It is a pleasure to have you presiding over our proceedings, Mr. Caton. I welcome the Minister to his new role and wish him well in it. I am reminded of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again", because we come together every few years. I look forward to what he has to say on this important subject.
The middle east may not be our near geographical neighbour, but we cannot escape from our involvement in the region. That can be seen throughout history with the magnificent crusader castles across Syria, our support for the Arab revolts against the Ottoman empire, the founding of the state of Israel, and the construction and subsequent loss of the Suez canal. The list could go on.
This is not a moment to discuss the merits of the recent invasion of Iraq. Suffice it to say that it impaired a number of our relationships in the region. Today, violence on the streets of Gaza inflames passions on the streets of our country. Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape from the realities of our past and current involvement. In that, we are blessed with outstanding diplomats, whose knowledge of the middle east is unsurpassed. When their judgments have been ignored, it has led inevitably to difficulties for us.
In the past few weeks, we have seen extraordinarily successful and peaceful elections in Lebanon, an inspiring speech in Cairo by President Obama, post-election turmoil in Iran and Bibi Netanyahu implicitly acknowledging the problems brought by the growth of settlements.
I should like to concentrate on Syria, which has been remarkably stable in the past decade under a new and younger President. At no stage in the long history of the region could Syria sensibly have been ignored. I declare an interest as a director of the British Syrian Society, which seeks at all levels to build up our bilateral relationship. I pay particular tribute to two individuals who dedicated themselves so successfully to that task, Dr. Fawaz Akhras and the late Sir David Gore-Booth, who was a distinguished diplomat.
Having spoken out against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Syria strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In expressing the notion of an axis of evil, the United States took a hostile view of Syria. It was widely believed by Syrians that America would invade them, too. There is no doubt that jihadis crossed from Syria into Iraq across a long border that is difficult to police. It was a source of fury that some of those individuals may have been directly or indirectly responsible for the loss of life among coalition forces.
A second source of criticism of Syria stems from the civil war in Lebanon, after which Syrian military forces were invited to help restore order. In time, their role became resented by key players in Lebanese political life, who believed that there was inordinate interference in the domestic, political and economic life of the country.
A third source of criticism is the ties between Syria and Iran, which rose initially out of a shared fear and dislike of Saddam Hussein. Although they may have close trading and economic ties, Iran is a theocratic state, whereas Syria is constitutionally secular. Different religious groupings co-exist extremely well in Syria and Islamic fundamentalism is simply not tolerated. A final source of criticism is Syria's support— shared by Iran—of Hezbollah and Hamas, with their terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.
The central thesis of my remarks is that those important issues must be put in context or updated to reflect current realities in a continuing process of mutual exploration between our two countries.
A chunk of Syria—the Golan heights—is illegally occupied by Israel. The area holds no strategic value for Israel. In 2000, the late President Hafez Assad came close to a deal with Israel that included the return of the Golan heights and a clear recognition of the state of Israel. Israel continues to have concerns about Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah. However, it is noteworthy how acquiescent Hezbollah was when Israel invaded Gaza.
Also noteworthy is that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah fully accepted the results of the recent Lebanese elections. It has been a fundamental view of Syria that Hezbollah is a political reality in Lebanon and that it should be seen as such. Latterly, it has worked hard to encourage change in the political topography of Lebanon to entrench Hezbollah as part of the democratic political process. Relations between Syria and virtually all Lebanese political leaders have improved dramatically with many ministerial visits and the exchange of ambassadors, which was inconceivable until recently.
Syria was told that its role in the lead-up to the Lebanese elections would be observed carefully. The outcome was beyond everybody's expectations. I am pleased that our Government, including our ambassador in Beirut, have met with the political arm of Hezbollah, thus recognising its electoral legitimacy.
I have said many times to Israeli friends that a core impetus to Hezbollah's military activities would be changed if Israel returned the Golan heights to Syria. Without that, there will be no comprehensive and enduring sense of security for Israel on its northern border. The Turkish Government sought to broker talks between the two countries. We wait to see whether Syria's offer to reopen talks with Israel will be taken up by Mr. Netanyahu. His Foreign Affairs Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has so far explicitly rejected discussion of the Golan heights, but these are early days.
No hon. Member can have failed to be concerned about the recent events in Iran.
I hear what my hon. Friend says about the importance of bringing peace on Israel's northern border, particularly with respect to the Golan issue. Does he agree that hon. Members from all parties must encourage the Israeli Government to engage with Syria, whether through a Turkish intermediary or any other intermediary, because talking is better than not talking?
My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done to develop that argument. I am sure that he will agree that although a comprehensive settlement in the region would be desirable, that is presenting huge difficulties, not least because of the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between Fatah and Hamas. It would be a shame if that was a major stumbling block or distraction to a Syrian track, because it is in Israel's interest to have the security to which he alluded. We should encourage the Israelis to consider the Syrian offer to continue the exploration, brokered by the Turks.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there has been no ministerial visit to Iran for about six years. Does he agree that now might be the time for the Foreign Secretary to go over there to strengthen our dialogue and engagement with Iran, so that we can stop the worrying escalation? Jaw-jaw is better than the alternative. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a risk worth taking?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the long-term significance of a relationship between Iran and the United Kingdom. However, at a moment when two of our diplomats have just been expelled from Tehran for no reason—apparently, the British Government are behind the protests on the streets of Tehran, which is an interesting take on events—the British Government are absolutely right in the circumstances to react by expelling two diplomats from London. Although we hope that calm will prevail in the long run and that logic will enter into the equation, I do not agree with the timing suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the question of the Golan, which he mentioned earlier? He referred to the Golan heights. We all refer to the area as that, but in so doing, we minimise its importance. It is an 1,800 sq km plateau, where the rainfall is higher than in Damascus. It is of great strategic significance. There are more than 346,000 displaced persons from the Golan, but that is often treated almost as a side issue to achieving a comprehensive middle east peace. The area is about more than that; it is absolutely central—strategically for Syria in terms of natural resources and other things, but also in terms of doing right by those 346,000 displaced persons.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the humanitarian aspect. I certainly know individuals whose family origins lie in the Golan heights. Of course, the humanitarian tragedies that abound in the region are what we are seeking to address. That applies on all sides of the equation. Although the Golan heights are occupied, I do not think that even people in the Israel defence forces regard them as strategically significant. However, the matter will sour the relationship between Syria and Israel, which is why some sort of solution to the problem—a solution was nearly arrived at in 2000—could take the whole process forward. I hope that the new Government in Israel will see the matter in those terms because the flow of the issue into the Hezbollah argument, with which the hon. Gentleman will be very familiar, means that it is important to Israel's own long-term security to address the problem.
