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House of Lords Hansard
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09 May 2018
Volume 791

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to seek to prevent further fighting and loss of life in the Syrian province of Idlib.

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My Lords, we agree on the need to prevent a military assault by the Assad regime on Idlib, which would risk a humanitarian disaster. We have discussed the situation with Turkey and the United Nations, as the international actors best placed to facilitate dialogue and humanitarian assistance. We call on all parties to comply immediately with the ceasefire mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2401.

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I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that the situation in Idlib is potentially explosive because of the number of militants, including al-Nusra, who are already there? Is there an existing agreement between the regime, Turkey and Russia about that province? Will it be possible to transform any agreement into a permanent truce with disarmament, supervised by the United Nations?

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Taking the noble Lord’s second question first, the UN resolution provides for the very result he has alluded to. The United Nations has that basis, because it was a resolution that was passed by the Security Council with unanimity. He referred to agreements that may have been reached by the regime and other players within Idlib. That is not something that we would comment on, but I stress that one of the key players in that context is Russia, which is also a signatory to that UN Security Council resolution.

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My Lords, it is highly probable that Assad will remain in power after this bloody, brutal and long civil war. Is it not time for Her Majesty’s Government to have some diplomatic representation in Damascus and to be talking to people? For goodness’ sake, we talk to many people internationally whom we do not like. Surely what is important is peace.

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We can all relate to the final point of my noble friend. Sometimes we all have to talk to people we do not like. I accept that principle. In the context of Bashar al-Assad, the position of the Government is clear. We believe in a transition away from the Assad regime to bring about the kind of resolution we want to see in Syria, which is one of unity, keeping the country intact and ensuring there is proper representation. On his question about a diplomatic mission, I repeat an answer I have given consistently: we do not have any plans to open a mission in Damascus. Within the Geneva accords there are of course representatives of the Assad regime, and we continue discussions with them as part of the overall settlement we hope we can reach on Syria in Geneva.

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My Lords, the key element of this is establishing peace talks that have no preconditions, so we can get all the players around the table. Aside from that urgent need, we also have a situation in Idlib where the Syrian Government are saying that everyone is a terrorist. There are terrible crimes against humanity taking place because the civilian population, as a consequence of this war, has gone from 1.5 million to 2.6 million people. The people who are being bombed are the civilians, which is against international humanitarian law. How will we hold people to account for these terrible crimes?

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I agree with the noble Lord that what is required is a comprehensive settlement that has all partners around the table. I thank Her Majesty’s Opposition for also alluding to that. The need for the Geneva talks to succeed is important, because everyone is represented there. On his other point, again I agree totally with the noble Lord. We must ensure accountability for those who are perpetuating these crimes. As I have said before and say again, let us not forget who began this civil war and who has committed the atrocities that we currently see to their greatest extent in Syria. To accept that this person somehow has a future unifying role and representative voice—of course I refer to Bashar al-Assad—is not something I subscribe to. It is important that we see the transition we all desire in Syria.

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My Lords, we know that there are a number of militant groups active in Idlib, and that there have been recent reports of unexplained violence—car bombings and so on—within Idlib. Are the Government talking to some of those in the Gulf who have previously sponsored these groups, and to other Middle East countries, about what we do about the future of those militants now holed up in Idlib as part of moving towards a settlement? We know that, as with the remnants of al-Qaeda, those people are not going to change their mind very easily, and they have to be dealt with and resettled somewhere.

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As the noble Lord will know, one of the major extremist terrorist groups that has been operating in Syria is Daesh. In that regard, the universal coalition against Daesh of 70-plus countries has seen the defeat of that particular organisation. That sets the precedent for how you can defeat extremist and terrorist voices. I assure the noble Lord that we are speaking to all players within and across the region to ensure that we can reach the settlement that we all want to see.

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My Lords, this is a very difficult area, but what is the point in refusing to talk to the Assad regime? How on earth can we expect to have influence if we simply do nothing but throw bombs at them? We talked to Stalin, we talked to Mao Tse-Tung and we talked to Idi Amin, a man who kept human heads in his refrigerators. The art of diplomacy means dealing with some very difficult people over some very difficult issues. At the end of the day, salving our consciences should not be the main question—it is the ability to save as many lives as possible and restore stability to Syria as quickly as possible.

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I assure my noble friend that I agree with him on his final point—of course, that has been the intent of the Government consistently on Syria, in terms of the humanitarian support worth £2.71 billion that we have provided. On his first point, as I said earlier—and perhaps I should re-emphasise it—this is about a transition away from the Assad regime. However, his representatives are present in Geneva, which is why we need to ensure that, yes, his representatives, as well as those of the Syrian opposition and all international players, are heard in discussions, so that we can reach the resolution that we all want to see, which is peace and unity in Syria.