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Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent Friends of Syria conference in Rome, what assessment they have made of the political situation in Syria.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary has stated that there must be a political solution to the conflict, which has already claimed more than 70,000 lives. The longer the conflict continues, the more radicalised and sectarian it will become, with an increasing risk of regional overspill. There is no sign that the Assad regime intends to enter into a genuine political process. We must, therefore, increase pressure on Assad and his regime to push them to the negotiating table.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the increase in pressure proposed today in the Foreign Secretary’s Statement may be too little, too late? Does he further agree that the West’s interests are now profoundly engaged, as a failed state in Syria will result in an expansion of international terrorism, increase the dangers from WMD, endanger the supply of energy and destabilise Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and even Turkey? Therefore, will Her Majesty’s Government now work with the United States and France to arm the non-jihadi opposition forces, recognising that the use of force will be the only way to bring the Assad Government to the negotiating table or to bring about an eventual forced peace, should Assad not be available to bring about peace?

My Lords, we are balancing a number of extremely difficult choices all the way through. We are attempting to force the regime to negotiate. We do not have all the permanent members of the UN on our side. The Russians continue to support and, reportedly, to supply the Assad regime. The Iranians are of course supplying the Assad regime. We have taken what we regard as a carefully calibrated decision to upgrade the amount of support, including non-lethal armour, to the Opposition, but we are all conscious that once you start supplying high-end weapons to a civil war, you never quite know where they will end up, as the French discovered in Mali.

My Lords, I hope that I may be permitted to ask a few of the many questions which I would have tried to ask if the Foreign Secretary’s Statement had been repeated in this House today. First, does the Minister accept that even the supply of non-lethal assistance to the so-called Opposition represents a dangerous escalation of our involvement in what is now, and has been for a long time, effectively a Sunni-Shia war? What reason do the Government have for thinking that the Opposition, which HMG have now recognised as the legitimate Government of Syria, would be any more accountable or democratic than the present regime in Damascus?

Secondly, can the Minister confirm that we still support Ambassador Brahimi’s mission? Does he agree that, instead of rubbishing President Assad’s recent interview in the Sunday Times, we should encourage Ambassador Brahimi to follow up President Assad’s offer of unconditional negotiations with such parts of the Opposition as have also expressed their readiness to negotiate?

Finally, I welcome the decision of the United States Government and HMG to withhold lethal military assistance from the Opposition. Are we similarly encouraging our friends in the Gulf to do likewise?

My Lords, there were a large number of questions there. I say simply that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is meeting Lakhdar Brahimi this afternoon. He is also meeting the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister. The Foreign Secretary and other Foreign Office Ministers are extremely actively engaged. It is not yet a Sunni-Shia conflict. We are all conscious of the danger that it will deteriorate into a Sunni-Shia conflict. Working with the Opposition, we are doing our best to encourage them to represent all the different communities within Syria. Our aim is to bring a negotiated end to the conflict and to prevent it from deteriorating further.

My Lords, what assessment have the Minister and his department made of the impact of the Saudi Government’s leadership in regional discussions with regard to the ongoing disaster and destruction in Syria, where 1 million people are fleeing persecution and violence according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees?

My Lords, we are working with the Saudis, the Qataris and a number of other states in the Middle East. We are very conscious that Lebanon and Jordan are particularly affected by the Syrian conflict. In Lebanon, the number of refugees is equivalent to 10% of its population. If we imagine the impact on British society of the arrival of 6 million refugees, that is what Lebanon is currently going through. We are very conscious of the potential for this conflict to spill over Syria’s borders.

My Lords, will my noble friend return to one part of the question asked of him by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond? Can he give any assurance at all that if President Assad is removed, his replacement will not be more repressive?

My Lords, by its nature when a very localised civil war is under way, it is very difficult for any of us to control what the outcome will be. The only assurance that I, or any other international actor, can give is that Her Majesty’s Government are working with our allies and partners in the Middle East and attempting to persuade the Russian and Chinese Governments to work towards the achievement of a negotiated solution that would see a more inclusive Government replace the Assad regime.

My Lords, have the Government studied the recent proposal for transitional justice in Syria, put forward by the Syrian Support Group? If implemented, would it not have the effect of separating ordinary, innocent Alawis from the regime?

My Lords, there are a great many efforts under way to protect the Alawi minority, the Christian minority and the smaller number of Druze within Syria from what could easily deteriorate into a sectional jihad. We are all very worried about that possibility. A great deal of work is under way, quite a lot of it funded by DfID, to advise the Opposition about negotiated transition, rebuilding local communities and providing the basic services that people need to start the process of reconciliation.