HC Deb 28 July 1989 vol 157 cc1460-6 12.30 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate on Lebanon. The public view is of a country filled with warring factions all as bad as one another, but I believe that that is not so and that, although no one faction or side is wholly blameless, we can make some sense of Lebanon, and it is in the West's interest, as well as being its duty, to do so.

I applaud the comments made by the then Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) in the last Adjournment debate on 16 May, when he said: In the last analysis, it must be our aim to enable the Lebanese people themselves to find ways of restoring peace to their country without foreign interference."—[Official Report, 16 May 1989; Vol. 153, c. 297.] I understand that that view was endorsed by the EEC Twelve in their last statement on the subject.

One of the wisest foreign policy decisions taken by the Government since they took office was to sever diplomatic relations with Syria. Terrorism was the main reason, especially the Syrian attempt to blow up an El Al airliner from Heathrow airport. Few regimes in the world are so obnoxious that we are unable to have diplomatic relations with them. Syria is one of them and it is Syria which now occupies three quarters of Lebanon. Against that bald fact, we must evaluate the options facing, and the decisions taken by, General Aoun.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lebanon was peaceful. prosperous and, above all, tolerant—conditions which, sadly, are rather rare in the middle east. Its constitution was based on conventional groups—a system despised in the West with its ordinary democratic system. One must ask, however, how many other Arab countries have an independent judiciary, the rule of law and the protection of minority groups. Until the early 1970s, all these things prevailed in Lebanon. Indeed, it was a haven for persecuted groups. It is my thesis that Lebanon has been the victim of multiple external aggression.

When the Jordanians expelled the Palestinians to Syria, the Syrians rapidly sent them on to Lebanon, having given them some extra weapons. The Lebanese generously, but I am afraid unwisely, took them in. They were given land for their camps, much of it from Lebanese religious orders. The camps became centres for lawlessness, and armed bands roamed the countryside causing trouble, murdering, raping and looting. Inevitably, there was retribution by the local population against those lawless groups, and a number of unpleasant attacks were made on the Palestinian camps. Those attacks were far more widely publicised in the western press, however, than the horrific incidents that provoked them.

A further factor was internal, but it was generated from the outside. The Shi'ites, who had always been a minority among the Moslems in Lebanon, and who are among the poorest people in the country, tended to live around those camps. They bore the brunt of the Palestinian onslaught. Expelled from their villages and greatly impoverished they fell prey to the agents of the Ayatollah. Out of the increasingly unhappy morass the feared Hezbollah—the so-called party of God—emerged. That turned on the local Christian community and, to a lesser extent, on the Sunnis, driving many of them from their villages. Eye witness reports, mainly from the French and British visitors, talk of murder, torture, public executions carried out by chainsaw and other methods, and desecration of churches, not least by sacrificing animals on the altar.

Inevitably, the villagers fled to the cities, principally the Christian end of Beirut, where they armed themselves and have since been identified by much of the western media as Christian Fascist militia. I have no doubt that they, too, have committed atrocities.

Another aggressor is Israel. Its counter attacks against the Palestinian camps were, like every other outside interference in Lebanon, unhelpful to the Lebanese people, many of whom were killed in crossfire. Israel has now withdrawn to a small strip at the bottom of the country. In fairness to Israel, it must be said that conditions in that southern strip are much better than in the three quarters of the country controlled by Syria.

The final outside factor, and by far the most important, has been Syria. That country is so obnoxious that we cannot have diplomatic relations with it. It controls three quarters of the unhappy state of Lebanon. The Syrians were invited in in 1976 by the disgraced Christian president, Sulaiman Franjiya, and elements of his Government. They were sponsored by the Arab League, I believe in good faith. However, the units—that is almost too grand a word because they were little more than military delegations—from other Arab League countries rapidly came under attack from guerilla groups, some of which even at that stage were sponsored by Syria, and withdrew leaving the Syrians in sole charge.

Since then, Syria has carried out a reign of terror in the three quarters of Lebanon that it controls. Its artillery bombards the country, not just the remaining so-called Christian enclave where the city of Dorä, its commercial centre, was flattened earlier this year, but, reports say, areas within the Syrian-controlled territory where artillery provides a useful adjunct to the secret police in imposing Syrian rule.

