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Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

My Lords, I welcome the restoration of the cessation of hostilities that began at sunset yesterday. The Government urge all parties to support and comply with the cessation. In particular, the regime and its backers must end air strikes against civilians and moderate groups and enable full humanitarian access. The Government will remain vigilant to violations of the agreement but hope that it marks the turning of a page leading to a political settlement.

My Lords, this is clearly a bilateral US-Russian accord. What is the British contribution to ensuring that this moves beyond the initial ceasefire into humanitarian aid and positive diplomacy? Do we expect that RAF aircraft from Cyprus will play a role in monitoring who is using Syrian airspace during the ceasefire and in providing the humanitarian aid that is so desperately needed? Do we expect that British diplomats will be actively engaged with other interested states, particularly Turkey and Iran as key actors, in trying to move from ceasefire into positive negotiations?

As the noble Lord will be aware, there has been enduring activity, diplomacy and engagement by the United Kingdom Government, and that will continue. On the specific issue that he raises, I would observe that the Foreign Secretary issued a statement welcoming the announcement of the cessation and calling on all parties to support the deal.

In relation to air strikes, as he is aware, the United Kingdom has made air strikes against Daesh in the context of the global coalition. Our relationship with that coalition continues but, along with all parties to the coalition, we will be watching closely how the ceasefire proceeds, in the particular hope that it will remain stable and enduring so that further progress can then be made, as outlined in the agreement between the United States and Russia.

My Lords, obviously the ceasefire provides an opportunity for a political process but, as we have heard, it is also a window of opportunity to provide humanitarian aid. What immediate steps is the Minister’s department taking, with the MoD and DfID, to ensure that all NGOs, including the United Nations, are fully able to use that window of opportunity to ensure that aid is there when the roads and airspace are open?

We have as a Government been active in our endeavours to support the provision of humanitarian aid. The noble Lord will be aware of the very extensive resource that has been allocated to that by the United Kingdom Government. We are in a sensitive and delicate period. The unanimous hope is that the ceasefire will work and continue. That is necessary to allow some form of planning for what might then be possible. I say to the noble Lord that an important component of the agreement achieved between the United States and Russia is that humanitarian access is provided, and the regime in particular has been forcefully reminded of the need to co-operate in that endeavour.

My Lords, with regard to the ultimate political solution that the Minister referred to in her first Answer, it is only appropriate to regard the leadership and governance of Syria as a matter entirely for the Syrian people, and therefore to ignore the calls for President Assad’s removal as a precondition for negotiations that one occasionally hears from Saudi Arabia, and indeed to some extent the United States, just as one hears opposition to that from Iran and the Soviet Union.

United Kingdom policy in Syria is to support a political transition away from the Assad regime. The UK considers that that is the only way to bring peace to Syria and establish a stable and inclusive Government, with whom we as a Government can work to combat terrorism. That movement towards a change of regime is further down the line, and very important steps have to be both taken and implemented in the interim.

My Lords, as the Minister has confirmed that the ceasefire will not extend to Daesh, what contingency planning is in place for the liberation for Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria for when they fall and the diverse communities that populated them previously, who have been ethnically cleansed and subjected to genocide, have the opportunity to return to their homes? What plans have been made for the restitution of their property, the places where they lived and their businesses, and for the re-creation of those diverse communities in places that have fallen to sectarian violence?

The noble Lord asks a broad question—broader, I think, than envisaged in the original Question from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace. What I can say is that tackling terrorist groups operating in Syria remains a priority for the Government. If the cessation of hostilities endures for seven consecutive days, it is intended that a US-Russia joint implementation centre will be established to co-ordinate strikes against the al-Nusra Front and Daesh. For the moment, we must focus on our unanimous desire for the ceasefire to work and a cessation of hostilities. Something meaningful can then be constructed on the basis of that.

My Lords, in considering a possible role for President Assad, will Her Majesty’s Government take account of the fact that he has presided over the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons—weapons which are essentially of indiscriminate destruction? In those circumstances, I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will give careful attention to the extent to which he may be thought to be a suitable part of any lasting peace settlement.

I say to the noble Lord that the Assad regime is responsible for the crisis in Syria. More than 400,000 Syrians have died so that Assad can hold on to power. The tactics of his regime include, in my opinion, appalling conduct: sieges, chemical attacks and indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas. That is why the United Kingdom Government consider that President Assad cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria. He must step down to enable a credible political transition.

Does the noble Baroness agree that only time will tell whether this is indeed a positive turning of the page, with humanitarian access, as she said? Rather, it may be seen as the consolidation of the Assad regime and an indication that Russia has achieved its long-term aim of being a power broker in the Middle East.

All I can say in response to the noble Lord’s question is that this deal, this agreement, has been universally welcomed. It is a start to what we hope is something better. We have all observed with desperate concern the appalling plight of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria. All I can say to the noble Lord is that it is a start and, as I said in response to an earlier question, it is a foundation on which, if enduring, we can build. The future we want is a transformation of Syria into a modernised, peaceful, stable country where citizens feel safe and free.

I challenge the noble Baroness’s statement that Assad must stand down, stated in advance. There is no question but that he is a barbaric dictator, one who has acted unspeakably, but Northern Ireland, among other experiences, shows that you do not set preconditions for negotiations: if you do, they never occur. Why would the Government of Syria come to the negotiating table if a precondition from the UK and others was that their president could not continue?

I did not say he should stand down now; I said that the United Kingdom Government’s view has been consistent: we do not consider that he can be part of the long-term future in Syria. It is important that he contemplates stepping down to create a credible political transition. With his presence, there is a distracting and potentially divisive influence that will hardly be conducive to achieving the peace and stability which everyone wants for the citizens of Syria.

My Lords, we all recognise that the humanitarian situation in Syria is absolutely desperate and that people are starving. Can my noble friend reassure us that plans are being put in place for aid to get into the grass roots—the women and children who are holed up in various places—as soon as possible? Do they include sending aid and relief up to the Kurdish areas, which are also suffering terribly? Many IDPs have fled up there, and I understand that they have had little relief in those areas.

I can only repeat to my noble friend that the enduring part of the agreement which has just been reached between Russia and the United States involves access for humanitarian purposes, and that is essential.