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Syria

Volume 546: debated on Monday 11 June 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on Syria.

The whole House will be united in support for the Syrian people. They have endured 15 months of fear and suffering. Eighty-seven thousand people have fled to neighbouring countries and up to 500,000 are internally displaced. As many as 15,000 people may have died, and thousands of political prisoners are imprisoned and at risk of mistreatment and torture.

Each day, reports emerge of savage crimes. The Syrian military are surrounding and bombarding towns with heavy weaponry, then unleashing militia groups to terrorise and murder civilians in their homes. Those deliberate military tactics are horrifyingly reminiscent of the Balkans in the 1990s. Two weeks ago in al-Houla, 108 civilians died in this manner, including 49 children under the age of 10. A similar atrocity appears to have been committed last week in al-Qubair, where 78 people were killed, including women and children. UN monitors attempting to report on those events have been shot at and obstructed.

These grotesque crimes have illuminated to the world the nature of the events in Syria and the conduct of the Assad regime. It is attempting, with utter inhumanity, to sow terror, to break the spirit of opposition in Syria and to try to reassert control. This is as futile as it is morally reprehensible. By branding their opponents terrorists and using tanks against them, the regime is driving Syrians to take up arms to defend their homes; and by singling out particular communities, it is inflaming sectarian tension. There are credible reports of human rights abuses and sectarian attacks by armed opposition fighters, which we also utterly condemn. We also have reason to believe that terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda have committed attacks designed to exacerbate the violence, with serious implications for international security.

As a result, Syria today is on the edge of civil war. That could lead to thousands more casualties, a humanitarian disaster and human rights violations on an even greater scale, and instability in neighbouring countries. We are working intensively to find a peaceful means of resolving the crisis. Our approach, in close coordination with our European partners is: first, to push for implementation of the Annan plan as the internationally agreed road map to end the violence; secondly, to increase the pressure and isolation felt by the regime; and, thirdly, to ensure justice, accountability and humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people. I will take each of those in turn.

First, the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, has set out a six-point plan to end the violence and to start a political process to address the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. It is backed by two UN Security Council resolutions, 2042 and 2043. The latter mandated the deployment of the 300 UN monitors who are now on the ground in Syria. I pay tribute to them for their difficult work in dangerous circumstances. As Kofi Annan has made clear on many occasions, the onus is on the regime to call off its military assault, to adhere to a ceasefire and to allow a process of political reform. Political transition must be based on democratic principles and reflect the needs of all Syria's minority communities, including Kurds, Christians and Alawites. On 1 April, the Syrian regime committed itself to implementing the Annan plan, and on 12 April it announced a ceasefire. It has not kept either of those commitments.

Two weeks ago, I discussed the situation with my Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow. I made the case for Russia to use its crucial leverage with the Assad regime to ensure the full implementation of the Annan plan, since the collapse of Syria or descent into civil war would be against Russian interests as well as those of the wider world. I also raised the issue of arms sales to the Syrian regime, which we believe should be stopped immediately.

In Istanbul, on 1 June, I held talks with members of the Syrian National Council and other opposition representatives, including Kurds, and I returned there last week for discussions with Secretary Clinton, the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Foreign Ministers of 12 European and Arab nations. I am in regular contact with Kofi Annan, and preparations are in hand for a meeting of the friends of Syria group, which now numbers more than 80 countries, in early July.

Last Thursday, the Russian Government put forward their own proposal for an international conference on Syria. Such a meeting could help generate momentum behind the Annan plan. However, it would have to be a meeting that led to a change on the ground, and did not just buy time for the regime to kill more innocent people. So, in our view, any such meeting would need to be based on a common understanding that it would lead to a political transition; it should include genuine steps to implement the Annan plan; and it should only involve nations that are committed to being part of the solution in Syria. We will discuss with our partners whether it is possible to agree concerted international action on this basis; my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will take forward these discussions with other Heads of Government when he attends the G20 meeting in Mexico next week.

Making a success of the Annan plan also requires the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups to put aside their differences, to unite around the common goal of a democratic transition and to assure all Syria’s minorities that their rights will be protected in a multi-ethnic and democratic Syrian state. This has been my consistent message in all my discussions with opposition figures. We welcome the meetings with opposition groups that will be held in Istanbul later this week and subsequently in Cairo, which have our active support.