As I mentioned, there have been extraordinary events in Iran in the past few weeks, and there are concerns about the views of senior Iranian figures. The truth of the matter is that Iran unreservedly supports Hezbollah and Hamas. As I said, it is in Israel's vital strategic interest to seek to minimise the impact of Iran's stated aim to export Islamic revolution in the form expressed. Israel enjoys workable relations with Egypt and Jordan—that should be the role model—and it should seek to develop a pragmatic relationship with its northern neighbours. Syria has made its position clear: a return of the Golan heights is part of a full normalisation of relations. Israel should simply road test that offer without delay. If successful, the prize would be to enhance its own security and stability, although much work would have to be done and, of course, much reassurance needs to be given.
At different times, Syria has had poor relations with other Arab countries. However, that is no longer the case. The Syria-Saudi Arabia relationship is particularly important, and is back on track. There have been a number of welcome ministerial exchanges between Baghdad and Damascus. The criticism of the border crossings, to which I alluded, has substantially evaporated and help has been given to Syria to achieve that. Exploration of greater commercial ties between Syria and Iraq continues to take place.
Two other facets of Syrian life bear examination. Syria has developed a culture that is unique in the region, perhaps because its history has been marked by so many invasions and occupiers—from the Romans and the Persians, to the Umayyads, the Ottomans and the French. More than a century ago, Gertrude Bell wrote about that with amazement in her diaries. The Grand Mufti of Syria radiates a generosity of spirit and understanding, which personifies the attitudes of the Muslim majority to the religious minorities.
I welcome the recent official visit to London by the Syrian Minister of Religious Affairs to discuss Syria's approach to key sensitive matters, including countering radicalisation. It is worth noting that the aim of what was, from every possible viewpoint, an important visit was to represent the Syrian model of moderate Islam, which combats terrorism and rejects extremism. The visit resulted in an offer to send a group of Muslim scholars to lecture at the Islamic centres in the United Kingdom on moderate Islam as practised in Syria. The visit also drew on Syria's willingness to train British imams in Syria according to a curriculum approved by the United Kingdom. The Ministry of Religious Affairs in Syria has indicated a willingness to teach British students who want to study Arabic and sharia for four years at the international institute for Arabic and sharia, so that they can become advocates of moderation.
I say to the Minister that at a time when relationships are very fractious and we have seen a most disagreeable increase in Islamophobia and, indeed, anti-Semitism in our country, it is precisely through such moderation and contact that Syria can play a valuable role. I know the Minister will welcome that visit and the return visit that took place to Syria by British Muslims to discuss messages of peace from Islam. That collective generosity of spirit has enabled about 1 million Iraqis, a significant number of whom are Christians, to find sanctuary in Syria, which is a huge burden on a country of some 20 million.
Refugee children go to school free up to the 12th grade and medical care is available on the same basis as it is to the local population. This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees launched an appeal for $150 million. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister how Britain is assisting in what the UNHCR has described to me as—this is well known to be the case—an internationally under-recognised refugee crisis, which, of course, arises directly out of our invasion of Iraq.
It is gratifying that, after a long period, relations between Syria and Britain have improved considerably. I hope that the Minister will go there soon, as his predecessor and the Foreign Secretary have done. Of course, Opposition parties—including my hon. Friend Mr. Lidington and the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Hague—initiated a dialogue some time before. Many European politicians have now visited Damascus.
There continue to be attempts to liberalise and modernise the Syrian economy through banking and investment code reforms and the establishment of a fledgling stock exchange. Since 2005, the EU-Syria association agreement has been frozen. It is hoped that, finally, the agreement will be signed this year, which will encourage trade flows between Europe and Syria and the lowering of any tariff barriers. That will compel and encourage the Syrian Government to bring forward further reforms, especially at a time of diminishing oil reserves.
There is now open discussion about the transfer of gas via Syria and Turkey from some of the main gas producers to the east and Qatar. There is concern throughout Europe about increasing dependence on Russian gas supplies. An opportunity is presenting itself to diversify supply to the Mediterranean, and the strategic significance of that is obvious. In the end, real movement in the region will be brought about by focused US involvement. The Obama Administration seem to have made a concerted effort to follow a fresh approach to the region in particular and the Islamic world in general. Numerous visits to Damascus by US Government representatives signal that engagement, and the involvement of George Mitchell, who played such a significant role in Northern Ireland, is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the US currently has no ambassador in Damascus, and a wholly counter-productive boycott is still in place. Of course, concerns remain about human rights violations in a number of Arab countries, and controversy surrounds the access of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Syria.
I shall conclude by coming back to where I started. Many of the criticisms of Syria during the past decade now appear to be out of date. In the right circumstances, Syria could help to unlock a whole series of huge challenges—whether in relation to the security of Israel, the actions of Hezbollah or Hamas, or through its long-standing relationship with Iran. The terms "dialogue" and "road test" once again spring to mind. Our bilateral relationship is far from perfect, but we can play a part in trying to make continuing progress. In so doing, we would fulfil our historic engagement in the region, which, regrettably, has become so lamentably absent, greatly to our country's cost.
I shall be extremely brief, Mr. Caton.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring on obtaining this extremely important debate. He concentrated necessarily on Syria and Britain's strategic interests abroad. He also touched on Britain's security interests at home, and it is that point that I would like briefly to amplify.
It is undeniable that the main threat to our domestic security at present comes from those who mistakenly claim and exercise violent extremism in the name of Islam. As the House has repeatedly heard, I have a particular interest in this issue as the Conservative Member with the largest number and proportion of Muslim constituents.
