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Volume 556: debated on Thursday 10 January 2013

With permission, I will make a statement to update the House on the crisis in Syria—a crisis that is still intensifying.

Some 60,000 Syrians are now believed to have died, 600,000 people have become refugees, 2 million are internally displaced and 4 million are in desperate need. To illustrate the true horror of the conflict, 1,000 civilians were reportedly killed in one six-day period over Christmas. On Christmas day, opposition activists reported that 17 people were executed at a checkpoint in the Damascus suburbs, nine of them from one family. The regime has used Scud missiles to target populated areas and deployed cluster munitions. Entire urban districts have been reduced to rubble in cities such as Homs and Aleppo. I know that the House will join me in expressing our solidarity with millions of courageous Syrian people in the face of this appalling brutality.

We continue to believe that the best way to end the bloodshed and to protect all Syria’s communities is through a political transition. Our country has a moral obligation to help save lives in Syria and a national interest in ensuring that the country provides no haven for terrorist activity. We know that to achieve lasting stability we must work with the Syrian opposition and countries of the region, not try to impose a political settlement from outside, and we are determined that all our actions will uphold UK and international law, and support justice and accountability for the Syrian people themselves.

In the coming weeks we will focus on six principal areas. First, we will intensify our diplomatic efforts to reach a political transition. We are actively supporting the efforts of the UN-Arab League special representative Lakhdar Brahimi, who has travelled to Damascus, and to Moscow for talks with the Russian Government, and who is due to hold trilateral talks with Russia and the United States this week. My ministerial colleagues and I are in regular contact with him and expect to hold further talks with him in London later this month. Our goal remains to persuade Russia and China to join us in putting the full weight of the UN Security Council behind a political transition plan for Syria.

Secondly, we will continue our work to help the Syrian National Coalition to develop its plans for the future of Syria. Since I last updated the House, I have attended the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakesh, where the US and many other countries followed us in recognising the National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people, and where $150 million was pledged to support the humanitarian effort. The coalition is enlarging its membership to include Christian, Kurdish and other minority communities. At a meeting in Istanbul this week, we saw encouraging signs of the coalition making every effort to broaden its support further and build on its legitimacy, although much work remains to be done.

We are working to strengthen moderate political forces in Syria committed to a democratic future for the country. We have provided £7.4 million of non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition, civil society and human rights defenders, and I can now announce that we will provide an additional £2 million of support, bringing the total to £9.4 million. All our assistance is designed to help to save lives, to mitigate the impact of the conflict or to support the people trying to achieve a free and democratic Syria. It includes solar powered lighting, generators, communication equipment and water purification kits to help opposition groups, as well as satellite communication devices for activists to document human rights violations and abuses so that one day the perpetrators of appalling crimes can be brought to justice.

Our assistance also involves support for local-level administration councils providing services to Syrian people during the conflict. We have given training to more than 300 Syrian journalists who are striving to develop alternative sources of media and freedom of the press in Syria, and we are training activists who are working to create a network of peace-building committees across five cities in Syria. We are also helping the National Coalition to co-ordinate the international humanitarian response, and we have provided a humanitarian adviser to work with it. At all times, we urge the coalition to ensure that all opposition groups meet their commitments on human rights.

Thirdly, we will continue to increase the pressure on the regime to stop the violence. In December, we argued that the EU sanctions regime on Syria, including the arms embargo, should be rolled over for three months until 1 March, rather than for 12 months, so that there would be an earlier review of it. We secured that position. We believed that it was important not to freeze EU policy for a whole year just as a new opposition coalition was being launched and while the conflict was intensifying on the ground.

No decisions have yet been made to change the support that we provide to the Syrian National Coalition or the Syrian people. However, European countries now have the flexibility to consider taking additional steps to try to save lives if there is no progress in the near future. Clearly, the best outcome for the Syrian people would be a diplomatic breakthrough, bringing an end to the bloodshed and establishing a new Syrian Government able to restore stability. However, we must keep open options to help save lives in Syria and to assist opposition groups that are opposed to extremism, if the violence continues. We should send strong signals to Assad that all options are on the table. We will therefore seek to amend the EU sanctions so that the possibility of additional assistance is not closed off.

