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Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reported statement by John Kerry, United States Secretary of State, that negotiations with President Assad of Syria must resume.

My Lords, the United States Government have been clear that their position has not changed. United Kingdom Ministers have said repeatedly that Assad has lost legitimacy, is part of the problem in tackling ISIL and cannot play a part in Syria’s future. Our aim remains a political settlement that will involve negotiation between the Syrian parties at the right moment.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former co-chairman of the British Syrian Society. I thank the Minister for her response. Does she recognise that if the Alawite regime were to collapse, terrible though it is, that would lead to the most appalling revenge killings and almost total anarchy? Who would emerge on top? It would probably be the most ruthless and most organised group—ISIL. In the light of Mr Kerry’s remarks—I realise that Washington is rowing back from them—is this not the beginning of an opportunity to review our policy on this tragic situation?

My Lords, we should remember that President Assad as, also, commander-in-chief of the Syrian forces, presided over the deaths of 200,000 of his own people. He has barrel-bombed them and used chemical weapons. Indeed, a recent report of 16 March suggests they have been used in Idlib. Assad is not the person with whom to negotiate for the solution. We are in negotiation with moderates. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green, that it is important that negotiations achieve a peaceful transition in line with the Geneva communiqué. It is that work in which we are engaged.

My Lords, however distasteful, should we not recognise that if a long-term solution is to be found to this tragic conflict, we will have to engage with President Assad in some way? In spite of the barrel bombs, the torture and the enormous loss of life, and with all his faults, Assad is marginally less bad than ISIL.

My Lords, I would not like to say that he is a lesser of two evils. He has shown that he is evil in himself. I will not try to calculate percentages of evil—that would be an affront to those whom he has been responsible for killing in Syria. However, the noble Lord has made a very strong point. With whom does one negotiate? I am aware when I go to the Human Rights Council in Geneva that Assad’s people are there. They are part of the furniture. They are part of those who negotiate on whether a human rights Motion on Syria is passed there and at the United Nations. Negotiation with Assad himself is not part of our proposals.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the United Nations report from last week: 210,000 dead, 840,000 injured, one-third of the country displaced and life expectancy down by 20%. Given that, is it not time to say to the Syrian opposition—who my noble friend mentioned she is in negotiation with—that they need to consider an end to this war? It is in its fifth year. The opposition did not attend the Moscow conference. Is it not time to hear the proposals not of Assad but of people who may be able to deliver a transitional government in which the Alawites are in some sense represented, if not by President Assad?

My Lords, my noble friend has a strong point. It is important that all those who are the moderate opposition engage in negotiations for a transition—a transition which cannot see Assad remaining in power. There have certainly been negotiations in Russia which were not attended by some of the opposition. It is important that Russia is able to continue to do responsible work in trying to bring people together. We will continue to talk to the national coalition, the umbrella organisation that represents the aspirations of many Syrians for a more democratic Government who are free from the tyranny of Assad.

My Lords, Stalin killed 5 million of his population, and yet we worked with him to defeat Hitler. Does not the Minister agree that ISIL, Daesh, or whatever we want to call it, is a far greater threat to stability in the region—and, indeed, to our country—than the Assad regime? Militarily, there is a lot to be said for working with him and then to look at dismantling the Assad regime after we have defeated the wolf closest to our sledge.

My Lords, would that Assad would join in slaying the wolf on his doorstep—indeed, within his house. As the Prime Minister has made clear, he is a recruiting agent for ISIL. He is the one who is barrel-bombing the moderates, while ISIL is allowed to flourish within Syria in Raqqa. That is no way for him to proceed.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that the Blair Government gave their great strength to the demolition of the regime in Iraq and the overthrow there. Now, this Government seem to be intent on overthrowing Assad, following the success of overthrowing the regime in Libya. Who has benefited in Libya or in Iraq from the overthrow of those rather unpleasant Governments and their replacement by something infinitely worse?

My Lords, it is important for all Governments, of whatever party they may be, to try to work for peace across the most troubled areas. Where there is good intent, there is not always an immediate good outcome. There is good intent now, we have agreement across the parties that we should proceed to seek peace, and that is what we shall do.

My Lords, the Minister has already referred to the reports of barrel bombs being dropped recently. Will she confirm that, although it is not illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention to possess chlorine, it is illegal and a breach of that convention to drop barrel bombs containing chlorine? What are the Government doing to lodge an inquiry under the Chemical Weapons Convention organisation against the Syrian Government?

My Lords, it will not surprise the House to learn that the noble Lord is right on the first point; he previously asked a question on this matter. With regard to his second point, I can say that on 6 March, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2209, which the UK co-sponsored. That Chapter 7 resolution condemns the continued use of chemical weapons and states that all those carrying out such attacks must be held to account. It is a matter of ensuring that there is no impunity in these matters.