Syria — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 8th March 2016.

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Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop 7:35 pm, 8th March 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current assessment of the prospects for a political solution to the civil war in Syria.

Photo of The Bishop of Coventry The Bishop of Coventry Bishop

My Lords, today’s short debate enables us to return to the prospects of a political solution to Syria’s catastrophic civil war—a civil war which now represents the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster and most dangerous geopolitical hotspot. The timing of this debate could not be more critical because, thankfully, we are now seeing tentative steps towards a cessation of hostilities in Syria and fragile efforts to resume face-to-face negotiations. The coming days and weeks will be difficult but when set against five years of utter desolation and destruction, these signs of hope represent an opportunity that must not be missed.

The tragic costs of this conflict are well known: 400,000 dead, at least 10 million displaced and more than 13.5 million in need of humanitarian aid. The contagion of Syria’s war extends beyond its borders. We see this in the destabilisation of Lebanon and Jordan, in the growing pressure on Turkey’s already tenuous democracy, in the threat of a wider conflict between NATO and Russia, and in the exacerbated tensions between Sunni and Shia majority countries across the region. Without peace, worse will come.

I have looked into the eyes of Syrian refugees who have come to my city of Coventry and in them I have seen something of the suffering they have experienced. There are those among those refugees who have lost hope for their beloved country. Next week, on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of this horrific war, I am visiting Iraqi Kurdistan to see some of Christian Aid’s work among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have found shelter among the Kurds. They, too, I am told, are rapidly losing hope. What is the real hope that we can hold out to refugees in Coventry, Cologne, Irbil and Beirut?

Noble Lords will be familiar with the story of Coventry Cathedral, emerging as it did out of the horrors of the Second World War. The House may be less familiar with Coventry’s ongoing work for peace and reconciliation today and its grass-roots community reconciliation projects in Nigeria, Iraq and elsewhere. It is all too clear from this work and from other engagements with conflict that other Members of your Lordships’ House will have had that the civil war in Syria takes its place in a wider picture of civil war in human history. Of course, we must study every war on its own terms but there is now a body of knowledge on what drives and what resolves such conflicts.

Four lessons stand out. First, negotiation does not work if either side thinks it can win outright. It also does not work if either side is unable or unwilling to act on its promises. Secondly, external supplies of arms do not help bring peace; they only promote and prolong the conflict. You give weapons to one side to help it win, not to help it make concessions. Thirdly, proxy wars result in stalemate. Civil wars where outsiders are involved on both sides are deadlier and more difficult to resolve. Fourthly, civil war leaves legacies of betrayal and hatred that require patient processes of reconciliation upon which societal stability and lasting peace depend.

Seen from this perspective, we are still a long way away from a reliable political settlement in Syria. Every side recognises that military solutions are no solution, yet all sides are betrayed by their actions. Everyone continues to jockey for position on the battlefield to secure a diplomatic advantage. If this continues or even worsens, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia becoming more involved, the Syrian people will surely come to see any political process as nothing more than a cruel façade.

Yet the ceasefire agreement offers the beginning of hope, with its provisions for a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and advancing political transition. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said just two weeks ago, it represents “our best chance” to end the violence in Syria. Secretary Kerry put it more starkly and called it our last chance. Yes, there have been ceasefire violations, and, no, the violence has not stopped, but it has been reduced. There are innocent civilians alive today who would otherwise be dead, and the agreement has given hope to those on the ground that an end to the violence is possible.

However, surely we can be more ambitious in the pursuit of peace. Too much of Syria remains an active conflict zone. What scope is there to bring different groups, whether officially or not, under the umbrella of the agreement? Is there not more that can be done here to agree with Russia the specific geographical contours of the agreement and to restrict Russian, and Turkish, latitude for military action? Are UK-Russia relations at such a low ebb that we have no influence in Moscow? Looking further down the line, to the long-term rebuilding of peaceable relationships between those who have fought each other, what work is being done to identify those people and organisations of peace in Syrian civil society who are already engaged in the work of reconciliation, among them some notable religious leaders? I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on all these matters.