No one can be sure how the situation in Syria will develop in the coming months. There is no guarantee that Mr Brahimi’s efforts to mediate will be successful. President Assad’s speech last week urged the Syrian people to unite in a “war” against his opponents. Given the regime’s intransigence and brutality, there is a serious risk that the violence will indeed worsen in the coming months. If that happens, the international community’s response will have to be stepped up. So we will not rule out any options to save lives and protect civilians in the absence of a political transition in Syria. We will ensure that our efforts are legal, that they are aimed at saving life and that they support at all times the objective of achieving a political transition and encouraging moderate political forces in Syria; we will keep the House properly informed.

Fourthly, we continue to increase our life-saving humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. The United Kingdom is the second largest bilateral donor to UN relief efforts, supporting more than 100,000 people across the region with food parcels, blankets and warm clothing. On 21 December, my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary announced a further £15 million in humanitarian aid, bringing our total support to £68.5 million so far. Hon. Members will have seen images of Syrian refugees struggling with rain and cold in refugee camps across the region. The latest £15 million of funding will be used to provide food, clean water, blankets and shelter to help Syrians to cope with the misery of these winter months, as well as medical supplies to treat the sick and wounded since so many Syrian medical facilities have been destroyed, and armoured vehicles to enable humanitarian agencies to deliver aid safely inside the country.

The UN has appealed for $1.5 billion for the first six months of this year. This is the largest ever short-term UN appeal, but it remains seriously underfunded. At the donor conference hosted by Kuwait and the UN Secretary-General later this month, we will again call on other countries to pledge the additional humanitarian aid that is desperately needed.

I pay tribute to the 26 humanitarian workers who have been killed in Syria since the fighting began, and deplore the rise in attacks on medical facilities that are contrary to international law and an affront to basic humanity. We urge all parties to stop the violence and allow humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance safely and without interference, in accordance with international law.

Fifthly, we are continuing detailed planning for how we can help a future Syrian Government deal with the many challenges Syria will face during a transition. This process must be led by the Syrian people, but they will need help from the international community as they repair schools, roads and hospitals destroyed during the conflict, and restart their ravaged economy. Today we are hosting leading members of the Syrian opposition and representatives of 14 countries and international organisations at a Wilton Park conference designed to advance detailed planning of that support, including on political reform, security, institution building and the economy.

Sixthly, we are supporting UN efforts to document and deter human rights abuses in Syria. The Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry on Syria published its latest report on 20 December. It shows that the human rights violations highlighted in its previous reports are continuing unabated. We will continue to do all we can to support its work, and we are providing specific leadership in efforts to confront rape and sexual violence in Syria. We have deployed experts to the region to provide training in how to respond to reports of sexual violence and to improve the prospect of future investigation and prosecutions—and we will urgently intensify this work.

We are also urging the Syrian National Coalition to commit itself to ensuring justice and accountability for the Syrian people, including by drawing its attention to the right of a future Government in Syria to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court, even though some members of the UN Security Council are blocking that option at present.

So this is our approach: intensifying our efforts to forge agreement at the UN; pursing a political transition on the ground, while ruling out no options to save lives if the situation deteriorates; supporting the opposition and the Syrian people; increasing the pressure on the regime and being prepared to do so in new ways if necessary; working to deter human rights violations and abuses; and planning to help Syria to get back on its feet once the conflict comes to an end. The Syrian people are enduring unimaginable suffering. They are at the heart of this crisis: their future is at stake, and our country and the world must not abandon them.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of the statement and I am grateful to him for updating the House this morning.

