Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Education – in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 3rd September 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 5:10 pm, 3rd September 2012

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his remarks and for prior sight of the statement.

Since the House last debated the situation, the pace of the conflict unfolding in Syria has quickened and the situation on the ground worsened. It is impossible yet to quantify the scale of the tragedy, but already, as we heard from the Foreign Secretary, the figures are stark and the suffering immense. I welcome much that he set out for the House today, therefore, but does he accept that the situation in Syria continues to represent not only, of course, a terrible indictment of Assad’s brutality but a tragic failure by the international community? The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of a rise of jihadism on the one hand and indiscriminate sectarian violence on the other, making a sustainable resolution to the conflict even harder to achieve. Military action alone will not bring peace to this country, and the bloodshed will not stop unless there is a plan to build the peace as well as one to win the war.

It is deeply to be regretted that the continuing division of the international community has meant that the UN has failed, time and time again, to take the necessary action. Since the House last debated the matter, Kofi Annan has resigned as special envoy, the UN observer mission’s mandate has expired and only today the man brought in to replace Mr Annan has described his mission as “nearly impossible”. But adversity cannot, and must not, be an excuse for inaction, so I welcome—on behalf of the whole House, I am sure—the fact that the Foreign Secretary has set out in his statement the vital and urgent support and relief that the UK is offering for the millions both within Syria and in the border regions.

The number of internally displaced people inside Syria is 10 times greater than the number of refugees in neighbouring countries, but the appeal for assistance for those inside Syria is only 20% funded, and many non-governmental organisations argue that, compared with the appeal for refugees outside the country, the allocation for those in Syria is much less in proportion to the scale of the need. Will the Foreign Secretary set out the steps being taken to address this situation? Given the recent reports of French and Turkish thinking on this issue, what assessment have the British Government made of the viability of buffer zones within Syria to protect fleeing civilians, and will he make clear the Government’s position on this, given that apparently no agreement was reached on it at last week’s UN Security Council meeting?

Alongside steps to relieve the immediate crisis, we share the Government’s view that work must be done to improve Syria’s future prospects, but given that Syria has now descended into full-blown civil war, it is vital that the Government act with real care in their engagement with the Syrian opposition. I note that the Foreign Secretary told the House this afternoon that “All the support we provide will be carefully targeted, co-ordinated with like-minded countries, consistent with our laws and values, and based on rigorous analysis and risk assessment”. In the light of this commitment, what assurances can he give on the identity, ideology and tactics of the rebel groups to which the UK Government are now providing direct support, and what specific safeguards are in place to ensure that this support is not being channelled to jihadist forces operating within the Syrian opposition on the ground?

I turn briefly to the efforts of the UN. I regret that it took so many months and lives for many finally to acknowledge that the Annan plan had failed—something that many of us warned was in prospect some months ago. In the light of this failure to reach an agreement on next steps at last week’s UN Security Council meeting, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likelihood of either Russia or China changing course and supporting a UN resolution—even one enforcing sanctions on Syria or signing up to a global arms embargo? Of course, we welcome the work he set out on documenting human rights abuses but, in the light of the suspension of the UN monitoring mission, has the level of information getting out of Syria increased or decreased since the suspension of the UN mission?

The Foreign Secretary concluded his remarks by stating: “we have not ruled out any options as this crisis deepens.” However, does he accept, and will he confirm, that there is today not the agreed legal basis, the regional support or, indeed, the public appetite for British ground forces to be deployed in Syria? It is imperative, therefore, that the Government focus their important efforts in the weeks ahead on unifying the international community’s response, uniting a fractured opposition behind a credible plan for inclusive political transition and addressing the continued and growing humanitarian need of the millions suffering in Syria today. If that is the focus of the Government’s work in the weeks ahead, they will continue to have the Opposition’s support.