HC Deb 02 July 2003 vol 408 cc139-46WH

4.7 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to debate the important subject of Syria. Together with nine other right hon. and hon. Members, I was fortunate enough to be part of a delegation sponsored by the Syrian-British Society that visited Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo at the end of May. I wish to take this opportunity to thank the society for its kind sponsorship of our delegation and to thank the Syrian Government for their generous hospitality. I would also like to express gratitude for the support of the ambassador and his staff.

In order to give others an opportunity to contribute to this short debate, I intend to confine my remarks to two issues that are of key importance; first, the economic links between our two countries and, secondly, the important position that Syria occupies in the politics of the middle east.

Despite recent difficulties that we all know about, Syria and the UK are already engaged in significant trade. In 2002, the UK exported £83 million worth of goods to Syria and imported £117 million, representing increases on the previous year of 26 per cent. and 33 per cent. respectively. As a delegation, we were united in urging the Syrian Government to continue and, indeed, to speed up the process of economic reform. They already have powerful incentives to do so through their association agreement with the European Union and, of course, programmes of the IMF and the World Bank.

We recognise that liberalising banking is crucial to the process of wider economic reform. In that context, we welcome the work in which the Government and the British Council are engaged to help bank employees with training and to provide English language training through the British Council. That is crucial to the expansion of trade. However, I firmly believe that there is greater scope for that source of co-operation and assistance and that in economic and trade terms the mutual benefits are great.

The serious political importance of the relationship to the long-term stability of the region should not he understated. The strengthening relationship between the two Governments is welcomed in Syria, particularly the warm relationship that has developed between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Bashar. As a delegation, we made it clear to those we met, including the President, that obstacles must be overcome, certainly if Syria is to maximise its influence. Human rights and the need for political reform are two issues on which we pressed very hard. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) has some comments to make on human rights, so I shall not say too much about that. However, as the Syrian Government are aware, there is a problem with their image.

In the wider world, whatever the merits of President Bush's classification of Syria as part of the so-called "axis of evil", it cannot be ignored. Whatever reasons groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas may have for operating in Syria, the fact that they are there inevitably leads to suspicion and mistrust.

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea)

As part of the delegation, I endorse the opening comments and warm thanks expressed by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) to the parties involved.

On the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, perhaps the hon. Gentleman recollects that we were given three arguments. First, the offices had already been closed by the organisations concerned, so there was no need for Syrian Government action. Secondly, the offices were largely involved in humanitarian work. Thirdly, they were not really terrorist organisations because, in the context of occupation of the occupied territories, they were regarded as freedom fighters. Whatever the truth of the first two arguments and the merits of the third, which I do not accept, does the hon. Gentleman agree that they were not convincing for a British delegation? Does he agree there has been a continued missed opportunity, particularly in view of the progress that is now being made with the road map negotiations? Will he urge his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to use his good offices with President Bashar with regard to this matter? I believe that it would be to Syria's advantage if it made an important move in that direction.

Mr. Howarth

I agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman said. I simply make the point that whichever of the three arguments are employed, the fact is that the continued presence of groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Syria—whether they are in offices or elsewhere—inevitably leads to suspicion and mistrust. I accept entirely that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a powerful role to play in persuading the President and the Government that they must be seen to act. Being seen to act is almost as important as the action itself.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we were told that efforts are under way to deal with the issue, but it continues to have a corrosive effect on international perception of Syria. Addressing such issues is essential for two reasons. First, as the right hon. Gentleman said, these issues inevitably damage Syria's reputation in some important parts of the world. Secondly, it acts as a serious barrier to the role that I believe Syria can play in the peace process and in taking part positively to deliver the road map.

