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Volume 540: debated on Monday 6 February 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Syria. The whole House will be appalled by the bloodshed and repression in Syria, which continues at this very moment. Over the last 11 months, more than 6,000 people have been killed. The Syrian regime has deployed snipers, tanks, artillery and mortars against civilian protestors and population centres, particularly in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Hama and Deraa. Thousands of Syrians have endured imprisonment, torture and sexual violence, including instances of the alleged rape of children, and the humanitarian position is deteriorating. It is an utterly unacceptable situation that demands a united international response.

Last Tuesday I attended the UN Security Council debate in New York, along with Secretary Clinton, the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and other Ministers. We all spoke in strong support of a draft UN Security Council resolution proposed by the Kingdom of Morocco on behalf of the Arab League. The resolution called for the implementation of the Arab League plan to stop all violence in Syria from all sides and to begin a political transition.

There was nothing in this draft resolution that could not be supported by any country seeking a peaceful end to the tragedy unfolding in Syria. It demanded an end to all violence, called for a Syrian-led political process to allow the Syrians to determine their future, and set out a path to a national unity Government and internationally supervised elections. It did not call for military intervention, and could not have been used to authorise any such action under any circumstances. It did not impose sanctions. It proposed putting the weight and authority of the United Nations Security Council behind a plan to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace in Syria.

As I said at the Security Council, it was the Arab League’s plan, not one imposed by western nations. It was co-sponsored by nations including Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Oman. Their leadership, and their strong understanding of their region, deserve our support. I pay particular tribute to the secretary-general of the Arab League and to the Prime Minister of Qatar, who travelled to New York to brief the Council and played a vital role in the extensive negotiations that followed.

On Saturday the resolution was put to the vote. Thirteen of the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council voted in favour. Two did not: Russia and China both exercised their veto, despite extensive efforts to amend the draft resolution to address Russia’s specific concerns, and in the face of repeated appeals from Arab nations. Instead they chose to side with the Syrian regime and, implicitly, to leave the door open to further abuses. They did so while President Assad’s tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama.

We regard the veto as a grave error of judgment by the Governments of China and Russia. There is no need to mince words. Russia and China have twice vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council. Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people. In deploying them, China and Russia have let down the Arab League, increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria—civil war—and placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion.

By contrast, I thank the other members of the Security Council for the principled stand that they took, particularly the non-permanent members: Morocco, Azerbaijan, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, India, Pakistan, Portugal, South Africa and Togo, all of which voted in favour of the resolution. Pakistan’s representative to the council spoke for all of us when he said:

“This resolution should not die; by being active and engaged, we should give hope to those who are expecting it from us”.

The Syrian regime might have drawn comfort from events at the UN Security Council, but we will do everything we can to make sure that that comfort is short-lived. It is a doomed regime as well as a murdering one. There is no way for it to recover its credibility, internationally or with its own people.

The UN Security Council’s failure to agree a resolution does not signal the end of our efforts to end the violence in Syria. I will set out how we will now proceed. First, we will continue our strong support for the Arab League. Earlier this afternoon I spoke to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil El Araby, as well as the Foreign Minister of Jordan. I welcomed and encouraged the proposal to appoint a special envoy of the Arab League, and I commended the Arab League’s leadership and action so far.

Arab Foreign Ministers will meet this weekend to consider their options. The secretary-general was clear about the urgency of the situation, the Arab world’s continued determination to act, and the need to step up their efforts. I told him that the Arab League would have our complete support.

Secondly, we will seek to widen the international coalition of nations seeking a peaceful and lasting resolution in Syria. We welcome the concept of a new Arab-led group of Friends of Syria, which I discussed with the Prime Minister of Qatar last Tuesday in New York. The aim of such a group will be to demonstrate the strength of international support for the people of Syria and their legitimate demands, to co-ordinate intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime, and to engage with Syrian opposition groups committed to a democratic future for the country. Britain will be a highly active member in setting up such a group with the broadest possible international support.

Thirdly, we will intensify our contact with members of the Syrian opposition. The House will recall that in November I appointed Frances Guy as an ambassador-level envoy to lead our discussions with them. We will continue to urge the Syrian opposition to come together and to agree a common statement of commitment to democracy, human rights and the protection of all Syria’s minorities.

Fourthly, we will maintain our strong focus at the United Nations, undeterred by Saturday’s vote, and we will continue to raise the situation in Syria at the UN Security Council. We will consider with other nations a resolution of the UN General Assembly, and, despite our disagreement with Russia and China, we will continue to discuss with them any possibility of an agreed but meaningful way forward.

Fifthly, we will increase pressure through the European Union, following the discussions that I had in New York with Ministers from France, Portugal and Germany. We have already agreed 11 rounds of EU sanctions, and will hope to agree further measures at the Foreign Affairs Council on 27 February.

Sixthly, we will work with others to ensure that those responsible for crimes in Syria are held to account. At the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March we will work to ensure the strongest possible mandate to scrutinise human rights violations in Syria, so that those responsible know that there will be a day of reckoning and that they will be held to account.

Seventhly, we will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence of violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilised world. The Syrian ambassador to London was today summoned to the Foreign Office to receive this message. Despite our deteriorating relations with the Syrian Government, we remain committed to ensuring the safety of its embassy and staff in London, and we expect the Syrian authorities to provide the same protection to our embassy in Damascus.