The Annan plan is not an open-ended commitment; it cannot be used indefinitely by the regime to play for time. If it is not implemented, we will argue for a new and robust UN Security Council resolution aimed at compelling the regime to meet its commitments under the plan, and requiring all parties to comply with it. So we have already begun discussions at the Security Council on the elements of a resolution. We do not want to see the Annan plan fail, but if, despite our best efforts, it does not succeed, we would have to consider other options for resolving the crisis and, in our view, all options should then be on the table.

Secondly, we are taking steps to increase the isolation of the regime. On 29 May, we expelled three Syrian diplomats from London, including the chargé d’affaires, in co-ordination with the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and other countries that took similar steps. We are also in discussions with Arab League and like-minded countries about measures to tighten the stranglehold on the regime’s resources and external sources of support, building on the 15 rounds of EU sanctions that already target 128 individuals and 43 entities.

Thirdly, we are acting to help end impunity for atrocities, and we are supporting the humanitarian needs and legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. Britain co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council resolution of 1 June, which was carried by 41 votes to three. It condemned the al-Houla massacre, mandated the UN commission of inquiry to investigate and gather evidence about it, and highlighted the recommendation of the UN high commissioner for human rights that the UN Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court. We are working on a further UN Human Rights Council resolution to reinforce these objectives.

We also sent a team of British experts to Syria’s borders in February and March to gather testimony from Syrians. The team found evidence of violations of international law and international human rights law, including murder, rape, torture, unlawful imprisonment, enforced disappearance and persecution. This work to document abuses is being continued. The team of Syrians that helped to document the al-Houla massacre was trained by the United Kingdom, and we are working closely with the United States and the UN commission of inquiry to ensure that any evidence is collated and stored for use in a future legal process. We are also increasing UK funding for the Syrian opposition and civil society groups, providing £1.5 million of assistance in this financial year to help provide human rights monitoring and media training for activists, and other non-lethal support, such as communications equipment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and his Department are working with the UN and the international community to ensure that urgent humanitarian assistance gets to the 1 million people estimated to be in need. The Syrian regime has now agreed a plan to respond to humanitarian needs. There can be no further delay in its implementation, and humanitarian agencies must be allowed full and unhindered access to all areas in Syria. Britain has helped to provide emergency food supplies for nearly 24,000 families inside Syria, safe drinking water for 30,000 people, blankets for 5,000 people, medical assistance for up to 25,000 people and support to refugees in neighbouring countries.

The coming weeks must see an intensified and urgent international effort to stop the violence and restore hope to Syria, and the British Government remain absolutely focused on this goal. If all the efforts I have described fail, Britain will work with the friends of Syria group to increase further the isolation of the regime and to adopt sweeping new sanctions across the world.

We will not rule out any other option that could at any stage stop the bloodshed, and we will not relent in our efforts to ensure the political transition, justice, accountability and security that the Syrian people need and deserve, and to support greater political and economic freedom in the middle east. This freedom is not only the legitimate right of all the peoples of the region, but the foundation of lasting peace, stability and prosperity.

The time has long passed for the Assad regime to stop the killing and torturing of its people, and it is time now for all nations on the UN Security Council to insist on the cessation of violence and on the political process, which remain the only peaceful way to resolve this mounting crisis.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. If anyone was in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation in Syria, a simple examination of the facts should be enough to convince them of the scale of the horror that we are witnessing. The conflict has been raging for 15 months and the death toll is estimated at more than 15,000. As the Foreign Secretary told the House in the last few minutes, the village of al-Houla was the scene of one of the worst massacres of which there are reports. UN observers on the ground have confirmed that at least 108 people were killed, including 49 children and 34 women. I therefore join the Foreign Secretary in recognising the work of UN monitors who attempt to document such events. They have been repeatedly shot at and obstructed in trying to carry out that important task.

This is not an historical conflict—it is unfolding in real time, documented on television screens and in YouTube footage. I therefore welcome this opportunity for the House to scrutinise the Government’s response. Fifteen months on, in recent weeks the conflict, instead of approaching its end, seems, if anything, to be entering a new and bloodier phase. We should be clear that the responsibility for the crisis lies primarily with the Assad regime, which continues to show utter contempt for the value of human life, perpetrating a violent and brutal crackdown on innocent people across Syria, for which it must ultimately be held to account. However, expressions of revulsion in response to the slaughter are not enough. Let us be candid and admit that the international community is dangerously divided on its response to the conflict. That division is drastically hampering the effort to stop the violence.