The vital importance of providing humanitarian aid to Syria cannot be doubted. We all welcome and applaud the UK’s efforts to date, especially the recent donor conference. In that spirit, a key part of the agreement was that, at the start of the ceasefire, aid would be delivered rapidly, safely and unhindered to areas in need. However, save for a few small deliveries by the UN, the vast majority of those going hungry have by all accounts seen nothing. In Darayya, one of worst-hit suburbs of Damascus, many remain on the edge of starvation. In other towns, access to medicines and other necessities remains poor. How can we build on the commitment to a ceasefire and widen its scope to meet these urgent human needs? How might we extend the agreement to prevent the looming humanitarian disaster in Aleppo?

Advancing a political transition in Syria is fraught with difficulty. Western Governments, including our own, have rightly accepted that sudden and violent regime change in Damascus cannot be made into the condition for peace, but we have yet to see a corresponding shift in the narrative over Assad’s future. We need to accept that there is no viable opposition Government-in-waiting in Syria and little prospect of creating a unitary Government out of the myriad opposition groups. Other ways of resolving this impasse must be found. Could Her Majesty’s Government instead explore ideas for gradually devolving political power in Syria, both from Assad to a newly formed Government and from Damascus to the regions? A devolved approach would not be without its difficulties of course, but it would help to protect civilians, open the door to aid and de-escalate the conflict before it reaches new heights. It would re-empower local communities while maintaining the country’s territorial integrity.

There are no ideal policy options in Syria and no easy answers. None the less, we must surely now focus on the security and safety of Syria’s people. This must be our priority, over and above geopolitical gain or the victory of any side in an unwinnable war. Whatever the shortcomings of the existing diplomatic track—there are many—it needs dedicated support and resourcing. Even if timetables slip, it is vital that progress is made, securing local ceasefires that could open the door to essential aid. If we do not act now, worse will follow. If we do not act now, it may be too late to act at all. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords as to how we might assist the Government in these efforts and rekindle hope for Syria’s people.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 7:45 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, we are grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for initiating this debate. Some of his remarks towards the end, about the need to act, were very apposite. When we were recalled from our holidays three years ago when there was a danger of Assad waging chemical warfare on his people, I remember saying at the time that we should have intervened then. The question was not whether to intervene but when, and the later we intervened, the weaker our position would be.

I have also argued many times in your Lordships’ House that the problem of Syria is not a problem of Syria alone but a general problem of the Ottoman Empire, as it used to be. The problems of Syria and Iraq are intertwined, and what has happened is a sort of general war within Muslim society in the Arab Middle East, with the added complication that the Iranians are now also intervening, because it has become a Shia-Sunni war as well.

Ideally, one would have a regional conference on establishing peace in the Middle East, in which these many interconnected problems, including Syria, ISIS, Kurdistan—the movement to establish Kurdistan has got further, thanks to the civil war, than it ever has before—and of course the instability in Iraq. All these problems are intertwined, and I do not know that we are going to do ourselves very much good, or even build a lasting solution, by concentrating on Syria and Assad alone. Our problem of course has been that we do not like Assad. We wish that there was a viable national opposition to him, but it has been mixed up with the likelihood of jihadists from al-Qaeda and elsewhere—at the start, ISIS was not as powerful as it is now.

In the situation we face, although we have lost quite a lot of time, it is still possible to say that we should not just concentrate on the problem of Syria and Assad, although that is a central problem. There will be an unstable peace if, for example, we do not deal with the problem of Kurdistan, which touches on the territories of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Turkey’s role is of course vital here, because it faces a lot of pressure from Russia and other forces.

I would still urge Her Majesty’s Government, along with our allies, to see to it that we have comprehensive negotiations on the various problems in the Middle East, especially to try to pacify the situation in Syria. That may, inevitably, involve the continued presence of Assad, but with some recognition that there is a legitimate opposition which has been fighting him, and perhaps the partition of Syria—I do not know—but it must also take up the problem of Kurdistan and peace in Iraq. Those would be vital tasks for us to perform.

Because we did not act quickly enough, Russia is much more involved now that it was when the question of chemical warfare first arose. Neither we nor the United States intervened, and our reluctance to go out and fight there has meant a much longer civil war and much more misery.

I know that, because of the Iraq war, we are all reluctant to go to intervene with boots located in the war, but our reluctance to act has made the war longer, more violent and more difficult to solve. However, given that is where we are, it is very important that we take every possible opportunity to propose an interconnected general solution to the problems of the former Ottoman Empire. We created the problem 100 years ago, and we have to solve it.

Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat 7:50 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for instigating this extremely important and timely debate. As other noble Lords have said, as we speak, the deeply fragile and patchy ceasefire is holding, but the current truce, as with the war itself, is complex and highly precarious.

Since last May, I have been working for several days a month in Amman in Jordan as part of a team to assist with the ongoing political reform programme there—I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests. One of my colleagues in Jordan is Syrian. He is a brilliant and dynamic young man. Many of his family members remain in Damascus: his father is unable to contemplate leaving Syria as he is very seriously ill. My colleague frequently talks of his childhood growing up in Syria, with its highly educated population and one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The life that he describes is one of a typical Mediterranean way of life that was really not so different from the countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. It is through the eyes of my Syrian colleague that I have been beginning to understand the appalling human tragedy unrolling in his country.

In the EU and the UK, we have tended to view the civil war in Syria through the prism of the fight against ISIS-Daesh, of European foreign fighters and of a struggle against radicalisation. However, I believe that we would all now accept that the war in Syria is considerably more complex than that.

When you speak to Jordanian politicians about the war in neighbouring Syria, they are much more focused on the economic forces and influences guiding the war in the region, not least from Saudi Arabia. I have regularly been told in Jordan: “You need to ask who is funding Daesh”. In Russia, while visiting friends in January, I was struck by the scale of the anti-Turkish, and particularly anti-Erdogan, sentiment that now pervades the thinking of even moderate liberals in Russia. On Russian TV, programmes currently show their “heroic” fighter pilots in action over Syria, with patriotic music playing in the background as they describe how the Russians, rather than the West, are being successful in their strategy in Syria. The alliance of the Syrian Kurds with the Russian-backed Assad regime has undoubtedly added to the already high levels of tension between Ankara and Moscow.

It is impossible to separate the war in Syria from the current refugee crisis facing Turkey, Jordan and the Lebanon, as the two issues are inextricably linked. It is difficult to know the exact figures for Syrian refugees in each of those countries, but the burden on their already stretched economies is genuinely immense and potentially destabilising. For this reason, I commend the Government for their Syria donors’ conference in London last month. Whatever the precise figure for the number of refugees in Jordan, the strain on the Jordanian economy from having such a high percentage of its population as refugees from Syria, as well as from previous conflicts, is enormous. Recognition of this fact, as well as the financial assistance offered from the London conference, was extremely well received in Jordan.

At a conference that I attended two weeks ago in Istanbul on the refugee crisis, the Turkish participants stressed that they had not yet received the promised financial assistance from the EU to help with the approximately 2.7 million refugees in Turkey. This has been much covered in the media following yesterday’s EU-Turkey summit. However, I ask the Minister about the Government’s bilateral assistance for education for those countries with large numbers of Syrian refugees. I know that as part of the UK’s bilateral assistance to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, we have been assisting with educational programmes. Research repeatedly shows that the children of refugees who have not been educated are much more at risk of radicalisation, and risk becoming a lost generation. Given that Turkey has the largest number of Syrian refugees, do the Government intend to increase assistance to provide education for the children of Syrian refugees in Turkey in particular?

The subject of our debate is,

“prospects for a political solution to the civil war in Syria”.

It is difficult to be overly optimistic, but we must continue with the peace talks, as they continue to be our best hope for peace in the region. The current truce at least offers some respite to the Syrian population, who have been living through this conflict for five years.

We should also do more to explain the complexities of this war to the population in the UK and the wider EU. It will continue to be a deeply complex war, there are unlikely to be any quick-fix solutions and we need people to understand that. The refugee crisis will continue as long as there is war in the region. I fear that there is a very real danger that the conflict will slip further into a proxy war between the two increasingly autocratic leaders, Putin and Erdogan, both of whom can legitimately be accused of using the war and the refugee crisis to further their own political ends.

It is an explosive mixture of motives and events, and it is the ordinary Syrian people who continue to suffer. We owe it to them to keep trying to find a solution.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 7:56 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as British ambassador to Syria from 1979 to 1981. The noble Earl may have read reports in the press that senior officials in Washington have described the Administration’s early attempts to get President Assad to leave as a “huge mistake”. Does he agree that the Government’s regular and continuing calls for President Assad to go are not only mistaken but reflect a false assessment of the extent of support which the Syrian regime, for all its faults, still enjoys—particularly, but not only, from the Christian and other minority communities living throughout Syria?

