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The Prime Minister sent his envoy to Syria last autumn, and I have noticed a change in my right hon. Friend’s tone in recent weeks. He said in the House last week that there are signs that Syria is prepared to help. That is true; there are signs that Syria would be prepared to open serious talks with Israel, and that Israeli society and Israeli academics would welcome such an approach. However, the feeling is that American pressure is constraining such serious talks.

Equally, there are signs of tremendous potential in relations between Iraq and Syria, and I note that the visit by Iraqi President Talabani to Syria was a long one. In the final declaration following that visit, the two parties stressed their determination to work jointly and to do everything to fight and uproot terror. Having spoken to our diplomatic representatives and others in Syria, the general assessment is that there had been a change in attitude in the Syrian regime and that considerable efforts were being made to secure the border and to achieve security co-operation with the Iraqi regime. Like many hon. Members, I have constituents serving in Iraq, and, as we draw down forces over the next few months, we have a responsibility to do everything possible to ensure their continuing safety. Serious talks with the Syrian regime would undoubtedly help that process.

As the right hon. Lady has pointed out, Syria is a secular regime with a proud tradition of religious toleration, which is to be welcomed. There is a strong Christian community in Syria. The Damascus spring has been referred to, and there are big human rights issues in Syria that need to be confronted. There are also economic pressures on Syria—for example, the oil industry is in decline. Syria needs to open out once again to the world, but it needs to be encouraged to do so. That is why, later today, I will table a modest motion calling for discussions at a ministerial level to begin between the UK and Syria, perhaps under the umbrella of the European Union. There would be much support for that among American politicians from across the political divide. Such discussions will inevitably happen as the months go by, and we could lead such a process.

Many parts of Syrian culture are rich. It has often been called the cradle of civilisation, and it has a great history. There is much economic and tourism potential in Syria. Whatever level hon. Members are at, we can only do what we can in Parliament. One of my proudest achievements is chairing the all-party beer group—one of the many things that we have in common with Syrian people is a love of beer. I will be organising an event under the auspices of the all-party beer group to highlight the rich tradition of Syrian beer. We will obviously invite the Minister to that event, which will be a small contribution to improving links between our nation and Syria. In the same way that tremendous strides have been made with Libya, I look forward, over the coming years, to similar strides being made in our relations with Syria, so that it can once again play a full part in the international community.

10.2 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I join my colleagues in congratulating the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing this debate. One of my great sadnesses is that she now
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sits on the Independent Benches rather than with the Government. This is a timely debate, because now and over the next few days, we have a high-level delegation from the Lebanon present in this country. I am saddened that no more hon. Members are present this morning as it is certainly an extremely important debate to have at this time.

I had lunch with the delegation yesterday and we talked about the current situation in the Lebanon. The country has many great attributes, which I will not go into, but one of its great misfortunes is that it is afflicted with reflecting the wider conflicts in the middle east. When the delegation was asked what Britain and the international community could do to help resolve the conflict in Lebanon, the inevitable answer was to resolve the wider conflicts in the middle east, which play out incessantly in Lebanon itself. Undoubtedly, proxy-conflicts that have happened in Lebanon have involved one side lining up with the west and the other side lining up with Syria and Iran. It has been impossible to find a sensible and peaceful way forward to reunite the different communities in Lebanon and to ensure that it can have—as it has not had for the last 40 years—a peaceful future leading to improvements in the country.

Whenever I go to Lebanon, the people speak positively about the confessional system that they employ, but that system has a number of weaknesses in the current circumstances. On the Taif agreements, the disposition of the Lebanese Parliament was evenly split broadly between the pro-western and the pro-Arab communities. It is difficult to see a way in which that could be used to find reconciliation within the country. When I visited the country some months ago, we talked to the different players and blocs in the Parliament. During those discussions, it was clear that everyone understood the necessity to continue a national dialogue, but it has proven almost impossible for that to reap any real results and bring the two sides together. Indeed, one of the consequences of the failure of the national dialogue is conflict on the streets of Lebanon. Although, to the relief of everyone, both sides drew back from an intensification of that conflict, genuine concern was felt among the friends of Lebanon in this country and internationally. It was an extremely difficult situation that called for cool heads and rational discussion to prevent those involved finding themselves on a declining slope towards some of the difficulties that Lebanon has faced in previous years.

