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.