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Syria and Lebanon

Volume 541: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2012

Before we begin, I announce that I intend to call the Minister 10 minutes before the end of the debate, at 10 to 5.

In January I joined a parliamentary delegation to Lebanon, organised by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). We set out to examine the effect of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, to meet with Syrians, including opposition representatives and refugees, in particular in the border areas, and to speak with Lebanese politicians about their perspective on the crisis.

Lebanon and Syria are two countries whose geography was once one, whose history is shared, whose ethnic and sectarian make-up is similar and whose economies are intertwined. Lebanon’s sole functioning land border is with Syria, from where it gets many of its food imports, while Syria depends on Lebanon for banking and financial services. Lebanon is possibly the most affected of the neighbouring countries by the crisis inside Syria and is an example of why that crisis, in contrast to the Libya situation perhaps, is so dangerous to the border region.

The impact of the crisis is felt in many ways, at security, political, economic, confessional and ethnic levels, each of which I shall touch on briefly. On security, Syria presents a serious risk to Lebanon. I will come on to refugees later, but their numbers, which are increasing at present, will undoubtedly affect the sectarian and political balance in Lebanon. Even before the crisis, an estimated 300,000 Syrian workers were in Lebanon, all with families inside Syria. Many Syrian opposition activists, some of whom we met, are active from within Lebanon. Many told us that it was and is unsafe for them in Beirut, where they feel monitored by supporters of the Syrian regime.

We visited Tripoli, and sectarian clashes were clearly a possibility, especially along the fault line between the Sunni and Alawi areas—sadly, subsequently, three deaths resulted in February. The security situation has not been helped by Syrian interference in Lebanon; there has been a series of kidnappings in the Bekaa valley in recent weeks, as a result of the security vacuum in the border area, some apparently for money but others clearly political. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), what representations the British Government have made to the Lebanese Government about their responsibilities towards Syrians living in Lebanon. In Lebanon, we heard many unsubstantiated accusations of al-Qaeda activity in the Bekaa valley, but many Lebanese to whom we spoke were dubious. Has the Minister received reports of such activity, and what is his assessment of what is happening in the Bekaa valley?

Politically, Lebanese politics is polarised into two groups, those who support Assad and those who do not, referred to as the coalitions of 8 March and of 14 March. Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon and remains supportive of Assad. Critical questions that everyone was asking when we were in Lebanon were about how strong that support is and what Hezbollah’s position would be as and when the crisis in Syria deepens. I ask the Minister whether the Government will sanction discussions with the 8 March parliamentary bloc about the Syria crisis. It is important for us to persuade that group of the advantages to Lebanon of not becoming directly involved in the internal affairs of its neighbour.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate on this important issue. On the position of Syrians in Lebanon, there is an assertion that, predominantly, the security forces in Lebanon are very much unsympathetic to those opposing the Assad regime. Did he see evidence of that?

The picture is, indeed, complex. Broadly speaking, the 14 March coalition is opposed to Assad and 8 March is broadly sympathetic. Clearly, Hezbollah has strong connections with the Assad regime and, if we are to take its views at face value, it places a great deal of importance on maintaining that regime, but we heard conflicting views about who was standing where exactly. As the situation in Syria deteriorates, we are yet to see what will happen in Lebanon, and that is one of the issues that I am raising in the debate. Does the Minister agree, if I may put it this way, that there are all the ingredients for potential civil conflict and tension within Lebanon, the tragic history of which we all know?

On minorities, there are almost 300,000 registered Palestinian refugees, living mainly in 12 UN refugee camps and some 20 unofficial camps. We visited two camps during our visit to Lebanon, and it became painfully clear that the Syria crisis has polarised opinion in an already difficult situation, so the Syrian problems are not helping the future of the Palestinian people living in Lebanon. There is also minority solidarity; Lebanese Alawis are of course concerned about the fate of their Syrian counterparts, as are the Druze, the Sunnis and the Christians. Recently, even the Maronite patriarch was moved to support the Assad regime, claiming—I have to say, somewhat ludicrously—that it was the most democratic Government in the region. Similarly in Turkey, the Turkish authorities fear the effect of the Syrian crisis on their Arab Alawi population and their Kurdish community.

The two countries are somewhat dependent economically. Sanctions are hitting Lebanon as well as Syria, and tourism is down. Many of the communities that we visited close to the border were dependent on smuggling, and those communities are suffering the substantial additional burden of hosting the refugees. Does the Minister agree that the international community should look at how to assist Lebanon in handling the economic impact of the crisis in Syria?

