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24 Jun 2009 : Column 244WH—continued

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and also put on the record that this year was a first for some years in that an official Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation from this Parliament
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to Syria took place in January. I was a member of the delegation, which was led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). In terms of building understanding, contacts and dialogue between UK and Syrian parliamentarians, the visit was very worth while indeed. I hope that further such exchanges will continue, in addition to the good work that the hon. Member for West Suffolk does through the all-party group on Syria and the British Syrian Society.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Iraqi refugees in Syria, which is one of the issues that I would like to raise with the Minister. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a major issue for us because of our involvement in the situation that led to those refugees being in Syria, but it is also a major issue for Syria. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which we met while we were there, there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees with valid visas in Syria at present. I give credit to Syria, which gives them access to services and at least primary education. It has done much more than several other countries would have done.

However, there is still an issue for Syria, because of the drain on its resources, but perhaps most of all for the Iraqi refugees themselves. We met several of them. We visited several UNHCR installations, including its reception centre, and we were able to speak to and hear first hand from Iraqi refugees about their situation, which is something that we need to address.

The international community needs greater coherence around its approach to repatriation: would it be viable, and, if so, when and how are pathways to be built towards it? However, it also needs to grasp much more consistently the question of resettlement. Several Iraqi refugees told us that, because of all kinds of changes in Iraq and elsewhere, they were now looking at resettlement. If that is to be dealt with properly, it requires a co-ordinated response from the international community. The UNHCR has a great deal to say about that. We need to listen to what it has to say, because it is a major issue.

My second point on refugees concerns Palestinian refugees in Syria. I am not speaking particularly of those Palestinian refugees who are in Syria as a result of events in 1948 or 1967 but rather those who are in Syria or on its borders as a result of the conflict in Iraq. About 300 Palestinian refugees currently live in a camp in the desert—in essence, they are cut off from many facilities. Again, that is a humanitarian issue that we need to address.

My hon. Friend the Minister will not have come here today prepared to speak about the Palestinian refugees, but I would ask him, if he is not able to say much about them today, to look into the situation, and to consider what we and the international community are doing to try to ease their plight. To some extent, they are the forgotten refugees arising out of the Iraq conflict, but they deserve to be forgotten no longer.

9.58 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Like others, I did not come here intending to speak this morning, Mr. Caton, but I am tempted to my feet. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring)—I hope that he still considers himself to
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be a friend. He shows great understanding of the issues and the countries involved, and he made his contribution with characteristic courtesy to the House and other Members. He knows much more about the issue than I ever will.

I called a meeting in the House on Monday evening of Iraqi Christians, and I would like to say just a few words about it. It was a bit harrowing: many difficult stories were told of kidnappings, and violence, extortion and threats against various minorities. Several witnesses at the meeting explained the problems of split families; that is, families that have been separated, with members scattered around various countries including Iraq, Syria and Jordan, and as far afield as Scandinavia, north Africa and this country. The principle of family reunion is given insufficient weight by our Government and other Governments, the UNHCR and other organisations. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and will consider carefully what the Government can do to lead the international field in trying to put those families back together, and to stop the persecution of Iraqi Christians.

There is clearly a backlog of old asylum claims in the UK, which is another urgent issue—

Mr. Spring: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the courtesy of his comments. He might not be aware that although a substantial percentage of Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christians, they come from a variety of faiths, but do not live in separate conditions. It is interesting how the pervasive culture of Syria has influenced them, and that the tensions that existed between those communities in Iraq have evaporated as they live side by side in Syria.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for that clarification. My comments were aimed essentially at the difficulties that arise in Iraq rather than in Syria. As with Thailand and Burma, neighbouring countries often act as host and suffer great pressure from the refugee problem, but do magnificent work. We must encourage them to continue that, and we must tackle the refugee problem worldwide. I am sure that the Minister has taken on that message. I thank you, Mr. Caton, for allowing me to give it.

10.1 am

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath) (Lab): Like other hon. Members, I did not intend to make a speech today, but I was galvanised into doing so by the eloquence of my very good friend, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and his excellent speech. I will make a couple of short points.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a comprehensive resolution of the intractable problems in the middle east requires engagement with Syria. As he rightly pointed out, the British Syrian Society has played a valuable role in seeking to build relations with that country, and I pay tribute to those who have been involved. I am honoured to be a member of its board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) made the valid point that it is in Israel’s interest to engage with Syria, but there will be positive engagement only if the Golan issue is resolved. He rightly said that the Golan heights are often referred to as a mountain, but it is a region, and a large one
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housing many people, many of whom, sadly, have been displaced. Those issues must be resolved because that is crucial to a lasting normalisation of relations between Syria and Israel. It is obvious from my discussions in Syria that the Syrian Government are willing, able and want to engage with western Governments and to play a part in bringing about lasting normalisation and a just settlement of the intractable problems in the middle east.

