Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I would like to start by thanking the House for hosting this important debate on Syria and the wider Middle East. I am aware that Syria is a topic which comes up regularly both in the Chamber and, indeed, with noble Lords outside the Chamber. It is an issue in which people have a deep interest and on which many noble Lords have specific expertise. The debate is therefore timely and important.
The conflict in Syria continues to worsen. As we speak, the people and the city of Homs are being subjected to a renewed and brutal onslaught. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate by the day, and the gulf between the regime’s priorities and those of the Syrian people grows ever wider. It is also clear that the murder, violence and repression with which demands for democracy and accountability have been met have serious implications not only for the country’s future, but also for wider regional and international security.
At least 93,000 Syrians have been killed, more than 1.6 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and 4.25 million, almost a fifth of Syria’s population, have been displaced within Syria itself. A year ago, 1 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian aid; the figure now is nearly 7 million. The UN assesses that, by the end of the year, some 15% of Syria’s population will have become refugees in other countries. Ordinary Syrians are facing an increasingly desperate plight at the hands of a brutal regime that has committed an ever-growing number of war crimes: from sieges on towns and cities across Syria to forced displacement and the use of chemical weapons.
All of this is having a profound impact on regional stability. The growing burden on Syria’s neighbours, above all Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are playing a vital humanitarian role in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. The intervention of increasing numbers of foreign fighters on the side of the regime has escalated the conflict and increased the risk of regional overspill. Individuals with links to the UK as well as from across the Middle East and well-known terrorist organisations have also been travelling to Syria to fight the regime and push their own agenda. Those organisations increasingly view the chaotic situation as an opportunity to further their own causes.
It is in the UK’s interest that these challenges to regional peace and stability are addressed, and our priority remains achieving a negotiated political solution to bring an end to the violence. Our efforts are therefore directed at actively supporting the US-Russian plan to convene an international conference in Geneva with both the opposition and the Syrian regime to seek a peaceful settlement. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we are determined to overcome diplomatic differences and agree a way forward to help the Syrian people achieve the change they want. We used our G8 presidency to underline that efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political resolution. That has not changed. This built on previous contacts between the Prime Minister and President Putin in Sochi, and with President Obama in Washington. They agreed that all our efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political resolution. Strengthening an inclusive, credible and capable opposition is an important step towards laying the groundwork for a negotiated settlement. It can also contribute to saving the lives of ordinary Syrians and to ensuring accountability for human rights abuses.
The UK has been at the forefront of the international community in providing non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition, committing £20 million to date. Our assistance to the moderate opposition includes vehicles with ballistic protection, body armour, trucks and forklifts, solar power generators, and equipment to search for survivors in the aftermath of shelling. This has helped enable the national coalition to develop structures that allow it to operate more effectively on the ground and to deliver assistance to Syrians in need as it develops into a credible alternative to the Assad regime. Our practical assistance has also included training human rights activists to document human rights abuses and violations for a future accountability process, as well as building capacity for Syrian civil society.
At Lough Erne, we agreed with our G8 partners $1.5 billion of new money for humanitarian support for Syria and its neighbours in response to the recent UN appeal for $5.2 billion. We are committed to doing all we can to aid the millions of civilians in Syria in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and will continue to urge our international partners to do likewise. At the G8, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced an additional £175 million in humanitarian assistance, making this the largest single funding commitment ever made by the UK in response to a humanitarian disaster. Our total contribution now stands at £348 million.
This will build on our existing support, which is providing food for thousands of people, water purification supplies, repairs to infrastructure and medical consultations for the critically ill and sick. Over £100 million of this has been committed to addressing the needs of Syrian refugees and host communities in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Jordan, both of which have seen over 400,000 refugees cross their borders. The influx is increasing the political, economic and security pressures on both countries. There are now more than half a million refugees in Lebanon, equivalent to more than 10% of its population. In Jordan, the refugee camp at Zaatari is one of the largest in the world and is now equivalent to one of Jordan’s biggest cities.
Along with our international partners, including Russia, we continue to press for access for neutral humanitarian agencies inside Syria, including through assistance across battle lines and borders. This is important because the regime has shown that so long as it entertains hopes of military victory it is willing to accept any level of loss of life in Syria. We, along with other nations, are dedicated to halting the bloodshed, restoring international peace and security, bolstering those resisting the regime and promoting a transition in the process.
The agreement to lift the EU 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. We are encouraging the national coalition to engage with the Geneva II process. We strongly welcomed the Syrian national coalition’s declaration on 21 April setting out its commitment to a free and democratic Syria and condemning all forms of extremism.
Let me be clear that no decision has been taken to provide lethal support to the opposition. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, if we were to pursue this, it would be in co-ordination with other nations, in carefully controlled circumstances and in accordance with our obligations under national and international law. He has also made clear that Parliament would be engaged before any such decision was put into action and that the House would not be denied an opportunity to make a decision on the issue.
As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State Kerry agreed in Washington on 12 June, the situation in Syria demands a strong, co-ordinated and determined response by the international community. Our priority remains to see a diplomatic process in Geneva that succeeds in reaching a negotiated end to the conflict. However, we have to be prepared to do more to save lives, to pressurise the Assad regime to negotiate seriously and to prevent the threat of extremism and terrorism if diplomatic efforts are to succeed.
We are deeply concerned by the recent intensification of fighting on the ground, not least in al-Qusair, where the Syrian regime, backed by foreign fighters, launched a military offensive against the town, which, according to UN reports, led to 90% destruction of its infrastructure and the displacement of most of its civilian population.
Continued support to Assad’s regime, which allows it to kill and repress the Syrian people, is continuing to directly undercut the peace initiative that was announced by Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. We condemn the intervention of militias and fighters from Iran and Iraq, who are escalating the violence and supporting repression by the regime.
We welcome the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution, adopted on 28 May, which strongly condemned the violations of international law by Syrian authorities and government-affiliated militias, in particular the regime’s use of ballistic missiles and other heavy weapons against the people of al-Qusair.
As events in Sidon in southern Lebanon last week have shown, Hezbollah’s intervention in the conflict has already had a detrimental effect on Lebanon’s peace and security. An escalation in the conflict is entirely contrary to the interests of Lebanon, which must not become another victim of this conflict.
The House is well aware that we remain deeply troubled by the growing body of persuasive evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including sarin. The process of gathering more information is ongoing, and we have been working tirelessly with others to get more and better evidence. We agree with the recent US assessment that chemical weapons, including sarin, have been used by the Assad regime. Samples tested in France have also added to the body of evidence.
However, we recognise that there is more work to do. As part of the G8, we called on all parties to,
“allow access to the UN investigating team mandated by the UN Secretary-General, and drawing on the expertise of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and World Health Organisation (WHO), in order to conduct an objective investigation into reports of use of chemical weapons”.
Given the experiences of the past, it is important to have as independent a view as possible. We therefore welcome the UN Secretary-General’s decision to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, and we support the work of the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry, which continues to gather evidence of human rights violations and abuses.
The commission’s latest report, published on 4 June, highlighted the new levels of brutality in the conflict, including documented cases of the use of chemical agents, enforcing sieges on ordinary Syrians trapped in cities and towns, in desperate need of humanitarian aid. The report also notes human rights abuses undertaken by armed opposition groups. We are deeply concerned by these reports and continue to urge the opposition to abide by international human rights obligations. This is why we welcomed the national coalition’s compact, announced on 20 April in Istanbul, in which it set out clear commitments on reaching out to minorities, guaranteeing the rights, interests and participation of all components of Syrian society and adhering to international human rights conventions.
We have continued to call on the Syrian regime to allow both the UN investigation into allegations of chemical weapons use and the commission of inquiry immediate and unfettered access to investigate all violations of international law by all parties. The UK remains at the forefront of international calls for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court.
We cannot understate the severity of the crisis in Syria. We are faced with the prospect of, on the one hand, an ever more savage conflict and military stalemate, producing an even bigger humanitarian disaster, greater radicalisation and deeper sectarian divisions, further massacres, and even the collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of its territory; or, on the other hand, and what we must strive for, a negotiated end to the conflict that ends the bloodshed and leads to a new transitional Government, enabling refugees to return to their homes and extremism to be contained.
There are no risk-free options, but we remain convinced that the best way to end the violence and resolve the conflict must be through a negotiated political settlement. To maximise the prospects for success, we must continue to support the moderate opposition, increase the pressure on the Assad regime to make clear there can be no military solution and challenge extremists who do not represent the desire of the majority of Syrians for a more democratic and peaceful future.
I welcome this debate on the situation in Syria and the wider Middle East. It is vital that this House continues to discuss and examine this issue of critical importance to regional and international security. I value the opportunity to hear your Lordships’ views in this debate and I am keen that we in the Foreign Office should benefit from the considerable expertise and experience of Members of this House as we continue to make every effort to end the bloodshed, minimise the risks to the region and protect the security of the United Kingdom. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for this opportunity to debate the situation in the Middle East and Syria in particular. I pay tribute to her continuing concern for and commitment to the issues in the region, which I think is evident to everyone in the House.
I want to focus my remarks on Syria and the immediate region around it, and to look at four related issues: the state of the conflict; the case for arming the Syrian rebels; the spillover of the conflict into the wider region; and where the international community’s efforts should be focused.
The basic facts of this conflict make for grim reading: two years of violence and civil war; more than 90,000 people dead, with 5,000 now being killed each month; suggestions that chemical weapons have been used; 4 million people internally displaced; and 1.5 million refugees in neighbouring states, about half of whom are children. It is a situation that appals us all and demands our attention and engagement.
However, a response must start with an understanding of the country, of the region and of the conflict. It is a recent conflict, but one with deep roots. Thomas Friedman has gone so far as to say that what is happening in Syria, as in other Middle Eastern countries, is,
“the long-delayed consequences of the end of the Ottoman Empire”.
Syria, like Iraq, is an artificial state that was born after World War 1 inside lines drawn by imperial powers. The communities of Syria—Sunnis, Alawite/Shia, Kurds, Druze and Christians—were forced to live together under rules agreed by others, not by their own consent. As Assad’s authoritarian rule collapsed, Syria now looks more like Lebanon in the 1975-90 period: a fragmented, sectarian country, with continuing violence between communities, and a central state that has neither the might nor the legitimacy to bring order to the whole country. This is a conflict whose resolution demands some fundamental reconceiving of the kind of country that Syria is and the social contract that underpins it.
The conflict is marked by three dominant features. First, the civil war is becoming more entrenched, with no prospect of decisive military victory for either side. Optimism about the prospects for a victory for the Syrian rebel forces has subsided in recent months. Assad’s forces have better armoured equipment and significant air power strength. They have gained confidence from recent captures of rebel strongholds, and have successfully consolidated in recent months the main population centres and the routes that connect them—from Homs to the coast, from Damascus to the Jordanian border. They have stopped the flow of senior defectors, and have trained a militia of 60,000 to guard positions formerly held by the Syrian military. Any strategy based on a prospect of military defeat for the regime at this point looks highly unrealistic, to put it mildly.
Secondly, the conflict is characterised by the involvement of multiple foreign powers on all sides, the overwhelming preponderance of which is escalating violence. The regime is benefiting from weapons, technical assistance, surveillance drones and help in monitoring internet traffic from Iran. Hezbollah and Iran have built a 50,000-strong militia to support Assad’s forces. On top of this, Assad benefits from significant Russian assistance, with multiple active arms contracts between Syria and Russia, and an S-300 air defence system about to be delivered to Syria from Moscow—the announcement of which was made just after the Foreign Secretary vetoed the EU arms embargo.
On the rebels’ side, foreign fighters are coming from a range of Arab countries through the Jordanian and Turkish borders to fight Assad. Extensive support continues to be provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latter having allegedly spent $3 billion funding the rebel forces and offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family. Qatar has sent 70 military flights to Turkey with arms and equipment. According to American intelligence sources, and despite the expressed concerns of the Obama Administration that such weapons may fall into the hands of militant Islamists, Qatar has shipped Chinese-made shoulder-fired missiles to be used against Assad’s air force.
Foreign power intervention in Syria on both sides not only makes the conflict more entrenched but makes the securing of peace more complex. The outgoing head of the Syrian national coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, said shortly before leaving his post:
“The people inside Syria have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have only become a means to sign some papers while hands from different parties want to decide on behalf of the Syrians”.
I would be interested to know what conversations with the Qataris and Saudis, in particular, the Government have had about the extent and form of support which they are providing to the rebels, and whether the Minister shares the concerns of many about the effects of that support.
The third feature of the conflict that stands out is the fragmented nature of the rebel movement. One expert described it as a “bewildering array” of groups: defectors, Kurdish groups, volunteers, local militias, Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, foreign fighters and the official Free Syrian Army brigades. Many of them are fighting for a reformed, democratic Syria, but some of the Sunni militias are becoming increasingly radicalised, aligning with groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, who have called for a jihad against the Alawites and want an Islamic state. At least one al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq, has proclaimed an affiliation with the Nusra front and in April, al-Qaeda in Iraq boasted that it was reinforcing al-Nusra with experienced fighters and about half of its budget.
The rebels are brave and committed to ending Assad’s cruel rule, but they are a diverse, fluid and unstable collection of groups whose agendas and interests compete with one another as well as reflecting the interests of foreign powers. The character of the rebel movement becomes a crucial consideration when we turn to the question of the wisdom of the UK collaborating in supplying it with lethal military support. I note that, following the lifting of the EU arms embargo in May, the Foreign Secretary said:
“We haven’t taken any decision about funding”—
arming the rebels—
“but we don’t rule any option out”.
I understand that, but it is a statement that raises the question: what exactly is the justification for arming Syrian rebel forces? Is it that it would help bring a decisive victory? If so I fear that that is heroic given the facts on the ground. Would it level the playing field? If so, it does not seem a strategy likely to reduce violence, but rather to prolong it. As the Foreign Secretary himself said:
“There is no purely military victory available to either side without even greater loss of life”.
Is the case that tilting the balance would be more likely to lead to a military stalemate so that Assad would agree to come to the negotiating table? If so, how realistic is that, given that Assad seems to be doubling down in his military strategy, given that he continues to receive extensive support from other countries, and given that the insistence that Assad cannot be part of a post-conflict transition—whatever the wisdom of that position—is unlikely to make him want to put his weapons down? Or perhaps the case is that arming the rebels makes a palace coup in Damascus to depose Assad more likely? If so, that is a highly speculative basis for such a consequential strategic decision.
Given the state of play of the conflict, I am not convinced that arming the rebels can plausibly be thought to be part of a strategy that reduces violence rather than fuels it. There is a second consideration: what assurances do we have that any weaponry given would stay in the hands of moderate rebels rather than Islamist rebels? The Foreign Secretary has said that non-lethal equipment has already been given to the rebels and that there is no evidence it has got into the wrong hands. With respect, that is insufficient reassurance, for many reasons. There are reports of clashes between rebel groups over resources such as oil already. The market for lethal equipment is significantly different to that for non-lethal equipment; and the consequences of it falling into the wrong hands are much more severe. The absence of systems of monitoring is therefore considerably more concerning in the case of lethal assistance. The Minister alluded to the possibility of Syria becoming a failed state. How do we know that the weapons will even stay inside the borders of Syria?
There is also concern about the compatibility between a strategy of opening up the possibility of arming rebels and the credibility of a commitment to a negotiated solution. Does the Minister agree in retrospect that it was perhaps short-sighted for the Government to use the run-up to the G8 summit spending so much time talking about the case for arming the rebels, rather than how to secure a start date for the Geneva II conference? Is there not a danger that offering more weapons might encourage the rebels to seek a military victory rather than resolution in a negotiated settlement?
Overall, concerns about the coherence of the rebel forces, the security of the destination of weapons, the improbability that making more weapons available would bring a quick end to the conflict and the tension between moving towards Geneva II and making more arms available all combine to suggest that arming the rebels would not be a move likely to help to reduce violence and promote stability.
I turn to a further reason why we should be reticent about increasing the supply of arms inside Syria. The conflict is fast spilling over into the wider region; in Iraq, for example, it is having a seriously destabilising effect. Sectarian tensions are growing as Sunni minority protests in favour of reform combine with growing Shia angst that a pan-national Sunni counteroffensive is mobilising across the region. In Turkey, border incidents such as the bomb that killed 50 people on 11 May reflect the porous frontier across which insurgent groups pass every day. Turkey’s relations with Iraq, Syria and Iran have degenerated spectacularly, while domestic political unrest is increasing.
Lebanon is perhaps of most immediate concern in the fallout zone. It is the country that is first in line for contagion, but also a metaphor for the fragility of the entire region. Although it has a population of only 8 million it has taken more than 500,000 refugees. It is divided internally on Sunni-Shia lines and has a weak central state and porous borders. It is very close to major population centres in Syria, and Hezbollah operates as a state within a state. In recent months Lebanon has delayed elections and lost a Government, while in June, fighting between the Lebanese army and radical Sunni groups and Alawite-Sunni tensions have led to violence and death in different parts of the country.
Given Lebanon’s fragility and importance as a nexus of conflict for the entire region, it deserves our attention, even though it has traditionally fallen into the francophone area of influence. Will the Minister explain what we are doing to support the Lebanese Government and their army at this crucial time? What more could we do directly to ensure that some sort of stability is maintained in the crucial coming months? In particular, is the Minister alive to the perception some in Lebanon have that the West talks only to Sunni and not Shia groups, and to the destabilising potential that such perceptions may inadvertently have?
The danger that the Syrian conflict will trigger conflicts among neighbours with porous borders should make us think twice before embarking on a strategy of providing more weapons. However, contrary to what is sometimes suggested, the alternative to supporting military action is not inaction. Although we are a long way from being the major influence on the region, there is much we can and should be doing or even leading on in the international community to improve the situation. In the short term we can prioritise working with Governments in the countries most at risk of spillover, to shore up the legitimacy of internal state structures. We should prioritise ensuring that G8 countries honour their commitments to supporting humanitarian assistance to refugees, and should lead the case for pressing for greater and safer access for aid agencies. We should focus our engagement with the rebels on unifying them, rather than arming them, and should spend diplomatic capital on urging other actors in the region not to take action that escalates the conflict from either side.
However, we should also make it a priority to think about the format, structure and terms of the negotiations that—one day—will be the only means to a stable solution. A central issue is to understand whose participation will be needed in those negotiations if their outcome has a chance of ending the violence. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, who has considerable experience and wisdom in matters of international diplomacy, has remarked:
“Negotiating with friends and allies is never the challenge. The real diplomatic challenge has always been negotiating with those with whom we are diametrically opposed”.
