Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
William Hague (The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the crisis in Syria.
The time has come to announce to the House necessary developments in our policy, and our readiness to develop it further if the bloodshed continues. Two years after it began, the conflict has reached catastrophic proportions. Ten thousand people have died since I last updated the House in early January. That means that more people have died in the first two months of this year than in the whole of the first year of the conflict. The total estimated death toll is now more than 70,000. The regime has used Scud ballistic missiles against civilian areas, and the UN commission of inquiry for Syria has found evidence of grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including massacres, torture, summary executions and a systematic policy of rape and sexual violence by the regime’s forces and its militia.
A year ago, 1 million people needed humanitarian aid inside Syria. That figure is now up to 4 million people, out of a total population of 21 million. Forty thousand people are fleeing Syria each week; three quarters of them are women and children. The number of refugees has increased thirtyfold in the past 10 months, and today the sad milestone of 1 million refugees has been reached. The population of Lebanon, which I visited two weeks ago, has risen by 10% owing to the influx of destitute people. This is a desperate situation of increasingly extreme humanitarian suffering.
There is no sign that the Assad regime currently intends to enter into a genuine political process. It appears to believe that it can defeat its opponents militarily, and it counts on being shielded by some countries at the United Nations Security Council. It will be necessary to turn each of those calculations on its head if the conflict is to come to a peaceful end.
Securing a diplomatic breakthrough remains, of course, our objective. Last week, I discussed Syria with the new US Secretary of State John Kerry here in London, and with other close partners in a core group meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People in Rome. In Rome, I met President al-Khatib of the Syrian National Coalition, and welcomed his brave announcement that the National Coalition is open to direct talks with members of the Assad regime. We continue our efforts to develop common ground with Russia. I will have talks with Russian deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov later this afternoon, and next week with Foreign Minister Lavrov, also here in London. At the end of January, the UN and Arab League special representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, set out a credible plan for the establishment of a transitional authority in Syria. We are working with allies to achieve, if at all possible, Security Council backing for a transition process, and I am meeting Mr Brahimi again this afternoon.
However, the fact remains that diplomacy is taking far too long and the prospect of an immediate breakthrough is slim. Each month of violence in Syria means more death, wider destruction, larger numbers of refugees and bloodier military confrontation. The international community cannot stand still in the face of this reality. Our policy has to move towards more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria. That means stepping up our support to the opposition and thereby increasing
the pressure on the regime to accept a political solution. What we face is not a choice between diplomacy on the one hand and practical assistance on the other; helping the opposition is crucial to bringing about a political transition and saving lives, and both must be pursued together. We will always be careful in how we develop our policy, but our readiness to develop it further should be unmistakable, particularly to the Assad regime.
What happens in Syria is vital to our national interest for three reasons. The first is the growth of extremism. We should never forget that the vast majority of those opposing the regime are ordinary people trying to defend their communities and gain freedom for their country. However, Syria today has become the top destination for jihadists from anywhere in the world, and we are already seeing a rise in sectarian violence and attacks using improvised explosive devices, including car bombs. We cannot allow Syria to become another breeding ground for terrorists who pose a threat to our national security.
Secondly, the crisis is undermining the peace of the region. On top of the refugee crisis, there have been reports of clashes on the Iraqi border and in Lebanon. We are increasingly concerned about the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons and have warned the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would lead to a serious response from the international community. Those who order the use of chemical weapons and those who use them will be held to account. There is also credible information that, through its Revolutionary Guard corps, Iran is providing considerable military support to the regime, including personnel, equipment, weapons and direct financial assistance.
Thirdly, we and our allies must always be prepared to respond to situations of extreme humanitarian distress. Our foreign policy is inseparable from upholding human rights, protecting lives and supporting international law. We must assist the genuine moderate and democratic forces in Syria who are in dire need of help and who feel abandoned by the international community. The longer this conflict goes on, the more human suffering, persecution of minorities, radicalisation and sectarian conflict there will be.
Despite these three compelling arguments, there will still be those who say that Britain should have nothing to do with Syria, but we cannot look the other way while international law and human rights are flouted, we cannot step back from a crisis that could destabilise the heart of the middle east, and it would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore potential threats to our own security. I want to explain to the House, therefore, the next step in increasing our support to the Syrian people, and I emphasise that there may well have to be further steps.
We have contributed nearly £140 million in humanitarian aid so far. This is funding food, clean drinking water, medical assistance, blankets and shelter for many tens of thousands of people. We are supporting the Syrian National Coalition’s own efforts to deliver aid inside Syria, and we will seek new ways to relieve the humanitarian crisis and to expand access to aid across the country, while preparing to help a future Government deal with the aftermath of the conflict.
We have also committed a total of £9.4 million so far in non-lethal support, such as power generators and communications kit, to the Syrian opposition, civil
society and human rights defenders. We have trained more than 300 Syrian journalists and activists and are providing satellite communication devices to document human rights violations and abuses.
I informed the House in January that we would seek to amend EU sanctions on Syria to open up the possibility of further assistance if the situation deteriorated. On Thursday, we finalised with our European partners a specific exemption to the EU sanctions to permit the provision of non-lethal military equipment and all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition where it is intended for the protection of civilians.
This is an important advance in our ability to support the opposition and help save lives. Such technical assistance can include assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime; on co-ordination between civilian and military councils; on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them; and on how to maintain security during a transition. We will now provide such assistance, advice and training.
We intend to respond to the opposition’s request to provide equipment for search and rescue operations and for incinerators and refuse collection kit to prevent the spread of disease. We will help local councils to access funds and equipment to repair electricity and water supplies to homes, and we will respond to the opposition’s request for further water purification kits and equipment to help civilian political leaders operate and communicate.
We will also now provide new types of non-lethal equipment for the protection of civilians, going beyond what we have given before. In conjunction with the National Coalition, we are identifying the protective equipment that will be of most assistance to them and likely to save the most lives. I will keep the House updated, but it will certainly include, for instance, armoured four-wheel drive vehicles to help opposition figures move around more freely as well as personal protection equipment including body armour.
We will now also be able to provide testing equipment to the opposition to enable evidence gathering in the horrific event of chemical weapons use. We will also fund training to help armed groups understand their responsibilities and obligations under international law and international human rights standards. Any human rights violations or abuses are unacceptable on all sides. We have allocated nearly £3 million in funding this month to support this work and an additional £10 million thereafter, comprising $20 million in non-lethal equipment and practical support for the Syrian opposition and civil society on top of the $60 million announced by the United States. We hope other countries will offer similar assistance.