The point of consensus for the time being is the Kofi Annan peace plan, but by any honest reckoning that UN-backed plan has so far failed to bring an end to the violence. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore think that increasing the number of monitors and boosting Mr Annan’s resources would improve the prospects of the plan succeeding? To date, the Annan plan has been judged to be the only option on the table, but the Foreign Secretary rightly told the House a few moments ago that the “Annan plan is not an open-ended commitment.” Will he tell the House specifically what the time limit and tests for the Annan plan are? How much slaughter is required before the international community acknowledges the plan’s failure and begins to formulate a more effective alternative means of ending the crisis?

Further diplomacy is of course needed if the divisions in the international community are to be overcome, but the difficulty of the task must not detract from its urgency. What, therefore, is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the recent and fairly brutal judgment of Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader and former High Representative for Bosnia, who said of the British Government’s strategy for dealing with the crisis:

“I don’t think that is wise diplomacy”?

As the Annan plan is currently not working, the challenge is to ask what, beyond the Annan plan, can be done, even accounting for the divergence of views in the international community. Several steps short of military intervention should be considered to sharpen the choice facing the Syrian regime. First, on the financing of the regime, without a comprehensive oil embargo Syria can still export oil to countries outside the EU and United States. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Government of India, who do not have bilateral sanctions and who have allegedly been approached by the Syrians to purchase Syrian oil? The Syrian regime is also still able to import diesel from countries such as Venezuela, which allows it to sustain its military operation, including tanks, through foreign imports. What is the likelihood of a comprehensive oil ban being agreed by the United Nations? Failing that, what realistic pressure have the Government put on countries continuing to trade with Syria in such a way?

Secondly, on the security situation and particularly on support for the opposition, there are steps that could alter the realities on the ground without breaching the arms embargo, such as blocking the communications of Assad’s forces and choking off his remaining finance from neighbours such as Lebanon, which we understand are still not enforcing the Arab League sanctions that they have previously agreed to.

The Syrian military is one of the key pillars still sustaining the political regime in Damascus, and the newly appointed head of the Syrian National Council, Abdulbaset Sayda, was right to call for mass defections from the regime in one of his first statements since taking control of the SNC. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the current rate of such defections, and what steps can the international community to take to encourage and facilitate them further? Does he agree that more should be done to publish internationally the names of any officers ordering the current atrocities, as a clear signal of intent that they will face the full force of international justice for their crimes?

The Foreign Secretary mentioned in passing that al-Qaeda is operating in Syria. What is the British Government’s view of the scale of its activity within Syria to date?

I welcome wholeheartedly the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to Russia. Does he believe that the Russian position is likely to shift significantly in the immediate future as the situation deteriorates further? I also welcome his comments about the friends of Syria group and the news that a further meeting of the group is being planned. He said that the Prime Minister intended to raise the issue of Syria at the G20 in Mexico. In the light of statements by a Chinese Minister earlier today that the situation in Syria should not be on the agenda at the G20 meeting, will the Foreign Secretary give us his assurance that he is taking all the necessary steps to ensure that appropriate time is found for a discussion that must take place at that meeting?

The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that if the Annan plan was not implemented, the UK Government would argue for “a new and robust UN Security Council resolution aimed at compelling the regime to meet its commitments under the plan”. How will the British Government endeavour to shift Russia’s view to allow for agreement at the Security Council on the passing of such a resolution? That is surely the real test of whether there is a Security Council route beyond the Annan plan, about which the Foreign Secretary was more circumspect.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is growing by the day, as the Foreign Secretary acknowledged. This morning, The Times reported that a group called the Union of Free Syrian Doctors had questioned the international community’s commitment and said that help for doctors trying to get medical supplies in through Turkey had come only from a one-off donation by France and by private individuals. Will he use this opportunity to shed some light on that?

Order. I am listening intently to the shadow Foreign Secretary. He has provided much food for thought for the Secretary of State, who I am sure will be delighted to respond to each of his pertinent inquiries. I feel sure that those pertinent inquiries are coming very shortly to a close.

Indeed, Mr Speaker.

There is one final question that I should like to pose to the Foreign Secretary in the light of his remarks. What thought has been given to creating large humanitarian enclaves for civilians in neighbouring countries—safe areas in countries such as Turkey—given that the humanitarian crisis is as serious as he suggested?

