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27 Feb 2007 : Column 202WH—continued

10.31 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Thank you, Miss Begg. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for introducing this important debate, and I look forward to the Minister engaging constructively with us when he responds to the various concerns that have been raised.
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We join the international community in calling for Hezbollah to release the soldiers whom they are still holding captive. We condemn Hezbollah on its record of launching rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from under-cover positions in areas occupied by Lebanese civilians. That action was wholly wrong, and it should be recognised as such by all the groups involved.

The reaction of Israel in bombing Lebanon was disproportionate and devastating for the people of Lebanon. Last summer’s air strikes damaged, if not destroyed, much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage treatment plants, dams, electrical plants, airports, port facilities, bridges and petrol stations. Civilian casualties were high: 1,200 Lebanese were killed and more than 4,000 were injured, with almost 1 million people—almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population—displaced. Worryingly, the UNHCR reported that 60,000 homes were damaged with 15,000 destroyed and that 900 markets, farms and other commercial buildings were also damaged or destroyed. The damage to civilian infrastructure will take time and money to fix, and it is estimated that that will cost $3.6 billion dollars.

According to the UN mine action co-ordination centre, 90 per cent. of the cluster bombs used by Israel in this conflict were used between the adoption of Security Council resolution 1701 on 11 August and the cessation of hostilities on 14 August, which places another obstacle in the way of reconstruction in Lebanon. As Kofi Annan has said, it will take well over a year to clear the cluster bombs, and until they are disposed of displaced families cannot return to the daily business of agriculture and trade that is so vital to the rejuvenation of Lebanon. I condemn the use of such weapons because, as with land mines, their effect is often devastating to innocent civilians who are caught up in the conflict. Will the Minister respond specifically to those concerns?

On the Israeli front, the damage caused by the conflict has also been severe. The unacceptable loss of life is a tragic waste. The cost of repairing buildings, including 6,000 damaged homes, has been estimated at $1.1 billion. I am certainly not underestimating the consequences of the conflict for Israel, but as this is a debate on Lebanon and Syria, I will confine my remarks to those areas.

The UK, the US and other major powers should put pressure on Syria to extricate itself from Lebanese affairs. Its involvement is a serious breach of Security Council resolution 1701, which calls for countries to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of Lebanon. We should encourage all Lebanon’s neighbours to recognise the spirit of the resolution as well as its literal application. Lebanon cannot become a strong nation if its sovereignty is compromised.

The UK’s role in relation to both Lebanon and Syria, as well as other countries in the middle east, should be one of brokering negotiation. Events over the past month have shown Lebanon to be a country in crisis. The demonstrations calling for a national unity Government and the accusations that the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mr. Siniora, by seeking Hezbollah’s disarmament is backing a pro-Israeli and pro-US
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agenda have caused fears of possibly violent clashes between Government and Opposition supporters.

To help to solve those internal disputes, and in light of yesterday’s news that Hezbollah is rearming in security pockets in southern Lebanon, we urgently need to bring all parties to the table for renewed negotiations for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement on all fronts, including Syria and Lebanon, and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. That action was called for in the Iraq study group report, and there must be a sustained commitment by both the UK and US for it to take place. Until there are renewed negotiations to establish a peace settlement, conflicts will continue.

The report also called for Syria to cease its aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as to Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. While Syria funds those groups, peace can never be established in the middle east. We must face down extremists on both sides, and the most effective way of achieving that is to ensure that they lose support from countries with a vested interest in the middle east. The UK Government should take a strong stand, and Syria’s compliance should be a priority in any peace settlement discussions. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to that.

The UK’s relationship with Syria needs to be one of negotiation and involvement. The report from the Iraq study group called for the US to create an Iraq international support group with Iraq and all the states bordering Iraq, including Iran and Syria, as well as other key players. At the moment, Syria could be said to be playing a counter-productive role, because its Government do nothing to stop arms and foreign fighters flowing across the border into Iraq and former Ba’athist leaders finding a safe haven in Syria.

Clare Short: The British ambassador briefed us that Syria has made considerable efforts to police that border and to prevent incursions. That should be recorded.

Mark Hunter: I am happy to accept that. The right hon. Lady speaks with great authority on these matters, so I stand corrected.

Our Prime Minister supported the US in its comment on 7 December 2006 that before Syria could sit down to negotiate with the US it would have to take certain actions. That approach seems to be unhelpful, because placing demands on Syria that must be met before it reaches the negotiating table ensures that discussions will never take place and that the demands will never be fulfilled.

