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Volume 737: debated on Monday 28 May 2012

Private Notice Question

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the United Nations statement this weekend, what steps they plan to take to help end the conflict in Syria.

My Lords, we are outraged by the appalling events in Houla and have condemned these in the strongest possible terms. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has made clear that we are working with international partners to make the Annan plan work. This aims to bring an end to the violence and drive forward a political process in Syria.

My Lords, I share the outrage expressed by the Minister. The massacre was appalling and deplorable, and it is difficult to find words to express the revulsion at the slaughter of vast numbers of innocent people, including 49 children and 39 women. UN condemnation is welcome but it is not enough. What is the Government’s assessment of the potential changes in policy by the international community following the clear change of position by the Russians, both at the UN and in discussion with the Foreign Secretary?

The noble Baroness is quite right that words are difficult and certainly condemnation alone is not enough. She speaks about the change in the Russian position. It is perfectly true that Russia has joined in condemnation of these revolting events—as all civilised and responsible nations must do—but the question goes beyond that, to whether the UN Security Council is prepared in a united way to take a variety of further actions, including referral to the ICC, tougher sanctions and other pressures. That requires the support of the Russians and the Chinese in the UN Security Council.

My right honourable friend is in Moscow and has had discussions this morning with Mr Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. Various views have been set out by Mr Lavrov, and discussion continues internationally about exactly what happened and precisely who is to blame. But we are quite clear that the Annan plan, requiring an immediate laying-down of weapons on both sides and action by the Syrian Government to withdraw their heavy weapons and tanks from all the areas they have been bombarding, is an essential step to taking this forward. The key is to get agreement in the United Nations Security Council, and the key to that is what my right honourable friend is working on at this moment.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether there is any discussion within the Security Council, and indeed with the Syrian Government, to increase the number of UN monitors from 300 to potentially significant figures so that they may be able to carry out their tasks effectively?

Yes. My right honourable friend spoke to Kofi Annan over the weekend and they discussed increasing the size of the monitoring mission. It is just about coming up to its initially agreed 300 but there is certainly further discussion of whether a more effective and larger commission could be developed.

My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister has seen an interesting article by Patrick Seale in today’s Guardian. First, can the Minister give the House the Government’s assessment of the amount of financial and other assistance being given by the Gulf countries and other members of the Friends of Syria to the rebels or terrorists—call them what you like—with the aim of bringing down the Syrian Government?

Secondly, can the Minister please give the House an assurance that any assistance that the British Government are giving, and have been giving, to any faction in Syria is being given exclusively through the United Nations and international organisations?

I have indeed seen the article by Patrick Seale that the noble Lord mentions. It is very difficult to answer precisely because we do not know the amount or nature of the assistance that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are giving to the rebels. There is also the question of the suitability of the recipients. Are they people who will continue to protect human life, or will they promote further terrorism and destruction? There are real doubts on this matter, as the noble Lord will well know with his expertise in the area. Non-lethal assistance is being given to civilians and the Syrian rebel forces on humanitarian grounds at the moment. It is going ahead through non-governmental international organisations and the agencies of the United Nations.

My Lords, the situation in Syria is certainly very complicated. I read recently an account of very harsh treatment being meted out to Christian communities in Syria by forces other than government ones, whether you call them rebels or terrorists—I am not certain. Can my noble friend say whether these reports are true?

Again, I have to tell my noble and learned friend that it is very hard to come by precise records of exactly what is happening, who is committing these atrocities and to what extent they are intertribal activities by Alawite villagers against others. All these things are possible and they may well have happened. I cannot give a clear answer to my noble and learned friend except to say that there are many different cross-currents and many different groups who fear for their future whether Assad remains entrenched, rebel forces take over or the country descends into civil war. The future of groups such as the Christian communities is challenged by any of these eventualities; so, too, is the future stability of Lebanon.

My Lords, Syria is likely to go into a civil war, as the Minister has said. We have been involved in the bombing of Libya and went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. To what extent do the Government believe that we have helped the people of those countries by our involvement?

The obvious answer is that each one is a completely separate and different situation on which one has to make a sensible judgment. The Government and I believe, as I think most people do, that the intervention in Libya to prevent hideous massacres—although we are now looking at another hideous massacre—was constructive and led to a new start for Libya which we hope will lead to democracy, liberty and freedom. I could stand at this Dispatch Box well beyond your Lordships’ patience and analyse the prospects of leaving Afghanistan in a better condition than it was when it promoted al-Qaeda and the horrors of 9/11. I could say the same about Iraq. It is now free of one of the worst killers of the Middle East but it had to pay a very heavy price. All these are separate issues and we have now to look at Syria to see what can be done. The willingness for the allies together—we have to act together as no single country can do this—to mobilise military might on a massive scale is obviously not there, not least because it is not clear exactly who the enemy are and where the sources of instability are coming from.

My Lords, given that Turkey is on Syria’s doorstep, perhaps I may ask about the role that it has tried to play in the past year in bringing about a solution. What support is being given to Turkey to play a more prominent role and to prevent a potentially explosive situation whereby it could be dragged into a war with Syria?

We are in close touch with the Turkish authorities, which face some difficult dilemmas. They are taking a lot of Syrian refugees over the border. There are fears that the violence could spread across the frontiers. There has been talk about the possibility of buffer zones on Syrian soil to prevent the situation getting worse. We are working closely with all our allies, and certainly with a great nation such as Turkey, to ensure that we act responsibly, effectively and, if possible, together.

My Lords, to clarify the position, will the Minister say that the Government are satisfied, first, that a massacre took place; secondly, that the deaths that occurred in that massacre were of the order expressed in the press; and, thirdly, that those deaths were caused by Syrian government forces with the connivance or indeed at the orders of the Government in Damascus?

Frankly, the word “satisfied” is difficult to put into this context; it is very difficult to be satisfied precisely. General Robert Mood, the head of the UN mission, has said that the situation and the circumstances are still unclear. What is almost certain, and what we are ready to accept, is that horrific killings took place. There is clear and incontrovertible evidence that dreadful things were done. Children were slaughtered, perhaps by bombing and artillery fire but also by shots in the head, throat-cutting and other horrors. One has to analyse who on this planet can be so uncivilised and evil in intent to do these terrible things. We cannot yet be satisfied that the situation is clear; if I said that we were, I would not be believed.