Syria - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 20 March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 3:00, 20 March 2017

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of recent developments in Syria.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My Lords, the war in Syria started six years ago. Today, violence continues and the Syrian people are suffering. We urge those with influence on the regime to secure an end to the military campaign and ensure unhindered humanitarian access. We welcome the resumed UN-led talks. Only a political settlement will end the war. We remain at the forefront of international action to help the Syrian people and hold those responsible for atrocities to account.

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that the Syrian Government have brought significant benefits to the people of Syria, including the expulsion of ISIS from the iconic city of Palmyra, recovering control from ISIS over Aleppo’s water supplies and displacing ISIS from numerous other strategic locations? Is she further aware that the UK Government’s support for Islamist-related armed militants is hampering the fight against ISIS? Will she reveal the extent and the nature of the support which the United Kingdom is providing to these Islamist armed militants and the cost to the taxpayer of this very dubious policy?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My Lords, we certainly do not see the Assad regime as bringing benefits to the Syrian people. This is a regime which has been found by a series of independent United Nations reports to have used chemical weapons and committed war crimes against the Syrian people. The regime is currently denying humanitarian aid to 1.4 million Syrians living in siege-like conditions. The UN has found it responsible for bombing an aid convoy last September. It simply is not true to say that all armed opposition are terrorists. The opposition fighters in rural Damascus, for example, are not extremists, nor were the vast majority of fighters in eastern Aleppo. The UK provides political and practical support to the moderate opposition. This has included communications and medical equipment, as well as equipment—as the House will understand—to protect against chemical weapons attacks. We do not provide weapons to anyone in Syria. The recipients of UK assistance are always rigorously and continually assessed to ensure that they are not involved in any extremist activity or human rights abuses.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, there is no doubt that all sides of the House will be united in seeking peace in Syria, particularly bringing all parties together, but that peace cannot happen without ensuring that the people responsible for war crimes are held to account. My own view and the strongly held view of the Opposition is that all sides have committed atrocities and no one should be able to act with impunity. What steps are we taking to support the UN General Assembly resolution on an accountability mechanism that will ensure that all those who have committed crimes against humanity are properly held to account?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that as a member of the international community it is right that we hold to account all those who commit war crimes; that is, both Daesh and the regime, and any of the very extreme groups with which the UK does not have contact as such. Otherwise, there cannot be a long-term solution. Therefore, I can give the noble Lord an assurance that we give our full support to the United Nations, particularly this month of all months because we are chairing the Security Council. We call for all measures to be taken which ensure that the Security Council can move forward on this and avoid having anybody veto any decisions.

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench

My Lords, now that most of Syria’s major cities are effectively under the control of the Syrian regime, do the Government have plans to consider reopening a diplomatic presence in Damascus?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My Lords, I understand why the noble Lord raises this question—he has diplomatic experience and background in these issues—but as I responded to him a short while ago, we have no faith in the word of Assad because he has broken his word so frequently. Indeed, he is breaking his word now on a ceasefire, for example in east Ghouta. So we do not feel that it is right to show our faith or our trust in him, which we cannot have, by opening an embassy in Damascus at the moment.

Photo of Lord Risby Lord Risby Conservative

My Lords, we all pray for the destruction of Daesh, but is my noble friend aware that some of the more moderate elements in the Syrian opposition to Assad appear to have linked up with a more radical organisation, Tahrir al-Sham, which is linked to al-Qaeda? Is my noble friend aware that this organisation has been responsible for some civilian outrages in Syria and is refusing to participate in the peace process? Can she indicate, or give some clarification of, what she thinks is happening as regards what appear to be some very unwelcome developments?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My noble friend is right to raise the fact again that we should stand up against all those who commit outrages, whoever they may be. He is right, too, to point to the fact that the situation among the opposition groups in Syria can indeed be fluid. There can be splintering of those groups and some which appeared in the past to be moderate then change their view and join up with those with whom this country will have no truck. I can give him an assurance that we will not negotiate with those extremists. He also raises the issue of talks. We encourage all the moderate opposition to take part in the talks in Astana. The problem has been, of course, that some chose not to attend because the regime is continuing to break the ceasefire.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it has been the policy of the Government that no solution could be arrived at in relation to Syria that includes the Assad regime, but is it not the case that with Iranian and Russian support, the Assad regime is likely to be in place for the foreseeable future? In these circumstances, what long-term policy options are the Government considering?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Minister of State

My Lords, to put the position absolutely accurately, we have said consistently that we do not see Assad as part of the solution, but we have always coupled that with the statement that it is for the people of Syria to decide how the future should look. Therefore, our long-term policy is to continue strongly to support the work of Staffan de Mistura in the talks in Geneva—which we understand will resume this Thursday—but also to wish well the talks in Astana. It has been recognised by those convening the Astana talks that the real process is led by the UN, to which we give our full support.