I hope that I may be allowed, not for the first time, to cite Hilaire Belloc in this House: remember to hold on to nurse for fear of getting something worse. There is something much worse available in Syria to take over.

Yesterday’s Statement about refugees and migrants included the claim that HMG are leading the way in trying to lessen the need for people to leave troubled regions. Without asking the Minister to elaborate on that claim, I suggest that the best way to achieve it and to pursue a political solution in Syria must be to do everything possible to encourage an effective ceasefire, which might allow some of the Syrian migrants to return to their homes.

Should we not also be doing more to dissuade our friends and allies from following policies that can only prolong the fighting and lead to a further flow of emigrants? I refer in particular to threats from our Turkish allies against the Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq and to threats from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni forces to launch a military invasion of Syria, as part of their stated policy to remove a secular regime effectively supported by Iran and Russia, and which still controls that part of Syrian territory where the majority of the remaining Syrian population live.

To cite the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, the ultimate aim of our policy on Syria should be to end a war that has ripped apart the lives of millions of innocent Syrians and to unify the Syrian population against ISIL.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 7:59 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, I warmly thank the right reverend Prelate for such a wise and thought-provoking introduction to his debate. It was not easy to listen to him given some of the intellectual and practical challenges which he spelled out, but it was a vital speech and I thank him for it.

I am glad he stressed that this issue goes beyond the boundaries of Syria. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are vivid illustrations of that. As we concentrate on the ceasefire and the opportunities it provides, we must not lose sight of the immediate, huge challenges of providing solidarity and practical support to the people of those countries I have just mentioned. It is not just the refugees who need the support, although that is vital; it is also the people of the countries themselves because this refugee burden is bringing very heavy costs to them. We need to look to that as a priority.

In a life involved in issues of this kind, I have come to the conclusion that if peace talks are to succeed, they must be as inclusive as possible. To last and be enduring, it is essential that there is a sense of ownership among the parties to the conflict. There is a very big difference between peace-keeping and peace-making. If we are to see peaceful, lasting solutions, it requires tremendous self-discipline from the outside world. Particularly powerful nations like us have to be very careful about trying to manage the situation. There is a huge difference between facilitating and managing because the solution ultimately has to belong to the people themselves. In so far as there is any sense that a solution was somehow arranged, made or imposed by other people, it has the seeds of its own failure within it.

As the right reverend Prelate said, no two situations are the same and you must be very careful about making comparisons, but I am surprised that we do not take more seriously the lessons from our domestic experience in Northern Ireland. I see that as an exemplary story of facilitation, not trying to impose our solution but enabling the parties to reach their own solution to which they are committed. That is why we should have immense respect for those who were in bitter conflict but who now try to make a success of what they came to believe was essential and possible.

It is incredible to think of what the ceasefire must mean psychologically, quite apart from physically, for so many people, with the horror, strain, stress and anguish of constant bombardment easing. I am desperately concerned about the long-term mental health consequences of all that for young people and children in those countries, and I hope that we can give that issue great priority. While we concentrate on this, there are still many people in Syria who are still enduring hunger, disease, thirst, homelessness and the most awful situations. Since the UN resolutions made it possible for aid to be taken in irrespective of the wishes, views or policies of the Syrian Government, a great deal has been done to try to improve access and to bring relief and support to a widening circle of people, but much more needs to be done and I, for one, will be very grateful if the Minister will say how we are responding to that and how we are encouraging—and what success we are meeting in encouraging—others to step up that operation when it goes on.

My conclusion is my main message: the ultimate solution has to belong to the people of the area, and if there is one discipline that matters more than any other it is that outside powers, not least ourselves, but very much the Russians, the Americans and others, should resist playing the sort of game, as it is seen by so many people, that in effect aggravates the situation. They must discipline themselves into seeing that ownership of the solution is for the people themselves and we must facilitate that.

Photo of Lord Williams of Baglan Lord Williams of Baglan Crossbench 8:05 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry is to be commended for obtaining this debate. It is timely because, for the first time since the commencement of the conflict in early 2011, there are signs that a fragile cessation of hostilities is taking hold, and we all hope that it will be successful. It is too early to be overly optimistic, and it might be useful to remind ourselves of Winston Churchill’s remarks after the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, when the British Army secured its first substantial victory over Nazi Germany, that we are not at beginning of the end, but we may be at the end of the beginning.

