Lebanon and Syria
27th February 2007
In winding up the debate for the Conservatives, Keith Simpson calls for a more sophisticated foreign and security policy towards the middle east and calls on the Government to do more to persuade regional powers to come forward.
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 à 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
"expressed a willingness to become more constructively engaged with the Government of Iraq."-[Official Report, 20 February 2006; Vol. 457, c. 135.]
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 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
"a nervous country with a dying economy and with no solution in sight".
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:
"Disarmament of Hizballah is likely only as part of a political process."-[Official Report, 7 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 663W.]
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
"Syria will undertake all necessary measures to implement this requirement; and that Syria is willing to assist Lebanon in setting up an effective interdiction regime, and where possible to establish joint border patrols with the Lebanese authorities."-[Official Report, 7 December 2006; Vol. 450, c.1765-66W.]
On 18 December, however, the Government said that the UK continued to be concerned about
"arms smuggling across the Lebanese/Syrian border"-[Official Report, 18 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1511W.]
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 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.