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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 27 February 2007

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Lebanon and Syria

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

9.30 am

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Ind Lab): I am pleased to have this opportunity to debate UK relations with Lebanon and Syria. I applied for the debate because in early January I was a member of the Anglo Arab Organisation’s all-party delegation to Lebanon and Syria. The delegation was led by Lord David Steel and Jacques Santer, the former president of the European Commission, and organised by Mr. Nadhmi Auchi, the president of the Anglo Arab Organisation. The delegation included representatives of the Conservative and Labour parties, a Member of Parliament from Luxembourg and an Irish Senator.

The purpose of the visit was to meet representatives of the Lebanese and Syrian Governments, and to witness some of the destruction wreaked on Lebanon by the recent Israeli bombardment. Our aim was to become better informed about how the current situation looks from the perspective of people living in Lebanon and Syria. I welcome this debate because it provides an opportunity to report to Parliament on what we learned during the visit, and to press the UK Government to adopt a more balanced and constructive policy towards the middle east.

In Lebanon, we met the President, the Speaker of the Parliament and the Prime Minister. We also met many influential thinkers, journalists and representatives of the business community. We travelled to south Beirut and saw the terrible destruction wreaked by the Israeli bombardment on the area of Beirut occupied by Shi’a people.

In all our talks, leading figures were anxious that there should be a compromise in accordance with the constitution of Lebanon over the composition of the Government. Lebanon, which used to be a place of great prosperity, and which attracted visitors from all over the middle east and the world, has suffered badly from Israeli occupation and civil war. It was rebuilding and going forward but now, of course, the Israeli attacks have set it back again. People throughout the country were keen to be able to come together, to start to rebuild and to create better economic opportunities for the many who live in poverty.

A delegation of parliamentarians from Lebanon is attending this debate. They are extremely welcome, and I am sure that they have a variety of views about the situation in their country. My experience of that visit was that there is widespread criticism and resentment of US and French interference in the internal balance of Lebanese politics, and a deep anxiety that, following the withdrawal of the six-year representatives from the Government, a new Government should be formed that would prevent division and conflict from growing
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in Lebanon. The Prime Minister gave us a firm assurance that a compromise was likely to be reached soon, and I am sorry to note that that undertaking has not been fulfilled.

I ask the Minister to spell out UK policy on that question. Will the UK continue to echo US policy in Lebanon, as it did in its failure to call for an Israeli ceasefire? The US position appeared to be to allow the Israeli bombardment to continue in the hope of weakening Hezbollah. I recognise that the Minister made some careful remarks—when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, I believe—in which he expressed regret about the matter.

My view is that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon was overdue and welcome. It created a great opportunity for Lebanon to move forward. Obviously, inquiries must continue into the recent assassinations and those who were responsible, but it is wrong and counter-productive for the US and its allies to back Prime Minister Siniora in such a factional and unbalanced way and thus foster further division in Lebanon. I hope that the Minister will say that the UK policy is to support all people in Lebanon in coming together, forming a new Government and rebuilding their country.

From Beirut, we travelled south and saw the systematic and deliberate destruction of bridges throughout the country, and, as we got nearer to the southern border, whole villages that had been systematically targeted. On our journey south, we met with the senior representative of Hezbollah, who pointed out that in the last few days of the conflict, and even after the ceasefire had been negotiated, Israel dropped many cluster bombs which were still causing death and destruction.

In answer to a question from a member of our delegation about his attitude to the existence of Israel, the Hezbollah representative said that all Arab states made it clear in the Beirut declaration of 2002 that they would recognise Israel if it in turn would accept the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital, and if it would accept some settlement of the right of return question. He said that it was Israel and not the Arab Governments or the Palestinians who were unwilling to make peace. Of course, the Mecca agreement reinforces that possibility. He also made it clear that Hezbollah would not disarm, as its arms were required to prevent further Israeli incursions into Lebanon, but he also spelled out clearly that those arms would never be used in conflict of any kind with Lebanese people.

