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Volume 746: debated on Thursday 27 June 2013


Asked by

My Lords, seamlessly the FCO now appears at the Dispatch Box. No decision has been made to send weapons to the Syrian opposition. The agreement to lift the arms embargo for the Syrian national coalition sends a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so. Our priority remains to advance a political transition that ends the conflict, allowing refugees to return to their homes, and to prevent further radicalisation in Syria.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure we all recognise the dilemma that faces anybody who wants to see the end of the Assad regime. However, the Government argued long and hard to secure lifting the EU arms embargo, so can the Minister explain how sending arms to Syria will decrease the violence there, particularly as, if it were to happen, it is likely to incite more arms to go in from Russia to support the Assad regime? Can the Minister also tell the House how the Government could be certain that any arms exported to Syria did not fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or other terrorist organisations that we believe are fighting alongside the legitimate and indigenous Syrian opposition?

The noble Baroness raises important questions, and we can see from the way the House is responding that these are questions that other noble Lords want answering too. I have a huge amount of respect for the noble Baroness, but it would be wrong of me to start hypothesising about a decision that has not yet been taken. I can assure her that a decision has not been taken at this stage to supply arms to the Syrian opposition. I hope that she and the House can take great comfort from the fact that when we have, for example, supplied non-lethal assistance to the opposition, we have been incredibly cautious about ensuring that even that equipment, whether in the form of humanitarian support or indeed armoured vehicles, does not get into the hands of extremists.

Would my noble friend agree that many in this House welcome the fact that no decision has been taken to send arms to Syria or to aid the insurgents? Many of us hope that it never would be taken. The most urgent and important challenge now is to get Russia and China, together with Iran, on board in a wide-ranging conference, so that proper attention can be given, and quickly, before this terrible Sunni-Shia split spreads right across that region with serious consequences. At the same time, the other most urgent thing is help for Jordan, which faces the most appalling refugee problem at the present time.

I am acutely aware of the issues that my noble friend raises. I think he will accept that it is important that we continue to respond to the situation on the ground, and that we can see that the Government have responded at various stages as the situation on the ground has changed. However, 93,000 people have now died and over half the population has been displaced. There are no no-risk options and no perfect solutions. For that reason, we must continue to monitor the situation on the ground and to respond to it.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not accept that the bankruptcy of the international community’s policy towards Syria stands revealed for all to see? The failure to intervene more robustly earlier has brought about the very situation that was given as the reason for not intervening, and the failure of the supposedly game-changing use of chemical weapons to change any games robs the West of its last vestiges of credibility, showing it up as little better than an ignominious rabbit trapped in the headlights.

Given our own history of intervention, it is important that we get appropriate legal and international support for what we do. That is why the Prime Minister has consistently tried to get agreement at the UN Security Council. It is no secret that Russia has not been prepared to move to get that agreement, but—my noble friend referred to this—we still believe in having a conference where the UN, the US and Russia sit round the table with the opposition and members of the regime to try to find a political resolution. As for chemical weapons, I think noble Lords will understand why it is important that we are incredibly clear about what weapons have been found, where they have been found, who has used them, and that there is international agreement, based on the evidence that we have so far, before we start using that as a basis for intervention.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has said that all options are available for negotiation. Does she mean that the Government have abandoned their policy, as I understand it, of saying that regime change is a prerequisite for any negotiations?

Our position has always been that it is for the people of Syria to decide who should govern Syria. Hearing the views of the Syrian people and seeing the conduct of Assad, we find it difficult to see a solution whereby Assad would remain in power. However, I am clear, and the Government are clear, that this has to be a decision of the Syrian people.

My Lords, given that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have assured the House of Commons that there will be a vote prior to any decision to give arms to the Syrian opposition, what are the arrangements to consult the House of Lords, particularly if the Commons is recalled in a recess?

Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been clear that the House of Commons will have the opportunity to discuss the issue, should any decision be taken in the future on providing arms to moderate elements of the opposition in Syria. It would very much depend on whether the House was sitting, but I can certainly speak to the Foreign Secretary and ask the necessary House authorities what would happen in that situation, if it were to arise, and possibly write to my noble friend and put a copy in the Library.

My Lords, it is an unchallenged fact that huge sums of money are now going from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help fund Salafists, Wahhabists and extremists in jihadism, not just in Syria but elsewhere throughout the Maghreb. Have the Government done anything to try to persuade these two Governments to stop it?

My noble friend asks such a wide question that I could spend an hour trying to answer it. It may be that I can speak to him at the end of Questions.