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the facts about the terrible atrocities that have been committed speak for themselves. He illustrated the fact that support for the work of the UN monitors and abhorrence of the crimes that have been committed are universal across all political parties and all shades of opinion in this country. He agreed, too, that the clear responsibility for the crisis lies with the Assad regime.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Annan plan and the possibility of increasing the number of monitors. I have discussed that possibility with Kofi Annan several times. Certainly the United Kingdom would support an increase in the number of monitors if Kofi Annan were to ask for it. I will have a discussion with him again later today, and we will see what his latest assessment is. He points out, and we have to remember, that this is not a peacekeeping force. It was meant to monitor a ceasefire that had been agreed, so it is not a case of just increasing the size of a peacekeeping force. Of course, the monitors are going into very dangerous situations.

The mandate from the existing UN resolution would expire on 20 July, which is pertinent to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about a deadline. I do not think it is wise to set an arbitrary deadline. If we said now that the Annan plan had so many days or weeks and found the day before that deadline expired that it was possible to hold an international conference to push the Annan plan, that would not necessarily be wise. Inevitably, the need to review the work of the monitors before 20 July will focus minds in the UN Security Council well before that on whether it is feasible or right to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the comments by my noble Friend Lord Ashdown. From my memory of that article, I think his argument was that we should focus on other countries’ responsibility for addressing the situation rather than emphasising our own responsibility. I do not think he was criticising any of the diplomatic moves we have made. A more extended quotation might have been a good idea at that point in the right hon. Gentleman’s questions.

On the question of discouraging oil purchases, of course we do that. We discourage all countries and I have taken the matter up with Foreign Ministers of many countries filling in for the EU sanctions on Syrian oil. The Syrians have found their particular type of heavy grade oil difficult to sell in other markets, so the income of the regime has been substantially reduced by the EU sanctions. In Istanbul last week, I also raised with Arab Ministers the enforcement of Arab League sanctions and the case for Arab nations adopting sanctions similar to those of the European Union.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about defections, which take place from army units and seem to happen on a regular basis. The Assad regime tries to prevent high-level defections, not only by placing people under house arrest but by threatening the families of anyone who manages to defect from the regime. It makes it extremely difficult for them to do so. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the names of army officers and those responsible for crimes, and of course some have been added to each list of EU sanctions. I will also consider his further point about whether more can be done to publicise those names.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the G20. The agenda of the formal meetings of the G20 will be for the Mexican presidency to finalise, but whether or not the subject is on the formal agenda there will be many bilateral meetings. It is possible for leaders to discuss whatever they wish, and the Prime Minister will therefore certainly be discussing Syria in and around the G20 meetings.

Our dialogue with Russia on this subject is continuous, and I think it is fair to say that the Russian position has certainly shifted its emphasis and perhaps its substance to some degree, which increasingly emphasises that the Russians are not wedded to Assad and that they want to see stability in Syria. The most persuasive thing for them is not what any of us say but the fact that the situation is clearly deteriorating and that Syria is on the edge of the things we have described—collapse or full civil war. That is a terrible scenario for all the nations of the United Nations Security Council and for all who wish to see international peace and security. Russia can see that deterioration, too, and that is why they have made their proposals, to which we are unable to agree immediately for the reasons I have given, for an international conference. Russian diplomacy is being adjusted as the days go by, and my judgment is that it is worth continuing that dialogue with Russia and continuing to try to move them towards insistence that the regime implement the Annan plan.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about large humanitarian enclaves. That would require the willingness of neighbouring countries, many of which are doing very good work in looking after the refugees on their soil—26,000 in Turkey, more than 22,000 in Jordan and 17,000 in Lebanon, which are large numbers in any case. People are taking refuge in those countries and we are helping to provide humanitarian assistance through international agencies. People are finding refuge in neighbouring countries, but issues such as safe areas or enclaves in Syria—that is perhaps not what he was suggesting—are a different matter. As I have said, we are not ruling out any option for the future but such safe areas would have to be truly safe and effective. Making them safe and effective raises all the issues about military intervention with which the House is familiar.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that if any British joint military intervention is ever contemplated into the sectarian civil war in Syria—essentially a war between Alawites and Sunnis, each with foreign backers urging them on to greater ferocity—he will reflect on the British experience in Mandated Palestine, which demonstrated that the ultimate folly for an intruder into another country is to be caught between warring and irreconcilable historic forces?

There are many points in history, including the one that my right hon. Friend points out, that show that we should always bring caution to any consideration of military intervention. That is why, despite all the frustrations and the terrible length of this bloody crisis, our efforts are so heavily devoted to, and we continue to work so hard on, the implementation of the Annan plan, and trying to bring Russia to a stronger insistence that the regime implement that plan. Clearly, that is because we think that is the only way to secure a peaceful transition in Syria and a peaceful solution to the crisis. It is impossible to know how the situation will develop, if the plan is not followed and implemented. That is why I say that we should have all options on the table, but cautionary words about military intervention in such a complex situation are entirely well understood by the Government and the whole House.