Negotiations with Syria are the key to stabilising Iraq. The Government must persuade Syria of the merits of closing its borders with Iraq and controlling the flow of weaponry, insurgents and others passing over that border. As the Iraq study group report argued, as well as disincentives, we must provide incentives, such as enhanced diplomatic relations with the US, to encourage it to do so. That proposal is controversial, but without engaging in diplomatic dialogue with those countries with no preconditions, a peaceful conclusion to the Iraq war cannot be reached, and a broader peace initiative in the entire middle east will fail.

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10.39 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) on securing the debate. As she has said, the purpose of her debate on UK relations with Lebanon is to report back on her visit there and to seek a more balanced approach to the middle east, as well as urging that UK foreign policy moves away from being an echo of American foreign policy.

First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has made it clear—indeed, this was echoed in last week’s debate on Iraq in the other place—that there needs to be a more holistic and perhaps slightly more sophisticated UK foreign and security policy towards the middle east.

Secondly, we recognise that regional engagement will have to be reactivated. I never saw the US Iraq study group report as a policy statement; it was more like an la carte menu, from which one could pick and mix. Although I fully support picking and choosing from it, it will not be easy to get some regional powers to engage positively; indeed, the middle east peace process is littered with attempts by all sides to get them to do so.

Thirdly, as several hon. Members have said, the emphasis has been very much on the sufferings of the people of Lebanon, and rightly so. As I have said before in such debates, Lebanon looks more and more like the Weimar republic of the 1920s, whose democratic Government large numbers of armed militias, including the Nazis and the Communists, intended to overthrow. However, it would be a grave error not to recognise that direct attacks were made on Israel. No sovereign Government can allow members of their armed forces to be kidnapped without trying to get them back or face sophisticated rocket attacks without thinking of retaliating in some way. We should bear that in mind.

Let me now turn briefly to UK relations with Syria. As the right hon. Lady has said, the Government are, in many ways, sending mixed messages about the results of their attempts to engage with Syria last year. What actually was the purpose of the visit to Damascus by the Prime Minister’s envoy? What came out of it? Where are we today? Do the Government plan to continue those efforts, or have they been dropped in the face of reported US opposition or Syrian unwillingness? To take up a point made by another hon. Member, do the Government intend to raise such links to ministerial level?

The Foreign Secretary has said that Syria has

She pointed to the resumption of bilateral contacts between Iraq and Syria as positive progress in that direction, but has Syria expressed any comparable interest in being more constructively engaged with our Government or, indeed, the Government of the United States of America? Although one can criticise the United States for many things, Syrian engagement with the USA is perhaps even more important than Syrian engagement with us.

Finally on this issue, what is the Minister’s response to recent calls, including by the former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for an
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international conference on Iraq? Would such a conference include regional countries, such as Syria?

Let me now turn briefly to relations with Lebanon. As other hon. Members have said, it is clear that the confrontation between the Lebanese Government and Hezbollah has reached a critical point, because Hezbollah has withdrawn its Ministers from the Cabinet and is trying to paralyse the Government. Media reports suggest that it is consolidating its grip on southern Lebanon and that it is rearming. In the words of one observer, Lebanon has become

What are the United Kingdom Government doing actively to support the Siniora Government? Does the Minister agree that the implosion of that Government would be highly destabilising for Lebanon and that it would probably initiate intervention by Israel or Syria? He himself has said:

Is that tantamount to passive acceptance of the fact that UN Security Council resolution 1701 will not be implemented?

The disarmament of Hezbollah will require a strong Lebanese state. What effect is the Lebanese Government’s current paralysis having on efforts to implement Lebanese responsibilities under UN Security Council resolution 1701? What impact have UK efforts to rebuild the Lebanese security forces had on their capability to keep order in the country?

Finally on this issue, the Minister said in answer to a question that I raised in Foreign Office questions last week that Hezbollah’s fingerprints were all over some of the munitions used against British troops in southern Iraq. Was that statement in fact based on intelligence, or was it perhaps a slip of the Minister’s tongue?

Other hon. Members have referred to Syria’s long- term presence in Lebanon, and I have two questions on that issue for the Minister. On 7 December 2006, the Foreign Secretary said that the Syrian President had given assurances to the United Nations Secretary-General that

On 18 December, however, the Government said that the UK continued to be concerned about

Has Syria lived up to its promises to assume a positive role, or do the UK Government believe that it continues to arm Hezbollah?

The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood has done Parliament a great service by raising this issue. None of us believes that there are simple answers, and more than one side is to blame. However, there is a growing consensus in Parliament that we need a more sophisticated foreign and security policy across the board towards the middle east. We want the Government to be involved in persuading regional powers to come forward, although my party certainly
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recognises that that will not necessarily be easy. However, we should also remember that while we debate this issue, many of our constituents are in harm’s way in Iraq.