In parallel, I have today recalled to London our ambassador from Damascus for consultations. He and his team work in extremely difficult conditions to ensure that we have an accurate picture of what is happening in Syria. I hope that the House will join me in paying full tribute to them and their families. Their safety and security is always prominent in our considerations.

The human suffering in Syria is already unimaginable, and is in grave danger of escalating further. The position taken by Russia and China has, regrettably, made this more likely, but the Government, the House, our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria. We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence.

I welcome this opportunity for the House to discuss the situation in Syria, and I am grateful that the Foreign Secretary agreed to make a statement this afternoon. It was made in the dark shadow of the brutal slaughter continuing even today, with news of scores more people murdered in Homs in the last 24 hours alone.

Let us all be clear that responsibility for the deaths of these innocent people lies at the door of President Assad and his murderous regime. There is clear agreement across the House and much of the international community that the regime has no future, and that Assad must go. The tragedy is that, notwithstanding that fact, the slaughter continues. For the international community, condemnation is not enough; comprehensive diplomatic efforts are required, which is why the recent failure to reach agreement in the Security Council, of which the Foreign Secretary has just spoken, is such a stain on the conscience of the world. I therefore welcome the points that he made setting out the next steps that the British Government will take to seek to resolve this grave crisis.

I have not, in recent days, made any criticism of the Government over their actions to date, and I will not do so in this response. Rather, in a spirit of shared abhorrence and determination, I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a few questions. I share his disappointment at the stance taken by Russia and China. Will he set out more fully to the House what steps are now being taken to convince them of the need for international consensus? In particular, will he tell the House what conversations he has had with Sergei Lavrov since the Security Council vote? In advance of the Russian Foreign Minister’s meeting in Damascus tomorrow with President Assad, has the Foreign Secretary sought or received any assurances that in that meeting the Russian Foreign Minister will at least reflect the wider will of the international community that Assad must go?

I welcome the emphasis that the Foreign Secretary has placed on the work of the Arab League in this crisis, and the prospect of a special envoy being appointed, and indeed a Friends of Syria Group being established. Will he now press for a joint Arab League-European Union summit to be held in the weeks ahead, in order to co-ordinate best the vital steps that now need to be taken? Can the Foreign Secretary give any more information about the level of ambition he is aiming for at the meeting on 27 February, where possible further sanctions will be discussed? Separately, will he inform the House how recently he has spoken to his Turkish counterpart about the steps that Turkey could—and we hope would—be taking to increase further peaceful pressure on Assad?

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary mentioned the human suffering now being endured in Syria. There are reports of even more people fleeing across the borders of Syria into neighbouring countries, and refugee camps set up along the borders are struggling to meet the increasing demands. Can the Foreign Secretary say what conversations he has held with the Secretary of State for International Development on this matter, and confirm to the House who in Government is leading on the humanitarian response to the crisis? Have the Government requested a meeting of the Council of EU Development Ministers to ensure a co-ordinated response to the growing threat of a full-blown humanitarian crisis?

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the weekend about the attack on the Syrian embassy in London. While we share an undoubted revulsion at the present actions of the Assad regime, I am sure that the Government would agree that the protection of foreign embassies on our soil is a basic principle of international law that must be upheld. Let me take this opportunity to praise the bravery of the officers on duty outside the Syrian embassy this weekend. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the officers who were hospitalised. We wish them a speedy recovery. Will the Foreign Secretary outline what discussions took place between him, the Home Secretary and the Metropolitan police ahead of 3 February about protecting the Syrian embassy, in the light of reports of expected protests and attack? Were any specific measures taken or contingency plans put in place, in the light of the reports of Syrian opposition forces calling on Syrians living abroad to protest outside their embassies?

Shortly before today’s statement, word reached us that the US had closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrawn all diplomatic staff from Syria. The Foreign Secretary made it clear in his statement that our ambassador in Damascus had been recalled for talks. Will he outline to the House what the British Government’s assessment is of the utility of the existing diplomatic channels, in the light of the continuing violence?

We welcome the steps that the Government have already taken to try to increase the pressure on, and deepen the isolation of, President Assad and the Syrian authorities. However, I fear that this weekend’s Security Council veto has been taken as a green light for sustained slaughter by the Assad regime. That is why efforts must now be redoubled to end the violence and bring a peaceful resolution to the past 11 months of bloodshed.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has referred, rightly, to the bloodshed over the last 24 hours and the agreement that exists across the House—and, indeed, across so much of the international community—that the regime in Syria has no future. He has spoken, as I have, of the need for comprehensive diplomatic efforts. He has no criticism of what the Government have done so far, and obviously I am grateful for that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there should be an EU-Arab League summit. That is indeed one of the possibilities for bringing together a wider group of nations to address the crisis, but I think it would be preferable to have a meeting that went beyond the European Union and the Arab League, as there are also African nations that have been supportive at the Security Council, as well as Latin American nations. It is therefore probably best to have as inclusive an international gathering and group as possible, going beyond Europe and the Arab world. That would be my preference, and we are in discussion with the Arab League and others about that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the level of ambition for the EU meeting on 27 February. Most of the measures that we can take in relation to Syria we have now taken. We have had 11 rounds of sanctions, including a complete oil embargo, which we introduced some months ago. We have placed sanctions on well over 100 individuals and entities. There will be further tightening up of the sanctions that we can introduce, but I stress that most of the sanctions that we can introduce we already have introduced. I do not want to exaggerate what we will be able to do on 27 February,

The right hon. Gentleman asked about contact with some of the other Foreign Ministers whom I did not mention in my statement. I have very regular consultations with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, about this matter. Last Tuesday I spoke to him from New York while I was there; that was my most recent consultation with him. Turkey was a co-sponsor of the resolution, and I expect it to be a very active participant in the new informal international grouping that we expect to be formed.