We all understand the necessary caution regarding going beyond the existing diplomatic measures, but notwithstanding what the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), said, that was the approach that we took to Bosnia for three years, with catastrophic results. Given the Foreign Secretary’s discussions with Sergei Lavrov and other Russian leaders, does he think that they comprehend the huge damage being done to their international reputation by the fact that it appears to the rest of the world that, whatever they are saying, in practice all they are doing is protecting an abject, brutal regime that has lost the consent of its people?

That is a good point. I do not know what Russia’s private assessment is of that damage, but there is such damage, of course, and not only in the view of leaders in the Arab world, but among the huge populations who now watch the footage of these crimes on satellite TV. Of course, the same people across the whole middle east are familiar with, or were rapidly informed of, the fact that when we had a vote in the UN Human Rights Council 10 days ago, only three countries voted against that resolution: Russia, China and Cuba. That does not help any of those countries’ international standing in the region or, in the wider world, among people who have a passionate concern for human rights. That is one of the factors in their thinking. It may be one of the factors in the increased readiness to look for new solutions in order to bring about the implementation of the Annan plan. As I say, we will continue to work with Russia and try to persuade the Russian leaders on that basis.

Over the weekend the Foreign Secretary made the important comparison between Syria today and Bosnia in the 1990s. Will he accept that we are repeating one of the major mistakes of that period by imposing an arms embargo equally on the Syrian regime and the Syrian insurgents, despite the fact that the regime has an overwhelming preponderance of military equipment already? Taking into account the fact that the embargo is not a Security Council embargo—it is one imposed purely by the European Union, and could therefore be changed and modified, regardless of the views of Russia or China—will my right hon. Friend have urgent talks with his fellow Foreign Ministers in other European Union countries on modifying the arms embargo to the degree required to enable appropriate military assistance to be given to Syrian insurgents, so that they can prevent, or at least seek to prevent, the continuing slaughter of the Syrian people?

While not fundamentally disagreeing in all circumstances that might arise with my right hon. and learned Friend, I am not at the same point in the argument. As he well knows, there are serious disadvantages to sending arms to opposition groups, as well as the case that he might make. It is difficult to know in the current situation what those arms would be used for, and whether they could also be used to commit atrocities that we would find appalling. They could contribute to the cycle of violence that is building up and create a further reaction on the other side. We can see some of that now, as there clearly is an increased availability of arms, from whatever source, to opposition groups, and the cycle of violence is increasing. I think it is far preferable to any of the other options—options which may be on the table for the future, but it is far preferable now to put all our effort and to put our diplomatic effort entirely, even at this stage, into trying to secure the Annan plan, because that or something very similar to it is the only hope of a peaceful transition. Until all such efforts have been entirely exhausted, I think it is best to continue to aim for that peaceful solution and not to contribute in any way to the violence in Syria.

We are all caught between horror at what is going on, and Britain’s and the west’s failure over Bosnia and not wishing to repeat that, but the only hope is to redouble the efforts that the Foreign Secretary has indicated he is pursuing with the Russian Government. Their strategic interests through their Mediterranean port in Syria and their other interests in Syria hold the key. Whether we like it or not, we are not going to achieve any progress by on the one hand encouraging the Russians to think that western intervention is yapping at their heels, and on the other hand thinking that just by berating them we are going to get any progress. The truth is that, whether we like it or not, we have to engage them and make them see that their own strategic interests will be advanced by resolving this problem, which probably only they can do.

That is entirely the case that we are making. Of course we often make some criticism of their position, as they do of ours, in public but we have a good working relationship with the Russian leaders. I have discussed this many times and at great length, as the House can gather, with Sergei Lavrov and will no doubt do so again over the coming days. We will keep making exactly that case because, as we have been discussing over the past few minutes, all the alternatives to bringing about the full implementation of the Annan plan or something very close to it are extremely bloody and have unknowable consequences.

I do not often disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), but may I offer to the Foreign Secretary my belief that he should exercise considerable caution before embarking upon the notion of supplying arms, however well intentioned such a supply might be? There is a common characteristic, unfortunately, between Bosnia and Syria today—that is, the senseless brutality and unbridled barbarism. Is it not the case, and is this not something that he should impress not only upon Russia but upon China, that their apparent tolerance of that behaviour is seriously damaging to the very interests they seek to protect?