It is important to appreciate that Syria is, in strictly religious terms, an extremely moderate place, as my hon. Friend said—he has great experience of the country—and, on the Islamic map worldwide, it is important as the heartland of traditional classical Islam.
Syria is important for three reasons. First, as my hon. Friend said, it contains Damascus, which is an important historical site and the home of the Umayyad dynasty. Secondly, it is the home of many well-known ulema and scholars such as Ahmad Hassoun, the Grand Mufti, whom my hon. Friend referred to, Dr. Mohammed al-Buti, Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and others. Those names may not be well known to us, but they are well known to British Muslims who have an abiding interest in what scholars and ulema in the Arab world have to say. Thirdly, Syria is a centre of a classical Islamic world view that is fundamentally at odds with the modern conception of a sharia state, particularly one that is brought into being by violence.
Given all that, and despite political difficulty, I have three quick questions for the Minister. In essence, they follow up what my hon. Friend said. First, given how seriously many British Muslims take the scholarship and expertise of Syrian ulema and scholars, will there be opportunities to bring some of those scholars here, perhaps as part of a radical middle-way programme or something like it? Secondly, in reverse, will there be opportunities in the future to take British imams and scholars to Syria? I understand—my hon. Friend referred briefly to this—that the Quilliam Foundation and others recently went to Syria for theological and political discussions that I gather were very lively.
Finally, what opportunities does the Minister see for British students to go to Syria to study the traditional classical Islam that is so much at odds with the violent extremism that is a threat to our security and to the security of other countries, too?
I had not intended to speak other than to intervene in the debate, Mr. Caton, but perhaps I could ask my hon. Friend the Minister to comment on just a couple of points.
I congratulate Mr. Spring and also put on the record that this year was a first for some years in that an official Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation from this Parliament to Syria took place in January. I was a member of the delegation, which was led by my right hon. Friend Keith Hill. In terms of building understanding, contacts and dialogue between UK and Syrian parliamentarians, the visit was very worth while indeed. I hope that further such exchanges will continue, in addition to the good work that the hon. Member for West Suffolk does through the all-party group on Syria and the British Syrian Society.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Iraqi refugees in Syria, which is one of the issues that I would like to raise with the Minister. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a major issue for us because of our involvement in the situation that led to those refugees being in Syria, but it is also a major issue for Syria. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which we met while we were there, there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees with valid visas in Syria at present. I give credit to Syria, which gives them access to services and at least primary education. It has done much more than several other countries would have done.
However, there is still an issue for Syria, because of the drain on its resources, but perhaps most of all for the Iraqi refugees themselves. We met several of them. We visited several UNHCR installations, including its reception centre, and we were able to speak to and hear first hand from Iraqi refugees about their situation, which is something that we need to address.
The international community needs greater coherence around its approach to repatriation: would it be viable, and, if so, when and how are pathways to be built towards it? However, it also needs to grasp much more consistently the question of resettlement. Several Iraqi refugees told us that, because of all kinds of changes in Iraq and elsewhere, they were now looking at resettlement. If that is to be dealt with properly, it requires a co-ordinated response from the international community. The UNHCR has a great deal to say about that. We need to listen to what it has to say, because it is a major issue.
My second point on refugees concerns Palestinian refugees in Syria. I am not speaking particularly of those Palestinian refugees who are in Syria as a result of events in 1948 or 1967 but rather those who are in Syria or on its borders as a result of the conflict in Iraq. About 300 Palestinian refugees currently live in a camp in the desert—in essence, they are cut off from many facilities. Again, that is a humanitarian issue that we need to address.
My hon. Friend the Minister will not have come here today prepared to speak about the Palestinian refugees, but I would ask him, if he is not able to say much about them today, to look into the situation, and to consider what we and the international community are doing to try to ease their plight. To some extent, they are the forgotten refugees arising out of the Iraq conflict, but they deserve to be forgotten no longer.
Like others, I did not come here intending to speak this morning, Mr. Caton, but I am tempted to my feet. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend Mr. Spring—I hope that he still considers himself to be a friend. He shows great understanding of the issues and the countries involved, and he made his contribution with characteristic courtesy to the House and other Members. He knows much more about the issue than I ever will.
I called a meeting in the House on Monday evening of Iraqi Christians, and I would like to say just a few words about it. It was a bit harrowing: many difficult stories were told of kidnappings, and violence, extortion and threats against various minorities. Several witnesses at the meeting explained the problems of split families; that is, families that have been separated, with members scattered around various countries including Iraq, Syria and Jordan, and as far afield as Scandinavia, north Africa and this country. The principle of family reunion is given insufficient weight by our Government and other Governments, the UNHCR and other organisations. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and will consider carefully what the Government can do to lead the international field in trying to put those families back together, and to stop the persecution of Iraqi Christians.
There is clearly a backlog of old asylum claims in the UK, which is another urgent issue—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the courtesy of his comments. He might not be aware that although a substantial percentage of Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians, they come from a variety of faiths, but do not live in separate conditions. It is interesting how the pervasive culture of Syria has influenced them, and that the tensions that existed between those communities in Iraq have evaporated as they live side by side in Syria.
I am grateful for that clarification. My comments were aimed essentially at the difficulties that arise in Iraq rather than in Syria. As with Thailand and Burma, neighbouring countries often act as host and suffer great pressure from the refugee problem, but do magnificent work. We must encourage them to continue that, and we must tackle the refugee problem worldwide. I am sure that the Minister has taken on that message. I thank you, Mr. Caton, for allowing me to give it.
Like other hon. Members, I did not intend to make a speech today, but I was galvanised into doing so by the eloquence of my very good friend, Mr. Spring and his excellent speech. I will make a couple of short points.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a comprehensive resolution of the intractable problems in the middle east requires engagement with Syria. As he rightly pointed out, the British Syrian Society has played a valuable role in seeking to build relations with that country, and I pay tribute to those who have been involved. I am honoured to be a member of its board.
