My Lords, before the Minister opens the debate, it may be helpful if I give a little guidance. This debate is not time-limited. I hope that we may use some of our Thursdays for Government-led debates where the House is not constrained by our normal, rather short time limits. There are 25 speakers today in our Syria and Middle East debate. Were Back-Bench contributions to be kept to around 10 minutes, it would allow debate on our later business to commence at about 6.30 pm.
My Lords, the situation in Syria and its impact on neighbouring countries continues to be bleak and disturbing. It is already the greatest humanitarian disaster of the century. Some 5,000 Syrians are dying each month, 2.4 million people have been forced from their homes, 250,000 are trapped under siege and the bombardment of civilian areas continues. Yet finally, we saw on Saturday the first, tentative, steps of progress when the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted the UK co-sponsored Resolution 2139.
As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire informed the House earlier this week, this resolution—the first time the Security Council has come together to act in response to the deteriorating humanitarian situation—demands an immediate end to the violence, the freeing of besieged areas and the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to the whole of Syria. It rightly condemns terrorist attacks and, in line with Britain’s policy over the past three years, places its weight behind efforts to seek a negotiated political settlement and the implementation of the Geneva communiqué.
Although the passage of Resolution 2139 represents a significant diplomatic success, it will have an impact and relieve the suffering of Syria’s starving people only if it is applied fully and immediately. That is why we are working closely with UN agencies to press ahead quickly with the delivery of aid to hard-to-reach and blockaded areas. In parallel, we call on the Assad regime to comply fully with the resolution. We are clear that we will return to the Security Council and take further steps in the case of non-compliance. Yet it saddens me that, in stark contrast to the approach being taken by the national coalition, there remains no sign of the Assad regime having any willingness whatever to allow the political transition demanded by the Security Council. Indeed, the UN and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has laid responsibility for the failure of the Geneva II negotiations clearly at the door of the regime.
UK support to the Syrian people within Syria itself and to refugees in surrounding countries now stands at more than £600 million and includes funding for Syrian civil defence teams to help local communities respond to attacks, providing everything from radios and protective firefighting clothing to desperately needed medical kits.
I will now turn to other key countries across the region, starting with Iran. The interim agreement with Iran came into force on
We will continue with these step-by-step improvements in our bilateral relations, providing that they remain reciprocal. We are, for example, working together on ways in which to make it easier for Iranian and British citizens to obtain consular and visa services. However, the House should be under no illusion that the challenges remain considerable and, until a comprehensive solution to address all proliferation concerns related to Iran’s nuclear programme is found, existing sanctions will remain intact and will be enforced robustly.
Syria’s closest neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan in particular, have both been greatly affected by the continuing instability in the region. As a result, almost one in five of Lebanon’s population is a registered refugee, while Jordan has the dubious honour of being home to the second largest refugee camp in the world. The UK is contributing more than £110 million to assist each of these nations with the humanitarian emergencies that it faces. It was a subject that I discussed at length with the Jordanian Foreign Minister on
In Iraq last year, we saw the violent deaths of more than 8,000 civilians, and 300,000 people have been displaced from the west of Iraq since the beginning of this year alone. Here again, it is vital that inclusive political process accompanies counterterrorism operations. The upcoming parliamentary elections will form a key part of that, by offering the people of Iraq an opportunity to demonstrate their political will, make their voices heard and set a clear mandate for the new Government. It is therefore vital that the elections are free and fair and held on time.
More broadly, in terms of regional security, we must never lose sight of the importance and centrality of the Middle East peace process to the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians and to international peace. In the past month, more than 30 Palestinian protesters were injured by Israeli live ammunition, while two Israeli soldiers were injured. Both Israeli and Palestinian security forces have foiled terrorist attacks on Israel, allegedly planned by individuals in the West Bank. Attacks by settlers on Palestinian property also continued. Progress towards peace and a two-state solution is desperately needed, and the efforts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to agree a framework for negotiations offers a unique opportunity to secure lasting peace.
In Egypt, the third anniversary of the revolution was marred by the death of 100 protesters, as terrorist groups brought their terror campaign to Cairo. Having seen three Governments in the three short years since we witnessed such scenes of jubilation, the Egyptian people have yet to find the stable, democratic, representative Government for whom they fought, capable of tackling the vast political and economic challenges the country faces. However, the referendum on the draft constitution, held last month, was an important milestone on the political road map. It allowed millions of Egyptians to express their opinion through the ballot box and brought renewed hope for the presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held before the summer.
Similarly, the challenges facing the people and Government of Libya, as they seek to build a secure, prosperous and democratic country after four decades, remain serious, but we are firmly committed to supporting them in whatever way we can, including by helping reform the police force, army and prison service to ensure that they are accountable, comply with basic standards of human rights and tackle corruption. However, while we must not lose sight of the progress that Libya has made over the past two years, we welcome the recent elections for a constitution drafting committee and the recent statement by Libyan Justice Minister Marghani about Libya’s willingness to co-operate with the UK and US on the Lockerbie case. It is still clear that political divisions within Libya continue to hamper progress overall. The conference on Libya in Rome on
I turn to where the Arab spring began. Tunisia continues to overcome significant obstacles and continues its democratic transition. On
Let me now turn to the Gulf states. I had the honour of visiting Saudi Arabia and Oman last week, to discuss—among other things—religious tolerance and other regional issues. The UK has an incredibly strong relationship with our Gulf partners. More than 160,000 British nationals live and work there. We work together across a wide range of issues. The Gulf is vital for our energy security and for countering the terrorist threat, and it is one of our largest global export markets.
The Gulf states share our concern at the instability and turbulence in the Middle East. On Syria, we work with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as part of the London 11 grouping, and Gulf nations contributed generously to the $2.4 billion raised by the recent Syria pledging conference in Kuwait. We work with Gulf countries to enhance regional security, for example by responding to the security situation in Yemen, particularly with Saudi Arabia with whom we co-chair the Friends of Yemen group.
We are delivering aid work in Afghanistan in conjunction with our colleagues from the UAE; supporting Bahrain through its ground-breaking reform process; and have strong defence and commercial ties with our friends in Oman. Gulf countries provide a welcome base for our armed forces, and UK expertise and equipment is contributing to Gulf defence. We also value the contribution Gulf countries make to our security, particularly through our close co-operation on counterterrorism issues.
In a region which has seen huge instability and violence, Yemen’s progress so far has been commendable. The UK welcomes the recent conclusions of the National Dialogue Conference and applauds the spirit of co-operation and compromise that allowed participants to reach a consensus. However, millions of Yemenis are still living without food, shelter or water. The UK is the third largest donor of humanitarian aid and DfID has committed £196 million over three years to support development. However, the security situation in Yemen remains dire. The UK has been working with the Yemeni Government for a number of years to help them disrupt al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and to help deny al-Qaeda a haven in Yemen for the future. The UK now urges progress on the next stages of Yemen’s transition, which includes the drafting of a new constitution, implementation of the NDC outcomes, timely organisation of a constitutional referendum and transparent elections.
In opening this debate it is clear—and it will become increasingly clear as the debate unfolds—that the situation in the Middle East continues, despite the odd glimmer of hope, to give grave cause for concern. The UK continues to be extremely active across the region—bilaterally and multilaterally through the UN and EU, and with allies—to deliver urgent humanitarian assistance, to bolster security and to provide forums in which all parties can work towards sustainable political settlements.
I know it is a region of the world about which there is great interest and certainly expertise on all sides of this House, and I look forward to hearing your Lordships’ assessment of the situation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for opening this important and very timely debate today, and for doing so with her customary openness and breadth of knowledge on the Middle East. May I direct your Lordships to my entry in the register of interests as chairman of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the British Egyptian Society, among other things?
This is a period of great change and great challenge in the Middle East, right the way across the region from the Maghreb and north Africa across the Levant and into the Gulf states. When I was first a Minister in your Lordships’ House some 17 years ago, many a debate about the region was focused on the hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the wider potential conflict throughout the Middle East. We then referred to the Middle East peace process because there was only one peace process anybody had in mind. Now of course that spectrum of conflict both within and between the states in the region is so much more complex and widespread and, of course, it is drawing in global players who have their own very significant agendas about their relationships with the Middle East.
The overlay of sectarian conflict within the states of the Arab League, the hugely increased tensions between Iran and its closest neighbours and the growing and seriously deep concerns of the Gulf states about the role of Iran within the region are absolutely apparent to any visitor who goes there. There was, of course, a time when any opening conversation with a Minister in one of the countries of the Arab League was about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Now the issue at the top of its agenda is Syria, and Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict and sustaining the Assad regime through its support for Hezbollah and the spread of sectarian extremism.
At the same time we continue to see growing demands throughout the region for the enfranchisement of civil society, for democracy, and for written constitutions that enshrine the rule of law and human rights, including of course the rights of women. This debate has singled out one country for special concern, and rightly so. Syria is in a dire position, as the Minister illustrated, with 5,000 of its citizens dying every month, 24,000 people under siege and 2.5 million Syrians now refugees in neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, both of which are showing real stress under the strain of their own resources of food, water, medicines, healthcare and education.
The Statement that the noble Baroness’s colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, repeated in this House earlier this week was of course welcome, marking as it did the unanimous vote on UN Resolution 2139 on Syrian humanitarian assistance. The resolution demands an end to the violence, the lifting of the sieges, and access for aid. It also condemns the terrorist attacks. However, the salient sentence of that Statement was to point out that although the resolution was, “an important achievement”, it would,
“make a practical difference only if it is implemented in full”.—[ Official Report , 24/2/14; col. 752.]
The resolution is not under Chapter 7, so can the noble Baroness, when she winds up, tell the House what is the next step open to the United Nations if Syria fails to comply? Indeed, what is the next step if the Syrian Government fail to meet the deadline for the destruction of its chemical weapons by
We also need to keep a clear focus on the impact of the Syrian conflict in Lebanon and Jordan—very different as they are politically but which share the same common burden of the huge influx of refugees. The role of Hezbollah, particularly in Lebanon, appears to be increasing and strengthening. In supporting the Assad regime, Hezbollah appears to be locked into an increasingly vicious series of revenge attacks from groups linked to al-Qaeda, which involve innocent bystanders who have been the victims, including many young people and some children. Meanwhile, the Syrian Government are claiming to have killed 175 al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-linked fighters yesterday in the eastern outskirts of Damascus. The response to the Israeli airstrike on Monday night is bound to further complicate and exacerbate the vicious nature of this conflict. Israel’s Prime Minister vowed to prevent Hezbollah obtaining “game-changing weapons” from Syria; and Hezbollah has vowed to respond, warning that it would,
“choose the time and place and proper way to respond”.
So can the Minister shed any light on whether there is any discussion or contact with these terrorist groups who appear to be fighting each other every bit as viciously as they want to fight the Government of Israel?
There was of course a further development in the Middle East this week that needs discussion—the resignation on Monday of the Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. Developments in Egypt are of real importance, not only in terms of stability in the region but the impact that they have across all the neighbouring countries and, arguably, globally. I understand that we are expecting a new Cabinet to be announced this weekend, under ex-Housing Minister Ibrahim Mahlab as Prime Minister. President Adly Masour, I understand, remains and some 17 Ministers are expected to retain their portfolios, but it would be interesting to know what more the noble Baroness can say on that.
With its population of more than 90 million, Egypt is by far the most populous country in the whole of the area, with its enormous army readily available. Arguably, it is Egypt that has for years held the line within the region on the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Arab countries because of its support for the peace process. Of course, Jordan has also been part of that relationship, but Egypt was the real guarantor.
The turmoil that followed—the election of Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, his subsequent removal from power by the army and the adoption of a new constitution pending presidential and subsequently parliamentary elections—were all hugely important, not only to Egypt, but across the whole region and, very particularly, to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.
Gulf funding of more than $16 billion since July last year is crucial to Egypt’s stability, but with an inflation rate of 13% and a huge underclass of unemployed young people—70% of the population of Egypt are under age 29—Egypt’s economic stability is enormously important. It is not only political reforms that so many Egyptians want to see, but almost as importantly, they want economic reform. The interim Government have said that they wanted to reform the hugely expensive subsidy regime, reduce the budget deficit and stimulate the economy. Will the Minister tell the House how the British Government are supporting those objectives and whether we are contributing to the EBRD investment support of making more than €2.5 billion of investment a year into the countries of the Mediterranean—not only Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, but also Jordan? Those are countries that declare that they are committed to the principles of democracy, pluralism and, of course, market economics.
The great regional powers—Egypt and Saudi Arabia—have crucial roles to play in the stability of the region, but they face enormous challenges internally and those challenges are hugely different from each other. For us, it might be tempting to try to describe the Middle East in terms of broad generalities, but that is neither accurate nor fair. There may be some common aspects, such as the high youth unemployment, the desire for the growth of civil society, the increasing sectarianism, and, in many countries, the thirst for democracy, but there are also differences that are enormous: differences in wealth, in culture, in the rule of law and in human rights.
I believe that this country has a real role to play in engaging with countries of the region—not just as a group, but as individual countries. The Minister and her colleagues did a brilliant job a couple of weeks ago, when we saw Ministers and business people in unprecedented numbers coming over from Saudi Arabia. Next week, there will be many Egyptians—including business people and Ministers—here in London. Our role in supporting change, democracy, the rule of law, human rights and—yes, very much so— investment and trade will continue to be vital in sustaining the stability of the region.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for initiating this debate and giving such a good summary of all the events in the area, and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for her passionate and informative contribution. I am sure that many of the speakers will repeat many of the statistics. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I do so but I want to put a slant on them.
The Syrian civil war shows no sign of contracting; according to the latest estimates, the number of fatalities has reached 140,000. The conflict has created 2.4 million refugees to date, and the UNHCR estimates that the number of refugees could rise to 4 million by the end of 2014. Within that overall crisis, there have been the sub-crises, such as the condition of the 20,000 in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus.
We have heard, and will hear in the debate today, how the West is helping the Syrian people. The UK has given £241 million in aid to support the population of Syria, as well as £263 million to Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. Food is being provided, I am told, to 130,900 people, and the UK has funded 71,500 medical consultations for refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. EU member states have committed a total of €2.6 billion, €1.1 billion of which has come directly from the EU’s budget. The EU represents the biggest single contributor towards humanitarian relief in Syria.
One source of aid and relief which receives little publicity is from neighbouring Israel—a surprise to many people. Israel has given medical treatment to some 700 Syrians, and the IDF even set up a field hospital specifically for the purpose of treating Syrian refugees. It is estimated that the number of Syrians seeking medical treatment in Israel will rise in the next year. Through liaison with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, the Israeli defence force—the army—organised for food and winter supplies to be distributed to the Syrian population close to the Israeli border. We are also informed that the IDF frequently leaves aid parcels along Israel’s border with Syria.
The Israeli public have mobilised in aid of the Syrian population. More than 20,000 items of winter clothing were donated in response to an appeal by over 30 youth groups and Israeli Flying Aid, an organisation which supplies aid to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel. Members of the Knesset of varying political parties have supported this campaign. On top of that, Israel has been working in partnership to support Syrian refugees in neighbouring Jordan, where there are thought to be half a million escaping the war—more than Jordan can cope with alone. Israeli NGO IsraAID has been working in partnership with Jordanian NGOs to provide supplies to displaced Syrians living in Jordan.
All that has been done despite the fact that Israel and Syria are still technically at war with one another, although a ceasefire is in place—one is grateful for small mercies. Indeed, UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry warned the UN Security Council in September last that fighting in the Golan could “jeopardise the ceasefire” after shells landed on the Israeli side of the truce line. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, also spoke of the danger of escalation on a number of the borders. I echo her sentiments and fears.
I should have declared, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, from another angle, that for some years I have been a vice-president of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel.
It is morally right that Israel helps its neighbours, and it should be encouraged to do so more and more. Its actions may also help to boost co-operation, understanding and the peace that has been so elusive throughout the region. Strange stories come out. CNN carried the quote that a fighter, possibly a rebel, to whom Israel provided medical care said:
“The regime used to make us hate it, but it turned out to be the best country”.
That was just one man’s comment but the fact is that you achieve a lot more by helping people than bombing them, from within or without. Israeli organisations go to considerable lengths to ensure that no Israeli labelling or Hebrew writing is on any aid packages so that refugees will not be accused of being collaborators. The same precautions are taken by Israeli hospitals providing medical treatment.
Israel has so far tried to keep a low profile in the Syrian conflict, and I apologise to it if I am raising that profile somewhat today. Given the high level of anti-Israel sentiment in the region, overt Israeli support for any party could be used to discredit it. I echo the Minister’s comments about the work of Secretary of State Kerry. I only hope and ask that the UK Government do all they can to support his efforts to bring both sides to the negotiating table to make big compromises. That is still a chore that we should be helping Secretary of State Kerry to achieve.