It is a matter of profound regret that the biggest single change we have seen since we last debated Syria in the House is simply the number of casualties. As the Foreign Secretary made clear, the United Nations estimated on 2 January that the war’s death toll has exceeded 60,000, of whom about half are thought to be civilians, and it predicts that the death toll will increase at a rate of 5,000 a month. The United Nations Arab League envoy Brahimi recently warned that as many as 100,000 people could die in the next year if a way cannot be found to end the country’s civil war. He described the situation as nothing less than the descent of a country into “hell”.

The scale of the suffering is such that an effective set of actions is required, so let me turn to the four substantive points in the Foreign Secretary’s statement. First, on diplomatic efforts to reach a political transition, the continued stalemate in the UN Security Council is beyond regrettable—it is utterly deplorable. Of course the position of the Russians remains central to this impasse, but recent statements by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, have suggested a possible shift of attitudes in Moscow. There is therefore a heavy responsibility not just on Lakhdar Brahimi, but on all P5 countries, including the United Kingdom, to try to break the present logjam. So does the Foreign Secretary accept that, rather than loudly condemning the Russians, a better course would be to talk to them quietly about how common ground can be established on the process of political transition in Syria? Will he tell the House when he last spoke to Foreign Minister Lavrov and when he is scheduled to speak to him next about the critical issue of Syria?

Secondly, may I ask about support for the Syrian National Coalition? Any diplomatic support that the Government can offer to the SNC to encourage it to draw up a credible transition plan for Syria is indeed to be welcomed. In that spirit, the Opposition welcome the conference that is taking place in Wilton Park, which is doing just that, and note the additional funding that has been announced today. However, can the Foreign Secretary set out what he believes are, and remain, the principal barriers to unity which have, to date, prevented the Syrian Opposition from uniting on that credible transition plan? We welcomed the Geneva plan that was drawn up last summer, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that, currently, neither side of the conflict in Syria appears to be committed to implementing it? Will he tell the House whether he is still encouraging the SNC to accept the Geneva plan as a basis for transition?

Thirdly, let me turn to the central issue in the statement, the current arms embargo and EU sanctions on Syria more generally. I note all that the Foreign Secretary said with continuing concern. May I urge him to provide more detail on the following matters? Will he set out, as far as he is able, the Government’s latest assessments of the role of al-Qaeda and other extremist organisations now operating in Syria? Given what he said in his statement, does he accept that Syria is currently awash with arms? Does he recognise the grave and continuing difficulty of guaranteeing the end use of weapons supplied to Syria, given the present uncertainty about the identity, intent and, indeed, tactics of some of the rebel forces? Does he accept that it is perfectly possible that, if Europe were to decide to arm the rebel forces, the Russians would simply increase their own supply of arms to the Assad regime? May I also ask him—not least in the light of recent comments by the Foreign Affairs Committee in an important report—what would encourage him to believe that intensifying the conflict would reduce the present appalling level of suffering of the Syrian people?

Finally, let me turn to the humanitarian consequences of the current violence. Last October I visited the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border, one of many such camps that have been set up to house the fast-growing number of refugees who are fleeing the violence in Syria. During my visit, the aid workers to whom I talked warned of the onset of winter and of worsening conditions on the ground. Their worst nightmares have now been realised. Only this week, aid workers in the camp were attacked by refugees after fierce desert winds and torrential rains had swept through and devastated their tents. There are warnings of a major snowstorm later this week, which will bring even deeper misery to those who are already desperate.

The latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency show that 597,240 people have registered or are awaiting registration with the agency in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The latest reports from the UN state that £620 million of aid is now needed to help Syrian refugees in countries around the middle east, while £312 million was required to help refugees in Jordan alone. Given the Foreign Secretary’s statement this morning that the UN appeal “remains seriously underfunded”, what steps will he and the Prime Minister take to help to secure those additional funds from the international community before the vital meeting that will take place in Kuwait later this month?