I do not intend to adopt a position on Yasser Arafat or the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, he was independent of Syria. Since the Syrians expelled him by armed force, all the Palestinian groups, to a greater or lesser extent, are under Syrian control and rely upon the Syrians for the safety of their leaders and for their supply of weapons. Equally, the Hezbollah, originally set up by the Ayatollah, enjoys its supply of weapons principally from the Syrians. The same applies to the Druze and to the two major renegade Christian groupings which operate in the Syrian area.

It is worth observing that in the unhappy Syrian-controlled zone, the drugs trade, which was always an important part of Assad's foreign policy and his principal supplier of foreign exchange, is flourishing based in the Beka'a valley.

North of Beirut is the so-called Christian enclave—25 per cent. of the country controlled by General Aoun. I say "so-called"—I have said it several times—because General Aoun was appointed by the outgoing president. The constitution says that if the deputies cannot meet and agree on a president, the outgoing president should appoint a Christian figure—all the offices are allocated to different conventional groups—who should act as leader. At that point the Christian and Sunni deputies had said that they were unwilling to meet in the puppet process set up by the Syrians under their armed control. Therefore, the outgoing president rightfully appointed General Aoun as an interim successor.

General Aoun has found increasing numbers of people from other faiths in his enclave, in particular many Sunnis and a significant proportion of Druze who do not accept the leadership of Walid Jumblatt and are sheltering from the Syrian rule of terror. The West is reproaching General Aoun because he believes that the only way in which to prevent the Syrians from taking the last remaining part of his country is by meeting their force with force. The West has counselled him several times that that will lead to the extinction by armed force of the remainder of his enclave. The West may well be right, but it is difficult to see any alternative for Aoun—there is no evidence from any analysis of Syrian foreign policy that I have seen to suggest that the Syrians will negotiate with anyone except at the end of a gun.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions. As I gave him very short notice, I shall understand if he wishes to reply to some of them in writing. Can he confirm that we severed diplomatic relations with Syria because of its active involvement in worldwide terrorism, not merely as a result of one terrorist incident? Are the Syrians continuing to sponsor international terrorism and to neglect even the most basic niceties of international law? In particular, is it true, as has been widely claimed, that the Syrians are believed to have been behind the Lockerbie bombing?

Is it true that the Syrian move into Lebanon was sponsored—in good faith—by the Arab League, but that the Arab League proved unable to retain its grip on the Syrians and had to pull out the non-Syrian troops in the face of aggression from various groups? Is it true that the various terrorist groups and militias outside the so-called Christian enclave and the Israeli-dominated southern strip all now depend to a greater or lesser extent on the Syrians for their weapon supplies—including the group who seized Terry Waite, wherever that unfortunate man may be now?

Is it true that those who have spoken out against Syria have been executed or assassinated? Is it true that the recent tragic death of the Sunnite Mufti Sheikh Hassan Khalid—to whom my hon. Friend referred in a speech in May—had commented through a spokesman only days before that the recent shelling of Moslem west Beirut had been carried out by Syrian regular forces and not by guerrillas? Furthermore, is it true that that murder took place only hours after Sheikh Khalid had refused an invitation to Damascus to explain his spokesman's comments? Is it true that 247 mm mortar shells were fired in that incident in west Beirut? Those are enormous shells, and there is no conceivable chance that any group other than the Syrian regular army could have fired weaponry of that kind.

Is it true that the reign of terror has extended to foreigners—for example, French journalist and academic Michael Seurat, tortured to death by the Syrians for putting out an anti-Syrian line? Is it true that in Syrian-occupied territory people are held for years without trial, torture is rife and the drug trade continues from the Beka'a valley, and has been steadily expanded? Is it true that 100,000 Moslems have fled into the so-called Christian enclave and recognise General Aoun as it leader, and that 30 per cent. of his troops are now Sunmis? In particular, is it true that two Moslem brigades of the Lebanese army have moved over into his area in the past few weeks and are now fighting on his side, despite the terrible threat that that poses to their families, many of whom are still in the Syrian area? Is it true that the Syrian navy is illegally blockading the two Christian ports of Beirut and Byblos, and that people are starving as a result?

Finally, is it true that it is believed to have been the Syrian regular army that reduced Döra to rubble earlier in the year, and that last night 5,000 shells were fired at the Christian stretch of the coastline, with casualties still being assessed?