10.47 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) for giving us this opportunity to discuss the United Kingdom’s relationship with Syria and Lebanon. As she told us, she recently visited both countries, so she is well placed to initiate the debate. As she said, the events taking place in both countries have consequences for the whole region.

The Prime Minister’s visit to Lebanon last September—the first by any British Prime Minister—is a signal of how seriously the Government take events there. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to the country last December was her first visit. I myself hope to visit Lebanon again soon; indeed, I would have been there today had the right hon. Member not initiated this debate. I was last there at the height of the terrible conflict in July.

The United Kingdom continues to be concerned by the ongoing political instability in Lebanon and by Syria’s role in it. Since last year’s tragic conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, our approach has been based on UN Security Council resolution 1701, which the Security Council unanimously agreed. Since then, we have supported the democratically elected Government of Lebanon in implementing that resolution and rebuilding the country.

To that end, we have provided support to the Government of Lebanon in the form of humanitarian, political, economic and security assistance. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), among others, asked about the nature of that support and how we try to ensure that it gets through to the people who need it most.

We have also sent a senior envoy to Damascus in an attempt to reach out to Syria, and to encourage it to play a more constructive role in Lebanon and to face up to its wider responsibilities in the region. I was glad that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) reminded us that this is a two-way relationship, and we must have evidence of reciprocal moves and of good will on both sides.

We certainly want a healthy, prosperous and peaceful democracy in Lebanon, and we want normalised relations with Syria. That ultimately requires Hezbollah to disarm and to participate in Lebanese politics as a fully democratic political party. We know how difficult that is. We have had long experience of trying to live alongside organisations that are armed to the teeth and that kill people, assuming that they have a God-given right to do that in the middle of a democracy. We had 30 years of Irish republican terrorism and I have some notion of what it must be like to be a politician in Lebanon. We have politicians from Lebanon with us in this country today, who have told me in no uncertain terms of the difficulties of operating in a democracy where a self-appointed alternative Government are prepared to use terrorism to enforce what they believe is their right to dominate politics in parts of the country.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton asked in particular about UN Security Council resolution 1701 of 11 August 2006, which established both the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah and the long-term framework that we sought for resolving the conflict. Since then, with a few exceptions, the cessation of hostilities has held. We were terribly sorry to hear about the bombed bus, and our condolences go out to the families of those who have suffered, but it has held remarkably over a very difficult period, notwithstanding the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk to the effect that in some respects the situation in Lebanon is deteriorating. The cessation of hostilities has held and we must work to ensure that it holds further.

Some hon. Members have asked about overflights. I have pressed the Israeli Government many times about them. They are a challenge to the sovereignty of Lebanon and its right to control its airspace. The Israelis in turn ask what anyone else is doing about the smuggling of arms and rockets back across the Syrian border to rearm Hezbollah. We must address such issues. There is a need for confidence-building measures rooted in the reality of the contemporary situation if we are to persuade the Israelis to stop overflights and to persuade the Syrians that they should not be allowing the rearming of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. We could have an entire debate about why the Syrian Government feel that they must be able to pull the lever of Hezbollah whenever they feel like it. Syria has withdrawn its troops. There was huge controversy about the fact that it had lots of intelligence agents left in Lebanon who were pulling strings, paying bribes and helping to murder people. The situation there is very complex, and is certainly not one that can be solved by echoing good-will messages. The negotiations will be difficult and complex.

Clare Short: On the matter of the detained Israeli soldiers and Lebanon’s request for the return of some of its prisoners, I think that the UN was supposed to be leading negotiations to try to obtain a package of agreement. Has there been any progress with that? It would obviously help to reduce tension.

Dr. Howells: It certainly would. The return of prisoners on both sides would be a big step forward. The right hon. Lady will understand that negotiations are undoubtedly going on and back channels will have been opened. It is the kind of situation in which I should like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to be involved. There are ways: he has recently been involved in opening back channels in the terrible conflict in Sri Lanka. There are things that can be done. I am certain—I am sure that the right hon. Lady will agree with me—that it is a full-time job. People cannot be taken away to Geneva and New York every six months in the hope that something can be resolved. The negotiations must be very purposeful, using people with great skills, who know how to go about such things. I hope that the efforts that have been made will be built on, because, as the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) pointed out, the issue is a key one. It is certainly one of the most important of the confidence-building matters that we should be dealing with.

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