The principal responsibility for the appalling suffering being endured by the Syrian people rests, of course, with Assad and his brutish regime. Last week, in his latest speech, he once again demonstrated a truly callous disregard for human life by expressing no real intention of helping to bring the conflict to an end or to take responsibility for its beginning. However, the burden of responsibility on the international community remains a heavy one. The Opposition believe that, rather than directing their efforts towards intensifying the conflict, the British Government should continue to focus on building international agreement around an inclusive post-Assad Syria and meeting immediate humanitarian needs. I ask the Foreign Secretary, not least in his capacity as a distinguished parliamentarian, to guarantee to the House that we will be consulted again before any change is made in the present approach.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which illustrate that there remains a strong degree of unity on this terrible crisis across the House. I reiterate that I will continue to provide regular updates to the House; I think this is the seventh statement I have made on Syria recently. If there were to be any change in Government policy, I would, of course, bring that to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly referred to what Mr Brahimi said about the possibility of 100,000 deaths this year. That underlines the worsening nature of this crisis. It is not just a continuing crisis; it is a worsening crisis. We have to look at everything we do in the light of that. We are doing a great deal, as I set out in my statement, but we must always be open to doing more and be open to ideas for doing more. We approach this issue in that spirit.

The right hon. Gentleman asked questions on four general areas. On the diplomatic situation, he asked, a bit pointedly, why, rather than condemning Russia, we do not talk to the Russians quietly. We do a great deal of talking to them quietly—we do that on a pretty much continuous basis—but that does not mean that we do not give our public views about their votes in the UN Security Council from time to time. I last met the Russian Foreign Minister for a substantial discussion about Syria in Dublin on 6 December, and I have invited him to visit London in the near future, so our contact with the Russians on this issue is pretty continuous. There has not been a substantial change in the Russian position, although there is, perhaps, a greater Russian interest in renewed discussions. The trilateral meeting between Mr Brahimi, the US and the Russians this week is further evidence of that. We will absolutely keep discussing the diplomatic way forward, based on the Geneva communiqué, which we did agree with the Russians. What we have never managed to agree with them is how to implement the Geneva communiqué. We see the wholehearted involvement of Russia, preferably in a UN Security Council resolution, as being required to bring that about. Russia has not changed its position on that, but we will keep working on it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about support for the opposition and the barriers to unity. Opposition groups have grown up almost independently of each other, and have not been able to communicate very well on the ground in Syria, and it is therefore difficult to create a united opposition, particularly when some are inside the country and others are outside the country, but the National Coalition is doing a very good job of that—in my judgment, the best job that can be done. There have been well-known difficulties at many stages in bringing in Kurdish representatives, but that has been agreed. It has been agreed that the Kurds will take up a vice-presidency of the National Coalition, but the Kurds themselves have not yet agreed who will fill that position, which serves to illustrate the difficulties involved. The National Coalition is by far the best attempt we have seen so far to bring together responsible opposition forces in Syria. That is why we have chosen to recognise it and work with it.

In the right hon. Gentleman’s third set of questions he asked for more detail, but given the chaotic situation in Syria, it is not possible to quantify accurately the number of extremist, or al-Qaeda supporting, fighters in Syria. In the opinion of opposition leaders, they represent a small minority of what is perhaps a six-figure number of opposition fighters, but it is simply not possible to quantify the exact number. In light of any presence of extremists, however, it is important that we try to bring this situation to a conclusion as soon as possible and support moderate political forces. That is what much of our efforts are directed at.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the many hazards in supplying arms into a conflict area. I stress that we have made no change to our policy in this regard. We are trying to build flexibility into the EU position. It is also important to note that the arms embargo as it currently stands prohibits the supply to opposition groups of such items as body armour, helmets and certain types of communications equipment, so its definition of “arms” is quite broad. That must be borne in mind in any future flexibility that we might build in.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked, rightly, about what steps we are taking to encourage other countries to provide more humanitarian aid, as we have done. The Secretary of State for International Development and I are very busily engaged on that. I discussed it with the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil el-Araby, on Monday and I am raising it in all my bilateral meetings with European and Arab countries to try to build up, ahead of the Kuwait meeting, a greater degree of donations. I hope that I have given full answers to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions.

