Syria — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:40 pm on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Chair, EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee

My Lords, the war in Syria is in its fifth year. The UN estimates 200,000 dead, 100,000 injured and 10 million displaced. The whole of the Middle East is riven by sectarianism and destabilised by global jihad. The borders of the Levant are in a state of flux. It is tempting to ask how we got here; what could we have done to avert this ongoing crisis? However, this is merely a Short Debate so I will not test the patience of the House.

Let me lay out how the situation has evolved since we last debated the Middle East earlier this year. We have not seen a rout of ISIL; we have not seen a consolidation of the opposition forces around the Syrian national coalition, and we have not seen a reduction in interventions by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the side of the Islamists, and Iran, Russia and Lebanon for Assad.

What of the instability it is causing around the world? We know that the emergence of ISIL in control of its own territory is a pull factor for global jihadis. It is not just the threat from returning jihadis which should concern us, but also that ISIL is attracting allegiance from across various jihadi groups in the Muslim world. What started as a civil war has now become a struggle for the heart of Islam. It has become a geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. With the number of external factors of different ideological positions, it is several wars. It is a Shia/Sunni war, but it is also a Sunni/Sunni war. Its reach is global, as its resolution will impact on Islam and modernity well into the future.

My question for Her Majesty’s Government is simply this: where do the Government see this taking us and our interests in the maintenance of international peace and security—the obligation that permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council imposes on us? What is their assessment of what the end will look like? In fact, do they actually have a strategic vision for the map of the Middle East when this is all said and done? Are they considering the UK’s interests with a view to the very real possibility that we may have to recalibrate our alliances quite substantially at the end of this?

Let me suggest a few possible options we might need to consider. I urge the Government not to let the war against ISIL divert their focus from trying to get peace even in a rump Syria. Defeating ISIL cannot be done without peace in what remains of Syria. A lot of hope is placed on Iran and the potential success of the P3+3 talks culminating on 30 June. I share that hope for a successful outcome. While we hope that once Iran is inside the tent, so to speak, it will exert a more positive influence on Syria, we should not underestimate the difficulty in getting the moderate opposition—I am referring to the non al-Qaeda, non Jabhat al-Nusra and non Islamic State groupings—into peace talks.

We also have to consider the influence that Russia can bring to bear on Syria. I have been as vocal a critic of President Putin’s Russia as anyone in this House but I acknowledge that, despite their role in Crimea and Ukraine, we need the Russians to use what leverage they have with the Assad regime. It will not be a surprise to the House tonight that Russia may have to be Assad’s safe haven, if that is the price of peace in Syria. So my question to the Minister is: to what extent are we working with the US and Russia in trying to find a format for Geneva III? A propos peace talks, the Minister will be aware that the 37 groupings under the aegis of the revolutionary command council recently wrote an open letter to the United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura to say that they would not attend Geneva III, as they saw him as too close to the Assad regime.

While this is clearly unhelpful, the facts on the ground have changed and so must our analysis. From 2011 till 30 August 2013, when the House of Commons decided not to vote for limited intervention against Assad, I was clear that we could not have peace with Assad in situ. However, with the advent of ISIL, and the ongoing support by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for Islamists—I would go as far as to say support of jihadi groups by those countries—we now have to acknowledge that Assad’s people have to be part of the solution. In that regard, I make no criticism of Staffan de Mistura for seeking to bring the Syrian Government into the talks.

The interview that Bashar al-Assad gave to the US journal Foreign Affairs in March is instructive. Assad gets the fact that all wars end in a political settlement. As for preconditions for talks, he is no longer saying that he will speak only to representative political parties, but in fact makes it clear that he will speak to, in his words, “any political entity” or person. When asked about preconditions, he makes it clear that there will be no conditions. I am sure the noble Baroness will agree that this interview was clearly designed to send a more nuanced and calibrated message than we had from the regime until now.