Shortage of time limits the ground that I can cover, but I leave my hon. Friend the Minister with one clear message. The UK is a constructive but at times critical friend to Syria, and we have a pivotal position to play in encouraging and supporting economic reform and in supporting and encouraging Syria's potential as a political force for good, particularly in the middle east. I know that the Syrian-British Society is able to help, and I urge the Government to work with it so that our bilateral relations can continue to develop in a friendly and mutually beneficial manner.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the warm welcome given to the delegation—as a member, I thank all those who helped us on our visit—included a welcome to the idea of the BBC opening a permanent office in Damascus? That would be another excellent way to deal with the problem of perception. Will he suggest that our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary encourage the BBC to open in Damascus, as it would be able to give a true picture of what is going on in Syria instead of the distorted perception that we often receive?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend has made his point well, and I support him. There are many misconceptions about Syria. In many ways, it is a religiously tolerant country. We were all hugely grateful for the warmth and friendliness of the people of Syria. The more that that side of Syria is exposed to the media, and thus to the wider world, the better it will be for Syrian relations with others.

I conclude by saying that, as was demonstrated in their interventions, many hon. Members stand ready to help the Government in their efforts to improve relationships. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to make use of us whenever he thinks it could help the Government in their wish for better understanding.

4.16 pm
Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) on securing this important debate. I thank him for allowing me some of his time, as I wish to make a few points on human rights. I, too, was privileged-I use that word advisedly-to be part of the delegation. Perhaps I should not say so, but I thought that it was an excellent delegation with an excellent mix of Members. I am delighted to see the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and my hon. Friend Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) in their places today. I thought that they made a substantial contribution to the political dialogue while we were in Damascus and elsewhere in Syria.

It is clear that there is much potential in our bilateral relationship with Syria, and that the UK has many friends and much influence in Syria. As my hon. Friend said, we need to make more of that. Just as our talks in Syria were characterised by frankness on both sides, so do I want to be candid when considering the issue of human rights. In that subject, as in a number of others, Syria, as my hon. Friend said, must to address the reality and perception. In my view, the overseas perception of Syria does not facilitate its advancement in the global community.

It has to be said that Syria's record on human rights is poor. In my view, it has not done enough to address the concerns that we and others have on the subject. For example, there are widespread reports on the use of torture in prisons, and Syria has yet to sign up to the convention against torture. That and the security services' lack of accountability give cause for concern.

I am a little saddened that the pro-democracy civil society groups that were established following positive initial moves after the accession of President Bashar have since stalled and that many of them have been closed. Two members of Parliament and eight other high-profile civil society advocates who subsequently continued their activities were arrested this year. All were sentenced to periods of between two and a half and 10 years imprisonment on charges of illegally trying to change the constitution, weakening national unity and increasing sectarian strife.

Of course, I welcome the release—at about the time when we were in Damascus—of Ibrahim Hamidi, who was accused of disseminating false information. To a degree, however, the damage has already been done. Nevertheless, there have been some positives since Bashar became President: the release of up to 600 political prisoners, mostly as the result of a presidential amnesty; the fact that diplomats were allowed to attend the trial of the two members of Parliament; the granting of licences to independent publications; the accession to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, and a number of other things.

I remain concerned about the overall human rights performance. We missed no opportunity to raise that point when we visited. Dozens of people were arrested during the year on political grounds and hundreds of political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, continue to be held.

We, and our EU partners, have continued to lobby over recent cases but with little success. The continued arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, detention of political prisoners and torture run contrary to human rights norms. Syria is, in many respects, a tolerant society; exceptionally so in respect of religious freedoms. I urge the Syrian authorities to act on human rights now—I did the same in Damascus—and to understand that their practices in that regard damage their standing. They must work to improve both their human rights and their image overseas. There is much good will and friendship towards President Bashar and the Syrian people. In Britain, there is a diaspora of considerable power and force. Let us work together to increase understanding of Syria.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to those who accompanied us on our visit to Syria; Dr. Fawaz Akhras, Mr. Wafic Said, Mr. Gayth Armanazi and, of course, the ambassador, who was with us throughout. It would be remiss of me if I did not thank also the late Fouad Takla. I had not met him until our visit, but in that short time, I came to know him as a man of great humour, character and integrity. He was a man of Horns and a man of considerable achievement. I hope that my friends will join me in sending condolences to his family.

4.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell)

I start by endorsing those last comments.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) on securing the debate. I get the sense that he did it not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of his colleagues who took part in the visit. Such visits are constructive and useful and can only help to improve and secure relations between Syria and the UK, and help the development of that country and the middle east in general. In response to his specific point, I would say that the Foreign Office welcomes the work of the Syrian-British Society and wishes to see it enhanced.