My hon. Friend Richard Burden made the valid point that it is in Israel's interest to engage with Syria, but there will be positive engagement only if the Golan issue is resolved. He rightly said that the Golan heights are often referred to as a mountain, but it is a region, and a large one housing many people, many of whom, sadly, have been displaced. Those issues must be resolved because that is crucial to a lasting normalisation of relations between Syria and Israel. It is obvious from my discussions in Syria that the Syrian Government are willing, able and want to engage with western Governments and to play a part in bringing about lasting normalisation and a just settlement of the intractable problems in the middle east.
The problem is not just the issues between Israel and Syria, but the wider issues of the Palestinians and a viable Palestinian state. That is not the subject of this debate, but I am becoming more and more sceptical about whether there will be a two-state solution. The intractable problems between Fatah and Hamas, and the fact that the two parts of an embryonic Palestinian state are divided by a piece of land that was Israeli territory prior to 1967 leads me to question more and more whether there can be a viable two-state solution. It is possible that there could eventually be a three or even four-state solution in the middle east, but that is not the subject of this debate. The debate today is about Syria, our relations with it, and its role in bringing about a resolution of middle east problems. I commend the hon. Member for West Suffolk on initiating it.
Mr. Goodman made an excellent point about the role that Syria can play in wider Islamic theology. Under its constitution, Syria is a secular state. I am impressed by and admire the fact that different religions exist in the state and seem to do so in a relationship that is respectful of one another's differences. Like him, however, I am becoming more and more concerned about the export of Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, and the effect of that on communities in western countries such as the United Kingdom where large Muslim populations live. Unless one lives in areas where that can be seen daily, as he and I do, it is difficult to understand how destructive Wahhabism can be. However, unless we treat the issue seriously and address it, it poses a threat to the cohesion of good community relations in the United Kingdom and other western countries. I hope that that will be taken on board.
It is important to have this debate today. It is important also that the British Government treat seriously the messages that Syria is sending that it wants to engage and to be fully involved in assisting with bringing about a resolution of some of the problems in the middle east. I am sure that the Government are aware that Syria stands ready, willing and able to help, but that the Golan issue must be resolved. I commend what other hon. Members have said. Israel must treat seriously Syria's concerns about the Golan, and it must negotiate and come to an agreement with Syria, whether that is a bilateral agreement or part of a wider agreement in the middle east.
I congratulate Mr. Spring on securing this debate and on the way in which he introduced it. He clearly has great expertise, and the way in which he outlined the historical context and more recent developments set the tone for an interesting and productive debate. I welcome the Minister to his position. I am sure that this will be the first of many interesting and enjoyable debates on a wide variety of foreign policy issues.
This is a good time to debate Syria and the middle east, not least because of recent developments in the region and the change in the US's approach to the middle east. Obama has made engaging with Syria a key point of his foreign policy, which is a welcome change from the Bush years, and is a cause for optimism. As has been outlined, such engagement with Syria is vital to ensuring a peaceful withdrawal from Iraq, maintaining peace and stability in Lebanon, and for the Arab-Israeli peace process, on which we all so desperately want more progress.
Historically, Syria has been more isolated because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its close ties with Iran, which have given countries reason to be cautious in their dealings with Syria. However, I argue that those are the very reasons why we must engage, because the influence that Syria has across the region makes it a vital player.
Recently, George Mitchell, the US envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, visited Damascus. That is a hugely positive step. Traditionally, the UK has been somewhat less hostile than the US towards Syria. We have maintained diplomatic relations and engage directly on regional and consular issues. That approach must be welcomed, because engagement is the cornerstone of how we can use influence with Syria to try to unlock some of the problems in that troubled region.
The hon. Member for West Suffolk talked about the close links between Syria and Iraq. He said that this is not the place to go over the arguments about the war, and I agree, but later today we have the Opposition-day debate on the Iraq inquiry. It is important that that inquiry, with its broader remit, is also able to consider the impact that the war had on the wider region and Britain's foreign policy objectives in the wider region, because, as he said, they have been somewhat undermined by our actions in Iraq.
There is the issue of Syria having allowed insurgents to cross the border into Iraq, which has made the situation there much more difficult. According to the eighth report of 2006-07 from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Syria expert Patrick Seale said that Syria had allowed "a few Jihadists" to "go across that territory" because
"the Syrians do not want the Americans to have too easy a time in Iraq, because they think that the Americans will win there and they will be next."
That sense of vulnerability and concern will have been a key motivator in Syria's decisions. I hope that now, with the change of approach, the Syrians will have some confidence that they will not be next and that that will help to build trust in order for them to clamp down on insurgency crossings into Iraq. Obviously, there is a fear with the troop withdrawal and handover that this will be a vulnerable time in Iraq and insurgency activity could instead increase.
The situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria was mentioned by Richard Burden. It was interesting for us to hear about his experiences seeing the refugee camps at first hand and to hear the positive stories that he had to tell about education and development there, but clearly the situation places huge stress on Syria. That strengthens the case for pointing out to Syria that it is in its interests to engage more regionally and to have a prosperous and stable Iraq next door, not only to act as a trading partner but to facilitate the return of refugees, at an appropriate pace, and to lessen the burden that Syria is experiencing. In foreign diplomacy, using the self-interest of countries to encourage certain behaviour is often the most successful approach.
The hon. Lady is right to say that repatriation of some Iraqi refugees will be the right option, but the point that I was trying to make and the issue that we need to tackle as an international community—this is certainly the view of a number of the Iraqi refugees themselves—is that a programme for resettlement elsewhere may be the long-term solution for a number of those refugees. In some cases that will be in Syria and the middle east; in other cases it will be in the wider world. We need to think through how that will be achieved.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which highlights the importance of Syria being part of the wider engagement, because creating such a solution will not happen with just one country; it needs to be part of a much wider discussion.
During my visits to Syria, I have talked about that issue as well. Given the work that the Syrian Government have done in absorbing perhaps 1 million or more refugees and giving them health care, education and housing, surely the international community, purely on a humanitarian level, should be doing more in giving some sort of funding towards that to support the Syrian Government.
