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

I have made notes further down and will come to that in a few moments.

My noble friend Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and my noble friend Lord Ashdown spoke about considerations in relation to arming the opposition. Our practical assistance so far as been entirely non-lethal, and we will continue to support the moderate opposition and Syrian civil society wherever possible as they develop into what we believe is a credible alternative to the Assad regime. However, the lifting of the EU arms embargo gives us greater flexibility to act if action is needed. Noble Lords can rest assured that any decision will be put to a vote in the other place, and we would not want to pursue any aspect of this policy against the will of the House. Our policy sends a clear signal to the Assad regime that it must negotiate seriously and that we will do all we can to ensure that the forthcoming Geneva II conference is successful in trying to bring the conflict to an end.

In relation to the conditions if we were to consider sending arms to the opposition, when the Foreign Affairs Council agreed to end the EU arms embargo and return decisions on arms provision to member states on 27 May, Ministers also agreed a framework of safeguards to guide those member states that might decide to provide arms. Arms can be sent to the national coalition only; they should be intended for the protection of civilians; there should be safeguards to ensure delivery to the right hands; and existing obligations under the EU common practice for arms exports remain in place. Legal constraints, such as the United Nations Security Council resolutions in relation to, for example, al-Qaeda, remain in place, preventing the supply of equipment to known terrorist organisations.

I repeat that the Government’s position remains that the only way to achieve a solution is via a negotiated political settlement. However, it is for the Syrian people to negotiate how that transition happens and to agree the make-up of a transitional Government who can win the consent of all Syrians. We are therefore working closely with the opposition and urging them to commit to and prepare for Geneva II as a way of pursuing their goals and achieving political transition. It is a bold and difficult decision for the opposition to make, but one that merits that risk.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, spoke about representation in the opposition. We have recognised the Syrian national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The coalition is committed to expanding its membership. This was recently discussed, with representation from all groups within Syria. I welcome the noble Lord’s expertise, and will ensure that officials feed into planning his concerns about Lebanon and a potential evacuation.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, China and Russia. I will try to address these. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford asked about bringing Russia and China to a more constructive position. It is no secret that China and Russia have differing views on how best to handle the situation in Syria. We all share fundamental aims: to end the conflict, to stop Syria fragmenting, to let the Syrian people decide who governs them and to prevent the growth of violent extremism. We are intensifying our diplomatic efforts with all members of the UN Security Council. As the conflict escalates, the threat to regional and international security increases. As the Prime Minister and President Putin discussed at the G8, we and Russia are on the same page on the need to end the conflict. However, as we near a peace conference in Geneva, we will step up our engagement with Russia and China to ensure that the process stands the best chance of a successful outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Wright, asked whether the differences were insurmountable and about the prospects for success at the conference. Intensive efforts are ongoing on the details of what could be decided at that conference. There will inevitably be challenges, but the UN Secretary-General has stressed that the three parties are committed to convening the conference as soon as possible. We continue to engage actively and support the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy. The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mr Brahimi last month about preparations for the Geneva conference and reiterated our strong support for him and for his office.

My noble friend Lord Ashdown and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, asked about countries that could be providing funds that could get into the hands of extremists. We are working alongside the US and the allies through the Friends of Syria core group, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. At the most recent meeting, attended by the Foreign Secretary in Doha on 22 June, core group Ministers expressed concerns over the growing sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria and the radicalising risks that accompany such developments in regional and international security. Ministers from all those countries agreed at that meeting the urgent need to support and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition, including supporting the national coalition and its supreme military council in efforts to save the lives of ordinary citizens.

Noble Lords may be aware that the Friends of Syria group was created in response to the Russian and Chinese veto on the Security Council resolution. Its first meeting took place in Tunisia last year in February. At various times, 114 nations have now attended the Friends of Syria meetings, but the core group of 11—including the UK, the US, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE—meet on a much more regular basis. The concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and others are discussed there.

The noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Luce, and others asked about Iran’s participation in negotiations. It was anticipated that those who participated in Geneva I would participate in Geneva II. Of course, Iran did not. However, no decision has been made and we are still working through the details of the Geneva II conference with international partners.

My noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the change of President in Iran. The Government of course hope that, following Dr Rouhani’s election, Iran will take up the opportunity of a new relationship with the international community by making every effort, for example, to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue; and, of course, to adopt a more constructive position on Syria. We will keep an open mind, but we will judge Iran by its actions, not its words.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro asked about Assad’s departure. As the Foreign Secretary has said, Assad’s departure is not a precondition for the Geneva talks. However, when considering a transitional Government that could win the consent of all Syrians, it is hard to imagine how Assad could be part of that. The UK position on Assad is that he has lost legitimacy and must therefore step aside if we are to get a solution into which the Syrian people can buy. However, it is ultimately for the Syrian people to negotiate how transition happens and agree the make-up of a transitional Government that can win their consent.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my noble friend Lord Risby, had concerns about the national coalition. We have those concerns, too, which is why we raised them. On 20 April, the national coalition declared its commitment to democracy, to ethnic and religious pluralism and to the rule of law, as well as its concerns about discrimination and extremism. It also declared that it would guard against the proliferation of any supplied lethal equipment and would return such equipment at the end of the conflict, and confirmed that the supreme military council operates under the civilian authority of the coalition. Allowing supply of equipment to an organised body that adheres to acceptable values lowers the risk of diversion and misuse in comparison to a more general lifting of the arms embargo. Clearly, however, we must ensure that the national coalition makes good on its commitments.

The noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Anderson, raised the Middle East peace process. We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas’s clear commitment to a two-state solution, and to working to achieve peace for the Israeli and Palestinian people. We believe that both leaders are genuine partners for peace and we have seen no evidence that the Syrian conflict has affected President Abbas’s commitment to peace. It is vital that both show the bold, decisive leadership that allows the efforts of the United States to succeed. The events of the Arab spring, particularly the threat posed by the conflict in Syria, make the need for progress even more pressing. The consequences of the current efforts not succeeding, for Israelis, Palestinians and the wider region, could be severe. Of course, we continue to support the efforts of Secretary Kerry.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, asked a question that was repeated many times: are we confident that any action that we take is right, and is a step towards peace? I assure noble Lords that all our efforts are focused on reaching a political solution. There are no easy decisions, but the international community cannot stand still in the face of what is happening in Syria. Our policy must move forward to prevent loss of life there. This is not a choice between diplomacy and practical assistance to the opposition. The two efforts are interlinked, in order to bring about a political transition. As we move towards more active efforts to save lives, we will co-ordinate our response with international partners and will consider the risks of all options before moving forward.

In conclusion, our priority must be proactively to pursue a political solution to bring this terrible conflict to a close. The millions of Syrians who are now refugees as a result of the conflict constitute an urgent humanitarian crisis. A negotiated settlement would help to alleviate this crisis, which continues to deteriorate. We must be proactive in responding to an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation by continuing to push a political settlement that would allow millions of refugees to return home, reduce the growing threat of extremism to the UK and stem the tide of spreading regional instability. We will work in every way we can to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes are held to account.

It is clear that there are no risk-free options ahead from which to choose. However, I strongly believe that an inclusive Syrian-led political process is the best way to bring an end to the bloodshed and minimise the threat to peace and security in the wider region.

Syria, and our response, is an issue with which we grapple every day in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We take each step with much consideration, looking at all potential options. On a personal level, my own historic anti-war positions are no secret. However, every day, I learn that holding a “Stop the war” banner and shouting from outside King Charles Street is much easier than sitting inside, grappling with decisions over the least worst option. I thank noble Lords for informing my thinking.

Motion agreed.