The question of whether any stability can be secured in Syria without engaging with Iran in particular is a serious and very difficult one. We stand side by side with the Government in their stance towards Iran, on both the nuclear security issue and in condemning their sponsorship of violence and terrorism outside Iran. However, the election of President Rouhani last month seems to offer tentative grounds for some cautious optimism about a change of stance in Tehran. Of course, it is very early days, but to hear President Rouhani promise “constructive interaction” with the world through a moderate policy, pledge that Iran is,
“ready to show more transparency”,
and that it will build a new relationship with the international community marks at least a rhetorical departure from his predecessor’s posturing. In light of this, and with the genuine full understanding that we must wait for change to become more than a promise, will the Minister tell us whether there are plans to engage in a different way with Iran under President Rouhani, and whether she thinks that Iranian participation in any Geneva II conference is either possible or desirable?
The sad truth is that an end to the Syrian civil war seems a long way off. Only by facing up to the fundamental facts of the conflict—that there is no prospect of decisive victory, that the conflict has started to destabilise the wider region, and that a number of external powers have become actively engaged—will we gain a proper perspective on the likely consequences of any further intervention of our own.
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. In his book A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, Professor Lawrence Freedman comes to a bleak conclusion:
“The continuity in many of the problems facing the Middle East suggests that they must be managed or endured; they are too rooted in the institutional structures, power balances, and cultures of the region to be solved”.
Freedman is a historian who can see the weariness of US policymakers over a span of half a century when power, politics and events conspired to defeat well intentioned forays into the Middle East. It is not surprising that we in the United Kingdom see events in a similar light; after all, it is nearly 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and the suffering of the Palestinian people still sits alongside the insecurity of the Jews. Ironically, both still look to the West for a solution, to a greater or lesser degree.
It is our responsibility to the people of Syria that I want to concentrate on today, as this is our most urgent priority. In so doing, I put on record my gratitude to Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, who has proved a most thoughtful sounding board. However, before I set out my own personal position, it is important to acknowledge two things. First, the brutality of the civil war and the suffering that endures today are of concern to those on all sides of the House. We on these Benches have regular and constant discussions about the way forward. Today, I suspect that we will be coming from different perspectives on the way to proceed. Secondly, our different perspectives on how best to bring an end to the suffering of the Syrian people do not diminish from our common goal, which is for a negotiated and speedy end to the civil war and an outcome that brings an end to the armed conflict so that solutions to the coexistence of the different sides can be explored and developed. Whether that is though an international conference or through the UN Security Council finding the unity and the will to stop the carnage, we are united in believing that our country must do what it can to end the suffering.
My own views are coloured by my long engagement with and affection for Syria. I first went there in 1973 and, 40 years later, I can only be grateful that I saw again and again the history, culture and dignity of the people in better times. Were I to adapt John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” to this kind of conflict situation—that is not what he intended it for but nevertheless I think it applies—I do not believe my views on where we are today and what we should be doing would be any different had I never set foot in Syria. With 93,000 dead and many millions displaced internally and externally, living in the most appalling conditions, it is only right that here in the United Kingdom the Government have sought to prepare for a future arming of the Free Syrian Army through the lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria. This decision has, rightly, been debated extensively within government and, indeed, in both Houses—“rightly” because, if arms are supplied, it presages an intervention by our country that many will doubt can lead to any good.
There are those across this House who will argue that adding more arms into an armed conflict cannot possibly reduce the killing; indeed, we have heard that case from the noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield. I can only envy him his certainty. There are also those who feel that in arming the opposition we cannot know with whom we are dealing, who these people are and where our weapons will end up. Then there are those who might believe that we have no business taking sides—that it is a sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunni, and we are best out of it. Finally, there are those who believe that the mere act of arming one side will suck us into a full-scale intervention, with our own troops in the line of fire. All are perfectly reasonable questions, but I would seek to answer them differently.
I shall start with the view that where there is killing, providing more arms cannot reduce the killing. If this view was a morally held one which applied to all times and all eventualities, it could not stand the scrutiny of our own history. Leaving aside for now the First and Second World Wars, again and again, the United Kingdom has intervened in other conflicts after killing has commenced in order to stop the killing. We have done so in recent times in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Libya.
Specifically with regard to lifting the arms embargo, we have the example of the Spanish civil war. In the 1930s, Britain and France maintained an arms embargo, while the USSR gave support to the republicans, and fascist Italy and Germany supported the nationalists. Russian support enabled the communists to dominate the divided republicans and fascist support enabled the nationalists to defeat the divided republicans and win the war, with the fate of the Spanish people under Franco all too well known and still, to some extent, unatoned for in modern Spain.
It is also true that we can have no cast-iron guarantee that the arms we deliver to the Free Syrian Army will remain in its control through the exigencies of running combat day to day. There is no guarantee that were we to give weapons they would not end up in the hands of Assad’s forces, or indeed with Jabhat al-Nusra and its al-Qaeda fighters. However, the test that one should apply here is whether by arming the forces of the Free Syrian Army to the point that Assad is brought to the negotiating table, we are likely to succeed. If the answer—after assessing the risks properly as to what arms we should supply, to whom and with what level of training—is a likely yes, we should take the risk that some of our weapons might fall into the wrong hands. At the moment, we have a situation whereby the Free Syrian Army is suffering from shortfalls even of rounds of ammunition. If we can bring more symmetry into the equation, alongside the assurance from General Idris of the Free Syrian Army that his men will account for the weapons delivered and will seek to return them to us when all is said and done, then when we feel more secure in those assurances, we should move to arm it.
It may also be true that we do not know the different factions well enough or understand their motives to be able to make judgments as to who we might befriend. If that is the case, I am all for holding back, but as this war progresses, we know more and more who we do not trust. It is clear to me that Assad cannot any longer be part of the solution. I suspect that there would be consensus in this House that al-Qaeda in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra will not be a force for good in Syria, her neighbours or indeed the West. Our engagement must be based on our assessment of which side best reflects our interests.
Since our interests are reflected in freedom, the defence of minorities and their rights and upholding human rights in a future stable, peaceful and pluralist Syria, I feel that we are capable of working though which of the different factions can best deliver those values. Ultimately, this has to be an assessment that is laden with risks, but there are risks equally in turning our backs. There is a strong view, and has been for nearly a century in the Middle East, that the West engages with the region only in its own interests. What good then will western passivity have in this situation? What will we have demonstrated other than cold moral relativism? To the young Arab, it will simply prove the jihadi/al-Qaeda narrative that we do not give a damn about the suffering of Muslims because they are the other.
I am equally clear that a Government who use biological and chemical weapons against their opponents and are as ruthless as we have witnessed in the past two years cast themselves open to international action under the norm of responsibility to protect. If we have not arrived at that situation today, we may nevertheless have to prepare to do that in the future. Existing international law may impose that obligation upon us, through the Geneva conventions, if not the responsibility to protect. Given that the Labour Party has so clearly sets its face in opposition today, what would it do then, I wonder?
In conclusion, I reflect that we need to be clear about what the doctrine of non-intervention holds for us today. We cannot argue for multilateralism on the one hand, when the forces of globalisation, climate change or international terrorism call for us to work with others to solve problems, yet turn away when the most fundamental crisis arises: that of significant human death and destruction. In saying this, I am not saying that we must intervene. It is possible that our intervention, limited as it might be to supplying arms, might not succeed in our objective to bring Assad to the negotiating table. If we are clear that intervention at this stage will not achieve that objective, we should not do it. Whether we intervene or not, there will be consequences for us. Today affords us an opportunity to reflect on what those might be, although we do not have sufficient clarity. The Government are right to prepare for what might have to come.
My Lords, I welcome the debate. It has been an extraordinary period in the history of the Middle East and this weekend was no exception, with huge demonstrations in Cairo pressing for a more inclusive Government less dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeming progress in the Middle East peace process following talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine. We must hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu will respond positively in the coming days.
At the heart of the matter is the civil war in Syria, which threatens the fate not only of that nation but of the whole region. After more than two years of war and 100,000 dead, we are no nearer a solution. Despite the Prime Minister’s brave efforts at the Lough Erne G8 summit last month, all that could be achieved was a reaffirmation of the conclusions already reached in Moscow in the talks between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov in May. As things stand there seems little hope of progress until the UN General Assembly meets in the third week of September in New York.
To say the least, a more urgent diplomacy is needed, one that seeks an agreement on an immediate ceasefire, the deployment of UN observers, unimpeded access for the international humanitarian agencies and elections in the next six months, supervised by the United Nations. These are the elements that the international community should try to come together on. As the gaps between the P5 seem so substantial, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, must assume the responsibility of seeking to make progress towards an agreement for the sake of the Syrian people and for the region, including engaging with the new Iranian Government, to be led by President Rouhani, who by the way was responsible for the only decisive freezing of Uranium refinement in 2003.
Wars can be won only in two ways: either through the victory of one party over the other or by a negotiated settlement. In the case of Syria, the former is neither desirable nor probable at this stage. I believe it was the great German statesman Otto von Bismarck who said that making peace was like making sausages; you do not want to look too closely at the ingredients.
There are some who reject any contact, let alone a potential agreement, with the Assad regime. Hateful and vicious as that regime is in many ways, there is no alternative. I remind the House that in the 1990s in Bosnia, peace came through the Dayton agreement, and that we negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. A few years later, we did so again with Milosevic over Kosovo. In the first UN mission in which I served, in Cambodia, the UN implemented the Paris peace agreement of 1991, agreed by the Security Council, which recognised the Khmer Rouge as a key party in the country’s future. Absent meaningful western military intervention, which we are ill fitted for after Iraq and Afghanistan, a negotiated settlement is the only way forward in Syria.
Despite temporary victories such as that at al-Qusair, President Assad cannot win back or reverse the erosion of his domestic and regional legitimacy. However, this cannot mean that his Government should not be a party to the talks that will eventually define the future state of a truly representative Syrian Government. Like it or not, his army remains the dominant military force. Moreover, it still has substantial domestic support.
The opposition, sadly, has lacked political and military coherence. Even if supplied with any amount of arms, it will not overcome these shortcomings. With notable exceptions such as George Sabra and the veteran dissident Michel Kilo, it is drawn almost wholly from the majority Sunni community. Not only the Alawite community but Christians, Druze and Kurds have not been drawn in any substantial numbers into the opposition.
I turn to Lebanon, where I served between 2008 and 2011 as UN special representative. Lebanon is the country most affected by the Syrian contagion, and one of its major political forces, Hezbollah—probably the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world—is substantially and overtly a party to the Syrian civil war. That reckless action cannot but have profound consequences for Lebanon and for the sectarian divisions that are now so raw throughout the Middle East. In Egypt only last week we saw the brutal lynching of four Shia villagers in a hamlet on the outskirts of Cairo.
What of the Lebanon? Sadly, the country is now an integral part of the geography of the Syrian civil war. The authority of its Government and institutions, never historically robust, has been undermined by the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah’s increasing involvement has inevitably raised sectarian tensions in Lebanon. This is seen most clearly in the second city of Tripoli, where the country’s only Alawite community has been involved in clashes with its Sunni neighbours, which have claimed tens of deaths over the past months. Even more serious were the clashes the weekend before last in the city of Saida between the army and an Islamist group, which claimed 35 lives.
I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to keep a close eye on the travel advisory for Lebanon. There are few exits from the country. In the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, most British and other foreign nationals were evacuated along the international highway to Damascus. Clearly, that option is no longer open. The one airport in Beirut is close to the Hezbollah suburb of Dahiyeh and is easily closed with one telephone call from Hezbollah. I am concerned that Lebanon could—I pray it will not—descend into widespread civil strife in a matter of hours.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness for introducing this important debate. I thank her for her wide-ranging and helpful speech. The Foreign Secretary was right when he recently described the situation in Syria as the worst crisis affecting the world today. It is a truly wicked conflict. This wickedness is illustrated both by the scale of the human tragedy and by the complexity that has thwarted efforts to resolve it.
I am also grateful for the noble Baroness’s mention of the Prime Minister’s G8 announcement of a £178 million emergency package, which is very welcome. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that it will suffice. As other speakers have mentioned, the crisis has so far driven more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries, and thousands more pour across Syrian borders every day. Sadly, as the noble Lord, Lord Wood, mentioned, around 50% of these refugees are children. This is a truly desperate situation, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say something more about the efforts to tackle the growing phenomenon in Lebanon, as we have just been hearing, where innocent and traumatised children are sold into prostitution through temporary marriages.
With every passing month, the conflict generates 200,000 new refugees that impact on Syria’s fragile neighbours. If current trends persist, we can expect that over 3 million Syrians will have left their home country by the end of the year. This situation threatens to become a Sword of Damocles hanging over the host countries and host communities, which lack the capacity to absorb increases of up to 10% of their local populations.
Will the noble Baroness assure the House that the Government will continue to respond generously to this humanitarian disaster, which threatens to unsettle the delicate confessional and political balance of neighbouring states, not least Lebanon itself? I am sure the noble Baroness would agree that, even if obstacles have yet to be overcome in resolving this conflict, the international community should not shirk its responsibility in containing it. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that donors’ pledges are fulfilled without delay and that additional funds are provided to meet short-term and longer-term needs? I would like also to mention here the indigenous Syrian Arab Christians, who are especially vulnerable when outsiders from elsewhere in the region, who know or care little about the honoured place that Christians have held in the nation from earliest times, seem to be influencing events so greatly. All of us who are Christian leaders are extremely concerned about the two abducted archbishops from Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi and Mor Yohanna Ibrahim. We are all in solidarity with the faithful Christian communities of Syria.
The wickedness of this humanitarian catastrophe is matched only by the paucity of our political efforts to resolve the conflict. The absence of any real political progress on Syria at Lough Erne last month is a truly regrettable blight on an otherwise successful G8 summit. The Government have to date wisely resisted the temptation of military intervention, but it remains a real concern to members of this Bench that the Government hold to the assumption that only by correcting the asymmetry of military power can President Assad be cajoled into serious negotiations with the opposition. Is this right? Will arming the opposition—or it might be better to say “oppositions”, in the plural—make the situation for the Syrian people better, or will it merely lead to more bloodshed and accelerate spillover to the wider region?
I accept that there might be a time when it is necessary for the international community to police any peace settlement, but we are clearly a very long way from that point and, as it stands, the ongoing debate about the arming of Syrian rebels serves merely to distract attention from finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Surely now is the time to intensify our diplomatic efforts. Diplomatically, the West appears locked into a political mindset that assumes that a solution needs to be agreed by external powers and then imposed from outside without any consultation. Is this the right strategy? Even if the capacity and coherence of the Syrian opposition can be developed sufficiently ahead of Geneva 2, are the Government being fanciful in thinking that a group of Syrian exiles can be parachuted in as the opposition transition government implant to assume command of the army and security forces in Syria?
The Government need to move beyond the narrative that this is a liberational struggle against a nasty and brutish regime. This might have held true in the conflict’s early months, but it has long since mutated. It is high time that the conflict was analysed in its own terms rather than by reference to the transformations going on in other parts of the Middle East and north Africa. Will the Minister accept that the political position taken in the embryonic stages of this conflict—namely, that Assad must go—has now become an obstacle to resolving the conflict? Will she accept that Assad’s fate must be a question for the transition process and not a precondition, and that Iran, as has been said, must play a role in the diplomatic process?
This is a truly wicked conflict but, when all we see is good or evil, light or dark, we are in danger of overlooking the shades of grey that give this conflict its multilayered complexity. Unless we recognise this complexity, any intervention, military or political, is going to be bluntly ineffective and at risk of compounding the situation. That would be a tragedy, not least for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.
My Lords, more than a year ago, Lakhdar Brahimi said that the choice for Syria was between his plan, which at that time was for some kind of transitional government, and hell. His plan was completely rejected and now we have hell. Syria is descending into total fragmentation, with a hideous death toll and oceans of human misery, as we have heard in several very eloquent and penetrating speeches. The costs to date are estimated at anything between $50 billion and $100 billion, perhaps far more: one can hardly put a price on these things. Prices in Syria have risen 100% in the past year and are heading for hyperinflation and the point where money dies. Unemployment has quadrupled and many feel that the country is getting ready to split up, possibly with an Alawite statelet, as under French rule in the 1930s.
Meanwhile, in Jordan, Hashemite rule is under pressure. As we heard in the eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, the state of Lebanon is threatened, although I am not quite as gloomy as he is about the miraculous way in which that state has somehow survived so far, given the amazing pressures since its own civil war. Even Turkey is destabilised, and there is clearly a feedback into a worsening situation in Iraq, which we sometimes overlook as being one of the world’s biggest oil producers.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the rebels seem to have captured Deraa and have plenty of anti-tank weapons. Every day, Qatar and Saudi Arabia run arms runs with massive supplies of weapons, and while these are perhaps not all the rebels want there are a great deal of them, so there is a stalemate already. There is no hope of a new force arising—as someone said the other day, a new Zenobia—to unite Syria. Nothing of that is in sight. It was a non-sectarian battle to start with and could have been handled much more wisely, but it was not, and now all sorts of jihadists have joined in, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wood. It is now becoming a civil war between Islamic sects. The pessimists could say that when we had a similar religious division in Europe, it lasted 100 years and involved unbelievable atrocities.
It is hardly surprising that in all this appalling scene, where terrorist-inclined organisations are fighting each other on both sides, we are all very reluctant to intervene. That is understandable, but—there is a “but”—we cannot do nothing when not merely a whole house but a whole neighbourhood is on fire, and the fire is spreading. This kingdom is supposed to be a responsible and powerful contributor to the network of world peace and stability, and I believe that we are as long as we do not lose confidence in ourselves. We live in a totally interdependent world. Even those who sometimes hanker after different versions of independence when we talk about other issues do not seem to understand that the whole system is now totally connected. Interdependence obliges us to proceed on certain courses. In this case, we simply cannot opt out. However, in not opting out and deciding how to proceed, we must not allow this to turn into an old-fashioned Cold War, East/West issue, which I am afraid it is rapidly sliding towards. Indeed, that is my worst fear of all. We hear more and more talk of line-up and the West must do this and Iran, Russia and China must do that. That is the stance that many of us thought we had seen for the last time with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the old world of the divided Communist Cold War. To bring it back and to act as though it had never gone is a great mistake.
I concede that there are enormous hurdles to proceeding in any direction at all. Diplomacy has become decoupled from the facts on the ground. There is a weak and divided Syrian national council, now the national coalition. It is very hard to know who is in charge. The Russians, although they have talked big about legitimate regimes and remaining behind Bashar al-Assad, have totally failed to influence him. Their diplomacy, which they proclaim very loudly, has not been a success. The mechanism of dialogue is extremely unclear and the past aspiration of all nations to develop the concept of responsibility for moving in and protecting against hideous atrocities and killings has been blocked at the United Nations by Russia and China.