The most important consideration is the refugees. The UN is reporting that, following the crisis in Homs and the shelling of other areas in Syria close to the Lebanese border, between 1,000 and 2,000 refugees are trying to cross the border. That is in addition to the some 7,000 refugees already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the north and the many thousands unregistered in Lebanon; the UN estimates that around 1,500 vulnerable Syrian refugees are in southern Beirut. The total number of refugees, according to the UNHCR, now exceeds 15,000 and is growing fast. According to Save the Children, about one quarter of those refugees are children under the age of four.

We visited Tripoli and Wadi Khaled, close to the border, where refugees were being hosted. Their stories confirmed the litany of horrors that we have all heard concerning the events in Syria and in Homs in particular. There were no refugee camps, and people were surviving in abandoned homes and other buildings, frequently with no heating and inadequate shelter. They were dependent on Lebanese families, some of whom were relatives, who were already incredibly deprived, and had lost out due to the absence of cross-border trade.

The Red Cross told us that it could cope with perhaps another 2,000 refugees before pressing the panic button. That was in January, and during the two months since then that figure has been overtaken. Many of the refugees were entering Lebanon via the Bekaa valley, a Hezbollah-controlled, Shia-dominated area. That was, and is creating tensions. All the refugees were fearful of the Lebanese security forces, and many were too scared to register with the UN, fearing that their details would be shared with the Lebanese authorities.

The UNHCR was operating in far from perfect conditions regarding the status of the Syrian refugees. Under international law, they are clearly refugees, and deserve all the rights and protections that go with that status. However, Lebanon has always been deeply sensitive about refugees, and prefers to refer to them as Syrians fleeing the unrest. The Lebanese Government would not recognise them, nor grant them their legitimate rights; for example, they have not issued them with refugee IDs. As a result, they cannot leave the border areas. Our understanding from the UNHCR is that immediate additional funding is needed to cope with the crisis. What assistance is the UK providing to UNHCR? Will the Minister consider providing further assistance as a matter of urgency to help with the looming crisis in that country?

What did the Minister make of the recent comments by the Lebanese President that the influx of some Syrian families into Lebanon as a result of the turbulence does not constitute a major problem because they can “stay with their relatives”? He continued:

“We are treating the Syrians who fled as families, as relatives and not as refugees.”

Do the Government accept that they are genuine refugees? What discussions have there been with the Lebanese authorities on their responsibilities to recognise and protect refugees, and accord them their full rights under international law? What plans have the Government made with their international partners about the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in Syria if the economy there crashes, the security situation deteriorates even further, and the regime falls, which is a real possibility, leaving chaos in its wake? Have the Government discussed contingency plans with their Lebanese counterparts? In particular, has the Minister raised the issue of humanitarian access from Syria to Lebanon? What support can the EU and the UK give to the UNHCR to meet its needs should that happen?

The situation in Syria is critical and deteriorating, and that is having a significant impact on Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that the Government are not only monitoring the situation in that country, but are ready to take action to support those in need at the present time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on obtaining this debate. It is absolutely the right time for the House to be discussing the issue in greater depth than we have been able to do so far. The humanitarian situation in Syria is clearly of enormous international concern, and is frankly nothing short of outrageous, which is an overused word.

My hon. Friend and I met a young boy in hospital in the north of Lebanon, who had been severely injured by what was probably a nail bomb used by the Syrian authorities, perhaps the armed forces, to make war on children, in this case on a child of four or five. The Syrians’ medical skills saved his leg, and that is a great triumph, but it belies the fact that many other children have been killed in the conflict. The plight of refugees in Lebanon is genuinely pitiful. My hon. Friend made the important point that the Lebanese Government do not accord refugees any form of proper status under international law, so they are outwith what international law dictates they should do. I again ask the Minister whether it is possible to exert pressure on the Lebanese authorities to reconsider the matter, because that would make a material difference to the way in which refugees can be treated in Lebanon.

As my hon. Friend said, many refugees in Lebanon are housed with family and friends, but sometimes with total strangers. We saw families with many children packed into small rooms, sometimes without fathers, and often without proper access to financial support. Their plight is difficult, because many refugees are not registered with the UNHCR. Of the 15,000 or 16,000 refugees in Lebanon, perhaps only half are registered with the UNHCR, and depend on assistance from groups such as Save the Children, or perhaps friends and relatives, but the problem of what aid is available to the UNHCR and its assessment of need is a real one. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on what the international community is doing in that context.