The West is faced with equally bad options in Syria of the Assad regime on the one hand and al-Qaeda and Islamist movements on the other. It is clear that no one knows what to do to end this conflict. Therefore the focus has been to try to support moderate elements in the opposition as much as possible and to provide aid to regional allies such as Jordan, which is bearing the brunt of the social, political and economic consequences of Syrian refugees. There are half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan and the UK Government should be concerned not only for these unfortunate refugees but for the undermining of the Hashemite Kingdom, a long-time friend of Britain. The growing threat from radical jihadists who have been drawn to the Syria conflict should create new impetus for co-operation between Israel and the Arab states in the region. The West would do well to develop and encourage regional frameworks for countering the challenge posed by the jihadists.
What I have tried to add in this debate is that everyone is appalled at the humanitarian crisis, even those whom Syria has previously attacked. We hear of assistance given, some of which has been given largely below the radar, but it must continue. The Minister referred to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139—although it seems long ago, it was passed only on
My Lords, as we debate Syria and the Middle East today, it is clear that we have witnessed and continue to witness a significant degree of political and social upheaval across the region. To that extent, the cards are up in the air, but we can have little control and less certainty about where they will eventually fall. This naturally poses some serious challenges to the formulation of a coherent UK policy in the Middle East. If we are to develop and maintain a credible strategic approach to the dynamic and complex challenges of the region, we need first a comprehensive analysis of the context and then a clear focus on those issues that are most important to our own security and prosperity. I do not mean to diminish the importance of moral and humanitarian concerns—we should continue our efforts in this regard—but as a nation we have limited resources and influence. It is therefore crucial that we identify our own policy priorities.
The context is surely an unravelling of the post-1918 settlement that was intended to tidy up the detritus of the Ottoman Empire. Britain and France, of course, have their fingerprints all over this settlement. Consider Syria. The Ottomans ruled it for just over 400 years until 1918. The San Remo conference of 1920 placed Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate while, incidentally, putting Palestine under a British mandate at the same time. Syria became independent in 1946 but had no settled constitutional or political base. Between 1946 and 1956 the country had 20 different Cabinets and four different constitutions. The turmoil in Syria today is only the latest episode in a drawn-out process that has its roots in the end of Ottoman rule in 1918.
We now see long-buried fissures reappearing across many parts of the region. We see tribe pitted against tribe, Muslim against non-Muslim, Arab against non-Arab, authoritarian against libertarian and, perhaps most significantly, Sunni against Shia. Indeed, the last division is one of the most polarising and potentially one of the most dangerous. Overshadowing all this is the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This, of course, encompasses some of the fissures that I have mentioned—Sunni/Shia and Arab/non-Arab—but the degree of national animosity and the pursuit of regional political dominance take the problem to a new level and the competition is increasingly being played out in Syria.
The political upheaval in Syria is different in nature from many of the others that we have seen elsewhere in the region. In places such as Libya and Egypt, the impetus for change came from, or quickly gravitated to, those in the cities and centres of population. In Syria it came from those on the periphery, particularly the impoverished and drought-ridden agricultural communities, and was directed against those at the centre. So change was more difficult to achieve, particularly since survival of the military leadership was more closely tied to the survival of the regime. Even so, it looked as if Assad could not last, but the intervention of Hezbollah changed the outlook.
Given the support of Iran and Russia, it is now hard to see how Assad could be removed in the near term. Given the support of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and to some extent at least the United States, it is hard to see how the regime could achieve a decisive military victory over the opposition groups. The most likely outcome in Syria is either degeneration into a Somalia-like failed state or division into a number of warring baronies. Neither outcome is palatable from a wider security perspective and both are likely to perpetuate large-scale human tragedy. Without substantial international intervention, for which there seems little or no appetite, it is hard to see a plausible alternative.
At the same time, two key sets of negotiations continue: on the Middle East peace process and on the Iranian nuclear issue. Both are likely to reach some sort of conclusion, whether satisfactory or not, later this year.
These then, are some of the key features of the regional context. With so many challenges and so little clarity on the likely outcomes, where should the UK place its own policy priorities? I should like to propose three areas. Top of the list, I suggest, should be the Iranian nuclear issue. The consequences of failure on this front for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and for long-term security within the region are likely to be extremely serious and to have a lasting effect on the UK’s own security. The ongoing negotiations are therefore critical. Of course, we have to negotiate well if we are to achieve the right outcome and, of course, we must take nothing on trust. Any agreement has to be verifiable. There will inevitably be different views on what constitutes a bad deal or a good deal.
I want to focus on two short-term issues that seem to me of fundamental importance in this whole process. The first is the sustainment of the agreed sanctions regime. As negotiations continue and some restrictions are lifted, there is a clear risk that sanctions as a whole will start to unravel. There will be a temptation for some countries or companies to jump the gun in order to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals. That risk cannot be entirely eliminated, so it will have to be managed. It will require strong and obvious resolve on the part of the major economic players to take firm and painful action against transgressors. The UK and the EU more generally will have an important part to play here.
The other issue concerns the question of where we go if negotiations fail. What is plan B? In such situations there is often a reluctance to consider plan B at all in case this is taken as a belief that plan A will not work, but such precautionary thinking does not need to be public. We can and should be discreetly considering what options are open to us if it proves impossible, even with more time, to reach a comprehensive settlement.
This will involve some difficult decisions, but leaving them to the last minute risks making the difficult impossible. Of course the implicit existence of a plan B could help to focus minds on reaching a satisfactory agreement in the first place.
The second policy priority, I suggest, should be our relationship with Saudi Arabia. This has suffered over recent months, not least because of divergent views over Syria and concerns about the negotiations with Iran. However, Saudi Arabia remains the pivotal country in the Gulf region and is of considerable economic importance to the UK. Given the differences in our societies and cultures, the relationship is never going to be an easy one. It will require hard work, a degree of tolerance on both sides and, above all, constant and clear communication. The relationship is too important to the UK and its interests for us to neglect it. How closely are the Saudis being consulted on the negotiations with Iran? What we might consider a satisfactory outcome might look very different to Saudi eyes. Although we cannot give them a veto over the process, attempting to deal with or mitigate their concerns must be a key policy objective for the international community as well as for us.
The third priority should be to contain, as far as that is possible, the wider regional consequences of a Syrian conflict. Jordan matters to us as an old friend and it matters to Israel because of the latter’s concerns over strategic depth, so it is key to wider regional stability. However, Jordan is being weakened and undermined by the conflict in Syria. As others have mentioned, the large number of refugees is putting great stress on the already weak economy. There is no doubt that the social impact of what is going on in Jordan as a result of the conflict in Syria is having enormous repercussions for the regime there. Therefore, support for Jordan, for its economy and for its political development should be a key part of the UK’s policy in the region.
There are of course other malign international repercussions of the war in Syria. The Lebanon is being seriously affected. Perhaps one of the most worrying consequences is the growth of an ungoverned space straddling the Syria-Iraq border and the implications for radical Islamist terrorist groups. For example, the recent activities of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant demonstrate the risk of such an ungoverned space. The group poses serious dangers to the future of both Iraq and Syria and potentially further afield. Containing this risk will require some sort of governance over the affected area. For this reason, if no other, the feuding baronies outcome in Syria that I described earlier, while unpalatable, would certainly be preferable to a Somalia-like failed state. Another wider consequence of the Syrian situation is the return of radicalised and battle-hardened jihadis from the conflict zone to their home states. Saudi Arabia is increasingly concerned about this issue and the implications for its own security. It also affects us here in the UK. In many ways, this is a challenge for domestic rather than foreign policy, but it is a challenge nevertheless.
There are, of course, other important issues, such as the Middle East peace process, that I do not have time to cover, but many of these, while crucial to the
UK, are beyond our power to influence directly. As I said at the outset, the proliferation of challenges within the Middle East and the limits on our ability to confront them should force us to a clear-eyed analysis of UK priorities. Naturally, some may disagree with those that I have proposed, but in my view such an analysis is essential if we are to take a coherent and strategically informed approach to the many dangers that we face, rather than simply wringing our hands about them.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her characteristically clear introduction to this debate and for setting the context so succinctly.
In December 2002, I was called to 10 Downing Street for a clandestine meeting with the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary to talk about the possibility of my going to the See of Wakefield. When I arrived, I was terrified that my cover might be blown, since television cameras surrounded us and, indeed, I followed Andrew Marr through the security gate. The cameras were, of course, not for us but for President Assad, who was paying an official visit to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Indeed, there was even talk at the time of persuading the Queen to confer a knighthood on the Syrian leader.
I begin there because we now, as they say, find ourselves in a very different place. For some time, the UK, alongside other western countries, has been backing the so-called Syrian national coalition, an association of most unlikely bedfellows whose only cause for unity is opposition to the Assad regime. That is, even with the typical vagaries of international affairs, an extraordinary volte face.
The complexities facing Western nations in looking to future policy on Syria are greater still. For since the intervention in Libya, originally styled as a humanitarian crusade, became fairly swiftly a policy aimed at regime change, international relationships have shifted significantly. It was of course that policy change, more than anything else, which assured the West of a more than usually tricky interface with Russia in any attempt to bring the tragic bloodshed in Syria to a swift conclusion. That conflict has already claimed more than 130,000 lives—someone said earlier that it was now 140,000.
Last summer, with the discovery of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the western nations were faced with another critical decision. Did the enormity of that terrible abuse of human rights and inhumanitarian behaviour deserve a powerful intervention from the USA, the UK and other North Atlantic allies? We all know the denouement of that crisis, and many of us may be proud that this Parliament, by offering us the opportunity to debate the issue, was almost certainly instrumental in making certain that no western nation intervened in that way at that time.
Where does that leave us now, as this tragic war enters its fourth year? First, all analysis of civil wars suggests that wholesale military intervention from outside the country will lengthen the war. Indeed, as we continue to see, even Iraq has still not thrown off the shackles of the internecine strife with which both this country and the USA engaged so controversially just over 10 years ago. To answer my question as to where that leaves us is itself fraught. It does not leave us, as some simplistic analyses suggest, with either Assad or al-Qaeda. Nor does it leave us with any clear sense that our support for the Syrian national coalition has done anything to bring closure to the conflict, or even any clear resolution of the situation which continues to claim so many lives. It does, however, leave us with a displacement of people on a terrifying scale. In January 2014, the United Nations published figures showing that within Syria, 6.5 million people are already internally displaced and in desperate need. A further 242,000 are under siege, with more than 2.4 million people in external refugee camps.
With more than 2 million refugees, that indicates that the future of Syria lies to a large degree outside the country. That is true not only because of displaced persons but because of the vested interest of powerful nations from both the East and the West. Russia, China and Iran all have interests outside Syria which need to be included in the equation.
Let me return to my question again: where does that leave us now? It does not point us to a religious conflict—despite the destruction, since the beginning of the conflict, of so many of the ancient Christian Syrian communities: Assyrians, Melkhites and Antiochene Orthodox. Of course, the suffering of Christians pales into insignificance when compared with the suffering of the wider Syrian community as a whole. No, this is not a religious but a political conflict, and the only positive way forward must be a political, humanitarian and diplomatic strategy. As we have already heard, the challenges are immense, but the fact that Syria’s future lies to such a degree outside its own borders puts a great moral responsibility on countries like our own.
With that in mind, where might Her Majesty’s Government find leverage? There is no doubt that leverage within the regime in Syria and, indeed, within the myriad of opposition groups, is very limited. I have already hinted at the problems of unqualified support for the Syrian national coalition. It is almost, by definition, a western-selected coalition and therefore does not represent widespread support on the ground within Syria. So, to take a rather contrasting approach, removing international support both for the regime and for opposition groups is a policy which may lead to more possibilities of leverage from the West. Russia, China and Iran’s external interests were alluded to earlier. Removing international support in both directions—that is for the regime and opposition groups—will, of course, not end the civil war in itself. It may, however, help starve the conflict by reducing the resources which continue to fan the flames.
Alongside this, will Her Majesty’s Government support efforts to bring about reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to offer a new axis of stability in the region? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, referred to these various tensions, pressures and axes within the region. Will Her Majesty’s Government also, as I have hinted, seek means to maintain Syrian civil society in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region—in Jordan, for example—where vast numbers of displaced persons are living as refugees?
In asking these questions, let me press the point that we should prescind from further support for a military solution and invest resources—financial and human—in seeking the seeds of a humane and lasting political solution.
My Lords, it is clearly difficult to comment effectively on all the countries that we are considering in this debate, but I begin by observing that there is a dreadful similarity in almost all of them, where government and authority—sometimes legitimate, sometimes tyrannical—are losing their grip and/or are under intense challenge. Power is fragmenting: it is not being neatly transferred to new dawns and new bodies, but being fragmented into the street. The monopoly of state-armed power by which the authority was hitherto upheld has been fractured. That is what is happening. It is a new pattern and one has to ask why this new force is anything different from revolutions and rebellions in the past.
The answer, of course, lies in technology. It lies in the tsunami of new weapons that are in the hands of minorities and which, with very few people, can inflict enormous damage on traditionally and classically armed formations. I am thinking of the improvised explosive devices which have done so much damage in Afghanistan, of endless decoys, of shoulder-held missiles which can be purchased in the international arms souk. I am thinking even of homemade drones. Hezbollah managed to get a drone aloft which it had put together itself. These are just the beginnings of a massive miniaturisation of weaponry which makes the vast military machines with which the 20th century tried to equip itself increasingly vulnerable. That is one aspect.
Secondly, and even more powerful, is the fact that the street is empowered. The rebels and the rebellions are empowered by an information revolution of an intensity and an organisational capacity impossible to envisage in the past. It is completely new. It gives connectivity through the 7 billion mobile telephones in the world. Half of the entire planet is on the world wide web. This gives an organisational capacity to minorities and to those challenging authority on a scale we have never seen before. We have only to think of what happened when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunis. Within hours, and certainly within days, the entire street population of the whole of Arabia was militant, aggravated and activated.
So this is a new pattern—a completely new pattern of power, distribution of power, dispersal of power and fragmentation of power has emerged. That is what we are seeing in the Middle East at the moment. In all cases, attempts to crush by conventional force by shooting down the enemy—shooting down the rebels and so on—have not worked and are not working. They did not work for Assad, although he may survive. He may just hang on but he certainly will not win and will never get back the country that he began with. It did not work in Egypt and did not really work with the wretched Gaddafi in Libya, which with all his weapons and money he failed to control. It has not worked in Iraq, where the rate of slaughter has got worse and some thousands and thousands are continuing to die. Indeed, although we are not discussing this today, it quite obviously has not worked for President Yanukovych in Ukraine. He thought that he could use force to suppress the opposition and the challenges but he soon found, as other dictators and indeed democratic Governments have found, that force does not work any more. The old pattern of crushing and bringing in the tanks is now not the weapon that it was.
We will probably hear more from my noble friend Lord Lamont on Iran, as he is a great expert on that field, but even in Iran the trembling elements of protest are rumbling away. That is the universal pattern so instead of the order that one hoped was going to come with orderly protest and cries for liberty, we have on every side chaos. The old saw is that a revolution devours its children. Of course, in Syria we have seen its children devouring each other in the most horrific ways, with a savagery which is almost unimaginable in times of what we thought was peace.
That question of rebel against rebel brings me to a second point which I want to share with your Lordships, which is the colossal complexity of all the situations with which we are dealing. I will give only two examples. In Syria, al-Qaeda controls the small but important oilfields, which produce about 100,000 barrels a day or probably less. What do they do with that oil? They refine it crudely and sell it to President Assad. Wait a minute—can that be right when he is on the other side and fighting them? Yes, it is right: they are selling refined oil so that he can drive his aeroplanes. The bargain is that he has agreed not to bomb the areas controlled by al-Qaeda. That is just one example of the extraordinarily labyrinthine nature of the situation we are dealing with.
Then there are the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, touched on with great authority regarding Hezbollah in Lebanon. Lebanese politics have always been immensely complicated but now we have an extraordinary situation in which Hezbollah, which used to be the state within a state and seemed to be a challenge to Lebanon’s unity, is itself under attack and being protected by the Lebanese army from suicide bombers, some Sunni extremists and, to some extent, al-Qaeda. They are attacking it because it is backing a different side. It is backing Assad and they, with Saudi and Qatari support and a continuous flow of weapons, are backing the other side. The difficulty of saying, “Let us have priorities. What should we do?” is vastly multiplied by the fact that we do not really know who is on which side in many of these areas. The complexities are far greater than the simplicities which we hoped for when we talked about the Arab spring, and how that would bring new Governments, new liberties and new democracy. I am afraid that it is not going to be like that.
The third point which I want to mention is the energy aspect. Energy issues obviously run throughout the whole Middle East situation but there are some new factors, which I think have not been mentioned. I do not know whether they are recognised in London at all. However, in the east Mediterranean vast new gas reserves have been identified. In the case of Israel, the reserves have been found and are being used. They have a very significant effect on the whole pattern in the area. Cyprus and Israel want to work together to develop them. Lebanon, when it manages to get a
Government and some kind of laws in place, wants to develop its resource. Turkey is interested in the enormous gas resources around the south of Cyprus. Cyprus itself now has north and south Governments, who are rather readier to talk to each other than they have been for some time.
