Syria and the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 1st July 2013.

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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) 7:10 pm, 1st July 2013

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for hosting this timely and important debate on the situation in Syria and the Middle East, and I will try to answer the many questions in a timely way. I am grateful for the insightful and moving contributions made over the course of our discussions, including those from the opposition Front Bench, but especially for the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and my noble friends Lord Risby and Lord Dobbs, and the broader contributions on faith, identity and international impacts from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar. My noble friend Lady Morris is right that many interventions merit a reread, and I will certainly be encouraging those of us at the Foreign Office dealing with Syria and the wider region to do that. It is important that this House continues to consider the deteriorating situation in Syria, its wider regional impact and how the UK has responded. We are privileged in being able to draw on the extensive experience of so many noble Lords here today, and we have enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion on the Motion.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, asked whether the House would have a say before any decision was made about arming the opposition. Let me repeat what the Foreign Secretary said in a Statement in the Commons on 18 June:

“We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 18/6/2013; col. 746.]

I can tell my noble friend Lord Alderdice that I have asked officials for options in the event that this House is in recess. I will ensure that his comments are considered in that process and, as ever, I am grateful for his clarity on this issue. I will report back to the House in writing or at the Dispatch Box when a decision is taken.

As the Minister with responsibility for Foreign Office business in this House, I have been particularly focused on these issues, and I felt it was important to gauge your Lordships’ views and to keep the House informed. I thank noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, for his wide and in-depth contribution and my noble friend Lord Bates for his kind comments. It is amazing how coffee can keep you going, even after Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I shall take a few moments to recap the Government’s policy towards the complex situation in Syria and the Middle East, and the types of assistance that we are already providing to the Syrian people. Syria remains at the top of the Government’s foreign policy agenda. We are firm in our belief that the conflict and the suffering of the Syrian people will come to an end only through a negotiated settlement. We have therefore continued to escalate our assistance in order to achieve that goal.

In response to the dire humanitarian situation faced by Syrians displaced inside Syria and as refugees in neighbouring countries, we have set out our largest ever funding commitment for a humanitarian disaster. I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro that we will remain committed. Our total contribution now stands at £348 million, which sends a clear signal to the Syrian people that they can count on the UK’s continuing support. At the same time, we have used our platform as host of the recent G8 summit to urge our international partners to commit to humanitarian assistance on a similar scale and to pay funds that are committed. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, asked about countries failing to make a contribution. The UN humanitarian appeal is for £5.2 billion. It is its largest appeal in history. The UK, US and the EU have been the largest contributors to that appeal, but we agree that others need to do more. That is why the Foreign Secretary urged Ministers at the Friends of Syria meeting on 22 June to increase their contributions to the UN appeal, including lobbying Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.

We have also committed large amounts of assistance to Syria’s neighbours, who are experiencing great economic strains and political tensions due to the conflict spilling over. Regional peace and security are important in containing the conflict, reducing the threat of extremism and ultimately helping to bring the conflict to a close. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Wood, that Jordan and Lebanon are playing a vital humanitarian role and we are providing assistance to help alleviate not only the humanitarian crisis but the side effects too. We are supporting projects to help maintain stability in the region.

A political solution to the crisis would allow millions of civilians who have fled across the border to escape the conflict to return to their homes safely. However, the Syrian regime continues to block humanitarian agencies seeking access to deliver relief in government-controlled areas as well as to prevent the UN commission of inquiry investigating the human rights situation on the ground. Alongside our international partners, we will continue to call upon the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian agencies and investigative bodies immediate and unfettered access.

My noble friend Lord Ashdown gave us the benefit of his extensive experience. He focused on arms and diplomacy. I can assure him that the UK is fully committed to a political process. We are putting all our weight behind the US/Russia/UN-convened Geneva II conference. He and the noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, asked what efforts are being put in place. I can assure noble Lords that huge efforts are being put in place to bring people to the negotiating table, to get a coherent and representative opposition, to ensure that we work with an opposition that abides by international human rights standards and to get like-minded people around that table to move this process further. We believe that a political solution is the best—indeed, the only—way forward. This matter will not be resolved on the battlefield.