The other issue that I want to put on the record is the need to recognise that what is taking place in Syria is enormously important in its own right, but may also have a hugely destabilising effect on Lebanon, a country that has known massive destabilisation for many years. Frankly, the region cannot afford to have Lebanon plunged again into crisis, because that would have an impact not only on Lebanon, but on its neighbours, including Israel, and the capacity for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on. The issues are much more than those that apply to a country that in recent times has received relatively little attention in our media.

The humanitarian crisis and political destabilisation are extremely toxic, and I hope that the Minister can provide some assurance that at international level the situation in Lebanon is at least part of the consideration as we rightly debate internationally how to push Syria towards a better future, how to get rid of the vile Assad regime in Damascus, and how to move the whole region to a better place.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) on securing an Adjournment debate on this important subject. He is extremely knowledgeable and experienced. As he explained, Syria and Lebanon have an intertwined history, and what happens in each affects the other. The Assad regime has long played an unhelpful role in Lebanon. In addition to ensuring a peaceful transition in Syria and ending the atrocities there as soon as possible, an important priority of this Government is to ensure that stability in Lebanon is not another victim of Assad’s repression.

Let me first address what is happening in Syria, and what we are doing about it. 15 March will mark the passing of the first anniversary of the Syrian regime’s sustained and brutal violence against its own people. In the last year, the UN has estimated that more than 7,500 people, including 380 children, have been killed. As the hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central (Tony Lloyd) said, the suffering is appalling, and the suffering of so many children is atrocious.

As well as the large number of people who have been killed, the Syrian regime is engaging in an horrific campaign of repression through widespread and systematic human rights violations, including the torture and rape of men, women and children. In recent days, much of the focus has been on Homs, where the Syrian regime has conducted a campaign of indiscriminate shelling and violence against the civilian population. Reports from Paul Conroy and other brave journalists demonstrate the appalling human suffering inflicted by the regime. The Syrian Government must bring an immediate end to violence across the whole of Syria, in Homs, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and elsewhere.

The Minister will know that the European Union imposed crippling sanctions on the Assad regime in order to stop the killing and repression. Is he concerned that to a certain extent Syria has been able to wriggle out of those sanctions by working with banks and financial institutions in Lebanon?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that, and I shall cover it in some detail in a moment. As I understand it, 114 individuals and 39 entities are now subjected to asset freezes and travel bans. The latest round of sanctions, which was agreed at the end of February, included freezing the assets of the Central Bank of Syria and restricting the regime’s access to the gold and precious metal markets. We will look into my hon. Friend’s point about Lebanon and Lebanese banks that may also operate in Syria, and I will make sure that I write to him about that.

We are gravely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, and the actions of the regime are making it incredibly difficult for humanitarian agencies to respond. The UK is doing all it can to address the humanitarian situation in that challenging context. We are providing funding, as well as stepping up political pressure on the Syrian Government to allow unimpeded access to the UN and aid agencies, a full assessment of civilian needs, and the delivery of vital relief goods to all those affected by violence.

We fully support the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Baroness Amos, in her plans to visit Syria to negotiate for humanitarian access and gain a better assessment of needs on the ground. I was fortunate enough to meet Baroness Amos last Monday in New York. She is now in Syria and we urge the Syrian Government to allow her full access to travel safely and freely in the region.

President Assad continues to exert brutal military force against his own people, and he is responsible for the appalling situation in Syria. We believe that he has lost legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead his country. As the Government have repeatedly made clear, he should step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.

It is vital that those committing these awful crimes are held accountable for their actions. We have sent experts to the region to help gather and document evidence of human rights violations and abuses, and they will work closely with UN agencies, NGOs and other key organisations. The UK fully supports the Arab League’s efforts to end the violence in Syria and its plan for a Syrian-led political solution to the crisis. The establishment of a Friends of Syria group of over 60 countries is a further important step towards putting in place a political plan that addresses the concerns of all Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. We also welcome the appointment of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the joint special envoy of the UN and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis. The UK extends to him its full support, and stands ready to provide assistance to his team in its vital work to bring an end to the violence in Syria.

In the EU, the UK has been at the forefront of delivering 12 rounds of sanctions targeted on those supporting or benefiting from the regime, and those associated with them. I will not repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), but we have made a start on restrictive measures, and it may be that further such measures will be required.

