Backbench Business — Arms to Syria

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 11th July 2013.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 3:11 pm, 11th July 2013

I thank my hon. Friend Mr Baron for raising the issue. I agree that it is more than useful to have this debate. I have no intention of opposing the motion before the House today. I would like to set out briefly the situation in relation to Syria, to comment on the substance of the motion and then to deal with some of the questions that have been raised on the motion and wider issues. Clearly, however, so much was covered that we will not be able to get through it all.

The situation in Syria is genuinely appalling and is getting worse at an ever-more rapid pace. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the number of deaths will soon exceed 100,000 people. Since last July, on average, 170 people have been killed every 24 hours. By the end of the year, 10 million people—half of Syria’s pre-conflict population —will likely be in need of humanitarian assistance. Neighbouring countries are struggling with the refugee crisis.

The brutal Assad regime has used chemical weapons on his own people. We are concerned to see new, unconfirmed reports over the weekend of further chemical attacks in Homs. We judge that Iran is providing personnel, equipment, weapons and financial assistance to the Assad regime, which is also being supported by thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

The Syrian people and the legitimate opposition are caught between this brutal regime and its backers on one side, and extremists on the other. We must not accept what Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal regime is extremists and terrorists. I am keen to disabuse any colleagues who have strayed into that area during their remarks. There are millions of Syrians who want a peaceful and democratic future, and legitimate forces are fighting for their interests. We should be on their side. However, the extremist groups operating inside—affiliated to or aligned with al-Qaeda—are taking advantage of ungoverned spaces created by the conflict. They pose risks to UK national security. We judge that more than 100 UK-linked individuals of concern have travelled to Syria. Some individuals returning to the UK could pose a long-term terrorist threat.

As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in his statement to the House, faced with this growing and protracted crisis to which there is no end in sight, we have three objectives: to promote a political solution in Syria, which I again make very clear is the Government’s overriding imperative; to help to save lives; and to protect the national security of the United Kingdom.

To this end, we have doubled our humanitarian assistance for Syria to £348 million. I commend to colleagues a very good document—this is straying into the interests of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—on UK aid in response to the Syria crisis, dated 4 July. It deals with some key facts on what we are doing. I will ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that it is e-mailed to every colleague, because, as more than one Member has mentioned, the humanitarian assistance is not a by-product of the UK’s involvement. We are entitled to be very proud of what this country is doing in that regard, and I would like colleagues to be well aware of what we are doing and to talk about it. We must not consider it to be some sort of backwater.