Syria

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:46 pm on 6th March 2013.

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Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Shadow Foreign Secretary 12:46 pm, 6th March 2013

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 1 January 2013 alone. More than 7,000 are now reported to be fleeing every day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today declared:

“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?