As for the steps to be taken with Russia and China, we have daily conversations with them at the Security Council, and I have had many discussions with my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, about the situation in Syria. Although I will not have spoken to him between the Security Council vote and his visit tomorrow, I shall want to speak to him after his visit. He has been speaking to the secretary-general of the Arab League, so I am well in touch with what he has in mind for his visit, but clearly the Russians are on a different track here from the rest of us, so it has been difficult to work with them on such contacts with Syria. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary gives regular attention to the matter, and Britain has contributed funds to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help people who have been displaced. My right hon. Friend is, of course, ready to work with other countries on any further developments in that regard.

The right hon. Gentleman correctly praised the Metropolitan police, who have been involved in protecting the Syrian embassy. There are regular meetings, including a monthly review meeting between the Home Office and the Foreign Office, on the protection of all embassies. There are well-laid contingency plans in the case of the Syrian embassy, which were put into operation this weekend. There were about 150 protesters there on Saturday, three of whom, by climbing up scaffolding, managed to enter a first-floor window of the embassy. The police presence was further reinforced, and has continued. It will be reviewed today, but I think that the police did a very good job in protecting the embassy, and the normal channels between the Foreign Office and the Home Office are working well.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for an assessment of the utility of our diplomatic channels. I was discussing that with our ambassador in Damascus on the phone just before I came into the Chamber. He has heard—as the House will have heard—the announcement that the American embassy has been closed. We have been aware for some days that it would close today. That was done primarily on security grounds. Our embassy premises are in a different situation, and their security is slightly easier to maintain. We will review all options. As I have said, we have recalled our ambassador, and clearly we are doing that so that we can review all options.

I should prefer us to act in concert with a wide number of other nations if we make a further change to our diplomatic relations with Syria, so we will stay close to our partners in the Arab world and the European Union. I am not ruling anything out, but the House will understand that there are advantages in maintaining an embassy for as long as we can, such as being able to understand the situation on the ground, being able to discuss the situation with a variety of people in Syria, and being able to impress on some members of the regime the gravity of the situation that they have got themselves into. I am not, at the moment, announcing any closure of our embassy, but we will keep the position under close review.

I am certain that the Foreign Secretary needs no point of information from me, but may I nevertheless urge him to bear these facts in mind? Inside Syria—which, as he knows very well, contains an immensely complex ethnic and religious group of people—there has lived for many generations a large Christian community, now estimated to number over 350,000. Its archbishop has publicly said that if the present regime is overthrown and replaced —as it almost certainly would be—by a regime of a different denomination, that community might suffer catastrophe, as the Christian community in Iraq did after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

I cannot imagine ever not needing a point of information from my right hon. Friend. He has a deep knowledge of the region, and he is right to point out that there remains a thriving Christian presence in Syria. We have to consider the fact that the regime there is now doomed, one way or the other. It is a question not of whether, but of how and when, it will fall. That highlights the importance of our work with the Syrian opposition. I have met two opposition groups, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has had many meetings with them. We have impressed on them that if they are to form a future Government in Syria, they must recognise the importance of the protection of minorities, including Christians. We need to look to a future Government to give that protection, as this regime has no future.

During the course of the Foreign Secretary’s conversations in New York, was the subject of the International Criminal Court raised? I understand that it is still necessary to give the present regime an exit strategy, but its crimes now warrant that level of legal sanction.

They are very serious crimes, and that is a wholly legitimate question. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that when a country is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court—as Syria is not—the United Nations Security Council must put forward a reference to the prosecutor of the ICC. Given the difficulties of passing the moderate and sensible plan put forward by the Arab League, it will be even more difficult—indeed, currently impossible—to pass a resolution seeking a reference to the court. That is why I explained in my statement that we will make strong representations at the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, where we will press for the appointment of a special rapporteur and the establishment of special investigations into the human rights situation in Syria, as an alternative track.

Will the Foreign Secretary consider speaking to the Russian Foreign Minister before Mr Lavrov goes to Damascus tomorrow, and reminding him of the serious damage that Russia is doing to its own long-term interests in the middle east? If he does speak to him, will he draw to his attention the statement that has been put out by the opposition Syrian National Council today, in which it accuses Russia and China of being

“responsible for the escalating acts of killing”?

It goes on to say that their use of the veto in the Security Council was

“tantamount to a licence to kill with impunity”.

Will not Russia bear a heavy responsibility if Syria now descends into a bloody and protracted civil war?

