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Volume 749: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the outcome of the talks held earlier this month regarding the proposed Geneva II peace conference on the conflict in Syria.

My Lords, as noble Lords will know, the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, hosted a series of meetings in Geneva on 5 November for permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Syria’s neighbours and the Arab League. The focus of the discussion was on preparations for the Geneva II talks. The meetings were positive and, as noble Lords will also know, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, subsequently announced earlier this week, on 25 November, that the Geneva II talks will be convened on 22 January 2014.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer and I wish him and the Government well in these complex and hideously difficult negotiations. I hope that the horror and misery of what has gone on for too long now will be ended at the start of that process on 22 January. Can my noble friend reassure the House that the Government will work flat-out with their partners now to secure, first, an armistice that will stick and, secondly, a lasting peace agreement to stop the killing of children, above all?

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with my noble friend’s final point. Of course we share those sentiments; the children have suffered greatly. One million children have been displaced in this conflict. We are hoping that the transitional governing body established by the 2012 Geneva communiqué, which is to be agreed by mutual consent, would have full executive powers, including over security, military and intelligence structures. In terms of the actual format for the conference, another meeting is scheduled on 20 December and will be UN mediated. After that, the actual meeting, which takes place in January, will include the UN as the key mediator and single delegations from both the existing Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition.

My Lords, the Secretary-General’s announcement this week is good news, and the involvement of all relevant parties, including the Syrian national coalition, is obviously essential. However, 22 January is still eight weeks away and action on the humanitarian front is, as the Government agree, needed now. Will the Government renew their public support for our colleague and noble friend Lady Amos’s plea this week to all sides to agree to an immediate pause in hostilities in Muadhamiya and other suburbs of Damascus, so that agencies can have immediate and unhindered access to these areas, which have been under siege for many months now and where snipers are reported to be deliberately targeting pregnant women?

My Lords, of course the Government support the quest of the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, to ask all sides in the conflict, the existing regime and the opposition, to open all corridors, as they have previously agreed to do. We and all members of the P5—including the Russians, with the existing regime—keep imploring all sides that UN humanitarian relief must be taken in. As the noble Lord and the House will be aware, the UK is leading the way in humanitarian relief. Indeed, we have committed almost half a billion pounds to relieve the plight of refugees in the Syrian conflict.

My Lords, further to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, would the Government consider approaching those who will be attending the Geneva conference with the specific request that there should be a demand for a peace truce between now and the conference taking place, in an appropriate period over Christmas? Further, can the Minister say anything about the neighbouring countries of the Middle East? For example, will the Saudi Arabians be represented at this conference, and will Iran?

On the first part of my noble friend’s question, as I have said, at every point in time the British Government, the UN and everyone working on the ground and through political dialogue have been encouraging the opening up of humanitarian corridors and that peace and ceasefire prevail. We will continue to do that in the intervening period. On her point about who will be attending this conference, as I said, a meeting is scheduled on 20 December at which the agreement on the format of the meeting and who will be attending will be made. On her final point about Iran, of course we welcomed the decision made earlier this week. However, before any step forward, Iran must commit itself to the Geneva communiqué—which, as my noble friend knows, calls for a negotiated political settlement between the Assad regime and the opposition.

My Lords, is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government that President Assad will still be in office at the end of the process? We have heard about the negotiations in respect of participation, but is it also the Government’s view that on the immediate agenda of the meeting the position of the return of refugees will be included?

As the noble Lord will appreciate, it would be inappropriate for me to commit. I have already indicated that there is a meeting on 20 December at which the agenda for the 22 January talks will be determined. As for whether Bashar Assad will still be in office at the end of this process, I merely remind noble Lords that the Geneva communiqué calls for agreement to be reached by mutual consent. Our view is that, from their perspective on mutual consent, the opposition do not perceive that Bashar Assad will be part of that process at the end of it.

My Lords, much as I am encouraged by the recent UN announcement that the Geneva talks are to take place on 22 January, I would welcome the Minister’s reassurance that this was born not out of an understandable desperation and frustration, but that there is a real and clear diplomatic plan for progress. Am I right in assuming that the Free Syrian Army, which is one of the largest rebel groups taking part in the war in the moment, will be represented at those talks?

Our view is that it is important that the date for Geneva II was set, and I am the sure that the whole House welcomes that it has been determined. Her Majesty’s Government’s view is that the national coalition and the current Syrian national coalition, led by President Ahmad Assi Jarba, will be central to the delegation representing the opposition at the talks.

My Lords, sometimes in diplomacy we have to do things that we find unpalatable. While we wish the Geneva II talks well, they face formidable obstacles; they may not even take place. If they do, they will certainly not give us everything that we want. There has to be a plan B. Can my noble friend assure us that, as much as we find the Assad regime repulsive and reprehensible, there may be elements of it to which we need to continue to talk? The slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children is a shame on our world and we should leave no door permanently locked in our attempt to bring it to an end.

My Lords, on my noble friend’s final point, I am sure that the whole House shares that sentiment. There are 6.5 million internally displaced people. The UN estimates that by the end of this year there will be 3 million refugees. We should also look at the neighbouring countries. I visited the Zaatari camp in Jordan, which is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan. There is a desperate humanitarian crisis. We should all welcome the Geneva talks, as we all do. On my noble friend’s first point, Geneva II is the start of a process, not a single event. As he will appreciate, an agreement will take considerable time and effort. That is why it is important to have both the Syrian opposition and a delegation from the existing regime present. That, indeed, is going to happen.