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Volume 552: debated on Tuesday 30 October 2012

4. What recent reports he has received on progress in uniting Syrian opposition forces around a credible transition plan for a post-Assad Syria. (125212)

6. What recent reports he has received on progress in uniting Syrian opposition forces around a credible transition plan for a post-Assad Syria. (125214)

11. What recent reports he has received on progress in uniting Syrian opposition forces around a credible transition plan for a post-Assad Syria. (125219)

We judge that co-operation between opposition groups is increasing, but there is much more to do. They need to unite and to appeal to all Syrians, regardless of religion and ethnicity. Our special representative is in constant contact with opposition groups and there will be a further meeting with them in Doha next month—next week, in fact—to work on that more united position.

In light of the failure of the recent ceasefire, what recent discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the United Nations about reinstating a monitoring mission in Syria?

That is of course a difficult thing to do because of the situation in Syria. The Arab League had a monitoring mission; then there was a United Nations monitoring mission. All of them found it impossible to do their job because the regime did not keep its word and fighting continued, so that is not on the table at the moment in Mr Brahimi’s proposals. I will discuss with Mr Brahimi this afternoon what his next proposals will be. We continue to work for a diplomatic solution and to advocate the creation of a transitional Government in Syria, but so far our efforts to do so have been blocked or not carried forward by Russia and China.

Given that we cannot fully track where UK donations are going, may I press the Foreign Secretary to explain how we are ensuring that they are not ending up in the hands of jihadist forces?

The first thing to say is that our assistance is non-lethal. We are providing to the opposition equipment such as generators, communications equipment, water purification kits and things of that kind. We make every effort to track such equipment and ensure that we know where it is going, but as I have explained to the House before, the risks that we take in this area are outweighed by the risk of not giving any assistance to such groups and to civilian populations in Syria, who are in a dire situation. The balance of risk suggests that we should give assistance to them.

Can the Secretary of State say what progress he is making with the Governments of Russia and China on their position, which is clearly proving a stumbling block to action by the UN Security Council?

We continue to try to make such progress. I and all the EU’s Foreign Ministers met the Russian Foreign Minister two weeks ago for a further discussion about this in Luxembourg. There is no change in the position of Russia as things stand, which is a tragedy for Syrians and the world. In fact, since the last attempt to pass a chapter VII resolution was vetoed by Russia and China, more than 13,000 people are thought to have died. This is a major block on our diplomatic progress. In the absence of that, we are giving non-lethal support to the opposition, we are the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, we work with other nations to prepare for the day after Assad and we continue to assist the opposition in coming together as a more coherent force.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as I suggested at the time, it was really a mistake for the west to encourage a civilian rebellion against the dictatorship in Syria? That rebellion has been joined by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the jihadists and al-Qaeda, among others, while the Alawite regime is being supported by the Christians, the Kurds, the Druze and Russia. As I predicted, this has become a secular civil war and it is already threatening the stability of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Given that the United Nations route has failed, that even Governor Romney has ruled out military intervention, and that the Russians are seriously concerned to prevent the conflict from spreading to the Caucasus, surely the time has come for my right hon. Friend to make further bilateral suggestions to Russia to find a joint approach that will end the bloodshed.

I can assure my right hon. Friend that there has been no shortage of bilateral and multilateral suggestions being made by us to Russia. I will pick him up on something that he said at the beginning of his question, when he implied that we in the west had encouraged a rebellion in Syria. That rebellion did not require any encouragement from western nations. That was the people of Syria rising up against an oppressive regime, and they did so without any incitement from western leaders of any kind. There is the sectarian tension and conflict to which my right hon. Friend refers, as well as a genuine desire to get rid of an oppressive and tyrannical regime.

But is it not the sad truth that Syria is bleeding to death because of a military stalemate in which the insurgency is incapable of bringing down the Assad regime and the Assad regime is incapable of putting down the insurgency? May I suggest that the only way to break down that military stalemate is to break down the political stalemate at the United Nations? Do not recent events in Lebanon serve to underline the fact that the risk to regional stability is now very considerable? Is it not in the interests of Russia and others to seek to bring an end to the political stalemate?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I hope that if any good can come of the events in Lebanon, they will serve as a fresh wake-up call to the world about the dangers of the Syrian conflict. This is not a containable crisis. A regime is waging war against its own people, and the longer it goes on, the more extreme will be the forces that are drawn into it, which is the very thing that Russia says it is worried about. We warned about all those dangers when we called on the United Nations Security Council to act, and those predictions have so far been proven to be true. Of course we will continue to work on this at the United Nations and to support Mr Brahimi, as I have said, while in the meantime doing all that we can to alleviate suffering inside Syria and on its borders.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the political programme coming from the Syrian resistance movement?

