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Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the prospects for a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria that does not involve President Assad.

My Lords, the lack of progress made towards a negotiated settlement in Syria is deeply disappointing. While the opposition has confirmed its readiness for negotiations without preconditions, the Syrian regime has pursued its brutal military campaign and refused to engage seriously in talks. Only a political settlement can bring stability and peace to Syria. The United Kingdom will be pragmatic about the nature of that settlement and we will continue to support the UN process to achieve it.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Our Syria strategy—if we actually have one—is prolonging the civil war, when ending the civil war is the best thing for the poor, benighted people of that country. Our focus seems to have been, from day one, regime change: presumably, not to hand over to the hotchpotch of opposition forces, many of which are worse than Daesh. Our lack of a clear vision has resulted in Russia being the arbiter, massive Iranian participation, Hezbollah, the raising of Kurdish expectations and consequent problems with the Turks. Surely, our aim must now be to put a stop to the war as quickly as possible, accepting that the loathsome Assad is inevitably part of the equation.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that our aim must be to end this civil war as soon as possible. However, I assure all noble Lords that the Government have been and continue to be committed to the UN Geneva process, because it brings together all the Syrian parties required to ensure the stable settlement that we all desire. If we look at what Staffan de Mistura is actually presenting, a whole constitutional commission is proposed, which, yes, includes members of the Assad regime being present. The only reason why that meeting has not been held in Geneva since January is that the Assad regime refuses to engage. We implore Russia, and indeed Iran, to put on the utmost pressure to ensure that the regime takes part in those talks so we can achieve the lasting settlement that I know the noble Lord and all of us desire.

My Lords, why does Her Majesty’s Government’s policy—including funding armed groups and local councils affiliated to jihadists and maintaining a special forces presence in Syria, in breach of international law—demonstrate a commitment to removing President Assad, which can only help ISIS to recover territory? Surely, the priority must be to eliminate ISIS and related terrorist forces from Syria?

I agree with the noble Baroness that this is about eliminating ISIS, which is why the anti-Daesh coalition of 70-plus nations has managed to achieve that in Iraq. I have seen it at first hand myself. However, the perverse ideology of the hijacking of the noble faith remains. Therefore, we must prevent ISIS coming to the fore, not just in Iraq again—we must also eradicate it from Syria. However, I refute totally the allegation that the Government are supporting the regime. We are supporting organisations such as the White Helmets, which provide essential assistance, including sanitation and emergency health provision, to address the civilian population’s needs as a priority. That should be commended, not condemned.

My Lords, what discussions are the Government having with Russia and with President Erdoğan—who is here today—in engaging internationally with the Syrian peace process? What efforts are being made to de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Israel, which is so dangerous right now, in Syria?

The noble Baroness is quite right: Turkey is also a key player in Syria, as we have seen through its engagement in Syria. Wide-ranging talks between the President of Turkey and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be under way shortly and Syria will be discussed. The noble Baroness raises an important point about engaging with Russia. As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box, we continue to do so at the United Nations, because they remain an important player. On the engagement of Iran and Israel in Syria, we implore all sides to show restraint. As the noble Baroness knows, we remain committed to the nuclear deal because we believe that to be the best way of ensuring Iran’s continued engagement and of finding a resolution further afield.

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord West, when he says that President Assad is clearly going to be party to the negotiated settlement. I hope that we can avoid saying that individuals should be “held to account”. Although that may be morally and ethically right, it does encourage them to hang on.

We, and the international community, certainly do not want to encourage anyone we feel is not right for the process. Most importantly, anyone whom the Syrian civilians themselves feel cannot lead their country—it is, ultimately, their decision—should not hang on and we should not encourage him. As I have already said, we are not against the engagement of the Syrian regime, led by Bashar Assad, in the UN process, which all parties are signed up to. However, the fact is that they are not engaging in that process. We implore them, and anyone who has influence over the regime, to do so.

My Lords, one key thing is to keep stressing peace talks with no preconditions. That is the clear message that we need to hear from the Government. As the Secretary-General of the United Nations said, evidence shows that gaining territory and seeking to win this war militarily do not work. Will the Minister convey that message to all the parties concerned? Talking is the only way that we are going to achieve a lasting peace.

I agree with the noble Lord. That is why the UN’s efforts have been geared to talks without preconditions, and the opposition voices in Syria have subscribed to that. Equally, the door is open to the Assad regime to participate in those talks. A UN-agreed settlement must be the right way forward, not individual players working out whose interests are best served by the regime continuing. I again implore Russia, and indeed Iran, to do their utmost to ensure that the regime participates in those important talks.

My Lords, in 2002 I attended a reception at No. 10 for Bashar Assad and his wife. They had earlier met Her Majesty the Queen. He took in more than 1 million Sunni refugees from the war in Iraq and was considered an important strategic ally in the Middle East. When he looked like being toppled in the civil war, he suddenly became a monster and his Government a regime. Does the Minister agree that this sort of name calling, of someone who is in effective charge of the country, does nothing to help bring peace to the innocent people of Syria, who are suffering nightmare bombardment from the United States, the UK, Iran, Turkey, Russia, France, Israel and Assad himself?

The noble Lord partly answered his own question with the final point he made: “and Assad himself”. That is when he became the person we, the international community and the Syrian people themselves felt could no longer lead a Government. When you start attacking your own people and using chemical weapons against your own population—I can think of many words the press and others may use, but the fact is that we do not believe he is part of the future. Ultimately, it is for the Syrian civilian residents to decide themselves.