A stand-off such as the current one in Lebanon ratchets up tension, and although representatives from both sides have stated that they want everyone to act coolly and sensibly, it has not been possible to chart a way forward. The stand-off involves the Prime Minister on one side and the President on the other, who refuse to engage in dialogue. In addition, the leader of the Parliament refuses to bring the Parliament together to discuss some of the issues that face Lebanon. I agree with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood that by vocally and publicly supporting one side or the other, the international community does not help resolve the inherent conflicts. There have recently been incidents on the blue line between Israel and Lebanon. A number of atrocities have also recently taken place—particularly the bomb
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on a bus that killed a significant number of people. Such incidents raise concerns among the friends of Lebanon. We need to find and chart a way forward that will begin to find, if not a solution, at least a modus operandi between all sides in the political system to reduce current tensions in the country.

I will briefly comment on a number of related issues and ask the Minister to respond to some questions, some of which may have already been asked. The implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 is a critical issue that is currently being considered in Lebanon. The resolution provides a framework for a permanent ceasefire and would lead us towards reconciliation not just in Lebanon, but in the wider context. Bringing forces together to try and reduce tension in the wider context would help move things forward in Lebanon. Resolution 1701 is critical to that.

Israeli planes are still overflying Lebanese airspace. That is a flagrant breach not only of resolution 1701, but of all international law. Of course, that inflames public opinion in Lebanon, and for no useful purpose, because it is well known that the information that the Israelis claim that they obtain from those overflights can be more accurately determined by other means. Therefore, the question that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, as I did in the previous debate, is: what action are the Government taking through international channels such as the UN to try to get the Israelis to desist from that practice, which helps no one and continues to inflame the situation between Israel and Lebanon?

As I have mentioned, there was an incident on, I think, 8 February between Lebanese and Israeli forces at the blue line. Fortunately, UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—managed to resolve some of the issues and has put into practice changes that we hope will preclude such an incident happening again, but we need to begin to resolve the existing border dispute, which leads to such incidents. The Shebaa farms is a small area that is of no consequence militarily or economically. The UN has done some work on delineating the area and whom it potentially belongs to, but we need to move that situation forward much more quickly to resolve the border issue and reduce the tensions on both sides. What efforts are the Government making to try to push forward the agenda in relation to the border and particularly Shebaa farms?

The French President suggested recently that some UN forces may be moved to the Lebanese-Syrian border, rather than deployed in the south of country in relation to the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Syrians look on that as a provocation, and it is not, I suspect, a useful way forward at present. I ask the Minister what discussions are being held as to whether it is appropriate in the circumstances for UN troops to be deployed in that way, as it appears that that will do nothing to improve relations between the Lebanese Government and the Syrian authorities.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I do not quite understand the question, because my last information was that troops of the Lebanese Government, not UN troops, were deployed along the border. Is my hon. Friend talking about the Syrian border, the Israeli border or both?

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Mr. Love: I am talking in this instance about the Syrian border. The BBC reported some days ago that President Chirac had suggested that it was possible that UN forces would be deployed at the Syrian border. I am well aware that Lebanese troops are deployed there, which seems sensible. In the current circumstances, with everyone in this Chamber recognising the need for a dialogue with Syria, to locate UN troops at the border with Syria would be a provocation and would not assist in developing such a dialogue. Therefore, I ask the Minister, if it is possible in international discussions, that we dissuade the French, if they do want to pursue that matter, from pursuing it at present.

When I was in Lebanon not so long ago, the problem of cluster bombs was still very significant in the south of the country. Well over 1 million bombs were being painstakingly drawn up and exploded so that normal economic activity could start and people could return to their homes. That is a very slow process. The Government have been giving more money recently, so will the Minister to update us on the support that the United Kingdom has given to eliminating the cluster bomb problem in the south of Lebanon?

