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Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

7. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (102857)

I discuss Syria regularly with EU colleagues. At the March Foreign Affairs Council, we condemned the violence of Assad’s regime and supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. We agreed to adopt further sanctions, including an asset freeze on two Syrian petroleum companies.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. What role does he envisage for the Security Council in the ongoing crisis in Syria?

The Security Council has, I am glad to say, at last agreed a Security Council resolution. It did so on Saturday and I pay tribute to our mission at the United Nations in New York for the way in which it helped to achieve that. This resolution embodies the Kofi Annan plan, but it also sets out very clearly how the role of the monitors for the ceasefire that has now, at least partly, come into effect in Syria, should be regarded, in terms of giving them access to where they need to go and to people they need to talk to. For the first time the Security Council has passed a resolution uniting all the members of the Security Council, against which the Assad regime and its behaviour can now be judged.

The Syrian military have shelled refugees in Turkey. What is our Government’s attitude to that? If the Turkish Government take justified military action in response, will we support them?

We deplore that outrageous behaviour, along with the killing of 10,000 and more people throughout this conflict so far in Syria. We have expressed our strong solidarity to Turkey over that. I am not going to get into discussing hypotheses about military action by Turkey; I do not believe that that is being seriously contemplated at the moment, although, of course, continual violation of the border would be an immense provocation to Turkey. But we absolutely deplore that particular violation.

Is it not clear that the Assad regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire and withdrawing its tanks and heavy artillery from towns and cities? As the international community accepts a responsibility to protect, will the British Government initiate urgent discussions with the Arab League, Turkey, the United States and other European countries, with a view to encouraging Arab states to close their land borders and their airspace to any traffic destined for Syria? If that were combined with a naval blockade of the Syrian coast, would it not, at the very least, prevent any further arms from being delivered to the Syrian regime?

As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, we have very tough sanctions in place, imposed through the European Union, and the Arab League has sanctions of its own. But as he will also know, some Arab League countries do not implement, or do not fully implement, those sanctions, particularly countries that are close to Syria, such as Iraq. For that reason, it is extremely difficult to impose the general blockade that my right hon. and learned Friend talks about, and arms shipments continue to reach Syria from Russia as well. Cutting off all such arms supplies without the co-operation of the countries I have mentioned is not possible. What we now have to do is try to ensure that the terms of the UN Security Council resolution are met, and clearly warn the Assad regime that if they are not met, we will be able to return to the Security Council for further measures.

Let me stay on the issue of the Security Council resolution, and echo the words of praise for the UK mission in New York. We welcome the authorising of the deployment of observers from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the fact that, as I understand it, members of the group have now started arriving in Damascus, but will the Foreign Secretary say when he expects the observer group to be up to full strength, when it will begin reporting back, and what his personal assessment is of the chances of its being able to go about its work peaceably?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to sound a sceptical note about the group’s ability to go about their work, as the Assad regime did not fully co-operate with the Arab League observers who were in the country previously. That shows the importance of passing, in the Security Council resolution, clear language about “unhindered deployment of…personnel”, full

“unimpeded and immediate freedom of movement”,

as well as “unobstructed communications” and a requirement to be able

“to freely and privately communicate with individuals throughout Syria”.

The observers will therefore be able to report on a continuous basis on whether these terms are being met, and the Security Council will then be able to debate those terms. They are terms that have been agreed by Russia and China as well as by countries such as ours. The expansion of this monitoring team into a team of several hundred, rather than 30, depends on the observance of the ceasefire, what progress is made over the coming days, and the passage of a further UN Security Council resolution.

19. What financial support are the Government considering giving to international agencies working to support refugees outside Syria in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan? (102870)

Through the Department for International Development, we have already given about £4.5 million in support for humanitarian purposes. That goes through international agencies. That has helped to provide basic supplies and much needed emergency supplies, particularly to people on the borders with Syria, and we have offered further assistance to Turkey, which has seen large numbers of Syrians cross the border in recent times, if it requires it.

Order. Progress is rather slow today, so I appeal to colleagues to ask shorter questions and to Ministers to grace us with somewhat shorter answers.

The Syrian opposition has taken steps to improve its cohesiveness. In Istanbul on 1 April, I met senior members of the Syrian National Council. I urged them to continue their efforts to provide a common platform for the opposition to Assad, including for Kurdish people, and I have doubled the financial support we provide to them for non-lethal activities.

What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the Syrian authorities’ commitment to the peace process, and what effect is the continued violence, particularly in Homs and other areas, having on the cohesiveness of the opposition?

I think the behaviour of the regime—not only in Homs now or in recent weeks, but throughout the last 13 months—can only help to solidify and intensify the opposition. It is an encouragement to them because it shows what an appalling and murderous regime they are up against. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise doubts about the intentions of the regime. It has complied with the ceasefire in the most grudging way possible, and has not yet met all its terms. It continued to kill as many people in the opposition as it could until the last possible moment. I have no doubt that it will at various stages try to obstruct the observers and that it does not necessarily intend to engage sincerely in any process of political transition. All that is true, but it is an advance to have the observers there and the Security Council resolution in place.

In the judgment of my right hon. Friend, are the tragic events in Syria a genuine national uprising against a tyrannical regime or a power struggle between the Sunni and the Shi’a and their foreign backers, which, if it results in the overthrow of the Alawite regime, could lead to tragic results for some of the other minorities in that country, including the 350,000 Christian Syrians?

I think it is much more the former than the latter—that would be the judgment I would give to my right hon. Friend. From everything I have seen of opposition activists in Syria, they are motivated by their opposition to the regime for many secular rather than religious reasons. They want to bring about a plural democratic political system in their country, so I think those are the prime motivations, but we always impress on them the need to state their commitment to protecting minorities, including the Christian minority in Syria, and I am pleased that they have now strongly stated that commitment.

Last week, I visited Jordan’s northern border with Syria, near the town of Deraa. I draw Members’ attention to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that will soon appear. Will the Foreign Secretary check how much of the £4.5 million being given to help refugees is going to the Jordan border, where literally thousands of Syrian refugees are coming through? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is operating on a shoestring and such relief work is often being done through the generosity of the Jordanian people themselves.

I certainly will check, and will encourage my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary to check in detail. We should be clear that if we are asked by the UNHCR or by countries bilaterally for greater assistance, we will provide that. We are providing assistance that has been requested, and we will certainly do more if necessary.

In welcoming the Annan plan, does the Foreign Secretary agree that, ironically, compliance with it entrenches the regime in situ? Is it still his wish that the Assad regime stand down, and how does he think that can be best achieved?

Of course it is our view that the Assad regime should go—that was our stated view from last summer—but as my hon. Friend knows, that is not the united view of the whole United Nations Security Council, so this resolution and the work of Kofi Annan is based on a political process. However, that is a process, as set out in the Annan plan, to lead to a plural democratic political system. Of course, the regime will try to use a ceasefire and a political process to its own advantage; but the more it is a genuine ceasefire and a genuine political process, the less it will be to the regime’s advantage.