The Cabinet is in no doubt that this is a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering and that there is no practicable alternative. All our assistance will be carefully calibrated and monitored, as well as legal, and will be aimed at saving life, alleviating this human catastrophe and supporting moderate groups. The process of amending the EU sanctions regime in this way was difficult, and the decision came down to the wire. We persisted with it because we believe it is preferable to have a united EU approach. In our view, if a political solution to the crisis in Syria is not found and the conflict
continues, we and the rest of the European Union will have to be ready to move further, and we should not rule out any option for saving lives. In case further necessary amendments to the EU sanctions regime prove impossible to agree, we stand ready to take any domestic measures necessary to ensure that core sanctions on Syria remain effective.
This is a situation in Syria where extreme humanitarian distress and growing dangers to international peace and security must weigh increasingly heavily in the balance against other risks. With the crisis now becoming one of major dimensions by any standard—with millions of people on the move, many tens of thousands dead, tens of thousands more in daily danger of losing their lives, the world’s most volatile region in growing tension and political deadlock that has endured for two years—our policy cannot be static nor our position indifferent. A situation of growing gravity requires a steadily more active approach, learning the lessons of previous conflicts and always emphasising the need for a political and diplomatic resolution of the crisis, but crucially also being prepared to use increased pressure and levers to try to bring that about. We will continue to keep the House properly informed as we press for an end to the conflict, provide life-saving assistance and work to ensure that Syria has the political transition its people need and deserve, and which they have now waited far too long to see achieved.
Douglas Alexander (Shadow Foreign Secretary; Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Labour)
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this morning.
This month marks the second anniversary of the start of this brutal conflict. As the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out to the House, two years on, the death toll is now estimated at some 70,000 and is rising by the day. Only today the United Nations announced that the number of Syrian refugees had now reached 1 million. Half are children. More than 400,000 have become refugees since
“Syria is spiralling towards full-scale disaster”.
As the number of casualties rises, frustrations too have been growing. That has understandably led to renewed calls for the international community to do more. The primary responsibility for the crisis rests with Assad and his regime, but does the Foreign Secretary accept that the deteriorating situation in Syria also represents an abject failure by the international community and that it shares a collective responsibility for that failure? It is right that efforts must now intensify, but the key issue is the breadth of those efforts, how they are channelled and how likely they are to deliver results.
There are some vital areas where the international community must better co-ordinate and target its efforts. First, on international diplomatic efforts, the stalemate at the United Nations Security Council is more than just frustrating; it is deplorable. The case must be made to Russia and China that supporting or aiding Assad not only harms Syria but harms their own interests, and indeed their standing in the wider region. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what representations he will
make to Foreign Minister Lavrov when he is in London next week on this issue and the prospects of a change of position in the Security Council?
Secondly, 11 separate rounds of sanctions against Syria have already been agreed. The issue at present is not necessarily new sanctions, but effective enforcement of existing ones. Given the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Lebanon, does he agree that more must be done to ensure that countries fully comply with the existing sanctions to which they have already signed up?
Thirdly, on international accountability, the responsibility for the crisis primarily rests with the Assad regime, as I have made clear, and the perpetrators must ultimately be held to account. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that efforts to collect and publish the names of Syrian army officers ordering the ongoing atrocities are vital? Such efforts could serve as a clear signal of intent that those officers will face the full force of international justice for their crimes—and of course that includes the use of chemical weapons.
Fourthly, on the issue of peace talks, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian National Coalition, last month reportedly offered to engage in talks on a political settlement without demanding Assad’s resignation. In an interview last week, Assad claimed that he was
“ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants who surrender their arms.”
Neither of those offers has yet been accepted and nor can we make a judgment as to the spirit in which they were intended, but will the Foreign Secretary offer his assessment of whether they constitute even a slight narrowing of the gap between the Syrian authorities and opposition forces?
Finally, let me turn to the central issue of the UK’s support for the Syrian opposition and the announcements in today’s statements. It is right that the UK is at the forefront of co-ordinating international efforts to deliver aid to those most in need, both within and beyond the Syrian borders, and I welcome recent announcements to that effect. Beyond humanitarian assistance, when it comes to our support for the Syrian opposition forces, it is vital that all our support must continue to be targeted and accountable if it is to be effective.
The Foreign Secretary has today said that the Government will move towards
“more active efforts to prevent the loss of life in Syria.”
It is right that the international community must increase its efforts, but it is vital that the parameters of those efforts are clearly set out, defined and understood. Indeed, on this issue, the Foreign Secretary’s statement at times raised more questions than answers as to the real direction he is suggesting for British Government policy.
The Foreign Secretary has today spoken of the amendments to the EU arms embargo. I welcome the fact that those changes were collectively agreed at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. Those amendments were focused on ensuring that the right to non-lethal equipment and technical assistance could be delivered to opposition forces, but the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East
Devon (Mr Swire), seemed to add confusion to an already complex issue when he told the House on Monday that this
“is not about lifting any arms embargo.”
However, he also said that the recent amendments to the existing EU arms embargo were about
“ensuring that all options are on the table and that EU countries have maximum flexibility to provide the opposition with all necessary assistance to protect civilians.”—[Hansard, 4 March 2013; Vol. 559, c. 674-76.]
Given those statements, it is understandable that there is some confusion over the Government’s position that requires further clarification. Will the Foreign Secretary say more about the next steps that he mentioned in his statement? Will he confirm whether the Government will push for an EU arms embargo to be lifted? Will he also set out what, if any, further amendments to the embargo he will call for?
The Foreign Secretary has recently admitted that, when it comes to lifting the arms embargo, the risk of arms falling into the wrong hands is
“one of the reasons we don’t do it now.”
We agree that that risk is, indeed, very serious, so will he set out what would have to change on the ground in Syria for him to change his view on the relative risks involved in such a strategy? Does he accept the reality that today’s Syria is replete with arms, and does he also accept the great difficulties involved in guaranteeing the end use of weapons, given the lack of clarity today about the identity, intent and, indeed, tactics of some of the rebel forces? Does he accept that it is perfectly possible that, if Europe or, indeed, the west more generally, were to decide to arm the rebels, Russia or, indeed, Iran, which he referenced in his remarks, would simply increase its provision of arms to the Assad regime? Rather than pushing for the EU arms embargo to be relaxed, amended or lifted altogether, may I urge the Foreign Secretary to direct his efforts towards getting the Russians and Chinese to agree to impose a UN-mandated arms embargo? This would undeniably be the most effective way of cutting off a key lifeline to the Assad regime that it is currently relying on.
