Syria (EU Restrictive Measures)

Part of European Union Documents – in the House of Commons at 7:16 pm on 21st May 2013.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 7:16 pm, 21st May 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
takes note of EU Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP amending Decision 2012/739/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria;
takes note of the deteriorating situation in Syria that has led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people at the hands of the Assad regime;
and supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to agree with Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of Syrian sanctions. In addition to the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my appearance today, the Government have sought to keep the House and the European Scrutiny Committee updated through statements, answers in the House and correspondence, including between the European Scrutiny Committee, which has called this debate, and the Minister for Europe.

Today’s debate is the result of the European Scrutiny Committee report dated 13 March, which referred for debate on the Floor of the House the Council decision agreed by member states on 28 February. The decision amended the EU arms embargo to allow for the provision of non-lethal equipment and technical assistance for the protection of civilians. I apologise to the House that on that occasion the Government had to override the normal scrutiny process due to negotiations on the Council decision in Brussels going to the wire. I appreciate the House’s forbearance on that, and I welcome the opportunity today to debate issues around that Council decision and subsequent developments on Syria.

Syria is one of our greatest foreign policy challenges, not least as it has brought about a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in decades. The enormity of death and destruction is horrifying. More than 80,000 people have died, a quarter of the country’s population has been displaced and more than 1 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

A year ago, 1 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian aid. That figure is now nearly 7 million, and the United Nations forecasts that it will reach 10 million by the end of this year—10 million people displaced by the Syrian conflict. To put that number in context, it is the combined populations of the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, and all are in dire need of shelter, water, food, health care and other basic supplies.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made clear, most recently in his statement to the House yesterday, our objective is to achieve a political solution to the conflict in Syria and bring an end to the terrible violence and human suffering. Sanctions are an important tool in achieving that objective, but as with any tool, they must be used intelligently to make maximum impact.

Our initial aim in imposing sanctions was to cut off the flow of funds and arms to the Syrian regime, choking off its ability to continue to wage war against its people, and to increase pressure on individuals in the regime to end the violence. Those sanctions have had a profound impact on the regime’s financial flows and put it under increasing pressure, but they have not proved decisive. The Syrian regime has continued to receive material and financial support from its international backers and been able to continue its brutality. I am proud of the leading role that Britain has played in using sanctions to put pressure on the Assad regime. We must now play a leading role in refining those sanctions to ensure that they continue to support our overall goal of achieving a political solution and ending the violence and suffering.

As the conflict in Syria deteriorated, it became clear earlier this year that elements of the existing sanctions package had become an obstacle to our efforts to help the opposition National Coalition to deliver life-saving support to civilians inside Syria, and an obstacle to our efforts to increase the pressure on the regime to end the violence. The Syrian regime has shown no remorse in targeting civilians, including those involved in distributing essential assistance. That is why we pushed to achieve an amendment to the EU arms embargo in February to allow the opposition to receive much-needed technical advice and assistance in addition to a greater range of non-lethal equipment.

The breakthrough achieved by the UK in February has allowed us and other European partners to consider a greater range of measures to help to protect civilians in Syria. The Syrian opposition needs to be appropriately trained to respect the principle of international humanitarian law. The technical assistance includes advice to the opposition to help it to get on with the business of governance and saving the lives of ordinary Syrians.

Since the amendment achieved in February, the situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate. Syria is an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. The Assad regime continues to use heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles on its own people, and there is increasingly persuasive evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the regime.