I think that that is true; I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. This is why I have used strong language of my own, at the weekend and in my statement today. I believe that the vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people: they make Russia and China increasingly responsible for the situation in Syria and for some of the slaughter that is taking place there. They must consider—on the basis of their own national interest, apart from anything else—whether it is a sensible policy to carry on in this way. They are turning their backs on the Arab world, which will reduce their influence in the middle east. It is my belief that they are backing a regime that is, as I have said, doomed in any case. As I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the Russians were left in no doubt of our well-expressed views after I had spoken to Mr Lavrov. They will also be conscious of the views being expressed in the House this afternoon.

With journalists being murdered with impunity and elections being rigged, is not Russia rapidly turning itself into a pariah state, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) just said? Would this not be a good opportunity for the Conservative party, which sits in the same grouping as Mr Putin’s party in the European Council, to part company with that grouping?

I do not think that I shall get into party matters during this Government statement. We emphatically disagree with Russia, and we are appalled at the veto in the Security Council. None the less, Russia is a member of the Security Council and it has a veto. We will therefore continue to discuss the way forward with Russia, just as we will with all other nations.

Is it not clear that the exercise of the veto by any permanent member of the Security Council always comes at a cost? The shameful events of last Saturday will be no exception to this principle. In this case, is not the immediate cost being paid in the broken bodies of children wrapped in burial sheets and the anguish of their parents? My right hon. Friend clearly needs no urging about the urgency with which he should fulfil the objectives he has properly set out, but may I say that he is most well placed when he takes the view that there should be the widest possible coalition of the willing throughout the world—as, indeed, the vote in the Security Council emphasised—so that what the United Nations was unable to do might be achieved on a much broader basis through the maintenance of pressure on Syria?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, as he could gather from my earlier replies. This is why the international coalition should include nations well beyond Europe and the Arab world. I discussed the matter this morning, for instance, with the Foreign Minister of Australia, which is keen to be a participant. Across the Commonwealth as well as across the Arab and European communities, there will be a demand to be involved in that wide coalition. We will pursue that very energetically in the hours and days ahead.

One country singularly absent from the Foreign Secretary’s statement was Iran. Will he say a little more about the extent to which he thinks the Assad regime feels supported and receives succour from the Iranians?

The Assad regime certainly feels that. As we have discussed before, Iran has certainly given active support to the Syrian regime in the form of equipment as well as advice on how to deal with civil disorder and rebellion. There may be many other ways, of which we are unaware, in which the Iranian regime supports the Syrian regime. This is a classic piece of hypocrisy. The Iranians have supported revolution elsewhere in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia; they supported disorder in those countries, but they are against it in Syria. I think that the whole Arab world sees through that, which further widens the current widening separation between Iran and its Arab neighbours.

I share the Foreign Secretary’s approach and urge him to maintain the political, economic and diplomatic pressure that he has set out. The third step that he announced was that he would intensify contact with members of the Syrian opposition. Will he elaborate a little on that: is it on a multilateral or bilateral basis, and is there any limit to the level of resources that he is able to commit to helping that opposition in Syria?

That is bilateral and multilateral. I have already mentioned some of the bilateral contact we have had and the fact that we have an ambassador-level representative dealing with the opposition. I also believe that one of the roles for the wider international coalition would be to meet the various groups of the Syrian opposition, which I think would be a catalyst for the opposition to propose their plans, to make clear commitments to a democratic future for their country and to set out their commitment to human rights and, indeed, the protection of minorities. It is also important for them to try to come together, since one of the challenges for the opposition is to develop a single platform and a single agreed body for taking forward their concerns. There is no limit on what resources we can provide. We have already provided training in the documentation of human rights abuses, in strategic communications and so forth. We may be able to do more in the future.

The Foreign Secretary cannot be faulted in the handling of this crisis and, if I may say so, his Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), was very impressive on the BBC yesterday. However, before we go down the road of arming the opposition, should we not recall what happened when the west armed the mujaheddin and they turned into the Taliban and al-Qaeda? More broadly, this is the fourth major intervention in a majority Muslim country—and Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are not happy examples to follow. Do we not need a broader strategic approach to this region of crisis?

Well, I think that is what we have. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that he could not fault my colleague and me, although there was then a “but.” Let me reassure him further, therefore: we are not contemplating arming anybody. Indeed, one of the things we stressed in our meetings with the Syrian opposition was that they should remain peaceful. We have not been in contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is engaged in a different kind of struggle with the Syrian authorities. I would not classify this as an intervention, therefore. We are supporting the work of the Arab League, we are assembling the widest possible international coalition, and we are not calling for military action or intervention, so I think the right hon. Gentleman can be reassured and continue to be as effusively supportive as he was in the first part of his question.

I applaud the Foreign Secretary for the vigorous and energetic way in which he and his colleagues are attempting to deal with this matter, and I join in his tribute to the staunchness of our diplomatic staff in Damascus. What does he think animates the Chinese Government to support these butchers?

That is an interesting question. As far as we could see at the Security Council negotiations last Friday, China had no easily identifiable objection to the draft resolution. Indeed, when it came to the vote the Chinese permanent representative was surrounded by Arab representatives urging him therefore to vote for the resolution. As it turned out however, his instructions were evidently to vote to veto the resolution along with Russia. It seemed that the desire to act with Russia on the Security Council outweighed any other consideration. I think that is a mistake on the part of China. We have a regular and full strategic dialogue with China, and I will certainly want to pursue the question of this decision vigorously in our next strategic dialogue, because I do not think it is in the interests of China; nor do I think it is living up to the full responsibilities of permanent membership of the Security Council.