The next issue that I want to consider is UNIFIL, because there have been a number of incidents in recent weeks. Spanish troops were threatened in the south, and when French troops were deployed, the local community—a predominantly Shi’a community—were not best pleased and asked them to leave. The only reason why I raise those two very minor incidents is that the position of UNIFIL and the trust that the Lebanese community has in the role that UNIFIL plays are, in my view, critical to finding a way forward, yet we know that the activities of UNIFIL before the Israeli incursion last summer left it in a difficult position, because it was felt widely in Lebanon that it had not fulfilled its remit. This UNIFIL force has—I will put it as kindly as I can—an ambiguous role in Lebanon. It is critical that UNIFIL begins to fulfil its role, to ensure that the border is protected and that steps can be taken so that there can be some trust and confidence among the people in Lebanon that what happened last summer will not be repeated.

Clare Short: As I understand it, the UN mission is meant to disarm Hezbollah. It seems to me that that will never be achieved and that Hezbollah will never agree to be disarmed, which brings UN Security Council resolutions into disrepute. I am a passionate supporter of the UN, but if I were Hezbollah I would not agree to disarm, given the history of incursion from Israel. Does that requirement not need to be adjusted? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is a dangerous requirement that puts the UN mission in a very difficult position?

Mr. Love: Yes. I was not thinking particularly of that, although it is part of the mission. I was thinking more of the chapter of the UN charter under which the troops were operating and how much they could intervene in the situation in Lebanon. I do not want to get into which of those is more appropriate, because I am not a military expert. We need clarity on that issue, but to come to the issue of Hezbollah, the project is a long-term one. It would be folly for any attempt to be made currently to disarm Hezbollah. It is clear that
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Hezbollah has the confidence of the people of Lebanon, particularly those living in the south, who are most directly threatened by any possible Israeli action. I was trying to suggest that if UNIFIL could attract the confidence and trust of the people in the south, what has been set out may be possible at some future time. We are aware that Hezbollah is anxious to become a political rather than a military force. The confusion between those two aspects currently impedes its progress, so it has at least a political imperative to move towards being more directly seen in a political role, but we need to build confidence in order for that to be achieved, which I do not think is a particularly short-term project.

The question that I was trying to ask was: what are the UK Government doing to try to ensure that trust and confidence is built in UNIFIL? It now has roughly 10,500 troops. I do not think that it has reached its maximum complement; I think that there are still difficulties in getting other troops to assist in the UNIFIL process. Most importantly, is there an understanding that we need to build trust and confidence, and what steps are we taking to try to achieve that?

I congratulate the Government on the aid and development effort. I am not sure that it is the Minister with us today who is responsible; it may well be the Department for International Development. Whoever is responsible, they need to be congratulated. I know that we gave $45 million at Stockholm, and that we delivered another $115 million at Paris. I understand that we also recently agreed to the figure of $48 million for UN relief, mainly to deal with Palestinian refugees. All that is to be strongly welcomed. I congratulate the Government on being one of the earliest participants in work in the country. We have created a more positive attitude toward the UK as a result of all that effort.

I return to an earlier question, and again ask the Minister whether development aid is getting through and making a difference on the ground to the people in the south who have not been able to return to their homes and who are still threatened by cluster bombs. They are dislocated and their economy has been completely disrupted. Are we doing something to reassure them that the international community, particularly in the west, cares about their situation and wants to improve it at this time?

Linked to all that is the Paris III conference. It is conservatively estimated that Lebanon’s economy shrank by between 5 and 6 per cent. of its gross domestic product as a consequence of last summer’s events. We know about the disruptions to the tourism industry, which is of major benefit to the Lebanese people, and to all sorts of economic activity that were a result of Israeli actions, not least the bombing of all the main roads and airports in the country.

At Paris III, the Lebanese authorities were looking for assistance with their serious debt of $40 billion, which is 158 per cent. of Lebanon’s GDP. Some of that debt was built up as a result of previous conflicts between Lebanon and Israel. The primary need was to get the country through a difficult period and to get its economy on the road again. I understand that there was more than $7 billion at that very successful round—it was much more successful than Paris I or II, perhaps because of the situation in which Lebanon
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now finds itself. Major commitments were made by the Saudi Arabian authorities, the French and various others. However, the terms of the loans that were delivered—I take the right hon. Lady’s point about their being delivered through the office of the Prime Minister—were not much better. To call them soft loans would be saying the most that could be said for them.

