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Volume 785: debated on Thursday 19 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon on 20 September (HL1251), how much of the nearly £200 million provided to moderate opposition groups in Syria was for political support; and what was the nature of that assistance.

My Lords, of the £200 million spent in Syria since 2011, £14 million has been used to fund political support to the Syrian opposition. This funding has developed the operational capacity of the Syrian national coalition and the higher negotiations committee through diplomatic technical assistance, communications and advisory support, as well as media training.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. This week has seen the fall of Raqqa, a major development in Syria, so will the Government now stop their ineffectual meddling in the affairs of Syria, wasting £1 million a week of taxpayers’ money, and focus on the defeat of ISIL, which is our real enemy? When will they realise that although the present regime is terrible, any likely alternative will be even for worse for minorities, for Christians and for women? In these new circumstances, will they now have a proper, fundamental review of their policy towards Syria?

My Lords, first, we all welcome the inroads that have been made towards the defeat of Daesh. While there are reports that that has happened completely in Raqqa, that is not quite the case, but when it does happen, I assure the House that we will make a statement to that effect. I think I speak for everyone in this Chamber when I say that we welcome the fact that Daesh has been heavily defeated not just in Syria but in Iraq. On the noble Lord’s second point on minorities—I believe he was referring to the Assad regime and the Government’s stance—let us not forget that it was the Assad regime that first attacked minorities, particularly minorities in Aleppo. That fact should not be lost on anyone.

My Lords, what conditions are we and the wider EU putting on reconstruction aid to Syria so that we can strongly encourage political reform and help ensure safety if refugees wish to return home?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. Half the population of Syria has been displaced and 400,000 people have lost their lives. We are committed to ensuring that there is a political settlement to provide the framework and the stability for long-term development in terms of restructuring and aiding the country to stand on its feet once again. Through CSSF funding within the Foreign Office, we have been providing basic support in sanitation, water supplies and the building of roads so that those first steps can be taken in the areas of Syria that are no longer under Daesh administration.

My Lords, if the Government gave £200 million to opposition groups and only £14 million or £40 million—I did not quite catch which it was—was for political support, what on earth was the rest for?

I partly answered that question in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. The £14 million was specifically in terms of political support. I referred to the negotiations committee, where the opposition are at the UN and at the Geneva talks, and money has been spent on ensuring that they have the skill sets to take part in those negotiations. Other examples include £39 million having been spent on roads, water supplies and sanitation. That is where the overall £200 million pot is being spent. I will write to the noble Lord with a specific breakdown, but it is very much about assisting the coalition of the Syrian opposition both to stand on its feet internationally and to start rebuilding the country locally.

My Lords, we should not forget that the situation in Syria has seen terrible crimes against humanity on all sides, including the government side. Will the Minister repeat Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to hold these people to account and ensure that money is spent to ensure that there is proper evidence so that these people can be brought to justice?

I totally concur with the noble Lord’s sentiments. I assure him that he is right: this is not just about Daesh, although I am pleased that at the UN recently we passed a resolution in the Security Council that was all about holding to account those who committed these heinous crimes against humanity and wore the name of Daesh in committing their actions, which bear no resemblance to any humanitarian act. Regarding the Syrian regime, as the noble Lord knows, we are supportive of all resolutions. That is why we also take the strong stance that while the Assad regime is in place there can be no long-term political settlement of the situation. Let us not forget who created the crisis in the first place.

My Lords, why do Her Majesty’s Government not recognise that Assad is not going anywhere and that the Syria that he holds is growing back almost to the boundaries it had before? Against that background, does my noble friend really think that British taxpayers want £14 million to be spent on supporting the so-called opposition? Surely it would have been better spent on fuel poverty.

My noble friend perhaps mixes two issues. I think that all these issues are of equal importance. We have just heard from him about the importance of addressing fuel poverty. Equally, I think I speak for many in this House when I say it is right that we stand up for the oppressed of Syria and support the opposition forces because it is they, not Bashar al-Assad, who hold the key to the future development of all communities in Syria, including all minority communities.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I was in Syria I met representatives of civil society, including the Syrian doctors’ society in Aleppo, and there was great concern over the disastrous impact of sanctions which prevent the provision of essential medical supplies as well as food? Will Her Majesty’s Government change their priorities from providing massive financial support to opposition groups, which are not moderate, to making every effort to achieve the lifting of sanctions?

The sanctions that the noble Baroness mentions apply specifically to the regime. Equally, she will be aware, as I am sure is the whole House, that we stand second in terms of the humanitarian assistance that we are providing to all groups: more than £700 million has been given to people in Syria on the humanitarian front and £800 million has been allocated elsewhere in neighbouring countries, while a further £1 billion remains to be allocated. Our commitment to assisting the humanitarian recovery in Syria is second only to one.