There is a completely new pattern on the chessboard of the east Mediterranean and I hope the United Kingdom authorities will play a constructive part by supporting Turkey’s aspirations. Turkey is facing instabilities and problems on the street; it still wants to get into the European Union, and it is not feeling very happy about the way things are going. The acquisition of gas resources by Israel is changing its attitude as well to what can be done in the way of supplying gas, certainly to Jordan and Palestine. Indeed, it has already signed contracts, oddly enough, to supply gas back to Egypt—the other way around from the pattern that used to exist five years ago.
“I agree that the age of spheres of influence is now over”.—[ Hansard, Commons, 24/2/14; col. 40.]
John Kerry was saying much the same thing the day after. That is a most profound point. He was talking mainly about the Ukraine, but it applies just as much to the whole Middle East and all the troubled areas we are looking at. We can think in terms of the EU working collectively in some areas very effectively—not always, but sometimes—but the truth is that a much wider coalition of the willing, not just of western powers and the usual suspects of the old NATO world, is needed, embracing the rising powers of Asia and the big players of Africa and Latin America. These areas have just as much say, responsibility for and interests in the Middle East and its stability as we do. It is worth remembering that most of the oil of the Middle East now goes eastwards to Asia and does not come to Europe or the West at all.
Those are the new realities that I wanted to share with your Lordships in my allotted time. There is a completely new international landscape in which we have to operate. We can lay down our priorities, but the question is how do we make those priorities work? How do we implement them? I have the privilege of chairing a select committee of your Lordships’ House that is looking at British influence and soft power over the coming years. Of course, we do not produce answers, but I hope we shall clarify a few of the points that we have raised today and that that will be useful for your Lordships.
My Lords, Syria is in the title of this timely debate, but one could have chosen, as has been said, several other epicentres of enormous world-changing transition within the region. For example, I have just returned from Israel and the West Bank, where great efforts are going into the peace talks and, despite the scepticism, movement is happening. Even though the timeframe may need to be extended, a positive process will be agreed by the middle of this year.
Today I want to concentrate on Egypt, which is also going to be a different country by June this year, and thereby influence the region for the better. Three weeks ago, a cross-party group of Members of both Houses visited Cairo, including the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Marlesford. Here I declare a non-financial interest as governor of the British University in Egypt (the BUE). Its founder, Mohamed Farid Khamis, and his foundation sponsored our visit.
Our objectives were to support the Egyptian people in their aspirations to democracy and stability, to establish a relationship between parliamentarians and promote better relationships between our countries, to keep on their agenda religious freedom, civil liberties, women’s rights, and to encourage some of the positive steps already taken in these fields. This visit was the first of a planned series of visits that will build relationships once the new Administration has been elected.
We had face-to-face individual meetings with the President, the Prime Minister at that time, Field Marshal al-Sisi, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of the Interior, His Holiness the Coptic Pope and the Grand Imam, and we were accompanied by the British Ambassador, James Watt. Our discussions were deep and wide and we developed several themes that we might work on together. For example, on the separation of police and the military, we agreed in talks with Field Marshal al-Sisi from the military, and the Interior Minister for the police, that while Egypt has a strong and effective military, which traditionally has an elevated status, its job now should be to deal with external threats to control the frontier, and it must re-establish order in the Sinai and keep a firm hold on the water sources there.
Egypt is facing unprecedented pressure from within, and the military cannot be the police. In the longer term, this civil unrest requires a police force with a higher status, an entirely different entity from the military, which should become a wide collection of local forces in all towns, villages, cities and communities, with a subtle understanding of local issues and integrated into the community, yet still with strong central governance. In this context, we also discussed the hundreds of detainees. Egypt needs immediately to develop a process to try them in court for recognised crimes or to release them.
We talked about the need, in addition to the presidential and parliamentary elections, for a process of continued national dialogue that could mobilise all the energies within Egypt. Within its 90 million people, there are many groupings that have their own hopes and fears, grievances and aspirations. A Government who want to rule with the will of their people must have a robust, sensitive, patient, long-term system for listening to, hearing and responding to those voices. They are now considering a centre for civic involvement at the British University of Egypt where faculty, students and experts from the UK can facilitate dialogue. We emphasised the need for the involvement of Copts, Nubians, youth, women and so on.
We also met with the wise and experienced Amr Moussa, who has gone to great lengths to work with the Committee of 50, including these groups, which, with enormous patience and understanding, has created a new Egyptian constitution. He and all the people we met realise that they are taking on a huge task to restore Egypt to its former glory. The economy needs reviving. Law and order will encourage tourism. Inward investment should be made as easy as possible, and there is a need to increase—as is being done by the BUE—training for work and employment for youth. Healthcare will need to be restructured. Egyptians have great talent and entrepreneurialism and stand at the crux between Africa to the south and Europe to the north; they are part of the east and the west.
We have just heard Angela Merkel talk about the peace and prosperity brought about by post-war united Europe. Were Israel and Palestine and Jordan and Egypt to find their feet in the next few years and begin to work and trade together, they could serve as a light to the nations that surround them. That could be the beginning of a Middle East and north Africa that contribute greatly to the world’s economy, ecology, art, science, medicine and culture.
As a result of this visit, we will form an all-party parliamentary group on Egypt. We will arrange follow-up meetings post Egyptian parliamentary elections for us to go back to Egypt and for them to come to the UK. We hope that noble Lords will help us help them gain the stability they seek and that Her Majesty’s Government will support this work where Britain could help bring a wider stability to the whole region.
I have just noticed that I have spoken for only five minutes. Can I bank the extra five for a future debate when I am limited to three minutes?
My Lords, I propose to concentrate in this debate on the situation in Syria, though I shall also touch briefly on the continuing disgrace of Israeli settlement policy on the West Bank. I doubt whether under the rules I am required to disclose an interest, but I nevertheless declare, as I have before in this House, that as ambassador to Syria many years ago, I have retained a deep affection for Syria as a country.
On Syria, all sides in the Syrian civil war have been committing unspeakable crimes against the Syrian population, and the resulting humanitarian crisis engulfing not only Syrians but Palestinians in their refugee camps is widely acknowledged to be one of the worst we have seen for some time. The Government’s approach to this, as reflected most recently in the Foreign Secretary’s Statement three days ago, has been to call for a political transition in Syria, which is shorthand for the removal of the Assad leadership from government in Damascus. Is it surprising, in these circumstances, that the Syrian Government’s representative in the latest round of talks should have refused to discuss “transition”?
The international agreement last July that a political transition in Damascus should be the number one priority was reached at a time when it was forecast, however misguidedly, that the Assad Government were about to fall. The situation is now very different. Not only has there been a significant change in the military situation; attempts to put together a moderate rebel group that might take part in any future transitional Government have proved notably unsuccessful, with the Syrian national coalition in a state of confusion, if not chaos. The extreme Islamist movements, largely consisting of foreign extremists infiltrated into Syria and financed by our friends in the Gulf, are now proving to be the only effective military opposition to the Assad Government. In these circumstances, should it really be our priority to work for a transition, when the resulting Government might turn out to be considerably more dangerous, both for our interests and for those of the Syrian people, than the present secular Government in Damascus?
The Foreign Secretary has argued that our top priority is a political solution to end the Syrian crisis. Surely we must all say amen to that. But I would argue that the only way to achieve such a political and diplomatic solution is not to keep pressing for a transitional Government in Damascus, with all that entails, but for all of us, including our partners in the European Union, to work with Syria’s friends and supporters, namely the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrians themselves, to achieve an immediate ceasefire, if only to relieve the humanitarian crisis.
A great deal has been said in recent weeks about the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria, and this no doubt explains the reported aggression by the Israeli air force against targets in southern Lebanon earlier this week. But I think that we should distinguish between, on the one hand, attempts by a Shia organisation in neighbouring Lebanon to protect the Shia-backed Government in Damascus against Sunni extremism and the continued external involvement, on the other hand, of the Sunni Gulf states in what I have repeatedly described in this House as a Sunni-Shia, if not Arab-Iranian, war—an involvement which is seriously exacerbating sectarian violence in both Syria and its neighbours.
In that context, I hope the Minister can tell the House what we know of current discussions between the United States and Saudi Arabia on whether to provide further lethal weaponry to what are described, somewhat optimistically, as,
“the more moderate and secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army”.
Should we not be cautioning our friends in the Gulf—with whom, as the noble Baroness has reminded us, we have incredibly strong relationships—against pouring further fuel on the flames in Syria? Is it not inevitable that any further supplies of lethal weapons will quickly fall into the hands of those calling for Syria to become an Islamic theocracy? Our friends in the Gulf should be as worried as Her Majesty's Government no doubt are about the risk of young men and women becoming radicalised in Syrian Islamist training camps and returning to spread terrorist ideology at home.
It is clear that the Foreign Secretary and our European partners are taking great care to involve the Russians in how to deal with the current crisis in Ukraine. I hope that equal care will be taken to involve both the Russians and the Iranians in ways to resolve the Syrian crisis. In that context, I hope that the Minister can tell the House how our attempts to normalise our diplomatic relations with both Iran and Syria are progressing—what the noble Baroness described yesterday, in another context, as “constructive engagement”.
Finally, before I turn to the question of Israeli settlements, I would first like to echo the tribute of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, to the Israeli treatment of
Syrian refugees in their hospitals. But to turn to the question of Israeli settlements, I hope that the Minister can update us on whether efforts by ourselves and our European partners to stop the continued expansion of these illegal colonies have met with any positive response. What representations have we made about the addition of 35 further settlements as national priority areas, or the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli armed forces in the Jordan valley over the past three months?
I commend the decision of the European Union, as I hope will all Members of this House, to prevent all EU states from co-operating, transferring funds, or giving scholarships or research grants to bodies inside these illegal settlements. Indeed, I hope that the Government will not oppose the idea of any further sanctions if, as appears likely, Mr Netanyahu continues to ignore our representations.
My Lords, I am grateful to whoever suggested that we have this long-overdue general debate on Syria and the Middle East. I have to say that, because it either takes courage or the proverbial brass neck for any Government to expose themselves to an examination of the past five decades of the UK’s inconsistencies and inadequacies in relation to that part of the world.
I suppose that it is unfair of me to start by referring to the hare-brained idea we had a few months ago that we should commit our servicemen to a bombing operation in Syria. One would have hoped that the very idea of becoming militarily involved in a sectarian civil war would have been the last thing upon which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would have encouraged the Prime Minister to embark—or was the idea just the now-not-unusual reflex reaction to hang on the coat-tails of the US?
How will we now react to the UN proposal that we should look at the possibility of opening our doors to 100,000 Syrian refugees? Given that we left 3,400 Iranian refugees at the mercy of the awful Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq after our contrived venture into that country, and that it has taken us almost 10 years to do nothing about 50-plus of those who would have some identification with the UK—although 17 of the cases are proven—one wonders.
Despite the fact that my friends, retired US General David Phillips and Colonel Wesley Martin, gave me a first-hand account of how they were responsible for disarming Camp Ashraf residents more than 10 years ago, and that even the US belatedly agreed with Europe that the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran was not a foreign terrorist organisation, our compassionate Home Office recently claimed that it still has to consider whether those 17 have any terrorist history. So we do nothing.
I have to be cynical about that, not least in a week in which we learnt that around 200 Northern Ireland terrorists who killed our soldiers and civilians were given an arbitrary and secret absolution for their crimes by government. How long would it take us now to process 100,000—or even 1,000—Syrian refugees?
Meanwhile, we apparently do not concern ourselves with the reality that more than 100 of those unarmed Iranian refugees have been systematically murdered: 52 on
“For reasons of confidentiality, the Home Office does not routinely comment on the residential status of individuals”.—[Hansard, 29/8/13; col. WA 408.]
What is and has for 31 years been my role at Westminster? What purpose and responsibility has each of us?
Yet this comparatively recent evasion of responsibility for our invasion of Iraq almost pales into insignificance beside the 54-year debacle the UK left in Cyprus after having blackmailed the paedophile Archbishop Makarios into agreeing to the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee; after having seen him rescind much of it, to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriot minority; and after having failed to meet our responsibility as a guarantor power by ignoring the Akritas plan to expunge Turkish Cypriots from the island and the Ifestos plan, which actually detailed the instructions as to where Greek Cypriot forces, including EOKA-B, would dispose of Turkish Cypriot bodies. That attempt to ethnically cleanse Cyprus lasted from Christmas 1963 until the Turkish intervention in 1974. Since then we have for 40 years shamefully vilified Turkey, another guarantor power, for doing what we failed to do. We have abandoned and isolated the Turkish Cypriot community, despite our implied promises that, if they accepted the 2004 Annan plan, injustices would end. To cap it all, we then assented to an EU decision to admit a divided Cyprus as a member.
Did I say, “To cap it all”? If I did, then I retract it. That should have applied to our Prime Minister’s recent aberration when he, without decent or proper consultation, agreed to cede 200 square kilometres of UK sovereign territory to the control and use of the Greek Cypriots. To say now that the UK will consider consultation with Turkish Cypriots is not good enough when we do not even give their politicians or officials the courtesy of recognition. What a hypocritical, arrogant, self-righteous bunch we have become.
I shall conclude by saying that many of us believe that both this and the previous Government do not and did not have a foreign policy worth the paper it is written on and that we have virtually lost touch with reality in the Middle East. Sadly, the increasing lack of practical, hands-on experience in another place over the past 30 years has systematically led the United Kingdom into a bureaucratic quagmire. Worse still, this bureaucratic quagmire has subverted the very basis on which this country has prospered for centuries.
It is now subverting the very judicial processes of which we were once so proud and once were the world’s exemplars.
Corruption is no longer a foreign disease. It pervades our society. There is now an inevitable and consequential subversion of justice that we must surely recognise if we look back at Matrix Churchill, at the murder of the Canadian Gerald Bull and at the unprecedented use of more than 30 public interest immunity certificates at the alleged fraud trial—yes, I said “alleged” fraud trial—of Asil Nadir.
There has also been the secret court activity during the past few months in respect of the status of those letters of absolution issued to 187 IRA terrorists in 2006. The Middle East cannot be viewed in isolation. I am grateful for this short interlude to touch on the current incompetence in that area. Perhaps next time we can manage a full day’s debate if we are to hope to fully probe the roots of our strategic failures. On a final word of caution, we must never allow our security forces to bolster the ego of any Prime Minister. Nor, with a little more practical nous in another place, need or should they be sacrificed to a Government’s dubious political distortions or judgmental failures.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I am the chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce and have also been involved with several companies on both sides of the Gulf, including some in the past involved with Iran. It was that country that I wanted particularly to talk about today, having in January gone with the parliamentary delegation led by Jack Straw to Tehran. It was in the first week of January but it seems to be an eternity away, and a considerable amount has gone on since then.
We had very good access within the Iranian Government to Foreign Minister Zarif, Mr Nematzadeh, the organiser of President Rouhani’s campaign, now the Industry Minister, and Mr Nahavandian, the head of the president’s office. Almost everybody we met in the Government was western educated. Indeed, it is said that there are more American PhDs in President Rouhani’s Cabinet than there are in President Obama’s. We also, because this was a parliamentary visit, met quite a number of the members of the Majlis, where we met many more hardliners, so we got a feeling of the spectrum of politics within Iran.
There is a lot of argument about whether President Rouhani is a reformist in the Iranian sense, but it cannot be denied that he has the support of the reformist element. His Cabinet is very similar to that of President Khatami. President Rouhani has certainly unleashed in Iran an enormous feeling of optimism on the part of the population of expectation and a great rise in business confidence. The Government frequently say—and I know that many people believe—that only sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiating table. I would say that that is only partly true. They have had an effect, but it was public opinion, the election and the election of President Rouhani that changed the policy. If the election had gone the other way and Mr Djalili, the previous nuclear negotiator, had been elected, there would have been no change at all.
I believe that there is the capacity for change in Iran. The revolutionaries are ageing and it is moving into a post-revolutionary phase. Of course, there are people who want to keep the spirit of the revolution alive, and we have to be very careful that in our dealings with Iran we do not make mistakes that strengthen them. But Iran has the capacity to evolve without violence and further revolution, whereas I could not express that view about all the countries in the Gulf. Some of them do not have the same capacity to evolve peacefully and will not have the same capacity to evolve into something more akin to a western democracy.
Iran is a complex society, and it does have elements of democracy in it, but it is also an authoritarian state whose record on human rights is extremely bad. We did not flinch at every meeting that we went to from raising the issue of human rights, including that of public executions. The West is right to press Iran on human rights, but it is an issue that should be kept separate from the nuclear issue, which is a prize on its own that is worth winning on its own and could yield considerable benefits to the region and the world.
We discussed the nuclear issue with Foreign Minister Zarif and he professed that he was not very optimistic about the outcome of the talks. I think that the greatest difficulty in the talks is going to be over the objective set out in the initial agreement to reach a mutually agreed definition of a nuclear programme—that is to say, what scale of enrichment should be allowed, if it is to be allowed, in Iran. One can see the gulf in thinking when you consider that Iran currently has 20,000 centrifuges, but in a recent article in the Financial Times Mir-Hossein Mousavi, another previous Iranian nuclear negotiator, pointed out that broadly 100,000 centrifuges are needed—it depends what type they are—for one nuclear power station. Iran has 20,000 at the moment. The other day Wendy Sherman said she could not possibly see why Iran needed 20,000 centrifuges. Of course the West is concentrating on reducing the number of those centrifuges, yet paradoxically it looks as though it wants Iran to reduce the number of centrifuges to a limit which would enable it to produce a nuclear weapon but not to actually power a power station. That does not seem a very sensible approach. I think it would be much better if the West did not concentrate on the number of centrifuges but actually concentrated on transparency, inspection, the additional protocol, the right to go throughout the country and to make undeclared visits. That will be the way in which agreement might be possible.
