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Syria

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2007

In our regular and ongoing discussions with the United States, relations with Syria feature from time to time. The UK and the US have some of the same concerns. We would like to have an improved relationship with Syria, but that requires them to play a more constructive role in the region.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does she agree that, since it is now increasingly difficult to persuade the public in Israel of the value of unilateral withdrawals from territory, one of the best hopes of forwarding the peace process lies in improving relations with Syria and persuading them to engage in constructive negotiations with Israel? Will she do all she can to persuade the United States to forward that initiative, particularly to persuade them that if a breakthrough can be achieved with Syria, that might influence in turn the Hamas members of the Palestinian Government?

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. It is certainly the case that most people would like nothing better than to see constructive negotiations taking place, as she suggests, to address some of the difficult and complex issues in the middle east. There is really no need for me to persuade the United States: the US, in common with ourselves, would like nothing better than to feel that there is a possibility of constructive discussion and negotiation with Syria over a number of these issues—not least, as my hon. Friend says, in the context of the influence on Hamas. Sadly, although we constantly look for signs that that is the approach, it is not yet as evident as we would like.

Since Syria seems to continue to violate UN resolution 1701 by allowing the smuggling of arms into southern Lebanon, what effective steps are the Government taking to prevent Syrian interference in the fragility of southern Lebanon, to prevent the rearming of Hezbollah and, of course, to obtain the release of the Israeli soldiers?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there are now more than 11,000 UNIFIL soldiers in Lebanon; he will also know that we are not direct contributors to that force, but we are nevertheless acting in support of it in so far as we can. He is right to say that there are continued and rather alarming allegations of continued flow of arms across the border. We are in continuing discussion with our colleagues, not least our German colleagues, who are active on the ground in that respect and we are doing what we can to help and support them. The hon. Gentleman will know that the concern that he has just expressed is shared by the whole international community—not least by the UN Secretary-General, who expressed exactly the same anxieties quite recently.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the very close links between the Syrian communities and the Iraqi communities. She will also be aware not only of the historic links, but of significant migration from Iraq to Syria over the last three or four years. In her discussions with the Syrian Government, has she raised the issue of the Syrian relationship with the future in Iraq—looking to the time when there will, hopefully, be a withdrawal of troops—and asked the Syrian Government their view of the future political settlement within Iraq?

First, my hon. Friend is entirely right—I know that he is aware of these issues from his ministerial experience—about the relationships between the communities of Syria and Iraq. He will know that not long ago Syria opened an embassy in Iraq, which we welcome. Perhaps more importantly, continued discussion between the Government of Syria and the Government of Iraq is taking place on these issues. For our part, we continue in dialogue with the Syrian Government to encourage them to adopt a better relationship with the Government and the people of Iraq and to recognise their responsibilities for helping the Government of Iraq to deal with the security situation and other problems there. We have not discussed possible future relationships with Iraq as a whole other than to urge support for the present democratically elected Iraqi Government.

It is the view of the Syrian Government that the last serious negotiations over the Golan and Israel were stymied by the intervention of the United States. What is the Foreign Secretary’s view? Would it not be better for us to support those members of the Syrian Government who are anxious to advance a deal and to act responsibility, as she has requested?

Whoever may have been responsible for the breakdown of talks on previous occasions, everyone recognises that, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), these issues can only and best be resolved through continued negotiation. The hon. Gentleman will know that proposals about what should happen in the Golan are part of the road map and would be subject to any final status decisions on the outcome of negotiations over that road map. There is certainly strong recognition that these issues are linked and that they are and should be part of the same peace process. The hon. Gentleman will know of the strong drive to reinvigorate that process.

Is the Secretary of State not concerned about regional security, including that of Syria, given the emerging reports about the US planning for a military attack on Iran? Do the UK Government not agree that military threats—

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us whether any positive results came from the visit by Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Syria in October? From her opening response, it sounds as though no such positive results were achieved. Are there any further plans for such visits by envoys to Syria in the coming months? Given that the Baker-Hamilton report called for a new diplomatic offensive by the United States to engage Syria in constructive policies, and that the Prime Minister appeared to endorse those calls in his speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November, is the United States now showing any signs of being prepared to engage with Syria in that way, if the intention were reciprocated? Would it not be a great mistake for the United States not to be prepared to do so?

There were indeed positive results, in that Syria expressed a willingness to become more constructively engaged with the Government of Iraq. Shortly thereafter, there followed a visit by the Syrian Foreign Minister to Iraq and further discussions between the two Governments. I believe also that it is not long since the President of Iraq went to Syria, and, as I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), Syria has now set up an embassy in Iraq. So, yes, there were positive results, and we continue to look for further signs of Syrian willingness to act more constructively in the region. We therefore continue to keep under consideration whether there would be merit in further contacts in the coming months, as does the European Union, where there is much discussion on whether and how it would be possible to encourage a more constructive relationship with Syria. The question of whether the United States should have more contact with Syria, if the willingness to do so were thought to be reciprocal, is a matter for the Government of the United States.