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Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

7. What recent contact there has been between the Government and the Government of Syria; and if she will make a statement. (115407)

The British embassy in Damascus maintains regular contact with the Government of Syria. Our ambassador met President Assad of Syria and Foreign Minister Muallim on 7 January. The Prime Minister’s foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, visited Syria in late October 2006. He reiterated the Government’s hope that Syria will revise its policies to play the constructive role in the region that the international community expects.

I am grateful for that statement, but would not my hon. Friend be well advised to be cautious in approaching Syria, given the real concerns about its border to the east with Iraq, which insurgents and weapons are believed to cross, and suspicions surrounding its involvement to the west in Lebanon, where political assassinations are believed to be attributable to the Syrian Government? One can, however, imagine Syria playing a constructive role which would bring enormous relief to the region—for example, by offering a less warm haven to the political leadership of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Damascus.

I read with great interest a publication to which my right hon. Friend put her name recently, in which she reminded us that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said:

“Our dispute with Syria is simpler to sort out than the Palestinian”


“on the Golan Heights there is no Temple Mount.”

That is an interesting observation. My right hon. Friend is right: there is no question but that putting life back into those agreements between Syria and Israel would have a galvanising effect on the peace process in the middle east. She is also right to highlight the enormous difficulties that have arisen as a consequence of Syrian foreign policy in recent years. There is, however, potential for change. I very much hope that the friendlier noises that we have heard recently as a consequence of such initiatives will increase, and that Syria can become part of a constructive move to peace in the middle east.

In welcoming the visit of Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, may I ask the Minister what has flowed from it? Given the importance that the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) rightly attaches to Syria and its dealings, does the Minister agree that we should do more to engage the Russians’ interest in encouraging the Syrians to play a more responsible role?

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s observations and approach to the issue. We are pressing the Russian Government to play a more constructive role in relation to Syria. We are encouraging them to urge the Syrians to look to their eastern border with Iraq, to reconsider their relationship with Hezbollah and, probably most importantly in view of what he said, to reconsider their support of the rejectionists in Damascus, in order to improve the situation in Palestine.

On Christmas day, the 72-year-old uncle of my constituents, Talib and Dianne Elam, was shot and died when American troops attacked his house in Baghdad. The family are Kurdish, suffered terribly under Saddam, and strongly support our intervention in Iraq and the new Iraqi Government. They are now desperate to find out the circumstances surrounding their uncle’s death. Will my hon. Friend raise the issue with our American allies and ask them to provide the family with as much information as possible?

Order. I am very troubled by the story that the right hon. Gentleman tells. Unless the death took place in Syria, however, it is not relevant to this question.

As Iraqi Ministers have said publicly that they are satisfied that the vast majority of foreign jihadi terrorists enter Iraq through Syria, and as it is inconceivable that that can happen without the knowledge and acquiescence of the Syrian Government, will the Government not just respond to friendlier noises from Damascus but emphasise that no meaningful relationship can be achieved with that country unless it ceases such support?

We have made those points forcefully to President Assad on several occasions and will continue to do so; the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. He might also have said that there have been indications that some of the jihadists who are moving into Iraq do not much like the regime in Syria either, and might just decide to stay there. The Syrian secret service is more than a little worried about that.

In a similar vein, do the British Government remind the Syrians that the instability in Iraq is likely to lead to the break-up of Iraq? Given the large Kurdish minority in Syria, it too could experience pressure for secession. On a more positive note, my hon. Friend made the important point that Syria can have a galvanising effect in the region if it comes on board on the right side. We might want it to have a galvanising effect on Hezbollah: to bring it out of violence and into the political process.

My hon. Friend is right. We are very worried about Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah. We know from intelligence that we have received from various sources that weapons are still moving across the Syrian-Lebanese border and down to Hezbollah. That is deplorable, and of course runs counter to the United Nations Security Council resolutions that forbid it.

The United Nations’ estimate of 35,000 civilians killed last year will, I think, dispel any lingering doubt that Iraq is in a state of civil war, and the resolution of that will desperately need Syria’s involvement. How can we reconcile the United Kingdom Government’s efforts in support of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which favour engagement with Syria, with the White House’s rejection of that policy and engagement with a strategy involving, apparently, “seek and destroy” and hot pursuit across Syria’s borders?

I was encouraged to hear Condoleezza Rice say that she was prepared to go anywhere to pursue peace in the middle east, although I am not sure that she was specific about Syria. The hon. Gentleman must remember, however, that the House and the Government are responsible for British foreign policy, not American foreign policy. We will continue to do what we think is in the best interests of the British people.

Given that last weekend the President of Iraq went to Damascus to discuss with the President of Syria the sealing of the borders and exchange of security and intelligence information, is there not a strong case—in line with the Baker recommendations, and in the interests of our soldiers serving in Iraq—for discussions at ministerial level between the British Government and the Government of Syria?

We have regularly made clear—through the Prime Minister’s foreign affairs adviser and others, including our ambassador—that we deplore the fact that on occasion jihadists have been allowed to move through Syria and into Iraq to threaten our soldiers. We heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) what happens when certain elements disrupt society in Iraq and allow an anarchic situation in which people are killed at very high rates and very regularly. We have made very clear to the Syrians that we expect them to guard their frontier properly, and to ensure that jihadists do not move through Syria into Iraq to threaten our troops.

The Minister said a few moments ago that it was the role of the House and, indeed, Ministers to speak on behalf of British foreign policy. May I return him to what many people think is a distinct lack of coherence between the approaches of our Government and the American Government to involving Syria in the situation in Iraq? The Prime Minister spoke forcefully in support of the Iraq Study Group’s proposal that Syria should be engaged, and the Foreign Secretary herself said that she too supported it. Obviously Sir Nigel Sheinwald had been there. Yet, to all intents and purposes, President Bush has rejected the idea. What influence have the Government on the United States Government when it comes to engaging Syria fully in the process?

I would argue that we have as much influence as any country—outside the United States—on the face of the earth, and we will continue to argue the case in which we believe. That includes trying to engage with the Syrians and anyone else who is likely to make the situation better, not just in Iraq but in the middle east in general.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that there have been some very welcome moves recently. The Syrians are setting up an embassy in Baghdad, and the Iraqis have a reciprocal arrangement in Damascus. It is very good news that the two countries are establishing stronger diplomatic links: that must be seen as a positive development.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must keep stating what we believe in, and we will continue to talk to whoever we think will make the position better than it is at present.

What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the recent statements of Khaled Meshal, who is thought to direct Hamas policy in Palestine from his base in Damascus? He recently said that Israel is a “reality” and that

“there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact”.

Does my hon. Friend think that that statement is sufficient to begin at least some third-party connections with Hamas, which is, after all, the elected Government of Palestine? Does he understand that many of us believe that we cannot talk only to Fatah in Palestine, but that there must somehow be a means of communicating with Hamas as well?

A debate is going on within Hamas about its attitude towards Israel. At the conclusion of that debate we should know whether it has moved in a direction that enables us to have a constructive conversation with it, but we cannot have a conversation with a political party—or a Government at present—that pays suicide bombers to kill innocent Israelis, any more than we could have one with any other despotic regime anywhere in the world. I recognise the validity of the proper democratic process by which Hamas was elected, but the British Government should not give money to a Government anywhere in the world that has such aims and carries out such terrorism. If Hamas shows signs of moving towards recognition of Israel, we will have to look seriously at that development, but until that happens we must dine with Hamas with a very long spoon.