That is a lot of questions. Let me end by making four quick points. First, I firmly believe that the Government are right not to recognise Syria—it cannot be trusted and negotiations are possible only from a position of strength.

Secondly, the key to Lebanon's problems lies in the withdrawal of external forces, both Syrian and Israeli. I understand that there was another Israeli incursion last night in which a Hezbollah leader was seized. Thirdly, the Arab League means well, but there is not the slightest evidence from anything that one can look at in the past in Lebanon to show that the league could deliver anything that it tried to set up. It has acted in good faith in the past and that is how it is acting now, but it cannot bring pressure to bear on Syria because Syria does not recognise diplomatic pressure. Fourthly, the West must ensure that the remaining free enclave in Lebanon is not snuffed out.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I support my hon. Friend and echo his questions to the Minister. He has rightly said that we are talking about a country which in the past was a noble example of how communities could live together in a significant form of democracy. Perhaps when the Minister is responding to the debate and outlining British policy on this part of the world he will bear in mind that although we would like to see Britain act even handedly towards the Lebanon and its communities, that even-handedness cannot override the need for humanitarian aid. As my hon. Friend has said, even-handedness cannot apply to Syria. We must not fail to take into account General Aoun's attempts to stop the drug trade which is so polluting the international scene and, not least, affecting people in Britain. We should not discourage France from taking the lead in an area where, traditionally, it had a role and influence.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

My fourth conclusion was that we must not allow Lebanon's remaining free enclave to be snuffed out. I agree with my hon. Friend that the French are the appropriate people to take the lead in this matter. The Lebanon is a Francophone country. I am no great sycophant towards France and I share the Prime Minister's views on the French revolution, but France has great ties of blood and culture with Lebanon and understands it much better than we do. We should support France in any initiative, which should include lifting the illegal Syrian blockade of the Christian ports and ensuring that General Aoun has the weapons that he needs. Those are the only ways in which the Syrians will be brought to meaningful negotiations.

12.47 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for once again giving the House an opportunity to consider the tragic situation in Lebanon. He made certain underlying assumptions with which we can all associate ourselves. In the old days, which now seem far off although they ocurred not many years ago, Lebanon was one of the most attractive countries in the middle east and its different communities had a unique system of mutual toleration. My officials do not need to be reminded of that because the majority of them learned their Arabic in the now sadly defunct Middle East College for Arabic Studies. Because of that many of them know the old Lebanon extremely well and remember what it was like. Since that time the country has descended steadily into anarchy and horror. I suppose that, apart from the huge scale of events in Cambodia, some of the most frightful atrocites since the second world war have taken place in the territory of the Lebanon.

The situation is bleak. I am happy to have been given this opportunity by my hon. Friend to try to answer some of his questions and to place on record the Government's position. We do not think that the situation can now be easily resolved because of what I might call the polarisation between the West and the East on one side or the other. My hon. Friend showed that he is well acquainted with Lebanon's complex history and he will understand that we must reserve our position about who among the many players have contributed to the disaster. As a Government in western Europe and as a permanent member of the Security Council, we must try to take such steps as we can to return events to a process that might lead to peace and a practical solution.

Although I know very well from those to whom I have talked about these matters, both inside and outside Government, that it is almost impossible to speak about the Lebanon, if one knows it well, without passion and a passionate partianship, it is the Government's duty to try to put that aside and to take such steps as we can that we objectively believe will lead to progress. To take two names at random, if one put into the same room Patrick Seale and my good friend Professor Roger Scruton, one would find on each side a passionate partisanship and a great deal of knowledge, but a passing of ships in the night in their analysis of who should be blamed for what.

My less emotional task—although it is still emotional to have to stand back—is to analyse and advise on what we should now be doing to ensure progress. It is clear that in the Christian enclave some of the traditions of the old Lebanon are still alive. It is clear that all Lebanese, except those who directly profit from the anarchy, want peace. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury spoke of drug dealers, and others who thrive on the anarchy that has been created. Those who are involved in terrorism sometimes dress up as a political cause things that are closely related to the making of money. Some have profited by attachment, one way or another, to one or other of the external forces which have arrived in Lebanon—the Syrians, the Israelis and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Therefore, there are those who, sadly, have a vested interest in the maintenance of the horror. Apart from those, I agree with my hon. Friend that ordinary Lebanese from any community—Shi'ites, Sunnis, Christians—long for the departure of the external forces.