In these circumstances, we have to be completely realistic and recognise that China and Russia are the key to any change. Without them, any measures taken will produce counter-reactions and escalate the problem. There should be a common responsible global approach, without which there will be no effective approach. The good news in all this gloom is that the UK has very recently mended its fences with China, and that positive move is understood and welcomed on both sides. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has held detailed talks with the Russian authorities and Mr Lavrov. Of course, my right honourable friend and the Prime Minister have had sessions with Mr Putin in the past few days at Lough Erne and no doubt elsewhere.
If one were to look for a third chink of light in this otherwise horrific situation, there could be some change, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested, now that Mr Rouhani is in charge in Iran. However, it is much too early to say anything on that. It is only in the new global context that one can start carefully to decide what kind of intervention can be pieced together, whether it is arms, assistance on the ground or any other kind of assistance to one side or the other.
What can be done to bring the two giant powers, Russia and China, to a more responsible and constructive position? In a way, China is in need of much more discussion and dialogue. The Chinese talk about intervening only peacefully, and have used the phrase the “peaceful rise” of China. That is questionable because the Chinese have not always been peaceful. However, the plain fact facing them is that the bulk of their country’s oil imports now come from the Middle East. Most oil resources from there go eastwards, not westwards. It is estimated that by 2030 95% of all oil and gas will go east to China and the great rising powers of Asia. Syria and Iran are therefore China’s problem, and there is no future for China in stoking the Syrian conflict.
The reality that even the Chinese must face is that power now lies as much in the networks of the street and the totally connected world system as it does in the hands of any individual country. We have only to watch what is happening in Brazil, Turkey or Egypt, where digital network power and the street are challenging the traditional tools of government, to see where the real forces lie. We should therefore engage with these great powers that think that they can play superpower politics in the age of the networked world. We have to engage much more closely with China’s think tanks and continue our discussions with the Russians to make them realise that in the end we all share the same responsibility and that the dangers of failing to combine together will affect us all, whether it be the Chinese, Russians, Europeans or Americans.
We have no choice in this age of total connectivity but to make a firm contribution to the common cause of trying to halt the Syrian horror. However, there must be a genuinely common cause to which to contribute, and this, frankly, does not yet exist, so the prime task is to establish this common approach. I believe that we in Britain are well placed to make a contribution in seeking that goal, and we should strongly support my right honourable friend William Hague in his efforts in that direction. That is where the solution, if there is one, to this horror lies: in a common global approach. Without a common global approach, any attempt unilaterally or on behalf of the so-called West will fail.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for introducing this debate in her usual balanced way.
The complexity of the situation in Syria is such that the seemingly simple question of whether to arm or not to arm cannot be answered without the prospect of provoking more harm than good. What sort of arms are we talking about and whom should we give them to, given that there are over 100 different factions from Islamic extremists to small local militias? And how do we in the UK fit into the grand scheme in which Russia and Iran, together with Hezbollah, are busily arming the ruling party and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are pouring in weaponry for various Sunni groups? It sounds to me like a situation we would be better off keeping out of, apart from offering humanitarian aid, frustrating as that might seem. Needless to say, I agree with my noble friend Lord Wood of Anfield, and I resonate very much with the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford.
I should like to focus my remarks on a slightly different area: the impact of what is going on in the Middle East in the Israeli-Palestinian so-called peace process. There is little doubt that Israel is regarded as the number one enemy across most of the rest of the Middle East, and the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric in those countries is sometimes pretty horrific.
However, the problems that those nations face now are clearly nothing at all to do with Israel or the Palestinians. In most of them, what starts out as a popular uprising of oppressed people seeking to topple a dictatorial regime and gain a better life, and perhaps democracy, ends up with a vacuum rapidly filled by a vicious Sunni-Shia conflict, fuelled by clerics each denouncing the other as infidels. This is the case in Syria, in Lebanon and in Iraq, while in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a shaky power in a struggle with the more secular elements. In Iran, as they spin their centrifuges and their leaders spin their web of deception, their primary objective is to become the dominant force in the Middle East, leading to the prospect of an arms race with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. I find it difficult to imagine that any of what is going on in those countries can be laid at the door of Israel. Israel is a useful scapegoat, but using it as a reason for their miseries does not bear close examination.
Of course, a peaceful, secure two-state solution is desperately needed by both Israelis and Palestinians, but even if we reach that nirvana it will make not a jot of difference to the struggles elsewhere in the Middle East. However, it is the influence on those two of what is going on elsewhere that is a major barrier. There is of course strong pressure from the USA in the shape of John Kerry to restart negotiations, as well as his offers of billions of dollars to Mahmoud Abbas for West Bank developments. Furthermore, surprisingly, if somewhat belatedly, Mr Netanyahu has recently reiterated several times his offer of talks without preconditions. He is even rumoured to have offered to stop settlement-building and the release of Palestinian prisoners as inducements to the Palestinians to resume negotiations. One hopes that that may be true. Mr Abbas has so far remained resistant and there is no doubt that there is considerable mistrust and cynicism on both sides, despite the fact that the outline of a potential two-state solution is not too difficult to make out. However, it is events elsewhere in the Middle East that might determine progress in the peace process.
Israel is distracted by the Iranian threat and events in Syria. It is hardly comforting for it to see what is going on in Syria with a potential change from one implacable enemy to another. At least with Assad it knew what it was getting, so it can hardly be a comfort to know that a change to an opposition possibly dominated by Islamic jihadists is in the offing.
However, it is the effect of those developments on the Palestinians where the most significant impact may be felt. Mr Abbas is likely to be very concerned that any move to reconcile his differences with Israel, the sworn enemy of the rest of the Middle East, will earn him few friends there. He will be looking over his shoulder at what impact a peace deal would have on his relationship with Hamas at home and on Hezbollah, Syria and Iran in his neighbourhood. He may see that his arm could be strengthened by a victory for either Assad or the opposition in Syria and so will feel that he is better off delaying any deal. He could hope that one or other of these victors could turn their attentions to attacking Israel with or without the threat of nuclear force from Iran. It might seem to him like signing a suicide note if he makes peace with Israel and at the same time makes enemies out of Hamas and much of the Arab world. He might feel that, just now, procrastination is the best option. Against this background of instability elsewhere his reluctance to negotiate could be more understandable.
Of course, events might turn out differently: a moderate power might take over in Syria, Hezbollah might go home with its tail between its legs as it loses Syrian support, Iran might become more conciliatory or more isolated and weakened, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt might become less dominant, all of which might give greater courage to Mr Abbas. However, despite American pressure and support from Saudi Arabia, he might think that the buzzing, angry wasp’s nest to his north makes it preferable to wait than to gamble. He has, of course, the additional task of dealing with Hamas in Gaza and in the West Bank. Its hard line of non-collaboration in any peace deal means that he can speak for only a proportion of Palestinians. Furthermore, his stability is further compromised by the recent resignation of two Prime Ministers in quick succession, and that cannot help either. A strong leader is needed in any negotiations, so it is difficult to remain optimistic for the immediate future as so much depends on events elsewhere. There are little glimpses of hope here and there, but that depends to a very large extent on what happens in the rest of the Middle East.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, with many of whose views I profoundly agree. I also join others in thanking the Minister for giving us the chance for this debate. Who among us would not wish to seek to stop this bloody Golgotha of the innocents in Syria? I am not sure whether you can use the word Golgotha in relation to an Islamic country but I suppose it is appropriate here. Who among us would not wish for something to be done, if it can be? But here is the question, the paradox: what if the thing you want to do does not make things better but makes them worse? That is the conundrum to which we must now seek an answer.
It is not the case that I am against intervention—far from it. I suppose I was one of the first to push for intervention in the Balkans, in Bosnia and again in Kosovo. When I returned I wrote a book, which is still available no doubt in all the best bookshops at a remarkably cheap price, about how we might intervene more successfully than we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. I happen to believe that, in an increasingly turbulent world, the capacity of the international community to intervene to preserve the wider peace will be one of the instruments that determines whether the decades ahead are more or less turbulent and more or less bloody.
However, it is sensible to intervene only when it is sensible to intervene. When it is not sensible to intervene, it is very stupid to intervene indeed. For reasons I shall explain, I am afraid it is not sensible if by intervention we mean either military force taken by Britain or the West, or the provision of arms. The case is so difficult, so tragic and so potentially catastrophic for the wider peace that it behoves us to try to put forward a suggestion other than intervention which it might be possible to follow. I shall seek to do that, too.
There are two departure points on which we can agree. First, we desperately hope that Geneva II succeeds. Frankly, I rather doubt it will. We must all hold hands, cross our fingers, wish it a fair wind and hope for the best. Secondly, until President Obama decides to announce what he wants to do, we ought not to say that what he wants to do is foolish until we discover what it is. He has been remarkably timid in following up the statement one felt that he was dragged to some weeks—or was it months?—ago that he wanted to assist the rebels. He may want to do something which is largely humanitarian. He may want to create a humanitarian corridor or a humanitarian safe zone. Those options, too, would not be without their complications and dangers. As we saw in Bosnia, safe zones can easily become safe zones for the rebels, for those who do not want peace and prosecute instead violence and war. Safe corridors can easily become corridors for more arms, with more activists, rebels and fighters coming in. However, until President Obama announces, we all should wait and listen with interest.
There are things we could be doing—I shall touch on them in a moment—but, in my view, lifting the arms embargo is not one of them. Let me explain why. The Government have got themselves into a difficult spot having been so enthusiastic towards that proposal. It was put forward first by François Hollande and we followed the French in saying to the European Union, “Let us lift the arms embargo”. I sense they would now like to withdraw from that position. I hear it in the weight of opinion in your Lordships’ Chamber today.
There are four basic reasons why, in this instance, lifting the arms embargo would not be a wise move. First, the rebels do not need arms. It is an unchallenged fact that 3,500 tonnes of arms have been shipped in by way of Croatia with the assistance of—the noble Lord, Lord Wood, mentioned the Americans—the CIA. That, too, is unchallenged. This is funded by the Saudis and the Qataris and is going almost exclusively to the more jihadist groups, the Wahhabists and the Salafists, who, though they do not love each other, are fighting together in Syria.
I know where those weapons are coming from. I have seen them stacked up in the underground arms factories in Bosnia. Tito created those arms factories precisely because he did not know who was going to attack him—would it be the West or the East? They are the weapons left over from the Bosnian war. They are being shipped out in large measure through Croatian ports and airports, and they are making vast sums for the corrupt forces in the Balkans who are used to these things.
They do not need more weapons; they have more than enough. They have been provided with the assistance of the CIA and, above all, funded—foolishly in my view—by the Qataris on the one hand and rich businessmen in Saudi Arabia on the other. The arms may not be provided by the Saudi Arabian Government, but they could stop it if they wished. Noble Lords may wish to reflect on the fact that the rich businessmen who are funding the supply of weapons are the same rich businessmen who, by and large, funded Osama bin Laden in the early days for reasons which, as we discovered later, were not to our advantage.
The second reason for not lifting the arms embargo is that the so-called rebels in Saudi Arabia are not fit and proper people for us to provide arms to. Some—maybe even a majority—of this fractured, diverse, uncontrolled group are as casual about killing and disregarding human rights as those they oppose. There is not much to differentiate between the revolting acts committed by both sides. I am not happy that we may well be contributing to that process and that we may provide weapons which we give to the right people but which end up in the dominant faction, as weapons always do in times of conflict, who are the wrong people.
Thirdly, with great respect to my noble friend Lady Falkner, I know of no case anywhere where the provision of external weapons has created more peace. I was opposed to it in the Bosnian war for exactly the same reasons. There are occasions, of course, when the West can intervene, and Bosnia/Kosovo is an example of that. We were prepared to come in and suppress the conflict using our weapons and our forces, but handing over weapons, supplying them to a chaotic situation run by rebels, is different. Frankly, I know of no occasion when one of the routes to peace was to provide more weapons. In fact, it almost always seems to point in the other direction.
The biggest and most powerful reason for not doing this is that Syria is not what we think it is. Syria is not the conflict; it is the front line in a wider conflict that is no longer about the great Satan of the West but is now about the great heretic in Tehran. What we are seeing being built up now is a determined attempt, funded by the Saudis and the Qataris, to create a powerful, radicalised, jihadist Sunni element that can capture the community of the Sunni as a preparation for a wider war against the Shia. I do not say that that will happen, but there is a risk of it doing so. That is the intention behind the provision of these weapons. What we see in Syria is connected to what we see in Lebanon in ways that have been very well described. It is connected to what we see in Egypt, it is connected to what we see in Tunisia, it is connected to what we see in Libya and it is connected to what we see in Mali. As I say, this is not about the great Satan of the West; this is about the preparations that some are deliberately making to have a wider regional religious conflict, just as my noble friend Lord Howell said earlier. Do we really want to stimulate that?
In this, it is important that we understand the position of Russia. We believe that Russia is in favour of Assad because he is Russia’s last man in the Middle East. However, there is a deeper reason that we should understand. The Russian Islamic republics of Dagestan, Chechnya and so on are being infected by exactly the same movement. They know that the jihadisation of the Sunni umma is affecting their stability. If they are not very careful, it is in danger of dividing the Russian Federation, or at least causing great instability. So we have this terrifying situation of the West being instrumentalised on one side in favour of the Sunnis, and the Russians being instrumentalised on the other side in favour of the Shia in what runs a grave risk, although not a certainty, of widening into a much broader religious conflict that will engulf the Middle East. Mao Tse-Tung once referred to the Second World War as the European civil war. Perhaps it was a civil war but it had global connections, and those global connections in today’s interconnected world mean that a regional war can have much wider consequences.
Our policy in the Middle East has been attended by the law of unintended consequences. We piled into Afghanistan and provided weapons for Osama bin Laden because our enemy’s enemy is our friend, is he not? However, he turned out to be our primary and most potent enemy. We piled into Iraq because we wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We supported a Shia majority and now we find that the border of Iran has effectively moved 400 miles to the west. The law of unintended consequences is likely to apply in Syria more than in any other recent circumstance and I really do not believe that this would be a wise step forward.
However, there is one thing we could do. Why do we want to pursue the issue of arms when there is an issue of diplomacy still open to us? I repeat the question I asked the Minister the other day. If it is the case that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are today funding the very jihadism against which we are fighting—the jihadism, by the way, that has killed French troops in Mali—why are we not using international pressure in the form of the United States and the European Union to persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop and thus prevent this? The moment we do that, we will create the circumstances in which the Russians may well have common cause with us. We will begin to create a diplomatic space that can be widened and we will be assisting the rebels in another way. I do not understand why we are rushing to lift an arms embargo when there is a serious diplomatic route that would take the steam out of this conflict by persuading our friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop providing the money that is spreading the very jihadism that we know is the greatest threat we now face. We should not stumble towards arms when there is diplomacy still to be played out.
My Lords, stop the killing in Syria. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, at least on that. The need is obvious but we must work at it until it happens. Surely the past 27 months have proved beyond possible doubt that none of the many sides can achieve military victory. A complete ceasefire is therefore in the interests of all, whether they are combatants or neutrals. One hundred thousand lives will have been lost in vain if efforts are not made now to prevent more deaths. A ceasefire would give space for local, national and regional negotiations and would allow some at least of the displaced people to return to their homes.
How may we reach a comprehensive ceasefire? A conference, whether in Geneva or elsewhere, is probably the most likely means. We should take heart from the 2012 conference on Somalia held in London. That has not, I agree, resolved all problems, but at least the situation there is very much better than it was. We should note that some British jihadis were fighting in Somalia, just as they are now in Syria. It is therefore in our interest that fighting should stop and, even more so, in the interest of the beleaguered civilian population. Meanwhile, will Her Majesty’s Government allow the hospitals in our sovereign bases on Cyprus to treat urgent cases from Syria?
If a ceasefire can be achieved, it would need to be verified. Satellites, drones, manned aircraft and ground observers should all be used. The machinery of war should serve the cause of peace. All existing or potential suppliers of arms should be involved in preventing further violence. That means Russia, Iran and the Gulf states in particular. A ceasefire must not become just a pause before war begins again. Every effort should be made to involve the religious authorities and leaders, first in securing and upholding a ceasefire and then in negotiations for permanent peace.
I turn now to Iran, which I once visited for a holiday in 2010. I disclaim all special knowledge, but I do commend to our Government the article by Major-General Shaw in the Tablet of 29 June. He writes with authority as a former Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff and as a former commander of the Multi-National Division in Basra. He rightly points out that Iran is the only major Shia state in existence and that Britain has never suffered a terrorist attack from Shia Muslims.
I would go further and suggest that the recent Iranian elections and the reported release of some —or maybe all—women prisoners give grounds for re-examining our policy towards Iran. Will our Government restore at least low-level diplomatic relations? Full relations could be tied to co-operation over Syria, the treatment of minorities everywhere and progress on nuclear issues. Iran should not be seen as a necessary enemy or as part of any axis of evil. The United States has understandable memories of the kidnapping of its diplomats. Saudi Arabia and Israel, for their different reasons, are likely to wish to prevent detente between the United States and Iran. I trust that we will be more statesmanlike than that, as was suggested by my noble friend Lord Williams of Baglan. We should also remember that Iran could be constructive over Afghanistan and that it has its own Kurdish minority population.
There is a theory that Syria is a purely Arab matter. The Arab League, alas, has not been able to bring peace. Non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran and Israel are inevitably involved. Israel could help enormously in at least two ways. First, it could declare its willingness to negotiate peace and the future of the Golan with a Syrian Government ruling with the consent of its people. Secondly, it could indicate that it is satisfied to own some 78% of pre-war Palestine, without coveting complete control over the remainder.
If international guarantees are necessary, they must be given. Israel, however, should prepare to take its place alongside its neighbours and to play the part in the whole region for which it is uniquely qualified. Decades of hostility and mistrust have to be overcome. To do so, Israel should work its passage and prepare its own citizens for peace. Is that in line with Her Majesty’s Government’s policy? I hope so.
I conclude with a brief mention of Palestinian refugees in Syria. There were half a million of them. They tried at first to be neutral but, alas, Syrian government forces have destroyed two camps: at al-Ramleh, near Latakia, and Deraa, near the border with Jordan. Many have now fled into Lebanon and Jordan. Will Her Majesty’s Government earmark specific funds for the urgent needs of those Palestinians?
My Lords, I welcome this debate but I am extremely regretful of the circumstances that have triggered our discussions. I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing the debate.
Today we are focusing on the Middle East as a region but there is no doubt that the appalling situation in Syria is currently taking centre stage. I am horrified on a daily basis at the news reports of both the escalating conflict and, more importantly, the humanitarian crisis resulting from it. Tensions were high at the initial outbreak of violent protests in 2011 but few could have predicted that two years later 93,000 people would have lost their lives and that the death rate would still be accelerating.
The potential for a large regional sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims is now dangerously high and the bloodshed and political divide could spiral even further out of control. I am very worried about the rift between the Sunnis and Shias, which unfortunately is growing. As a Muslim, this disturbs me, but I feel that everyone should be concerned about how the situation is developing.
