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Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the proposed international peace conference on the Syrian conflict takes place in the near future.

My Lords, all our efforts have focused on securing a successful outcome at the forthcoming Geneva conference. A negotiated political settlement remains the best way in which to end the current bloodshed. The US, Russia and the UN are working intensively on the details of the conference; it is inevitable that there will be challenges, but the UN Secretary-General has stressed that the three parties are committed to convening the conference as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Given the failure of the G8 summit to agree a date for the start of the Geneva 2 talks, does the Minister think on reflection that it was a mistake for the Government to spend the run-up to the G8 raising the volume on the possibility of the UK arming the Syrian rebels? Does she agree that it would be damaging for the prospects of an international peace conference if the Government were to repeat the mistake in the coming weeks and months?

The Government have consistently approached this matter by responding to the situation on the ground. I do not think that they can be criticised for actually responding to it and encouraging agreement when we think that it is possible. The countries that we are trying to get agreement between—the US and Russia, with the UN of course playing a facilitating role—are all committed to Geneva 2 and to a transitional executive authority that would be in accordance with the wishes of the Syrian people. It was right, in the run-up to the G8, to get as much agreement as possible, and it continues to be right to continue to push Russia and the US to come to an agreement to bring the coalition and the regime around the table.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, if the international community is to have any hope of starting to resolve this dreadful situation, all parties to the conflict need to be at the negotiating table? If that is the case—and I ask this particularly in the light of the fourth Question on the Order Paper—how does she respond to the suggestion that this ought also to include Iran?

The right reverend Prelate will be aware that this question has been raised in the House before. Our view is that those parties that were party to Geneva 1 should be party to Geneva 2. The challenge that we have at this moment is to get the opposition and the regime around the table to agree a road map. Of course, if other parties can play a constructive role, that, too, would be appreciated, but the role that Iran is playing in Syria at the moment is not considered to be constructive.

Does my noble friend agree that, in addition to the importance of having Iran at the table, it will also be critical to the success of the conference to have credible members of the Assad Government there, if not President Assad himself? Moreover, the role of Hezbollah, which is often seen to be in alignment with Iran, is actually rather independent. Lebanon is a neighbour and is hugely affected by the civil war in Syria. Will she also consider, in trying to move Geneva 2 forward, whether they might invite all the key players in an open gesture so that we might get reconciliation and agreement at the end of that?

I can assure my noble friend that we are trying to do all we can to bring the parties to the table. At the moment, the challenge has been in relation to the regime. We feel that people from the regime should be credible, and should be those who can take decisions and make sure that they are subsequently effected. To try to broaden that beyond the regime at this stage is not something that we think would be constructive.

My Lords, further to my noble friend’s question, will the Minister not concede that the Syrian Government have agreed, the Russians have agreed and the Americans have agreed to participate? Did she see a report by Reuters that the leader of the Syrian National Council has said that it is holding out to get more arms and waiting until then to strengthen its negotiating position? Surely, the British Government’s policy in holding out the prospect of giving it arms is therefore counterproductive.

I have said on many occasions at this Dispatch Box and maybe should say again that no decision has been taken to arm the Syrian opposition. The noble Lord will be aware that the national coalition has just elected a new president, Ahmed Assi al-Jarba, who has made it his job, among other things—indeed, he did so before his election—to broaden the coalition to include more people within it, to make sure that he unites the coalition. He is committed to the Geneva process.

Will it be the Minister’s policy to make sure that the future housing needs of the refugees who are now in temporary provision are looked at and discussed with the relevant Governments, bearing in mind that many of those concerned cannot return to their original houses, which have been reduced to rubble?

My noble friend will be aware that the largest humanitarian appeal ever has been launched as a result of the situation in Syria. The United Kingdom has made the largest contribution it has ever made to a single humanitarian appeal—£350 million. Indeed, the Secretary of State for International Development was in Lebanon earlier this week pledging further support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The long-term solution is to resolve the political situation on the ground so that these people are allowed to return. There are more than 4 million people displaced within Syria and 1.7 million displaced outside it. There is no conceivable way, even as an international community, that we could meet the housing needs of that many people. The solution has to be to create the climate for them to return to their own homes.

Is the Minister aware that the reason that the Russians are reluctant to set a date, and they are reluctant, is that they want the Assad regime to regain as much control of territory as it can to strengthen its hand in negotiations? That cannot be good for Syria or anyone else in the long run, but we need to be realistic about it. There is a reluctance to set a date because the regime wants to extend its control on the land so that it can negotiate from a position of strength.

My Lords, I cannot hypothesise about the reasoning for the Russian’s position. Of course, we have different views on handling this crisis, but we have shared fundamental aims. We are both committed to ending the conflict, to stopping Syria fragmenting, to letting the Syrian people decide who governs them and to preventing the growth of violent extremism. We are hopeful that, because we are committed to the same aims, we can reach an agreement on how to get there.