I urge the Government to work towards talks even if their influence lies only with the secular moderate opposition, such that that exists. Even if we have only incremental gains towards a partial peace, it will signal the beginning of a transition. However, what of a wider strategy? I posed a question about where the pieces would fall in this kaleidoscope. If all we can achieve in Syria is only a partial peace, we must go for that. ISIL will be a feature of both Syria and Iraq as well as the rest of the Muslim world for some time. The caliphate it promotes is evidently attractive to many Muslims, and will continue to be so. In the next decade or so we might have displaced it in the Levant, only to see it emerge in poorly governed spaces in Africa or south Asia.

What is clear is that the ideology that ISIL feeds on has not come out of the blue, despite the protestations of the Saudis, Qataris and those who themselves have supported the propagation of these medieval versions of Islam. If we have a partial peace in Syria and Iraq, do we expect to continue to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states or indeed Turkey? I suspect not. Those countries will have to account for their role in this ugly war to other Muslims.

The Islamic civilisation that existed before the events of 9/11 has disappeared permanently. The Muslim world can see that, hence we have seen the different reactions to the rise of Islamism in different countries. The recent elections in Turkey have provided a little hope that the fightback from modern Muslims has begun. In Egypt the reaction against the Muslim Brotherhood has been less gratifying, however popular those measures might be domestically. No liberal can say that a death sentence against Morsi is a good thing.

However, what is clear from these different developments is that the West—the United Kingdom, the European Union, the US—has no comprehensive strategic vision that can guide us. I urge the Government to start thinking about our interests from a longer-term perspective.

Since I have not used up my time, I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who will speak in tonight’s debate and who have stayed late to do so.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:49 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, I think that all of us speaking tonight would like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for securing this important debate.

The plight of the Druze in Syria is a worrying development for those of us who place a special significance on the religious diversity and harmony that was once a hallmark of the Levant and the Middle East. In so many of the Middle East’s holiest and most significant centres of religious devotion, the ability of all faiths to worship together in harmony and peaceful co-existence is much diminished. Many members of minority faiths have had to flee their homelands to survive and now live in refugee camps.

The scale of displacement across all sectors of society is quite astonishing and one of the real tragedies of the current situation in Syria. The refugee crisis in Syria is now the biggest mass movement of people since the Second World War. According to the UNHCR, almost 4 million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours, more than half of them children. More than 6.5 million children and their families are internally displaced within Syria. This is, by any measure, the most profound humanitarian catastrophe of our time.

Save the Children reports that humanitarian access remains constrained, a result of which is that food, water and medicines are running out, putting millions at risk of sickness and malnutrition. I join Save the Children in urging the Government to use all their influence at the UN to ensure that UN agencies, as a matter of urgency, improve the delivery of aid across conflict lines and borders.

I pay tribute to Save the Children and all the other NGOs for their remarkable work inside and outside Syria. I also pay tribute to the Government. We should be proud of our £800 million contribution, the largest ever response by the UK to any humanitarian crisis. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to expand the UK resettlement scheme for Syrian refugees.

Only a political solution can resolve this crisis. As ever in the Middle East, it is the politics that gets in the way of peace. No simple solution presents itself. As I was once told by a friend, “If you think you understand the politics of the Middle East, it’s not been explained to you properly”.

What is clear, however, is that, before a political solution can even start to gain momentum, the military challenge of ISIS must be contained and defeated. Much of the burden of this challenge is being faced by our staunch allies in the region, such as Jordan—I declare my interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan. Our role, which remains critical, is to support them in all that they do.

Happily, in a region wracked by instability, in Jordan we have a friend on whom we can rely, not only to provide safe shelter for refugees but as an ally that is doing its utmost to drive forward a political solution to this conflict— an effort that we should all applaud.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, just to remind the House that once the counter says three, you are on the fourth minute.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 7:52 pm, 24th June 2015

I congratulate the noble Baroness on getting the debate. It is tragic that it is so short, but she has done an awful lot of work on this and it is very important. I agree with much of what she has said and also with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, too.