We spent a lot of our time discussing the nuclear issue but we also discussed the Syrian situation. I agree with everybody who has described that as an absolute humanitarian disaster and I do not for one minute defend the position that Iran has taken. However, Foreign Minister Zarif and others repeatedly said to us—they never mentioned Assad—that they felt the only way in which the situation could be resolved would be through a political solution which led to free elections. I regarded that just as a formula which they trotted out but I notice it is a formula that they use on every public occasion. I suggest that we take them at their word. Of course the idea of elections is light years away in the present situation but we ought to be trying to create that situation. By involving Iran we would be more likely to do that and create a path in which elections could be the ultimate destination.
I believe that Iran regards Syria in exactly the same way that Saudi Arabia and the United States regard Bahrain. They regard it as a very important and strategic interest. They regard Syria as the route to Hezbollah and recall that Syria was of course the only Arab country that supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. I was in the Middle East when the recent unrest first began in Bahrain and I recall that a very well-known senior American politician made it quite clear to me that there would be no change to the regime or fundamental political change in Bahrain. He just said, “We have interests there,” meaning, of course, the fleet. That is exactly the attitude Iran has towards Syria. I think Iran’s links towards Hezbollah and Hamas, which occupy a very different space on the political Islam spectrum, ought to be looked at in the context of Iran’s own security concerns. It regards its links with Hamas and Hezbollah as assets. Iran has a very weak air force. I think it was General Petraeus who said the other day that the entire Iranian air force could be wiped out by that of the UAE in one afternoon. Therefore, alternative sources of firepower—asymmetric responses—are very much part of the strategic thinking. It was once rather brutally put by Mr Larijani, the speaker of the Majlis, who said that if there is an attack on Iran, expect Israel to be in a wheelchair. In other words, the response will come from south Lebanon.
I want to say a word about sanctions and the way in which they are being applied. I hope that we will be very careful during this interim phase. I cannot for the life of me understand why, when we are moving towards a situation in which we want full diplomatic relations with Iran to be restored, we will not allow the Iranian chargé in London to open a bank account. How is an embassy meant to operate if it cannot have a bank account? Yet the Government simply refuse to give any help on this. The banking boycott is causing a lot of ill will in Iran. One of the concessions made in the interim deal was on humanitarian goods such as medicines. Lots of supplies of medicines, which are in great demand in Iran, are not getting through because, although they are allowed to be supplied, there is no access to banking facilities. The West seems to be giving on the one hand and taking away with the other. All this of course is due to US banking sanctions being imposed informally by the back door on our own banking industry. If we wish to frustrate the supply of humanitarian goods let us do it openly, not with subterfuge and methods that are hitting ordinary people. We always said that we did not want the sanctions to hit ordinary people but that is precisely what they are doing because of the boycott being imposed, largely informally, by American authorities threatening banks in the UK.
I say that because the likelihood of a successful outcome in the talks with Iran is only 50:50. It is in the balance. Anything could upset it. It could be upset in the United States or it could be upset in Iran. It would be a tragedy if, in our handling of the sanctions issue, we gave the Iranians any excuse to withdraw from these talks, which I hope will come to a successful conclusion.
My Lords, I declare my interest, which is recorded in the register, as director of the Good Governance Foundation, which operates in the region. I thank the Minister, not just for initiating the debate but for the way in which she has handled this incredibly difficult issue over the past few years. I should also put it on record that the Library note on the timeline of events in Syria is particularly useful to this debate. I want to focus my comments because this is such a wide issue that I would not wish to range right over it.
I first want to focus the Minister’s attention on Libya. I have had some talks with representatives of the Libyan Government, and it has been clear to me that it is almost impossible for them to achieve stable government without dealing with the problems of divisions within the security services—the police and the army. As the Minister will know, there is a series of armed groups who claim or try to be the police force or the army for the country. Perhaps our Government have done so but we ought at least to explore the option, possibly with NATO and the European Union, of putting some of our experienced military officers in there to try to help disarm and merge the various groups, and try to create at least one major police force or armed unit. Unless we do that, I cannot see how a stable state is going to emerge. The European Union, ourselves and NATO have some experience in that we know about how to negotiate between competing groups, get them to give up arms and introduce other stabilising forces. I conclude my comments on Libya by saying that unless we do something along those lines, it is hard to see how that country can progress to a more stable state.
I turn now to Syria. It is not with any great pleasure that I remind the Minister of my comment in the summer last year—she was good enough to acknowledge that it might come true—that the talks about Syria would almost certainly fail. I thought that they would fail, not on the humanitarian side—I recognise what the Government are doing on that and it is very good—but, as perhaps the debate has already indicated, we are not paying enough attention to the role of Russia.
People talk about the arms going to the various opposition groups in Syria, but the Iranian and Russian arms going to the government side—to the military, in fact—are profoundly important. The reason they are particularly important is that Russia is a sophisticated power with satellites, so it is not only arms being provided: there is good reason to believe that it is also providing intelligence to the Assad regime and military about the whereabouts of the various forces. Of course, Assad has an air force and it is no surprise that the barrel bombs—even though they might go astray at times and hit targets either deliberately or not deliberately—are targeting those areas about which it has information likely to have come from the Russians. I have yet to hear from the Government, either in this House or in the House of Commons, about how much we are engaged with the Russians in trying to get them to pull back some of their support for the regime.
I do not suggest that the Russians will necessarily want to see Assad stay in power, but I think they have a very real interest in ensuring that the military stays in power in Syria. That is why the Russians work closely with it. The Russians have a military base in the area and they want that base. Russians have arms contracts with the Syrians and they have always made it very clear that they will continue to supply according to those contracts. There is no dishonesty about it from the Russians’ point of view; it is just that they believe—and they are not entirely wrong on this—that if they do not back the Assad side, then it will be a failed state. The problem with the Russian position is that we are either facing a military state or a failed state, and neither of those is a particularly attractive option.
We therefore need to know a little more about the Government’s engagement with the Russians on their policy towards Syria. My own view still is that, although there is no clear winner on the ground in the military sense, the military controlled by Assad—or it may be other way around, with the military controlling Assad—is winning more ground than various opposition groups. That is really why I said a year or so ago that I believed that the talks would not succeed: because as long as the regime in Syria thinks that it can gain ground through military advances, it is not in its interest to engage in talks. That is why I found myself in agreement today with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, about a plan B. I do not have any suggestions about what that plan B should be, but I understand—the noble Lord, Lord Wright, mentioned this—that if it is true that the Russians are determined to keep the military in control of Syria, rather than the various other opposition groups, then, frankly, that is what we might have to live with in times to come. If so, we had better have a policy about that; it is very hard to see what we could do otherwise.
The Russians are big players in this. Russia and Iran have a very real interest, and I do not doubt that they would deliver on ensuring that weapons of mass destruction are not used by the Syrian armed forces. It is in Iran’s interest, not least because it was on the receiving end of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein. From the Russian point of view, it is because its world image is so awful, but I do not think it is true to say that the Russians do not have an interest in making sure that the military stays as the primary force in Syria. That points to a military dictatorship of some type, except in the very unlikely event that one of the other groups comes forward as a winner.
A number of people in recent months have made the comparison with Spain in the 1930s. Obviously, the differences are far greater than the similarities; but the one similarity we should all be aware of is the problem for the western nations: they look at the opposition and see this diverse group which is unable to deliver a proper government while at the same time seeing a military Government who are unacceptable in everything that they have done and look like doing.
The world goes through various phases of supporting or being against intervention. You can go back much further than the post-war years to find policies on intervention, but we all believed in intervention when we found that we could work in certain areas. We tried Somalia and burnt our fingers there—or, rather, the United States did—so we promptly refused to intervene in Rwanda and 1 million people died. We intervened in Iraq but the post-conflict situation was dealt with so poorly that it went badly wrong again. However, who is really arguing that non-intervention in Syria is good for humanity? Of course it is not, but that non-intervention is a failure of the United Nations.
At the end of the day, it is possible to intervene in these states but you can do so only if all the major world powers are in agreement. That is our problem—we do not have that agreement. We should remember that it was only about two or three years ago that there were discussions in this House and the House of Commons about the new concept of a responsibility to protect, drawn up through reform of the United Nations. At the moment that has gone, and I am afraid that it will stay gone until we get agreement among the great powers. That is particularly difficult while Russia, most notably, but also China are opposed to intervention, unless of course it is close to their own borders in the case of Georgia and—one hopes not, but possibly—Ukraine. At some stage we need to reopen the argument in the United Nations about a responsibility to protect and what we do when we are faced, as we are in Syria, with the alternatives of a military Government who have been behaving appallingly by any standards and a series of groups, all of which would equal a failed state if they came to power.
I ask the Minister to respond particularly on the point about Libya. Otherwise, I thank her for what she has been doing in this field. Her knowledge of the religious conflicts in this area is very helpful.
My Lords, I agree with a lot of what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has said, especially about Russia. Syria’s collapse into civil war is the whole world’s concern. This country, having a lot of experience in the Middle East, has played a leading role, not least, as my noble friend Lord Maginnis said, in getting it wrong at least once. My chief concern today is Britain’s reputation not just as a Security Council member but as a host country to refugees from Syria. I offer no political solutions to the crisis itself but I know that, of all people in the world, Lakhdar Brahimi has the qualities and the experience to solve it, and it is hard to imagine anyone else equalling him. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Williams will agree with that because he has already said it. I would only advise Her Majesty’s Government to do their utmost to keep Russia and Iran on side if any progress is to be made. There, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and my noble friend Lord Wright, who, incidentally, mentioned the important question of the settlements, which is tending to get ignored.
The desperation of Palestinians in the besieged camp of Yarmouk in Damascus has already been mentioned. Access to humanitarian aid is, as always, the vital issue. The international community has failed again to deliver aid where it is needed. Médecins du Monde, Chatham House and others have made practical suggestions for local ceasefires and improved access for the relief agencies through the UN and the ICRC. This remains an important priority for our Government, even if we cannot yet achieve a lasting peace. If the noble Baroness has any detail on that, I would be grateful to hear it. Aid workers are running enormous risks in Syria, and we need to do much more to support them.
We have been generous with humanitarian aid, as we would expect, being one of the world’s foremost aid givers. I do not quarrel with the amount we are giving but I do question our basic philosophy, which is to support the neighbouring countries rather than a wider programme of world involvement and resettlement. At first sight, this policy of supporting the neighbouring countries seems sensible because the ties between Syria and its neighbours are considerable and refuge appeared to be temporary at first. Turkey’s welcome to the earliest refugees in particular stands out as an example. But these neighbours are now stretched to the limit, as we have heard, and as a result the UN is looking to the long term.
Syrians in northern Iraq have already been living in abandoned houses and even animal shelters for two years—up to 20 people per home without proper nutrition. Many who are out of reach of international aid depend on the generosity of their Kurdish hosts where food may be already scarce. A Christian Aid visitor, for example, found refugees crowding around a vehicle carrying trays of cooked rice and chicken, all provided by the local people from their own resources. We tend to forget that in these situations. On top of this many displaced Iraqis are now fleeing northwards to escape newly escalating violence engendered by the al-Qaeda groups and freelance militia, both Sunni and Shia. Lebanon is also carrying a huge burden on top of its own problems. Many Syrians who arrive in Lebanon after long journeys, often without money or possessions, cannot reach UN protection and depend completely on the help of local Orthodox churches and charities which also help with health and education. Refugees who are bombed out of their homes and schools may also need psychosocial support to help them cope with the emotional impact of living through conflict. In Jordan most services to refugees are said to be close to breaking point.
I can well remember the warm reception given in the late 1970s to the Vietnamese boat people after the wars and massacres of the Vietnam War and its aftermath in Indo-China. As a country we responded well to UN and charity appeals and churches and communities all over the UK were alerted. I am sure most of us remember this. I was on the staff of Christian Aid at that time and I recall that thousands of people were accommodated with British families and that it was an efficiently run operation. What a contrast with Syria today. Here we have nearly 2.5 million refugees in four neighbouring countries, many overcrowded and undernourished, and thousands applying for resettlement in Europe. They have little prospect of returning home and yet European countries are not exactly jumping forward with offers. The UNHCR is asking for 30,000 places this year and 100,000 long-term. Our Prime Minister said three weeks ago that we must act urgently but we have negotiated a figure of only 500 out of the 18,800 places offered by 20 countries. Germany alone is said to be receiving 11,000. Here we may remember for a moment Chancellor Merkel’s powerful appeal to European nations to work even more closely together, and this applies to asylum as much as everything else. It is true that in the year up to last September the UK accepted 1,100 Syrians refugees, which is the third highest number after Germany and Sweden, and the Home Secretary says that 3,500 are already in the UK. But none of those was actually invited; they somehow managed to get here after an exhausting journey of weeks or months.
So what has happened since the 1970s? Wars and massacres continue and the suffering and risk from chemical weapons is equally serious, if not more so. Was there anything special about the Vietnam War and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or about the vulnerability of the Vietnamese who took to sea to persuade us to be more hospitable? Syrian families are, if anything, more easily adaptable to British home life, and their standard of living in many cases was previously comparable to that of many people in the UK. I cannot answer these questions. I know that the level of immigration is now much higher than it was then and that that has affected our sense of hospitality. A combination of migrations from eastern Europe and the troubles of the Middle East and north Africa have generated new fears in the minds of some of us that this country is losing its intrinsic character and culture. These fears, of course, are groundless because we have absorbed migrations over many centuries and indeed we depend on them. None of that should affect our attitude to genuine refugees who are in a quite separate category. They are not deliberately choosing a new life elsewhere but are reluctantly fleeing war, persecution and hunger.
I know that this is not primarily the Minister’s problem but it does belong in our overall response to the crisis in Syria. The only question I would put to her today is about Greece and its frontiers. Are the Government satisfied that the FRONTEX programme, supported by the European Union, is providing a secure border with Turkey? We hear many conflicting stories about that. Would she describe recent reported actions by the Greek Government against the Syrian boat people as refoulement, or as sensible immigration policy?
My Lords, we are holding this debate almost three years since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria—a war that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people and left in its wake more than 1.5 million refugees. Despite the length of this conflict, the international community has struggled to contain the war, let alone bring an end to the violence and restore peace to Syria. In the length of the conflict, its nakedly sectarian nature and the inability of the international community to reach a consensus reminds me all too often of the war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, where I served with the UN. Then as now, we struggle to bring humanitarian relief to the victims of the war and, despite all the hopes after the Yugoslav wars that a new era in the international management of conflict had dawned, those hopes have been dashed. Those hopes gave rise among other developments to the doctrine of the responsibility to protect—R2P in shorthand. The sad fact is that we have been unable adequately to protect the people of Syria.
The dangers of the conflict spreading to neighbouring countries, and especially to Lebanon, have been noted by many speakers this afternoon. On a visit to Lebanon a few weeks ago, I found UN colleagues anxious about the growing sectarian violence within the country and the extraordinary burden of more than 1 million refugees, equivalent to a quarter of the Lebanese population. Can one imagine 15 million refugees arriving in the United Kingdom and how we might cope? I pay tribute to what our Government have tried to do to help the Lebanese and to the extraordinarily able and energetic Ambassador Tom Fletcher and his staff in Beirut. Despite their efforts and those of many other countries to help Lebanon, the trends are not good. There have now been at least five bomb attacks on the Shia district of Beirut, Dahieh. The country’s second city, Tripoli, is wracked by periodic but sustained violence between the majority Sunni population and an Alawite minority openly supportive of the regime of President Assad and his Lebanese ally, the Shia militia Hezbollah. A few days ago there was an Israeli air attack on an alleged Hezbollah convoy. There have also been assassinations—above all of the former Finance Minister and leading moderate, and a personal friend, Mohammed Chatah, whose death by murder on
Hezbollah, deemed by many to be the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world, was born during the 1980s Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and played a considerable role in prompting the eventual withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon. Its focus now is elsewhere: fighting fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims in Syria, who have dared to challenge Assad’s regime. That action, strongly supported by Iran, has left an Arab world dangerously divided between Sunni and Shia, which will take many years to heal. I hope that, in their necessary dialogue with Iran on the critical nuclear file, the Government and our colleagues in the P5, as well as Germany, are taking issue with President Rouhani and warning of the dangerous course that his Government’s allies are following in the Arab world. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify that.
I take this opportunity to welcome the two rounds of talks held in Montreux and Geneva under the able chairmanship of the veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. Of course it is disappointing that more was not achieved, but we should take some comfort from the fact that the talks did not break down and that no party walked out. Moreover, between the first and second rounds in Geneva, the head of the Syrian National Council delegation, Ahmad Jarba, visited Moscow, where he was received by the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov. This was certainly not welcomed in Damascus. Russia is now in the unique position of being the only P5 member with relations with both sides of the conflict in Syria.