The Foreign Secretary has talked about the importance of Turkey. In his discussion with the Foreign Secretary of Turkey, was there any talk about setting up safe havens near the Turkish border, which I believe the Syrian opposition have asked for?

This idea has been floated, although I think more in the media than by any of the Governments concerned. It can, of course, be an appealing idea when people are in such distress and suffering so much, but one then has to consider how safe havens would be created and how they would subsequently be policed. We know from experience in the Balkans in the 1990s that safe havens that prove not really to be safe are one of the worst things we can create. The creation of true safe havens inside Syrian territory would, in effect, require military intervention in Syria. That is not authorised by the UN Security Council and would require a massive military operation. The Turkish Foreign Minister was not proposing that, and that was not part of our discussion last week.

While Assad’s actions are evil and those of the Russians and Chinese are woeful—my right hon. Friend is entirely correct on that—some of us warned during the Libyan intervention that we were in danger of playing into their hands and providing them with an alibi because we did not stick strictly to humanitarian action, such as when we were pursuing Gaddafi in the last hours of his life before he was executed by our allies. We are where we are, however, so where do we go from here? The fact is that the Chinese are impervious to grandstanding. The Foreign Secretary has been rather brief on the quiet diplomacy he is now going to engage in with them to get them to sign up to a resolution that, in terms, prohibits any repetition of the kind of action that took place in Libya.

I disagree with my hon. Friend, in that I do not think that what happened in Libya provides an alibi; after all, there were countries on the Security Council, such as India, which did not vote for resolution 1973 on Libya, and South Africa, which did vote for it but was then very critical of its implementation, that were perfectly happy to vote on Saturday for this resolution because it is entirely different from what we contemplated and wanted in Libya. We are not calling for military intervention—these are different circumstances—so I do not think that that is an adequate defence for Russia and China.

My hon. Friend said that I was quiet on quiet diplomacy, but it is in the nature of quiet diplomacy that it is not pursued noisily. Of course, as I said in my statement, we will continue to discuss with Russia and China the way forward. We will do so in a rather vigorous way, but we will do so continuing to seek agreement at the UN Security Council. We will be very busy with that over the coming days and weeks.

Tunisia, the first Arab country to be liberated from a despot in the Arab spring, is expelling its Syrian ambassador and de-recognising the murderous and criminal Assad regime. The Syrian National Council has called on other countries to follow suit, so will the British Government be considering that?

As I mentioned, I do not rule that out. If we were to do that, I would like us to act in concert with other nations. Therefore, what other nations do is a factor, and we will keep in close consultation with our European and Arab partners on this. But there are considerations to set against that and reasons to maintain an embassy, if possible, which I also mentioned earlier. So this is about a balance between those considerations.

A very dear friend of mine and his five-year-old son were butchered by the Assad regime in the days when it controlled Lebanon, so may I both commend everything that my right hon. Friend is doing and urge him to take a particular interest in what is going on in that country, which the Assad regime continues to try to destabilise, both through its own proxies and through Iranian ones, such as Hezbollah and Amal?

Absolutely; we always take a close interest in what is happening in Lebanon, and Syria has indeed been, a great deal of the time, a malign influence in events there. In addition, events in Lebanon and what may happen in the future there are an important consideration in how we handle this crisis in Syria—this is one reason why it is quite different from the Libyan crisis, for instance. So my hon. Friend is right to point out the horrors of what has happened before and I am very conscious of the point that he makes.

I welcome and endorse the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about taking action through the European Union, through the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and with the Friends of Syria group, but one organisation that he did not mention was NATO. Is it not time to have a discussion in the North Atlantic Council— including Turkey—about having some kind of no-fly zone, comparable with what was put in place to save the Kurds 11 years ago, over the northern part of Syria?

I do not think that it is. I say so, first, because if NATO began planning for different eventualities in Syria, that would weaken rather than unite the international coalition. A no-fly zone would also require authorisation from the UN Security Council, and clearly that would not be obtained at the moment. In addition, although there are reports of Syrian aircraft being involved in the latest events, this is not the prime means of repression, so although a no-fly zone is an easy thing to call for, there is a danger that it would give the illusion of security when the prime means of repression of the civilian population is by tanks and troops on the ground.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s warm words about the countries of the Arab League. With the eyes of the world on Syria, will he give me his personal assurance that he will not close his eyes to what is happening next door in Israel, where United Nations resolutions and international law are being breached against the Palestinian people?

My hon. Friend knows—again, we have discussed this in the House many times—the position on this. We may be getting a little wide of the statement, but of course we have condemned violence in the occupied territories and indeed the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories, which are illegal and on occupied land.

We are grateful to the Foreign Secretary for dealing with that point. Perhaps we can now keep the statement exchanges to the subject matter. I know that the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is now a Knight, but we must stick to what is right and that is the content of the statement.

What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the prospects of Russia agreeing to impose an arms embargo on Syria, given that Russia remains one of Syria’s principal arms suppliers?