I will keep my three minutes to one factor, because we cannot go into all of it, which is Russia, which the noble Baroness touched on. I have felt for a long time that the role of Russia in this is far more important than we have realised. I ask the Minister if we know whether Russia is still arming Assad and whether it is still providing him with intelligence. We underestimated the importance of the intelligence from Russia. We have to remember that it has satellites over the area providing information to Assad’s forces so that he can hold ground that, frankly, he would have lost otherwise. It has always been my view that Assad would not negotiate as long as Russia felt that it could keep him in place.

The third question that I would ask the Minister is this. I think that President Putin now knows that, although Assad might have to be part of the solution, as the noble Baroness said, he certainly cannot dictate it. There is no way that Assad can or should be back in control of the bulk of Syria again, even if Syria can hold together. A very important part of the policy that we have never fully debated in this Chamber is: what role is Russia playing? How close are we to Russia? Despite all the other problems with Crimea and the way that President Putin is behaving in modern Russia, there must be some shared interest in working together to solve this problem. It is not in Russia’s interest to have ISIL winning in that area.

Similarly, although it might not quite see it this way, it is not really in Russia’s interest to see the United Nations frozen out, as it is at the moment because of the attitude of Russia and China against intervention. Syria is a classic example of how, just as intervention can go wrong, as it did in Iraq, so non-intervention can go wrong, too, as it has in Syria—unless people think that it is some wonderful success. The role of Russia is an issue that we need to bring out to some degree. Much of what else has been said could be dealt with in a much bigger way.

My last point is that we are in acute danger of a growing major war in the region involving Saudi Arabia and Iran—and, of course, the split within Islam between Sunni and Shia—which would have a knock-on effect on many of our allies there, which are becoming destabilised. Yemen is the latest example; I always worry about Bahrain, which has been doing remarkably well and deserves a lot of credit when it is in an almost impossible position in relation to Iran and Saudi.

For tonight, I simply would like answers so that I know more about what the British Government are doing with Russia—or is it just that we cannot do very much with it?

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 7:55 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, over the past four years there have been consistent and confident forecasts that the Assad Government in Damascus were about to fall. If I may paraphrase Mark Twain, all these forecasts have, so far, been exaggerated. In the brief time available this evening, I will limit my intervention to a number of questions.

Would the Minister tell the House what support Her Majesty’s Government are still giving to the so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria? Does she think that they are a credible replacement for the Assad Government, if the Assad Government should fall? Are the Government playing any part in the reported plans of the so-called “Southern Front” to launch attacks on Damascus from the south? Is she aware of reports that all the rebel movements are now deeply infiltrated by Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of al-Qaeda defined by the European Union and by the United States as a terrorist movement, but which both the United Nations and the United States seem increasingly to tolerate?

Is the Minister aware that the Islamic State, which now occupies a significant and growing area of Syrian territory, owes much of its support, in terms of money, men and weapons, to our Sunni friends in the Gulf? Does she accept that in supporting the so-called Syrian rebels, if that is what we are doing, we are effectively supporting the Sunni case that President Assad should go, without any apparent concern for the likelihood that the Islamic State would take over the Syrian Government in Damascus, with appalling consequences for the survival of secularism in that country? She may recall that the Christian nuns of Ma’loula, who were captured by Islamic extremists, publicly thanked the Assad Government for rescuing them. It is not only Christians who must dread the possibility of President Assad’s departure; there is a significant minority of Druze both in Syria and in the occupied Golan that already has much reason to fear the threat of Islamic extremists.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will tell us how far we are co-ordinating our policy towards Syria with our partners in the European Union, and in particular whether we support the efforts of Mr Staffan de Mistura to negotiate a political solution with the involvement of the Government in Damascus. Surely our aim must be to reach a situation where Syrian refugees, who now number nearly 4 million, can return safely to their homes? Is it, even now, not too late to work for a joint international effort to drive back the Islamic State in Syria, and to persuade our Saudi friends, and our Turkish allies, that what they have helped to create presents as much of a threat to them and their neighbours as it does to us?

