Syria: Peace Initiative — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:50 pm on 15th October 2013.

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Photo of Lord Truscott Lord Truscott Non-affiliated 2:50 pm, 15th October 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they consider that the recent Russian-led Syrian peace initiative provides a model for defusing other international crises, for example relating to Iran.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we welcome UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which determines how Syria’s chemical weapons must be eliminated. However, the conflict continues—this is not a broader peace initiative. Syria’s use of chemical weapons presents different security challenges to Iran’s nuclear programme but there has been a similar international response. The UN Security Council has agreed six UN resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme, all of which Iran remains in breach of. We hope that Iran will engage substantively with the UNSC mandated E3+3 to resolve the nuclear issue.

Photo of Lord Truscott Lord Truscott Non-affiliated

I thank the Minister for that reply and I declare an interest as Vladimir Putin’s biographer. Many people would argue that the Russian-led Syrian peace plan is the most significant peace initiative this year. To recognise this and to encourage Russia in its peace-making endeavours, a few hours ago I nominated President Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. Will Her Majesty’s Government do the same?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, this has been a joint US-Russian peace initiative, it is not purely a Russian-led one. We welcome the constructive response that the Russian Government are now making on Syria and we hope and expect that the Russians will ensure that President Assad and his regime are represented at the Geneva II peace conference when it meets at the end of November. We hope and expect, but we do not yet know.

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

Will the Minister correct the noble Lord who spoke before and remind him that the idea of getting Syria to surrender its chemical weapons was raised in this House rather before President Putin raised it? More seriously, will he state that in the event of Syria transgressing the Security Council resolution, the Government would not necessarily be bound by the vote that took place in the other place at the end of August?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we have to recognise—and I say this as a Liberal who believes in international order and is very reluctant to condone the use of force—that without the threat of force we might not have reached the position we have so far reached in Syria. Just as with the opening to Iran, without the very extensive sanctions against it we might not be having the discussions that we are now having with the Iranian Government. One has to use diplomacy as far as one can, but the big stick behind it sometimes helps.

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

Does my noble friend agree that in conflict resolution it is not so much a model that brings about change but the facts on the ground? In Iran there has been limited but nevertheless very welcome regime change, in Syria there has not. Can my noble friend tell the House whether Her Majesty’s Government are now receptive to Iranians participating in the Geneva II conference?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we would welcome Iranian participation in the Geneva II peace conference. However, as UN Resolution 2118 spells out, the Geneva II peace conference is based on acceptance of the Geneva I communiqué, and Iran has not yet signalled that it accepts the basis of that communiqué.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, during the Recess, at the beginning of September, there were UPI international press reports from a reputable source that the Russians were accusing the Syrian opposition of using chemical weapons. There seemed to be almost a conspiracy of silence in the western press about these accusations. What actually happened in the Foreign Office? Was that information followed up, and if it was, what was the conclusion of any inquiry?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, Russian allegations were made. There have been investigations, in so far as it is possible to pursue investigations on the ground within Syria at present, and all the evidence to which I have had access suggests that the opposition did not have access to chemical weapons and certainly did not have the capacity to use chemical weapons on the scale on which they were used on 21 September.

Photo of The Bishop of Leicester The Bishop of Leicester Convenor of the Lords Spiritual

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this shift in fortunes in Syria is very largely due to the relationship of trust that the United States Secretary of State and the Russian Foreign Minister have developed in recent months, and that similar levels of trust will be vital to resolving other pressing international crises, not least with Iran?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I agree. I should also say that the British Foreign Secretary has worked extremely hard over the past nine months and more to come to terms with the Russians and to develop a relationship with the Russian Foreign Minister. The European Union high representative, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has also done a great deal of work with the Russians on Syria and as part of the E3+3 on Iran.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, I welcome very much the first steps in restoring diplomatic relations with Iran and the Foreign Secretary’s meeting with his Iranian counterpart. Does the Minister agree that Iran can be enormously helpful in Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, as well as in the other country mentioned by the right reverend Prelate? If there is progress on these fronts, would that not justify further steps in normalising our relations?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Of course it would. However, we are proceeding slowly and cautiously. There was an Iranian invasion of the British embassy compound only two years ago and we are conscious, as the Foreign Secretary said in his Statement to the Commons the other day, that the Iranian political system is a complex structure and that to be President of Iran is not necessarily to command all power in Iran. When President Rouhani returned most recently he was cheered in the streets of Tehran, but he was booed and his car was apparently pelted by members of the Basij militia.

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

My Lords, I probably should start by making it clear that it is no part of the Official Opposition’s policy to nominate President Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize. The initiatives on Syria, particularly in relation to chemical weapons, are plainly welcome, although there is much more to do on Geneva II. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has done some months’ work on deepening the relationship with Russia, but it does not seem to have deepened enough for it to be a reliable way of achieving the objective in the effort to defuse crises. What positive steps will the Government take, perhaps with the United States and France, to deepen that relationship so that it is more reliable?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As noble Lords will know, the Russians are not easy companions. Foreign Minister Lavrov is giving a big speech in Brussels today,

I understand, on the relationship between Russia and Europe as a whole. Although we welcome the more constructive relationship that we are having at present on a number of Middle Eastern problems, we are also moving towards the EU summit at the end of November on the Eastern Partnership, and Russian behaviour towards Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia regarding the possibility of those states signing association agreements with the European Union is, to say the least, not particularly constructive, nor is the effort that it is making to interrupt Lithuanian exports to Russia.