Skip to main content


Volume 549: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2012

I held intensive discussions on Syria with Foreign Minister Lavrov during June, in Kabul and Geneva; the Prime Minister and I met President Putin in August; and I will look forward to meeting Foreign Minister Lavrov again at the United Nations General Assembly this month.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that answer. The civil war in Syria has just witnessed its most bloody week, and the head of the Syrian National Council has today said that the extent of the economic destruction in Syria means that nothing less than a Marshall plan by the international community will be required to reconstruct the Syrian economy. Will the Foreign Secretary continue to remind his Russian counterpart that a policy of engagement rather than obstruction is necessary for a secure middle east, and is in our and the Russian national interest?

I absolutely will, and I did that, as I reported to the House yesterday, at the meeting of the UN Security Council in New York last Thursday. We will, of course, continue to press this point through the General Assembly meeting later this month. Again as I said in my statement yesterday, we are, in the meantime, working on what happens the day after Assad in Syria. There will be immense challenges for any future Administration of Syria. It is difficult for the United Nations to do all the necessary planning because the current Government of Syria are still a member of the United Nations, but we are doing that with the Friends of Syria group and we will be taking it forward energetically over the next few weeks.

Did Kofi Annan resign because he recognised that the civil war in Syria is a focal point of the ancient war between Sunni and Shi’a, that even locally it is beyond the power of the great powers to resolve unless Russia is prepared to help and that Russia is determined not to allow its Alawite allies to be overthrown by a western-backed Sunni rebellion?

My right hon. Friend always puts these things extremely well, and that question is no exception. One of the dangers of this conflict going on and on is, indeed, that it becomes even more of a focal point for Sunni-Shi’a rivalry. That is not the only origin of this conflict, as I have argued to him before; there are also many people in Syria who want freedom from an oppressive regime, whatever their religious or ethnic affiliations. Kofi Annan resigned because he was not getting the necessary support from the Security Council, because of the Russian position, which my right hon. Friend describes. As I said to the House yesterday, I believe that that position will probably change only when the situation on the ground changes further in Syria. Sadly, that means a great deal more death and suffering along the way.

Instead of an obsession with regime change, why has the Foreign Secretary not been promoting a negotiated settlement, based on compromise, as all such conflict resolution is? This is not about appeasing Assad’s butchery, Iranian malevolence or Russian self-interest; it is about ending an horrific and deepening civil war, which is reverberating beyond Syria’s borders. Is this not the time to admit that there has been a catastrophic and monumental failure of western policy, and to change course?

The right hon. Gentleman may wish to familiarise himself with the positions that we have been taking, in common with not only western Governments, but the majority of Governments in the world. Our position was the position of the 133 nations in the UN General Assembly that voted for the resolution of 3 August, with only 12 votes against. That position is to have a transitional Government in Syria, including members of the current Government and the current opposition, based on mutual consent. That is the compromise solution. If he wants us to make a further compromise with forces who have killed indiscriminately and oppressed the people of their country with appalling human rights violations, I can tell him that that we are unable to do.

Although one can welcome his recent announcement of certain modest increases of contacts with the Syrian opposition, does not my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the arms embargo, which Britain supports, creates a hopelessly unbalanced situation, because the Syrian Government have a monopoly of air power, artillery and other forces, and because the embargo is not binding on Russia or Iran, which are not members of the European Union? Does he not acknowledge that this is simply going to mean that this conflict will last for many more months than would have been necessary, with many more thousands of Syrians being killed in the process?

My right hon. and learned Friend always makes an eloquent case on this subject. I respect his views and always pay great heed to them, but although I do not exclude any option for the future, I do not agree that it would be right now to lift the EU arms embargo. It has not been our policy in any of the conflicts in the middle east to send arms into a region of conflict. He will know that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to the course that he advocates, because it would be very hard to know what some of those arms would be used for. In the long term, there would be at least as great a risk that they would make the conflict greater as reduce it. We support the opposition in the terms that I set out yesterday in the House. It is clear that Syrian opposition groups are obtaining arms from other sources, but it has not been our policy at any stage to join in with that.