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Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to prevent ammunition and other military assistance from being provided to Syrian rebels.

My Lords, we do not provide arms to the Syrian opposition. A European Union arms embargo is in place. Any EU citizen or company in breach of the EU arms embargo may be subject to prosecution under the laws of each individual member state.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and I am very glad to hear that we are not supplying any military equipment to Syria. I have asked the Minister on several occasions for the Government’s assessment of how many foreign fighters and munitions are being supplied to Syria by other countries. Is the Minister aware that there are persistent reports that fighters from Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and central Asia, paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are being infiltrated into Syria with the aim of changing the Shia regime in Damascus? There have also been more recent reports of heavy Saudi troop movements towards the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.

I hope the Minister can assure the House that we will continue to resist any suggestion that NATO might become involved in what has for some time been a Sunni/Shia—if not an Arab/Iranian—dispute. Does the Minister accept that any military intervention from outside, from whatever quarter, in the highly volatile and dangerous situation in Syria could provoke even greater deterioration in the security situation and further complicate Kofi Annan’s extremely difficult mission?

I totally understand the noble Lord’s concern about an escalation and military intervention. With regard to the assessment that he has asked for repeatedly, I cannot, by the nature of the activities he is talking about, give him a precise assessment. We are talking about activities that are inevitably covert and not reported, where statistics are not gathered. As he knows from his enormous experience in the Middle East, rumour is fleet-footed and can rapidly escalate into all kinds of assertions about what is happening. We work very closely with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. We stick very closely to the EU embargo. That is our position and that is what we will continue to do.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Turkish aircraft that was shot down recently was shot down by Russian equipment and that there may very well have been Russian personnel involved? Is it not the case that the Russians continue to supply equipment to the Assad regime that enables it to continue to oppress its people?

Regrettably, I can confirm that the Russians are continuing to supply attack helicopters and equipment to the Syrian regime, which of course is a regime of unparalleled violence that is using its equipment in the most evil and oppressive ways. I am afraid that I cannot give any confirmation as to what weapons actually shot down the Turkish fighter. The Syrians have offered to hold an inquiry with Turkey, but that is being resisted for the moment. It is a very serious matter and the Turks are arguing that it is an attack on NATO as a whole. I am afraid that the circumstances are all in dispute and I cannot confirm the first part of what my noble friend said.

My Lords, I think the House will understand the concern in the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and indeed in parts of the Answer; there will be general support for the arms embargo and a desire not to see any increased volatility. However, alongside the concern about the spread of armed conflict, it is wholly understandable that people should seek to defend themselves from a barbaric and murderous regime, and that is another key part of this equation. If we are to sound sincere—and not sanctimonious—what do Her Majesty’s Government believe can be done to assist those people who may have an ambition to acquire munitions, if they are to feel that there is any other hope of achieving at least a degree of safety as the regime tries to kill them?

I share the sentiment behind the noble Lord’s views. He asked what can be done. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made very clear indeed what can be done, both at the ministerial action group over the weekend in Geneva and at previous meetings, and will continue to make that clear: namely, that we want to find a basis on which we can bring forward a robust resolution by the UN Security Council that has the support of all those, including the Russians and the Chinese, who hitherto have not been ready to display the robust action and condemnation of violence and terror that we would like to see. We would like to see the text for that resolution worked on this week—in fact, we are pressing that it should be so—but there is the obvious obstacle, of which the noble Lord will be aware with his experience, that not all members of the P5 are in agreement.

My Lords, what are the prospects of success for Kofi Annan’s mission and has the Foreign Secretary very firmly supported them, as I believe he has?

The prospects of success obviously remain clouded while there is no sign of all the warring and killing parties in Syria agreeing to anything. However, the movement that was agreed at the weekend was not all that we would have wished but it was something. The agreement was that there would be a combined move to try to achieve—with the aid of the Kofi Annan plan—a transitional government body, upon which the beginnings of peace and dialogue could be built. So, the Kofi Annan plan is there. It is the path to the transitional government body that has now been agreed. There was disagreement about who should be on that body. This was an undoubted difficulty that we cannot gloss over. However, the Kofi Annan plan is a means to an end and it is still in place.

My Lords, given that the plan agreed this weekend has a mutual consent clause that bars the US and Russia from either getting rid of President Assad or keeping him there, it is evident that the plan will not go anywhere. Will the UK Government work with the UN to review our sanctions regime in light of the fact that 40,000 fighters now belong to the Free Syrian Army and the carnage is continuing unabated? Should we not review this to allow the Syrians to defend their wives and children rather than be massacred in cold blood?

These again are sentiments one totally agrees with, and of course we have some pathway forward with the European Union. Within the European Union, we are all agreed to apply and strengthen the sanctions and we are working all the time to see how that can be done. Once we get to the United Nations level, we are back with the difficulty that my noble friend, from her experience, understands full well—I know that she does. This is that, if we cannot get the wholehearted agreement through the United Nations Security Council of those who are supplying arms and of those who apparently resist the adequate condemnation of the slaughter, we cannot get the resolution in place. We will continue to work extremely hard to break through on this matter but we have not got there yet.