Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-106)


7 MARCH 2007

  Q100  Mr. Purchase: This is the last question that you want from me on this, Mr. Chairman. Thinking of the wider middle east and the number of different aspects—Palestinians and so on—do you think that Iran and Syria have different priorities, or are there a lot of similarities in the way that they view their priorities in the middle east as a whole?

  Patrick Seale: They are strategic partners, as I mentioned, going back a long way. Of course their geographic location means that they have different priorities and different vital interests. Iran looks towards central Asia and Afghanistan; it is interested in Pakistan. Syria is a Levant state; its enemy is Israel. Iran's enemy for a long time was Iraq; in fact, those two countries—Iraq and Iran, or the empires that were there before—for the last 500 years have fought countless wars and signed countless treaties. Of course Iran and Syria have somewhat different priorities, but they are at one today in responding to what they consider the pressures and threats facing them from the Israelis and the United States.

    Have we time to say a word about British policy?

  Chairman: We were going to come on to that in the five minutes that we have left. I want to bring in John Stanley briefly, then Fabian and Sandra.

  Q101  Sir John Stanley: Do you think that the Syrians militarily are out of Lebanon for good? Or do you think that there are circumstances in which they could come back in again?

  Patrick Seale: I think that they are out of Lebanon for good. I absolutely agree with what my colleague said. Over the past six, seven or eight years the Syrians have allowed the relationship with Lebanon to degenerate into criminality. Now that needs to be cleaned up. They have got to put their relationship with Lebanon on a sound and healthy basis. It does not mean that they can be excluded from Lebanese affairs, but they do not need their army there. They should have diplomatic relations, as Mr. Shehadi mentioned, but the Lebanese in turn should recognise that the Syrians have a vital security interest in Lebanon too. This should be the basis of future relations.

  Q102  Sir John Stanley: Out for good or not, Mr. Shehadi?

  Nadim Shehadi: I certainly do not think that there is a possibility of the Syrian army going back to Lebanon, but the criminality and corruption that we have seen in the last six or seven years is continuing. The rule of the Mukhabarat, the security services, which was continuous in both Lebanon and Syria, has collapsed in Lebanon and remains in Syria. I think that Syria feels threatened by this event, because it can influence developments inside. What is now preventing that, in a way, is the outside threat and the example of Iraq. The people look at Iraq and see the chaos; they think that if there is any change in the regime then this would happen in Syria in the same way. That is right, but there is no doubt that the collapse of that joint system in one place has sent a message in the other direction that is a threat to the system in the long run.

  Q103  Sandra Osborne: Can I ask you about the role of the United Kingdom in relation to Syria and Lebanon? How do the populations of Syria and Lebanon, and the politicians, view the UK Government currently?

  Patrick Seale: I am sorry to say that Britain has been largely absent from the region politically. You know better than I that the UK has focused much more on trade relations and arms sales than on having a direct political influence in these countries. There has been a very steep decline in British influence. Of course, the fact that the Blair Government chose to ally itself with the United States also means that they are excluded from the region to a large extent. There is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of British policy. Although Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke repeatedly—so did Jack Straw when he was Foreign Secretary—about support for a Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel and so forth, nevertheless Mr. Blair allied himself with the neo-cons in America, close to the Likud and totally against any form of Palestinian self-determination. This is the contradiction at the heart of British policy.

  Nadim Shehadi: I largely agree with what Dr. Seale said, especially with regard to the blunders that the Blair Government have made. It was a big mistake to stand with the United States against the ceasefire in Lebanon in the summer. On Prime Minister Blair's last trip to the region, Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian Authority, tried to trigger a double election for Parliament, which everybody knew was completely illegal and unconstitutional and would be rejected outright. Mr. Blair supported the idea too soon, when he was still in Cairo. By the time he arrived, the idea had collapsed completely. It did not seem as though he had a real agenda; it looked as though he was trying to save himself instead of the middle east.

  Q104  Sandra Osborne: When the Prime Minister sent his senior foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus in October, did that not have any positive outcome? What do you feel the UK Government's priorities should be now?

  Patrick Seale: I have here a list of things that I think the British should do.

  Chairman: I hope that it is a short list. There are other witnesses to come after you.

  Patrick Seale: I am sorry to have gone on too long. First, Britain should announce a firm date for the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq. Secondly, it should make a substantial contribution to the resettlement of the more than 4 million Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. Thirdly, it should declare, as Norway and France have already done, that if Hamas and Fatah form a national unity Government on the basis of the Mecca agreement, it would favour lifting the embargo on the democratically elected Hamas Government. Fourthly, Britain should declare its firm support for the Arab peace plan of March 2002, which offers Israel normal relations with all 22 Arab states if it withdraws to the '67 borders. Finally, it should join other European states in putting maximum pressure on Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians and with Syria on the basis of UN resolutions 242 and 338. None of that has been done by the Blair Government.

  Nadim Shehadi: I have one thing that the UK should not do, which is do a backroom deal again with the Syrian regime in the interests of stability in the region. It has been tried before and it worries the Lebanese a lot that the Syrian regime could offer the UK a lot of incentives in Palestine, where it is blocking progress, in Iraq and in relation to Iran. The only concession that the Syrian regime wants is a very minor one: "Please forget about the tribunal and give us back our influence in Lebanon. It is important for our security and it is not a viable country in any case, so why should you care?" That should be an absolute red line for British policy. My feeling is that it will not happen.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

  Q105  Mr. Hamilton: I should like to pick you up on a point that you made earlier in relation to Syria, Dr. Seale. You said that until 1993, Syria's No. 1 policy was Palestine and help for the Palestinians. I think that that is what you said.

  Patrick Seale: I did not say that it was to help Palestinians. I said that it was to put Palestine at the top of its agenda.

  Q106  Mr. Hamilton: Could you tell me what Syria did to help the Palestinians and the possibility of a state of Palestine, apart from supplying terrorist groups with weapons?

  Patrick Seale: It took in some 400,000 Palestinian refugees; it gave them access to education and jobs; it treated them like ordinary citizens and put some of them in the army; it defended the Palestine cause in every international forum; it pressed for a resolution of the conflict; and it started the negotiations at Madrid in 1991, as you know. In a sense, that support stopped in 1993, when the Palestinians did their separate deal, which, alas, came to nothing, as the Syrians predicted. But now Syria is once again pressing for an international conference to negotiate peace on all tracks, including a negotiated peace between Israel and the Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians—no more playing one track off against the other, but advancement towards a global settlement as provided for in the Arab peace plan.

  Mr. Hamilton: Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, gentlemen. I am afraid that we must stop there because we have another session with our other two witnesses, who have been waiting patiently.

  Patrick Seale: Thank you for inviting us.

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