Syria and the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 27th February 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Senior Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government), Senior Minister of State (Department for Communities and Local Government) (Faith and Communities) (also in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 1:00 pm, 27th February 2014

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 20 January and is being implemented. Meanwhile, the E3+3 and Iran met last week to start negotiations on a comprehensive agreement aimed at ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is, and always will be, exclusively peaceful. The talks were constructive and will continue in mid-March in Vienna. We continue to expand our bilateral engagement with Iran. Last Thursday, we and Iran brought protecting power arrangements to an end. This is a sign of increasing confidence that we can conduct bilateral business directly between capitals, rather than through intermediaries.

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 9 January, and we continue to co-operate closely. However, the worsening humanitarian crisis is compounded by violence not just in Syria but also in Lebanon, where the UK is providing assistance to increase border security, and in Iraq. The Government and, I am sure, all sides of the House, condemn the recent deaths and violence across the region and urge all sides to unite to find political solutions to the challenges being faced.

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 6 March offers all Libyans the opportunity to renew their commitment to a single, inclusive political settlement. The UK looks forward to taking part in the conference and will continue to encourage other nations to provide the international support that Libya needs on issues as varied as political transition, governance and arms and ammunition.

I turn to where the Arab spring began. Tunisia continues to overcome significant obstacles and continues its democratic transition. On 26 January, it achieved an important and historic milestone: the adoption of a new constitution that embodies the fundamental freedoms called for by the Tunisian people. The UK will continue to offer support to the Tunisian Government, both through our own Arab partnership programme and through the EU and G8, to ensure that Tunisia can sustain and build on its achievements so far, and can continue to be an inspiration to others struggling for freedom across the region.

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.