I certainly think that the Syrian Government should be praised for what they have done. No doubt the humanitarian agencies will be involved, and they should be involved. I will not go into all the arguments about the Iraq war, but particularly where we have contributed to problems and to what I view as a terrible mistake, we have a responsibility to help to clear up the mess that we have made and to provide such support.
On Israel and Palestine, I was intrigued by the comments of Mr. Godsiff. I was feeling slightly despondent when he talked about being unable to see a two-state solution. As someone who supports a two-state solution, I thought that perhaps it was going to be a pessimistic comment, but I was interested to hear his suggestion that in fact a three or four-state solution might be the end point. I do not know whether that will be the case, but whether it is two, three or four, the word "solution" is what matters. That is surely the end that we all want.
Clearly, Syria will play a vital role in that. Various hon. Members mentioned the key importance of the Golan heights in getting Syria involved in the peace process. That is obviously a bottom line for the Syrians. Unlike many hon. Members in the debate, I have not been to Syria, but I did go to the Golan heights on a trip to Israel some years ago. It is clearly a much contested piece of land but, as was also pointed out, it is not just a territorial dispute. There is the human aspect in terms of displacement. What surprised me somewhat when I went there was the strategic importance of that land in terms of water—that key resource that sometimes in the UK we have far too much of with our climate, but which in drier areas of the world can be a strategically important resource. I think that, increasingly, water will replace oil as the key resource that might be in a position to provoke conflict. We need to be aware of that.
With regard to Israel's approach, Netanyahu was promising before the election not to return the Golan heights, but there is some cause for optimism, in that his stance may have softened when he told George Mitchell:
"I am unwilling to commit in advance to a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights."
That seems to constitute a move from his pre-election position. It is not yet clear whether it could be a concession that he would make later. The basing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus gives Syria an obvious role, potentially, in the peace negotiations. If we can resolve the issue of the Golan heights, Syria might be more willing to exert influence over Hamas to support the peace process.
There is a key economic imperative in considering the situation with Syria. Its isolation and the suspension of the EU trade association agreement, which was mentioned, have clearly caused difficulties for Syria. There is a danger in Syria being too isolated and ending up too dependent on Iran. They have obviously had close ties and that is a potential danger. Perhaps if Syria were to distance itself a little more from Iran, some of the other negotiations might end up being easier. Although the EU trade association agreement suspension in 2005 was put in place for sound reasons, it might end up being counter-productive, so it is worth considering again how we could shift economic incentives to encourage Syria to play a fuller role in the international community, including the trading ties that come with that.
The situation in Iran is moving incredibly quickly. Syria will be keeping a close eye on the demonstrations, perhaps with the fear that they might provoke similar unrest in Syria. I am sure that the Minister will mention the diplomatic developments over the past few days with the expulsion of the diplomats. I am sure that that is of great concern to us all, as have been the pictures of violence on our television screens. Just from a human point of view, they cannot be ignored. However, I think that it is right that the Government and Britain generally have not intervened and sought to tell the Iranians what to do. History shows that that type of intervention will not be helpful, so the Government have taken the right view on the issue.
The Government's approach to Syria is broadly welcome, because regular engagement and making progress step by step has to be the right way forward. Syria is clearly suffering financially because of the EU trade suspension, US sanctions, the fact that its oil reserves are going down and repeated drought, which goes back to what I said about water. There is also the huge burden, which it has been bearing well—it is living up to its humanitarian responsibilities—in relation to the influx of Iraqi refugees.
That brings dangers and opportunities. The situation is difficult for the Syrian people, and if they are allowed to continue in isolation, they could become closer to Iran. However, the UK, the EU and the US have an opportunity to offer new economic incentives to promote political reform and co-operation, particularly on Iraq and the peace process in Israel and Palestine.
Engagement in the region, including direct bilateral engagement with Syria, is important. The Government are taking broadly the right approach, but it is right that the House continues to discuss these issues. We hope that there will continue to be positive developments, but we should return to the issue regularly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Spring on his success in securing the debate. I pay tribute to the work that he has done throughout his time in the House of Commons to enhance and improve understanding between Syria and the United Kingdom. Members from all political parties have benefited over the years from his expertise and, indeed, his detailed understanding of the retail opportunities for western visitors to Aleppo and Damascus. He is probably the best guide that a new visitor to Syria could have, because, as he showed in his opening remarks, he understands its history and the important role that it, and Damascus in particular, plays in the religious, cultural and political history of the entire region.
I want to say a few words about economic issues, human rights and regional and foreign policy questions. I want to start, however, by welcoming the steps that the Government have taken over the past 12 months or so, and that the new United States Administration have taken, to engage with the Government of Syria. For quite a long time, my party's view has been that nothing is to be gained from seeking to isolate the Syrian Government. Although there remain profound differences of interest and attitude between this country and Syria, our national interest has not been served by pursuing a policy of isolating Damascus, and recent history shows that such a policy has, if anything, been counter-productive. I therefore welcome the steps taken by the Foreign Secretary and the US Administration in recent months, and I wish them success.
However, it is also important that we seek engagement not simply for its own sake, but with a view to pursuing our national interests in the broadest sense of the term, and that brings me to economic development. Taking steps to strengthen the economic links between Syria and the UK will bring opportunities for our two countries. During my visit to Damascus in January, more than one senior Syrian leader clearly told me that the UK was allowing other European countries to steal a march on it in terms of involvement in developing the Syrian economy. If there are contracts and jobs going, I would like them to go to the UK, rather than to Germany, France or Italy.
I apologise for being so late, but I was speaking at a conference, and I have come straight here. I want to follow on from my hon. Friend's point, because I was in Damascus in April, and Deputy Prime Minister al-Dardari made absolutely the same point. Given this country's strategic strength in financial services—notwithstanding what is happening in the world at the moment—and Syria's ambition to make more of Damascus as a financial centre, it is key that we exploit the situation and link with Syria to ensure that our national interest is protected.
My hon. Friend puts the point very well. The welcome decision in March to reopen the Damascus securities exchange after half a century of closure was a welcome step. Such moves provide openings for the British financial services industry, and one thing that Syria will need in developing its commerce is capital.