I share the wider desire to see President Assad’s regime brought to an end, and was excited at the increasing prospect of such an outcome late last year. About three years ago I visited Syria with other parliamentarians and we spoke to President Assad at some length. He seemed a reasonable man at that time but his attitude and behaviour are now totally unacceptable.
However, as we should have learnt so very well by now, true victory will not be won for the people of Syria, or indeed any country, if the overthrowing of evil is not accompanied by a good and stable substitution. I know that many colleagues share my concerns at the rather fragmented make-up of what we sweepingly refer to as the “opposition forces”. I appreciate the efforts made with the formation of the national coalition last year, but we must acknowledge that the coalition is beset by its own problems, perhaps most notably the resignation of its own leader in March, and remains generally fractious and divided. It is also unable to assert proper command over many of the rebel groups and has been unable to develop or offer any substantial support in respect of the humanitarian crisis.
What I find of great concern is that its principle is not to engage in any dialogue or negotiations with the regime. In reality, this illustrates a continued desire to fight this battle through sheer physical force, despite the incalculable pain and suffering that the conflict has already caused to millions of people. While I abhor the grotesque practices and governance of President Assad, I also find myself unable fully to support a group which exists by this philosophy.
With the coalition’s ideologies for the future of Syria so varied, in some cases even contradictory, and with no will to engage in negotiation with its enemies, it simply cannot be right for us or any other country to pledge unyielding support to it in the wider sense unless the various factions can get together and be a more cohesive force.
I am very supportive of the non-lethal assistance that we have so far provided. Such technical advice, training and basic equipment will help the opposition forces better to protect themselves and other civilians. I was pleased to hear the Prime Minister commit to doubling this assistance by the end of this year.
However, the decision that some are calling for—for us to put our own powerful weapons, designed to cause maximum damage and often death, in the hands of people lacking a true unified ideology—carries with it many concerns. It would be dangerous, costly and, frankly, a substantial risk to both the Syrian people and the opposition members themselves.
We also cannot be sure where such weapons will actually end up once distributed on the ground. I know that the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that, if arms were provided, they would not be allowed to fall into the hands of extremists, but I would like a little further clarity on exactly how we can guarantee such a claim.
In addition, we must consider what will happen to such arms when the conflict finally comes to an end, whatever the outcome. One has only to cast one’s mind back to the Libyan crisis and the subsequent, exhaustive efforts made by the West in sourcing and retrieving the plethora of weapons that were lost in the post-war chaos. Supplying arms would seem to be a slightly contradictory move, in that it poses a threat to the very long-term stability that some believe we can achieve by arming the rebels in the first place. We are making these decisions in the interests not just of the conflict’s outcome but also of the safety and security of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer so greatly.
In May this year, I was privileged to be invited by His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan to visit his country with a party of British politicians. Back in April and before our visit, I spoke briefly in your Lordships’ House on the subject of refugees fleeing Syria, in particular those who have crossed the border into Jordan and are now settling there. I should like to make a reference to this once more.
During our five days in Jordan, our delegation had the opportunity to discuss many of the political, social and financial challenges facing that country. One of the most significant impressions that we were all left with was that of the plight of refugees fleeing across the border from Syria. About 400,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan and, of those, nearly half arrived in the first quarter of this year.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, the pressure on neighbouring countries such as Jordan becomes ever harder to address. For example, Jordan anticipates a large number of Syrians seeking refuge there during the remainder of this year. Refugees in dedicated camps, as I was able to witness during my visit, are being well looked after and cared for in the circumstances. The Zaatari camp alone provides home for 140,000 refugees, and the total refugee population at present makes up about 6% of the entire Jordanian population. The situation will be aggravated by the influx of other refugees.
Jordan is a country which has experienced a slowdown in economic growth, and its budget deficit is already creating a challenge. Jordan’s ability to address that fiscal issue is hampered by the chaos in Syria; it needs more help to address the costs of the crisis.
In the medium term, there are also grave implications for public services in Jordan. Jordan is allowing Syrian children to register in schools at no cost, and 80 new schools are anticipated to be needed in the coming year. Similar pressures are to be found in healthcare: there is a crisis of resources and hospital expansions will be necessary to provide for the needs of a growing refugee population.
Last year, the crisis cost Jordan about $251 million. The cost this year is projected to be a staggering $851 million. Jordan is an impressive country, but it is finding it difficult to cope with the situation, and there are severe pressures inflicted on the country. As an international community, we have a duty to see that more should be done so that the costs are not born by Syria’s neighbours alone.
The UK is one of the largest bilateral donors to the Syrian crisis. We have provided £171 million on vital assistance for refugees who have fled the Assad regime. That includes £26 million for support to Jordan. The Prime Minister announced at the recent G8 conference that further amounts will be provided. Our funding is providing food, as well as clean drinking water. The UK has also provided clinical care and counselling to the refugees. I commend our Government for the valuable support and help that we have provided and continue to provide to the countries affected by the Syrian crisis.
It is clear that a long-term solution to the conflict is some way off. The Government are to be congratulated for what they have done to seek to engage diplomatic pressure for an effective international response. The Secretary of State has shown real leadership and the Prime Minister has worked really hard.
I welcome the Government’s efforts to achieve peace and bring various parties to the negotiating table. I hope that we will see the proposed Geneva II conference taking place. In my opinion, the only solution will be a properly negotiated political settlement, one that involves Russia and, if possible, Iran. Only by bringing the interests of everyone to the table will we be able to make progress that is comprehensive enough to make a difference that will actually endure.
I feel that military action alone will not resolve the crisis in Syria. I also fear that if we increase military support to the opposition forces, Russia will augment its support to President Assad, and the crisis will spiral further. Different parties must talk to one another and arrive at an acceptable solution. We achieved the right results in Libya by military intervention, but circumstances are very different in Syria. We would of course all like to see a freer, more accountable Middle East with Governments who are more democratic and engaging with their people.
My Lords, last Thursday the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, to whom I am grateful for opening this debate, was asked point blank by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, whether—I paraphrase—given the assurances of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, there would be a vote prior to any decision to give arms to the Syrian opposition, and what would be the arrangements in the Recess. I regret to say that the briefing of the Minister of State did not deal adequately with the situation. She said that the House of Commons would,
“have the opportunity to discuss the issue”—[Official Report, 2706/13; col. 859]—
and that she would consult on what would occur if Parliament was not sitting. Today she was much clearer. She said—if I have the words correct—that Parliament “would be engaged”, and I think she said that Parliament would have to agree.
On 19 June the Prime Minister said that we have,
“a big commitment to come to the House, explain, vote and all the rest of it, but obviously Governments have to reserve the ability to take action swiftly on this or other issues”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/6/13; col. 909.]
Of course, in the development of what I believe is now a convention for parliamentary approval, there has to be such a reserve power for speedy action if the country is in danger. However, this is not that kind of situation. The Government must make abundantly clear their commitment to a vote of approval—I hope that they already have, but perhaps they could repeat it—and spell out what will happen in the Recess.
It used to be said that going to war did not need parliamentary approval. Technically, for a whole host of legal reasons, we have not declared war since declaring it against Siam in 1942. The most usual scenarios today are armed conflict or the commitment of troops. In the past, Governments were able to act under the royal prerogative—what Churchill deemed “the people’s prerogative”—but all that is changing. Parliamentary approval for the war in Iraq broke new ground.
If one couples that with a report of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee in 2006—to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and I gave evidence as former Attorney-Generals—one sees that the convention on the need for parliamentary approval is firmly developing. I find it difficult to visualise a situation short of an extreme crisis where armed conflict would be undertaken without parliamentary approval. I would argue that the supply of arms, with the possibility of mission creep, comes very near to engaging in armed conflict, and that there is a need there, too, for parliamentary approval. Indeed, I would like to hear the argument for why it would not be covered by the growing convention.
Not for the first time, the Security Council is paralysed. There is no Security Council resolution that I know of that would permit the supply of arms. Arming the rebels could be seen as an illegal use of force contrary to Article 2(4) of the UN charter. I note that in May 2013 the European Union lifted its arms embargo, which means that the transfer of arms, subject to certain conditions, could be legal under European law. There could be at least five legal objections to supplying arms after the lifting of that embargo. Even the arms trade treaty signed in June of this year, which is yet to be ratified, requires states to abide by the UN charter.
I would counsel a close examination of the United Kingdom’s vulnerability at international law if it implemented the European Union’s lifting of the ban. Much as we are enjoined and have a duty as Ministers, politicians and the Armed Forces to obey international law, there are precedents in certain circumstances where there is an overwhelming humanitarian disaster for acting in the absence of an appropriate Security Council resolution.
In 1991 my predecessors as law officers enunciated the germination of, and indeed blessed, the doctrine of intervention in the absence of a Security Council resolution to provide for a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs in Iraq. As the Attorney-General, I was faced with a similar impasse in the case of Kosovo, where I had to hone and develop that doctrine and provide what I believed in those particular circumstances was a legal basis for Ministers and the Armed Forces to act. Representing the United Kingdom, I had to defend our stance for five long days in the International Court of Justice at The Hague. It is possible, whatever my views about non-humanitarian intervention at all, that it may have to be prayed in aid in the circumstances of Syria if parliamentary approval is obtained.
I shall set out briefly what I believe are the necessary requirements following Kosovo. First, there has to be convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale requiring immediate and urgent relief. I have no doubt that this is satisfied. Secondly, in all the circumstances there is no practical alternative to the use of force, if lives are to be saved. This is much more difficult; it depends on the action proposed, and judgment has to be exercised. Thirdly, the proposed use of force—in this case, the supply of arms—is necessary and proportionate to the aid proposed, which is the relief of humanitarian need, and is strictly limited in time and scope to that end; that is, it is the minimum necessary to achieve that aim. I argue that the supply of arms could be deemed to come under what might be called the rubric.
The doctrine is not without controversy. Some distinguished academics, perhaps from the comfort of their ivory towers, find the doctrine unacceptable. I respect them. They did not have to face the overwhelming humanitarian disaster that I had to face, or to advise my colleagues. Others take the same view. Having set out what I believe are the legal grounds that might justify acting, given the history of intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would nevertheless counsel against any intervention until we were satisfied that there was very wide acceptance of whatever action we took and we were confident that our actions both were right and would work to bring peace to these long-suffering communities.
Wars used to last for five years; now 10 years, and more, go by very quickly. As a relatively small nation in economic terms, is it in our national interest to embark on such interventions without much broader unanimity across the world?
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, began his intervention by quoting the question that my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine asked the Minister quite recently about whether, if the Government were minded to provide weapons to the opposition in Syria, your Lordships’ House would have an opportunity to express a view. As the noble and learned Lord has made clear, the Minister was unable to give a full and clear reply. She seems to have moved things forward a little today in her introductory speech. I thank her for that, as have other noble Lords, and for the opportunity for today’s debate. However, it seems clear even at this stage in the debate that there is very strong resistance to the idea that the Government should arm the rebels or should participate in arming the rebels, so I seek specific assurance from my noble friend that were the Government at any stage minded to move in that direction, today’s debate would not be regarded as an appropriate calling in of advice from your Lordships’ House and that there would be a subsequent debate, as has been undertaken for the other place, whether or not your Lordships’ House is in recess.
This is a major issue, and I wish to say why I think it is so. When the Berlin wall came down and the Cold War drew to a close, we all rejoiced at the opportunity for a change in the world order we had grown up with, a world order in which it seemed clear that there were the good guys and the bad guys and we were the good guys. In a very interesting and important speech, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro advised us against regarding foreign policy as best conducted on the basis of good and evil, and when a right reverend Prelate tells us to be careful about regarding things on the basis of good and evil, we would be wise to pay attention.
I think the right reverend Prelate was right because at that time the possibility arose of a new world order constructed on a different basis, a multipolar world where there would be various kinds of arrangements and engagements, but we failed to achieve that. We paid attention to a long-term intervention in Afghanistan when perhaps something much shorter and sharper would have been appropriate, if anything was. We got ourselves embroiled in Iraq in a completely inappropriate way. I supported the intervention in Libya, but we must accept that there have been untoward consequences in other countries apart from the situation in Libya. The most important thing is that in failing to create a multipolar and robust new world order we left a vacuum of power structures, and nature abhors a vacuum, so when the Arab awakening arose, it arose without any kind of structure that could enable people to move forward in appropriate ways and we find something much more destructive, regressive and chaotic.
Borders no longer provide a structure, not only because the people who live in those countries do not regard them as borders that they created but because they see themselves principally not as members of nation states but as people whose responsibilities and relationships are far outside the nation state and depend much more on tribal, religious and other transborder responsibilities and relationships.
When I look at the situation in Syria, I fear that having had the opportunity of moving to a new world order that was not based on one side and the other—good and evil, black and white—we are falling back into precisely that, perhaps with many of the same actors. It does not seem to me that it is simply a question of Mr Assad and his colleagues against the Syrian rebels. I see Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean lining up and saying to Mr Obama, “I’m sorry. We draw a line”. Although it is the case, as noble Lords have said, that Mr Assad is seen as Russia’s man in the region, Mr Putin is saying to the United States, “Stop recurrently operating without Security Council resolutions; stop taking it upon yourself to decide what you and a coalition of your willing colleagues will do. That is not international law. That is not an international order that we will accept, so we are drawing a line, and we are going to support Mr Assad, whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, because there is a bigger question here of whether you are going to respect some kind of order or whether you will be the determinant of order”. I think Mr Obama realises that and is a little cautious. It would not be a good thing for this country to be liaising with Senator Kerry to push President Obama into some kind of intervention.
It is easy to pillory President Assad. I remember the first time that I went to Damascus, some years ago, specifically because I felt that Syria was an important area and I wanted to meet the Foreign Minister to see whether there was any possibility of an agreement between Israel and Syria at that time. There were indications that there was a preparedness to engage. Indeed, the Syrians said, “Yes, we would like to find a way of engaging and finding a peace agreement, because we believe that peace in the region would be worth while. Are the British Government prepared to engage?”. Well, the British Government did engage, but they did so with a finger-wagging diplomacy which said, “If you do not do what we say, it will be worse for you”.
I returned again, this time to meet President Assad. Unfortunately, his brother died just the day before I arrived, so I went again to meet with Walid al-Moallem, the Foreign Minister. Still there was a preparedness to engage. That opportunity was not taken up either.
We therefore find ourselves with everything deteriorating and much blood being spilt. People can say with ease, “These are the good guys and this is the axis of evil”. In truth, however, some of those whom we regard as our allies have been contributing to some of the difficulties in the region. My noble friend Lord Ashdown has pointed out that weapons are coming, if not from the Saudi Arabian Government, then at least from Saudi Arabian businesses’ pockets, and from the Qataris.
We need to be cautious, but not about engaging; on the contrary, we need to be energetic. When a problem of this kind threatens to blow out all over the place, we need to help to create some security in the region. We need to be more energetic in helping to sustain the stability of Jordan and Lebanon. Certainly, when I was in Lebanon recently, I was much more disturbed when I came away than before I went. It was clear that things were deteriorating very quickly indeed. Even Turkey, which we thought was a relatively stable country, is no longer as stable as it was on its eastern borders; even within the country itself, difficulties are arising. Of course, we have not contributed to an entirely stable Iraq; that much is clear. I do not say that we should be staying out of the problem. We have relationships and an understanding of the region which is substantially greater than many other countries. We should use that relationship and that understanding of the history of the region.
Secondly, we should be doing all that we can to encourage others to assist in the stability of countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. Their humanitarian problems are enormous—by the way, not all the refugees arriving there are unarmed; let us bear that in mind. We must understand that the outcome in Syria may or may not leave Mr Assad in place. We do not know. I have often heard Governments, including those in London, saying that they would never negotiate with this, that or the other rascal—only to find themselves doing exactly that five, 10 or 20 years later. I remember saying that we would have to talk with the Taliban, and was told I was a naive fool who was on the wrong side. Well, now we are negotiating with the Taliban when it is far too late, when it knows perfectly well that it has only to sit tight for a few more months and watch us depart, tails between our legs. Had we negotiated with it at the right time, there might have been some possibility—I put it no stronger than that—of a different outcome.
We must be a little careful, but we should be energetic, not sitting back or avoiding getting involved. We should not be providing weapons in a situation where there are more than enough, but be energetically involved in trying to persuade our allies, and those with whom we differ, that the future is to be found in trying to stabilise the region. If not, I fear that my noble friend Lord Ashdown is right: we may be looking at the beginning of a bloody Sunni/Shia civil war across the whole of the region. By the way, it will affect us here. I have already had colleagues at the other end of the Building telling me about Shia constituents who are worried about what is going to happen when some of their Sunni counterparts in London constituencies start to take these things on to the streets here. This is not just about far away places, or far away problems. We should therefore be energetic in our engagement in diplomacy, not in providing weapons.
My Lords, the opportunity to debate events in the Middle East could not be more timely or more necessary. I fear that this will not be the last occasion on which those words or their equivalents will be uttered, given the near certainty that we face a long period of instability in the Middle East region. The rumbles of thunder from Tahrir Square last night are a reminder of that.
While it may indeed be true, as a number of commentators have observed, that Britain’s capacity to wield influence in the Middle East is on the decline, and while it is certainly true that our capacity to exert influence there by acting alone has all but disappeared, we should not ignore the uncomfortable reality that the Middle East has a continuing and perhaps growing capacity to influence us, whether in respect of our energy security, the threat of terrorism, the rising flow of refugees and asylum seekers or the risk of spreading hostilities on Europe’s doorstep. Neither complacency nor hand-wringing inertia is likely to be the best way to promote and defend our national interests.
I will focus my remarks on three topics: the civil war in Syria, the prospects for negotiations with Iran following its recent presidential election, and that well known oxymoron, the Middle East peace process. During the two and a half years since Syria began its slide into civil war, no party has emerged with any credit, and none has achieved any of its objectives in a sustainable way. While the regime of Bashar al-Assad has hung on by the skin of its teeth, it has lost all legitimacy and has committed horrendous war crimes, for which one must hope that it will one day be held to account. The insurgents, while controlling substantial parts of the country, have not yet rid themselves of the Assad regime, have not achieved a convincing degree of unity and have not reassured minorities that they would be secure in a post-Assad Syria. The insurgents have also undoubtedly committed a number of human rights abuses themselves.
The international community has been prevented by a series of Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN Security Council from fulfilling its responsibility to protect Syria’s civilian population from a regime that has seen fit to bombard them with Scud missiles, cluster bombs and, in all probability, poison gas. It is frankly a sorry story, and one that should discourage us from thinking that more of the same policies will bring about results. Having listened to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro speaking about good and evil—about which I am sure he is a better judge than I—I still assert that what the Assad regime, father and son, have done to Syrian civilians is evil.