There is not much prospect at the moment of Russia agreeing to an arms embargo—that is the straight answer. Russia continues to sell arms to the regime. Russia has many close interests allied to those of the Assad regime and has a naval base there. Syria has been an important customer for Russian arms, and that is no doubt one of the factors behind Russia’s defence of the Assad regime and its veto at the UN Security Council. So, the prospect of Russia agreeing at the moment is very small.

Given the cynicism of Russia’s veto of the draft resolution at the weekend, and the bloodshed since, will my right hon. Friend consider calling in the Russian ambassador and gently suggesting to him that Russia’s failure to support human rights in Syria might be construed by some as incompatible with Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe?

I will give consideration to all the points that are being raised about Russia—that is, I think, the best thing for me to say—and I will ensure that the force of the views in the House of Commons about Russia’s veto is well understood by the Russian embassy. It will be understood there, anyway. My first preference in how we now conduct our discussions with Russia is for me to do so directly with the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as via any contact we may have with the ambassador.

Although the action of Russia and China is completely inexcusable, and no one in this House has tried to defend or justify it in any way, may I take the Foreign Secretary back to a point made earlier? Is he aware that the resolution on Libya, which was brought forward to stop slaughter, was so extended to bring about regime change that it has inevitably played right into the hands of Russia and China, who have done what they have done and vetoed the UN Security Council resolution? Both countries have, of course, a pretty poor record when it comes to their own human rights.

In my view, the resolution on Libya—resolution 1973—was faithfully implemented. If I remember rightly, the hon. Gentleman voted, in the end, for our action in Libya.

Yes, he did. So, we are united in agreeing with that resolution. I do not think that it provides an excuse for Russia and China, for the reasons I gave earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh). Many other nations on the Security Council disapproved of what we did in Libya but voted for this resolution on Syria.

Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s earlier comments on the International Criminal Court, if there is a subsequent UN resolution on referring President Assad and his regime to the UN and the ICC, does he agree that the timing of that will be very important? We know that many dictators, if they feel they have nothing to lose and nowhere to run, are likely to dig in, with more atrocities than there perhaps would have been. The timing is critical.

Yes. My hon. Friend makes a valid and legitimate point. In any case, it is not possible at the moment to refer this to the prosecutor of the ICC. However, I think that the longer this goes on and the greater the atrocities committed, the more determined the world will be to find a way to bring to account and to justice those responsible. That should weigh heavily on those who are now participating in the atrocities of this regime.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on measures being taken to ensure the safety of British citizens in Syria?

For a long time—for many months—we have said that British nationals should not travel to Syria and that those who are there should leave. Also, some weeks ago, when we reduced the staff of our embassy to the minimum level possible to maintain it, we made it clear that we were below the level at which we could conduct an evacuation of any remaining British nationals. We have made the position abundantly clear, and there should not now be British nationals in Syria. Some people who are dual nationals or are married to people in Syria will of course have remained, and whenever they are in difficult circumstances we will do our best to assist them, but we have made the position starkly clear.

Having sat in the middle of a so-called protected area that was totally unprotected, may I re-emphasise to the House something the Foreign Secretary has said? Any protected area requires the presence of people on the ground with the ability to keep it protected, and if this talk of a protected area continues, we will have to think about how that can be done. At the moment, it certainly cannot be done by the British.

My hon. Friend speaks with deep experience of these matters. Certainly, any future discussion about safe havens or humanitarian corridors must be accompanied by the will, authority and full means to make sure that they truly would be safe and humanitarian, rather than leaving people in a very difficult situation.

On Friday, I attended a fundraiser in Newcastle at which over £30,000 was raised to provide humanitarian assistance to those terrorised by the regime. Many there expressed real fear about returning to Syria, especially now that they have shown their support for democracy and freedom. Can the Secretary of State assure me that he is working with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that no Syrians are forced to return to Syria from the UK at the moment?

I congratulate the hon. Lady and her constituents on the funds they have been raising, and I shall draw her point to the attention of my colleague the Home Secretary. We have rigorous rules on these matters in terms of giving asylum to people and not returning them to countries that are in a state of great disorder. I will check on the point she raises.

I wish the Foreign Secretary well in his ongoing discussions with China, for if the use of the veto in these circumstances is a foretaste of things to come, it does not bode well for the future effectiveness of the Security Council. Returning to the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit tomorrow, regardless of the position that Russia is taking, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Russian Foreign Minister is properly to convey the mood of the UN, the international community and the Arab League, he will tell President Assad that his days are numbered and that the only question is how much more blood will be spilled before he goes?

I would love it if that were the message conveyed by Sergei Lavrov when he goes tomorrow, and my hon. Friend is quite right that that is what should be conveyed. However, I think Russia’s approach remains different from that, as we saw with its veto. It is still acting to protect the regime and standing by a long-standing ally despite everything that has happened. As I have said, we will underline to Russia’s representatives, including the Foreign Minister, the depth and strength of opinion in this country, as indeed they will hear from the Arab League and many other nations around the world.

What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of reports over the weekend that Abu Musab al-Suri, who until his capture in 2005 was a dangerously active terrorist, has been freed by the Assad regime in an apparent warning to the United States and the United Kingdom? If that is true, will it not be yet further evidence of the murderous activity of the Syrian Government?

Yes, it would. I am awaiting reliable information about that. Clearly, the announcement was not designed to be helpful in any way and it is further evidence of what the right hon. Gentleman refers to, but if the Syrian regime honestly thinks that we, at the United Nations or anywhere else, are going to change our approach because of such announcements or the release of any reprehensible criminal, it is seriously mistaken.