The Foreign Secretary has said that the British Government accept a moral obligation to do what we can to save lives in Syria. Against that background, I warmly welcome his statement that the Government are now willing to “seek to amend the EU sanctions so that the possibility of additional assistance is not closed off.” Will he please confirm that that does not exclude the possibility that the Government may, at some stage, be willing to consider providing military equipment that could be used in a defensive way to save lives? He is aware—indeed he referred to the fact—that ballistic missiles had been used by the Syrian Government on several occasions this week against targets in the north. As NATO has agreed to provide and is currently deploying Patriot anti-missile batteries to protect Turkey, would it not be appropriate to consider providing similar support to Syrians, given that these anti-missile batteries cannot kill people—they can only save lives and therefore would be consistent with the objectives of Her Majesty’s Government?

As I have said, we are not taking any options off the table; we are not excluding any option, given the worsening situation and given that no resolution to it is in sight at the moment. I also stress, as I did to the shadow Foreign Secretary, that we have not changed the British Government’s policy on what we will supply, but we are trying to build in the flexibility for the future. The direct answer to my right hon. and learned Friend’s question is therefore that we have not excluded that possibility; indeed, as I was pointing out in my answer to the shadow Foreign Secretary, there are many different categories of military equipment, many of which fall short of being equipment that has a lethal use. Large categories of equipment can be used to save lives and cannot be used offensively. So we have not excluded that possibility and we must keep all options open as the situation develops.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that his use of terms such as “flexibility” and leaving “all options” on the table could be a prelude to western-backed military intervention, and that that would be disastrous? The cross-party support for his condemnation of the barbarity of Assad’s regime and for political transition would disappear, because this is a civil war. This is not a barbarous dictator versus his people; it is an increasingly deepening civil war and it will not be resolved by military action.

Let us be clear that it is a barbarous dictator oppressing his own people. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to argue with something that I have not said; there was no mention in my statement of military intervention, nor any advocacy of that. He is setting himself up to argue with a position that the Government have not taken. [Interruption.] Yes, I am not ruling out options, but I do not think we can do so when we are facing a situation where a six-figure number of people might die this year. It would not be responsible to do that as we do not know how the situation will develop. So I am keeping our options open, but the dangers and drawbacks of military intervention are well understood in the House and in the Government.

Notwithstanding the terrible brutality taking place in Syria, may I ask my right hon. Friend to exercise the utmost restraint and caution in any extension of policy covered by the expression “all options” are on the table? I do so, first, because this is a civil war, and intervention in civil wars has a long history of failure; and secondly, because there is a risk that we will have a proxy war between Russia and NATO fought out on the streets of Syria by Syrians.

I am very conscious of the points made by my right hon. and learned Friend and I hope that he will agree on the position we have taken. Although we are trying to help in the mass of ways I set out in my statement, we are cautious, in the light of all the lessons of history. As I was pointing out to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), I am not standing here advocating military intervention. So we keep our options open, but that is not some sinister disguise for a change in Government policy; if there were to be a change, I would bring it to the House.

The Foreign Secretary has spelt it out very clearly that by the end of the year about 100,000 people might be dead in Syria. Will he confirm that although Security Council authorisation to use force for humanitarian purposes is now widely accepted, force can also be justified on the grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity without a UN Security Council resolution as long as certain criteria are met, such as that it is objectively clear that there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved?

I agree with the right hon. Lady, as that is our broad understanding of international law. There is, of course, a further argument about the wisdom of such intervention, but in a situation of overwhelming humanitarian need with no clear alternative a strong legal case can be made.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that from 1 March EU countries will have more room to manoeuvre. Does he agree that the composition of the opposition forces has now become less obvious and that their long-term intentions are less certain? Will he be very careful about who exactly he is helping before providing any extra assistance?

Yes, of course, and we are very careful about that anyway. Part of the justification for giving the help we have given so far to the Syrian opposition is to strengthen the moderate forces and people who want to see a free and democratic Syria. Let me be clear that the flexibility I have talked about will be in place from 1 March—the whole sanctions regime on Syria has been rolled over only until then. We have not yet agreed in the EU whether or how we will amend the sanctions regime; those discussions will be going on over the next few weeks. The opportunity for flexibility has now been built in by our requesting a three-month roll-over.