The Minister can rightly claim that the Government have been at the forefront of tightening the sanctions regime against Syria. Would it be possible to begin to identify not only those at the very top such as President Assad, but those around him who have taken part in war crimes? If we could begin to identify such people by name, that would bring pressure to bear on senior players in the Assad regime.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to identify those people, and we will ensure that expert help is available for that work of identification and analysis. As I said earlier, those who have committed these terrible crimes will be brought to justice.

Last week, the deteriorating security situation and risks posed to our embassy staff led the Foreign Secretary to withdraw our staff from Syria. That decision in no way reduces our commitment to active diplomacy and to maintain pressure on the Assad regime to end the violence. We will continue to work closely with other nations to co-ordinate diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime through the Friends of Syria group and the EU.

Let me now look at how the current violence within Syria risks destabilising the region. As the hon. Member for Edmonton made clear, the despicable actions of the Syrian regime inside Syria impact on Syria’s neighbours. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey are all affected by the continuing bloodshed, and the consequent flow of refugees has potential implications for their security and economies. Lebanon’s historical, confessional and economic links to Syria make it particularly vulnerable.

The number of refugees fleeing violence in Syria to safety in Lebanon is steadily increasing. Determining the numbers, however, is difficult. The UNHCR has registered at least 7,200 Syrians near the northern border of Lebanon, but there are undoubtedly many others. We estimate that the real figure is closer to 20,000, with a further 5,000 unregistered people likely to be in the northern border area and Tripoli; 5,000 in the Bekaa valley; 2,000 in the southern suburbs of Beirut; and 600 in the southern city of Saida. The Qatari Red Crescent has said recently that it believes a total figure of 50,000 Syrian refugees is credible. That is a huge figure, and shows the sheer scale involved. The hon. Members for Edmonton and for Manchester Central made an important point about displaced Syrians who have found refuge with relatives or host families, and I note the concerns that such arrangements might reach the limits of sustainability if those numbers continue to increase. We have regularly urged the Lebanese Government to continue their work with international agencies to provide shelter and protection for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Generally speaking, the Lebanese Government are responding effectively in a difficult political context.

I was asked what the UK is doing to support the international effort, with particular reference to the UNHCR. We have doubled core funding to the UNHCR this year to help it carry out its work globally, including in the middle east. The Department for International Development provided £39 million for 2011-12, and we remain in close contact with UNHCR as this fast-moving situation develops. A DFID humanitarian adviser has been deployed to the region to get a better understanding of events on the ground and identify ways in which the UK might be able to help.

We will work closely with the Lebanese Government to improve conditions for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Importantly, that includes work to improve the governance and security arrangements in the refugee camps. To that end, the UK committed £117 million of non-earmarked funding for 2007-11 to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

I am listening carefully to the Minister’s speech. One recent concern was about the actions of the Lebanese authorities in trying to restrict the numbers of people coming across from Syria, particularly in the Homs area. We should be urging the Lebanese authorities to open up humanitarian access, should conditions in Syria deteriorate. Will the Government make a commitment to urge the Lebanese authorities in that direction?

We will certainly look at that point and I will take the hon. Gentleman’s remarks on board.

The UK is continuing to look into reports of limited Hezbollah involvement in Syria. Any Hezbollah support for the Syrian regime’s ongoing brutal repression would be a huge mistake and counter to Lebanese interests. Hezbollah’s rhetorical support for President Assad has exposed the hypocrisy of its supposed commitment to the poor and oppressed, and significantly undermined its credibility across the region. We urge all parties in Lebanon with any influence over the Assad regime to use that influence to seek an early end to the repression.

As has been expressed, the impact of events in Syria on the Lebanese economy should not be overlooked. We are working closely with the Lebanese Government to support economic reform, including offering support on regulatory processes to ensure long-term prosperity in Lebanon. UK companies have been involved in assisting the Lebanese Government to explore potential oil and gas resources in the country’s maritime waters, and our embassy remains active in supporting UK companies to play a greater role in Lebanon’s ambitious plans to develop its infrastructure. As part of the prosperity agenda, I assure the hon. Member for Edmonton that we are working hard at improving our bilateral trade. Indeed, we have made a commitment to increase such trade by 15%, year on year, over the next two years. That is what we are doing to try and bring wealth and prosperity to the people of Lebanon.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue, and if there are points that I have not covered, I will write to him. The UK is committed to ending the bloodshed in Syria, to preventing it from destabilising Lebanon, and to helping the peoples of that region realise their aspirations for a more democratic, peaceful and prosperous future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.