Syria (EU Restrictive Measures)

Part of European Union Documents – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 21st May 2013.

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Photo of Emma Reynolds Emma Reynolds Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 7:48 pm, 21st May 2013

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria and specifically amendments to the EU arms embargo. I commend the European Scrutiny Committee for calling this important debate.

Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned and horrified by the violent and brutal conflict and loss of life in Syria. The death toll has now reached 80,000 people, and the refugee crisis is intensifying, with more than 1.3 million people having fled to neighbouring countries. As the Minister outlined, this is a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in decades.

I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for giving the House an opportunity to consider specifically, in detail, the decision made by the Council of Ministers in February to amend the existing EU arms embargo to allow the transfer of non-lethal military equipment to certain groups in Syria.

The debate is timely, given that the EU-wide embargo is due for renewal at the meeting of the Council of Ministers next week. As a result of the Council’s agreement in February, the Foreign Secretary announced to the House on 6 March that the British Government would increase their support for the Syrian opposition and that that would include equipment that had previously been banned under the EU embargo. The change in both the scale and the type of material support from the United Kingdom clearly marked a new stage in the Government’s engagement with the opposition forces.

Since that date, and specifically on 15 April, the Government have informed the House that, among other items, a number of vehicles with ballistic protection, packs of body armour and hundreds of radios have been transferred to the Syrian opposition as gifts from the Government. Equally important, we have received details about the ongoing training of Syrian opposition members in which the UK has been involved. I am grateful for further details provided by the Minister today and by the Foreign Secretary in his statement yesterday.

We welcome measures taken by the Government that help to unite members of the fragmented opposition in Syria, help them to communicate better with each other, help them to gain a better understanding of international law and help them to protect themselves and civilians from the violence being inflicted on them by the Assad regime. However, we are extremely concerned about the suggestion that the EU arms embargo should be amended further, or rolled back completely.

In the light of the February Council decision and the forthcoming Council discussion early next week, I seek further clarification of the Government’s position from the Minister. Will he tell us precisely what the Government will be calling for with respect to any alteration in the embargo next week? It has been suggested that they are considering two options. The first is to seek an exemption from the embargo for the national coalition of Syrian and opposition forces, and the second is to remove the “non-lethal” language to allow lethal equipment. That would effectively render the embargo null and void. Which of those options will the Government seek to secure on Monday and Tuesday next week in Brussels?

What support, beyond that of France, have the Government secured in the other 25 member states of the European Union? It seems clear that Germany and Austria, among others, are opposed to the lifting of the embargo. If no agreement is forthcoming, will the Government veto the continuation of the embargo? Yesterday, in response to an excellent question from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Richard Ottaway about the possible use of the veto, the Foreign Secretary said:

“We will meet as Foreign Ministers in Brussels next Monday to look at those discussions in detail. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are prepared to do that if necessary, but of course we are looking for agreement with other EU member states.”—[Hansard, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 911.]

Will the Minister confirm that the Government are prepared to veto the renewal of the arms embargo next week? I think that, if they intend to do so, there are further fundamental questions that they need to answer.

First, the Government have spoken of the need to tip the balance in favour of the opposition. Can the Minister give us his assessment of the amount of weaponry that would be required to tip the balance against Assad, taking into account the support that we believe that he continues to receive from other states? Secondly, how will the Government ensure that the weapons supplied do not fall into the hands of extremists groups such as al-Nusra, which is aligned with al-Qaeda? Thirdly, given that the Foreign Secretary said that he could only offer his “best endeavours” to prevent British-supplied material from going to groups in Syria for which it is not intended, will the Minister tell us whether the Government would be willing to supply arms without any end-use guarantees? I am sure that the whole House would be cautious—several Members have demonstrated their concern today—about any step towards arming Syria’s opposition without a range of solid assessments and analyses from the Minister and his colleagues in the Foreign Office in regard to the end users of any British-supplied arms.