With this in mind, I take the opportunity to salute the efforts of my former colleagues in the UN, especially Staffan di Mistura who, with his team, has worked tirelessly to bring this ceasefire about. I also commend the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which has endeavoured in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances to bring relief to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced within the country as well as in huge numbers in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. History will surely recognise their generosity when Europe floundered amid recriminations not worthy of traditions that had hitherto welcomed those escaping wars and oppression.

As each year of the Syrian war has passed, the options have become worse and the choices more, not less, difficult. In 2011, it seemed that President Assad might join President Mubarak and Colonel Gaddafi as another dictator heading for the exit, and there was no apparent cost in saying that he had to go, as the Prime Minister said on many occasions. But on the ground, the situation has deteriorated and Europe has shown itself less and less able and willing to deal with the consequences, let alone the root causes, of this savage war.

As with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we have fatally underestimated the dangers inherent in the situation. Why were we so taken aback by the rapid rise of so-called Islamic State—Daesh—which has further complicated an already hideous war? Then we were further surprised by Russia’s dramatic entry into the war, which has radically changed the landscape, ensuring that Russia will be one of the principal arbiters of Syria’s future. If there is any doubt in that regard, I refer noble Lords to the widely reported telephone conversation between President Putin and President Obama on 14 February. In a real sense, and at least in the Middle East, the bipolar world reminiscent of the Cold War has returned. The consequences of this are clear, given the cards that Russia holds; namely, that there cannot be any early exit of President Assad, but we can and should hope and plan for a meaningful transition. That, at least, we must guarantee for the Syrian people. To do less would not be worthy of a permanent member of the Security Council. In this regard, can the Minister say whether this was discussed in the recent summit between the Prime Minister and President Hollande of France?

In previous conflicts where I served with the UN, evidence of war crimes was referred to tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, where I gave evidence against indicted war criminals such as President Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadžic. There and in Cambodia, where I also served, we took it for granted that there must be justice when such terrible violations of human rights take place. What steps are the Government taking in that regard, given the widespread evidence of massive human rights violations in the Syrian war? Surely, as a permanent member of the Security Council, we have a huge responsibility in that regard. Specifically, could the Minister perhaps advise the Government of the necessity to consider seconding or otherwise making available forensic experts to the appropriate UN bodies?

We all hope that the UN may be able to strengthen the existing cessation of hostilities to make it a real ceasefire and perhaps a prelude to a political settlement. That will not be easy. Making peace, the great German statesman Bismarck is reputed to have warned, is like making sausages: you do not always want to see the ingredients. It will be a painful process. Finally, in that regard, I hope the Government are aware that Syria has a vice-president, a secular Sunni, Farouk al-Sharaa, who is widely presumed to be under house arrest by the regime. He could yet be an important figure in the transition that inevitably must come in Syria.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 8:11 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate at a time of very important developments in the war in Syria. The Syrian war has already lasted longer than the First World War. It is a conflict that has claimed over 250,000 lives, injured a million people and caused the biggest movement of people since the Second World War.

One commentator has suggested that the conflict contains almost every national security threat that we can think of: it is a terrorist safe haven; it has opened up new fronts for Hezbollah; it has allowed training camps for western jihadis to flourish; there is the potential use of chemical and biological weapons; we have the potential for rogue states developing; and we have seen sectarian violence, the marginalisation of reformers and moderates, a massive flow of refugees, a humanitarian crisis and destabilisation across the Middle East, and the growing prospect of regional war.

After so many years, as the right reverend Prelate suggested, we have the first glimmer of hope with the first cessation of hostilities in years, although it is important to note that the jihadist groups of the al-Nusra Front and IS are not included in this cessation of hostilities. This represents the first step in the de-escalation of the conflict but it is a long way from being a formal ceasefire. It is a loose commitment to take further steps, but it is just that—the first step. There is no road map for implementation towards a long-lasting peace, but at this point it is easier to agree to a series of modest truces than to implement a broader plan. The benefits, of course, are great, particularly for the civilian population who have been living through the horrors of this war, and at last we are seeing humanitarian assistance gaining access to areas that have not seen help from the outside world in years.

