Mark Hunter discusses UK relations with Lebanon and Syria

February 27, 2007 9:30 AM
By Mark Hunter in House of Commons

I am grateful to the Rt Hon member for Birmingham, Ladywood for securing this debate. I am delighted that the Minister is speaking at this debate and that he is engaging constructively with the members present.

The Liberal Democrats have often unfairly and quite wrongly I might say have been criticised as being an anti-Israeli party, however, I would like to again go on the record condemning the actions of Hezbollah last summer in killing Israeli soldiers in the strongest and most unequivocal terms.

We join the international community in calling for Hezbollah to release the soldiers which they are still holding captive and condemning Hezbollah for launching rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from undercover positions within areas occupied by Lebanese civilians. This action was wholly wrong and should be recognised as such by all the groups involved.

However 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 internal infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage treatment plants, dams and electrical plants, airports, port facilities, bridges and petrol stations.

Civilian casualties were also high, 1,200 Lebanese were killed and over 4,000 injured, with one million people amounting to a quarter of the population displaced. Worryingly the UNCHR reports 60,000 homes were damaged with 15,000 destroyed, with 900 factories, markets farms and other commercial buildings. The damage to civilian infrastructure will take time and money to fix, it is estimated that it will cost $3.6 billion dollars to repair.

I am afraid that the cluster bombs used by Israel in this conflict, 90% of which were used between the time of adoption of Security Council resolution 1701 on 11th August and the cessation of hostilities on 14th August (UN Mine Action Coordination Centre), place another obstacle to the reconstruction of Lebanon.

As Kofi Annan pointed out these cluster bombs will take well over a year to clear and until they are disposed of displaced families cannot return and the every day business of agriculture and trade that is so vital to the rejuvenation of Lebanon can not take place. I must condemn the use of such weapons as, like landmines their effects are often devastating to innocent civilians.

On the Israeli front I know that the damage caused by this conflict has also been severe. The cost of repairing buildings including the 6,000 damaged homes has been estimated at $1.1 billion dollars. I am certainly not under-estimating the consequences of the conflict to Israel, however as this is a debate on Lebanon and Syria I will contain my remarks to those areas.

The UK Government needs to do its utmost to ensure that the money and support needed by the civilians in Lebanon reaches them as soon as possible, and continues to do so for as long as it is needed. We need to support democracy and rule of law in Lebanon, and help in the construction of infrastructure, economic restructuring and in providing ongoing health and housing support for displaced people in Lebanon.

The progress made in recent years has been undermined by the conflict and we therefore need to help them run to catch up. We need Lebanon to develop both economically, socially and politically to become a strong independent nation, rather than an arena in which the power struggles between other countries is carried out. A strong Lebanon can help with the stand against extremism, and should be welcomed and encouraged by all countries both in the region and world wide.

The UK Government, the US and the other major powers should be putting pressure on Syria to extricate themselves from Lebanese affairs. Their involvement there 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 be encouraging all of 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 role in relation to both Lebanon and Syria, as well as other countries in the Middle East should also be one of brokering negotiation. Events over the last months have shown Lebanon to be a country in crisis. The large scale demonstrations calling for a 'national unity government' and the accusations that by seeking Hezbollah's disarmament the Lebanese Prime Minister Mr Siniora is backing a pro-Israeli and pro-US agenda have caused fears of possible violent clashes between government and opposition supporters.

To help solve these internal disputes, and in light of the news yesterday that Hezbollah were 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, Lebanon and a two state solution for Israel and Palestine.

This 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 to occur.

The report also called for Syria to cease their aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as their aid to Hamas and other radical Palestinian groups. While Syria funds these groups, peace can never be established in the Middle East.

We need to face-down extremists on both sides; it seems to me that the most effective way of achieving this is to ensure that they lose their support from countries with a vested interest in the Middle East. On this issue the UK Government needs to take a strong stand and Syria's compliance with this should be a priority in any peace settlement discussions.

The UK's relationship with Syria, however, also 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, which would include 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 counterproductive role, the Syrian government does nothing to stop arms and foreign fighters flowing across their border into Iraq, and former Baathist leaders find a safe haven within Syria.

However, Syria has indicated that it is willing to discuss the Iraq issue with the US, and it is the US and the UK Government that are stalling on involving both Syria and Iran in vital discussions about the future of Iraq.

The Prime Minister supported the US in this commenting on 7th December 2006 that before Syria could sit down to negotiate with the US they would have to take certain actions.

This approach seems to be unhelpful because by placing demands on Syria that need to take place before they reach the negotiating table you ensure that the discussion with never take place and that the demands will never be fulfilled.

Negotiations with Syria are key to stablising Iraq. The Government needs to persuade Syria of the merits of closing its borders with Iraq and controlling the flow of weaponry, insurgents and terrorists that pass over that border; and as the Iraq Study Group Report argued we need to provide incentives, such as enhanced diplomatic relations with the US, as well as disincentives to encourage them to do so.

I realise that this proposal has been controversial, but without engaging in diplomatic dialogue with these countries without preconditions a peaceful conclusion to the Iraq war cannot be reached and a broader peace initiative in the entire of the Middle East will fail.

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