Curiously, having previously mentioned the fact that al-Qaeda is known to be operating in Syria, the Foreign Secretary was silent on that issue in his remarks today. In the light of potential increased UK support for the opposition forces, will he set out the British Government’s assessment of the present level of activity by al-Qaeda and related jihadist groups in Syria?
The Foreign Secretary spoke about the Syrian National Coalition, but is he able to give any assurances about the degree of authority and control exercised by the SNC over the wide range of opposition forces operating on the ground?
John Bercow (Speaker)
Order. I am mildly alarmed by my sight of a further full page of text in front of the right hon. Gentleman, but I know he will put my mind at rest when he tells me that, in fact, it relates to something entirely different and he does not intend to deal with it.
Douglas Alexander (Shadow Foreign Secretary; Paisley and Renfrewshire South, Labour)
One of my missions is to always seek to put your mind at rest, Mr Speaker, so I will endeavour to keep my remarks as short as possible. In my own defence, I would simply say that, by way of introduction,
I understand that the frustrations of Government Members are growing, but a strategy born of frustration is less likely to deliver than one based on clear thinking and strategic insight. Surely the priority now for Britain should be to work to unify the Syrian opposition, not to arm it. The continuing loss of life underlines the fact that Syria needs to see a de-escalation and a political resolution. Although the Government have our support for their actions to provide the humanitarian and non-lethal assistance to Syria announced today, it is far from clear that taking steps to intensify this conflict in the months ahead would do anything to reduce the present level of violence being suffered by the Syrian people.
William Hague (The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
The right hon. Gentleman correctly draws attention, as I have done, to the extent of the human suffering. The fact that the United Nations has launched the largest ever financial appeal for humanitarian assistance underlines the catastrophic scale of that suffering. We must all remember that that is the background to the situation and to deciding what we have to do.
The right hon. Gentleman made some recommendations towards the end of his remarks, some of which we have done, including work to unify the Syrian opposition, which, of course, is what we did for many months. They have been unified, to the extent that it can be practically achieved, in the Syrian National Coalition and we have recognised that group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. I do not suppose that any opposition or political grouping will be perfect in the eyes of this or any other country, but I do not believe that there will be a better attempt or greater success at unifying the Syrian opposition than the national coalition.
It would be wonderful if some of the right hon. Gentleman’s other recommendations could be achieved, including Russian and Chinese agreement to impose an arms embargo of the whole world on Syria. We would, of course, support that—we will go over this ground in our meetings with the Russians this afternoon and next week—but I have not seen any prospect of Russia agreeing to such an arms embargo. It is a good thing to wish for, but in practical, diplomatic terms there is no possibility at the moment of it being achieved. That is the background to the decisions that we have to make. Many things would be far preferable, such as an immediate agreement on a negotiated political transition in Syria.
The right hon. Gentleman asked, rightly, how seriously we should take the offers to negotiate. Having talked to President al-Khatib of the National Coalition last week, I believe not only that his offer is sincere but that he would love it to be taken up and that he really would negotiate with members of the regime without prior insistence on the departure of Assad. However, President Assad’s insistence during his weekend interview that the regime is ready to negotiate is something that we have heard for two years but that has never turned into actual substance. Of course, we will discuss with Mr Brahimi again this afternoon whether those statements can be used to bring both sides closer together. It is part of his job to try to do that. The evidence of the past two years, however, is that, in current circumstances, offers to negotiate by the regime are not sincere, are not followed up and do not lead to the sort of progress that we all want to see.
It is against that background of diplomatic deadlock and political stalemate while tens of thousands die that I argue that we have to do what we can in a very cautious, considered and clearly thought-out way to try to change that situation and to save human lives as best we can, working at all times with our partners and allies, including those in the Arab world. There is a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Arab League today.
We will continue to use every diplomatic effort, but the situation that the right hon. Gentleman and I are describing cannot remain static. He is quite right to say that the international community has been an abject failure collectively. The United Nations Security Council has not shouldered its responsibilities. We have tried many times to put that right, but our resolutions have been vetoed. We have been working in the last month since Mr Brahimi’s last briefing to the Security Council to find a new common way forward for the council—we will discuss that again with the Russians in the coming hours—but that common ground has not emerged in a month of discussions behind the scenes in New York.
Given that situation, we all have to ask ourselves whether we are going to hold our policy completely static or show that we are prepared to change as the situation deteriorates—reluctantly perhaps, and cautiously at all times. I argue that we must be prepared to show an increased level of support for the opposition, and that it has to take a practical form if we are to exert any pressure on the regime—and, indeed, on Russia as well—to successfully negotiate on this matter. The parameters have, I hope, been clearly set out in my statement. They are clearly set out in the amendment to the United Nations arms embargo. It is amended, not lifted. The arms embargo remains in place; these are specific exemptions for non-lethal military equipment and for technical assistance for the protection of civilians. I have just given examples of what that means in practice.
As for the future, the EU sanctions have now been rolled over, with that amendment, for three months. There will therefore be a further discussion in May about the renewal of such sanctions, and the Government—and every Member of this House—will be able to form their views on what we should do, in whatever situation we have arrived at in May, about further amendments to the embargo, if they are necessary. I think the parameters are clear. The policy is clear, and above all I want to make it clear that its direction is clear: we must be prepared to do more in a situation of such slaughter and suffering, and a more static policy would not measure up to the gravity of the situation.
Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington, Conservative)
While I welcome the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s speech and the specific measures that he has announced, I regret to say that I cannot see how any of them will have any serious prospect of reducing the length of the conflict or preventing the massacre of tens of thousands more Syrians. Will he accept that, until such time as the Syrian opposition have the military equipment that will enable them to defeat the Assad regime and thereby bring the conflict to an end earlier than would otherwise be the case, we will continue to see tens of thousands of people being killed and the extremists in the opposition benefiting from that delay? What would the Foreign
Secretary have to be persuaded of, in order to accept that giving military support to the opposition in a controlled and responsible way is indeed necessary?
