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Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the prospects for a United Nations-led settlement in Syria supported by the European Union, the United States, Russia and China.

My Lords, in September, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution which endorsed the Geneva communiqué and called on all Syrian parties to engage seriously at the future Geneva II conference. We pushed for, and agreed with other permanent UN Security Council members to aim for, a mid-November start date for the Geneva II process. The UK will work tirelessly with its allies and the Syrian opposition to support the process and the intensive preparation that is being led by the UN special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Was my noble friend the Minister not pleased that, for the first time for a long time, the UN Security Council came together with western countries, supporting the suggestions made by other leading members of the UNSC, to reach a collective peaceful settlement promoting the idea of peace, as well as inspections, in the tragic Syrian conflict? With that background now, is she optimistic that that will be built on, avoiding the mistakes made by the UNSC elite in the past, particularly with one member doing excessive vetoes since 1967 about the Middle East? Can we make sure that there will be a genuine move to peace when Geneva II starts? Also, what is the likely date for that conference?

I was, of course, pleased, as were the Government, to see progress on the first resolution that has been adopted on Syria in 17 months at the Security Council. Resolution 2118 requires a full implementation of the decision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It sets out that Syria’s chemical weapons must be effectively eliminated within the first half of 2014—but, of course, I agree with my noble friend that the political track will run alongside that. At this moment, the P5 has agreed that that meeting is likely to take place in mid-November.

It is well known that to have a peace process that works all the relevant parties must be gathered together, not just the moderates. Can the Minister assure us that, at Geneva II, the more extreme nations will be involved, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and so on, as well as the opposition groups, both internal and external? Will they all be there?

The right reverend Prelate may be aware that the Geneva communiqué was for the first time adapted and supported by the UN Security Council as part of this resolution. That effectively means that the opposition and the regime have committed to being part of the Geneva II process. Which other states are part of that process depends very much on what they would be prepared to endorse, and whether they would be prepared to agree to the Geneva communiqué. At this stage, Iran has not done that.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House who the Government expect to be the single representative of the Syrian opposition at Geneva II, given the deep divide between the so-called Syrian national coalition and the increasing number of jihadist groups that are said to include at least 10,000 foreign fighters, including, sadly, some from this country?

The noble Lord is right that the make-up of the opposition is incredibly complex. We have been working with the national coalition, which has now been recognised as the voice for the opposition by a large number of member states—most of our allies, including most of the Arab world and the Arab League. Therefore, it is the national coalition that we are working with and which we expect will represent the opposition at the Geneva II process.

My Lords, in view of the developments since this House and the House of Commons last met, would the Minister reflect that perhaps the House of Commons and many in the House of Lords displayed a degree of wisdom that may have been greater than the Government thought at that time? In view of that, will the Minister assure us that there will be no preconditions from the British Government to any talks about a future settlement, particularly when we bear in mind that, however awful the devil we know in Syria, there are a number of devils around that may ultimately be even worse, both locally and of a strategic nature?

The noble Lord raises an important point but I need to be clear on this issue. There are two parts to what has been discussed over recent months, on the political track. The Government have always been clear that the matter will be resolved politically, but the specific incident relating to chemical weapons and on which the will of Parliament was listened to was a separate situation. Noble Lords would accept and agree that the Assad regime’s now voluntary destruction of deadly weapons in the form of chemical weapons is an important step that has vindicated the threat of military action by the United States. We would not be in this position if the Assad regime did not anticipate that some military action would be taken.

My Lords, the position, as I understand it, of Her Majesty’s Government, the American Administration and our ally, Turkey, has been from the start that any settlement would involve the removal of Mr Assad as President. Given the UNSC decision, does the noble Baroness accept that if he proceeds to dismantle chemical weapons and thus obey the one institution that the UN Security Council has agreed, it may be difficult to sustain that position?

The Geneva communiqué clearly says that there should be a transition Government with full executive powers, which, among other things, will reflect the will of the majority of people in Syria. It is not for us to set those preconditions but we cannot anticipate a situation in which Assad remaining would be conducive to a settlement that would be acceptable to the people of Syria.

My Lords, I think probably all of us welcome the Answer that has been given and the progress that has been made. However, the House will need to understand the process to be followed at the United Nations Security Council rather more clearly. What instructions have been given to our ambassador at the United Nations, what milestones have been set and how will any progress, or indeed the lack of it, be reported to this House?

Security Council Resolution 2118 sets out the timeframe within which the destruction of chemical weapons will take place. Indeed, teams are already on the ground in Damascus and a number of weapons, including armed warheads, have been destroyed, the detail of which I was reading only this morning, so the work has started. The noble Lord will be aware that there is a sense that if that timeframe is not followed, consequences could follow. I will, of course, keep the House updated on this matter, as I have done, and am more than happy to take questions or update the House as and when is necessary.

My Lords, while the international effort to attain chemical weapon eradication is on the way, is the noble Baroness satisfied with the development of humanitarian help provided to Syrian refugees? In particular, is she deeply concerned about the continuous reports of women being raped in some of the refugee camps? What is her analysis of that?

My Lords, I am incredibly proud of this Government’s record of pledging and providing humanitarian support in this crisis. We are the second largest donor and are now taking our donations up to half a billion pounds. Not only have we given ourselves, we have encouraged the rest of the world to give. It is because of the work of this Government, led by my right honourable friend the International Development Secretary, that a further £1 billion was pledged during the United Nations General Assembly meeting. In relation to specific work around women, the noble Baroness will be aware of the very personal initiative that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has driven on preventing sexual violence in conflict. It is exactly in situations such as this where that kind of work is so essential to send out a very clear message that there will be no impunity for these horrendous crimes.