The longer the civil war continues, the worse the outcomes are likely to be for all concerned. Signs of regional instability spreading beyond Syria’s borders are there for all to see, in particular in the Lebanon. It is in that context of abject failure that one needs to judge the Government’s decision to prevent any extension of the EU’s arms embargo on Syria. I think that they were entirely justified in doing so. The analogy is not so much with Bosnia in the 1990s but—as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, said—with the Spanish civil war of the 1930s, when the democracies, Britain and France, imposed an arms embargo while the dictators, Germany and Italy, poured in arms and soldiers. Now, Russia and Iran play that role, and Russia is preparing to send to Syria the S300 weapons system, which will have major regional destabilising results. The Spanish story did not end terribly well, and nor would an extension of the EU’s arms embargo on Syria have done so.
Since the decision was made to drop the EU arms embargo, a debate has raged in this country—and in this House this afternoon—over whether or not to arm the insurgents. The debate has focused on that issue almost to the exclusion of all other aspects of the Syrian crisis, when we should surely be taking a wider look at the challenges we face. Amid all the denunciations of arms supplies, the gold medal for hyperbole and opportunism must surely go to the Mayor of London. Not all the arguments deployed against supplying arms seem terribly convincing. Will refusing to supply weapons make us less vulnerable to terrorist attacks in future? I doubt it. Will the likelihood that some of the weapons will fall into the wrong hands put us directly at risk? Our soldiers in Afghanistan are not being killed by arms that the West supplied in the 1980s but by improvised explosive devices. Is enabling the insurgents to hold their ground better against Assad really contrary to our interests? I doubt that, too.
Here, then, are three elements of a wider strategy, which we might consider pursuing. First, we should put much more effort and emphasis into the earliest possible convening of a negotiating conference and seek to underpin that conference with a robust UN Security Council resolution based on the ideas of Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi for a transition. Secondly, instead of haggling with the Russians over whether Assad’s forces have already used sarin and other poison gases, we should concentrate on preventing any further use of it by tabling a UN Security Council resolution requiring Assad to admit UN chemical weapons inspectors and give them unfettered access to any sites where past or future allegations of use are made. Thirdly, we should seek to agree with the Russians and Chinese that none of the five permanent members of the Security Council would send any weapons or ammunition to Syria during the period up to and including the negotiating conference—a self-denying ordinance that could be extended if all parties were negotiating a transition in good faith. This would underline the crucial role of the conference in future decisions about the supply of weapons.
On Iran—I hope that the Minister will fill the lacuna in her opening statement about that country when she replies to the debate—it is no doubt wise to be cautious about overstating the significance of last month’s presidential election. We have yet to see what sort of negotiating hand the new President will be given by the supreme leader, but the fact that an election with genuine elements of democracy occurred and was accepted in place of the travesty of 2009 must surely be welcome, as must be the shift from the raucous populism of Ahmadinejad’s public pronouncements. So when negotiations with the 3 plus 3 resume, there could be a genuine opportunity—and it could be just about the last one on offer as Iran’s nuclear programme advances.
That grand master of modern diplomacy, Henry Kissinger, advocated that, in negotiations with obdurate adversaries—he was, of course, talking about the North Vietnamese—it worked better to put a substantial package of compromises on the table rather than to proceed with an incremental approach of small steps, which is what the 3 plus 3 have tended to deploy up to now. That would seem sage advice at the present juncture with Iran. Should we not now be ready to accept that Iran can continue with a programme of low-level enrichment so long as intensive international monitoring through the IAEA’s additional protocol, and probably other special inspection mechanisms, are put in place? Would it not be wise for us to encourage the US to open up in parallel a direct channel of communication with the new President of Iran?
In conclusion, and very briefly, I shall say a word about the Middle East peace process. However discouraging the auguries, this is surely no time to subject the new US Secretary of State, who seems to be rolling up his sleeves with a will, to a deluge of cynical disparagement, as so many commentators are doing. Rather, we, too, should be thinking of ways in which to help the process forward. Should we not be thinking of imaginative ways in which Israeli settlements on the West Bank could remain within a Palestinian state and Israeli Arab citizens could find a more secure place within an Israeli state? It is a long time since any new element was introduced into that longest running dialogue of the deaf, and I wonder whether it is not time to think a bit wider than we have done hitherto.
It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who is always very thought-provoking. The only point with which I slightly take issue is more a moral one than a foreign policy one about the line between good and evil. Far too often we hear portrayed in public discourse, particularly in regard to foreign policy, that there are unblemished good people and despicable bad people. We align ourselves with the good but, when we intervene, we find out that they were not quite as good as we thought and the bad were not quite as bad as we thought. I am reminded of The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in which he reminded us that the line between good and evil runs not through religious groups or nation states but through each and every human heart. That is something we need to bear in mind as well.
I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Warsi for introducing the debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, reminded us that she was on duty in this House on Thursday last week, replying to a Question, and here she is again today. Over the intervening weekend, she was in Afghanistan, Pakistan and, I think, Kazakhstan. She has amazing energy and dynamism. If there was ever an award for value for money on the part of Her Majesty’s Ministers, she would come top of the list in my view.
Like most people, I have been deeply moved by the scenes we have seen every day in Syria. Last year, during the Olympics and Paralympic Games, I could not quite bring myself to celebrate this great party in London when many of the parties to it were actively engaged in a humanitarian disaster in Syria. Therefore, I went to Lebanon, probably fairly naively in many people’s view, to try to offer humanitarian assistance, and ended up in the Bekaa Valley, where I saw the wonderful work that organisations such as World Vision were doing.
One of the hopeful things which struck me was that I had expected to see mass refugee camps in the Bekaa Valley but did not do so. When I asked where they were, I was told that such is the generosity and hospitality of the people in that region that they had taken all the refugees from Syria into their homes and the humanitarian aid was being distributed to the people who had taken them in. I was moved to find out that they would literally give the refugees their last cup of flour or their last glass of water.
After a couple of days, we went to Zahlé, a Christian town overlooking the Bekaa Valley, where one evening I went to the home of a very gracious academic from Damascus who had been exiled to Zahlé with his family. As is the wont of politicians, I wanted to know what the quick fix was and what needed to be done. In a fairly heavy Arab accent, he said, “You need to understand history.” When I replied, “Tell me about it”, he said, “No, you need to understand your history in our history.” Again, I did not quite understand, so he patiently explained to me that the best thing I could do was not necessarily to be there in that situation but to go back and learn more about our country’s history in that region.
I did not go back to London but to Beirut. Thanks to a backstage pass at the American University of Beirut, I managed to get access to a comprehensive reading list and sat in café-bars in Hamra reading up on what had happened. I was frankly amazed because there was much of the history that I had not appreciated. It stretched back to 1798 and the Napoleonic invasion of Syria, which then led the British to consider that their line of supply to India, the jewel in the crown of the Empire, was potentially under threat. We immediately decided to invade Afghanistan and had the first Anglo-Afghan war because that country was to be a buffer state. We did not like the person in charge there, so we changed him and put in someone we thought was more favourable to us. They did not last long and we were back 30 years later, involved in the second Anglo-Afghan war, this time with a larger force to back up a despotic leader who mercilessly oppressed his people. However, in exchange, he allowed his foreign policy literally to be dictated by the British. That situation continued for a while.
The Russians also had interests in and wanted to make moves towards India, and expressed a desire for a greater stake in Afghanistan. That led to a carve-up between Russia and Britain—no Afghans were involved—along the Durand line. If history tells us one thing about British foreign policy, it is that the one area in which we are deficient is drawing lines on a map. We do not have a particularly good track record in that regard, whether it was Radcliffe in India, Pakistan and East Pakistan, Durand, or Sykes-Picot in Syria. We made those and further agreements that culminated in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which the noble Lord, Lord Wood, mentioned in his excellent speech. The area was also divided up under the Mesopotamia mandate. I read writers such as Gertrude Bell, TE Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert and my eyes were opened to what had been happening.
I realised afterwards how important it is to understand how we are viewed in that region. Therefore, when we come in with thoughts about arming one group or another, or intervening in a particular area, it can be misconstrued. I have noticed that there are three historians in the Foreign Office, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, as a historian, is keen to expand our historical access in the Foreign Office. The current historian there has remarked that some of the people of Helmand think that the British are there today to avenge the defeats of the first, second and third Anglo-Afghan wars—I forgot to mention the third. Therefore, understanding history is crucial to all this. It was Edmund Burke who said:
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”.
If we can understand more about how we are perceived, we might draw a few conclusions. The first is that we do not have the basis or moral authority to act alone in that region. Going back 200 years is one thing, but I have to say that the past 10 or 20 years have not been too distinguished either. We need to be very conscious of that. The only legitimate means by which we can engage in the Middle East is through the United Nations. The fact that we cannot do more through the United Nations is in many ways a result of what happened when the Chinese and Russians felt that they were duped by certain resolutions relating to Iraq and Libya. Therefore, the first thing we could do would be to repair those relations with China and Russia so that we get a unified voice.
I do not think there is any doubt that the future of the Middle East lies in the hands of the people of the Middle East. They have to resolve this matter themselves. Part of our contribution to that will be to acknowledge that, whether it was the Russians during their imperialist time, the French during their imperialist time, the Germans with the whole episode of building the Berlin to Baghdad railway before the last war, the British or, more recently, the Americans, far too often we have seen the Middle East as something of a plaything or an instrument to be tackled.
I end with a quotation from George Curzon, a British Foreign Office Minister who went on to become viceroy of India. He categorised that whole period of 19th-century intervention in the Middle East as the “great game”. He said:
“Turkestan, Afghanistan, Transcapia, Persia—to many these names breathe only … utter remoteness … To me … they are the pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world”.
We have a history in that region that is part of the problem in that region. Being honest and open about that and seeking to engage with people, encouraging them to make their own future without foreign intervention, is the only way forward.
My Lords, it is always good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Bates, in our debates. He brings a real sense of deep humanitarian commitment, of learning and of analysis informed by human reality. Those are great assets in our deliberations, for which all sides of the House should be grateful.
At the end of last week, I was in Israel and Jordan, where I had a wide range of very interesting conversations. As I listened to the noble Baroness introducing the debate, I thought that what she was saying related very well to the preoccupations in those conversations. However, what was telling during the few days that I was in that part of the world was the almost total preoccupation with Egypt. I think that this House must take what is happening in Egypt extremely seriously. If what is happening there deteriorates and things spiral still further out of control, it is not impossible that that will put a different perspective on our current preoccupations, because we will be absolutely consumed with the implications of what is taking place. Clearly, the issue is highly complex and it affects the stability of the whole region.
I was challenged by the very interesting contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown. I think that in future I shall refer to it as the “Ashdown analysis”. That, too, has to be taken very seriously. What is really going on and what really is the strategic situation in which we are caught up? It is worth looking at some illustrations of that: the pressure on Turkey and how that interplays with domestic politics within Turkey; the involvement, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, referred, of Iran, and the game that Iran is probably playing; the destabilisation, again, of Lebanon—just in the past 10 days there have been serious casualties in northern Lebanon, with the possibility of another collapse of order in Lebanon—and tension on the border with Israel.
A new factor is the expansionist ambitions of Hamas, which has been thwarted in its attempts to become part of the Middle East peace process and to have a presence in the deliberations on the future of that particular Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In my view, that has strengthened the militant elements within Hamas, which are leading it into dangerous expansionist experiments.
Only a few weeks ago there were great celebrations in the Foreign Office at the conclusion of the arms trade treaty. This was seen as a triumph of bipartisan, consistent work by a lot of officials and Ministers, who had brought about a satisfactory solution. However, I found it quite extraordinary that virtually at the same time the conversation was beginning to develop about the possibility of sending arms to the rebels in Syria. I just could not reconcile such a proposal with all the satisfaction that had been taken in concluding the arms trade treaty. Obviously, we all know that weapons are very dangerous, and central to that treaty is that weapons in the wrong hands are very dangerous indeed. Therefore, their use is a consideration that must always be borne in mind in relation to the export of arms. It is important to ask in whose hands the arms will finally end up, how they will be applied and what the objectives are of the people into whose hands they may ultimately land. Also central to the arms trade treaty is a preoccupation with human rights. How could we talk about exporting arms to people who—although obviously not on the scale of the Syrian Government—are too involved in the crude abuse of human rights? I have never heard those two contrary elements of our situation reconciled to my satisfaction, and I wonder whether we can hear more about that before the debate ends.
I want to say a word or two about humanitarian assistance. The first point to make is that humanitarian agencies in this country are desperate to get access to all parts of Syria and are very anxious that the Government should pursue this with all possible vigour, not least in the Security Council in trying to bring the Russians on board, at least on this. Everyone—rebels and government—should be pressurising all parties to the conflict to make access by humanitarian agencies a possibility. Of course, there is a role for the UN Security Council in that context. Great credit should be given to the British Government for what they have done and the lead they have given, but there is still a tremendous amount to be done in getting the world to face its responsibility of fulfilling the pledges that it has given. It is cruelly cynical to be at conferences at which great amounts of assistance are pledged but do not materialise. The current UN appeal is to last for only for six months, and in June only 28% of the $5.2 billion needed had been subscribed.
In Syria, 6.8 million men, women and children are in desperate need of assistance. Since the conflict erupted, more than 1.5 million people have fled to neighbouring countries. One has only to think of Jordan, where I was last week. There is a huge burden on Jordan. In one camp alone, the Zaatari refugee camp, there are 150,000 newly arrived Syrians. That is on top of the 550,000 refugees from Syria in Jordan as a whole and the 600,000 Syrians who were already living in Jordan. If one needed an illustration of the destabilisation within the Ashdown analysis, as part of the Ashdown scenario being played out, we should think of that.
We like to feel that whatever our profound reservations about human rights in Jordan, it is a relatively stable country. But for how long will Jordan remain stable? Some have estimated that within a very short number of years, 25% of the population of Jordan will be refugees. How does one sustain stability and security in that context? Perhaps I may add that it also puts our own preoccupations about the movement of people, immigration and refugees in a very different light when one sees what the Jordanian people are absorbing and carrying, the burden on them and the effect on their economy and well-being.
All this makes a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue more urgent than ever, and not less. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bates, that lasting, enduring solutions have to belong to the people in whose name they are being reached. They cannot be imposed on the people because they would not last. A settlement has to be rooted in a conviction across a wide cross-section of the population that it is something that they want and believe in. Last week, I had conversations with the Speaker of the Knesset, Mr Edelstein, and others. I also had a very good conversation with President Abbas of the Palestinians.
I do not belong to the ranks of those who despair of any movement in the situation. Tantalisingly, there is some chance of progress but if there is to be progress one thing is absolutely clear. We have to increase the number of Palestinians and Israelis being exposed to each other not as a problem, as analysis or in a stigmatised sort of way, but as people who are encountering each other, who are hearing each other’s perspectives and sharing each other’s agonies and professionalism. At a very interesting conference in which noble Lords were involved, there were hydrologists from both communities. They were fascinated by the work that they talked about together. That is essential because only in that way will we create the space around the negotiators for them to become more flexible and imaginative. I was very glad to hear that among the Knesset and the Palestinian leadership there was an understanding that this was a useful thing to do. I was there as chairman of the IPU’s Middle East committee and I hope that this is a matter on which the IPU may be able to help.
My Lords, in the light of many of the interventions made in the House today, including the very powerful arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government will now urgently reconsider whether it is right, sensible, necessary, safe or effective to supply lethal arms to the Syrian opposition. I have seen, as presumably the Government have also, conclusive evidence that arms supplied to the Free Syrian Army by Saudi Arabia have ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, closely allied as it is with al-Qaeda. It is evidence that must call into question the noble Baroness’s claim, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, last week, that the Government have been,
“incredibly cautious about ensuring that”—
“equipment … does not get into the hands of extremists”.—[Official Report, 27/06/13; col. 858.]
The Minister has told us again today that no decision has been made to send weapons to the Syrian opposition. However, a recent meeting in Doha, at which HMG were represented, is reported to have agreed to provide urgently,
“all necessary material and equipment”,
to the Syrian rebels. The Minister has argued that one purpose of arming the rebels would be to put pressure on President Assad to come to the negotiating table. However, President Assad has told his Russian allies that he is ready to negotiate. We may not believe him but he has said that. As far as I know, no single element of the Syrian opposition has agreed to negotiate.
It is an oversimplification to describe this conflict, as I have often, as a Sunni-Shia or Arab-Iranian war. In fact, it started as an uprising, mainly by the majority Sunni population, against a brutal regime dominated by the minority Alawite sect, of which Bashar al-Assad is a member, and exacerbated—this is not often mentioned—by widespread deprivation in Syria caused by five years of drought. It has now become a regional conflict between Sunni and Shia forces, backed on the one side by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and on the other by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. The escalation of this proxy war, increasingly involving non-Syrian fighters on both sides, is a threat to the whole region and beyond. It is not a conflict in which Britain has a direct stake. What we do have is an interest in working energetically—as the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has argued—for peace in an unstable area.
HMG are not alone in having consistently underestimated the extent to which President Assad and his Government can survive this externally fuelled onslaught. The military strength that Bashar al-Assad inherited from his father has also been underestimated. Of perhaps equal importance, so has the degree of support which the regime still enjoys from Syrian minorities and, indeed, from a significant proportion of the Sunni business community. The Prime Minister has claimed that we are trying to help form a transitional Government in Damascus which will respect the rights of Christians and other minorities in Syria. Perhaps I may remind the House of a book by William Dalrymple called From the Holy Mountain, in which he concluded that Christians in Syria in the late 1990s enjoyed greater freedom of worship and absence of discrimination than any other Christian community in the Middle East. We should not underestimate the very real fear of Christians in Syria, now much diminished in number but which until recently included a large number of Syrian exiles from Iraq, of any likely successor Government in Damascus. The same fear must be shared by the Druze and other minorities, including the very small Jewish and Yazidi communities. I am reminded of the couplet by Hilaire Belloc:
“always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse”.
There has been regular, and sometimes strident, criticism of the Russians’ support for President Assad and his Government, both in the Security Council and over their supply of weapons for the Syrian armed forces. However, we should remember that the Russians are scared, as they should be, of the impact which a fundamentalist Sunni Government in Damascus would have on Russia’s own Muslim communities in Chechnya and elsewhere in central Asia, and indeed on the large Russian and Orthodox community in Syria. As the Russian Foreign Minister put it in an interview on 20 June:
“We need to [preserve Syria’s] territorial integrity, sovereignty, multi-ethnicity and multi-religious nature”.
We should also bear in mind the long strategic relationship which Russia has had with President Bashar al-Assad and his father. In the latter case, as I remember well, the Soviet Union had long had a treaty of friendship, dating back to the 1970s.
I would argue that the time has come urgently to reconsider our support for, and recognition of, a deeply divided and dysfunctional Syrian opposition, closely allied with Islamic terrorist movements. I believe that we should now try, with our European and American partners, to resume contact with what I have previously described in this House—I do not expect my noble friend and former colleague Lord Hannay to agree—as the legitimate Government in Damascus.