In line with my earlier answer, I take my right hon. and learned Friend’s strong note of caution about supplying arms into such a conflict. It has not so far been our policy, in any of the nations affected by the Arab spring, in any of these conflicts, to supply arms to any of the parties involved. Even in Libya, where we were actively involved with the military intervention under a UN resolution, we did not supply arms to any of the participants, so to change that would be a major change in our approach. He is right about the long-term diplomatic cost and the cost in world opinion, not only to Russia but to China, and we certainly encourage other nations throughout the middle east and across the world to make that point very forcefully to their Russian and Chinese ambassadors.

I just wonder whether the carrot approach works very well with Russia. The United States of America tried to press the reset button and gained absolutely nothing, but the Russians gained a great deal of advantage. The Russians seem to be advancing an entirely cold war attitude to the situation, protecting their military interests in Tartus and saying that the biggest threat in their military doctrine is NATO. Is it not time we were a bit more robust with the Russians?

The whole House has just been discussing how to persuade Russia to change its position. I do not think that it is a question of sticks and carrots, which is the wrong way to analyse this. In any case, the pressure on Russia in this regard is what will happen if there is no implementation of the Annan plan, which would be very destructive of Russian interests as well as the broader interests of international peace and security, so I think that doing our utmost to work with them and asking them to work with us to implement the Annan plan is the best way forward, and we will do that. As the hon. Gentleman may have gathered from my earlier comments, I do not shrink from criticising Russia, but it is also my job as Foreign Secretary to pursue this with Russia in a diplomatic way, which I will continue to do until the possibility of reaching success has been exhausted.

On that point, the Foreign Secretary is right to continue his support for the Annan plan, but he must recognise that we are very close to having to acknowledge that it is not working and he is quite right to have all options on the table. May I press him a little on the international conference proposed by the Russians? In my view, it is well worth persevering with, but what would his attitude be if an invitation were extended to Iran? Would that deter him from attending, or would he be encouraged by that as something that might lead to a change on the ground of the sort he envisaged?

No, I would not be encouraged by that. As I said in my statement, in any such international conference it would be important that all countries involved are ready to be part of the solution, which of course is a reference to Iran, in particular, which has been part of the problem so far. By sending equipment and technical advice to the Syrian regime—it might have helped in other ways that we are not familiar with—Iran has been assisting with the terrorising and subjugation of the people of Syria, which is not a very good starting point to come to an international conference designed to sort this out. We will see what can be agreed on this. The United States has objected very strongly to any notion of Iran being included in such a conference. I have said that Iran’s inclusion would probably make it unworkable, so it would be far simpler if we agreed that the conference did not include Iran.

Several of my constituents have asked why the UN right to protection has not been exercised. Does the possible introduction of that right constitute one of the options to which the Foreign Secretary referred, and would the United Kingdom support its implementation, because with the best will in the world a peaceful solution to what is happening in Syria seems to be drifting further and further away?

Of course, the best way to protect the people of Syria is to arrive at a peaceful solution and have a peaceful transition there. The hon. Lady asks why the United Nations has not done more on that. It is because there has been no unity at the UN Security Council. Twice—on 4 October and 4 February—Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have applied greater pressure. We expect that if we tried at the moment to pass a resolution either sanctioning any kind of outside intervention in Syria or mandating sanctions from the entire world, it would run up against the same problem. The UN Security Council has therefore not yet mustered the unity to fulfil its responsibilities, despite our repeated efforts over more than a year, so at the moment it is not fulfilling its responsibilities to protect the people of Syria.

Any western intervention, such as arming the rebels, would make the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq look like a picnic. The Alawites were a savagely persecuted minority until the French started empowering them; there are only 10 Alawites on the Syrian National Council, which numbers more than 300; and Christians are hugely unrepresented. Instead of constantly criticising the Russians, can we not appreciate that they have a sophisticated understanding of the country, and that we have to work with them to reach a peaceful solution which empowers the minorities?

I hope that the Russians and all of us have a sophisticated understanding of the country, but that sophisticated understanding, when brought up to date, suggests that we are on the edge of a catastrophe for all those people unless we muster the international unity to ensure that the Annan plan, and the road map that arises from it, is put into practice.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to worry about those things, and I have stressed in my meetings with opposition groups from Syria that not only must they come together but that they need the broadest possible representation of all groups in Syria and to increase the representation of Christians, Kurds and Alawites, working with, and in leading roles in, the opposition movement.