As we reached the southern border, we saw village after village that had been destroyed, but we noted that some Christian villages had been left completely intact because of careful Israeli targeting. It was clear that there was not widespread blanket bombing but carefully targeted destruction on a large scale. The villages that we visited, where we were greeted with warm and generous hospitality, had been occupied by Israel for many years. The people generally supported and praised those who had resisted Israel’s occupation and forced its withdrawal. Many pointed across the wire between Israel and Lebanon to the Golan heights, which is a Syrian territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967, and to the land known as the Beka’a
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farms, which is Lebanese territory that is still occupied by Israel and a cause of grievance between the two countries.

As I observed the wanton destruction, I again felt deeply ashamed of the refusal of the UK Government to call on Israel to cease its bombardment of Lebanon. I also reflected on the fact that Iraq is, I believe, still paying compensation for the damage that it caused during its invasion of Kuwait a long time ago. Israel has caused massive damage and destruction in Lebanon, but I have heard no one call on it to pay compensation for the destruction of properties and villages, and the infrastructure of the country. That is another example of the double standards in US and UK policy towards the middle east, and a further failure to require Israel to abide by and respect international law.

From south Lebanon, we went to Syria to meet the President, Foreign Minister, other Ministers and parliamentarians, the British ambassador and many others. The President lived for a long time in the UK. He is a charming and open man who, for a long time, was not going to be President and therefore took on the style of an ordinary western citizen. He is very popular in his country because he does not have a grandiose or fine-living style. He is keen to deliver significant reform in Syria, to open up the country and to improve the economic opportunities of the people, but he made it clear that the situation in the region made that difficult. Shortly after he took over, there was what has been called a “Damascus spring”—a sort of opening up. It is difficult to continue such reforms when there is such bitter division all around and organised extreme Islamist groups in the region.

The President stressed that the Syrian regime is secular and takes a tough line against Islamist insurgents, but that it was keen to work with others to help to stabilise the situation in Iraq. He deeply regretted the fact that the UK did not have, as he put it, an independent foreign policy. He said that, before Sir Nigel Sheinwald visited Syria for talks on behalf of our Prime Minister, he had been to Washington and that his view was that the UK could play a much more useful role if it had an independent policy, but sadly it did not and it continued to be a complete echo of US foreign policy.

We met, too, the UK ambassador, who pointed out that Syria had accepted large numbers of refugees from Iraq—nearly 1 million—including large numbers of Christians, members of an ancient Christian community that is now largely being displaced, and that refugees in Syria tended to be poorer than those who were admitted to Jordan. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made a plea for support for displaced people in Iraq and for those who have fled to Syria and Jordan. What has been the response to that appeal and what contribution has the UK made in general and, in particular, to support Syria in hosting large numbers of refugees from Iraq?

The Syrian Foreign Minister is a veteran of long years of middle east peace negotiations and talks with great authority and clarity about that history. He was consulted by the authors of the Iraq Study Group report and was supportive of its recommendations for
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progress in Iraq and the wider middle east. Will the Minister spell out firmly the UK Government’s attitude to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group? It set out, in my view, a clear way forward for Iraq that would lead to responsible withdrawal, but which involves giving up the aspiration for permanent long-term bases and for the domination of the country. It set out, too, a way forward for the wider middle east, calling for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with international law. It recommended asking Syria and Iran to help to stabilise Iraq and pointed out that if Syria is to be asked to co-operate in such a way a settlement is needed on the return of the Golan heights to Syria by Israel.

It was notable that, as reports were filtering out that the Iraq Study Group was likely to recommend that the US took part in much closer talks with Syria and Iran in order to try to help stabilise Iraq, we were told that the Prime Minister was strongly of the view that that was the right policy and that that was the policy that he advocated when he was consulted by the study group. When President Bush put the whole report to one side and failed, it seems, to accept it or to implement its recommendations, the UK voice went quiet. I would be keen to hear from the Minister the view of Her Majesty’s Government on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. I press him to explain why the UK Government continue to humiliate our country by acting as an echo of US foreign policy rather than adopting an independent and more constructive role.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): First, I want to apologise to the right hon. Lady for being unable to stay for the whole of her debate, as I have to attend a Public Bill Committee on the UK Borders Bill. I would be interested in her comments on the nature of the relationship between Iran and Syria, and in what she was able to glean in Syria about the nature of the relationship between the Syrians, with a secular Government who are quite hostile to Islamists and Islamism, in headline terms, and Iran. Will she reflect on what we ought to do to try perhaps to weaken those links?