Photo of Lord Risby Lord Risby Conservative 7:58 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, the tragic humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions arising out of the situation in Syria is now impacting all European countries, to add to the enormous pressures on Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. This all arose out of a terrible misjudgment by President Assad, who, after some ambiguity, blamed social unrest on foreigners and terrorists. There were arguments as to how to respond; sophisticated voices rejected any action against the Assad regime, saying that there was no strategy. His strategy was clear: survival at any cost, no matter what the bloodshed was and despite the efforts of the United Nations and the Arab League. Today we have the incredible situation whereby ISIL is supplying President Assad with oil and he and ISIL attack moderate Syrian rebels. The notion that he is a buffer against ISIL simply is not being borne out.

Russia, which has its own preoccupations in Ukraine and elsewhere, now realises that Assad and his immediate cabal cannot win. There is a widely held view that Iran would consider sacrificing Assad if there was a nuclear deal that, in turn, would enable it to negotiate its political interests thereafter. It appears that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are willing to act as security guarantors for Syria post Assad. They appear more disposed to support the more moderate rebels—fearing ISIL more than anything else—and they might provide the best guarantee of stopping ISIL taking over Syria in totality, including Damascus.

I refer my noble friend the Minister’s attention to a recent report put together by the Atlantic Council, The Case for a Syrian National Stabilization Force. It may well be of interest and points to a clear strategy for supporting the moderate rebels and, ultimately, looking at political reforms. Of course, the political structures that could support this do not yet exist, and we must not make the mistake of dismissing everybody with political and administrative experience, as regrettably occurred in Iraq.

Assad cannot last. Iran and Russia, for different reasons, are more open to dialogue, however tortuous, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia may well be supportive. At minimum such an approach is worth encouraging and I simply do not know of any viable alternative. I greatly look forward, therefore, to hearing from my noble friend of any role that we and other European partners can have in trying to bring about fresh thinking in resolving this tragedy. There may just be some straws in the wind now to support this.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:01 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, Syria is the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time, generating the largest movement of displaced people since World War II. We are all grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for giving us this brief opportunity to turn a spotlight on these events. In my brief remarks, I will say something about the plight of minorities in Syria.

All faith communities and minorities, such as the Yazidis, have suffered, but the fate of the country’s Christians, already referred to, is catastrophic. The Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clément Jeanbart, asks:

“What are the great nations waiting for before they put a halt to these monstrosities? Let me cry with my people, violated and murdered. Allow me to stand by numerous families in Aleppo who are in mourning. Because of this ugly and barbarous war, they have lost so many loved ones, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and cherished children”.

ISIS has murdered, plundered, raped and abducted, including whole villages of Assyrian Christians. Now that joint Kurdish and Assyrian forces have recently recaptured a number of villages, can the Minister tell us whether we are going to provide teams, especially in the Khabur River Valley area, to find and dispose of mines and make homes and villages safe again? Where ground has been recaptured, will we be supporting the proposal of my noble friend Lord Dannatt to enhance their military capability? Do we accept that more training and support are needed for the Kurdish-led alliance, which can likely even seize Raqqa, with the result of crippling ISIS in both Syria and Iraq?

Does the Minister agree that the Kurdish-Assyrian democratic self-administration governmental structure and its commitment to civil society and the rule of law should be the model for a post-Assad, post-ISIS Syria and possibly for the entire region? Will the Minister consider practical support for Bassam Ishak, the president of the Syriac National Council of Syria, who has a vision of a Syria in which rights are based on citizenship; where all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, are treated equally; and where women have a prominent role in the structures? These pillars of the DSA system should surely be the pillars of a post-Assad, post-ISIS Syria.

The overall goal must be to enable all Syrians who have left, including Christians, to return to their homes, to be safe when they return, and to participate in rebuilding the Syrian infrastructure and Government on the basis of social and political equality, with religious freedom and human rights being safeguarded. It is not perfect but the Kurdish-Assyrian coalition is the best example in this fractured region of hard-headed bridge-building and what the West should want to see in the Syria of the future.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 8:04 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate. Last week I was in Lebanon, visiting refugee camps there, and I want to take this opportunity to highlight the plight of the Palestinians among the millions of refugees fleeing Syria.

