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Volume 546: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2012

The political situation in Syria is dire. All parties must now implement the Annan plan, and the international community needs to come together to compel the regime to do so. Major General Mood is briefing the United Nations Security Council today, and we stand ready to pursue robust action in the Security Council.

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that every peaceful diplomatic effort is being made to prevent the Syrian Government from getting their hands on weapons that they can use against their own people?

Yes, I can. We have in place a European Union arms embargo for Syria, and we discourage anyone else from supplying it with arms. We have had specific discussions with Russia on that matter, and I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back, apparently towards Russia.

As the Foreign Secretary knows, Syria has a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Is he confident that, when the Assad regime falls, the international community will be willing and able to secure those weapons to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah or of affiliates of al-Qaeda?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The existence of such weapons has long been one of our concerns about Syria, and it is a concern in this situation. Yes, I am confident that the international community will take any necessary action on that, but I do not want to go into any more detail today.

Does the United Nations understand that the Syrian tragedy is essentially a sectarian civil war, with Saudi Arabia and Iran supplying arms and money to their rival surrogates inside Syria, and that Russia, for well understood reasons, is determined to prevent the Sunni from overthrowing the Alawites?

My right hon. Friend and I have had this exchange several times, and he is right to point out the importance of the Sunni-Shi’a tensions, and sometimes conflicts, in the region. As I have said before, however, I believe that there is more to it than that. There are also many people in Syria, of different ethnicities, religions and beliefs, who want freedom and democracy in their country, and who want to be rid of their repressive regime. The factors that my right hon. Friend has mentioned are not the only ones at work, but they certainly add to the complexity of the situation. They also add to the importance of opposition forces representing all groups in Syria and preserving their rights in the future, as well as the importance of trying to negotiate a peaceful political transition in Syria, which is what we are attempting to do.

In his recent answer, the Foreign Secretary reiterated his support for the Annan plan, but only last week the UN was forced to suspend the observer mission in Syria. In the light of that suspension, does he accept what is already clear to many people on the ground in Syria—namely, that the Annan plan is simply not working? Will he set out today the steps beyond the Annan plan that the UK is now advocating that the international community take to bring about a cessation to the violence in Syria?

I accepted, some time ago, that the Annan plan was not working. It is not working at all at the moment, but it would be wrong to give up completely on the plan, because the road to any peaceful settlement in Syria will be through either the Annan plan or something very similar to it. It is therefore important to persist with those efforts, and we are doing that particularly in our talks with Russia. I met the Russian Foreign Minister again in Kabul last week, and the Prime Minister has met President Putin in the past 24 hours to pursue this matter further. We are seeking international agreement, including with Russia, on how to ensure the implementation of the Annan plan. We are ready to take that matter forward at the UN Security Council or in a contact group, or in both together. Of course, if all those efforts fail, we will want to return to the UN Security Council, as well as greatly to intensify our support for the opposition and to see more sweeping sanctions from across the world.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that this afternoon the United Nations will decide to withdraw completely UN monitors? Were that to happen, a valuable independent source of information about what is taking place in Syria would simply be lost. I do not expect a detailed reply to the question I am about to put to him, but may we take it that the United Kingdom will use all available methods of obtaining information to ensure that we have a clear view of what is happening in Syria?

Yes, certainly, of course we will do that. We are awaiting at the UN Security Council today the briefing of Major-General Mood, who has been heading the monitoring mission, so no decision about what will happen to the mission has been taken in advance of that. It is very important that information is assembled, particularly about crimes and atrocities that have been committed. Earlier this year, we sent teams to the borders of Syria to assemble such evidence. The Syrian activists who assembled the evidence of the massacre at al-Houla were trained by the United Kingdom. We will continue our efforts to make sure that one day justice can be done.

Can the Foreign Secretary suggest any new initiative that will encourage political development and progress in Syria, and stop the daily slaughter of the innocent?

The initiatives I have mentioned are all really a continuation or extension of the initiatives that have already been taken. We have not given up the search for an internationally agreed peaceful transition in Syria, but it is vital for such a transition to have the active support of Russia. That is why over recent weeks we have attached such importance to diplomacy with Russia. We will continue with those efforts.

The Foreign Secretary will know from conversations with the Russians that they are accusing us of using their veto as a fig leaf for our lack of policy. Will he nail that once and for all by pointing out that a united international community is far more likely to achieve results than a divided one?

Yes. I think it would be wrong to characterise the Russian veto in that way. The veto exercised by Russia and China in February was against all the other 13 members of the United Nations Security Council, which very much favoured a united international stand on this issue. Nevertheless, Russia has supported the Annan plan and has agreed with the two most recent UN resolutions. That is why we continue to discuss the issues with them and to work with them. I hope we can reach a common position with them on the implementation of the Annan plan or something very close to it.

I recently met a large group of Syrian students. Will the Foreign Secretary update us on any information he has or any discussions he is having with the Home Office about Syrian student visas? Some are being forced to return home where their lives are at risk. Will the right hon. Gentleman update us on what progress is being made to make sure that the German and US model is followed, allowing them to stay?

That is more of a question for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but as the hon. Gentleman asks, I will discuss the issue with the Home Office. We have very clear rules in this country: we do not return people to a situation in which they are likely to be tortured, killed or abused. If we thought that that was going to happen to these people, we would not do that, but I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s point further.