are focusing on the Middle East as a region but there is no doubt that the appalling situation in Syria is currently taking centre stage. I am horrified on a daily basis at the news reports of both the escalating conflict and, more importantly, the humanitarian crisis resulting from it. Tensions were high at the initial outbreak of violent protests in 2011 but few could have predicted that two years later 93,000 people would have lost their lives and that the death rate would still be accelerating.

The potential for a large regional sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims is now dangerously high and the bloodshed and political divide could spiral even further out of control. I am very worried about the rift between the Sunnis and Shias, which unfortunately is growing. As a Muslim, this disturbs me, but I feel that everyone should be concerned about how the situation is developing.

I share the wider desire to see President Assad’s regime brought to an end, and was excited at the increasing prospect of such an outcome late last year. About three years ago I visited Syria with other parliamentarians and we spoke to President Assad at some length. He seemed a reasonable man at that time but his attitude and behaviour are now totally unacceptable.

However, as we should have learnt so very well by now, true victory will not be won for the people of Syria, or indeed any country, if the overthrowing of evil is not accompanied by a good and stable substitution. I know that many colleagues share my concerns at the rather fragmented make-up of what we sweepingly refer to as the “opposition forces”. I appreciate the efforts made with the formation of the national coalition last year, but we must acknowledge that the coalition is beset by its own problems, perhaps most notably the resignation of its own leader in March, and remains generally fractious and divided. It is also unable to assert proper command over many of the rebel groups and has been unable to develop or offer any substantial support in respect of the humanitarian crisis.

What I find of great concern is that its principle is not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime. In reality, this illustrates a continued desire to fight this battle through sheer physical force, despite the incalculable pain and suffering that the conflict has already caused to millions of people. While I abhor the grotesque practices and governance of President Assad, I also find myself unable fully to support a group which exists by this philosophy.

With the coalition’s ideologies for the future of Syria so varied, in some cases even contradictory, and with no will to engage in negotiation with its enemies, it simply cannot be right for us or any other country to pledge unyielding support to it in the wider sense unless the various factions can get together and be a more cohesive force.

I am very supportive of the non-lethal assistance that we have so far provided. Such technical advice, training and basic equipment will help the opposition forces better to protect themselves and other civilians. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister commit to doubling this assistance by the end of this year.

However, the decision that some are calling for—for us to put our own powerful weapons, designed to cause maximum damage and often death, in the hands of people lacking a true unified ideology—carries with it many concerns. It would be dangerous, costly and, frankly, a substantial risk to both the Syrian people and the opposition members themselves.

We also cannot be sure where such weapons will actually end up once distributed on the ground. I know that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that, if arms were provided, they would not be allowed to fall into the hands of extremists, but I would like a little further clarity on exactly how we can guarantee such a claim.

In addition, we must consider what will happen to such arms when the conflict finally comes to an end, whatever the outcome. One has only to cast one’s mind back to the Libyan crisis and the subsequent, exhaustive efforts made by the West in sourcing and retrieving the plethora of weapons that were lost in the post-war chaos. Supplying arms would seem to be a slightly contradictory move, in that it poses a threat to the very long-term stability that some believe we can achieve by arming the rebels in the first place. We are making these decisions in the interests not just of the conflict’s outcome but also of the safety and security of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer so greatly.

In May this year, I was privileged to be invited by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan to visit his country with a party of British politicians. Back in April and before our visit, I spoke briefly in your Lordships’ House on the subject of refugees fleeing Syria, in particular those who have crossed the border into Jordan and are now settling there. I should like to make a reference to this once more.

During our five days in Jordan, our delegation had the opportunity to discuss many of the political, social and financial challenges facing that country. One of the most significant impressions that we were all left with was that of the plight of refugees fleeing across the border from Syria. About 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan and, of those, nearly half arrived in the first quarter of this year.

As the crisis in Syria deepens, the pressure on neighbouring countries such as Jordan becomes ever harder to address. For example, Jordan anticipates a large number of Syrians seeking refuge there during the remainder of this year. Refugees in dedicated camps, as I was able to witness during my visit, are being well looked after and cared for in the circumstances. The Zaatari camp alone provides home for 140,000 refugees, and the total refugee population at present makes up about 6% of the entire Jordanian population. The situation will be aggravated by the influx of other refugees.

Jordan is a country which has experienced a slowdown in economic growth, and its budget deficit is already creating a challenge. Jordan’s ability to address that fiscal issue is hampered by the chaos in Syria; it needs more help to address the costs of the crisis.

In the medium term, there are also grave implications for public services in Jordan. Jordan is allowing Syrian children to register in schools at no cost, and 80 new schools are anticipated to be needed in the coming year. Similar pressures are to be found in healthcare: there is a crisis of resources and hospital expansions will be necessary to provide for the needs of a growing refugee population.

Last year, the crisis cost Jordan about $251 million. The cost this year is projected to be a staggering $851 million. Jordan is an impressive country, but it is finding it difficult to cope with the situation, and there are severe pressures inflicted on the country. As an international community, we have a duty to see that more should be done so that the costs are not born by Syria’s neighbours alone.

The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to the Syrian crisis. We have provided £171 million on vital assistance for refugees who have fled the Assad regime. That includes £26 million for support to Jordan. The Prime Minister announced at the recent G8 conference that further amounts will be provided. Our funding is providing food, as well as clean drinking water. The UK has also provided clinical care and counselling to the refugees. I commend our Government for the valuable support and help that we have provided and continue to provide to the countries affected by the Syrian crisis.

It is clear that a long-term solution to the conflict is some way off. The Government are to be congratulated for what they have done to seek to engage diplomatic pressure for an effective international response. The Secretary of State has shown real leadership and the Prime Minister has worked really hard.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to achieve peace and bring various parties to the negotiating table. I hope that we will see the proposed Geneva II conference taking place. In my opinion, the only solution will be a properly negotiated political settlement, one that involves Russia and, if possible, Iran. Only by bringing the interests of everyone to the table will we be able to make progress that is comprehensive enough to make a difference that will actually endure.

I feel that military action alone will not resolve the crisis in Syria. I also fear that if we increase military support to the opposition forces, Russia will augment its support to President Assad, and the crisis will spiral further. Different parties must talk to one another and arrive at an acceptable solution. We achieved the right results in Libya by military intervention, but circumstances are very different in Syria. We would of course all like to see a freer, more accountable Middle East with Governments who are more democratic and engaging with their people.