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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:18 pm on 8th March 2016.

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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.