I met people whose families had fled Palestine during the Nakba in 1948 and found shelter in Iraq but 10 years ago had had to flee Iraq as well, following the war waged against Saddam Hussein. They had made their homes in Syria, where they were very well treated by the Government, until rebel groups infiltrated the Yarmouk camp and catastrophe occurred once more. They were refugees again, for the third time in a generation. They are now trying to live in Lebanon. Their entire support is coming from the United Nations Relief and Works AgencyUNRWA—because they are not allowed to work by the Lebanese Government; they are not given work permits. They live among other Palestinians in converted sheds and animal shelters, which I visited, that UNRWA and the NGOs have managed to make just about habitable. They have no means of support and have been dependent on monthly cash handouts from UNRWA to cover food costs and rent. Unrest is developing very quickly in the camps because UNRWA has had to tell the refugees that these cash handouts will have to stop at the end of June because it has run out of funds.

UNRWA was set up as a temporary organisation in 1948 to help refugees from the Nakba. It is still struggling to cope 60 years later. The UK is the third-largest funder of UNRWA, and we should be proud of what we have done, but we need to address this shortfall in funding before unrest spills over into serious violence and fighting in Lebanon itself. Can the Minister tell us what the Government intend to do to avert this cash shortage? For instance, will pressure be put on the Gulf states to help? Finally—she will expect me to say this—will she not admit that the creation of a secure homeland for the Palestinians is now more needed than ever, and that our Government should encourage this by recognising the state of Palestine? This would be a huge contribution to peace in the wider Middle East.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 8:07 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, for introducing this debate because much has changed in Syria. The mainly Kurdish cantons of Kobane and Jazira are now linked up, while Afrin is still free. This means that most of the Turkish frontier is now closed to ISIS. The Kurdish and Arab militia, with US air support, has shown that it can defeat ISIS.

Will Her Majesty’s Government support the three cantons in their demand for internal self-determination? Will they come out clearly in favour of common citizenship for all, as proclaimed by the elected assembly of Jazira? Will they urge Turkey to open its frontier to urgent medical and relief supplies going into Syria and grain exports coming out of it? I urge the Government to see for themselves what is happening in the cantons. It is quite easy to enter Jazira—I have done it myself.

We should help the cantons to uphold their written constitution and social charter. When fully put into practice, these can provide a model for Syria and an example to other parts of the Middle East, as my noble friend Lord Alton mentioned. If Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs and others can co-operate, why should other Syrians not do the same? Nearby Lebanon suffered a terrible civil war but the Lebanese are now trying to live together and the country has achieved the amazing feat of absorbing more than 1 million Syrians without putting anyone into camps.

I conclude by hoping and thinking that perhaps there is still some hope for Syria.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative 8:09 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate enormously. This war has gone on for 54 months; that is four and a half years. The Second World War lasted only five and three-quarter years. That puts it in context. In my judgment there are two causes. First, this is the fourth Shia/Sunni war since Syria was set up. Secondly, I am afraid that the West’s idea of an Arab spring has proved to be a disaster. In fact, as my noble friend on the Front Bench will know, we were the first to recognise the freedom fighters. The trouble was we did not recognise who were the freedom fighters, and the jihadists were the largest group.

I raised this issue with the then Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in 2013, and was told that Assad was on the way out. However, as my noble friend on the Cross Benches said, he has spent an awful long time going. In my judgment the time has surely come to recognise reality and meet Assad, exactly as Churchill had to do with Stalin. You may not like the man but that is irrelevant in the context of what we face today. If we do not, it is my judgment that the state of ISIL will become a reality. I draw an analogy with Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, a vicious, left-wing-led Hindu organisation that was only defeated by strong leadership—remember that it is democratically elected—good armed forces, and absolutely key was the help the West gave to stop supplies to the Tamil Tigers. We now need similar leadership from the West, and it has to include Assad and his forces. If we do not address this task, the West will surely suffer. ISIL state will become a reality and we, too, in the UK will suffer home-grown terrorism which may make the IRA look like beginners. We need only look at the pictures on page 30 and 31 of today’s Times to understand what the real threats are. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that I have seen some of those cages at the end of the war in Sri Lanka. They are quite ghastly. If we have to sup with Assad, then we must do it soon.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 8:12 pm, 24th June 2015

I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, for this debate but, oh, how we need a standing Select Committee to regularly scrutinise policy on subjects such as this to focus our debates. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will read Hansard tomorrow.

