Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 11th June 2012.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 4:10 pm, 11th June 2012

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. If anyone was in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation in Syria, a simple examination of the facts should be enough to convince them of the scale of the horror that we are witnessing. The conflict has been raging for 15 months and the death toll is estimated at more than 15,000. As the Foreign Secretary told the House in the last few minutes, the village of al-Houla was the scene of one of the worst massacres of which there are reports. UN observers on the ground have confirmed that at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women. I therefore join the Foreign Secretary in recognising the work of UN monitors who attempt to document such events. They have been repeatedly shot at and obstructed in trying to carry out that important task.

This is not an historical conflict—it is unfolding in real time, documented on television screens and in YouTube footage. I therefore welcome this opportunity for the House to scrutinise the Government’s response. Fifteen months on, in recent weeks the conflict, instead of approaching its end, seems, if anything, to be entering a new and bloodier phase. We should be clear that the responsibility for the crisis lies primarily with the Assad regime, which continues to show utter contempt for the value of human life, perpetrating a violent and brutal crackdown on innocent people across Syria, for which it must ultimately be held to account. However, expressions of revulsion in response to the slaughter are not enough. Let us be candid and admit that the international community is dangerously divided on its response to the conflict. That division is drastically hampering the effort to stop the violence.

The point of consensus for the time being is the Kofi Annan peace plan, but by any honest reckoning that UN-backed plan has so far failed to bring an end to the violence. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore think that increasing the number of monitors and boosting Mr Annan’s resources would improve the prospects of the plan succeeding? To date, the Annan plan has been judged to be the only option on the table, but the Foreign Secretary rightly told the House a few moments ago that the “Annan plan is not an open-ended commitment.” Will he tell the House specifically what the time limit and tests for the Annan plan are? How much slaughter is required before the international community acknowledges the plan’s failure and begins to formulate a more effective alternative means of ending the crisis?

Further diplomacy is of course needed if the divisions in the international community are to be overcome, but the difficulty of the task must not detract from its urgency. What, therefore, is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the recent and fairly brutal judgment of Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and former High Representative for Bosnia, who said of the British Government’s strategy for dealing with the crisis:

“I don’t think that is wise diplomacy”?

As the Annan plan is currently not working, the challenge is to ask what, beyond the Annan plan, can be done, even accounting for the divergence of views in the international community. Several steps short of military intervention should be considered to sharpen the choice facing the Syrian regime. First, on the financing of the regime, without a comprehensive oil embargo Syria can still export oil to countries outside the EU and United States. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of India, who do not have bilateral sanctions and who have allegedly been approached by the Syrians to purchase Syrian oil?The Syrian regime is also still able to import diesel from countries such as Venezuela, which allows it to sustain its military operation, including tanks, through foreign imports. What is the likelihood of a comprehensive oil ban being agreed by the United Nations? Failing that, what realistic pressure have the Government put on countries continuing to trade with Syria in such a way?

Secondly, on the security situation and particularly on support for the opposition, there are steps that could alter the realities on the ground without breaching the arms embargo, such as blocking the communications of Assad’s forces and choking off his remaining finance from neighbours such as Lebanon, which we understand are still not enforcing the Arab League sanctions that they have previously agreed to.

The Syrian military is one of the key pillars still sustaining the political regime in Damascus, and the newly appointed head of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sayda, was right to call for mass defections from the regime in one of his first statements since taking control of the SNC. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the current rate of such defections, and what steps can the international community to take to encourage and facilitate them further? Does he agree that more should be done to publish internationally the names of any officers ordering the current atrocities, as a clear signal of intent that they will face the full force of international justice for their crimes?

The Foreign Secretary mentioned in passing that al-Qaeda is operating in Syria. What is the British Government’s view of the scale of its activity within Syria to date?

I welcome wholeheartedly the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Russia. Does he believe that the Russian position is likely to shift significantly in the immediate future as the situation deteriorates further? I also welcome his comments about the friends of Syria group and the news that a further meeting of the group is being planned. He said that the Prime Minister intended to raise the issue of Syria at the G20 in Mexico. In the light of statements by a Chinese Minister earlier today that the situation in Syria should not be on the agenda at the G20 meeting, will the Foreign Secretary give us his assurance that he is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that appropriate time is found for a discussion that must take place at that meeting?

The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that if the Annan plan was not implemented, the UK Government would argue for “a new and robust UN Security Council resolution aimed at compelling the regime to meet its commitments under the plan”. How will the British Government endeavour to shift Russia’s view to allow for agreement at the Security Council on the passing of such a resolution? That is surely the real test of whether there is a Security Council route beyond the Annan plan, about which the Foreign Secretary was more circumspect.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is growing by the day, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged. This morning, The Times reported that a group called the Union of Free Syrian Doctors had questioned the international community’s commitment and said that help for doctors trying to get medical supplies in through Turkey had come only from a one-off donation by France and by private individuals. Will he use this opportunity to shed some light on that?