Russia is inflicting a double blow on the Syrian people through its UN veto and by continuing the $1.5 billion of arms sales to Assad’s regime, which enables the killing and maiming to continue. If the moral and humanitarian argument cannot get through, will the Foreign Secretary emphasise to his Russian counterpart that it is not in Russia’s strategic and economic interests, with its key trading partners in the middle east such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to act as a roadblock to the protection of the Syrian people?

Yes, I absolutely agree. This is an important consideration for the Russian authorities and it is not in Russia’s national interests to take the position it has taken. There will be a future Government in Syria who will remember what Russia has done. Its actions are causing outrage in the Arab world, which is deeply frustrated with Russia’s position, as the secretary-general of the Arab League said to me earlier this afternoon, so we will certainly employ the arguments cited by my hon. Friend.

The killings, murders and disorder in Syria are obviously dreadful and must be condemned. Notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s understandable anger with Russia at present, does he not think that it would be appropriate to have further negotiations with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Government of Iran, who are a near neighbour and in whose interests it cannot be for further disorder to spread to their country? Also, is he confident of the democratic and inclusive credentials of all the Syrian opposition? Surely we can learn from the example, given by many colleagues, of what happened in Libya, where in some quarters the abuse of human rights unfortunately continues, despite assurances given by the opposition there before the intervention.

We shall certainly continue to have discussions with Russia, as I have mentioned many times, but I do not think that discussions with Iran on this subject would be productive at the moment. The views of members of the Syrian opposition vary greatly and, indeed, at least three different organisations could be classified as the Syrian opposition. That is why I stress the need for them to come to international gatherings with a clear statement of democratic and inclusive principles, including the protection of minorities in Syria. I think that they will have greater support in the world if they can articulate those things clearly and set out a clear vision for the future of their country.

It is always the innocent who suffer in these situations, and anyone who has seen or heard of the collateral damage being inflicted on the innocent women and children in Homs cannot fail to think that this Sino-Russian veto is disgraceful and disgusting. Is there any way that we can use our remaining infrastructure and resources in Syria, or those of our allies, to provide humanitarian or medical assistance to these helpless victims?

We are down to the smallest level of representation we can have that is consistent with diplomatic relations. Our staff are therefore able to maintain an embassy, but it is not easy for them to travel around the country, let alone deliver practical assistance to people, so we cannot do that with the remaining diplomatic staff. We support the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the region,as I have said, so we will have to deliver any assistance that way.

While the immediate priority must obviously be to maximise pressure to put an end to the slaughter, what longer-term assessments have been made about the likely complexion of any successor regime to the dictatorship?

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), there are many shades of opinion among the Syrian opposition. When I met members of the Syrian National Council, they were very clear about their commitment to an open and democratic society and to the protection of minorities. I have no reason to doubt them on that, but there will be many influences at work, so it is very difficult to make a prediction or give an accurate answer to my hon. Friend’s question. All I can say is that we will continue to urge the various opposition groups to adopt the open and democratic principles in which we, too, believe.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of UK nationals and those holding dual nationality? What assessment has he made of the number of people falling into those categories, and what discussions has he had with those of our allies who, like us, are maintaining a diplomatic presence with regard to mutual aid for one another’s citizens should the situation deteriorate?

Well, it is in any case the arrangement within the European Union that countries will provide assistance to each others’ citizens if one is unable to do so, but of course the embassies of other nations are also being slimmed down, so it would be wrong for people to rely on that. I think that they should take our advice very seriously. For months we have said, “Do not stay in Syria. Do not go to Syria.” I cannot make it clearer than that. Rather than expect practical assistance, they should leave, and leave now.

I have had the privilege of visiting Syria twice in my life: once in 1998 with a backpack on my back, and last year on a delegation ably led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames). I was struck by the stark difference in access to news media within the country between the two visits. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that our foreign policy, and indeed that of all our partners abroad, should reflect that changed media environment and that the sooner the Russian and Chinese Governments understand and respect that, the better?

Yes, I very much agree. People have access to media reports, particularly those carried by Arab satellite television channels, and what we say on our televisions and, indeed, in this House is heard and understood by many people in Syria. That is one reason why it is not possible to say to people in Syria, “There is no problem,” and that the Syrian Government are doing everything they can. The people can see that the Syrian Government are not acting in the interests of a peaceful transition in Syria, so we will continue to communicate, in many ways directly, with the people of Syria and the rest of the Arab world. There is a lesson in that for Russia and China, as my hon. Friend says.

The actions of this despotic regime are merely the culmination of 30 years of human rights abuses under both Assad regimes, as we know. To return to the question put to the Foreign Secretary by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), we welcome the appointment of a special envoy to the Syrian opposition, but will it necessarily lead to the establishment of a contact group with the Syrian National Council, the Free Syrian Army and other individuals in lieu of the establishment of a free, democratic Government?

We will have to see how the opposition groups develop. We are urging them to come together, but I stress that our contact has been with those advocating peaceful action. We have not had contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is in a different position and advocates a different course, but we want those groups to come together, and we will want them to be involved and to bring their ideas and future plans to the international grouping—of whatever kind—that is formed among Arab, European and other nations. That will be the forum for the opposition to present their ideas and to seek the support of the rest of the world.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of securing a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly as a way of tackling the issue. What assessment has been made of the possibility of that, and on what timeline does he expect to operate?

