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Volume 551: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012

I would like to inform the House of the latest developments in Syria since my statement of 3 September 2012.

The situation in Syria remains dire. More than 25,000 have died since March 2011. The UN estimates there are over 2.5 million people inside Syria in need of urgent humanitarian help and over 340,000 Syrian refugees who have fled from the brutality of the regime to neighbouring countries.

The British Government’s objective is a peaceful end to the violence and a political transition to a more democratic Syria. We believe that Assad must step aside in the interests of the Syrian people if a sustainable transition is to occur.

We are continuing intensive diplomatic efforts to make progress on a political transition. We are supporting the UN-Arab League Special Representative Brahimi in his efforts to implement the Geneva communiqué which sets out a process of political transition and which was agreed by the permanent five members of the Security Council and the Arab League in June. We continue to believe that there is a need for a chapter VII resolution putting the full weight of the Security Council behind a peaceful settlement and will continue our efforts to that end. However, in the absence of Russian and Chinese agreement to such a resolution we are intensifying our work in four areas: supporting the Syrian people and political opposition; increasing pressure on the Syrian regime; preparing for a political transition; and helping mitigate the humanitarian and regional effects of the crisis.

First, in our work to support the Syrian opposition, we have expanded our assistance to those in parts of Syria where the regime is no longer in control. With the £5 million non-lethal assistance that I announced in August we have trained citizen journalists and other activists in media skills; and in the coming weeks we will train civil society groups to document human rights violations; train doctors to gather evidence sexual and gender-based violence; and train a network of “active citizens” in peacebuilding and conflict resolution skills. We are also providing generators, communications equipment and water purification kits to unarmed opposition groups and civil society organisations in some of the areas worst affected by violence.

We are at the forefront of international community activity to support the international and external opposition to become a viable political alternative to the Assad regime. On 18 September the UK’s special representative to the Syrian opposition chaired a meeting of countries to agree a strategy to encourage the opposition to unify and present a common vision for Syria. We are working with Qatar to support an inclusive opposition conference in Doha at the start of next month. We have made clear the importance of the opposition reaching out to all elements of Syrian society to reassuring them of their place in the Syria of the future.

Secondly, the UK is leading efforts to increase pressure on the Assad regime and to deny it sources of finance with which to buy more weapons. We helped to secure the latest round of EU sanctions agreed on 15 October which targets senior members of the Assad Government we believe share responsibility for the regime’s violent repression of the Syrian people. We also remain at the forefront of the international community in calling for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court to ensure that the perpetrators of the most serious international crimes will be held to account. With our strong support, the Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a resolution on 28 September which condemned the continuing violence in Syria and extended the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry to enable it to continue its invaluable work in documenting human rights violations and abuses.

Thirdly, we are working with international partners to ensure that the international community is ready to support the process of political transition in Syria. At the Foreign Affairs Council on 15 October, I encouraged the EU to start developing plans for how the EU can support a future Syrian transitional Government and to support peacebuilding initiatives with civil society inside Syria.

Fourthly, we are working to mitigate the impact of the crisis on Syria’s neighbours. The House will be aware the British Government have been clear about our diplomatic support for Turkey, including through NATO, following recent aggressive Syrian actions on the Turkey-Syria border. We have supplied practical assistance to Lebanon to help improve border security and provided stabilisation assistance to Palestinian camps in the region.

The British Government are also working to address the humanitarian impact of the crisis. The Secretary of State for International Development has increased our humanitarian support to assist people in desperate need in Syria and those who have fled to neighbouring countries. We are providing food to over 80,000 people a month in Syria, urgent medical care for over 50,000 people affected by the fighting, and help for more than 45,000 refugees. Humanitarian needs will increase as winter approaches. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development last month announced an additional £8 million in humanitarian support to provide essential supplies to help the Syrian people over the coming months. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor with £39.5 million in funding for the Syrian people but UN appeals for assistance remain drastically underfunded. We are working closely with key donors to ensure that the international community stands by the Syrian people during their time of need.

Last month, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the Secretary of State for International Development and I urged other donors to provide more to address the escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria.

I will continue with my colleagues in Government and with international partners to pursue action in support of a resolution to the crisis in Syria. I will keep the House informed of developments.