William Hague (The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)
What I—and, I suspect, most of the House—would have to be persuaded of is that there was absolutely no alternative remaining. My right hon. and learned Friend has put the case—for a long time, actually—for going much further than I have proposed today in regard to the arming of the opposition movements in Syria by western countries. The difficulties involved in doing that have partly been set out by Mr Alexander, but we also have to recognise that that conflict in Syria is already militarised. Opposition groups have access to substantial quantities of weapons, and those weapons are already inside Syria. There is such a flow of weapons. I therefore believe that it is right for the development of our policy to be graduated, for us to show our readiness to deliver increased assistance and for the European countries and the United States to be willing to amend our policy if the situation continues to deteriorate, but in a way that will command general support and that will pose the least danger to the increased militarisation of the conflict. That is why I think this is the right balance to strike, rather than moving to the position that my right hon. and learned Friend has consistently advocated.
Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour)
Would it be a fair summary of our position to say that we are now providing every kind of assistance to the military forces of the opposition, short of the explosives, guns and bullets that actually do the killing? I have no objection to that; I think it is essential. In my judgment, the Foreign Secretary is right not to rule out the option of direct lethal military supplies, but would he acknowledge that the strategic diplomatic consequences of any such decision, and the degree to which we could get bogged down in a kind of cold war or proxy war, really need to be thought through very carefully indeed before we make any such positive decision?
Yes, I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He accurately characterises the position, although it is perhaps putting it too strongly to say that we are providing “every kind of assistance” short of lethal equipment. We are providing the assistance that I have set out today, and we will provide other assistance of that nature for the protection of civilians. That is an important requirement in the exemption to the UN arms embargo, and we will interpret it exactly. The assistance has to be for the protection of civilians. So the right hon. Gentleman went a bit too far in his characterisation of the position. He is right, however, to say that it would be a bigger and further step to decide to send lethal equipment. We have taken no decision to do that, and we have no current plans to do that, but it is necessary to be clear that in a situation of this gravity, with its implications for the peace of the whole region, we cannot rule out options. We cannot definitively rule that out. That was the thrust of his question.
Menzies Campbell (North East Fife, Liberal Democrat)
My right hon. Friend gives a compelling analysis of the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the measures that
he has announced should be not only accepted but welcomed by the House, in that they are designed to alleviate suffering and save life, but as we approach the 10th anniversary of the mistaken military action against Saddam Hussein, does he understand that many of us in the House are concerned lest we might drift towards something that might be described as military intervention?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for saying that the measures I have announced should be welcomed by the House. I welcome his support and, yes, I absolutely understand that after more than a decade of conflict, in different ways, people are always anxious about new conflict. That does not mean, however, that we can stick our heads in the sand and ignore the new conflicts that have arisen in the world and that can affect us, for all the reasons that I have described. It does mean that our response to them has to be very intelligent and well calculated. Getting to the heart of his question, I think we can say clearly that no western Government are advocating the military intervention of western nations—or of any nations—in the conflict in Syria. The discussion is entirely focused on the degree of assistance that can and should be delivered to the opposition inside Syria. That is what the discussion is centred on, rather than on an external military intervention.
Peter Hain (Neath, Labour)
But will the Foreign Secretary accept that the logical next step in the strategy that he has been pursuing for six months, if not more, is to arm the opposition? That is the logical position that he is now in, but I think that it is profoundly mistaken. Every time he has made a statement on this matter in the past six months, he has carried the whole House with him in eloquently condemning the horror, the deterioration and the barbarity of the evil Assad regime, but his strategy is wrong. Just going for regime change in what is a civil war, with its Shi’a-Sunni conflict and its reincarnation of the cold war, is never going to achieve his objective. What he should be doing, instead of just promoting the opposition’s call for negotiations, is testing the willingness to negotiate that Assad expressed over the weekend. He should test it to destruction, but he is not doing that. He is pursuing a failed strategy involving a monumental failure of diplomacy, and it is making the situation worse.
The right hon. Gentleman does not help his case in describing the Government’s position in that way. It very much follows from what I said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary that we believe the apparent offer of President Assad to negotiate must absolutely be tested and tested to destruction. We will certainly do that, and the right hon. Gentleman and I will strongly agree on that. If he were in government today, however, he would have to think about what else to do if that did not work, and it has not worked over the last two years—
It has been tried countless times: Lakhdar Brahimi has been to Damascus countless times, and Kofi Annan before him went to Damascus countless times. Every possibility has been given to the regime to negotiate, but it has never entered into a sincere or meaningful negotiation. That being the case, it is not
adequate to watch slaughter on this scale and say that we will stick our heads in the sand about it. It is important to have a foreign policy that relieves human suffering and upholds human rights. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would always be in favour of that.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon South, Conservative)
While I agree with the Foreign Secretary’s position in not supplying weapons to the rebels, it is perfectly clear that someone is supplying weapons to the rebels at present. Is not the great challenge for Syria the fact that that lot will end up fighting against Shi’a-backed militants, supported by Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, some time in the future?
Of course, the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict is one of our great concerns. That is why we have to do everything we reasonably can to shorten the conflict, as that will only get worse as the conflict goes on. As my hon. Friend says, the conflict in Syria is already militarised and weapons have already been obtained and are being obtained by all the factions fighting in Syria, including the military council, working with the national coalition. I fear that the longer the conflict goes on, the more sectarian it will be in nature and the more opportunity there will be for extremists to take hold there. Giving our assistance to moderate forces and not to extremist forces is therefore one way in which we can try to shape the situation in a more sensible direction.
A no-fly zone is sometimes advocated, including at international meetings. The greatest difficulty with a no-fly zone is, of course, that it is a response of a totally different nature. It is a military intervention of the sort that we have been talking about and against which many hon. Members have warned. It would require military force externally on a substantial scale. A good argument of principle can be made for that on the basis of relieving human suffering by doing whatever is necessary, but the willingness of nations around the world to implement such a military intervention is limited, for understandable reasons. Indeed, such a no-fly zone could be achieved in practice only with the full participation of the United States of America, so major practical difficulties are involved. What we must not get into is saying that there are protected areas or humanitarian corridors, but then not being able to protect people. There is a sad and tragic history of those things. We should only take the step that the hon. Lady is talking about if the world and the international community were truly ready to bring it about.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell, Conservative)
My right hon. Friend is right to say that Syria can count on being shielded by some countries at the United Nations; not least, we know that Russia had the opportunity to bring about some sanctions in the Security Council early on. Will he start talking to his counterparts in the European Union and, indeed, in the United States about saying to the Russians, “If you don’t want to take part in this and put on the blue berets, get on the ground and do something, there will be consequences”? If the Russians refuse to take that sort of action, and are
willing to stand by and let tens of thousands of people be slaughtered, we should work with our European partners, the US and south American countries to say to them, “We are not going to come to your country to showcase it in the World cup in 2018.”