The next important development was the adoption, which I warmly welcome, of Security Council
Resolution 2139 last Saturday by unanimous approval of the Security Council. The resolution called on all parties,
“in particular the Syrian authorities”, to allow unhindered humanitarian access for the UN. It also strongly condemned the use of barrel bombs, which, of course, are used by only one side to the conflict. In the light of this resolution, which offers some hope, I call on the Government to redouble their efforts with the Russians and the Chinese to find a negotiated end to this conflict. There has, I believe, been a subtle change in the position of the Russian Federation.
Diplomatic efforts need to be intensified. I believe that it was foolish in the extreme that the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, seemingly had to withdraw his invitation to Iran to participate in the Geneva peace talks. If there is to be a negotiated settlement, diplomacy has to be inclusive, not exclusive. I have always believed that the model in this regard was the hawkish and viscerally anti-communist Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. In 1954 in Geneva, he was appalled at the prospect of shaking hands with the Chinese statesman and Foreign Minister, Chou En-Lai. In colourful language not appropriate in your Lordships’ House, he refused to do that. The point is that Dulles sat in the same room with representatives of a Government that the US had been fighting for the previous three years in Korea. If Dulles could do that half a century ago, the West should have been able to do so a few weeks ago in Iran.
This war has seen appalling acts of violence, cruelty and brutality that, in many cases, almost certainly amount to war crimes. Before Syria, it had become accepted that the international community would not tolerate such crimes. In the Balkans, we saw the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I myself testified against former President Slobodan Milosevic, as well as the commander of the Yugoslav army, General Perisic. A special tribunal was formed for Sierra Leone, which has seen Charles Taylor indicted and tried. Above all, there has been the formation of the International Criminal Court, which has seen, among others, President al-Bashir of Sudan indicted.
It cannot be that Arabs and the Syrian people are less deserving of justice. As a P5 member we have a duty towards them. I would welcome any thoughts that the noble Baroness might have of government thinking in this regard. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which this Government and their predecessor have strongly supported, is now conducting a trial, in the absence of the accused, of the suspected killers of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and others in 2005. I ask the noble Baroness whether any thought has been given to extending the mandate of that court to look at the murder of Mohammed Chatah, who was killed in an almost identical fashion, by a massive car bomb, only a few streets away from the 2005 killing.
In Syria, we have few good choices. Absent a willingness by the Obama Administration to take a more forceful stance—for example, a no-fly zone, which had an impact in Bosnia—a negotiated settlement is the only option. We cannot do less for the Syrian people and we must do more to intensify our efforts.
My Lords, as the world recovers from the deepest, longest and most diffused economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s—I should emphasise that the recovery has been slow and erratic, with the resumption of growth and prosperity remaining fragile—another cloud threatens global stability and security. This cloud—and it is a deepening and darkening cloud—is jihadist terrorism against large areas of the world. Although aimed primarily at the West, few areas remain entirely safe.
The most notable and fearful threat is that it is becoming joined-up terrorism. The fundamentalist Islamism from which it stems is widely diffused through not just much of the Middle East but also north, central and east Africa, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. The organisations which are planning the terrorist operations are a coalition of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front and a number of other splinter groups. All share the overall aim of creating theocratic states under Sharia law, with the eventual aim of a worldwide caliphate.
If anyone doubts the threat to this country, let them read the evidence given in public on
I want to refer specifically to only three countries: Syria itself, Israel-Palestine and Egypt. On Syria, I say only that we have probably been on the wrong side from the start. That came from the naivety of assuming that the Arab spring was akin to our Enlightenment, automatically leading to tolerance, freedom of thought and thence to western-style democracy.
The fact is that all dictators are undesirable, but only some are true monsters—such as Saddam and Gaddafi, who richly deserved their fate. Others, such as Bashar al-Assad, are forced into monstrous behaviour by events. In this case, we have given western moral backing to a loose alliance of about 20 rebel groups who now appear to be dominated by the ultra-Islamists. Their victory would lead to a repressive theocracy. It is no coincidence that Israel, whose policies in world affairs are always very pragmatic, has never come out for the removal of Assad, although Syria is hardly its best friend. Thankfully, in August, the House of Commons vetoed British participation in an ill conceived military strike against Assad.
The Israel-Palestine situation is entering an even more serious phase. It continues to drop its poison into the region and more widely, providing the leitmotif for the jihadists and making it ever harder for moderate Islamic interests, such as Fatah, to negotiate a long-term solution. In Israel, however, the West Bank is not a top domestic issue. Most Israelis have never been there and have no wish to do so. The politics of a Palestinian state are not an easy option for Prime Minister Netanyahu, especially while there is relative calm. Secretary of State Kerry has shown himself totally committed to producing a settlement based on the two-state solution so long and widely advocated, which has, incidentally, been steadily gaining support in the United States. Originally, Kerry set a nine-month framework for results. That was six months ago. There are concerns that President Obama may be about to announce changes to the terms of reference, which, far from moving towards a solution, could close options and escalate instability on the West Bank, providing welcome sustenance for Islamists.
On Egypt, I would like to follow up what the noble Lord, Lord Stone, said. With the noble Lord and others, I had the opportunity earlier this month to spend two days in Egypt as part of the all-party parliamentary delegation from both Houses. This was sponsored by the Farid Khamis Foundation, which created the British University in Egypt, of which the noble Lord, Lord Stone, is a trustee. We met, among others, interim President Mansour, Prime Minister Beblawi and the Foreign and Interior Ministers. Perhaps most importantly, we had two hours with the Defence Minister, Field Marshal Sisi, who is also head of the armed forces. We were told we might get half an hour, but it would be more likely to be 15 minutes. When we got there, he started by saying how much he liked England because he had such happy memories of his time at Camberley in the staff college. That is a little lesson, perhaps, in the importance of welcoming people in the role of student at whatever institution in this country.
The Muslim Brotherhood Government of President Morsi, elected in June 2012, of which many had such high hopes as a more moderate version of the old Brotherhood, rapidly reverted to its ideological roots. It aimed for an Islamic state with a theocratic Government that would resurrect the Islamic caliphate, and introduced a new Islamic constitution in December of the year they were elected. Morsi released from prison the Brotherhood Islamist who assassinated, in October 1981, President Anwar Sadat. President Sadat had offered peace to Israel in November 1977.
Morsi then released those who bombed the tourist bus on the Nile. Most serious was that Morsi arranged for some 600 Islamist fighters to enter Sinai from neighbouring countries. They are now causing mayhem. Their removal is a top military priority for the Egyptians. Equally, al-Qaeda threats against tourists are intended to sabotage a crucial element of Egypt’s very fragile economy. By December 2012, Egypt’s economy was virtually paralysed, and an IMF loan had to be delayed. From early 2013, violent street protests, with many killed, resulted in the army trying to get Morsi to hold a vote on his policies as things went from worse to worse, with massive unemployment and no means to reduce extreme poverty in the country. In July, the army stepped in to remove him. An interim, mainly technocratic, Government was formed. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned as a terrorist organisation. This was almost certainly a mistake because it has hundreds of thousands of supporters. However, there is no reason why there should not be a Salafist candidate to represent Sunni hardliners in the presidential election, although they are not exactly the flavour of the month.
Egypt now has a new constitution, drawn up by a committee of 50 under Mr Amr Moussa, formerly the Secretary-General of the Arab League. Most significant is that any president is limited to two four-year terms, which reduces the risk of another long-term military leader like Mubarak. Sisi is likely to stand and my own impression is that he would make an effective leader of vision and integrity. The fact that the Minister of Defence will continue to be the head of the armed forces reflects the special position that the army has in Egypt as the ultimate guardian of the people. Then in three months’ time, there have to be parliamentary elections. Egypt is in every sense a country of world importance. We owe it to ourselves as much as to the Egyptians to do all we can to help them.
Finally, my overall conclusion is that we in the West really must stop trying to tell other countries how they should run their own show, which is so often counterproductive. It is indeed a tragedy that the United States, which is fundamentally one of the most generous and well meaning countries in the world, has succeeded over several decades in using its military power to reduce its world influence. We must draw the true lesson of the Enlightenment, which is about the need for despotic government to be replaced with constitutional government subject to the rule of law and the fullest use of free thought, from which science and technology can produce the prosperity which underwrites stability.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this timely debate. I am clearly surrounded by noble Lords who have great experience of the situation in Syria and the many issues and tensions in the Middle East. The Syrian situation is complex and evolving. Noble Lords have mentioned a great many issues, including extremism, the use of chemical weapons, the role of Iran and the Geneva peace talks. In respect of Syria, I simply reinforce what my right honourable friend Douglas Alexander said in the other place about the importance of continued humanitarian aid being available to the many people who are suffering from this tragedy. The United Nations has estimated that 100,000 people have been killed during this conflict, a number which continues to rise with each day that passes.
In the time available today I wish to focus my attention on Bahrain, a country in the Middle East that has also had some bad press in relation to human rights abuses but which, I would argue, is genuinely trying to address these issues. The Minister will be aware that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the Commons criticised the Government of Bahrain for their slowness in implementing some of the recommendations of an inquiry which had been critical of the role of the security forces during the civil unrest there. I believe that much has changed in Bahrain and hope to present some of the positive actions taken in recent times. It is important to state that I personally know the region and country well, having visited it many times and owned a number of businesses in
Bahrain. If any noble Lords would like to discuss my business experiences outside the Chamber I would be more than happy to meet and chat to them, and lunch is on me.
Suffice to say that I found Bahrain’s judicial system very open and transparent. I will give your Lordships an example. On one of my trips to Bahrain, I had to transfer power of attorney to my Bahraini partner and a legal document had to be signed in the presence of a judicial magistrate. When I went to sign the document, the magistrate asked if I had read it. I explained that I had not as the document was in Arabic, a language I am unfamiliar with. He told me that I could not sign that document if I had not read or understood it. He then called on a translator to go through the document with me line by line. Once he was satisfied that I had read and understood the document, he allowed me to sign it. This is but one example of a personal experience that highlighted to me the integrity and transparency that exist in the country.
I also found Bahrain to be tolerant of all religions. I visited many mosques, churches, synagogues and gurdwaras; it should be noted that the Bahraini ambassador to the UK is a Christian woman and the former ambassador to the USA was Jewish. I could give many more examples, but unfortunately we do not have time in this debate today.
Let me focus on the critical steps that Bahrain has taken in the past two years, particularly in addressing allegations of human rights abuses. Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf to establish an independent ombudsman at its Ministry of Interior. This was a recommendation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate allegations of police misconduct and improper treatment of prisoners. In fact, reform has gone beyond what the commission recommended and Bahrain maintains a zero-tolerance policy towards torture. The commission has already investigated more than 80 complaints, many of which have subsequently been referred for criminal investigations. The recommendations contained in its report on the infamous Jaw prison are currently being implemented by the Ministry of Interior. Jaw prison has been notorious since its creation, particularly with regard to political prisoners, as many noble Lords will be aware. However, following the report, with its 18 recommendations on how to improve the situation in the prison, things have improved greatly.
The introduction of the special investigations unit is another recent institutional reform. This unit at the Bahraini Attorney-General’s office, which was originally tasked with ensuring that allegations of torture and mistreatment during the events of 2011 were investigated thoroughly and that those responsible were held accountable, has become a permanent prosecutorial body to investigate and prosecute all instances of torture. It has investigated more than 150 complaints, some received directly from victims and others proactively gleaned from social media. Of these, 30 have resulted in the prosecution of 51 officers.
Moreover, a draft law is currently under review by the Bahrain Parliament to ensure that the reformed National Human Rights Institution is a fully independent body. It was founded in accordance with the Paris principles and will be capable of investigating and reporting on all types of human rights violations without government interference. Prominent Bahraini human rights activists have already been appointed to the newly constituted board of the institution.
A few days ago a royal decree was issued naming the members of the Commission on the Rights of Prisoners and Detainees, which will be presided over by the Ministry of Interior ombudsman. This commission is tasked with monitoring places of detention in order to prevent torture and ill treatment.
I hope the Minister will agree with me that Bahrain has made some serious progress towards addressing its negative portrayal in the media. I was heartened by her words when she said that the UK recognised Bahrain’s groundbreaking reform programme.
Finally, we should not underestimate the relationship between the UK and Bahrain. In 1820, Bahrain signed the General Maritime Treaty with the United Kingdom and became a British protectorate. The treaty dealt with trade, security and travel, and also strengthened the defence relationship between Bahrain and the UK. The UK maritime component command is based in Bahrain. This is vital for keeping shipping lanes and the Strait of Hormuz open.
“have a strong, warm and longstanding relationship, rooted in our friendship over the years and in the 1971 Friendship Treaty”.
Around 7,000 Britons work in Bahrain and many Bahraini students study at educational establishments in the UK. There are also around 250,000 Indian professionals and business people living in Bahrain, which is helped by the friendliness and the welcoming attitude of Bahraini people. I hope that in her summing up the Minister will be supportive of my observations of the progress that Bahrain has made.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for obtaining this debate and for introducing it with such a helpful scan of Syria, the Middle East and north Africa. I draw to the House’s attention my registered interests in the region, particularly in trying to deal with conflict in the region.
Many noble Lords have picked on a number of particular countries in which they have a special interest or concern. That is a very appropriate thing to do in the context of this debate, but I shall take a line directed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. He pointed out the need for us to have a clearer strategic approach to understanding the problems of this region. While it is true that the same thing is not happening in every country in the region, something is nevertheless happening in the broader region and we need to understand it. We need to evolve and develop our own way of addressing the problems.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, has directed us to three issues: Iran, when he said that he hoped our Government and others would maintain some progress and momentum in dealing with the nuclear question; relationships with Saudi Arabia; and containing the Syrian problem. I shall start with the last of those issues.
From the very start I cautioned against any kind of military intervention in Syria. I said that it seemed to me that the internal problems were not amenable to our engagement and resolution and that what was critical was to try, in so far as possible, to limit the spread of the developing disorder and chaos. Part of the process of doing that is to try to give support to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—a front-line country which has been mentioned a few times in this debate but which has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves as a NATO ally that has engaged very thoughtfully in this situation. The Government have put a substantial amount of money, time and effort into giving support, perhaps particularly in Lebanon and Jordan but also in Turkey. We had the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey here a week or so ago and he welcomed the assistance that has been given. This is very important. It is one of the positive and constructive things we can continue to do and where we can continue to give a lead.
I am afraid that when the question of military engagement arose the Government seemed to jump with much too great an alacrity to agree despite the bad experiences that we have had with it over some time. Why was that? I have the impression that “engagement” seems to be seen in military and force terms, and that much of our foreign policy seems to be a matter of “Let’s see what our American colleagues say and give them as much support as possible”. In fact, on some issues—particularly the Israel-Palestine question—that is the answer I have received when I asked officials at the Foreign Office what precisely is our policy. “We will wait and see what John Kerry says, we will wait and see what happens, and then we will support it”. Of course one wants to support one’s friends, but you are not a terribly useful friend if the only thing you have to say is, “I agree with Nick”. It is really rather important to say, “I hear what you say and I am sympathetic to it but here’s another perspective”. When it came to dealing with problems in my part of the United Kingdom, our friends in the United States were perfectly capable of taking a very different line from Her Majesty’s Government and, in the end, helpfully so.
Therefore the notion that one might take a slightly different view or have another perspective is not an unhelpful thing; frequently it is a very helpful thing. We should inevitably have a different perspective from the United States, not least, of course, because of our long history in many of these regions, especially the Middle East itself; but particularly because the United States is coming as the only superpower and we are coming from a very different perspective of having limited power, but substantial understanding. At least, that was the case in the past.
What kind of perspective can we bring and what kind of strategic approach can we increasingly develop? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, talked about Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other. He and other noble Lords have indicated also that these are not allies; that in fact they see themselves very much as competitors for hegemony in the region and also, incidentally, with Turkey. If we are going to maintain relationships with both of them, perhaps we can make a useful contribution. It has been mentioned that Russia is the only member of the P5+1 that has relationships with both sides in the Syrian context and therefore has a very special role.
That is the first lesson we need to learn in our strategic approach: that it is important for us to maintain channels of communication with as many sides as possible in all these problems. It is not helpful for us to line up behind one side or the other—and not only because we frequently appear, ultimately, to pick the wrong side, although that is a good reason in itself. If you are not a real powerhouse, then the power you can bring is your capacity for relationship and communication. A great deal can be achieved if we can use the relationships we have had in the past and others that we develop as time goes on in order to play a particularly useful role. We have fallen down on that. I hope that the Minister will be able to encourage us that the increased investment of money and resources in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will help us increase our communication with all sides. That will mean taking political risks and having more political openness.
The second thing is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of many of these areas. Before I came to this area of work, a quarter of a century or so ago, I harboured the notion that our Foreign Office was far and away the most knowledgeable, understanding and sophisticated organisation of its kind anywhere in the world. However, the more I got involved and the more time passed, the more I found myself becoming rather disappointed. I found that it was increasingly inward-looking and not frightfully interested in advice, understanding or experience from others outside the service itself, including from parliamentarians, and that because of that it developed a kind of groupthink about what was actually happening that frequently was not very well informed by understanding.