There is a variety of political programmes from a variety of opposition groups. I pay tribute to the people I have met, some of whom have come out of Syria to tell us about their experience, for the extraordinary courage and determination that they have shown in the face of overwhelming odds in trying to fight and work for a better society in Syria. However, they do need a more coherent programme for transition, and it is important for them to make every effort to win over the middle ground of Syrian opinion. That includes minorities, Christians and the business community, who need to know that there can be a change to something better than the Assad regime.

I have listened with care to the answer that the Foreign Secretary has just offered, but it is worth bearing in mind that it is now more than 18 months since the beginning of the popular uprising and that neither unity nor a credible opposition plan has yet emerged from the Syrian opposition movement. The right hon. Gentleman referred in a previous answer to the Doha meeting as the next significant step, but would he accept that that meeting has already been postponed? Will he set out what practical steps can be taken with partners in the regions to try to effect the unity that has so far proved elusive?

Yes, it is true that that meeting has been postponed, and there have been many meetings with Syrian opposition groups. It is, of course, not possible or desirable for people in other countries, including our country, to try to impose on them any particular programme. The whole point is that Syria’s future should be for Syrians to decide, so they have to take the decisive steps to come together with a coherent platform. Our special representative works with them on a daily, usually an hourly, basis, and our pressure on them for the forthcoming meeting is co-ordinated with the United States, France, Turkey and leading Arab nations. It is very clear that the Syrians know that the world is looking to them to come together in a more effective way.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that there is a relationship between whether such a transition plan emerges and the capacity of the international community to break the diplomatic logjam that we have heard about already in the course of our questions? If there are to be further discussions with the Russians and the Chinese in particular, which I sincerely hope there will be, the emergence of a credible transition plan is going to be one of the bases on which the optics of that conversation can be changed from the last 18-month stalemate.

Yes, that is quite right. I would not want the right hon. Gentleman or the House to think that it would necessarily bring about an end to that diplomatic stalemate, but it is one of the necessary ingredients, and it is one of the arguments of Russian leaders that the opposition is divided and that there is no single interlocutor with which to deal. It would indeed be very advantageous to remove that argument in trying to bring peace and stability to Syria. I think we are all very conscious of that, and will be very conscious of it over the coming months, and that, indeed, this has gone on for 19 months in total and more than 30,000 people have died. We will continue our work for a peaceful, sustainable transition in Syria.

Given that over 30,000 people have died in this struggle, does my right hon. Friend share my view that the most important thing is for the opposition groups to come together and offer the Syrian people what they really want—the hope of a better future?

Yes, absolutely. Again, I want to pay tribute to many people who risk their lives to support the opposition and to many who have worked in the Syrian National Council, for instance, to set out a clear intention to create a better future for their country, but it is now important that they come together in a more effective way. I have often explained to them that in the history of this country when we have faced an existential threat, all parties have come together on a common programme. Syria now faces an existential threat to any peaceful or stable future; it has to do the same.

If, in the right hon. Gentleman’s answers to questions, I have detected a change of tone from the previous insistence on regime change above all else, may I welcome that? Will he explain his own view that what we are faced with is a civil war—a civil war not just at the present time, with around a third of the people backing the barbarity of Assad out of fear of something worse from Sunni domination, but the continuation of a civil war following a simple collapse of the regime? What we therefore need is his insistence on a transitional Government.

Since I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the need for a transitional Government, I do not want to disappoint him too much in respect of the start of his question. It is not that the western world has set out on regime change in Syria, but it is certainly our analysis, and it has been for a long time, that peace cannot be brought to Syria without the departure of President Assad. There is no viable peace; there is no peace that the people of Syria would accept without that. I am not changing tone or policy on that. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right about the need for a transitional Government. We agreed in Geneva at the end of June—with Russia, China and all other leading nations—about the need for that. What we do not have is the active participation of Russia in bringing about such a transitional Government.

Does the Secretary of State have any reports about the growing anti-west resentment and feeling by the Syrian people in the opposition as a result of the west not doing enough to protect them?

As my hon. Friend will know, there is a great variety of views. I find that there is enormous gratitude for what we have done and what we try to do diplomatically, and for the huge amount of humanitarian assistance that is provided, but yes, there are also members of Syrian opposition groups who would like us to do something different, and who would like a military intervention from outside. As I have explained to the House before, we do not rule out any options. We do not know how the situation will develop. However, for reasons that I have given the House many times before, it is very different from the situation in Libya last year.