Clare Short: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is an issue that I should have covered. The President of Syria spelled out clearly that Syria had secular government, while Iran clearly did not, and that they are different kinds of Governments. He said in his analysis of the system in the middle east, “We live in this region. We have to have strong relationships with our neighbours. We nurture a relationship with Iran because it is a neighbour of ours and we would very much like to see a settlement in the whole region.”

Discussion by commentators on the middle east always tries to highlight Syria and Iran as interfering in Iraq and as a destructive influence. The President pointed out that the US, the UK and others came from a long way away, but that the Syrians live in the region and have to have relationships with all the Governments of their region. My view is that the game of divide and rule, and of blaming Iran and Syria for problems in Iraq, is merely about creating scapegoats. It gets us nowhere and prolongs the tension and conflict in the region.

I applaud the findings of the Iraq Study Group, which are not written in headline-grabbing terms. The
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focus was on how the US could extricate itself from Iraq, but the report contains a plan for a peaceful settlement for the whole region, including Israel and Palestine. Iran will almost inevitably seek to acquire nuclear weapons. I am well aware that the Government of Iran say that that is not their intention, and that they simply want civil nuclear power, which they are permitted to have under the non-proliferation agreement. However, Iran is in a dangerous region with Israel, with nuclear weapons undoubtedly targeted at Iran. We need only look at what happened with Israel, which pretended that it was getting civil nuclear power when it was going for weaponry and was permitted to do so by the west; the same happened with India and Pakistan. We will not stop that proliferation unless we get a peace settlement in the middle east that includes an agreement that all weapons of mass destruction should be removed from the region. I think that that is the formal policy of the US and the UK, although we hear little about it.

The vilification of Iran and separating Iran from Syria should not be the objective of our policy. Our policy should be to support a Government in Lebanon who help the country to come together, to rebuild and to stand against Israeli attempts to manipulate and to divide people in that country. Our policy should be to get Iran and Syria to help to stabilise Iraq and to drive on with a settlement in Israel and Palestine and with an agreement to remove all weapons of mass destruction from the region. I do not think that there is any prospect of that in the short term. However, I do not think that there will be peace until such an agreement is made. I feel pessimistic in the short term about the situation in the middle east, but after this President of the United States ends his period in office, perhaps the next President, whoever that may be, will see the trouble that the United States is in in the region, will look back at the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and will start to implement them.

I would love our Government, instead of waiting for a change in US foreign policy, to strike out in that direction and to seek to have better relationships with Governments throughout the region, particularly those of Lebanon and Syria. I would love them to build on the Mecca agreement, which has brought to an end the conflict between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, bring back funding support for the Government of the Palestinians, and work for a proper peace.

We have been told repeatedly that our Prime Minister wants to promote peace between Palestine and Israel before leaving office in a few months’ time. We have been told, too, that he wants to negotiate a new treaty to replace Kyoto and to complete the Doha round of trade talks that are meant to improve the trading opportunities of developing countries. It is extraordinary that he should think that he could achieve such a thing in a few months; indeed, it is delusional. However, it seems to me that the Prime Minister and the Government—and whoever takes over from our Prime Minister, and successive Governments—will not be able to contribute to the finding of peace in the middle east if they are not willing to adopt a more independent view; and a good place to start is to review our relations with Lebanon and Syria.

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Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I am listening carefully to the right hon. Lady’s comments. I know that she was part of a delegation that recently visited Lebanon and Syria. Before she concludes her remarks, will she say whether aid is getting through to the south of Lebanon? I visited the country with a delegation some months ago. It was not getting through then, and a great deal of concern was expressed in the south about who was responsible for that failure. What was her experience more recently?