However, we have a long way to go before we get to the end of this conflict. Let us not forget that the ruling party in Syria was a party to this cessation of hostilities, but there is a fundamental problem that still exists, in that the opposition parties cannot contemplate a future with Bashar al-Assad involved in any way. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria found that 70% of those who left Syria were fleeing from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who killed 180,000 civilians in the years 2011-15. They still see Assad as a greater threat than ISIS. In fact, it is essential that despite the brutality and inhumanity of ISIS we swallow the uncomfortable reality that many Syrians are more content with ISIS and what they perceive as Sunni protection than they are with the idea of living under Iranian Shia influence and any form of continuation of the Assad regime.

On the other hand, it is worth reflecting on the words of Peter Ford, another former UK ambassador to Damascus, who has described UK policy on Syria as “unthinking”. He laments the lack of understanding in the UK that the weakness of the rebels in Syria means that the alternative to Assad is IS. He questioned whether decimating the Syrian Army would make life harder for the Islamist extremists, who are probably the bigger and more atrocious threat. It was interesting to note that the noble Lord, Lord Wright, hinted at that in his contribution.

As we have seen in several examples in the Middle East and north Africa, it is easy to destroy or destabilise a state but much more difficult to create or rebuild one. Surely we have learnt from our interventions in Iraq and Libya that we must put as much effort into the peace as we do into war, and it is worth questioning to what extent it is the FCO or the military that is leading in terms of how we respond in the Middle East. The fact is that in our intervention in Libya we spent 13 times more on bombing that country than we did on rebuilding it after the conflict. That eight-month intervention cost £320 million, yet we spent only £25 million on reconstruction. Is it any wonder the country descended into chaos? A rebalancing of diplomatic activity and military activity is imperative, and we must not repeat our mistakes in Iraq and Libya in Syria. It was gratifying to see that post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria was central to the Motion put before the House of Commons last year.

An isolationist foreign policy is not the answer for the UK in the Middle East. Syria and its destruction has become a direct threat to us and we have a moral obligation to help the people affected by the crisis. We cannot simply stand by and wait for a political solution to emerge. As my noble friend Lord Judd suggested, the local actors must be central to the solution. There does not seem to be any strategy for this country nor this region and there is a need for a complete reassessment of British and EU foreign and security policy. Piecemeal and ad hoc “measures” cannot replace a comprehensive, long-term foreign policy strategy, which has been lacking in recent years.

There is a danger that Syria will become the theatre for great power rivalry in the world, with countries on both sides supporting or opposing President al-Assad and the groups of rebels that are ranged against him. We cannot afford to see a further escalation in this conflict, because the stakes and the consequences are too great. Ultimately, there is only one way to resolve the situation in Syria, which is to ensure a political resolution to the conflict. It is essential that we focus all our diplomatic efforts on this as the threat of the whole region unravelling and the potential for much wider global tension increases every minute that this conflict continues.

Photo of The Earl of Courtown The Earl of Courtown Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:18 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and join other noble Lords in thanking him for tabling this debate. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions which, although they came from wide-ranging parts of the House, all had the common aim and wish to see peace in the part of the world we are discussing.

The right reverend Prelate said that timing was critical and went on to talk about the four lessons that should be drawn from his activities in that part of the world. His description of refugees in his diocese was particularly poignant. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, on the work she has obviously been doing and thank her for describing her experiences from travelling in that part of the world as well as in Russia. I also listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who asked a number of questions. If I do not cover them in my response, I will of course write to him.

As we have heard in detail today, the conflict in Syria—now approaching its sixth year—has had a terrible impact on its civilians. However, we must remember that Assad’s regime is responsible for this crisis. There has been a complete disregard for international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, have been targeted by cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Assad and Daesh have callously used siege and starvation tactics. Russia’s military intervention last autumn—mentioned by a number of noble Lords—compounded the violence as it carried out air strikes on moderate opposition groups and civilian areas.

The UK’s aim remains a stable, peaceful Syria with an inclusive Government who are capable of protecting its people from Daesh and other extremists. This is necessary to stem the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe, to tackle the threat we face from Daesh, and to ensure stability in the region. The United Kingdom is working strenuously to find a political solution as part of our strategy for Syria, which the Prime Minister set out in the House of Commons in December.