I say to my hon. Friend that we must use every art of persuasion we know in our talks with our colleagues in Russia. I can assure him that we do that. The shadow Foreign Secretary argued earlier that we must put the case to Russia about the growth of extremism in Syria and so on—and we do. I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I and other western Foreign Ministers have put the case to our Russian counterparts that everything Russia most fears in Syria is more likely to come true the longer the conflict goes on. That includes the rise of international terrorism and instability in the whole region. The Russians clearly have a different analysis, and we have not had any meeting of minds on the issue. I have to say that I am not a great fan of sporting sanctions. As a country that has just hosted the Olympics, we have a well-established position on that, but we will use every other art of persuasion in dealing with Russia.
Nigel Dodds (Shadow Spokesperson (Justice); Belfast North, DUP)
The Assad regime is clearly barbarous and has to go, but does the Foreign Secretary understand the concerns of many of our constituents who raise issues about atrocities and war crimes carried out on the opposition side, about the role of al-Qaeda and about the fact that support and help going into the country for good and proper reasons set out in good faith can end up helping people who are deeply hostile to western interests and equally guilty of terrible crimes against humanity?
Yes, of course people are right to be concerned about any atrocities and any opportunity for international terrorism to take hold in a new place. That is one reason why we cannot just turn away from this crisis. It is also why—this is the nub of the right hon. Gentleman’s question—the assistance we give must be carefully thought out and monitored. Of course, all the assistance and equipment I have talked about is non-lethal. We will monitor its use to the best of our ability, but if it were misused or fell into the hands of groups for which it was not intended, that would have a very serious impact on our willingness to provide any such further assistance in the future. I stress that while people read about the opportunity for extremists to take hold, and while we are concerned about it, as I have described, the great majority of the people, even those involved in the fighting in Syria as far as we can tell, are not extremists. The opposition leaders whom I meet are people who sincerely want a future for their country that has nothing to do with extremism and terrorism. We must not leave those people feeling abandoned by the world.
Julian Lewis (New Forest East, Conservative)
Unfortunately, the record of moderates in standing up against extremists in such situations is not all that great. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that our sworn enemies, al-Qaeda, are fighting on the side of the opposition? Our concern is therefore that if and when the appalling Assad regime is overthrown as the Government wish, its chemical weapons stocks will fall into al-Qaeda’s hands. What practical guarantee can the Government give us that that will not
happen? I asked that question on Monday; it was not satisfactorily answered, which is why I am asking it again.
No one can give any guarantees. This is why a political and orderly transition should happen in Syria. There are certainly terrible weapons, chemical and biological, in Syria, which is why it is important to be clear that there is no military-only solution, whatever one’s point of view on the situation. Those chemical weapons are best safeguarded through a peaceful transition. That is what we need to keep arguing for. Without giving additional assistance to the moderate elements of the opposition, however, we would reduce rather than enhance the prospects for an orderly transition.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South, Labour)
Is it not the case that it would be more secure, and more in our interests, to introduce a no-fly zone than to arm the opposition? We can keep control of the equipment in a no-fly zone, but we cannot do that if we hand it over to jihadist groups. Is it not also the case that the United States Administration and some neighbouring countries, including Turkey, are against the introduction of a no-fly zone, which means that we are unable to introduce one?
Let me make it clear that I have not announced the arming of the opposition. This is different; it is about increasing the assistance that we give the opposition in the form of non-lethal equipment. The hon. Gentleman is putting the case for an external military intervention, rather than a move to any policy of support for the sending of lethal equipment to Syria. There is a respectable case for that, but as I said earlier to Meg Munn, it would require the willingness of a large part of the international community, almost certainly including the United States, so that we were not making a false promise of safety to people. Syria continues to have strong air defences with very modern equipment, and the implementation of a no-fly zone would be a very large military undertaking. It is important for those who advocate it to bear that in mind.
Gerald Howarth (Aldershot, Conservative)
However distressing the picture of the humanitarian crisis that we see on our television screens—and it is indeed distressing—I must tell my right hon. Friend that I am extremely concerned that the United Kingdom’s hand is being drawn ever more closely into this mangle. I share all the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Dr Lewis. What confidence has my right hon. Friend in his belief that what I think he described as the modern and democratic forces can be assisted, and will thence be in charge of a post-conflict Syria? If he is not confident of that, what we will be faced with is a further load of bloody jihadists. I hope that he will completely rule out the use of Britain’s armed forces, who are already greatly overstretched.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. What I am confident about is that giving the active support that I have described to that modern and democratic opposition is the best way of helping to ensure that they are the ones who are successful. Our
hon. Friend Dr Lewis rightly pointed out that it is often the moderate forces who lose out to extremists in circumstances such as these. The longer this goes on and the less support those forces receive from outside, the less will be their chances of success in standing up to those extremists. We must make a choice about whether we are prepared to give that support, and I think that the right choice for the United Kingdom is to increase the level of support for people who we would be prepared to see succeed.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)
The situation in Syria is obviously appalling, and the humanitarian crisis is absolutely devastating, but the ending of every war requires a political solution of some sort. What serious negotiations are being undertaken with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are fundamentally the funders of the opposition forces in Syria, and what serious engagement is taking place with the Government of Iran, particularly in regard to bringing about some kind of comprehensive peace negotiation and peace process? Without that, there will be more suffering, more deaths and more difficulties for everyone.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. If regional powers were able to agree among themselves about the situation and about a solution, that would be an enormous step forward, just as it would be a vital step forward if we, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, were able to agree among ourselves. There have been some attempts. Last autumn, the Egyptian Government convened a group consisting of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey to consider the situation together and to see if they could agree on a way forward. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that they did not reach an agreement, but that is not to say that such a group could not be revived in the future. We have absolutely no problem with that. It did not succeed before—the reason it did not succeed is that Iran has not been prepared to agree on a way forward with other countries in the region—but that does not mean that it should not be tried again.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham, Conservative)
In this civil war, it seems that there is a military stalemate between two sides that have military forces. In those circumstances, and given that each side claims that it wants to negotiate, is there any chance that we can put all our efforts into securing a ceasefire, so that when the guns stop and civilians stop being killed, we may actually be able to use politics to resolve the situation?
