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

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 5:10 pm, 3rd September 2012

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, what he said in summing up at the end of his question is what I have been putting to the House, so we have a unity of approach across the House. In the absence of the international agreement and unity to mandate and require the implementation of the Annan plan or something very similar to it, we are setting out to continue to work on unifying the international community, to help to unite and assist the opposition in various ways and to address the humanitarian crisis. That is exactly our approach.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the deployment of British ground forces, which is not something I have heard anybody advocate in this country. However, it is also true that we do not know how the situation will develop over the coming months. It is likely to deteriorate sharply even from its current position, given the diplomatic outlook and given that a peaceful transition is becoming harder to achieve, not easier, as the fighting goes on and intensifies. Therefore, it would be wrong to rule out options, but clearly we are proceeding with care and caution in everything that we do.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that the pace of the conflict has quickened. More than a quarter of the people who have died in Syria probably have died since the last time we discussed it in this House. That shows how terrible the events of recent weeks have been. He is right that that reflects not only the appalling brutality of the Assad regime, but a failure by the international community. That is due to only a small part of the international community. The UN General Assembly passed a motion on the subject, with which we were very happy, by 133 to 12 on 3 August. However, two of those 12 wield a veto in the 15-member UN Security Council, and have done so on three occasions. I said in my remarks at the Security Council last Thursday that the Security Council has failed, so I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. This is a failure of the responsibilities of the United Nations Security Council. We should be very blunt about that.

However, I have to inform the House that the prospects for a change in the Russian position are not strong at the moment. As I said, the Prime Minister and I both met President Putin when he came for the Olympics in early August. The Prime Minister discussed the Syrian situation with the President. From all the conversations that we have had with him and with Russian officials and Ministers, I think that the Russian position is likely to change only when the situation on the ground changes further to a substantial degree. Therefore, we have to make a success of all the other actions that we are taking, in the absence of the international agreement that we have sought.

On those topics, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the shortfall, which is serious, particularly as the crisis is getting rapidly worse in terms of IDPs and refugees. That is something that we have called on the international community to address. The United Kingdom is setting a strong example, as I have set out. The Department for International Development is doing a great job in the work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and in supplying the necessary funds, and we will continue to encourage other countries to do so. Indeed, that will be a major topic for us at the UN General Assembly ministerial week, which I and the Prime Minister will attend later this month in New York.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about buffer zones. We are sceptical in the current situation about buffer zones inside Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at our Security Council meeting on Thursday said:

“all human beings have the right to seek and enjoy asylum in another state. This is a right that must not be jeopardized, for instance through the establishment of so-called ‘safe havens’ or other similar arrangements. Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.”

We must weigh those remarks heavily.

I pay tribute, however, to the people and Governments of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan for their generosity and hospitality. Many of the people who are fleeing Syria are initially going to camps, but in many cases they are then going to live in people’s homes, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon. We should bear in mind, as we provide the generous assistance that we are putting forward, that the people of those countries are also making an important contribution at a personal level. I paid tribute to them at the Security Council meeting last week as well.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked about support for the opposition. Of course, this is an area in which we have to proceed with care, but I believe that the necessity of providing support for people in such a desperate situation outweighs the risks involved in doing so. There are risks attached, however. We know a lot about the various Syrian opposition movements—they vary greatly—and our knowledge of them is improving all the time. Our representative to them, John Wilkes, is working hard and knows them well. I therefore believe that it is possible, subject to the legal constraints and the legal advice that we always have to take on this issue, to channel the kind of assistance that I am talking about—communications equipment, water purification kits, protective clothing—to certain groups without the items falling into the wrong hands. In any case, we are not talking about anything that could cause lethal harm to anyone else, so we have that failsafe, if you like, on the assistance that we are providing. I will keep Parliament updated regularly on how that assistance is being provided and, as far as possible, on how it is being used.

The situation is deteriorating further, and it does represent a failure by the international community, but we in this House can be confident that the United Kingdom is doing its utmost to help the millions of people caught up in this tragic conflict.