I very much welcome what the Secretary of State says about Britain’s role in delivering humanitarian aid. I also welcome what he says about the European Union. On that point, and on the need to seek a political solution, will he endorse what the EU has done thus far, or does he have any other view?

The European Union has also been engaged in trying to promote a political solution. For instance, the EU High Representative attended the Geneva talks in June. It is realistic, however, to point out that the diplomatic focus is on the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the Security Council as a whole. It is the work of nation states on the Security Council to try to settle our differences. In that respect, the EU has a more limited role, but there is a strong degree of unity across the European Union and the External Action Service strongly supports the actions we have taken.

Even though the Government are being so helpful to the Syrian opposition, have we sought to extract an undertaking from them that any store of chemical weapons discovered will be handed over for destruction so that it cannot possibly fall into the hands of al-Qaeda?

Yes, we have very much made that point and my hon. Friend is correct to bring it up. We have made it very clear to the National Coalition that we would expect any future Government of Syria to join and to adhere to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. In all the conversations we have had with the national coalition, its horror of the chemical and biological weapons that all the evidence suggests have been amassed by the Assad regime is very clear. I hope that one thing that will happen in a future Syria will be the destruction and disposal of those weapons.

The United States has said that there is a red line if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, but when the Foreign Secretary meets the Secretary of State designate, Senator John Kerry, as I think he will shortly, will he impress on the US that red lines should relate not just to chemical weapon use, but to the other crimes being carried out by the Assad regime?

Yes. Our horror at the prospect of the use of chemical weapons should in no way mitigate or minimise our horror at the brutality across the board of the Assad regime. The United States has so far adopted very similar policies to the ones I set out to the House and is also engaged in the humanitarian relief and the provision of similar types of equipment to the Syrian Opposition. Of course I will discuss this in great detail with Senator Kerry over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, it was quite right that the United States—and we joined them in this—sent a particularly strong message to the regime about the use of chemical weapons. It may be that the communication of such a strong message helped to inhibit the use for now of such weapons, so it is right that we send a particularly powerful message on that.

With your generosity, Mr Speaker, and that of the Foreign Secretary, may I ask that we ensure that the resolve not to abandon the civilians on the borders of Syria is matched by similar resolve in respect of civilians on the borders of another country, Burma? I have just received an e-mail from a source in Kachin state that says:

“Five or six fighter jets and helicopter gunships are attacking the areas around Laiza every day. . . IDPs and innocent civilians are terrified . . . they have totally destroyed the peace building process.”

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing us to go a little wide of the situation in Syria—thousands of miles away. Of course we are deeply concerned about continuing conflicts in Burma, which are at the top of the list of what we raise with the Burmese Government; the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who is sitting next to me, was there recently having those discussions. I will look at the report that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) brings up and we will continue to communicate our views very clearly to the Burmese Government.

There is a strong Syrian diaspora in the United Kingdom, including in my constituency. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of the number of refugees who may want to see Britain as their ultimate destination, and what discussions is he having with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ensure a sympathetic response to any requests?

The emphasis is very much on helping to look after refugees where they have arrived, as they clearly have in vast numbers on the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, and some of them are now in Egypt. I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any guarantee about any individuals or any particular number that would be able to come to the United Kingdom, but of course as the situation continues to deteriorate and the numbers continue to mount we will have to keep that under review.

In view of the absence of unanimity among the permanent members of the Security Council, as a result of which instructions to the International Criminal Court are hamstrung, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a key responsibility of whatever regime follows in Syria to indict alleged war criminals and bring them to trial, rather than pass them to the International Criminal Court?

A future Syrian Government can do either, as has been the position in Libya. It will be open to them to refer the situation in their own country to the International Criminal Court. It will also be open to them to pursue justice in their own country. We would express the hope that if they do that, they will act in line with international norms and human rights standards, but they can do either. It is up to them to decide in the future.