I will give noble Lords an example. There has been an assumption for quite a long time—although we are not of course the only country that makes this mistake—that when engaging in countries that have conflicts going on in them, it is key to identify the social and economic drivers because those countries are rational actors, operating in their own best interest. That is simply nonsense. They are devoted actors, frequently acting in ways that are not in their best social and economic interests. The more deeply they are embroiled in conflict, the more they act not on social, economic and power values, but on what one might describe as sacred values. I do not mean religious values, but values that transcend best social and economic interest. There is lots of research in this area to show that that is not just some kind of airy-fairy notion; it can be measured and described and it affects the way we act. For example, in a situation of that kind the notion from outside would be, “Put some more money in and that will help to oil the wheels”. Not only does that not help the situation, it frequently makes it worse—first, because people react very badly when the things that are important to them are couched in monetary terms; and secondly, because frequently all you do is increase or even create a context of corruption, as there is a whole lot more money around than people can properly cope with.
It seems that we have a capacity to use historic understandings and relationships and a devotion to these kinds of issues that will deepen our understanding—and understanding is one of the things that this country can bring to the party. The noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench knows well how much British counsel, in its deepening of understandings, has frequently helped us to understand these things and engage in a much more constructive way.
The third element, with which I will finish, is that we need to come with a capacity to learn from others in our engagement with them. For example, in working with folks in Tunisia I was struck by the remarks of Sheikh Ghannouchi from the Muslim Brotherhood, who said that you cannot create a democracy simply by having elected structures if you do not have a culture of democracy and a culture that develops all that is necessary for liberal democracy. He is right, yet for decades we have very rapidly brought in institutions based on our experience, and are surprised when the whole thing falls to pieces.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, referred to the Enlightenment. That was not a light that was switched on and which suddenly enlightened us, but something that took not just decades but centuries of painful emergence. Perhaps that tells us something about what is happening in that region. However, we also ought to be prepared to learn not only how it really is in some other places but how it might be better for us. There are things about the way in which we deal with our economy in which we depend entirely on monetary values. In some of those countries they are trying to develop an economics based more on community values. We cannot only contribute; we can also learn, not just in the context of this debate but in our engagement with those who are living in such terrible circumstances.
My Lords, when contemplating the recent course of events in the Middle East: Syria’s seemingly unending agony, Egypt slipping back into a military-dominated regime, and Libya struggling to cope with post-Gaddafi chaos, it is far too easy to succumb to pessimism and to allow it to persuade us—and perhaps even to justify—the merits of detachment and inaction. One can hear from time to time in this country when discussing this region the mutterings of little Englanders who say, “Let’s just leave them to get on with it”.
I say that that is easy, but it is quite misguided, even in terms of a narrow definition of our national interest, let alone of the stake we have, as a permanent member of the Security Council and, as with the rest of Europe, as a close neighbour of the Middle East, in that region’s future stability, security and prosperity. After all, for the foreseeable future we will depend on that region for a substantial part of our energy security. It is the origin of a large proportion of the illegal immigrants flooding into Europe, and it represents an all too present threat to us of a new wave of terrorism. All that is without counting the risk of a new regional conflict if the Iranian nuclear problem cannot be resolved by peaceful diplomatic means. Therefore, detachment and inaction would simply be against our national interest, however unappealing and challenging engagement might seem to be.
Engagement need not—and it should not—be seen as favouring military intervention. Here are four elements of such a policy of engagement which do not involve military engagement, to which I would welcome a response from the Minister when she replies to the debate.
Expectations of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva last month were, mercifully, low, so we can afford to salute the persistence and ingenuity of the UN’s mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, to whom other noble Lords have referred, without appearing to be totally Panglossian. Brahimi has, so far, kept in his hands the slender thread—a very slender thread now—of a process that could lead to a transition to a post-Assad Syria. He has managed to bring some modest relief to the beleaguered citizens of Homs, but he needs help and much wider and stronger strategic international backing if he is to move beyond that. I agree with others who have said that the short-term priority should be to bring humanitarian relief to the citizens of many other places—to Aleppo and parts of Damascus, in particular—who are being starved into submission and bombarded with weapons whose use in crowded, inhabited areas must surely constitute a war crime.
Last week’s unanimous Security Council resolution was, of course, very welcome, although the fact that it is not mandatory must leave us with a little scepticism about how much humanitarian relief will actually get through. I would be grateful if the Minister would say what we are going to do to press the regime in particular, but also, of course, the other combatants, to let humanitarian relief through. Should we not be thinking of ways to increase the pressure on the regime if it does, indeed, block the application of that resolution? Is any thought at all being given, for example, to suspending Syria from its membership of the United Nations General Assembly, a course that was taken with South Africa and with Serbia in the past and which did a great deal to sober those regimes up and bring home to them that they were at real reputational risk, to put it mildly.
Secondly, I shall say a word about the oft-derided Middle East peace process. Perhaps because the spotlight is no longer on the principal participants in that process, the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, to which the US Secretary of State is so laudably devoting a high priority, seem marginally less hopeless than they have often appeared in the past. Perhaps it is finally dawning on the two sets of protagonists that they can no longer count on the unquestioning support of their external backers. The fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been criticised for even contemplating the possibility that some Israeli settlers might find themselves living in a Palestinian state is surely a welcome first and a sign that some new thinking may be starting to percolate.
Are the Government encouraging the United States to put some proposals or ideas for a comprehensive settlement on the table? Surely, experience tells us that it is hard to believe that without that, any decisive progress will ever be made. It is not the two parties that are going to put proposals on the table who will break the deadlock. What thought is being given to the contribution that the European Union might make to any such settlement? Would it not also be valuable if something was said in public, including about the contribution the EU might make, and also about the sort of relationship that a post-settlement Israel could hope to have with the European Union, a relationship which is obviously extraordinarily important to Israel in the longer term?
Negotiations with Iran, to which several noble Lords have referred, for a comprehensive successor to the interim nuclear agreement reached last November are just getting under way. Can the Minister say anything about the objectives that the Government, together with their partners in the 5+1 process, will be pursuing in those negotiations? What would we, and they, be prepared to put on the table in response to an Iran that could satisfy the international community durably and verifiably as to the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme? That is, what would the end state from our side of that negotiation look like if the Iranians came to the end state that they would want to see on their side? What, too, are we doing to set out the case to those in the US Congress who are contemplating action that could shipwreck the whole process? What action are we taking to bring home to them our hope that they will stay their hand and give diplomacy a chance? We should, after all, be under no illusions. If diplomacy fails with Iran, the risk of a conflict that could draw in other regional players and those outside the region would be real, and the possible consequences of that are likely to be seriously damaging for all concerned, ourselves included.
It is obviously difficult to plot a direction of travel for our policy in the Middle East, which will clearly be prey to insecurity and instability for years and possibly decades to come. But the setbacks that have followed the Arab awakening should not, I suggest, divert us from pursuing the broad objectives of helping all the countries in the region to move towards pluralist democracy, sound market-based economies, the rule of law and respect for human rights and for religious and ethnic minorities. The route that each country takes may well involve more zig-zags than straight lines, as is the case in Egypt. We should not be too prescriptive in our responses. What we should do is to respond with firm support for those such as Tunisia, which seem to be making real progress along that path. Is that how the Government see things?
I am sure that I have overlooked much—Bahrain, Yemen, Sunni-Shia tensions and more besides—but I hope that the main message that the Government will give is that Britain is not about to turn its back on a region that needs to remain a key focus of our foreign policy.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for tabling this Motion for debate today and for the tone that she set in her opening remarks. I refer the
House to my non-financial interests as honorary president of UK Copts, a board member of the Aid to the Church in Need charity and a patron of various human rights groups that work in the region.
Earlier in our debate, my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond made an important and authoritative speech. I entirely agreed with his remarks about Syria and later in my remarks I will concentrate on what is happening there today. As he spoke, I reflected that I first met him in 1980 when he was our distinguished ambassador in Syria. With the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I arrived in Damascus on the very day when the war broke out between Iran and Iraq—a war that claimed some million lives. Perhaps in the context of what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said to the House, we should remember that.
During that visit, we met with ?afez al-Assad, Yasser Arafat, King Hussein and Anwar Sadat. In our subsequent report, we advocated a two-state approach as the only one likely to achieve sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbours. Our visit was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood had made an assassination attempt on ?afez al-Assad, and his response was then to align Syria with Iran. King Hussein declared Jordan’s support for Iraq. One week after we met Assad, he was in Moscow signing a mutual friendship treaty. Depressingly, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup indicated, the lines in today’s conflict are not newly drawn.
In 1980, I wrote about the repressive nature of the region’s regimes—repressive then and repressive now. Iran’s human rights record remains appalling. Saudi Arabia, referred to in this debate as our strategic ally in the region, also commits egregious violations of human rights and remains one of the deadliest exporters of global terror. Back in 1980, Syria was expelling journalists and massacring dissidents. Surely the failure to see reform, change and sustainable solutions has had these disastrous consequences, nowhere more so than in Syria.
The failure to find solutions now includes 130,000 dead with millions more driven from their homes. Nine million are said to be displaced and 3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. One hundred and fifty thousand families are deprived of their father, 2 million dwellings are destroyed, 2 million families are without shelter and 2 million students without schools. The economy is in ruins, the currency is devalued by 300% and there is growing violence, anguish, division and bitterness every day.
Sarin gas has been used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. Barrel bombs have rained down on Aleppo. Citizens have been under siege in Homs and elsewhere, being starved to death. Just over a week ago the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, pointed to what he called “the unspeakable suffering” of the country’s children, with 10,000 children now dead in Syria. The United Nations report published last week details arbitrary detention, ill treatment, torture and horrific abuses of children by both sides including beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons, sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape, mock executions, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. The report says that the opposition forces too have increasingly “engaged in such acts.”
The “Afghanisation” of Syria, with vast tracts falling under the control of dangerous jihadist groups, would hardly represent progress. We need to hear much more from the Government, and with much more clarity, of assessments of each of these various factions which are largely at war with one another. Describing them as the opposition conjures up images of a coherent and united group akin to opposition groups in parliamentary democracies. We should be very wary of using such descriptions. Take ISIS. It is said that al-Qaeda has cut its links to one of its most deadly affiliates, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. There are also unverified reports, as we have heard, of a possible military confrontation between Hezbollah and ISIS. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what assessment she has made of the continuing use of ISIS suicide bombers, the territory it controls in north-eastern Iraq and its use of radicalised recruits, especially from the United Kingdom? I refer to recruits such as Anil Khalil Raoufi, a British Afghan who was studying engineering at the University of Liverpool and was recently killed in fighting between rebel groups. It is not just United Kingdom students—this week I sent the Minister a report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict which talks about the radicalisation of young Indonesian men who have gone to Syria via Turkey. Their director Sidney Jones says:
“Jihadi humanitarian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well”.
It is not just that their presence in Syria fuels fundamentalism—it is that they are being radicalised in the process, posing dangers to the countries to which they return. The problem is exacerbated by the flow of arms into Syria.
In appealing to hatred, many jihadists cite a seventh-century directive which requires Christians to convert to Islam and pay tribute to Muslim rulers or leave. It is being increasingly enforced by extreme Islamist groups, so there is a religious dimension to this conflict. Here perhaps I would disagree on the margin with the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate.
What of the 60,000 fighters of the Islamic Front? Do the Government believe that the Front is capable of producing a secular or plural Syria in which minorities such as those to which I have just referred are respected? Do they have the capacity to be part of a transitional body capable of restoring trust, an almost impossible task in the aftermath of such horror? It was the late King Hussein who offered the wise advice to pray for God’s protection against,
“those who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth.”
These sole possessors of truth represent the biggest stumbling block in finding a peaceful way forward out of this confessional morass and they also represent the biggest danger to Alawites, Druze and Christians, and the rights of women.
Almost 1,500 years ago a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a flowering meadow of Christianity. That meadow is today a battlefield. Before the war the Christians of Syria accounted for 4.5% of the population. What will it be after the war? Forty-seven churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted. I have raised these cases with the Minister and gave her notice that I would raise them again today. A new video of the nuns has just appeared with their traditional cross removed from their habit. Do we have any news of their whereabouts and when they may be released by their jihadist captors? What news also, about the Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory? Opposition sources from Raqqah said that Paolo Dall’Oglio had been executed by extremist groups. Do we have any news about that?
I have been looking at first-hand accounts which Aid to the Church in Need has received from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon. He says that the militias,
“stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me ... I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything”.
The Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea says Christians have been specifically targeted in a number of places. I shall quote him because I hope, as we collect evidence of these sorts of events, none of this will ever be lost to history. He says:
“There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”.
The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on
While the quest for peace continues, perhaps the Minister will share with us what we are doing to provide direct help to these beleaguered minorities, what we are doing to stop the flow of arms into Syria, what progress has been made on the removal of the 700 tonnes of priority 1 chemicals, and what happens—as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked—if the deadline for removal of chemical weapons is passed. Even an agreement suspending the flow of arms and foreign militant activists would be a success, because the ceasing of fighting is the precondition for all forms of reconciliation.
Let me conclude by pressing for a response to the question I raised on Monday with the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who is sitting on the Front Bench. I asked whether we are collecting meticulous information of atrocities, and whether in the Security Council we will be referring these matters for prosecution by the International Criminal Court. If the danger of any other country raising a veto against us were to be used as a reason for not doing that, it would bring great dishonour on this country.
My Lords, I compliment the Minister, but perhaps I may be permitted initially to mention one Arab country, rather distant from the eastern Mediterranean, namely Algeria, which will be having a presidential election in April.
In January last year, our Prime Minister visited Algeria—the first British Prime Minister to do so—and I accompanied him as his trade envoy. After the horrors of its war of independence, that country suffered a brutal Islamist takeover more than 20 years ago. Some 150,000 people were killed amid scenes of unspeakable depravity, and this has scarred the memories of Algerians collectively. Today, quietly, we have a remarkable bilateral relationship, and a security and defence compact. A massive desire exists there to learn English and our trade has increased appreciably. Because of its energy wealth, Algeria is spending heavily on both its physical and social infrastructure, and I hope that British business will benefit from this. EU monitors will be present for the elections. It is an enormous, diverse country with extremely porous borders. We can only hope that the remarkable stability of Algeria will continue and that our partnership will flourish.
Exactly a month ago, I visited Egypt with the Conservative Middle East Council, following a great number of previous visits over the years as a governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. We had a wonderful opportunity to meet a cross-section of Egyptians—not, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, but including the enthusiastic and optimistic Amr Moussa, who wrote their new constitution, and very senior generals.
I know that we can all agree that what happens in Egypt—as the mother nation of the Arab world and with its strategic importance—is hugely important. I very much welcome the positive comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath. In the past, in discussing policy with the Muslim Brotherhood, we were assured of its commitment to attract investment, to root out corruption and to protect the minorities. As a force in Egyptian politics for more than 80 years, it appeared destined to win—which, of course, is exactly what happened. Many voted for it simply to achieve change, but felt in some instances that the powerful Egyptian army would continue to act as a balance. Unfortunately, despite being democratically elected, the new Government proved a massive disappointment, to say the least, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford observed.
Tourism, which comprises up to 25% of its economy, collapsed and attacks on Copts soared. Public debt and the budget deficit grew dangerously and many parts of Sinai became no-go areas because of terrorist activity. For us and all our allies, all of this has proved difficult after the heady days of the Arab spring. The recent outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood may well drive it underground. Surely, there is a clear line to be drawn between those who commit criminal terrorist activity and those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and who could never be described as terrorists, but who now face potential and actual arrest and imprisonment.
Meanwhile, despite great efforts, much of Sinai remains off limits, even some tourist areas. The economy is being sustained with generous help from Saudi Arabia and most Gulf states. There will be presidential elections and then parliamentary elections, and at least the security of religious minorities has improved. We need, however, to point out clearly to our Egyptian friends during this period that ultimately, you deal with those who oppose you by securing their hearts and minds as a necessary prerequisite to long-term social, political and economic stability.
What is there new to say about Syria following the effective collapse of the Geneva discussions and the subsequent increase in the rate of slaughter? One thing is absolutely crystal clear: as things stand, President Assad is not interested in dialogue or in a transition process, and he will fight to preserve what is geographically and politically left of his power. In his terms, there is no alternative. It is worth noting that only 5% of Syria’s chemicals weaponry—a figure that I find very difficult even to believe—has been handed in thus far, despite cast-iron assurances that led to the avoidance of further actions against his regime. We need to reflect on the consequences of the breach of this highly important and high-profile agreement.
What is emerging is the splitting of the country in three ways. In the north, the Kurds are essentially and increasingly taking on administrative authority. I note in passing the surprisingly strong relationship that Turkey and Kurdistan have developed. There may be a common ethnic identity with Kurdish Syrians and those in northern Iraq, but there remain significant differences of outlook and Turkey is completely opposed to a future federal structure for Syria. By contrast, other parts of Syria are effectively being controlled by various Islamist groups imposing arbitrary justice and their view of how life should be lived. The stalemate is completed by the resilience of the rump of the Assad regime, supported by the army and, in varying degrees, by Christians, Druze, Alawites and secular Sunnis.