When the Minister responds, I would be interested to hear what the Government's attitude is towards the EU-Syria association agreement. An updated version of the agreement was initialled in December 2008, but approval awaits a decision by member states. Does Britain regard progress on that updated agreement as conditional on further improvement in political relationships between Europe and Syria, or will it be judged only on economic and commercial criteria?
There are also opportunities for the UK in public administration. Another point that was made to me in Damascus was that Syria recognises the need to improve the quality of her public administration and would be looking to this country and other western partners to help in that project. I hope that we can take advantage of such opportunities, but, again, there is an issue that I want to raise with the Government. In the fairly recent past, there have been exploratory conversations between London and Damascus about giving such assistance, but they fell foul of the theology of the Department for International Development because Syria is not one of the poorest countries in the world. Although improving the capacity of Syria's public administration would be very much in the UK's national interest, DFID felt that it was unable to be of assistance, and as the Minister and I know, the Foreign Office budget is not exactly overflowing with gold pieces. There is therefore an issue for the Government to consider. Offering Syria such help may accord with our national interest, but the ways of providing it are being blocked.
On human rights, the evidence of religious toleration within Syria's overall secular framework is striking. It is at its most striking when one goes to the ancient central mosque in Damascus and sees the Christian shrine to the head of John the Baptist in the centre of the Muslim prayer hall. Although we rightly make, and should continue to make, many criticisms of Syria's human rights record, we should applaud its record of religious toleration and the freedom that Christian Churches, in particular, have had to thrive at a time when they have been under huge pressure in much of the middle east.
My hon. Friend Mr. Goodman made a good point when he argued for steps to be taken to strengthen contact between Muslim religious scholars in Syria and their counterparts in the UK. When I met the Syrian Minister for Religious Affairs at the Oxford centre for Islamic studies, during his visit here, it seemed to me that he was interested in pursuing such an objective, and I hope that the Government will support that.
I hope, also, that the Minister will confirm that, while seeking better relations with Syria, the Government will not hold back from frank conversations about human rights. The 2009 Amnesty International report on Syria says that hundreds of people were arrested or detained for political reasons, that torture is still committed with impunity and that the military police in Syria were reported to have killed at least 17 detainees. We should not shrink from frank discussion with the Syrian Government about those abuses of human rights. In addition to bilateral conversations, if institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Council are to work, and to be more than window dressing, we must show, along with other European countries, that we are prepared to hold countries around the world, friends and adversaries alike, to account within that forum for their human rights record.
I want to talk finally about foreign and regional policy. Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I hope that despite the difficulties of the past six months a way can be found to restart the talks hosted by Turkey that brought Israel and Syria, at least indirectly, into a conversation about a peace settlement and, in particular, the future of the Golan heights. Such a settlement, to which they came desperately close a few years ago, is in their strategic interest. Although anyone who considers Israeli-Syrian relations can understand the legacy of bitterness and mistrust at personal and national levels, such an agreement is in the interest of both countries.
It should be possible to achieve a deal on borders and demilitarisation arrangements, lease-back arrangements for particular peaks, and water, but other issues must be dealt with if there is to be an enduring settlement. Those involve Syria's relationship with the Palestinians. I hope that the Syrian track will be pursued; I suspect that it will be very difficult to disentangle a Syrian track to peace talks wholly from the Palestinian peace track. Two issues will have to be addressed. The first is Syria's relationship with Hamas. As we all know, Syria plays host to Khaled Mashal and one of the Hamas factions. I would be interested to know the Government's assessment of whether Damascus is trying to promote Palestinian unity, because it is difficult to envisage an enduring settlement between Israel and the Palestinians without a measure of Palestinian unity. Nor do I see that such Palestinian unity and a deal, or even a path towards a deal, with Israel, will be attainable without Hamas making concrete progress towards meeting the Quartet conditions.
There have been statements in recent months and years by various Hamas leaders. Sometimes we get a message in articles and interviews in the western press that seems not to be matched by what is said in Arabic language media in Gaza or elsewhere in the Arab world. Certainly I have not yet seen anything that persuades me that Hamas has made concrete progress towards accepting the Quartet conditions. However, it is clear to me that Syria has a significant influence over Hamas. Yet at the time of the Gaza conflict, in the early weeks of this year, we were getting very clear reports that it was Mr. Mashal and his faction in Damascus who were taking the hardest line in opposing efforts to try to broker a ceasefire and truce, to bring at least an immediate end to that bloody conflict, which was costing both lives and livelihoods. We should like a report from the Government on their assessment of Syria's policy towards Palestinian unity and the role of Hamas; and we should like to know whether the British Government are making their views clear in their conversations with the Syrian authorities.
If there is to be an enduring Israeli-Syrian settlement, the issue of arms supplies to Hezbollah across Syrian territory will have to be addressed. I find it hard to envisage any Israeli Government of any political tradition being willing to sign up to a peace treaty with Damascus unless the issue of Hezbollah's arms is addressed. That, in turn, means attending to issues affecting Lebanon, such as the Shebaa farms, and brings into the equation Syria's relationship with Iran. It is welcome that, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said, the Lebanese elections took place peacefully, that the outcome seems to have been accepted by all parties in Lebanon as the fair outcome of the people's votes, and that there has not been the upsurge of violence or tension that many feared as the elections approached. I hope that that is a good augury for the future.
As to relations between Syria and Iran, I think the Government and Opposition would agree that we want fruitful engagement with Iran, but that the chances of that look, at the moment, sadly slim. Given Iran's history and population, it is entitled to expect us to take into account legitimate national and regional interests. It is within Iran's power to be a constructive player in the region, if it should so choose. It is sad that the current leadership seems to be turning its back on that prospect. Syria has access to the top leadership in Tehran—access that no western power enjoys. I simply ask the Minister whether the European Union or other western powers are seeking to use the Syrian channel to communicate messages to the top leadership in Tehran, as we cannot do so directly. Those conversations with Iran are so important, and the possibility of misunderstanding is so great, that even an indirect channel through Damascus is something we should be willing to use whenever possible.