In late 2015, the International Syria Support Group began work to facilitate the start of political negotiations. In December, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 set out the framework for these, and proximity negotiations between the regime and opposition began under UN auspices in January in Geneva but were paused on 5 February. To facilitate a resumption of the negotiations, the ISSG agreed there should be a cessation of hostilities, and humanitarian access to named locations in Syria.

Since the cessation of hostilities came into force on 27 February, we have seen a reduction in violence, as many noble Lords mentioned, but obviously, there is still much to be done. Although imperfect, the cessation is an important step towards bringing a lasting political settlement.

Through our participation in the International Syria Support Group task force on the cessation of hostilities, we are working to create a more robust verification system and to agree measures to address violations. We are, however, concerned about violations against opposition areas, which are in direct contravention of the cessation agreement. If these violations do not stop, opposition withdrawal is inevitable.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, mentioned my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who recently joined other European leaders in a phone conversation with President Putin to ask him to seize the opportunity created by the cessation to create a “positive dynamic” for the Geneva negotiations. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we will continue to try to work with Russia to resolve the conflict, but much depends on Russia’s will.

A number of noble Lords mentioned humanitarian access. The desperately needed aid convoys now arriving in some besieged areas of Syria must be allowed to continue. Through our participation in the ISSG task force on humanitarian aid we are pressing for the United Nations to use the cessation to seek greater humanitarian access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, as called for in Resolution 2254. It is deplorable that the regime continues to delay access by not acceding to UN requests for access to Darayya, Aleppo and other places in desperate need. As of 3 March, 42 out of 56 UN requests for access this year remain outstanding.

As all noble Lords have said, Syria’s conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Equally, a collapse of all its state institutions is not in anyone’s interests. Assad cannot be a credible partner for us. He cannot unite Syrians, he cannot win broad, international backing and he cannot defeat Daesh. We must remember that he is the cause, not the cure. That is why we seek an urgent, inclusive, Syrian-led political transition away from Assad’s rule. I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, with all his experience in this area. I am sure that my colleagues in the department will take careful note of what he said.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed UK support for the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee after he hosted Dr Riad Hijab, the general co-ordinator of the HNC, in London in February. The HNC is the broadest possible spectrum of Syrian opposition groups, representing political, armed opposition and civil society voices, and it is a legitimate and credible negotiating party. However, I make it clear that UK support for the opposition does not include lethal weapons.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, mentioned Geneva III and, in particular, the UN special envoy. I confirm to the noble Lord that we support UN special envoy de Mistura’s plan to resume peace negotiations this month. These negotiations must deliver a political transition away from Assad to a legitimate Government, agreed by the Syrian parties, as called for in the Geneva communiqué. We are under no illusion that the political talks will be easy. We are, however, committed to doing everything we can to support them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned the London conference. As all noble Lords will be aware, $11 billion was committed—the largest amount raised in one day for humanitarian aid. In addition, on 4 February 2016 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that the UK would more than double our total pledge to the Syria crisis from £1.12 billion to over £2.3 billion. This is our largest-ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned reconciliation. We are providing a range of support for Syrians, including the moderate opposition, to help save lives, bolster civil society, which is so important, counter extremism, promote human rights and accountability, and lay the foundations for a more peaceful future. To date, this amounts to more than £70 million in non-humanitarian assistance inside Syria, with a further £30 million to bolster regional stability.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also mentioned education and children, which are such an important part of this. The noble Baroness is no doubt aware that the London Syria conference agreed to provide long-term support for refugees in the region to help them access jobs and education. Agreements made with Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon cemented this by committing to create over 1 million new jobs for refugees and residents, and by giving 1 million children access to education.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the religious minorities in Syria. I can confirm that we are supporting non-governmental efforts to promote dialogue between the different ethnic and sectarian groups in Syria as we seek further progress on a political settlement. Minorities including the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds and the Turkmens have been represented in these projects.

Noble Lords will be aware that, in February, we supported a UN Security Council statement condemning the abductions of the Assyrian Christians in the Hasakah region of Syria by Daesh and demanding their immediate release.

To conclude, we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that the cessation of hostilities holds and that it creates favourable conditions for the resumption of political talks in Geneva. The United Kingdom will continue to engage with international partners and moderate representatives of the Syrian people to achieve a lasting and just peace.

Sitting suspended.