We are still making an assessment of that. Clearly, it was only on Saturday that the resolution was vetoed in the Security Council. A General Assembly resolution does not have the same weight as a Security Council resolution, but it can illustrate the strength of numbers behind a particular proposition, so we are discussing that now—whether it is a feasible way forward—with the Arab League and with our other partners on the Security Council. I therefore cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timeline yet, but it is a possibility.

We all wish the Foreign Secretary well in his endeavours, but may I press him by suggesting that the regrettable decision to veto was at least in part caused by Russia and China believing that western powers had exceeded their mandate under UN resolution 1973, when pursuing regime change in Libya, as they made clear at the time?

This is not an excuse for Russia and China, and as I pointed out earlier other nations that were very critical of our actions in Libya voted for the resolution, appreciating that it was put forward on behalf of the Arab League, and that it put forward an entirely different proposition from how we proceeded in Libya, because the situation is entirely different. This should not be advanced as an excuse for what is in my view an indefensible veto.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has done thus far, but, just as we were right to intervene in Libya and to support with weapons and logistics those opposition movements that faced massacre, can he do more to work with other countries to give logistics, weapons and humanitarian aid to the opposition groups in Syria? Further, when will the stage be reached at which we need to expel the Syrian ambassador from the United Kingdom?

I hope that I have covered those points. We are not engaged, and are not planning to engage, in arming the opposition forces in Syria, although we will help with advice and some logistics and practical support in order to ensure their ability to operate. It would not be in their interests in any case to be seen as an arm of western Governments, so there is a limit to what we can do in that regard.

On the question of the embassy, we will work with our partners throughout the world on that, but there are advantages in keeping an embassy, as well as in making the strong diplomatic statement of withdrawing an embassy. It improves our understanding of the situation on the ground to have an embassy there.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware of reports of chemical weapons and other weaponry being moved by Hezbollah out of Syria? If so, is he concerned about the consequence that that could have for Israel and Jordan, and for the general stability of the region outside Syria?

We keep a very close eye on any reports of the presence of chemical or biological weapons. I have not seen reports of such weapons being moved by Hezbollah, although the Syrian regime’s close connections with Hezbollah may give rise to concerns about what might happen in Lebanon if the situation continues in Syria. My hon. Friend can be assured that we are alert to this issue.

The impending elections in Russia and a weakened Mr Putin keen to bolster his domestic opinion polls through a show of strength have been put forward as a possible explanation for the use of the Russian veto. Does the Secretary of State agree with that explanation?

The upcoming elections may be a factor in the Russian veto. I think that a stronger factor is that the Russians have had a long alliance with the Assad regime. As I mentioned, they have a naval base in Syria and have sold large quantities of arms there. They feel committed to supporting the Assad regime. That is something that they should change their mind about, in my view, given that the circumstances have changed. We will continue to work on them, before and after their election on 4 March.

It is clearly welcome news that India came off the fence and supported the resolution, marking an end to three decades of that country’s ties with the Assad family. To what extent did New Delhi seek to dilute the final text so that it made no mention of automatic measures in the event of non-compliance?

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the fact that India voted for the resolution. It is true that several countries on the Security Council wanted a resolution that did not go beyond the draft resolution as it was put to the vote on Saturday. Certainly, India is one country that would not have wanted a stronger resolution with the authorisation of sanctions or other measures. I stress that the prime negotiations in the Security Council were always with Russia. The objections raised and amendments put forward came from Russia primarily, rather than from India, South Africa or Pakistan.

I welcome the statement by the Foreign Secretary. He will know that there are more than 30 opposition parties in Syria, including the National Council, the National Co-ordination Committee, the Justice party and the Kurdish party. The work to unite them has been going on for a long time. How close are we to uniting them? Unless the opposition are united, the future for Syria looks bleak.

The answer is that many of those groups have come together under the umbrella of the Syrian National Council. It is in their own interests for all the major groupings to come together under that umbrella. This is a national emergency. As I have put it to them, in this country, which is a thriving democracy, when we face an existential threat, all the parties come together, as with the coalition during the second world war. Syria faces one of the direst emergencies in its history, so they should all be able to come together for this period. We will continue to give that advice, but they have not all managed it yet.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on another aspect of dual nationality? Many of the most energetic supporters and members of the barbaric Syrian regime have dual Syrian and British nationality, including members of President Assad’s immediate family. Will the Foreign Secretary make a commitment to consider how we might usefully frustrate this blatant abuse of British nationality and its use as a flag of convenience?

Many people may share my hon. Friend’s view about the views expressed by dual nationals in this country. However, views expressed are no grounds to deprive anyone of their nationality. If I took that suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I am sure that she would be very clear about that. I therefore cannot hold out any hope to my hon. Friend that we will be able to act in the way that he would like us to.

Jordan is playing a strong and constructive role. I discussed the situation a couple of hours ago with Nasser Judeh, the Foreign Minister of Jordan. It supports and is an energetic sponsor of the work of the Arab League, and it co-sponsored the resolution that was put to the UN Security Council. We welcome its active participation.