The Minister will well remember the debate that took place almost two years ago when a majority in this House took the view that it would be a mistake to bomb Damascus. The principal argument that many noble Lords adduced was that it was not clear what the Government envisaged doing the day after such a bombing. The strategy was not clear—we could not discern a strategy. I must admit that I still cannot discern it.

I see no way of saying in three minutes anything that is commensurate with the scale of the tragedy that has been running for four and a half years, given the scale of the casualties and the 10 million displaced people. Therefore, I will just ask the Minister four questions. I have no time for analysis or advocacy. First, who do the British Government recognise as the legitimate Government of Syria? Are we in diplomatic relations with them? Is it still our view that President Assad’s departure is essential, even if his successor was Jaish, which is al-Qaeda by another name, or ISIL?

Secondly, is the UK still conducting military operations against ISIL only in Iraq and not in Syria? If so, can the Minister cite a precedent for any previous similarly geographically constrained military operation against an enemy occupying parts of more than one country?

Thirdly, since the Syrian tragedy is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, do the Government agree that the key to a solution must lie in Tehran and Moscow on the one hand and Riyadh, Doha and Ankara on the other? What are we saying in these capitals? What incentives are we suggesting which might encourage both sides to back down?

Lastly, is it really the case that whereas the Turks and the Jordanians are dealing with millions of refugees, and other European countries such as Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands are taking in tens of thousands of refugees, we in this country have so far admitted fewer than 200? If so, how can we reconcile that with our history, traditions and values?

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 8:14 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for introducing this debate in a very comprehensive way. She was lucky to have 10 minutes; we are lucky to have three minutes. There is no way you can do justice to a very complicated situation in that time.

Syria, which was relatively developed, has been reduced to ruins and, as we have heard, millions have escaped the country with little more than the clothes they stood in. A key concern that we should have is that there is seemingly no strategy for dealing with this crisis. What we need is an honest and complete reassessment of British and EU foreign and security policy in this area. Piecemeal, short-term and ad hoc measures cannot replace a comprehensive, long-term foreign policy strategy—a strategy which I am afraid has been clearly lacking in recent years.

The conflict is much more complicated than a battle between those who are for or against President Assad. It now has a clear sectarian angle, with the Sunni majority fighting the Shia Alawite sect. The turmoil in the country has attracted jihadist groups, including Islamic State, as we have heard. There have been atrocious war crimes committed: murder, rape, torture, and the use of chemical weapons, sometimes in barrel bombs. There are serious threats to historic antiquity. I ask the Minister to elaborate on what we are doing to protect these irreplaceable relics. Will she indicate whether the Government support the efforts of Staffan de Mistura to establish freeze zones to allow aid deliveries in besieged areas, and give some idea of how and when these zones may become operational? Will she also confirm whether the Government are still pressing the EU to lift the arms embargo to the rebels fighting Assad? I would like to ask the Minister a variation on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. There are rumours implying that the US has suggested that Assad will not have to go. Can she confirm whether that is the case?

We are aware that the British Government have been very generous in helping to fund refugees in the region, but I would be grateful if the Minister elaborated on whether a proportion of this fund is being earmarked to protect women, who are enduring extreme human rights abuses in some of the camps. Have the Government any intention of contributing to the EU trust fund for Syria, to which Germany and Italy have already contributed? It is worth underlining that by March this year the UK had resettled only 187 Syrians, while Germany has accepted 28,000. We must underline that as we have a responsibility in that regard.