I congratulate Mr. Spring on securing the debate. It is four years since we jousted on what was then called the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill. All I can say is what goes around comes around. I pay tribute to him for his tremendous work over a long time in trying to improve relationships and build awareness of the common interests between the people of Syria and the people of this country. He has played a significant leadership role in that respect.
I look forward to jousting with Mr. Lidington in our respective Front-Bench roles. I applaud the consensual tone that he took this morning. I make the same point about the contribution made by Jo Swinson. We are debating important and profound matters, and we should minimise party political differences whenever possible and fulfil our position responsibly and with a responsible tone.
I pay tribute to the work of the British Syrian Society and its aim to strengthen relationships at all levels of British and Syrian society. I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Godsiff for drawing attention to the society's contribution.
Today's debate is particularly timely, given developments in the region, of which Syria is such an important part. We are seeing increasing engagement by the Obama Administration, including, as we heard, a recent visit to Damascus by Senator Mitchell. Recent elections in Lebanon passed off smoothly, and Israel has a new Government who may be able to push forward a peace deal with Syria. For some time, the British Government have recognised the importance of the relationship between Syria and the United Kingdom, and I agree with the hon. Member for West Suffolk that Syria has a crucial role in ensuring peace, stability and prosperity in the middle east.
I turn to some of the specific points raised during the debate. Mr. Goodman and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath asked how we can reach out to moderate Muslim voices, how we can encourage much closer contact between moderates in the middle east and in the UK and how we can bring scholars and young people together.
The first thing to put on record in such a debate is that those who preach hate or engage in violence represent a bastardisation of Islam, not a manifestation of it. It is incredibly important that we should say so at every opportunity. When speaking to Muslims, both here and throughout the world, we hear that the mainstream majority want us to make that point time and again.
I turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe. We are working closely with Syrian bodies to exchange knowledge and wisdom on the question of scholars. We look forward to continuing exchanges between Syria and the United Kingdom, and the Government will most definitely support them. The British Council has programmes on student exchanges in partnership with Syrian organisations. I and my officials will be happy to brief the hon. Gentleman, so that we can discuss in more detail how those programmes should function.
My hon. Friend Richard Burden raised an important matter. He has a long track record of speaking with great passion and commitment on the middle east, but today he raised the important question of refugees. My hon. Friend will be fully aware of our considerable assistance in Iraq. For example, the Department for International Development spent £16 million last year to support agencies working directly with refugees. The Government will continue to discuss the issue with the Syrian regime and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Future support, of course, will be a matter for DFID, which is my former Department—sadly, I can no longer make spending commitments on its behalf.
My hon. Friend Bob Spink mentioned Christians. As we heard, Syria's is a rich and diverse society. When considering the plight of refugees, we should focus on supporting all refugees appropriately and improving their humanitarian situation.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire spoke of Iran, as did the hon. Member for Aylesbury. A number of things need to be said. First, we believe that the will of the people of Iran, as expressed in the recent election, must prevail. That matter must be resolved. Secondly, it was entirely inappropriate for Iran to throw out two British diplomats during the past 48 hours; there was no justification whatever for that. Unfortunately, we have been obliged to summon the Iranian ambassador in London to the Foreign Office on three occasions during the past three days. On the first occasion, the deputy ambassador arrived. On the second two occasions, senior Foreign Office representatives met the ambassador. At the most recent meetings, we were obliged to ask Iran to remove two of its diplomatic staff from London. That does not assist us in trying to improve the relationship between our two countries.
Some of the rhetoric deployed by Iran against the United Kingdom over the past few days is clearly and unequivocally unacceptable and undesirable, and it does nothing to help Iran's relationship with the UK or with the rest of the international community. Indeed, during the past 24 hours, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that Iran has a choice: it can either be a part of the international community in every way—politically and economically, and from a security point of view, it is part of the solution—or it can stand aside. The consequences of the latter will clearly not be desirable to the people of Iran.
I also thank the hon. Members for East Dunbartonshire and for Aylesbury for being supportive of the Government's position and the way in which we are interacting with Iran at this difficult time.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. For a Government to have legitimacy, credibility and authority, they must reflect the will of the people—otherwise, in whatever context they choose to identify themselves, theirs cannot claim to be a democratic country. That is clearly so, which is why the House must today repeat that message loudly and clearly and in a unified way.
The hon. Members for Aylesbury and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) raised the question of economic ties. I shall deal specifically with the European Union's relationship with Syria. We welcome the steps that have been taken towards finalising the EU-Syria association agreement. For as long as Syria continues with its recent positive political developments, we are content to move forward with the association agreement.
It is clear that EU-Syria relations cannot be conducted without reference to the wider political context, particularly Syria's commitment to the Arab peace initiative. Matters to do with democracy and, more specifically, human rights will affect Syria's ability to trade properly or fully to take advantage of its economic opportunities and the economic challenges that the world faces. In the real world, questions of democracy and human rights cannot be separated from questions of trade and economic co-operation.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about human rights affecting the ability to trade. I presume that he takes the same view of all countries in the middle east, particularly Israel. As I understand it, Government policy on the EU-Israel association agreement is that it provides a framework for encouraging progress on human rights. If that is the case for Israel, it should also be the case for Syria.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Further progress on the EU-Israel association agreement depends on progress in the middle east peace process, as has been made clear in the dialogue within the EU and between it and the state of Israel. The hon. Member for Aylesbury raised a point about the UK's ability to help Syria with governance and administration issues. We shall consider any requests for such help sympathetically. Our embassy currently has a small number of civil society projects in which we work in co-operation with the Syrian Government, and I am happy to provide him with further information about those projects if that would be useful.
I think that I have dealt, more or less, with hon. Members' specific contributions, and I now want to talk in more detail about the UK's relationship with Syria and how we envisage the latter playing a crucial role in the middle east more generally. Our dialogue with the Syrian Government has focused on engaging with Syria, using our diplomatic tools to encourage progress in certain areas and urging a change of policy in others. However, we are realistic about the issues in our so-called critical dialogue with Syria. Our eyes are wide open and—to mix my metaphors—there is no danger of the wool being pulled over them.