That is a very good thought. That too has been tried before, but it should be tried again. In any negotiated way forward, a ceasefire would be a very important element of the early part of the negotiations. My hon. Friend may recall that last summer the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed a ceasefire to coincide with Eid. For a short time there was some hope that the proposal would be implemented, and there were many efforts to implement it in parts of Syria, but within days the ceasefire had completely broken down. Again, that does not mean that a ceasefire should not be at the top of the agenda for negotiations, but as my hon. Friend will have gathered, we do not have successful negotiations at the moment—much as we will discuss that with Mr Brahimi this afternoon.
Turkey is very supportive of the change that the European Union has made in the arms embargo. It has, let us say, a forward-leaning approach to the crisis. If the Turkish Foreign Minister were here, he would not only say everything that I have said today, but say quite a lot more about the need for greater international support for the national coalition. I shall be meeting him again tomorrow, here in London, when he comes to the Friends of Yemen meeting, but I can say now that Turkey is extremely supportive of this announcement and of the change in EU policy.
Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex, Conservative)
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I note that he does not rule out any option, and that, according to his reply to my hon. Friend Sir Gerald Howarth, he does not rule out military intervention. No country is advocating that yet, but if Syria is considered to be part of a primary interest in our national security strategy, are we equipped to deal with this crisis? To what extent should my right hon. Friend be talking to his opposite number, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, about what contingency arrangements should be made—and, indeed, what additional expenditure is required—to give us the capacity at least to influence the security aspects of this problem?
Of course the Defence Secretary and I discuss the whole range of international affairs on an almost continuous basis. We make the decisions about our policy on Syria in the National Security Council or in the Cabinet; we discussed it in the Cabinet yesterday. He and I are very much of the same mind, and work closely together in relation to all contingencies.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence has plans covering a wide range of contingencies. It is not helpful for Ministers to speculate about those contingencies, and I stress again that we are neither calling for nor planning a military intervention. The discussion in the international community is about the degree of support for the opposition inside Syria, rather than about an external intervention. We will plan for all contingencies, but that is the context and the background of any military role in this crisis.
Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside, Labour)
What does the Foreign Secretary think is the likelihood of chemical weapons being used in Syria, or of those weapons being moved to Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus destabilising the wider region?
As I said in my statement, we are increasingly concerned about the regime’s possible use, or possible willingness to use, chemical weapons, and we are always concerned about any transfer of those weapons to other groups or other countries in the region, as are many of those countries. We send the strong message that I conveyed in my statement—and the President of the United States himself has conveyed a similar strong message—about the use of chemical weapons by anyone, including the Syrian regime.
It is important for the Syrian regime to hear the message that the world will be determined that the individuals responsible are held to account if chemical weapons are used.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)
I strongly support the Foreign Secretary’s stand on this very difficult issue. Will he tell Mr Bogdanov this afternoon that, with 1 million fled and as many as 100,000 dead, the Syrian catastrophe now stands comparison with the Rwandan genocide, which led the international community to adopt the responsibility-to-protect doctrine in the first place, and that Russia should engage with coalition forces or face the prospect of a jihadist regime, which neither we nor it would want?
Basically, I will tell him that—yes. That is part of the argument I stated earlier: Russia is rightly concerned about international terrorism—Russians have experience of that themselves—and if this situation goes on for many more months or years, we will see a much greater opening for such international terrorism. This is becoming a human catastrophe of immense proportions, so my hon. Friend can be confident that I will make this argument to my Russian counterpart in the robust terms he would want.
Elfyn Llwyd (PC Westminster Leader; Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Plaid Cymru)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the advance copy of the statement, and welcome its emphasis on humanitarian aid. I am sure we all agree that it is now time for all nations to focus on a non-violent resolution if at all possible. That is obvious, but yesterday Israel said—threatened—at the Security Council that it cannot “stand idle” if the Syrian civil war spills over on to its border. This is a very serious situation. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and that we need to do everything we can to avoid further conflagration.
Absolutely; the right hon. Gentleman is right. The danger of the spread of the crisis regionally, into other countries in different ways, is one of the reasons we cannot just watch it develop. We have to work out the best constructive approach, difficult though these choices are, to try to turn this crisis in the right direction, rather than let it drift in the wrong direction. Any of the neighbouring countries will take action if their borders are infringed, of course. We have agreed to the stationing of Patriot missiles by NATO in Turkey, Lebanon has been very concerned about clashes on its border, and the Jordanian border is a tense place—and that is even before we consider the Golan Heights and the Iraqi border as well. The regional dimension is of serious and increasing concern, which is one of the reasons for today’s package of policy changes and announcements.
Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Conservative)
May I strongly reject the neo-con policies and ideas emanating from my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind? What could be gained by our sending arms into this cauldron? Have we forgotten the disastrous policy of arming the rebels in Afghanistan? Have we forgotten the appalling atrocities being committed now by jihadis against Christians in Syria? What is wrong with basing our policy on life and not death?
My hon. Friend can be reassured that I have never considered myself to be a neo-con and do not describe myself as that as Foreign Secretary. Our policy must be very carefully calibrated. My hon. Friend draws attention to situations that have gone seriously wrong from the point of view of the international community. We must however also bear in mind, in the case of the western Balkans in the 1990s, the sense of abandonment and the radicalisation of Muslims in many parts of the world from a policy that for too long denied people any ability in an extreme situation to protect themselves. The policy that I have announced of doing what we can to protect civilian life is a necessary and proportionate response.
Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West, Labour)
The Foreign Secretary is well aware that there is no shortage of lethal weapons in Syria, so there is very little, if any, case for our supplying any. Frankly, supplying armoured four-wheel drive vehicles as well as personal protection equipment, including body armour, to the opposition and peoples we are trying to support, so that they can drive around in a state of total personal immunity, is not best calculated to enhance the credibility of our policy or its credibility in the eyes of the civilians who continue to live in the most appalling suffering and danger. The Secretary of State would, I believe, carry the whole House and country with a massive increase in our humanitarian assistance. He should direct his efforts to binding our European partners into doing that as well as to sanctions.