Let me pick up on a point about Russia made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. On 19 June, Putin once again underlined his support for the Assad regime, emphasising that he opposed any use of external force to try to end the civil war in a country which conveniently gives him access to a friendly Mediterranean port. What are we doing about the Russian situation? What is our plan in that regard?

We should be asking many more questions. I am afraid that my time has run out but we need to ask: where is the long-term strategic vision for this region? It is all very complicated; this is about not just Syria but the whole region, and we do not seem to have a plan.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State 8:18 pm, 24th June 2015

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, for tabling this debate. I thank all other noble Lords for their contributions. I take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the way in which the noble Lady contributes to our debates. Her work is invaluable and she gives us an effective and knowledgeable voice.

In responding to the debate, I will seek to address what I think are her underlying questions, as echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, a moment ago. Is there a strategy to assist the international community in its search for a political resolution in Syria and, if so, what is it?

First, with regard to the Syrian context, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and others that the Syrian situation is clearly within the context of the wider region. Today, the Question is about Syria and I will focus on that but I am sure that we will, quite rightly, return in other debates to the wider context. The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, referred to that, too.

As we have heard in detail today the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year, continues to worsen. Indeed, it is arguably one of the most difficult and tragic of our generation. Just miles from his palace in Damascus, President Assad uses barrel bombs, chemical weapons and siege and starvation tactics against his own people. The latest harrowing estimates are of more than 230,000 people dead, 12.2 million people in dire need of humanitarian aid within Syria itself, and 3.9 million refugees in the wider region. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has repeatedly underlined the urgency of a political solution in Syria, including recently at the G7. Doing nothing is not an option for any of us. Our national security interests are affected by Syria and regional stability is threatened. We simply cannot turn our attention from one of the most awful humanitarian situations in the world. We need to focus on it.

I am appalled by the systematic use of sexual violence by Assad’s forces and their militia. I appreciate that it is not limited to them and that some of the opposition forces engage in it, but the majority of it takes place within Assad’s own forces. Unspeakably brutal acts have been extensively reported by the commission of inquiry. To help mitigate and prevent further irreparable devastation, the UK already provides £800 million in humanitarian aid to support the region, as noble Lords have referred to tonight. We support the UN Population Fund, which provides services in Syria for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. This includes providing safe spaces and psychosocial care for more than 27,000 women. Through NGOs, we are supporting holistic case management services for more than 800 survivors of gender-based violence among Syrian refugees in Jordan, and cash assistance to vulnerable refugee women in Lebanon.

We also fund two projects in Syria to improve the capacity to document crimes of sexual violence to hold perpetrators to account in the future. In my capacity as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, I will be unrelenting in pursuing this and pushing for even more support for survivors of sexual violence and the need for accountability. There can be no impunity; we must hunt these people down, and Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court.

In answer to one or two noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Naseby, Assad cannot be a credible partner for us. Why? Because he cannot unite Syrians, cannot win broad international backing and cannot defeat ISIL. He is responsible for ISIL’s rise and his presence is fuelling its growth now, as well as providing the operating space for other extremist groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates such as the al-Nusra Front. He is the cause; he is not the cure. Combating ISIL, as noble Lords have said, requires a multi-faceted approach: one that combines a tough military response with an intelligent and nuanced political strategy, degrading ISIL’s access to funds, fighters and resources in both Syria and Iraq, to refer back to the regional perspective. That is why in Iraq, we are building international support for Prime Minister al-Abadi’s Government, which is committed to political reform and to representing all Iraq’s communities, and why we are contributing to US-led efforts to train and equip the moderate opposition fighting ISIL in Syria.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, that there is still no military action by the United Kingdom in Syria because a sovereign Parliament took a sovereign decision in a vote two years ago. We said then that we would not commit troops to the ground to fight, unless there was a severe humanitarian catastrophe which could be solved only by military action or unless our own security interests were so threatened that we had to take immediate action. We would then return immediately to Parliament for consideration and assent.