All of us must have pondered many times what Russia's objective is. Initially, it was declared to be the protection of the diversity and secular character of Syria. In practice, entirely the reverse has happened. President Assad, who sold himself as the protector of secularism and of the minorities, has actually brought about their destruction in many instances. The Russians have been offered continuing military, intelligence and commercial engagement, yet it seems that their position essentially remains fixed. I can only conclude that they wish to be seen to stick with their friends, and to make the contrast, fairly or unfairly, with other nations that have interests in the region.
We can applaud Secretary Kerry for his comprehensive involvement in the region. If, indeed, it is possible to come to some further understanding with Iran, echoing the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, then surely discussion must lead to its continuing and substantial support for President Assad. He needs to be brought into a dialogue at some point, however unpalatable that may be, in the absence of any real moves for any resolution.
I conclude on this note. One of the tragic by-products of the invasion of Iraq was the decimation of its ancient Christian community, many of whose members fled to Syria. The Christian culture is now increasingly being marginalised at best, and destroyed at worst, in the region. Some years ago, my very dear friend the Archbishop of Aleppo and I were travelling in his car. He said, “Richard, do you think we will be here in 50 years’ time?”. I replied, “Sadly, and frankly, no”, to which he responded, “I fear you are right”. Last year he was captured—a wonderful and charismatic figure, and a good friend of the Church of England. His whereabouts are unknown. I fear the worst. His personal horror has been tragically replicated with thousands of his fellow citizens.
Of course, we can try, as we do, to give generous humanitarian aid, whether on a personal level or at a collective or state level—but, quite frankly, until countries such as Russia and Iran can be persuaded to bring pressure to bear for a genuine negotiation, this terrible tragedy will continue.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate. It is very timely. Earlier in the week, we had the government Statement on Syria and other issues, and we have had another statement from the Minister this morning. Of course, we are all appalled at what is happening: 5,000 civilians dying every month; thousands of refugees in surrounding countries, sometimes in awful conditions; and children wounded and dying, ill and often starving. “What can we do?”, we ask. “Can this carnage be stopped?”.
The Statement made it clear that the Government are in fact doing quite a lot. Finance and aid are being provided, and other Governments are being urged to do likewise. We have undertaken to take in some Syrian refugees. The UN Security Council has unanimously passed a resolution calling for aid, opposing terrorist violence and calling for an end to the carnage. “But what more can be done?”, we ask.
What is clear, however, is that military intervention is simply not an option. The Commons decided against it and there is no indication that other countries would agree to it. I support that entirely. I was against the intervention in Iraq from the very beginning. What is the point of getting rid of a dictator if those who take over afterwards are just as bad, if not worse? This is what has happened in Iraq, where there is still an unacceptable level of violence—and this after a military intervention resulting in thousands of deaths. Work has to be done with the international community and in particular with the EU, the US and Russia. There has been some evidence that, despite its problems in Ukraine, Russia is willing to try to bring pressure to bear on the regime in Syria to end the violence and to work towards some kind of eventual settlement.
As for Iran, this is a very difficult matter. I was most interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said about that. However, it seems clear that the regime has been assisting the Syrian regime in the current crisis. The new President is allegedly more moderate, but the human rights situation in the country continues to be bad, with many public executions and the oppression of women. I and a number of my parliamentary colleagues have been in contact with Iranian refugees in the UK.
There is an opposition organisation committed to democratic change led by a woman with an equality agenda. Groups of its members are in UN-protected camps in Iraq at the moment—Ashraf and Liberty—but, unfortunately, because the present Iraqi regime has extremist links with the Iranian Government, members of the camps have been subjected to harassment and there has even been violence in which some of them have been killed. A number of us protested about this at the time and we continue to do so. I know that from time to time the Government have raised objections about what is happening to these vulnerable people. People in the Ashraf and Liberty camps are entitled to protection and I hope that our Government will continue to press the Iraqi and other Governments on that issue.
I refer to this as an indication of the many complexities existing in the Middle East. People struggle for democracy and for the rights that we take for granted, particularly for women. Traditions and culture are difficult, and it takes a great deal of courage. I hope that we will continue to assist those who democratically aim to achieve change. In that respect I commend the Minister who recently made a speech in which she urged tolerance on the two major competing groups in her own religion—the Sunni and Shia. In the current situation, including what is happening in Syria, that is very important indeed and I thank her for making those statements.
However, as I said earlier, more international activity, pressure and aid are necessary to bring an end to the dreadful carnage in Syria. An immediate ceasefire, as recommended by one noble Lord, should be tried for, to put a stop to the violence in which so many people are suffering so badly. I support what the Government have been doing, but more should be done to assist the poor people caught up in all this violence.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for initiating this very important debate and for doing so with such concise clarity. I remind the House that I am the joint chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Iran Freedom and that in a professional capacity as a lawyer I have advised on connected matters. I am aware that a lawyer stepping into a foreign policy debate may be about as welcome as the converse in your Lordships’ House. Nevertheless, I want to raise some issues on Syria, Iran and Iraq, following on from the comments just made by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, with whom I agree.
As far as Syria is concerned, as I was thinking about this debate I reflected on Syrians I have known in my life. They have been almost entirely clever, enlightened and resourceful people. Then I reflected on the experience of one of my daughters of being in the sixth form at a school in central London with a popular and very able young student of Syrian origins who is in fact now the wife of President Assad. So some of these issues of Syria come very close to our own experience and they are a shock to us as well. It is indeed shocking that a country full of great history and future potential should be ripped apart by the events that we observe daily. The outrages of the Assad Government are there for us all to see and wholly unjustified. However, we must be careful what we wish for.
My noble friend Lord Howell illustrated the complexity of the political situation in Syria. The rise of heretical, violent jihadism there, clearly financed and fuelled by the Government of Iran, presents a real danger if there is to be regime change in Syria at some point in the future. I also agree with what was said earlier: it is not for us or for the Americans to determine what sort of regime they have if there is a change in Syria, because our models are not necessarily suitable for them, and I agree entirely with the realism expressed earlier by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, on that subject.
It is, of course, in the end for the people of Syria to determine what Government they have, but whatever enabling we do must be aimed at increasing the prospects of sound, enduring government—not necessarily a western model—preferably secular but, above all, pluralist and with a secure and internationally compliant legal system. We all want to welcome Syria after a very long time back into the family of nations with whom we can walk together, whether in the United Nations or elsewhere.
I turn next to Iran. Of course, I support, as I suspect everybody in this House supports, the attempts to negotiate and negate the threat of Iranian nuclear ambition. I share the assessment of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, on the importance of that process. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lamont that it is important that there should be business contacts, and they should be legitimate and carefully scrutinised. Equally legitimate and important are sanctions where there are appalling human rights breaches. Although other countries in the world have similar levels of breaches of human rights, few countries with the civilised traditions of Iran have such a high level of human rights breaches. We see these breaches daily. More than 600 executions have taken place in Iran in the past six months, most of them in public—hanging people from cranes. Many of them have not committed criminal offences that we would recognise. Some of them are merely political dissidents. As recently as last Wednesday we heard an announcement by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security in Iran that appeared to commend cutting off one hand and one foot of a prisoner. Surely those are practices that we not only condemn and abhor; they should feature in our negotiations with Iran if there is to be any genuineness in that process.
Nor should we allow the impression that President Rouhani is some kind of Iranian Gorbachev—a view that I believe is gathering credence. He is not. His personal history as head of the security apparatus over many years belies that assertion and the conduct of his Government does not support that proposition. Can the Minister assure the House that the strongest possible representations are being made to the
Government of Iran that these human rights abuses are not acceptable and that one cannot simply look at the nuclear issue on its own? If Iran is to be accepted into the family of nations, to which I referred earlier, those human rights abuses have to be dealt with. My noble friend Lord Lamont referred to the large number of American PhDs in the Iranian Government. Even American PhDs allow one to understand that hanging people in public from cranes for non-criminal offences is simply not acceptable in a country that is negotiating with the western world.
Finally, I turn to Iraq, particularly to the residents of Camp Liberty, and formerly of Camp Ashraf, as mentioned earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. There are Iranian dissidents in refuge in Camp Liberty in Iraq. They are persecuted daily. This week they have been refused access by officials of the Iraqi Government to medically prescribed therapy. In the past they have been refused access to communications; they have been refused access to water; they have had their defensive walls removed from around their premises; there have been more than 150 assassinations there; and they have been unprotected by the Iraqi Government. One well understands the difficulty that the Iraqi Government face in relation to terrorism in that country, but it is absolutely clear that Prime Minister al-Maliki for this purpose is a client of the Government and regime of Iran. That is why the residents of Camp Liberty are not being protected.
They do not want to stay there; they wish to go elsewhere. I have been to Albania to meet some of them because Albania has allowed some 200 former Camp Ashraf residents to settle there. I have heard genuine and moving testimonies from individuals. Most of them are middle-class business and professional people, not firebrand revolutionaries. Quite a few of them are old. They need to be treated on a humanitarian basis. We are not treating them that way at the moment, nor are many other countries. It is ironic that Albania is doing so; it is one of those Governments that are treated with a good deal of disdain by the Governments of the European Union. The residents have a complete lack of protection. They are supposedly being looked after, to an extent, by the United Nations, but United Nations officials—like Macavity—are never there when critical events occur. As a result, a humanitarian scandal has erupted.
I urge the Minister to declare very clearly to this House this afternoon that the United Kingdom is in the forefront of international efforts to save the lives of the residents of Camp Liberty and to give them a safe haven elsewhere. I believe that Prime Minister Maliki does not wish to remain a client of the Government of Iran but he needs an awful lot of help if he is to be able to separate himself from the wishes of that Government. If the Iranian regime has any interest in persuading us of its earnest in meeting our concerns over nuclear and other issues, surely the small question, in quantum terms, of the residents of Camp Liberty is one on which they could demonstrate their earnest at no risk to themselves and gain the respect of the rest of the world for their change and their humanitarian approach. I ask our Government to use every effort to ensure that those unfortunate people are protected.
My Lords, I would like to follow those noble Lords who have spoken in rather more strategic terms about the Middle East. As we have been reminded, it is nearly 100 years since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire—an empire that gave considerable autonomy to Arab people in return for loyalty and for the payment of the inevitable taxes. However, in the past 100 years, the Arab world has undergone dramatic changes. If you look at the history of the Arabs over centuries, I think that today they are at their lowest ebb compared to some of the great empires that they have had in the past.
As we have discussed so much today, Syria has become the cockpit of regional tensions, exacerbating many of the undercurrents of tension that already existed in the Middle East. The civil war there is just another human tragedy of stark proportions. Currently, as I think we have all agreed, there is a military stalemate after three years of conflict. It is interesting to observe that since 1945 the average length of civil wars has been 10 years. In the Lebanon, of course, it was something like 15 years. In terms of deaths, there were 120,000 deaths in that time in the Lebanon. That has already been overtaken in Syria. Then we have the country fragmentation in Syria broadly into Sunni, Alawites and Kurds—who, of course, constitute something of a challenge to the boundaries since there are some 25 million of them in the region.
The human tragedy of the refugees, of the internal displacements and of the suffering of minorities such as the Christians, has provided a serious challenge to the neighbouring states of Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Beyond that, we see Syria being used as a proxy battleground by Iran and Saudi Arabia, vying for regional hegemony. We have all talked about Sunni-Shia tensions and conflict. One is reminded of some of the Christian wars that we saw in Europe, and of the infinite capacity of religions to divide within themselves.
I digress for a moment to praise the Minister for the work that she is doing in the Middle East, in this country and elsewhere to promote religious tolerance. She comes from a very special background, a Sunni-Shia background, and her stressing that violent sectarianism is anti-Islamic is an extremely important message to get across. I very much admire the speech that she made in Muscat a few days ago, when she spoke about these issues in a country where there is strong tolerance between Ibadis, Sunnis and Shias, who work in a communal sense.
Then we have the pattern of influence of the international community changing all the time. The West is more reluctant to intervene, often for very good reason. Russia is still playing the great power game, wanting to give America a bloody nose in the Middle East. However, at the same time, there is an emerging common view between us of opposition to the destruction of the jihadis. We see China’s role emerging not only in the Middle East but the world, but reluctant to play much of a part.
Amid all the chaos in Syria and the Middle East, we have fertile ground for exploitation by extremists, and a very divided opposition in Syria itself. Alongside that, the situation in Iraq is getting extremely serious.
Meanwhile, on the Arab-Israel issue, we still live in hope that negotiations will be successful, because without doubt it has been a poison in the Middle East for a long time.
The broader picture is the after-effects of the volcanic eruption of the so-called Arab spring—the eternal striving for better systems of accountability and governance, for less corruption and more freedom. There is the great preponderance of young people learning about the world through social media, longing for a better education and for jobs and for an end to stagnating economies. We see continuous, endless struggle.
How should we in Britain and the British Government shape up to deal with all that? I agree with my noble friend Lord Hannay that there should be continuing British engagement, but not of an imperial kind. Instead, it should be of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, talked about: dialogue with friends and exchanging views about our common experiences. In Syria, I think that we can take great pride in what we have done on the humanitarian side: £600 million is a substantial sum of money. I fully support what we are doing. I hope—I should like the Minister to comment on this—that, notwithstanding the stalemate, we are thinking multilaterally about what will happen in a post-conflict situation in Syria, where we must learn the lessons of Iraq.
Thirdly, in relation to Syria, I very much hope that we will do what we can to help to strengthen Jordan. Jordan has a critical role to play. If there is a settlement and a two-state solution, the role of Jordan will be pivotal. Notwithstanding all the other problems that it faces, including that of refugees, we have to do whatever we can to support our long-standing friends there.
I come to the question of Iran and Saudi Arabia; my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup referred to this strongly and powerfully. There has been a long history of mistrust between the West—certainly Britain—and Iran. The nuclear discussion going on now provides us with an opportunity to reduce that mistrust on both sides through the negotiating process. Of course, we all hope for an agreement that is as watertight as possible. I hope that some of the ideas that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, produced on that will be taken on board by the Government to create confidence to move to a comprehensive agreement.
Beyond that, the question is whether Iran intends to be constructive or destructive as a power in the Middle East. Its support for Assad in Syria, and for Hezbollah, and the recent evidence of the use of Hezbollah explosives in Bahrain, seriously undermines any hope of stability. Kissinger once said that Iran would have to decide whether it is a nation or a cause. The key to progress after a nuclear agreement—in the hope that there will be a nuclear agreement—will be that Iran will not only take a more constructive line on Syria, but will enter into dialogue with Saudi Arabia.
I believe that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran is key to progress in the Middle East in the longer term. Our experience in Saudi Arabia and our long history of knowledge of the Saudi Arabians will be important here. I hope that we will be engaging with them strongly, not only on Iran and Syria but also in the Gulf. The British Government have pursued a very positive policy of developing good personal relationships with the leaders in the Gulf, through the Gulf Initiative. They are constructively helping maintain the momentum towards reform in the fields of corruption, an independent judiciary, representative institutions, and systems of governance and accountability—systems that take into account the history, culture and traditions of those countries.
I want to end particularly with Bahrain. It is a litmus test of wider regional tensions. It has a Shia majority with a Sunni Government. I welcome the renewal of dialogue by the Crown Prince with the opposition and civic society, under the King’s instructions. I welcome the progress in implementing the proposals of the independent commission led by Mr Bassiouni, for example in setting up an independent ombudsman to investigate police misconduct and setting up an independent national institute for human rights to investigate human rights abuses, with activists serving on the board of the institute. We are often very quick to condemn and very slow to praise, and I hope that we will give credit to those in the Gulf who are continuing the work for pragmatic reform.
We must never lose sight of the goal of removing the long-standing sore in the Middle East—Israel and Palestine—with a two-state solution. We hope and pray that there is a prospect of that happening. Positive progress in either that area or in Iran on the nuclear issue—or in both—would give new hope to the people of the Middle East. That is what the long-suffering people of the Middle East most deserve.
I add my thanks to the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and apologise for not being here at the beginning of her speech. I would like to add a comment, however, on her speech. The textual teaching of the Koran prevents any kind of cruelty or violence against any religion of the book and any religion that preceded Islam. Therefore, those who in the name of Islam kill others are going against the textual teaching of the Koran and, thus, are committing a sin.
I also thank and support the insightful views of the noble Lords, Lord Lamont and Lord Wright, who expressed the importance of understanding the situation in Iran. I support the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, for discussions and peace process negotiations.
As a person born and raised in Iran who, of course, does not support the Government but continues to keep a very close eye on their politics, I suggest that any kind of aggressive cutback on medication, on support, on food—any tightening of sanctions—would be entirely counterproductive. Already, Iranians are suffering. People are dying on the street; people are unable to feed their own children. I know of quite well-off middle-class women who have to spend their day queuing for one loaf of bread to feed their families. The situation of hunger in Iran is terrible and the lack of medicine is resulting in deaths across the board.