Considering all the meetings held and travelling to Lebanon done by Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers, and all the political commitments and help that we have given to that country to help it through a difficult period, why was not it possible for us to provide some assistance with its economy? If the shrinking of its economy results in an adjustment process, and if there is a sharp rise in unemployment and people in the south become completely dislocated economically, will that not have political ramifications? Is not it critical that we try to ensure that that does not happen?

My final point is about earlier comments regarding the dialogue with Syria. At the time of our previous debate on the Lebanon, the Government seemed keen to open that dialogue. Indeed, the Prime Minister had said several times that Syria and its position were critical to moving forward with the difficulties and problems of the middle east. I do not see why that has changed, but the tone of our dialogue about Syria has undoubtedly changed, as others have commented. There seems to have been a hardening of attitudes in the UK. That surprises me because the Iraq study group came out clearly and unequivocally in support of the need for a dialogue with the Syrians.

It is not as though the Syrians have not given a very positive response. They suggested that they would be prepared to open a dialogue, and they are talking to the Iraqi authorities. I am one of those who believes that it is currently beyond political capability for the west to speak directly to Iran, both because of the situation there and for other reasons. The Syrians, however, could carry on that dialogue on our behalf, but we need to engage with them to achieve that.

I ask the Minister to recognise that the problems in the Lebanon can be solved only if we begin to solve the problems in the wider middle east, and to recognise the centrality of Syria in all sorts of ways that we do not have time to go into. The Prime Minister has said several times, and I agree with him 100 per cent., how important an end to the conflict in the middle east is, not just to the middle east but to the whole world, for reasons of which we are only too well aware. Why are we attempting to freeze out the Syrians? Why are we not entering a dialogue with some energy?

I conclude by reminding the House that we sent a representative to talk informally to the Syrians some time ago. That does not seem to have been followed up in any way, and I urge the Minister to do that at the first opportunity if it has not already been done. I also urge him, on behalf of Lebanon, Syria and the wider middle east, to recognise that this is the way that we can make the difference in the middle east that the Prime Minister keeps talking about.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I will call John Mann if he keeps his comments to less than three minutes.

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10.27 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): As I have less than three minutes, I shall simply ask the Minister two questions, without commenting on them, and comment on one issue. First, will the Minister comment on what Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, is reported to have said over the weekend?

Secondly, I believe that the concept of the mutual recognition of rights has always been and remains the key to solutions in the middle east. Does the Minister agree that the one thing that would make a significant difference regarding Syria and Lebanon would be the release of the two Israeli soldiers in the near future to allow the kind of engagement with Syria and Lebanon that we have been discussing? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and others that that remains an essential step forward for there to be peace in the region and the rest of the world.

The one subject on which I shall comment is the British Council, which is rightly shutting down all its European operations and building operations in the middle east and more widely. Will the Minister provide some clarity on that? Will there be more of the same from the British Council—spreading the English language and artistic work, neither of which I knock—or will Britain’s most recognised export, sport, be a key factor?

These days, a common image in photographs and footage from any war zone, anywhere in the world, is that of the kids who are caught up in the conflict wearing Beckham and Ronaldo shirts, among others. Many of those shirts may not have been exported directly from the UK or England, but they bear the logos, names and colours of English football teams. That offers an opportunity to engage with people at a low, but ongoing, level. Groups such as the “Kick racism out of Israeli football” campaign—I was privileged to attend its launch in this country—directly challenge anti-Arab racism on Israeli football terraces and in the stands. Those are the sort of initiatives that the British Council could help with in various countries.

Like me, the Minister is a keen mountaineer, and in Wadi Rum in Jordan the British Mountaineering Council is training Jordanians in mountaineering skills so that they can be local mountaineering leaders. What could be more real—rather than simply symbolic—than getting kids from across a divide and linking them by a rope on a mountain where the life of one is reliant on the rope skills of the other? That is not a tongue-in-cheek suggestion; it should be part of what the British Council attempts to do in such countries.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I request Front-Bench spokesmen to restrict their comments to 10 minutes to allow the Minister to reply.

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