My hon. Friend is right to speak as he did about General Aoun, for his most bitter opponent would not doubt his patriotism or his honesty of purpose, and he is supported in his enclave by both Moslems and Christians. We have to weigh our words when we talk because they have some reverberation. My hon. Friend said that the words of a French minister might have more reverberation than ours, but we are permament members of the Security Council and we have long experience of, and influence in, the area. Therefore, when we are speaking as Ministers, it behoves us to judge what we say. I make no criticism of my hon. Friend because it is legitimate for him to see what he has seen and say what he has said on the basis of his own experience and research.

I have a slightly different responsibility. My anxiety is this. If the British Government were to commit themselves to a line of policy that made it look as though we were ready to intervene, whether militarily or in any other way, which we are not and cannot be, to rescue a Christian enclave under invasion, we might ourselves have caused those in the Christian enclave, and General Aoun, to misjudge the extent to which the conflict would be internationalised, and the interventions that would result. Above all, we must recognise the history of external interventions in the Lebanon recently. It is not now 1958, when American marines landed. In that near post-colonial time, order could be re-established relatively easily. That world has passed. No American aircraft carrier or battleship can restore order in the Lebanon. No arriving French or British soldiers with bases in the region and with friends and Governments willing to act with them throughout the middle east, as was still the case in 1958, could impose a solution from outside.

Mr. Brazier

I suggested that we should restore the rule of international law in international waters by clearing the blockade. That is something that we have done recently. The West has done it collectively in part of the Gulf where a much larger scale conflict was taking place until last year.

Mr. Waldegrave

It is true that our own ships and those which carried our flag, along with American ships and those which sought the protection of the American flag, did enable the complement of British and, ultimately more important in the scale of events, American naval forces to continue their passage to and fro in the Gulf. There is a long history of blockades in the Levant. In recent years, too, the Israelis have intervened on many occasions to stop ships. They have searched ships widely if they believed that that was necessary for their security. We deplore blockades, and my hon. Friend is right to say that on many occasions international law is being flouted. I must not give any signal to those who might then take action which might end in even worse tragedy that there is any immediate prospect of the Royal Navy or, as far as I know, the American navy, coming to the aid of those who are seeking to bring supplies or weapons into the Lebanon. I must make it clear that we do not think that it is possible for sheer straightforward military action to drive the Syrians out. We want the Syrians to go. We believe that the Lebanese should be allowed—they have the right—to seek their own future without intervention. We want the Israelis to go. We deeply regret the intervention of Iranian proxies, which only complicates the situation further. We do not think that anything will be gained by Iraqi intervention, which often follows the mirror image of Syrian intervention. If the Lebanon becomes the playground or the battleground, by proxy, of all these external forces, there is no hope.

We must analyse what is the best way forward. We believe that those Arab countries which have great power, both financial and otherwise, over many of the key players, must take the responsibility in this new world in which we can no longer look to the disposition of events by external super-power agreement or ex-colonial power agreement. It must be for the regional powers to take responsibility themselves. We are doing what we can to back the Arab League interventions, and they are extremely important. Nothing that we would want to do should be seen as undermining the action that the Committee of Three is trying to take to achieve, first, and above all, a ceasefire. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was quite right when he said that the shelling in the past few days has been intense and some of the worst in the whole period from both sides, and there have been many casualties on both sides.

Secondly, there is a need to find a forum somewhere, perhaps outside the Lebanon, where people can talk and begin to put together what is bound to be necessary—a new constitutional settlement. Many on the Christian side recognise that. My hon. Friend is aware of the demographic changes that have taken place since the original settlement. There will be a need, I am sure, in future for constitutional change. As that change is discussed, in parallel with it must come pressures above all from the Arab world, and from those who have direct influence on Syria, such as the Soviet Union. We have talked about these matters to the Soviet Union. Pressure must come for the Syrians to withdraw, but not by using the excuse of the Israelis. We on our part should bring pressure on the Israelis to withdraw. That is not certain of success, but it is the only hope of a way forward.

My hon. Friend urges us to analyse our policy again. We do not overestimate our influence, but I shall respond to his request by making sure that we do not for a moment take our eyes off the Lebanon. If we can make any practical intervention to carry forward the process towards peace, we shall make it, with the one proviso that we must be careful not to encourage a belief that only a military solution is possible.