At its meeting on 22 June, the Friends of Syria Core Group, in which the Foreign Secretary took part, said that it,
“supported reaching a political solution … and affirmed their prior commitments … in favour of negotiations”.
I hope that the Minister can assure us that the Government still support the efforts of Ambassador Brahimi and will concentrate now on encouraging and supporting attempts by the Russians and the Americans to convene an international conference at which some end can be negotiated to this tragic and appalling conflict.
Whatever its effectiveness on the political track, we must also hope that a conference can help to raise desperately needed assistance for the refugees on a much more sustained and monitored basis. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of the current prospects for such a conference. I hope that we can also use our diplomacy to persuade our friends in the Gulf to think likewise, since it is they who will be more influential than any of us in dictating what happens in Syria in the coming months.
It is always a great pleasure to hear from the noble Lord, given his considerable experience of the Middle East and of Syria in particular. I join all those who have spoken today in applauding the Minister for the comprehensive way in which she set out her speech today.
This debate is indeed timely as we grapple with the horrors of Syria, the instability in the Middle East and the Maghreb and a feeling that something must be done. However, in common with the citizens of France, the United States and others, there is a widespread revulsion in this country against any kind of involvement. Young British lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq because of some poor political and logistical judgments that have dismayed the British people, and we have seen an echo of these problems on our streets.
My first visit to Syria was after leaving university in the 1970s. In 2000, President Hafez al-Assad died and the then Foreign Secretary asked me to join him to attend the funeral of the President in Damascus and to meet his son, Bashar, who had become President because of the death of his brother. It is worth remembering that there was a mood of optimism at the time that this young man, who had worked as an ophthalmologist in London, who was secular and married to a British-born wife, could somehow transform and modernise his country. Indeed, there were substantial improvements in the economy and rising prosperity—to a large extent Syria is self-sufficient in food—and, as the noble Lord has just pointed out, there remained the extraordinary and unique ability of the different communities to co-exist happily there, as Gertrude Bell observed 100 years ago. It is worth reminding ourselves of the tragedy of the two archbishops, by contrast, who have been kidnapped—one of whom is a long-standing friend of mine—and the Syrian Catholic priest who, in the most grotesque circumstances, was killed only last week.
I subsequently became a director of the British Syrian Society and so visited the country often and met President Assad many times. However, when the protests there started more than two years ago and the Syrian Government reacted appallingly, I immediately resigned, and I have been active in trying to assist in humanitarian efforts to that tragic country ever since.
Put simply, we have a weak man trying to be tough. His father, who really was a tough man, would never have landed the country in this tragic situation. Unless the situation in Syria is contained, the consequences are potentially horrendous for other countries.
Let me deal with some of the external aspects, which have been touched on a number of times today. The stability of our good friend Jordan is now clearly at risk; it is fragile at the best of times. There are perhaps more than 1 million Syrian refugees out of a population of 13.2 million. It is a small country lacking in resources, notably water. Most refugees are concentrated in the north. Syrians are competing—this is very difficult—with Jordanians for low-paid jobs, school places and healthcare. Rents have gone up but tourism has collapsed. The financial and humanitarian situation is dire for Jordan and its very existence is under pressure. It would be a great loss to the stability of the region.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, so graphically pointed out, the situation in Lebanon is, if anything, worse, with perhaps 1 million refugees comprising a sizeable proportion of the population. There will be no traditional Arab tourism this summer. The country has suffered in living memory, as we all recall, from a grotesque civil war, an Israeli invasion and in effect a Syrian occupation. Having gone through all this, intercommunal tensions and violence are now tearing at the country’s delicate social fabric. Turkey, of course, has a huge problem too with numbers, and that grows every day.
However, over-reaching this, as the noble Lords, Lord Ashdown and Lord Sheikh, said, are the daily eruptions of violence and murder between Sunni and Shi’ite—as spillover in part from what is happening in Syria—in Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. The social fabric of Lebanon and Jordan directly, and the coherence of other countries in the region, are now at risk because of these splits of a ferocious religious variety.
I simply pose this question: whatever the difficulties, are the risks of supplying selected weaponry and training to chosen anti-Assad rebel groups greater than the potential immolation of the entire region—because that is what we are seeing? One hundred thousand have already been killed, millions have been displaced, either internally or externally, and Iran and Russia continue to supply sophisticated weaponry. My right honourable friend William Hague and my honourable friend Alistair Burt have worked tirelessly to find a way forward, as has the Prime Minister. We have been energetic in humanitarian relief and other support. However, we have the obvious situation—there is no point in being in denial about this—that again and again President Assad has simply refused to consider a political track, whether it has been initiated by the United Nations or the Arab League. For him it is quite simply regime and personal survival. That will not change if he thinks his superior weaponry will prevail.
We all hope for a Geneva II—our Government are certainly helping actively in this pursuit—and that it can provide an opportunity for the new Iranian President to be road tested. However, what really needs to emerge is a blueprint—at least in embryonic form at first—that gives some assurance to the Syrian people that their rights, and particularly their minority rights, will be constitutionally protected as part of this process of dialogue, and that if necessary there will be an international force to oversee this. I perfectly accept that it is counterproductive to call for President Assad to go now, ahead of any possible dialogue, whatever the justification—and there certainly is a great deal of that.
In a totally imperfect situation, the risks of declining to consider the supply of sophisticated weaponry and even additional basic equipment such as body armour will actually make the dialogue less likely, and some sort of declaration of constitutional intent should be formulated. The alternative that is now evolving before our eyes risks the collapse of at least two of the neighbouring countries right next door to Syria and a religious war of medieval proportions.
My Lords, we are having a very rich debate. My noble friend Lord Wood started by mentioning the collapse of the Ottoman empire. We were then treated to very good historical accounts by the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Ashdown, while the noble Lord, Lord Bates, gave us a flavour of what he has been reading. I could have spared him the trouble had he read my book, Rethinking Islamism, where I do it in 100 pages.
Let me put it this way. I see the Syrian civil war as just one chapter in a 40 year-old crisis of Islamic society in the Middle East. It started in 1973 after the third defeat of the Arab armies by Israel and of course the quadrupling of the price of oil. The secular socialist alternative in all the countries of the Middle East lost its prestige and a lot of people in the region turned to religion as the answer to their problems. If we follow that trail—we could go back to the Sykes-Picot affair, but let me stick to past 40 years—in country after country, and between countries, there has been a revival of religion, a hardening of Sunni and Shia identities, and among the Sunnis the revival of Wahhabism and Salafism, which has been encouraged partly because the Saudis got lots of money from the rise in oil prices.
The Iran-Iraq war lasted for eight years. It was one of the biggest wars in the Middle East, but none of us intervened. We may have supplied arms, but we did not intervene. Saddam proceeded to destroy as much as he could all the Shias’ means of livelihood in Iraq. I supported the Iraq intervention, not because of weapons of mass destruction but because I considered Saddam to be a danger to his own people. We have to think further along those lines. We now have a much more explicit chapter in the Shia-Sunni conflict in the Middle East and it is not going to stop. Whether we intervene, whether we have a Geneva II or a Geneva VI, the conflict will break out in another location, because this is a deep crisis in the Muslim society of the Middle East that has not yet been resolved as it has to confront modernity and its own weak position in the Middle East and to reconcile religion and civic life. We have here something that we ought to take a much broader view of.
If we do not intervene now, we will intervene later. I assume that it is going to go on and I do not think that we have the choice of not intervening. Sooner or later we shall intervene because this war is not going to come to an end any time soon. If we consider this to be a long-running Shia-Sunni conflict, we have to ask what the dangers are. In this case, and for the first time in 40 years, there is a serious danger of this war becoming much more general across the Middle East than any previous war has done, such as that between Iran and Iraq.
Noble Lords have already mentioned that Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have been affected. Very soon, Israel will be affected. Given the strategic weapons that the Russians are giving the Syrians, it will not be much longer before there is a general war in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with whether we intervene or not; the dynamic of the war is such that there will end up being a general war across the Middle East. Whether we do or do not give any weapons, we will end up with Sunni terrorist groups or Shia terrorist groups. It is true to say that we are watching a general conflagration in the Middle East, and unless we understand its full dimensions we will be too preoccupied with our own particular, narrow and local role in this conflict to see the more general picture.
We ought to be thinking about this in the following terms. Would an intervention on our part now bring about all the unintended consequences that the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, told us about? There are always unintended consequences following any action, so that is nothing new. Obviously we will do some things wrong, we will get into a mess and it will take a long time, but eventually some good may come out of it. There is one good thing that we would like to come out of any intervention, whether an armed intervention or a diplomatic one: a lessening of the probability of this crisis continuing for another 40 years. It would have to be a general confluence of all the Middle Eastern countries, not just Syria. The Israel-Palestine question would have to be a part of it. Unless we take a view on the very comprehensive nature of what is going on here, we will not be effective in our intervention. Obviously if there is an armed intervention, it would be better if we had friends to come along with us, but it is more important that we get along with them and take a comprehensive view of where we can intervene so that the next chapter is not even bloodier than this one already is.
Let me make a couple of points that are perhaps more controversial. The two subsequent big questions are going to be Iran and the problem of Israel-Palestine. I have not actually understood why Iran cannot have nuclear weapons. If India, Pakistan and Israel can have them, why cannot the Iranians? Pakistan is a very unstable democracy; or rather, not even a democracy at all. The more countries that have acquired nuclear weapons since 1945, the less the probability that anyone will use them. Indeed, nuclear weapons are among the few weapons that have not been used since their invention, unlike gunpowder. We ought to take a much broader view of what we object to in the Iranian plan for nuclear weapons. Obviously there is the fear that if Iran has nuclear weapons, the existence of Israel will be threatened. Therefore, any general and comprehensive dialogue on the Middle East has to include Iran’s ability to have nuclear weapons while at the same time guaranteeing that the Israeli nation will survive and is not threatened by anyone in the Middle East.
That leads to the Israel-Palestine problem, which a number of noble Lords have talked about. I do not believe that the two-state solution has any future, but I am old enough, and I have been a member of the Labour Party for 40 years, to recall that a long time ago the party had a one-state solution: a single, secular, multifaith state in which Muslim Arabs, Jews and Christians could live together. That will not happen and we will never be at peace.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for this very timely debate. We all seem to have heard different things in the Minister’s statement. I got the impression that the Government were intent on negotiations and that the idea was that there should be quiet diplomacy before any kind of action. If I have heard right, I would applaud that and am very grateful because that was what I was going to suggest at the end of my speech.
The most important consideration about intervention in the Middle East is whether it would help yet another “fundamentalist” group of religious people. In my experience—both as a teacher of Islamic law and of courses on the Middle East, and as someone born and raised in Iran—it is when religion rather than citizenship becomes the badge of identity that death, destruction and the complete misuse of faith become evident.
I do not recognise the presentation of these borderless countries in the Middle East where people do not know their identity and they wonder about modernity. I had the good fortune to be born and raised in Iran in the century when modernisation and secularism were very much part of people’s experience. Not only was I raised as a secular person, with my religion accepted, but so were my mother and grandfather. In our family there are at least three generations, going back to the very beginning of the century, of accepting secularism without undermining faith. I grew up as a Muslim and used to fast with my one non-secular grandmother, who was very religious, but at the same time I was sent to a Catholic school run by the sisters of St Vincent de Paul. I was then sent to a Protestant school in the UK and subsequently went to a secular university at York. At no time did I ever feel defensive about my religion or the lack of it. When I was growing up, our life was patterned by Islamic feast days and fast days but, at the same time, by the Persian new year, which dates back 6,000 years to the Zoroastrian era. Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians—people of any religion and none—lived, worked and intermarried. They had no problems—so much so that I learnt a great deal about Christianity through my aunt’s sister, who is a nun in the UK and has headed a convent. It seems to me that celebrating diversity, at least in Iran, goes a very long way back.
I also fear that I will have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who I admire greatly. It seems to me that the Iran-Iraq war was not about religion but was very much about borders and fear of religion. That fear of religion is exactly what we are seeing right now in Egypt. Egyptians are beginning to realise what fundamentalism, or any “ism”, means. I would suggest that Islamism, as experienced in Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere, and Zionism, as experienced in Israel and elsewhere, have nothing to do with the teachings of the holy books. They have everything to do with grasping an identity, misinterpreting the texts and imposing a climate of fear, including fear of the other—those who do not have our religion. I had no idea who was a Shia or a Sunni and I still do not among all the Muslims with whom I work, and work very effectively, in a country where—thank heaven—Muslim women can sit in the House of Lords and be Ministers. I would like to wish very much the same thing for much of the Middle East.
That is where any intervention on the part of the Government that would advantage any religious group—Sunni, Shia or whatever—is going to be highly counterproductive and would actually cause more damage than not intervening at all. It seems to me that much of the Middle East is waking up to the fear of Islam and of what it can do. That is why the Turks are in the streets and why the Egyptians are in the streets. There is a real uprising from among the people themselves. They do not need to be told and certainly do not need intervention that would help a particular religious group and give it any kind of advantage. The situation in the Middle East is tumultuous enough and things are going from bad to worse. The very last thing that we need as Middle Easterners is for any Government to help one group rather than another. Of course negotiations are difficult and of course it is not easy to be peacemakers but, in my experience, what the British are fantastically good at is quiet diplomacy. That is where they are sans pareil. There is no other group I know who can work so effectively under the radar.
The experience of Afghanistan shows that, after years of war, we finally have to sit down with the Taliban and talk to it at a time when it seems impossible. There is no such thing as impossible in diplomacy. What is needed is quiet undercurrents of help, assistance and conversations. Please do not arm yet another group of fundamentalists. That, I think, would be a mistake.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, and I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Warsi for giving us this opportunity to debate this important and timely issue. There have been some exceptional and powerful speeches, which will merit rereading, I suspect, for some time to come.
It is now two and a half years since the tragic death of a street vendor in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, which triggered the astonishing train of events across the Arab world. These past 31 months have witnessed uprisings, the overthrow of regimes, the death of dictators and the election of new Governments; quickly followed by disillusion with those Governments as they failed to meet the expectations of their citizens. These months have also witnessed the deaths of tens of thousands of men, women and children in Syria. What started in Syria as a political uprising in March 2011, as many noble Lords have said, is now increasingly religious. As the conflict enters its third year, Syria’s tragedy is that sectarian divisions and religious hatred are fuelling the conflict, pitting Syrian against Syrian.
We can be certain when we say that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator but we must also acknowledge, and condemn, the barbarous acts of cruelty perpetrated by some of the rebel groups; the kidnap of Christians, the wanton killing of Shia and the gruesome and public murder last month of 15 year-old Mohammad Qataa in Aleppo by Islamic jihadists. These factors should inform our judgment when we consider arming the rebels, some of whom are only one or two steps away from al-Qaeda. Syria, like whole swathes of the Middle East, is awash with weapons, as my noble friends Lord Ashdown and Lord Alderdice have explained. If we add to these weapons, we can have no guarantee that they would not be exchanged, stolen or fall into the hands of extremists. I fear the belief that the weapons would somehow stay in the hands of secular, pro-western forces, or that they can be tracked, simply would not hold true in the fog of war, with the utter unpredictability and fast changing dynamism of events on the ground.
Having said all that, I completely understand and am in no way critical of those who call for the arming of the rebels, and my noble friend Lord Risby is persuasive in his argument. The natural reaction of anyone observing such appalling bloodshed, with the death toll approaching 100,000, is to want to do something. However, I question that arming the rebels is the something that we should do.
We cannot just sit on our hands and do nothing. Our actions should be guided by what we can do—energetically, as my noble friend Lord Alderdice said—and not what we would like to be able to do. We can and must continue to intervene with humanitarian assistance. UNICEF reports that 1.6 million refugees have now fled Syria to neighbouring countries; as we have already heard, half of these terrified, displaced refugees are children.
I need to declare a number of interests: I am a former trustee of UNICEF UK; I chair the Conservative Middle East Council; I am president of Medical Aid for Palestinians; and I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories.
Last year, on a visit to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, I met and spent some time with families who had fled Syria. They were Turkmen, but had ended up in the Palestinian camp of Ain el-Hilweh. Their new homes comprised a tin roof and walls made from the cardboard packaging that protects washing machines and fridges. These walls might have afforded some protection in September 2012 but as I witnessed one of the coldest winters in the Levant on my television screen, I often wondered how those kind, hospitable but bewildered families were surviving.
Across the border, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with its customary generosity, has once again opened its heart and country to the dispossessed victims of man’s struggle against man. In a recent interview with the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, His Majesty King Abdullah II said:
“How can we close the border in the face of a woman carrying an infant and fleeing under shelling?”.
But he went on to say that he fears Jordan finding herself in a difficult situation and not being able to provide relief for her Syrian bothers and sisters seeking a safe haven.
The international community must not for one minute underestimate the situation the neighbours of Syria find themselves in. I am proud that Britain has already spent £348 million on providing critical assistance to Syria’s refugees, making this the UK’s largest ever response to a humanitarian disaster. But there is much more to do. As the intensity of the crisis increases, 53% of all the Syrian refugees in Jordan have entered since the beginning of 2013. As of 15 June, there were 545,694 Syrian refugees in Jordan. That is 9% of the total population of Jordan. Translated into UK terms, it is as if a refugee population equivalent to the number of people living in Scotland had arrived in our country and become our responsibility. That would be massively destabilising to us—just imagine, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, invited us to do, the impact on the Jordanian economy and public services, not to mention the scarce resource of water. We must do all that we can to support Jordan and all the other countries that have so generously and selflessly opened their borders to the dispossessed, and we must strive with all our diplomatic strength for sanity to prevail.
Before I finish, I wish to turn to another conflicted area where sanity also needs to prevail: Palestine. While the world, rightly, concentrates on the savagery of events in Syria, we must never forget, nor diminish our efforts to find a solution to the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people. The time is rapidly running out for a viable two-state solution, and with it Palestinian hope for the normality of life that we all take for granted and which is a vital component of the stability of Israel. There is much good work going on to build up civil society and encourage trade but all efforts now should be on a political solution and I am very pleased that Secretary of State John Kerry is seized of this. I hope that the British Government are employing some of the “quiet diplomacy” of which the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, spoke.
Palestine and Syria both need the determined will of the international community. As in all conflicts, there cannot—and will not—be any outright victor, only a just solution that isolates the most extreme and works to ensure that everyone feels they have a stake in the future.
My Lords, the subject today is the situation in Syria and the Middle East. Naturally, the focus has been on the tragedy of Syria but in the Middle East itself the foundations are shaking and all is connected.