The hon. Gentleman can be pleased in that case, because we have announced enormous increases in our humanitarian assistance. It is for my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary, who was here earlier, to announce such things, and she announced at the Kuwait conference at the end of January a vast increase—a £50 million increase—taking the total to £140 million. We are one of the biggest donors in the world in trying to alleviate human suffering. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman lists what I have said we will be sending to the opposition he will cite the full list, including medical supplies, water purification and measures to help prevent the spread of disease. The need to alleviate humanitarian suffering is therefore at the forefront of our minds, and that is what Britain is devoting by far the greatest resources to in all the effort we are putting into addressing this crisis.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate, Conservative)
In face of these difficulties, I strongly commend my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Office for the policy they are pursuing. In his statement, he rightly drew attention to the jihadists committing atrocities using explosive devices, including car bombs. I have a British-Syrian constituent who is on the verge of acquiring British citizenship who has immediate family who has been killed by such a car bomb. She now wants to bring her parents to the UK simply for them to have some respite from what is happening there. They are faced with an incredibly difficult journey either to Lebanon or Jordan in order simply to make the application to come here, which now seems extremely difficult even if they were to end up being successful and getting here. If the circumstances are as I have described, will my right hon. Friend make clear that such applications simply for the parents to come here for a while would merit his support?
My hon. Friend described that case very well, but, as he knows, such decisions are for the Home Secretary. I cannot say that in all circumstances we will be opening doors for people to come to the United Kingdom. As I have said, there are now 1 million refugees in other countries. It is the responsibility of the countries that receive the refugees to look after them, with international support, and I pay tribute to the generosity of the people of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq in what they are doing, and we are doing our best to assist. That is the prime way for refugees to be assisted. My hon. Friend’s question serves as a reminder, however, that not only are 4 million out of the population of 21 million displaced or in desperate need, but many of the remaining people are in extremely dangerous and stressful conditions and are unable to pursue normal life in any way, so this is affecting the great majority of the whole country.
Hugh Bayley (NATO Parliamentary Assembly (President); York Central, Labour)
The divisions among factions in the moderate and democratic opposition not only make the extremists stronger, but make the process of staging negotiations very difficult and the ability to determine who will form a Government of Syria when the regime falls absolutely impossible. What are our Government and allies doing to get greater coherence and common purpose within the moderate opposition?
There is much greater coherence now than there has been for a long time. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that it is difficult to bring together something like the National Coalition, but it is very much the best attempt that can reasonably be made to bring together those moderate and democratic forces, and it is now there to be negotiated with. Quite often over the past two years the refrain of some of the other countries on the Security Council and of the regime has been, “We want to negotiate, but we do not have someone to negotiate with.” Now they do not have that excuse. The National Coalition is there for them to negotiate with, and it is willing to negotiate, so the onus is now on the regime to show that it can seriously negotiate.
John Baron (Basildon and Billericay, Conservative)
I urge caution. Human rights groups have confirmed that atrocities have been committed by both sides, and by arming the rebels we could be arming the terrorists of the future, as well as escalating the violence. May I bring the Foreign Secretary back to the comments he made over the weekend, which clearly indicated a change in thinking about non-lethal support, despite what we were told in this House on Monday? To what extent were his comments a reflection of reports we are now getting that President Obama is thinking about changing his policy on this issue?
I am not aware of any inconsistency in what I have said. In fact, I have said throughout that we do not rule out any options; I have said that for two years, and it would be strange to start ruling options out as the situation got worse, having not done that at any period. That is what I have said today and it is what I said at the weekend. What we are proposing to do is what I have set out today, and my hon. Friend will know from Secretary Kerry’s announcement that it is closely related to what the United States has announced. It has
announced $60 million of additional practical, but non-lethal, support to the National Coalition, and I have announced $20 million—to use a comparator—that the United Kingdom will provide. So our policy is closely aligned with that of the United States, but neither country is advocating the policy to which my hon. Friend is so strongly opposed.
Such vehicles are non-lethal equipment—that is how they are defined and that is very clear—as is body armour. The hon. Gentleman could advocate a different policy of not trying to save lives in Syria, and that is what he is suggesting in his question. He is suggesting that we say, “No, we will not try to save lives. We will not send this kind of assistance to people who desperately ask for it, even though they are slaughtered in huge numbers.” It is his choice to advocate that policy, but I do not think it is responsible, and it would not give moral authority to our foreign policy.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth, Conservative)
I am very concerned for my constituents whose Syrian Christian family living in Aleppo are being persecuted for their faith and having their friends murdered by the jihadists whom the Secretary of State has mentioned. What assurance can be given to me, and to the many hon. Members here today who are worried about this situation, that any British support is not helping rebels who are also Islamic fundamentalists?
That is an important point, and it is important to stress, as I did in response to other questions, that our support is to the moderate and democratic forces in Syria. That is one reason why all the support I have set out is also non-lethal. It is also important for us to monitor, as best we can, the use of that equipment. If we thought that at any stage it was being used by people we had not intended it for, our attitude to providing any such further equipment would, of course, have to change dramatically.
Paul Flynn (Newport West, Labour)
The House is deeply united on the humanitarian aid but deeply divided on the oversimplified view of the Foreign Secretary, who, on this complex civil war, could not bring himself to mention the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group that is a vital part of the opposition. It has been accused of some of the most bloodthirsty massacres of civilians. Will he give an absolute guarantee that before we commit military equipment or personnel to Syria there will be a debate and a vote in this House, so that we can avoid repeating what we have done so often, which is in trying to punch our weight we die beyond our responsibilities?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been listening carefully and will know that I have not announced or advocated sending military equipment or personnel. Of course we have conventions in this House, which he and I strongly support, about when we take decisions in the House, and we will observe all those. He will have to decide, given his long concern for humanitarian issues, whether it would be right to be static in the face
of this situation. That is the alternative to what I have described. Everybody across the House is rightly concerned about the humanitarian situation, but I do not believe it is responsible for policy to sit still in the face of a rapidly worsening situation.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Conservative)
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the increasing evidence of the Iranian regime’s involvement in arming the Assad regime. Does he agree that there might be opportunities to put pressure on the Iranian regime to desist, in the context of the ongoing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme?
I am not sure that those negotiations provide the opportunity to put on that pressure, as they are very focused on the nuclear programme. Yesterday, I reported to the House during Foreign Office questions the progress—it is at a very early stage—made in those negotiations in Almaty last week. The pressure on the Iranians should be and is a different pressure: the world knows about these activities; in the end it will be proved in Syria that the Assad regime is doomed; and many people in Syria will not want to forgive Iran for intervening in all the ways I have described, including with armed personnel.