The United Kingdom and Syria certainly do not see eye to eye on a number of issues. The Syrian Government would be the first to acknowledge that. However, we are fortunate in having a relationship that allows us to discuss our concerns and disagreements frankly and openly, without preventing the UK from assisting Syria, when it can, in its attempts at reform. We recognise that there is much that we can do with Syria, and we are keen to develop the relationship; at its heart is the fervent support of both the Prime Minister and President Bashar, who have a strong working relationship, as my hon. Friend said. The President's visits to the UK last December as a guest of this Government underlined and reinforced that relationship.

I want to say a few words about our relationship in general. Some people might ask why we are dealing with a country that some people believe is a former ally of Saddam Hussein, a state sponsor of terrorism and an occupier of Lebanon. If we are to make progress in our relations with Syria, we must acknowledge that Syria has made mistakes and that its image is badly tarnished. That does not mean, however, that Syria cannot change or that it does not matter; in fact, it means the complete reverse. Syria still strongly influences Arab opinion. It has a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and is central to our efforts to secure a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab countries. In a sense, to say that Syria does matter is to state the obvious. It is up to us to convince Syria and President Bashar that change is fundamentally necessary.

It is also a statement of the obvious, although I believe it to be true, to say that, in many ways, Syria is at a crossroads, and that there are important decisions to be taken and hard choices to be made. We hope that President Bashar and his Government will choose wisely and that they will make a decisive break with the policies of the past. We hope that they will contribute to a better future for Syria and the region. Through dialogue, we hope that we can help Syria to make the right choices for herself and her people. It is down not only to us. Syria, too, must act and move forward. A willingness to continue to co-operate on the key questions of Iraq and of reining in the Palestinian rejectionist groups is most important.

It would be remiss of me not to point out another problem, to which several hon. Friends referred; the important failing of Syria's public diplomacy. In the past, Syria deserved its reputation, but much of the bad press is self-generated. Syria has failed to present its policies more clearly and to take a more constructive approach to international issues. We want to continue to discuss those matters with the Syrian Government. Nevertheless, Syria has a good record on women's rights, and stands out in the middle east for the harmonious relations between Christian and Muslim communities. That record stands strongly in its favour, and we should do everything that we can to support it.

I want to examine more closely some of the key aspects of our relationship. I shall start by talking about the positive ones. Most importantly, our relationship with Syria is two-way. Both sides are genuinely willing to listen to each other and to place an importance on developing that relationship. We are committed to continuing to increase high-level contacts. This year alone, the Minister for Trade and Investment, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), visited Damascus twice. The Prime Minister and President Bashar speak on the telephone, most recently at Syria's request, and the Foreign Secretary speaks to his opposite number. That relationship is enhanced by often candid exchanges and a sense of trust rather than animosity; an essential ingredient of any continuing relationship.

It is all very well to talk in those terms, but what practical results have our relationship brought? There have been encouraging signs. As hon. Members have said, Syria is changing, albeit slowly. Economic reform, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East referred, is fundamentally necessary after four decades of a command economy, and is essential to Syria's long-term aspirations. Those changes and reforms are, at long last, picking up pace.

New legislation has seen the granting of three licences that allow foreign banks to operate in Syria for the first time, which is a very welcome development. We hope to encourage further liberalisation in the financial sector through the visit next week of the Lord Mayor, Gavin Arthur, who will be accompanied by a delegation of British business men and representatives from the Bank of England. Such exchanges can only help this process.

We are working with the Syrians on another key area of reform; public administration. The UK has helped to design an IT strategy specific to Syria's requirements. We hope that IT wil form an important part of Syria's attempts to reform its administration. The strategy was recently adopted by the Syrian Cabinet and has the President's full support. The British Council plays an important role through its assistance with the IT strategy and capacity building in universities. Education is equally important to Syria's future, so it is important that we also help in that sphere. As I said, there is much that we can do with Syria. Equally, there is much that Syria can do for itself.