There was apparent stability five years ago, with long-existing autocratic regimes in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen. Today, only the monarchies are relatively untouched: Morocco is certainly untouched; Jordan is still relatively stable, although I refer to what the noble Baroness said about the very generous reception of the refugees by the King and people of Jordan. However, the long-suffering Palestinians in the camps in Syria will find the door closed in Jordan because of the fear of destabilising further the kingdom.
Of course, in most countries the human rights of minorities—particularly but not only Christians—are more threatened than before. Our view of recent events in the Middle East has changed radically. Today it is less fashionable to refer to the Arab spring. The mood of euphoria in Tahrir Square a year or two ago has been replaced by the demonstrations of yesterday against President Morsi, the new pharaoh. His supporters can counter only that he won the election, as if winning elections is sufficient for any democracy. The dilemma, as one experienced analyst wrote of Egypt, is that:
“With the Muslim Brotherhood the transition will be difficult: without them it will be impossible”.
The term “Arab uprising” is now more frequently used—although I understand that the US State Department is known to refer to “the Arab thing”—but all these terms suggest some uniformity in the several countries, when, as we know, one cannot attach one label to so many different national events. However, constant themes are the search for dignity, the loss of deference and the readiness to challenge authority. We refer to the current phase as transition but are puzzled as to what. This search for dignity, this loss of deference, refers not only to the Middle East but to adjoining countries such as Turkey and even, as we have seen, to Brazil.
Honest horizon-scanners should recognise that they cannot see beyond the first curve and that they failed to see the turbulence rising prior to 2008. Yes, there were fine analyses of the problems in the Arab world, such as the search for modernity; for example, successive UNDP reports on human development in the Arab world in the mid-2000s. However, the forecasters did not see the speed of events, just as they failed to see the Iranian revolution prior to 1979. This suggests that our policy planners should proceed in a spirit of humility and that we should have a certain scepticism about the likely scene in the Middle East in, say, five years’ time.
Middle East borders have become more fluid. I enjoyed the article by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, in a recent World Today about the fluidity of those borders, which are perhaps even more artificial and certainly more recent than the borders in Africa after the Berlin Conference. But are we creating a new Turkish sphere of influence in the region? We think of the position of the Kurds, dealt a bad hand by history and now with a new dynamic not only from the Kurdistan regional government in Erbil in northern Iraq but from Turkey’s opening to the PKK. Perhaps this will ultimately be an attempt to recreate the old Ottoman Empire. Even in the previously stable Syria there is talk about an ultimate split with the Alawites perhaps retreating to their former, short-lived, post-First World War entity.
There is a danger also that conflagration may spread over national boundaries and engulf the whole region. The obvious example is Hezbollah’s incursion into Syria as a potential game-changer there and its impact on an already unstable Lebanon. There are skirmishes around the Golan Heights. President Assad may ultimately, in desperation, try to involve Israel in the conflict, but Israel has, so far, shown a masterly restraint.
It was the received wisdom up to, let us say, five years ago that Israel and Palestine were at the heart of all conflicts in the Middle East, but that dispute is surely hardly related to the current turmoil. No Israeli flags were burnt in Tahrir Square. Perhaps this is a good time, therefore, to attempt to restart negotiations. Secretary Kerry has been extremely active in his pre-negotiation phase and there are rumours of an Israeli settlement freeze—again—and the freeing of some Palestinian prisoners, but Palestinian divisions remain, as do the giant obstacles of refugees and, above all, Jerusalem. It would be interesting to have the judgment of the Government on the current prospects for the peace process.
I have said that forward planning is generally difficult; it is nowhere more so than in Syria. Commentators refer to a sea change having taken place over the past year. A year ago, the rebels were largely nationalists, secular and DIY. They have been replaced by more professional and more hard-line force, including international jihadists—hence the problem of arms supply, which so many noble Lords have touched on. It is rumoured that the US may begin to supply lethal arms within a month. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary give the impression of wanting to follow and are edging in that direction.
The blunt truth is surely this: the readiness to intervene for humanitarian purposes is cyclical. It arose after the Chicago speech of Prime Minister Blair in 1999 and followed through with some successes in Sierra Leone and Libya, but then we had Afghanistan and Iraq and, as a result, there is no appetite now in our Parliament or in the country for such intervention. I concede, however, that the mood could change if there were a major use of chemical weapons by the regime. If we arm the rebels, we will do so by proxy and, of course, it is most unlikely that arms supply would necessarily shorten the conflict, as the Russians and Iranians would possibly only step up their own supply in response.
Amid the swirling uncertainties, what is the appropriate response of the UK and the West, with paralysis at the UN Security Council and a relative stalemate on the battlefield? The starting point is surely recognition that we have a limited influence on events. No longer can we intervene and redraw boundaries as we did under the Sykes-Picot accord. It is, I concede, hardly a moral stand to stand on the sidelines with one’s arms folded, but we must have a more cautious agenda and search for ways where we can positively help at the margins.
It is of course the humanitarian crisis which is of most immediate concern. Jordan, as has been said, is in danger of being overwhelmed by refugees. My understanding is that the UK Government have responded most impressively. It would be helpful to have an update on the extent to which other countries have failed to live up to the obligations which they undertook at Kuwait and afterwards. In the short term, the refugee crisis is likely to worsen, as the government forces appear to have a new momentum after Qusair.
Consistent with our values, we must help in democracy-building and in the protection of minorities—Christians are clearly the major losers in this conflict. Finally, at the political end, we should seek to mediate in a region where a spirit of “winner takes all” prevails; it is an existential threat for President Assad. We must recognise the interest of, and work with, both Russia and Iran, and reject the French attempt to exclude Iran from Geneva II. The latest news from Geneva is disappointing in the extreme, as Assad perhaps seeks to improve his negotiating position on the battlefield. I accept that extreme dilemmas face us in responding. I have an awful feeling that the situation will get worse before it gets better; that the Syria that emerges will, even if it is united, be more unstable; and, overall, that the Middle East will pose a greater risk to ourselves and to the interests of the West.
My Lords, I cannot quite make up my mind whether it is an advantage or disadvantage to speak at this stage in the debate—I shall probably discover by the time I sit down—particularly after so many remarkable speeches. I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who has a great feel for foreign policy, not least in the Middle East, and always has something distinctive to say on these matters.
It was 66 years ago when, aged 10, I first went to the Middle East. I landed on the Nile by flying boat and went down the river by steamer to my parents in Khartoum. I had always hoped, when I had the privilege of being sent here, to be able to use the title “Luce of Khartoum” but Gordon unfortunately beat me to it.
In those 66 years, we all know how the Middle East has been a theatre of continual conflict—the Arab-Israel wars, the western interventions in countries such as Iraq and the civil wars of many of those countries. Today, however, we face a highly toxic cocktail of very dangerous proportions. One might almost think, in terms of Syria, of a poisonous Molotov cocktail—a great cross-fertilisation of several developments, starting in 2011. The Arab spring-type uprising started the challenge to the Assad dictatorship and was followed by repression, civil war and challenge to the secular regime. This developed into, as we have heard so often in this debate, a sectarian, religious conflict, principally but not wholly between Sunni and Shia, exacerbating the Sunni-Shia tensions in the region as a whole. Take Bahrain, for example, where tensions were already very strong between the Shia and the Sunni; this conflict has exacerbated the tensions there.
Those who are historians will know better than me that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire and the Iranian Safavid Empire, one Sunni and the other Shia, fought each other for a long time and it had an extremely debilitating effect on both those areas, just as religious wars in Europe had done the same; for example, the Roman Catholic and Protestant feuds in Northern Ireland and so on.
On top of that, we have exploitation by proxy support, as we have heard today, with Russia and Iran, supported by Hezbollah, in favour of Assad—here, I pose a question: have we rather underestimated the determination of Russia and Iran to give their backing to Assad?—and, by contrast, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supporting the official, and not just the official, Syrian opposition.
Thus, as we have heard again so often today, Syria, with more than 100,000 deaths, is awash with arms. Goodness, we do not need to talk about arms in the Middle East; it is flooded with arms. There is the danger of fragmentation of that country and exploitation by extremist offshoots of al-Qaeda, producing in turn a massive humanitarian crisis, with more than 7 million people in desperate need, following from that to the destabilising of the neighbouring regimes, particularly Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon and Turkey.
Then, on top of that, there are the ambitions of the Iranian theocracy, which is flexing its muscles, trying to establish itself as a big power in the region and to have more influence—dreaming, perhaps, of former great Persian empires—and with very deep mistrust of the United States and the United Kingdom, developing nuclear capability as a symbol of its virility and seen, quite understandably, by Israel as a serious threat. That is balanced, however, by the one positive sign, which has been spoken about today: the election of Rouhani as president. He is, of course, a solid supporter of the Supreme Leader but, we hope, a little more flexible. Encouragingly, he said the other day:
“I have a key, not an axe”.
We have to live in hope.
Then we add to that, in the Middle East as a whole, the important Arab nations such as Egypt, which is struggling to find its way towards some kind of democracy, with serious tensions between the secular political leaders and the Muslim Brotherhood and with the army sitting in the background. Meanwhile, Palestine-Israel simmers and stagnates. There is no will or leadership on either side to find a solution. It is becoming more and more potentially explosive, with Palestinians failing to unite and Israelis settling on more Palestinian land, making the two-state solution more and more difficult.
To add one more issue in the region, there is a rapidly changing influence of outside powers. Obama is now understandably reluctant to get involved in any more Middle Eastern quagmires. The European Union is divided. The United Kingdom wants to punch above its weight against its gradual loss of weight. In Russia, there is a Putin who is under threat, flexing his muscles both metaphorically and actually, wanting to demonstrate Russia’s power and to protect its interests in Syria and its energy interests in the Mediterranean. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, put across so strongly, there is China, becoming more and more dependent on Middle Eastern oil and, therefore, more and more an important power in the Middle East.
In those circumstances, what should we be doing? We must start by accepting that we can play a role, but that it is more modest and selective than it has been in the past. Like almost every other speaker, I am not convinced that sending arms to the official Syrian opposition would do anything other than help to escalate the conflict and the fighting. I believe that there is no military solution whatever to this Syrian problem. Therefore, we should concentrate on one thing which I believe that the Government are doing extremely well, which is humanitarian support on a large scale. Secondly, where we can, with our allies, we should shore up and stabilise the neighbouring countries, especially Jordan and Lebanon. Thirdly, like others, I agree that we should give strong support to a political negotiation leading to a transition and what we hope will be an achievable and realistic post-conflict political resolution, learning, if we can, the lessons of Iraq and using all our skills in diplomacy and our experience.
We should engage fully and strongly with our friends in the Gulf, whom we will need, and we should engage if we can with Iran. We cannot ignore Iran. It has an important role to play in the Middle East; it is better that it should be constructive. I hope that Iran will take part in Geneva. Therefore, we should use our soft power and skills as well as possible to engage with Iran, as the Prime Minister is doing with Russia, and much more fully with China to try to find a way forward.
Finally, I agree with my noble friend Lord Hannay: we should do what we can to support Mr Kerry, the Secretary of State, in his efforts in Palestine and Israel to move towards a two-state solution and find a more secure future for the Palestinians and the Israelis. That is becoming all the more important because of the crisis in Syria. I take the view that we must play our part, draw on all our experience in the Middle East but be realistic about our post-imperial role in the region.
My Lords, it is a privilege but also a little daunting to be the Back-Bench tail-end charlie in this debate, particularly as I lack the colourful upbringing of the noble Lord, Lord Luce.
The first thing to say is that doing nothing in Syria is simply not an option—not with so many dead and with so much at stake. We have a humanitarian interest in seeking a solution and we have a very great self-interest in a solution. We also have a responsibility. We played a direct role in so many of the emerging problems of the region, where the frontiers were drawn with a remarkably unbending ruler in London and Paris. We used to pursue a policy of divide and rule and, in recent years under Prime Minister Blair, we seem to have pursued a policy of meddle and muddle. We armed Saddam Hussain; then we deposed him. We even armed Osama bin Laden, when he was fighting the Soviets. We were great friends once with the Iranians and then we became great enemies. So it went on.
We have a pretty awful track record of picking winners, and we have no more prospect of being able to pick a winner from among the maelstrom of opposition groups in Syria than monkeys have of writing Shakespeare. That is why arming rebels on our own or as part of an exclusively Western coalition is hopeless: blind optimism of an order worthy of Mr Blair. We need a broader coalition with vision broad enough to recognise that although many of us distance ourselves from the former Prime Minister’s fixation with remodelling the Middle East, much of the rest of the world sees no such distinction and simply sees an old imperialist country still up to its wicked tricks, as my noble friend Lord Bates so colourfully illustrated earlier.
We keep drawing lines in the sand—and what do we find when we cross them? Nothing but more sand. Yet past failures—and there have been so many—do not mean that we should do nothing. If there is no solution to be found by entering the lottery of Syrian opposition groups, neither is there any solution in simply washing our hands.
Syria is not an isolated case. This debate is right to set it in the context of the wider Middle East, which inevitably brings us to the issue of Israel and Palestine. Here, I take a slightly different view from the noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Anderson. That conflict is connected in as much as it helps to ignite extremism throughout the Middle East and hugely inflames the distrust of the West.
Future generations will look in bewilderment at how we allowed that situation to continue. Let me take just one small example: the Gaza Strip, a territory so small that my noble friend the Minister and I could walk around it in a day. It is 25 miles long and, for most of its length, only three and a half miles wide. We could make every inhabitant rich beyond their wildest dreams for a fraction of the treasure that we have wasted in trying to resolve this problem. However, the situation still grows worse, deliberately made worse by men of evil intent.
On the other side of that equation, Israel is our friend—we support it. However, we watch as Palestinians are beaten and kicked from their homes to enable Israeli settlers illegally to occupy further stretches of Palestinian territory. I read that the new American Secretary of State is optimistic about moving forward on a settlement on that issue, yet I also read that hopes for a two-state settlement are rapidly fading. We shall see—nothing is simple.
We have a right to be involved in such issues. After all, we had a role in causing the problems in the first place. Therefore, while again supporting the absolute and inherent right of Israel to security and peace, can my noble friend in her response assure us that if Israel were to retreat from a two-state to a one-state solution, the British Government would deem it absurd and unacceptable if that solution was sought on any other basis than one man, one vote?
If we are to push for stability and moderation in the Middle East, we must expect our friends in Israel to listen to us, too. We have a right to be involved in such issues, so while once again supporting that inherent right of Israel, we must also expect common sense and balance from her. We will need to talk, not only to Israel but to our other friends in the Middle East and to those who are not our friends—those we dislike and those we openly distrust. We must talk not only to our friends in the Gulf states and elsewhere, to Arab League nations, to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia and China—there is such a long list of them—but also to the extremists, and even to some who we regard as terrorists; even, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested, to Assad himself. After all, if we can talk to the Taliban, is anyone off limits?
In these exceptionally challenging circumstances, the Prime Minister is doing an exceptional job. He is clearly cautious about sending arms to Syria, and should remain so. He is increasing our humanitarian aid, travelling far and wide in search of common ground, and I am sure that he will keep a very close eye on developments in Iran. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, suggested in his fascinating remarks, it is time to bring Russia and China in from the cold. I am sure that the Prime Minister will take great note of what the noble Lord said. Most of all, I trust that the Prime Minister will look at security at home in the sobering knowledge that although past Governments’ policy in the Middle East was built on the overriding objective of making this country safe, so far it appears to have failed.
There is so much to say and so little time in which to say it, and I do not want to stretch the patience of the House. I will, therefore, make a closing plea. Syria must not be more of the same. It should mark a new and more mature understanding of what we in this country might achieve. There is no exclusively western solution to this crisis. There might be a regional solution, but that would require the support and understanding of a variety of powers from around the world—a multipolar solution in a multipolar world. In that we might just find not only a formidable and daunting challenge but a liberating opportunity.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for facilitating this very timely debate. Her strong statement on humanitarian aid was particularly welcome, although like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro I am concerned about the effectiveness of such aid and want to ensure that it is completely effective—a point that was also emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton.
The extent of the geography and the differences of analysis were always going to make this a diffuse debate, in which it is perhaps hard to find a focus save for the inevitable focus on Syria. I will start by endorsing in straightforward terms the words of my noble friend Lord Wood at the beginning of this debate about arms to rebels. That topic was analysed in some detail and with great insight by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown; I will say for simplicity’s sake how strongly I agree with him, even if that causes him discomfort. As my noble friend Lord Wood also said, we need to understand the history of the region. I share the sense of urgency of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, and the view of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that we are not in a position to do nothing—a view that was repeated a moment ago by the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs. I also encourage the Minister to respond to the comments made by my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon on some of the legalities, which should be addressed tonight. However, I am in the same position as my noble friend Lord Anderson: I aim for perhaps a wider regional appraisal. I apologise in advance to my noble friend Lord Turnberg if I do not focus tonight on Israel and Palestine. This is a similar starting point to the one taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar.
It is striking that across Syria, through Lebanon, in Iran and still more in Iraq, through several of the Gulf states on both sides of the Horn of Africa, across north Africa, deep into the Sahara, and north of and in Mali we are witnessing a harsh sectarian war within Islam—or fronts in a war, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, described it a short while ago. The noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has also focused on this, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, quite rightly focused on how these events have demonstrated some of the United Nations’ failures in getting a proper grip on it in the Security Council. Of course, the great paradox is that historically Islam was a religion marked by greater pluralist tolerance than a great many others were. However, now we see on many fronts a widespread war between Sunnis and Shia and subsects within each of those great traditions.
Tragically, the sectarian divide in some places now takes the form of sectarian barbarism. In Syria the Shia Alawites target Sunnis, with the undeniable help of the Iranian Shia, including the Revolutionary Guard and Lebanese Hezbollah. In Egypt, Sunnis launch lynch mobs against small Shia communities, encouraged by Salafist clerics, and attack Shia people as infidels. Extreme Salafists have entered Syria. The Syrian opposition ranges in a bewildering way from secular groups to al-Qaeda affiliates. Similar confrontational fronts can be seen right across the region. However, surely it is not adequate to see this as just a series of theological clashes—a point that was made earlier.
It is also clear that in several states minority clans have exercised or exercise power to the exclusion of the social, economic and religious rights of majority clans. Assad, Saddam and the Bahraini al-Khalifas oppress whoever constitutes the majority. In some cases, such as with the Egyptian and Saudi majority Sunnis, they oppress smaller Shia minorities. Almost all now also oppress Christians and members of other religions, across the Middle East, in north and west Africa and in some senses as far away as Pakistan. However, lest this is thought simply to be something happening within Islam, there seem to be similarities with the Buddhist oppression of Muslims and other minorities in south-east Asia.