Of the 600,000 refugees who fled Syria, 200,000 have ended up in Turkey. Given that last year 100,000 people crossed the border between Turkey and Greece, what specific help is being given to those two countries to deal with the problem?

Officially, the latest figure for Turkey is 150,000, but there will be other people who are not caught by the official figures, so it is on an enormous scale. Turkey receives some of the assistance I have described. Our assistance is delivered primarily through international humanitarian agencies, which are working in all countries concerned, so it goes through that form. That includes Turkey, as it asked for international assistance. I am not aware of Greece asking for particular assistance. In many such cases people go to live with families, rather than in camps. Wherever assistance is needed, that of course is what the money we are providing is for.

I strongly welcome the approach of cautious flexibility that the Foreign Secretary has set out but, in the interests of a peaceful and diplomatic outcome to the conflict, are we encouraging or facilitating any communications between the Syrian National Coalition and Russia, perhaps with a view to reassuring the Russians about any future security concerns that might be preventing them playing a more responsible part in resolving the conflict?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for welcoming the cautious flexibility, or the flexible caution, whichever he said—either could be applied. We are in favour of all concerned discussing these matters with each other. There has been a growing reluctance among Syrian opposition groups to discuss things with Russia because they are so appalled by its policy towards Syria, but we absolutely encourage discussions between the National Coalition and the Russian Government. That ought to reassure Russia, but no such discussions with the opposition over the past 23 months, since the crisis began, have yet produced any change in the Russian position.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. In it, he stressed support for “the flexibility to consider taking additional steps to try to save lives if there is no progress in the near future.” Given the concerns we have heard about the potential for military intervention, can he be absolutely clear about what those additional steps might be?

The broad answer is no, because the flexibility is designed to allow us to take a variety of steps in future, and we have not decided on any of them. The reason I stress that and make it clear to the House is that we secured a change in the duration of the EU sanctions regime when it came up for renewal in December. It was due to be renewed for 12 months, but we and France, in particular, argued that it should be renewed for only three months so that we can reconsider our policies at that stage. That was to provide flexibility, not because we have changed what we have decided to do. I pointed out in response to earlier questions that the arms embargo of course covers weapons that would have lethal effect, but it also covers body armour, helmets and certain types of communication equipment, so it is easy to see that there might be a case for greater flexibility.

The Foreign Secretary has committed us to continued assistance for those opposition groups opposed to extremism. Plainly, there are opposition groups, both within the coalition and operating on the ground, that we have difficulty with because of their vision for Syria’s future. Will he share with the House his assessment of the balance of power within opposition forces between those whose vision for the future we would welcome and those whose vision we would be uncomfortable with?

As I have mentioned, it is impossible from outside Syria, or even from inside, to quantify that balance precisely. It is the contention of leading figures in the National Coalition that the great majority of those taking part in the fighting, and those opposing the Assad regime peacefully, want a free future for their country and their people, want rid of the regime and do not have an ideological or religious fundamental agenda. Certainly, acquaintance with the leading figures of the National Coalition corroborates that view. Their sincere contention is to bring about a free and democratic Syria. The longer the conflict goes on, the greater the opportunity for extremist groups to establish themselves. I do not want to offer any quantification of that, but the balance of opinion among opposition forces is still, thankfully, on what we would call the moderate side.

I hope that the Patriot missiles and the American, Dutch and German troops operating them will deter further attacks and incursions from Syria into Turkey. Will the Foreign Secretary explain to the House under whose command the missiles are and in what circumstances an order could be given to use them?

The missiles are positioned in Turkey back from the border and are there to protect Turkish airspace. They are clearly not part of any intervention in Syria. They are not designed to do that and will not be positioned to do that. They are NATO equipment, so of course all the arrangements follow logically from that. It is a NATO deployment.