We really need to think about treating the Iranians more humanely if we expect them to come to negotiations and deal with the West more humanely. It seems that so long as the Iranians are seen as pariahs and treated as the enemy of all the West, they will only go on using their influence—which in the rest of the Middle East is quite considerable, as has been stated. Although they do not have an effective army, they have a very effective voice, and if they are seen as the victim of the West, it is very likely that much of the Middle East will see policies and politics in terms of what the Iranians see.
I might say that I know for a fact that the Iranian people do not wish to have nuclear power. I get told again and again that that is the last thing that they want. However, what they actually need is the possibility of using something as a negotiating tool. What do they have to use? It is only because they started the nuclear process that the West wants to talk to them. The British, who are such masters of diplomacy, should be at the very forefront of the talking—the jaw-jaw and not the war-war. I am sure that the Minister will see to that.
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome this debate very much indeed. The Government are to be thanked for finding time for it. The Minister should be congratulated on her tour d’horizon at the start of this debate. She has been widely praised, and rightly so, for the work that she does in this field both in this House and outside. I am happy to join in with that praise. We agree with much that the noble Baroness has said on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and when we come to those matters on which we do not agree, a bit later in my speech, I am sure that she will take note. This is not just a debate to hear Her Majesty’s Government’s views or even those of the Opposition but to learn and hear from all Members of this House, wherever they sit. We are particularly blessed with expertise and what I would call good sense in this field of foreign affairs. We have had further proof of that, if it was necessary, in abundance today.
I give a special word of thanks to those responsible in this case for the note and the briefing pack from our own Library in the House of Lords. I do not know how many noble Lords have had the opportunity of reading it. Even if your Lordships do not have it now, it is well worth picking up from the Library as it is well written and clear. It has been of considerable help to me and, I suspect, to other noble Lords who have had the chance to see it. My noble friend Lord Soley mentioned it.
The tragedy that continues in Syria is of course the background to this debate and it reaches over to many countries throughout the Middle East, whether Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq or Turkey. That is obviously because of the huge influx of refugees escaping a barbaric civil war, while others are brought into this conflict by proxy, interest or design. Syria is centre stage in this debate. Noble Lords have rightly talked about other Middle Eastern countries in their speeches, so I will make a couple of comments on these before concentrating, in what I hope will be a fairly brief speech, on the Syrian question. Of course, in some ways these distinctions are somewhat artificial as what happens in one country—in this case particularly Syria—affects so many others.
On Israel and Palestine, all I have to say from the Front Bench is that we fully back Secretary of State John Kerry in his search for a negotiated settlement. We know that the Government back him too. We particularly admire his persistence and patience. The provocative actions from all sides are much to be regretted. We urge Her Majesty’s Government to continue to give solid support, as we are sure they will, to the Kerry initiative.
As far as Egypt is concerned, recent events are perhaps a salutary warning to many in the West and on all sides of the political debate—and here the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, made the point—who took a rather overoptimistic view of the Arab spring when it first emerged. As my noble friend Lady Symons made clear—her experience and knowledge of Egypt is obviously very great, as is that of other noble Lords who have spoken—there are a vast number of young people in Egypt and its huge, almost overwhelming, birth rate compared with other countries makes us concerned for this potentially great country.
It was refreshing, therefore, in what could be described as a somewhat gloomy debate, to hear the speeches of my noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, whose recent visits to Egypt have clearly inspired them. My noble friend Lord Stone of Blackheath has been moved to set up an all-party parliamentary group, which we welcome, and his optimistic comments came as some relief today.
Iran has, quite rightly, been the subject of much discussion this afternoon. It is a potentially great country, one that I visited many times as a student as my parents were working for the British Council there at the time. I am afraid that was pre rather than post-revolution, but it was a country one cannot forget, even all these years later.
We support the joint plan of action agreed in November, the terms of which came into force in January. It is our belief that Iran really demands a debate on its own. There are obviously very important views on all sides. We very much welcome the recent visit undertaken by British parliamentarians, including the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, who spoke very interestingly about it this afternoon. We welcome the joint plan and congratulate those who were responsible for it. However, as other noble Lords have warned, it is very early days and we must wait to see what happens next. Any steps that sensibly, safely and with due regard to human rights—as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, made particularly clear—bring Iran in from the cold are widely to be supported.
The good news we heard about Tunisia and the constitution that has been agreed is another gleam of light in a pretty gloomy view.
I turn now to Syria, where we have been told that the scale of suffering is almost beyond belief. Nearly three years of civil strife have resulted in a sort of dystopian scenario where brutality follows brutality. I am reminded of a book called The Road—I do not know how many noble Lords know of this work by the great American writer Cormac McCarthy—which was made into a film about a post-nuclear scene. I have not been to Syria, and those who have can tell me whether I am wrong or right, but I get the impression that the kind of scene that you see in
The Road is very similar to what must be true about large parts of that country.
The right reverend Prelate used the word “myriad”. I use it, too. Myriad opponents to the awful regime of President Assad, some moderate, some decidedly not moderate, fight not only the regime but themselves too. Those who suffer most are, as always when we are dealing with civil wars, the ordinary people of Syria. The number of those who have died, fled to neighbouring countries or been displaced in their own country is very hard to take in. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and other noble Lords for giving us those figures. The effect on neighbouring countries, with huge numbers of refugees continuing to arrive and with economic, political and social problems of their own, must never be underrated by us. In this nightmare world, we must acknowledge with thanks the amazing work done by the United Nations and the many who work for that organisation, including, of course, our noble friend Lady Amos, in her important role. We are proud of what she does.
We the international community cannot shirk our responsibility for this tragedy. Those of us in the West who have such advantages have a special responsibility to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering and to bring the conflict to an end. Our history, as we have been reminded in this debate, and common humanity insist that we do. Of course, we welcome the unanimously backed Security Council Resolution 2139.
The British Government have been generous in the aid they have provided, both inside and outside Syria. It compares well with other countries. Rather later than we should perhaps, this country has accepted its responsibility to accept more refugees. That is very much to be welcomed, but will the Minister tell us how many refugees are now going to be accepted from Syria? What is the latest estimate?
However, the brutal truth is that the UN appeal for Syria remains chronically underfunded. It is no good the UK being generous when other countries are not. Time is against us. The world needs another kick up the backside on this. That is why we are asking Her Majesty’s Government to push hard and urgently for another donors’ conference to be organised. As week follows week, humanitarian needs grow and grow. What possible reason can there be for not instigating a new donors’ conference urgently?
The Government have also been right to back the Geneva II process. Congratulations and great thanks are due to Ambassador Brahimi and others for the incredible efforts that have been made in that regard. Although the new rounds of talks met with really no success at all earlier this month, no one believed that progress would have instant results. Indeed, the agreement made in the first round, on evacuating innocent citizens, was potentially of some significance, and it needs to be referred to. However, our belief on this side is that it is essential to set up, as a matter of some urgency, a contact group made up of countries that have a stake and interest in the war in Syria. At the moment, a proxy war is taking place. Surely if we want to see a realistic chance of a ceasefire—and all noble Lords want to see that happen—it is vital to bring together the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries. Many noble Lords spoke of this. Many noble Lords also urged that Russia should be more a part of any talks that take place with regard to the Syrian war. Many suggested that Iran also should play a part. Saudi Arabia, obviously on the other side, should do so, too. I noticed particularly that the Foreign Secretary said in another place on Monday that he was not opposed in principle to such a group. To us it seems a sensible and timely action. Britain would be particularly well placed to instigate such a move and we think that it should happen soon. Without it the future looks even bleaker than it does with it.
As the Minister knows, we agree with the Government on many aspects of Syria and the Middle East. Where we disagree, we can engage in civilised debate and argument, as we have done today in this House. We do so without the risk of being killed, displaced or becoming refugees or lost in our own country. We are fortunate beyond belief in this country compared with those in Syria and in other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. That on its own—never mind history or politics—puts a special responsibility on us and we cannot turn away.
My Lords, the debate has progressed faster than we anticipated and I have about an hour and a half left. I assure you that I will not be speaking for an hour and a half; I will try to keep my remarks to just under 20 minutes.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed with such authority to today’s debate, especially for the great expertise of my noble friend Lord Howell, the robust alternative critique presented by the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, and the moving contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. To my noble friend Lord Alderdice I say that the phrase “I agree with Nick” has served me well on a number of occasions in recent years.
The Middle East continues to be a region in which we see huge conflict, but one where the Government’s long-term vision, in common with Governments and people across the region, is to support a secure, prosperous future, with political stability based on open, inclusive political systems and economies. Since February 2011, citizens of the region have faced deep and difficult political, economic and security challenges. History teaches us that the path to the stable, open and inclusive societies that people across the Middle East have demanded will be neither quick nor easy. However, in the long term stability and security will come, not despite, but because of the political and economic participation of ordinary people across the region.
We have heard today about where progress has been made, for example in Tunisia and Algeria, which my noble friend Lord Risby referred to, and in Bahrain, which was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Noon and Lord Luce.
The momentous changes we have seen across the Middle East and north Africa are at their core about the people of the region demanding more open societies and greater political freedom, underpinned by vibrant economies offering opportunity to all. They are about establishing a more stable and prosperous MENA region based on the building blocks of democracy. It is both a reflection of our values and in line with our interests to support long-term, positive reform. However, in the short term our priority must be—and will continue to be—to relieve the appalling and unnecessary humanitarian suffering. Nowhere do we see that more than in Syria.
The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked what further action could be taken in relation to Resolution 2139 and humanitarian access. That resolution has an operational paragraph, paragraph 17, which lays out an intent to take further action in the case of non-compliance. The UN Security Council will keep monitoring through reporting to the Secretary-General every 30 days. That will be the first mechanism if things do not go as planned.
My noble friend Lord Palmer and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asked about the human suffering in Syria. As I outlined much of this in my opening remarks, more than 9.3 million people are being displaced. Noble Lords have referred to the UK’s total funding, which now stands at £600 million, which is three times the size of its response to any other humanitarian crisis. Our support has reached hundreds of thousands of people across 14 areas of Syria and in countries around the region: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. UK aid supports food and water for millions of people, as well as medical consultations. However, the right reverend Prelate was right to ask how we can move from this towards a ceasefire. That is why we were so strongly supportive of the Geneva II process. As I said at this Dispatch Box before, that was the only show in town—the only process where we could have made some progress. Noble Lords heard in my opening remarks the concerns that we had about the lack of progress that was made because of the regime’s action.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, asked what we are doing multilaterally about long-term thinking on Syria. Work with the national coalition has, among other things, focused on that. We are clear that our focus is primarily on ending violence, but the Foreign Secretary announced earlier this week our intention to provide a contribution to a Syria reconstruction fund, which is run by Germany, and we are focusing on healthcare, water supply and food security. On Jordan, we are already providing humanitarian assistance, which is practical assistance both for political and economic reform there, but also support for the local population. That will also help the long-term building in the region.
The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked about the destruction of chemical weapons. Of course delays are affecting the timetable for the removal of chemical weapons, which we now think places the
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked about Russia’s influence in Syria. Of course Russia has a major role to play as a principal backer of Assad. It is vital that Russia uses its influence to press the Syrian regime, initially on humanitarian access and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, but also to hold Syria to the chemical weapons deadlines.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke about the opposition in Syria and asked about our assessment of the ISIL. It is clear that it is not part of a legitimate opposition and that it is a dangerous terrorist operation, which of course we do not support. However, we must not accept the regime’s narrative that the only choice is between a dictator and extremists. We support the national coalition, which has a democratic, pluralist vision of what could be in Syria. If we do not support the moderates, they will be squeezed out by extremist elements on both sides.
My noble friend Lord Lamont and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, talked about Iran’s role in the Geneva process. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lamont for his time and expertise and for visiting Tehran in January. Those visits and the expertise that they bring are incredibly useful to us at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are open to discussing Syria with Iran, as the Foreign Secretary made clear in January of this year and also last year, and the PM raised that in a call with President Rouhani in November of last year. However, we have always said that the whole point of the Geneva process is to move towards a transitional Government. That is part of the Geneva I communiqué, which Iran has not at this stage endorsed. That was the problem with having it take part in the Geneva II discussions.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, asked about the Iranian nuclear programme and said that it should be a top priority. It is. We are committed to securing a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. A successful resolution to that matter could positively change Iran’s relations with the Middle East and, indeed, the rest of the world, including Saudi Arabia, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield.
I note the concern of my noble friend Lord Lamont in relation to sanctions and I value his great expertise in this matter, but I fear that the Government agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, that the bulk of international sanctions must remain in place and must be enforced while we negotiate. I am, of course, aware separately of the difficulties that the Iranian embassy in London has in securing a bank account. The UK and Iranian non-resident chargés have been working on this specific issue and we will continue to assist where we can while, of course, respecting that some of these are commercial decisions for banks.
My noble friend Lord Carlile wanted me to assure the House that we continue to raise the issue of human rights in Iran. I can give him that assurance. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire and we are determined to hold the Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and have led action by the international community on this. We have designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions and we have helped to establish a UN special rapporteur on Iran and human rights and lobbied for the adoption of a human rights resolution on Iran.
The noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, asked how we are normalising our relationship with Iran. We have improved our relationship with Iran on a step-by-step, reciprocal basis. Non-resident chargés were appointed last November. That was an important step and on the 20th of this month, we formally ended the protecting powers arrangements because we now feel that we can move to the next stage and have direct arrangements. Progress has been made but no decision has been made at this stage about the reopening of an embassy. We need to be confident that when that decision is made the staff will be safe and the embassy can function normally.
The noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and my noble friend Lord Carlile spoke about Camp Ashraf. We condemn the killings at Camp Ashraf in Iraq on
I note the noble Lord’s comments.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the Middle East peace process. We are co-ordinating closely with Secretary Kerry and his team to support their work and to ensure that the negotiations are successful. The Foreign Secretary discussed this with Secretary Kerry earlier this week. We are working closely with EU partners to provide meaningful practical support to both sides in taking the bold steps that are needed. We were a strong advocate for the December EU Foreign Affairs Council conclusions setting out an unprecedented package of support for both parties in the event of a final status agreement.
The noble Lord, Lord Wright, also spoke about the Middle East peace process and specifically about settlements. We do not recognise the Occupied Territories, including the settlements, as part of Israel and we are advising British businesses to bear that in mind when considering their investments and activities in the region. This is, of course, a voluntary guide and it is ultimately a decision for individuals or companies whether to operate in settlements or the Occupied Territories, but the British Government would neither encourage nor offer support to such activity.
The noble Lord, Lord Stone, referred to his work on Egypt. I thank him for the interesting account of his delegation’s trip to Egypt and I welcome the creation of an APPG on Egypt, which is incredibly timely. We continue to believe that the best way to create stability and prosperity in Egypt is through a genuinely inclusive political process open to all political groups. We want the people of Egypt to have a successful democratic transition and we will support that, including through trade, investment, education, the British Council and tourism, but we have always made clear to the Egyptian authorities the concerns we have, especially concerns about development.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, commented on the situation in Libya, where the Libyan Government realise the challenges and see security as one of their top priorities. The UK is providing a range of support to help the Libyan authorities improve security and stability, including training up to 2,000 Libyan Armed Forces personnel in basic infantry skills.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Risby, referred to the religious dimension, including the complex Sunni-Shia sectarian dimension of conflict in the region, an issue that I spoke about in Oman only last week. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and the Front Bench opposite for their warm words of support. In that speech, when laying out a potential approach, I talked about, among other things, reclaiming the spirit of Islam, much in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, talked about today. In that, I also talked about reclaiming the language that has tragically been hijacked by extremists, including the word jihad, which I would urge the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, to use as the word was intended. It is a word describing self-evaluation and a fight against ignorance, intolerance and injustice—the very enlightenment to which my noble friend referred.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, specifically spoke about Syrian Christians and the challenges of what I described in Georgetown last year as an exodus of Christians from the Middle East, taking away the pluralistic nature which makes those nations successful. I used a term that noble Lords may not find very politically correct when I said that persecution was ultimately “bad for business”. You leave behind communities, which is bad for all communities that remain there. It is therefore in everybody’s interests for those communities to remain pluralistic. Ultimately, it is the birthplace of the religion. Christianity did not come to London or New York—that is the birthplace of the religion, and it is where we must support and fight for it to flourish.
I had a meeting with the Greek Catholic Patriarch, Gregorios III, when he visited, and we discussed the plight of Christians and the humanitarian crisis. Tragically, minorities are just another group that suffer at the time when all humanity appears to have broken down in that part of the world. We discussed the specific challenges that the Christian community has there.
The experience of states across the world has been that lasting stability is based on consent and legitimacy, not repression. It is a message that the Government take with us in all diplomatic activities throughout the Middle East, and indeed across the world. We will continue to do so.
The debate was so extensive that I am sure that I have missed many questions raised by noble Lords. If I have, I am sure that noble Lords will write to me and I will certainly respond in detail. Again, I thank noble Lords for taking part in this well attended and wide-ranging debate. I commend the Motion to the House.