This cannot be a contest over obscure or ancient disputes of religious legitimacy. For venal leaders, holding on to power is about holding on to power. For wider populations blighted by poverty, illiteracy and untreated disease, struggling for scarce power and resources and for a sustainable existence, religious difference becomes a symbolic sheen to legitimise brutal struggle. The enemy is far more easily stereotyped as the other. It is a dreadful but handy way of designating people, even neighbours, as enemies in life’s harshest competition, treating them as subhumans who get in the way of the fulfilment of particular groups’ aspirations—modern aspirations in some cases, but even the aspirations of some people to go back to premodernity.
How do we make sense of it, and what should we aim to do about it? Perhaps we should start with an unashamed question for us in the United Kingdom, and in effect the Minister opened with this proposition: what is the United Kingdom’s interest? Like the noble Lord, Lord Luce, I am keen to understand whether we are confident in answering that question, particularly in our assessment of Russian positions. The answer for the United Kingdom should never be cynical or neglect the interests of people where we share an explicit United Nations duty to protect, a duty that we share with others but where we have the highest expectation of ourselves and our allies. Our first interest, the precondition for the best, is assisting countries to become stable, making them less likely to morph into failed states harbouring people who in turn mean us harm. The analysis by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, of the extent of the instability is one that I share.
Of course we prefer the fully fledged path to democracy, social inclusion and the rule of law, however tortuous those paths. Today Egypt comes back to the top of our agenda, or certainly should do. At 4.07 pm today, while we were debating, the Egyptian army announced that it will sort things out within 48 hours, confirmed at 4.53 pm as an ultimatum. In a previous debate in your Lordships’ House, I started by saying that it was risky to speak at all or to guess what would happen even in the duration of the speech. I was given a note halfway through that debate saying that Mubarak had gone. Who knows what the rest of today holds for that important and complex country—huge demonstrations, deaths at the storming of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, the prospects that I have just related of what might be a coup?
First, it is clear that steps towards economic regeneration have not been taken as promised. Unemployed youth, an underemployed middle class and a poor risk profile for investment are signals of failure. Things take time, but there needs to be evidence of a route map and milestones. Secondly, while few may want democratic elections to be routinely overturned, as may be happening at the moment, President Morsi surely has to grasp that he cannot rule exclusively for the Muslim Brotherhood and generate viable economic conditions if he does so.
Thirdly, he cannot aim to dominate all state and many non-state institutions. I shall give the House what I think is a non-trivial but strange example: Mr Morsi ruled in the past few days that he would field, and if necessary impose, Muslim Brotherhood candidates for the boards of all the major football clubs, starting with those in Cairo, snuffing out even the most elementary pluralism. That has resulted in a petition for his resignation attracting 15 million signatures, 2 million more people than voted for him a year ago. We are seeing perhaps a return of Mubarak’s authoritarianism with an anti-secular twist.
With the exception of a few organisations, I fear that there is little attempt to encourage civic participation and strength and civic society. Economically, no investment is going to come in, according to the World Bank, which states baldly that the ease of doing business in Egypt is that it is a bad place to start any business, as tax reform, protectionism and state control shackle all prospects. This is in sharp contrast in many ways with Tunisia, which has begun to develop those economic prospects in a serious way. Do the Government plan to host or participate in any conferences to create the right economic conditions that might stimulate the prospects of those countries?
It would be futile in the course of a debate today to range over Libya, where there may be rather more promise, or indeed Mali, which for several days was the absolute focus of attention in this House but has scarcely been mentioned ever since. We see in every one of these cases the need for an economic platform to be developed and for the opportunities for pluralism to go alongside it. Briefly, of course, I have to return to Syria against the backdrop of the huge caution that has been expressed in this House about what to do, given the complexities. The prospect is simply of a failed state on the borders of the United Kingdom’s closest allies in the region—Turkey, Israel, Jordan and, potentially, Palestine, at the very heart of the Middle East. Strategically, we need a stable transition from Assad’s dictatorship, and so do the Syrian people. I fully acknowledge the long-term reflections on this by the noble Lord, Lord Risby, and his analysis of Mr Assad’s present position.
The risks, so far as we have judged them until now, have outweighed intervention. We have responded with caution. We recognise that the fragmented opposition is exclusively a Sunni club, and not one that is capable of a balanced Syrian settlement. We are witnessing a death spiral into chaos; uncontrolled fragmentation means unending civil war, and of course that is unsustainable for everyone. It has already spilt over, as many noble Lords have said, into its neighbours; it knows no borders. It emboldens Iran, which may or may not be in a state of change—I share the hopes of the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Luce, but who knows?—and Hezbollah, to everyone’s strategic detriment. Lebanon is now absolutely and directly involved in the war. Al-Qaeda has one of its most potent fighting machines embedded in the region.
This is not Bosnia—of course it is not—but there are some comparisons. President Clinton finally intervened when 100,000 Bosnian men, women and children had died, more or less the figure that we see in Syria today. UN and Arab League forecasts are now that 100,000 deaths are likely to occur just in 2013 if Assad proceeds with impunity. A more active policy is therefore inevitable, and doing too little will simply grow the crisis to too great a proportion. President Putin, plainly unimpressed by what the Canadian Prime Minister called the G7+1 summit, must surely work urgently with Secretary Kerry to create a national platform, bringing together all the legitimate ethnic and religious leaders. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that a common global response was what was needed, and that is plainly what they must work for. The process needs Russia, China, Turkey and the key Arab and European states, and consideration, as my noble friend Lord Wood suggested, is needed about whether Iranian involvement would help.
We must consider first how to protect civilians, minorities, the vulnerable and the country’s neighbours. We must get control of the chemical and other unacceptable weapons. We must design transitional governance and justice, and safeguard humanitarian work.
I doubt that preconditions, even about a tyrant like Assad, are likely to appeal to President Putin. His help is crucial. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, was right: it is not a risk worth running to exclude Russia or to suggest to the Russians that we have taken no account of them, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said, given the preoccupations that they will have with their own southern borders and the character of the struggles there.
To me, success would look like security sector reform, disarmament, the reintegration of combatants, improved governance, a date for elections, economic recovery and reconstruction scheduled to start. In this, I draw on Richard Holbrooke’s experience before and during Dayton: the least worst outcomes, even if they artificially create within the country smaller but secure and economically viable entities, may be the only solution with which people can live with some prospects. The opposition may indeed have indulged in terrible violence—I believe it has—but that can no longer be any kind of excuse for anyone, including for President Assad. A murderous regime has to understand that there is no victory that is followed that way by impunity, no freedom to bomb civilians to extinction.
The Security Council, or certainly its permanent members, should provide no further means to fly or to protect flights until Geneva II has been called, has negotiated and has concluded. There should be no long-term recognition of any regime that simply proceeds by violence. I say this because priority must be given to the negotiations, and no negotiation is an unthinkable course of action. That means that there can be no one-sided flow of weapons, and even with credible monitoring I suspect that that would be a huge difficulty. We might as well be candid about that, because I suspect that there is no control over events on the ground in a way that would be tolerable for us.
The priority for the United Kingdom Government, our allies and our interests is how we can promote Geneva II urgently. How can we add to the pressure not just for Geneva II but for the background work that is essential to make it successful? What process do we envisage as the urgent consequence of the G8 at the United Nations and elsewhere? Country by country, it is measurable goals of political and vital economic progress that will build the United Kingdom’s security in that region.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for hosting this timely and important debate on the situation in Syria and the Middle East, and I will try to answer the many questions in a timely way. I am grateful for the insightful and moving contributions made over the course of our discussions, including those from the opposition Front Bench, but especially for the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, and my noble friends Lord Risby and Lord Dobbs, and the broader contributions on faith, identity and international impacts from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar. My noble friend Lady Morris is right that many interventions merit a reread, and I will certainly be encouraging those of us at the Foreign Office dealing with Syria and the wider region to do that. It is important that this House continues to consider the deteriorating situation in Syria, its wider regional impact and how the UK has responded. We are privileged in being able to draw on the extensive experience of so many noble Lords here today, and we have enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion on the Motion.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, asked whether the House would have a say before any decision was made about arming the opposition. Let me repeat what the Foreign Secretary said in a Statement in the Commons on 18 June:
“We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/6/2013; col. 746.]
I can tell my noble friend Lord Alderdice that I have asked officials for options in the event that this House is in recess. I will ensure that his comments are considered in that process and, as ever, I am grateful for his clarity on this issue. I will report back to the House in writing or at the Dispatch Box when a decision is taken.
As the Minister with responsibility for Foreign Office business in this House, I have been particularly focused on these issues, and I felt it was important to gauge your Lordships’ views and to keep the House informed. I thank noble Lords. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, for his wide and in-depth contribution and my noble friend Lord Bates for his kind comments. It is amazing how coffee can keep you going, even after Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I shall take a few moments to recap the Government’s policy towards the complex situation in Syria and the Middle East, and the types of assistance that we are already providing to the Syrian people. Syria remains at the top of the Government’s foreign policy agenda. We are firm in our belief that the conflict and the suffering of the Syrian people will come to an end only through a negotiated settlement. We have therefore continued to escalate our assistance in order to achieve that goal.
In response to the dire humanitarian situation faced by Syrians displaced inside Syria and as refugees in neighbouring countries, we have set out our largest ever funding commitment for a humanitarian disaster. I can assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro that we will remain committed. Our total contribution now stands at £348 million, which sends a clear signal to the Syrian people that they can count on the UK’s continuing support. At the same time, we have used our platform as host of the recent G8 summit to urge our international partners to commit to humanitarian assistance on a similar scale and to pay funds that are committed. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, asked about countries failing to make a contribution. The UN humanitarian appeal is for £5.2 billion. It is its largest appeal in history. The UK, US and the EU have been the largest contributors to that appeal, but we agree that others need to do more. That is why the Foreign Secretary urged Ministers at the Friends of Syria meeting on 22 June to increase their contributions to the UN appeal, including lobbying Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
We have also committed large amounts of assistance to Syria’s neighbours, who are experiencing great economic strains and political tensions due to the conflict spilling over. Regional peace and security are important in containing the conflict, reducing the threat of extremism and ultimately helping to bring the conflict to a close. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Wood, that Jordan and Lebanon are playing a vital humanitarian role and we are providing assistance to help alleviate not only the humanitarian crisis but the side effects too. We are supporting projects to help maintain stability in the region.
A political solution to the crisis would allow millions of civilians who have fled across the border to escape the conflict to return to their homes safely. However, the Syrian regime continues to block humanitarian agencies seeking access to deliver relief in government-controlled areas as well as to prevent the UN commission of inquiry investigating the human rights situation on the ground. Alongside our international partners, we will continue to call upon the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian agencies and investigative bodies immediate and unfettered access.
My noble friend Lord Ashdown gave us the benefit of his extensive experience. He focused on arms and diplomacy. I can assure him that the UK is fully committed to a political process. We are putting all our weight behind the US/Russia/UN-convened Geneva II conference. He and the noble Lord, Lord Wood of Anfield, asked what efforts are being put in place. I can assure noble Lords that huge efforts are being put in place to bring people to the negotiating table, to get a coherent and representative opposition, to ensure that we work with an opposition that abides by international human rights standards and to get like-minded people around that table to move this process further. We believe that a political solution is the best—indeed, the only—way forward. This matter will not be resolved on the battlefield.
I thank the Minister for that answer, which was extremely helpful—not that I thought it would not be. I asked a specific question about Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Is anything being done, either bilaterally or multilaterally through the EU and with our American friends, to try to persuade them to desist arming the jihadists?
I have made notes further down and will come to that in a few moments.
My noble friend Lady Falkner, the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and my noble friend Lord Ashdown spoke about considerations in relation to arming the opposition. Our practical assistance so far as been entirely non-lethal, and we will continue to support the moderate opposition and Syrian civil society wherever possible as they develop into what we believe is a credible alternative to the Assad regime. However, the lifting of the EU arms embargo gives us greater flexibility to act if action is needed. Noble Lords can rest assured that any decision will be put to a vote in the other place, and we would not want to pursue any aspect of this policy against the will of the House. Our policy sends a clear signal to the Assad regime that it must negotiate seriously and that we will do all we can to ensure that the forthcoming Geneva II conference is successful in trying to bring the conflict to an end.
In relation to the conditions if we were to consider sending arms to the opposition, when the Foreign Affairs Council agreed to end the EU arms embargo and return decisions on arms provision to member states on 27 May, Ministers also agreed a framework of safeguards to guide those member states that might decide to provide arms. Arms can be sent to the national coalition only; they should be intended for the protection of civilians; there should be safeguards to ensure delivery to the right hands; and existing obligations under the EU common practice for arms exports remain in place. Legal constraints, such as the United Nations Security Council resolutions in relation to, for example, al-Qaeda, remain in place, preventing the supply of equipment to known terrorist organisations.
I repeat that the Government’s position remains that the only way to achieve a solution is via a negotiated political settlement. However, it is for the Syrian people to negotiate how that transition happens and to agree the make-up of a transitional Government who can win the consent of all Syrians. We are therefore working closely with the opposition and urging them to commit to and prepare for Geneva II as a way of pursuing their goals and achieving political transition. It is a bold and difficult decision for the opposition to make, but one that merits that risk.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, spoke about representation in the opposition. We have recognised the Syrian national coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. The coalition is committed to expanding its membership. This was recently discussed, with representation from all groups within Syria. I welcome the noble Lord’s expertise, and will ensure that officials feed into planning his concerns about Lebanon and a potential evacuation.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, China and Russia. I will try to address these. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford asked about bringing Russia and China to a more constructive position. It is no secret that China and Russia have differing views on how best to handle the situation in Syria. We all share fundamental aims: to end the conflict, to stop Syria fragmenting, to let the Syrian people decide who governs them and to prevent the growth of violent extremism. We are intensifying our diplomatic efforts with all members of the UN Security Council. As the conflict escalates, the threat to regional and international security increases. As the Prime Minister and President Putin discussed at the G8, we and Russia are on the same page on the need to end the conflict. However, as we near a peace conference in Geneva, we will step up our engagement with Russia and China to ensure that the process stands the best chance of a successful outcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Wright, asked whether the differences were insurmountable and about the prospects for success at the conference. Intensive efforts are ongoing on the details of what could be decided at that conference. There will inevitably be challenges, but the UN Secretary-General has stressed that the three parties are committed to convening the conference as soon as possible. We continue to engage actively and support the efforts of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy. The Foreign Secretary spoke to Mr Brahimi last month about preparations for the Geneva conference and reiterated our strong support for him and for his office.
My noble friend Lord Ashdown and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, asked about countries that could be providing funds that could get into the hands of extremists. We are working alongside the US and the allies through the Friends of Syria core group, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. At the most recent meeting, attended by the Foreign Secretary in Doha on 22 June, core group Ministers expressed concerns over the growing sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria and the radicalising risks that accompany such developments in regional and international security. Ministers from all those countries agreed at that meeting the urgent need to support and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition, including supporting the national coalition and its supreme military council in efforts to save the lives of ordinary citizens.
Noble Lords may be aware that the Friends of Syria group was created in response to the Russian and Chinese veto on the Security Council resolution. Its first meeting took place in Tunisia last year in February. At various times, 114 nations have now attended the Friends of Syria meetings, but the core group of 11—including the UK, the US, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE—meet on a much more regular basis. The concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and others are discussed there.
The noble Lords, Lord Wood and Lord Luce, and others asked about Iran’s participation in negotiations. It was anticipated that those who participated in Geneva I would participate in Geneva II. Of course, Iran did not. However, no decision has been made and we are still working through the details of the Geneva II conference with international partners.
My noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, raised the change of President in Iran. The Government of course hope that, following Dr Rouhani’s election, Iran will take up the opportunity of a new relationship with the international community by making every effort, for example, to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue; and, of course, to adopt a more constructive position on Syria. We will keep an open mind, but we will judge Iran by its actions, not its words.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro asked about Assad’s departure. As the Foreign Secretary has said, Assad’s departure is not a precondition for the Geneva talks. However, when considering a transitional Government that could win the consent of all Syrians, it is hard to imagine how Assad could be part of that. The UK position on Assad is that he has lost legitimacy and must therefore step aside if we are to get a solution into which the Syrian people can buy. However, it is ultimately for the Syrian people to negotiate how transition happens and agree the make-up of a transitional Government that can win their consent.
The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my noble friend Lord Risby had concerns about the national coalition. We have those concerns, too, which is why we raised them. On 20 April, the national coalition declared its commitment to democracy, to ethnic and religious pluralism and to the rule of law, as well as its concerns about discrimination and extremism. It also declared that it would guard against the proliferation of any supplied lethal equipment and would return such equipment at the end of the conflict, and confirmed that the supreme military council operates under the civilian authority of the coalition. Allowing supply of equipment to an organised body that adheres to acceptable values lowers the risk of diversion and misuse in comparison to a more general lifting of the arms embargo. Clearly, however, we must ensure that the national coalition makes good on its commitments.
The noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Anderson, raised the Middle East peace process. We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas’s clear commitment to a two-state solution, and to working to achieve peace for the Israeli and Palestinian people. We believe that both leaders are genuine partners for peace and we have seen no evidence that the Syrian conflict has affected President Abbas’s commitment to peace. It is vital that both show the bold, decisive leadership that allows the efforts of the United States to succeed. The events of the Arab spring, particularly the threat posed by the conflict in Syria, make the need for progress even more pressing. The consequences of the current efforts not succeeding, for Israelis, Palestinians and the wider region, could be severe. Of course, we continue to support the efforts of Secretary Kerry.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, asked a question that was repeated many times: are we confident that any action that we take is right, and is a step towards peace? I assure noble Lords that all our efforts are focused on reaching a political solution. There are no easy decisions, but the international community cannot stand still in the face of what is happening in Syria. Our policy must move forward to prevent loss of life there. This is not a choice between diplomacy and practical assistance to the opposition. The two efforts are interlinked, in order to bring about a political transition. As we move towards more active efforts to save lives, we will co-ordinate our response with international partners and will consider the risks of all options before moving forward.
In conclusion, our priority must be proactively to pursue a political solution to bring this terrible conflict to a close. The millions of Syrians who are now refugees as a result of the conflict constitute an urgent humanitarian crisis. A negotiated settlement would help to alleviate this crisis, which continues to deteriorate. We must be proactive in responding to an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation by continuing to push a political settlement that would allow millions of refugees to return home, reduce the growing threat of extremism to the UK and stem the tide of spreading regional instability. We will work in every way we can to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes are held to account.
It is clear that there are no risk-free options ahead from which to choose. However, I strongly believe that an inclusive Syrian-led political process is the best way to bring an end to the bloodshed and minimise the threat to peace and security in the wider region.
Syria, and our response, is an issue with which we grapple every day in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We take each step with much consideration, looking at all potential options. On a personal level, my own historic anti-war positions are no secret. However, every day, I learn that holding a “Stop the war” banner and shouting from outside King Charles Street is much easier than sitting inside, grappling with decisions over the least worst option. I thank noble Lords for informing my thinking.