Jenny Chapman (Shadow Minister (Justice); Darlington, Labour)
How concerned is the Foreign Secretary at the comments made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees this morning that the number of refugees who would be leaving Syria had been severely underestimated and that there were barely 25% of the resources needed to deal with the 1 million people now leaving the country? What is the Foreign Secretary doing, together with colleagues in the Department for International Development, to make sure that that lack of preparedness is not allowed to continue?
The United Nations asked at the time of the Kuwait conference for $1.5 billion in donations. This is the biggest financial appeal that the UN has ever made for such a crisis. In promising the additional £50 million, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary took our total humanitarian support provided through DFID to nearly £140 million. We are very good at not only pledging that, but delivering it. We are good at not only saying we will write the cheque, but writing the cheque. However, not all other countries are as good. The $1.5 billion was pledged and we have to make sure that other countries deliver on those promises. I am having many bilateral meetings with other nations involved in the next 36 hours and we are raising that issue with each of those countries, saying that we all now have to deliver on our pledges.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham, Conservative)
The Foreign Secretary will know that the United States was one of the last leading countries to recognise the Syrian opposition. Do the United Kingdom and the USA now have an agreed joint policy on Syria? If there is no such joint policy, the future for Syria looks bleak.
There is a joint policy. My hon. Friend will notice that what Secretary Kerry announced last week is very close to what I am announcing this week. I discussed it with him on several occasions last week, in
Rome and in London. We have a very similar view, both on the gravity of the crisis and on the need for increased action of the kind that I have announced today in order to try to speed a resolution of the crisis. My hon. Friend can be assured that London and Washington are closely aligned on this matter.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead, Labour)
I have heard many statements like this one in years gone by and, inevitably, most of the time we end up being involved in a quagmire from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Like my hon. Friend Paul Flynn, I take the view that it is time to have a full debate, in Government time, on the Floor of the House, with the possibility of a vote.
It is important for the hon. Gentleman to distinguish between situations where Britain may be involved in a quagmire and situations where we are helping other people to try to get out of a quagmire—that is what we are trying to do with this sort of assistance. We cannot turn aside requests for assistance. I believe that this is the eighth statement I have given about Syria, so I am always willing to come to the House to debate it.
Diana Johnson (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Kingston upon Hull North, Labour)
The Foreign Secretary has talked about the impact on the wider region, so will he comment on Jordan, a key strategic ally with very limited resources that is facing a huge influx of refugees from Syria?
I pay tribute to the people and the Government of Jordan. Last summer, I visited the refugee reception areas just inside the Jordanian border. Since then, the numbers involved have got much larger, with more than 312,000 refugees in Jordan, most of whom reside with host communities and families but some of whom are in camps. The Jordanians have done a magnificent job and we have discussed regularly with them how we can help further. I shall meet the Foreign Minister of Jordan tomorrow and we will discuss that further.
Phillip Lee (Bracknell, Conservative)
Although he was a ruthless and murderous individual, the late father of the current President of Syria had a reputation for doing what he said he was going to do. In contrast, his son is a fundamentally weak individual surrounded by stronger characters as advisers. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary agree that the personal weakness of the President of Syria will make a diplomatic solution unlikely if not impossible?
My hon. Friend is right and the situation he describes is one of the obstacles. Not only the President of Syria but other members of his family are closely involved in the power structure in Syria, including his brother. An entire system of finance, power and rewards makes up a pyramid of which President Assad is simply at the top. A political and diplomatic solution requires people much further down the pyramid to agree that it is a good idea. That makes the situation complex and is one reason why offers of negotiations by
the regime are not followed up by serious negotiations. That is indeed one of the obstacles.
Andrew Gwynne (Shadow Minister (Health); Denton and Reddish, Labour)
The Foreign Secretary has set out for the House a bleak picture of a dangerous civil war, with a toxic mix of Iranian involvement, possibly al-Qaeda and other extremists. What assessment have the British Government made of the claims of alleged involvement from Hezbollah in the conflict in Syria and of the wider potential for regional instability that would flow from that?
There is the potential, as we have discussed, for regional instability, including in Lebanon and in relation to Hezbollah. One of the dangers is of clashes on the Lebanese border in the south of Lebanon between Hezbollah and the Free Syrian army or other elements of the Syrian opposition—let alone with Syrian regime forces. I do not have any other evidence that I can cite about Hezbollah, but that in itself is a great danger and is one of the reasons we are assisting with the stability of Lebanon. In Lebanon two weeks ago I announced additional British funding for the Lebanese armed forces, which are an important part of trying to keep that border peaceful, including our direct help with the construction of border observation posts. Of course, there is everything else we are doing to try to bring about a resolution of the crisis.
Stephen Mosley (City of Chester, Conservative)
My right hon. Friend has always been very clear that our priorities are to try to stop the killing and to find a peaceful solution. If a peaceful solution can be found but the price is that Assad stays in power, would we be able to accept that deal or have we reached a stage at which the precursor to any deal must be that Assad goes?
It is not for us to decide who is in power in any other country, including in Syria. It is the position of the Syrian National Coalition and all opposition groups that they want to see the departure of President Assad, but we will not be more like the Syrian opposition than the Syrian opposition. Mr al-Khatib has said that he is prepared to negotiate with the regime without Assad going first and that is a position we should support. It is impossible for any observer of these events to see President Assad ever again being able to unify or govern the country, so we say he should go, but the opposition has offered to negotiate and that is the right thing to do.
It is clear that the House shares the sense of humanitarian urgency that the Foreign Secretary has articulated so well, but many are also concerned that that urgency should not entail a working disregard for the true character and real agenda of some of the opposition forces. May I acknowledge the particular principles expressed by the Foreign Secretary today? Our foreign policy is inseparable from upholding human rights, protecting lives and supporting international law; we must assist the genuine moderate and democratic forces who are in dire need of help and who feel abandoned by the international community; and we cannot look the other way while international law and human rights are flouted. When will we see those principles manifest in the Government’s engagement in other situations, including Palestine?
They are, but that question might take us rather wider than the subject of Syria—indeed, it is absolutely intended to do so. I welcome in general what the hon. Gentleman says and that is the objective of our foreign policy more broadly. We are heavily engaged in conflict prevention or conflict resolution in Somalia, Yemen and Sudan and are working to promote an arms trade treaty and to pursue my initiative on preventing sexual violence in conflict. The United Kingdom, under successive Governments, has had a strong record in conflict prevention that is true to the principles that the hon. Gentleman cited, and that continues under this Government. We must always uphold that tradition.