On a day when Homs is yet again being pounded into the ground, it is very difficult to stand back and watch. I commend the Foreign Secretary for the considerable efforts that he has made so far, but how long can we wait? What does the UN doctrine on the responsibility to protect actually mean in practice? At the moment it does not seem to mean very much; it seems to be a menu from which people pick and mix as they choose. But they are all signed up to it, and once again this calls into question the composition of the UN Security Council. My preferred option is safe havens: it worked for the Kurds; it can work for the Syrians. I realise that it also requires some kind of military intervention, but putting that in place is absolutely essential.

It is sadly true that nations have signed up to commitments and to principles under United Nations charters at various stages, but it is then very difficult to achieve international unity on putting them into practice. Of course, there are so many nations that signed the universal declaration on human rights—long before the doctrine on the responsibility to protect—whose human rights records the right hon. Lady and I would be severely critical of, so a signature to a declaration is never the same as putting it into practice when a crisis comes. I accept that she is in favour of the safe havens idea, and although I think that there are the constraints I mentioned earlier, I also stress that, given the nature of the situation and the fact that we do not how it will develop over the coming months, unless we can get a peaceful transition going in Syria we are not taking that option off the table, either.

To what extent do the Government believe that the possession in Syria of major Russian technical intelligence-gathering facilities is a factor in Russia’s determination not to see President Assad fall from power?

Russia has a range of defence and, one has to assume, intelligence interests in Syria, and they will all be factors in Russia’s alliance with the Assad regime and in the way Russia has acted over the past year to protect the regime. It is hard to rank those things, but they will all be factors. However, Russia’s important interests in Syria should also now be factors in Russia using all possible leverage to bring about a peaceful transition in Syria, rather than a continuation of the current situation, which could bring about the collapse of the country and, indeed, a very clear danger to all those same Russian interests.

Is the Foreign Secretary worried that a failure to agree on an international conference in, for example, the context of the Mexico meetings could be used as a top-up for the diplomatic “excusory” that we have already had from Russia? In the event of a failure to agree on such a conference, what quick, visible and credible alternative does he envisage?

Of course it is possible that if we cannot agree the terms of an international conference, some commentators or other nations will say, “Well done; we tried, but we weren’t able to go forward that way.” However, it is important for us to try to ensure that such an international conference would actually achieve something. Also, we do not want an international conference that simply allows the regime to play for time. It is therefore necessary for us to negotiate on the terms of such a conference, even though that means that there is some risk of its not being able to take place. If we do not succeed in bringing about such a conference, then our recourse will be to the United Nations Security Council. I mentioned in my statement that we are already working on elements of a draft resolution that would greatly strengthen the previous resolutions. That would return us to the same problem of winning Russian and Chinese co-operation, but it would return the matter to that forum.

I certainly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s robust approach in connection with arms sales to Syria, notably from Russia, but what assessment has he made and can he give to the House on the likelihood of a change of mood from the Russian Government?

As I mentioned, there have been changes of emphasis—one can call them changes of language—from Russia over the past couple of weeks. Russia does support the Annan plan, and Russia voted for UN resolutions 2042 and 2043, so we are agreed on the desirability of the Annan plan. What we are talking about is the insistence on its implementation, which I argue to Moscow, as have others, puts a particular responsibility on Russia because of its links with the Assad regime and the leverage that it has over it. As I indicated earlier, there have been some changes. I think there is increased anxiety in Russia about the situation, and I will be discussing this further with the Russians during the course of this week.

Obviously we all condemn the human rights abuses, wherever they are occurring, all over Syria. Will the Foreign Secretary be more specific about which opposition groups the UK Government are supporting either financially or with logistical equipment or training, and about whether there are any British arms or British special forces in the area, which can only exacerbate what is already a very serious set of divisions within the opposition in Syria?

The groups outside Syria that we are supporting—the kind of groups that I have been meeting in Istanbul—include the Syrian National Council, which is the largest of these groups, although some of the minority ethnic communities are not yet affiliated to it, and we want them to come together. All our support is non-lethal. Our assistance takes the form that I described in my statement—communications equipment, training, and human rights monitoring. No armed intervention is being practised or sanctioned by the United Kingdom at the moment.

After meeting Chancellor Merkel recently, Russia’s President Putin sought to claim impartiality, reportedly saying, “We are not for Assad and neither for his opponents.” If this were really so, does the Foreign Secretary consider that future Russian support for a Security Council resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court could help to deter future atrocities in that country?