That is part of a wider process. As the Foreign Secretary noted, in his recent speech on Islam in Oxford, Britain has embassies in 38 Muslim-majority countries and maintains diplomatic engagement with countries with which we have disagreements. The key point is that we seek to influence through engagement and dialogue. As part of that, last year, the Foreign Secretary visited Syria—the first British Cabinet Minister to do so since 2001—and my ministerial predecessor, who is now the Minister for the Armed Forces, visited Syria in April as part of our ongoing efforts to engage with it. I hope to visit the region over the next few months. Perhaps the hon. Member for West Suffolk would like to be my guide—that was not a totally serious offer, but we shall see.
As I have noted, we discuss a number of important issues with the Syrians—issues in which we have shared and mutual interests and in which Syria, as a significant power in the region, has an important role to play. What are those issues? We welcome past movement towards dialogue between Israel and Syria—crucially on both sides. It is obvious that talks between these two countries have the potential to provide a significant contribution towards a lasting and comprehensive middle east peace process. We want talks to continue on the basis of land for peace—full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan heights in exchange for peace and security for Israel with fully normalised bilateral relations. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath and the hon. Member for Aylesbury made that point.
We must also be clear, however, about the messages that we and others in the international community send when Syria continues to support the leadership of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad or when it continues to facilitate the supply of weapons to Hezbollah. Those actions are inconsistent with the openness of Syria to talk to Israel, and these issues will have to be addressed if there is to be peace between the two. We cannot have countries sitting around the negotiating table on the one hand and supporting, fostering and encouraging terrorist activities on the other. The UK cannot support such an approach.
One issue on which Syria has an opportunity to work productively with the international community is co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency. More recently, the IAEA has raised concern over uranium particles found in Syria, and we strongly urge Syria to co-operate with the investigation and to provide, without further delay, the access that the IAEA seeks. It is unacceptable for Syria to continue to refuse access. The US has provided compelling evidence to suggest that Syria was developing a nuclear reactor, and we strongly support the mandate of the IAEA to investigate those claims.
Another important part of Syria's role in the region relates to Iraq. It is important to acknowledge the number of positive measures that the Syrian Government have taken to improve relations with the Iraqi Government—a number of high-level visits between the two and the establishment of a joint working group to help secure the Syria-Iraq border. We should welcome those very positive steps. However, it is vital, for Syria's own security and as part of building its relations with the west, that it continues on the path of taking concerted action to tackle al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. I welcome Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem's statement that tackling al-Qaeda and other groups that use Syria as a transit route for attacks in Iraq is a high priority. The UK Government have made it clear to the Syrian Government that we are prepared to support and encourage their work in that respect.
We cannot, however, tackle extremism or find a resolution to the middle east conflict without regard to the human angle. We need to give people the confidence that their state will protect them and secure their rights. Syria's record on human rights is poor. There can be no excuse for, or dismissal of, that point when discussing our relationship. The Prime Minister has argued, and I agree, that ours is a global society in which universal rights and values still leave room for extraordinarily rich and different ways of living. As the hon. Member for West Suffolk pointed out, Syrian society is rich and diverse, with a tolerance for different faiths. There is much to welcome and applaud.
As the hon. Member for Aylesbury mentioned, however, over the past year, there has been a worrying deterioration in the human rights situation in Syria. Critics of the Government—those who call for peaceful democratic reform and those who post dissenting comments on internet blogs have been imprisoned—and as much as we might be tempted to go down that path, in this country, I can assure hon. Members that it will never happen. Sadly, however, disappearances, travel bans and arbitrary detention are increasingly common. There are reports of torture during interrogation and deaths in police custody. We continue, however, to call on Syria to implement internationally agreed minimum standards on the prevention of torture.
The Syrian authorities continue to crack down on peaceful forms of expression. In the biggest collective prosecution of Syrian dissidents in the past seven years, the 12 intellectuals and activists forming the Damascus declaration group appeared for sentencing at the criminal court on
In recent months, there has also been a significant increase in arrests and harassment of Kurds. Hon. Members would like to make it clear that that is not acceptable. Kurdish rights are still not legitimised within the Syrian constitution. Three Syrian Kurds were killed after security forces opened fire on a demonstration marking Kurdish new year in March 2008. Such behaviour does not serve Syria well; nor does it help to bring peace to a region of extraordinary history and complexity.
I do not want to rehearse the history of Syria's relationship with Lebanon, because it is more useful to focus on the future. We welcome the decision by Syria and Lebanon to establish diplomatic relations and the arrival of respective ambassadors. We also welcome the peaceful conduct of elections in Lebanon and the acceptance by all parties of the outcome. These are important steps forward. However, Syria can do more. It is bound, by UN Security Council resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701, not to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs, including through material support for Hezbollah. Instead, Syria should continue its regional role in promoting stability and political progress in Lebanon, including through its relations with Saudi Arabia. Demarcation of the Syria-Lebanon border and a resolution of the issue of those missing from both sides are urgent next steps. For too long, Lebanon has suffered from external interference of one kind or another, and Syria has a role to play in ensuring that Lebanon does not again fall victim to that.
Our dialogue with Syria concerns a number of serious issues, and some might argue that we should therefore not talk at all, but, like hon. Members, I disagree. Isolation is not the answer. We should be realistic, but we shall not ignore Syria or its important role. At this time of great importance in the region, the UK will, through high-ranking Ministers and senior officials, continue to make all efforts to address all the issues between the UK and Syria. This is a timely debate. None of us needs reminding of the importance of President Obama's speech in Cairo. He acknowledged the tensions, fears and mistrust that can exist between different peoples, but he also spoke of a new beginning based on trust and respect.
Edwin H. Friedman wrote:
"Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future."
That is the challenge that Syria now faces. I am an optimist. I believe in democracy, and I urge the Syrian Government to seize the opportunity to provide the bold and far-sighted leadership that they are in a position to show. Syria can be a major part of the solution in the middle east. Integral to that will be a two-state solution based on an Israel free of terror and violence and on a viable Palestinian state.