Quite rightly, noble Lords concentrated on political settlements. Political transition in Syria is fundamental. It would, we hope, allow us a partner in Syria with whom we could work against extremists. Like noble Lords, we are under no illusion that a political transition will be easy or come in the near future, nor that Assad—despite the regime’s territorial losses and the destruction he has brought upon his people—is ready to negotiate. I listened and agreed entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said with regard to that. Assad is not going any time soon, if he has anything to do with it. There is widespread consensus that Syria’s conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Equally, a collapse of all its state institutions is not in Syria’s interests. That is why we seek an urgent, inclusive, Syrian-led political transition away from Assad’s rule to a transitional Government agreed by mutual consent of the Syrian parties, as called for in the Geneva communiqué—the only document so far agreed by the P5 UNSC members, as well as the key regional partners.

The noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Alton, referred to the Kurds, as did the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and to the work of Staffan de Mistura. We recognise the difficult circumstances that the Syrian Kurds face in the midst of the continuing civil war. We do not, however, support the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s formation of a temporary Administration in the Kurdish areas of Syria. This move was not conducted in consultation with the wider Syrian population or the international community. We believe that it will be for all Syrians to decide the exact nature of the political settlement in Syria as part of a transition process, including whether an autonomous region will be created for the Kurds in Syria.

We fully support the work of Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy, in his efforts to kick-start a political dialogue. I was pleased last week to be able to meet his deputy to discuss matters while Mr de Mistura was in Syria having discussions. I know that he is a very realistic and determined person. Last week, we discussed with his deputy how the UK can support Staffan de Mistura’s efforts and we are engaging intensively with his team.

We are also working with international partners, which several noble Lords asked about, and the moderate opposition. We do not rule out working with anyone, including Iran and Russia. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, Russia continues to supply arms and intelligence. It continues to support the Assad regime but it could have a vital role to play in ensuring that Assad eventually makes the right decision: to allow a transition.

Key to all our efforts will be the Syrian national coalition, which represents moderate and inclusive values and remains at the heart of the Syrian opposition. It is closely engaging with Staffan de Mistura as he seeks to initiate that whole political process. The national coalition has said that it does not regard itself as a Government in waiting. Once a transition is achieved, it has made it clear that it will disband itself in favour of free and fair elections. That is the path and the strategy that we need. But if we are to undermine extremists, the UK must support the moderates on the ground in Syria who are trying to provide services to their communities and deny opportunities for the extremists, but not with active military assistance. What we have already done is to commit more than £50 million to support governance this year, along with education, health, and sanitation in areas under opposition control. We have helped the Free Syrian Police to establish more than 70 police stations to provide communities with basic security and we are supporting volunteers in 96 civil defence teams to carry out operations in search and rescue, fire-fighting and first aid. That is where our assistance is best placed, not in lethal assistance.

Finally, I turn to humanitarian aid, asylum and migration, matters which were raised by several noble Lords including my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Lords, Lord Alton, Lord Hylton and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. The noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about relics, which I will mention if I have time.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Morris and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that this is the most profound humanitarian catastrophe of our time, which is why we have focused so much financial aid on Syria. I regularly discuss the funding of the United Nations and its allied organisations such as UNRWA not only with fellow Ministers but with the United Nations and its agencies, as I was doing last week in Geneva. I consistently press not only that they should be efficient but that donors should make sure their contributions are made on time.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about refugees. I pay tribute to the work of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and recognise their assistance in providing a safe haven for those who flee Syria. I would also say to the noble Lord that aid is entering Syria: the Turks do not routinely close their borders to aid convoys, although they sometimes have to close them for security reasons or simply because of the sheer volume of migrants going across, for their own safety. Only last week I discussed the matter of humanitarian aid going to Syria with the ICRC. I pay tribute to the bravery of its people.

Since 2011, when the crisis began, we have granted asylum or other forms of leave to remain here to more than 4,200 Syrians under our normal asylum rules. In addition, we operate the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister last week announced some addition to that.

I see that my time is up. It is essential that there is a life in the future in Syria. That includes maintaining the existence of monuments, which are a testament to the past. We have, in Syria, people who deserve a future. We can act to ensure that they have that.

Sitting suspended.