The problem is not just the issues between Israel and Syria, but the wider issues of the Palestinians and a viable Palestinian state. That is not the subject of this debate, but I am becoming more and more sceptical about whether there will be a two-state solution. The intractable problems between Fatah and Hamas, and the fact that the two parts of an embryonic Palestinian state are divided by a piece of land that was Israeli territory prior to 1967 leads me to question more and more whether there can be a viable two-state solution. It is possible that there could eventually be a three or even four-state solution in the middle east, but that is not the subject of this debate. The debate today is about Syria, our relations with it, and its role in bringing about a resolution of middle east problems. I commend the hon. Member for West Suffolk on initiating it.

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) made an excellent point about the role that Syria can play in wider Islamic theology. Under its constitution, Syria is a secular state. I am impressed by and admire the fact that different religions exist in the state and seem to do so in a relationship that is respectful of one another’s differences. Like him, however, I am becoming more and more concerned about the export of Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia, and the effect of that on communities in western countries such as the United Kingdom where large Muslim populations live. Unless one lives in areas where that can be seen daily, as he and I do, it is difficult to understand how destructive Wahhabism can be. However, unless we treat the issue seriously and address it, it poses a threat to the cohesion of good community relations in the United Kingdom and other western countries. I hope that that will be taken on board.

It is important to have this debate today. It is important also that the British Government treat seriously the messages that Syria is sending that it wants to engage and to be fully involved in assisting with bringing about a resolution of some of the problems in the middle east. I am sure that the Government are aware that Syria stands ready, willing and able to help, but that the Golan issue must be resolved. I commend what other hon. Members have said. Israel must treat seriously Syria’s concerns about the Golan, and it must negotiate and come to an agreement with Syria, whether that is a bilateral agreement or part of a wider agreement in the middle east.

10.8 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate and on the way in which he introduced it. He clearly has great expertise, and the way in which he outlined the historical context and more recent developments set the tone for an interesting and productive debate. I welcome the Minister to his position. I am sure that this will be the first of many interesting and enjoyable debates on a wide variety of foreign policy issues.

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This is a good time to debate Syria and the middle east, not least because of recent developments in the region and the change in the US’s approach to the middle east. Obama has made engaging with Syria a key point of his foreign policy, which is a welcome change from the Bush years, and is a cause for optimism. As has been outlined, such engagement with Syria is vital to ensuring a peaceful withdrawal from Iraq, maintaining peace and stability in Lebanon, and for the Arab-Israeli peace process, on which we all so desperately want more progress.

Historically, Syria has been more isolated because of its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its close ties with Iran, which have given countries reason to be cautious in their dealings with Syria. However, I argue that those are the very reasons why we must engage, because the influence that Syria has across the region makes it a vital player.

Recently, George Mitchell, the US envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, visited Damascus. That is a hugely positive step. Traditionally, the UK has been somewhat less hostile than the US towards Syria. We have maintained diplomatic relations and engage directly on regional and consular issues. That approach must be welcomed, because engagement is the cornerstone of how we can use influence with Syria to try to unlock some of the problems in that troubled region.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk talked about the close links between Syria and Iraq. He said that this is not the place to go over the arguments about the war, and I agree, but later today we have the Opposition-day debate on the Iraq inquiry. It is important that that inquiry, with its broader remit, is also able to consider the impact that the war had on the wider region and Britain’s foreign policy objectives in the wider region, because, as he said, they have been somewhat undermined by our actions in Iraq.

There is the issue of Syria having allowed insurgents to cross the border into Iraq, which has made the situation there much more difficult. According to the eighth report of 2006-07 from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Syria expert Patrick Seale said that Syria had allowed “a few Jihadists” to “go across that territory” because

That sense of vulnerability and concern will have been a key motivator in Syria’s decisions. I hope that now, with the change of approach, the Syrians will have some confidence that they will not be next and that that will help to build trust in order for them to clamp down on insurgency crossings into Iraq. Obviously, there is a fear with the troop withdrawal and handover that this will be a vulnerable time in Iraq and insurgency activity could instead increase.

The situation of Iraqi refugees in Syria was mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It was interesting for us to hear about his experiences seeing the refugee camps at first hand and to hear the positive stories that he had to tell about education and development there, but clearly the situation places huge stress on Syria. That strengthens the case for pointing out to Syria that it is in its interests to engage more regionally and to have a prosperous and stable Iraq next door, not only to act as a trading
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partner but to facilitate the return of refugees, at an appropriate pace, and to lessen the burden that Syria is experiencing. In foreign diplomacy, using the self-interest of countries to encourage certain behaviour is often the most successful approach.