Clare Short: I cannot answer my hon. Friend authoritatively, in that I did not do an extensive survey, but comments were made to us. We met some of the United Nations peacekeepers who were deployed down on the border, and people were saying that the only help that they were getting was from Gulf states; they were not aware of help coming from other parts of the world. As I said earlier—I do not know whether he was here at the time—it seems to me that Israel should be compensating the people of Lebanon for the destruction that has been done there. Israel has breached international law, and it should be held to account. It is shameful that no such serious proposition has been put before the international community.

Whether funding is available that is not getting through, or whether it is not properly available, I am not sure, but I noticed that, in the Paris pledging conference for the rebuilding of Lebanon, conditions were imposed about the funding only going through the Prime Minister’s office. It seems to me that that will inflame the divisions, and it will not help anyone in Lebanon. One of my strongest arguments is that all responsible Governments, including ours, should work with everyone in Lebanon to try to bring people together to help to rebuild the country and to end the sort of divisions that have caused so much destruction, rather than supporting one faction within a divided Government who are unable to rebuild the country as their people would wish.

As I was saying, I hope that our Government will make it clear that we do not support the divisive and unbalanced policy of the US and France in backing the Lebanese Prime Minister’s office against other parties—parties that need to come together to form a Government to conserve the interests of Lebanon. In the case of Syria, I believe that we should strengthen our relations and challenge the US vilification of Syria and the Syrian regime.

As I made clear, I hope that we will wholeheartedly and actively support the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to bring about a properly organised end to the occupation of Iraq and a peace settlement throughout the middle east, particularly over Israel and Palestine.

My fear is that the Israeli Government have no intention of honouring international law or agreeing a settlement on the 1967 boundaries, with east Jerusalem as the capital of the new Palestinian state, and some sensible negotiation on the right of return. It is clear that Israel is expanding its boundaries, establishing more and more settlements and seeking to confine the Palestinian people to a series of Bantustans that do not constitute a state.

Sadly, I fear that conflict will continue in the region for a long time to come. It will cause enormous
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suffering and endanger international law, and it will harm the capacity of the international community to reach agreement about crucial issues such as climate change that threaten the future of the whole of human civilisation. There is no simple short-term answer, because US policy is so skewed. I appeal to the Minister, please, to bring forward a more independent UK foreign policy, so that we can be a more constructive and just player in looking for a just and long-term peace in the middle east.

9.55 am

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing this important debate. My brief remarks will fall into two sections. I shall concentrate on the terms of an all-party early-day motion on Syria that I intend to table later today, but I shall also say a few words about Lebanon.

One of the highlights of my parliamentary career will take place on Thursday, when a delegation from Lebanon, which is here under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, will visit my constituency of Selby. I thought that only big metropolitan areas hosted such delegations, so I am really pleased that the delegation will be coming to the heart of middle England to speak to students in Selby, to visit various industrial sites and to meet local representatives.

In my visit to Lebanon, I saw something of the country’s potential. If a lasting peace could be achieved, the economic potential of Lebanon would be almost unbounded. It could once again become a prosperous area of the middle east. However, I shall concentrate first on the early-day motion on Syria that I intend to table later today. The early-day motion will call for talks at a ministerial level between the Syrian Government, the British Government and the Governments of European Union member states. I can think of no better person than my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, with his robust style, to undertake such talks, because they will be challenging.

The Syrian Government will have to confront various issues. In parliamentary answers to me and others, my hon. Friend has raised the issues of the so-called facilitation networks and of full Syrian co-operation with the investigation into various political assassinations in Lebanon, including the tragic death of its Prime Minister. There is much to challenge Syria, but there are also many opportunities. If we can hold talks and ultimately reach agreement with Libya, with which our relations were, perhaps, even more difficult, I fail to see why we cannot make an effort to normalise relations with Syria, especially because the prize is so great.

I have been following the contributions to debates in the House by politicians who are far more eminent than me, and it is interesting to note that there has been a movement in recent weeks. My North Yorkshire neighbour, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, has returned to the issue time and time again, pointing out the recommendation of the Iraq study group that an Iraq international support group should be formed, which would actively enter diplomatic dialogue with Syria.

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