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Syria: President al-Assad

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by the Foreign Secretary before the Select Committee on International Relations on 26 January, whether it is their policy that President Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to run for re-election in the event of a peace settlement in Syria.

My Lords, our long-standing position is that there can be no sustainable peace in Syria while Assad remains in power. He is incapable of uniting the country because of his military campaign against political opposition. Syria needs a transition to a new, inclusive, non-sectarian Government to achieve the credible political settlement that will bring long-term stability. This is set out in the Geneva communiqué and endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

My Lords, of course I thank my noble friend for that Answer but, in the light of the evidence given last week to the committee of my noble friend Lord Howell—I am so glad to see him back—I am somewhat disappointed. Could we not have a new, realistic approach, recognising that we cannot remove Assad? In the words of the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was here a few weeks ago, he should be a candidate in any election. Far be it for me to suggest that, if he wins, he would be invited on a second state visit—but should we not establish diplomatic representation in Damascus and be at the centre, so that when peace is eventually restored we will have played a constructive part in restoring it?

My Lords, we are taking a lead in the constructive discussions for resolving what is an appalling situation across Syria—a situation where, at the last election, the only opposition opponent to Assad felt it necessary at the last moment to encourage everybody in the country to vote for Assad rather than himself as a candidate. Assad has shown that he is incapable of protecting his own people, but I agree with my noble friend that we should not dictate an outcome. What we are saying is that Assad has not proved that he can bring peace to the country. We are leading the way in the Syria Support Group of the United Nations in trying to ensure that there can be a position where the Syrian people decide the next steps. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said when he appeared before the committee of my noble friend Lord Howell, whom I am delighted to see today:

“I would hope that it would be possible to have a plebiscite or an election, properly supervised by the UN, in which all the 11 million displaced persons, including the 4 million who are now outside Syria, are fully entitled to vote”.

My Lords, we are a long way off the pathway to peace, but one principle—which I know the noble Baroness shares strongly—that we need to make clear in following that pathway is that there is no impunity and that people who are responsible for crimes against humanity are held responsible, come what may.

That is absolutely right and we will continue to take forward work with the United Nations and our allies to find a way in which those who have committed appalling crimes can be brought to justice. In particular, we are continuing to invest money in providing a way in which robust evidence that would stand up in the case of prosecutions can be collected and stored—and I pay tribute to the brave people who are collecting that evidence.

My Lords, in view of a rather more positive interpretation of what the Foreign Secretary told the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, can the Minister tell us whether the Foreign Office is considering any installation of a diplomatic presence in Damascus?

My Lords, certainly not. We have found in the past that Assad is an unreliable person in the dealings we have had with him. It would not be appropriate to show that we trust him in any way, because he is not to be trusted.

My Lords, if the Foreign Secretary is shifting his position on Syrian elections, does the Minister agree that there needs to be a constitutional agreement to restrict current autocratic powers and, therefore, are we supporting Syrian civil society organisations and others in drafting such changes?

My Lords, I repeat that our position and policy have not changed. What the Foreign Secretary was trying to say, in his inimitable manner, to the Select Committee is that in the real world it is for the Syrians to decide. It is their decision; it is not for us to impose a solution on them. That has been our position throughout. With regard to the shape of any constitution, we would not wish to dictate that. It is for the Syrian people to be given an opportunity to discuss how that may be achieved.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I agree with her very much that it is not for us to decide who should be the President of Syria? But surely, once we take the step of saying who should not be the President, we are in effect transgressing against that very good principle that she just set out.

My Lords, I said that President Assad has shown that he cannot be trusted. He has led to the deaths of something like 400,000 of his own people, has put tens of thousands in detention— I have met some of those who have experienced torture at the hands of people there—and has failed to provide a secure future for his country without the air power of countries such as Iran and Russia. That is somebody whom we do not see as being capable of providing a political solution and providing peace. However, what we are doing, and continue to do, through the UN Geneva process is to provide the opportunity for the Syrians to decide this matter. Whatever our view is, it is for the Syrians to decide.

My Lords, is not the very problem with our foreign policy that, to use our own phrase, we have tried to dictate what should happen, not having learned the lessons from Northern Ireland that you do not impose preconditions when trying to resolve a conflict? To demand at the beginning with a bit of bombast and bluster that Assad must go—he was never going to—then say that he should stay for only six months, and now say that he cannot stand for re-election, is a failed strategy which is contributing to a disastrous catastrophe. Why do the Government not change course and recognise that he has to be negotiated with and a transition agreed?

My Lords, the noble Lord has interpreted what has been said in a way that is not accurate. Throughout this process we have always stressed that it is for the Syrians to decide this matter. We have also said that Assad cannot be trusted. That has been proven by his past relationship with us. The peace process is one in which the opposition groups need to come together in security to discuss the future. The Syrian Government have, of course, been part of that process. That is the objective of the UN procedure. That is why the Geneva process, which we hope and expect will be reconvened by Staffan de Mistura later this month, provides an opportunity for the future. As I said, it is not for us to dictate. We have said that we do not think Assad can lead the country to a peaceful future. The Syrians need to have a chance to decide that for themselves. That is what we are trying to provide.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that a considerable number of people in the government-held areas are supportive of President Assad? That includes the minorities, including Christians, and a lot of women who have had far more opportunities under the regime in Syria than elsewhere in the Middle East. Do the Government recognise—this is the key point on which I entirely agree with the noble Lord—that the collapse of this regime would lead to the most terrible revenge killing throughout Syria? We cannot allow that. We should keep our fingers out.

My Lords, where I entirely agree with the noble Lord is that nobody wants to see the collapse of the country. Whether it is the collapse of the regime by negotiated means is a different matter. But, as I stressed, the important thing is for the international community to give the Syrian people the opportunity not just to come together as they are doing at the moment, meeting in separate rooms in the same city, but ultimately to meet in the same room and come to a peaceful conclusion.