Richard Burden: The hon. Lady is right to say that repatriation of some Iraqi refugees will be the right option, but the point that I was trying to make and the issue that we need to tackle as an international community—this is certainly the view of a number of the Iraqi refugees themselves—is that a programme for resettlement elsewhere may be the long-term solution for a number of those refugees. In some cases that will be in Syria and the middle east; in other cases it will be in the wider world. We need to think through how that will be achieved.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which highlights the importance of Syria being part of the wider engagement, because creating such a solution will not happen with just one country; it needs to be part of a much wider discussion.

Mr. Newmark: During my visits to Syria, I have talked about that issue as well. Given the work that the Syrian Government have done in absorbing perhaps 1 million or more refugees and giving them health care, education and housing, surely the international community, purely on a humanitarian level, should be doing more in giving some sort of funding towards that to support the Syrian Government.

Jo Swinson: I certainly think that the Syrian Government should be praised for what they have done. No doubt the humanitarian agencies will be involved, and they should be involved. I will not go into all the arguments about the Iraq war, but particularly where we have contributed to problems and to what I view as a terrible mistake, we have a responsibility to help to clear up the mess that we have made and to provide such support.

On Israel and Palestine, I was intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff). I was feeling slightly despondent when he talked about being unable to see a two-state solution. As someone who supports a two-state solution, I thought that perhaps it was going to be a pessimistic comment, but I was interested to hear his suggestion that in fact a three or four-state solution might be the end point. I do not know whether that will be the case, but whether it is two, three or four, the word “solution” is what matters. That is surely the end that we all want.

Clearly, Syria will play a vital role in that. Various hon. Members mentioned the key importance of the Golan heights in getting Syria involved in the peace process. That is obviously a bottom line for the Syrians. Unlike many hon. Members in the debate, I have not been to Syria, but I did go to the Golan heights on a trip to Israel some years ago. It is clearly a much contested piece of land but, as was also pointed out, it is not just a territorial dispute. There is the human aspect in terms of displacement. What surprised me somewhat when I went there was the strategic importance of that land in terms of water—that key resource that sometimes in the
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UK we have far too much of with our climate, but which in drier areas of the world can be a strategically important resource. I think that, increasingly, water will replace oil as the key resource that might be in a position to provoke conflict. We need to be aware of that.

With regard to Israel’s approach, Netanyahu was promising before the election not to return the Golan heights, but there is some cause for optimism, in that his stance may have softened when he told George Mitchell:

That seems to constitute a move from his pre-election position. It is not yet clear whether it could be a concession that he would make later. The basing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Damascus gives Syria an obvious role, potentially, in the peace negotiations. If we can resolve the issue of the Golan heights, Syria might be more willing to exert influence over Hamas to support the peace process.

There is a key economic imperative in considering the situation with Syria. Its isolation and the suspension of the EU trade association agreement, which was mentioned, have clearly caused difficulties for Syria. There is a danger in Syria being too isolated and ending up too dependent on Iran. They have obviously had close ties and that is a potential danger. Perhaps if Syria were to distance itself a little more from Iran, some of the other negotiations might end up being easier. Although the EU trade association agreement suspension in 2005 was put in place for sound reasons, it might end up being counter-productive, so it is worth considering again how we could shift economic incentives to encourage Syria to play a fuller role in the international community, including the trading ties that come with that.

The situation in Iran is moving incredibly quickly. Syria will be keeping a close eye on the demonstrations, perhaps with the fear that they might provoke similar unrest in Syria. I am sure that the Minister will mention the diplomatic developments over the past few days with the expulsion of the diplomats. I am sure that that is of great concern to us all, as have been the pictures of violence on our television screens. Just from a human point of view, they cannot be ignored. However, I think that it is right that the Government and Britain generally have not intervened and sought to tell the Iranians what to do. History shows that that type of intervention will not be helpful, so the Government have taken the right view on the issue.

The Government’s approach to Syria is broadly welcome, because regular engagement and making progress step by step has to be the right way forward. Syria is clearly suffering financially because of the EU trade suspension, US sanctions, the fact that its oil reserves are going down and repeated drought, which goes back to what I said about water. There is also the huge burden, which it has been bearing well—it is living up to its humanitarian responsibilities—in relation to the influx of Iraqi refugees.

That brings dangers and opportunities. The situation is difficult for the Syrian people, and if they are allowed to continue in isolation, they could become closer to Iran. However, the UK, the EU and the US have an opportunity to offer new economic incentives to promote political reform and co-operation, particularly on Iraq and the peace process in Israel and Palestine.

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Engagement in the region, including direct bilateral engagement with Syria, is important. The Government are taking broadly the right approach, but it is right that the House continues to discuss these issues. We hope that there will continue to be positive developments, but we should return to the issue regularly.

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