Certainly that is something that we have wanted to get going, and we have succeeded in doing so in the UN Human Rights Council resolution, which refers to the International Criminal Court. Such are the atrocities and the appalling nature of these crimes that if we could muster the votes to take that through the Security Council itself, we would do so. I hope that at some stage in the future we will be able to do so, and that we will be able to take the Russian leaders at their word on this, but what they have said recently about not being committed to Assad himself or to the Assad regime has not yet translated into a readiness to support such resolutions.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s strong urging of the Russians to halt their arms sales to the Syrian regime, but does he agree that we ourselves should cease to have any dealings with the foreign arms companies that are providing weapons to the Syrian Government, such as the Russian state-owned company Rosoboronexport? If so, will he use his influence to help to prevent that company from fulfilling its plans to take part in a trade exhibition that will be part of the Farnborough air show next month in the UK?

I will certainly look at the point that the hon. Lady has raised and discuss it with my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence. I am not sure that we can do much in our relations with that company that would make a difference to this situation, but I will look at her point.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the time that could be spent in negotiating the terms of reference for an international conference is time that the international community can ill afford to waste, bearing in mind the continuing loss of life? Does he agree that Russia would be better advised enthusiastically to support the enforcement of the objectives of the Annan plan?

Yes, I very much agree with that. In the absence of the implementation of the Annan plan, the absence of a sufficiently strong insistence on its implementation and the absence of the implementation of all the UN resolutions that we have promoted, the virtue of a conference is that it could be the forum in which insistence on the Annan plan or something like it is made by Russia as well as by all the other countries that would be involved. Every day and every week that has gone by has contributed to the huge death toll of perhaps 15,000 people. Every day that goes by adds to that death toll. We are pursuing this option in the absence of the other options, which have so far not worked.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s confidence in the Syrian opposition groups, with the £1.5 million of funding, but let me press him a little on his previous answers. What steps has he taken to reassure himself that those groups are willing to work alongside each other to find a solution in Syria? What reassurance does he have that they are representative of communities in Syria and, perhaps most importantly, that they are supportive of the terms of the Annan plan? Would achieving all those things not be the best way to get Russia involved?

I can give the hon. Gentleman a fair degree of confidence about those things. Certainly in what they say, the groups are committed to a Syria with respect for minorities and with democracy, as I said in my statement. They are supportive of a peaceful solution. It is difficult, however, to assess how representative they would be in a free election in Syria, since there has been no such election. I hope we will discover that in the future.

The groups are not sufficiently united. I have spoken to them clearly and bluntly about the need to be united. When any country faces an existential crisis, the people who believe in its freedom and territorial integrity should stand together, as we have always done in this country. Syria is certainly in an existential crisis, so I have put that point to the groups strongly. They need to remedy that without delay.

Given the scale of the atrocities, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken to ensure that all relevant intelligence is being shared between the parties and nations that are opposed to the Assad regime to enable the best possible international response should the situation escalate in the days and weeks ahead?

We are in close touch on a daily basis with all our key partners and allies on this matter, including the United States, leading European nations and leading Arab nations. That is why I went back to Istanbul last Wednesday to meet Secretary Clinton and the Foreign Ministers of 13 other nations from the region and from Europe, including the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Italy. We share information all the time. What I have said to the House today could have been said, and probably is being said, by the great majority of those Ministers in their Parliaments, because we have a common understanding of the situation and of the way forward, which I have described.

The Assad regime is a brutal, wicked and barbaric dictatorship that is savagely oppressing its people. May I take this opportunity to applaud the Secretary of State and his Department for the work he is doing on the international stage to assist the Syrian people? I appreciate that the Foreign Office has, over several months, repeatedly warned any UK citizens who might still be in Syria to leave that country, but I understand that there may be some UK citizens still there—in particular, those who may have dual nationality. If that is the case, are there any contingency plans for any British citizens who might still be in Syria?

My hon. Friend is right: it is many months now since we warned all British nationals to leave Syria. We have made that clear for a long time, and I reiterated it when we ceased to be able to operate an embassy safely. We have what is called a protecting power arrangement—that is, an arrangement with another country that looks after our interests, which in this case is Hungary, as it still operates an embassy there. We are grateful to the Hungarians for that assistance. They are able to give assistance, if appropriate and possible, to British nationals. However, I repeat that British nationals should not be in that situation. They should have left Syria long ago, and if there are any remaining, they should leave now.