Syria and the Middle East — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:23 pm on 27th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Liberal Democrat 1:23 pm, 27th February 2014

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.

On 15 January 2014, the United States pledged an additional $380 million on top of the $1.76 billion provided since the crisis began. More than $177 million has been spent within Syria, reaching an estimated 4.2 million people. It always seems very complicated when we talk of pounds sterling, euros and dollars, but, as anyone would say, these amounts are “megabucks”.

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 22 February—which sets out the need for humanitarian assistance to Syria. There are very many people trapped in besieged areas in Syria and there are large numbers of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Three-quarters of those refugees, we are told, are women and children. I hope the Minister will say what the Government are doing to support the need for access to these besieged groups to provide urgent humanitarian relief. Aid must go across borders because it is not going to come from within Syria itself. So my two final questions for the Minister are: how do Her Majesty’s Government hope to assist in the humanitarian effort, and how can the fighting be stopped? Unless there is a ceasefire and cessation of hostilities within Syria, the killings and traumas are going to carry on and the humanitarian disaster that we are witnessing will continue.