Let me move on to the more difficult issues. It may be sensible to start with Iraq. We welcomed the strong Syrian vote in favour of Security Council resolution 1441 in November. However, Syria's support for the Iraqi regime, through the supply of weapons, support for the recruitment of volunteer fighters and the harbouring of regime figures—whether or not that has been sanctioned by the President—has, to say the least, been regrettable. That left the Syrian Government needing to rethink their policy and quickly realign themselves following the conflict with Iraq. Encouragingly, Syria looks to be doing that. I believe that Syria is attempting to put past misjudgments behind it.

As a close neighbour, Syria is naturally concerned about Iraq's future, We understand that and have sought to involve Syria in planning for Iraq's future. We have shared our vision with the Syrians, and Syria has, in general, been receptive to our thinking. More positively, the Syrian Government have sought to remain engaged with us on the subject, offering thoughts, suggestions and contributions. I very much welcome that.

The significant changes in the region following the Iraq conflict may have had a positive impact on Syria's thinking and attitude, on its stance on the peace process in the middle east generally and on its position on the quartet's road map for peace in particular. Syria suddenly found itself almost alone among its neighbours, which were fully supportive of the latest peace initiative. We and others encouraged it to take a more constructive approach, and there is strong evidence that that is happening. Syria has said that if the road map is acceptable to Palestinians—I remind hon. Members of the commitment of Prime Minister Abbas—it is acceptable to the Syrians. Syria still has reservations, primarily about where its own concerns on the Golan refugees fit in, but it is showing more interest and calling for a detailed road map specific to those concerns. That is a positive development. We should build on that co-operation and that increase in understanding.

However, a continuing concern involves the Palestinian rejectionist groups and Hezbollah. My hon. Friends referred to that in detail. There is no real evidence to suggest that Syria directly provides funding, weapons or training to those groups, but allowing them to operate out of Syria and openly providing ideological support serves only to damage the peace process. As a candid friend, we should be able to say that. We have called on Syria to temper its rhetoric and to shut down rejectionist offices. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) rightly referred to that.

More recent utterings from Damascus have been more encouraging. We urge people to continue that process, because curbing the actions of rejectionist groups is crucial to the road map's success. We have repeatedly told the Syrians that they have a key part to play in bringing an end to the violence in the occupied territories. I hope that that role will continue.

This issue was not referred to in the debate, but is worth highlighting. Some would argue that the Syrians occupy Lebanon and that the Lebanese Government are merely puppets of the Syrian Government. I think that that is a distortion of the truth. Lebanon has a thriving free market, a large measure of freedom of expression and a functioning, albeit idiosyncratic, democracy. Although Syria has a degree of influence in Lebanon, its presence has the support not only of the Lebanese Government but, significantly, of the majority of the electorate. Hon. Members would support that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) also referred, quite properly, to concerns about human rights. It is worth highlighting the fact that Syria has made only limited progress in that regard, despite being repeatedly urged by our EU partners and us to move in that direction. My hon. Friend referred to the 600 political prisoners who have been released over the last three years, which we welcome, and to the key release late last year under the presidential amnesty of the prominent civil rights activist Riad al-Turk. However, there is a considerable degree of further progress to be made. The continued practices of arbitrary arrests, unfair trials, the detention of political prisoners and torture run fundamentally contrary to international human rights norms. In that regard, the comments that my hon. Friend made about the need for Syria to sign up to the convention on torture is an argument that is effective and well made. There is no excuse not to address those human rights concerns and we shall certainly continue to push Syria on such issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East raised two key points, the first of which was about the Foreign Office looking both to work with the group in question and to see its work helping the work that we do. I should like to give assent to that proposal; perhaps we can discuss it in another forum. His other point was about the BBC office in Syria; I make it clear that that decision is for the BBC to take, but we would be supportive, because that could help to open up the process.

Where do we go from here? We take the view that our approach and our policy of critical engagement can be worth while and we wish to continue with that. Syria has, admittedly, got a lot to do, but it is moving in the right direction. It is important that Syria continues to work on these issues; in particular, an EU association agreement and membership of the WTO will help in that regard. However, it is important that we remain critically engaged with Syria. If we continue to do that and Syria continues to respond, things can develop in a positive direction. Debates such as this one, which follows what I can see has been a successful visit, can only help in that regard. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Five o'clock.