With a population of 4 million, Lebanon is a small but very important neighbour to Syria, which has a population of 22 million. Lebanon is struggling to cope with the 200,000 refugees who have crossed its border. Is the Foreign Secretary on red alert, or amber alert, for the spread of the civil war across the border into Lebanon, and what humanitarian assistance can we offer its Government?

We are very much on alert and active in assisting Lebanon. Over recent months our ambassador there has done an excellent job in supporting political stability on the ground in difficult circumstances. Of course, part of our humanitarian aid goes to Lebanon and we are ready to increase it if necessary. We have also doubled our assistance to the Lebanese armed forces to help them cope with this difficult situation.

There are reports that at the end of November the findings of Israeli intelligence led the United States, Russia and China to put pressure on President Assad to cease his programme of arming missiles with chemical weapons. Does the Foreign Secretary think that programme will resume?

The hon. Lady knows that I cannot comment on intelligence matters in the House, but I can say that at the end of November the United States did issue the warning we discussed earlier, and indeed I brought it up in the House as well. As I made clear at the time, we had a reason to do that and to give a specific warning against the use of chemical weapons. I know that, due to the history in relation to Iraq, whenever Governments assert that there is no doubt about the existence of chemical or other weapons, people are entitled to their scepticism, but there can be no doubt about the existence of such weapons in Syria or that the Assad regime has deliberately manufactured and stockpiled large quantities of such weapons. If there was any chance that the Assad regime would survive in future, I am sure that it would continue that manufacturing and stockpiling.

The Foreign Secretary rightly talks about chemical and biological weapons and will be aware how fearful the Syrian people are that the Assad regime could use those weapons against them. Is there currently any assistance the UK could provide to Syrian groups to detect or guard against the use of chemical or biological weapons?

That is a good point, and it illustrates one of the complexities of the EU arms embargo. We are currently unable to supply chemical detection equipment to opposition groups in Syria because of the terms of the embargo. That is a good illustration of an area where flexibility might be needed in future.

I have a constituent whose wife and children are stuck in Damascus and unable to get out due to the dangers. What help can the Foreign Office give to help them get out? That raises the wider question of humanitarian access and medical aid to people inside Syria who are stuck in the conflict. What progress is being made to help people inside the country?

Progress has been made in some areas, but probably more than half the 4 million people in desperate need cannot currently be reached with humanitarian or medical assistance. That is why I reiterated the appeal to all concerned in Syria to allow peaceful humanitarian access. This is a major aspect of the crisis. Of course, there is nothing that we can do directly to change that other than to work with the agencies and the National Coalition and to call on the regime to allow such access.

On the hon. Lady’s point about her constituents, I will have a look at the specific case if she would like to give me the details. However, it is quite a long time now—about a year and a half ago—since we asked all British nationals to leave Syria. Our embassy had to be closed for safety reasons a long time ago. The Hungarians then very generously took over our consular responsibilities, but they have had to close for safety reasons as well. She can therefore understand that our ability to assist people on the ground in Damascus is now virtually non-existent.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the minority Christians, many of whom have given their acquiescence to the Government, would not face persecution if Assad’s regime were to fall in whole or in part?

I am glad to say that Christian activists have joined in the opposition National Coalition. We stress at all times to the National Coalition the importance of not only maintaining the inclusion of Christian, Kurdish and other minority communities but constantly reiterating its commitment to a country where in future all those people have their rights acknowledged and can prosper and live together peacefully. That is very much the declared intention of the National Coalition, and we must hold it to it in future years.

Will the Foreign Secretary give an absolute guarantee that prior to the commitment of any UK troops there will be a debate and a vote in this House on the lines of the precedent of 2003? He has said that he believes in the UK punching above our weight. Does not that often mean spending beyond our interests and dying beyond our responsibilities?

I say no to the second part of the question—I do not believe that it means that. It means many things. It means our country having a presence and an activity in the world of which our 260 diplomatic posts and our huge development programme are good examples. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of those things, which are aspects of our punching above our weight in the world.

On the commitment of forces, I stress again that I have not said anything today, or in any statement, advocating the commitment of UK forces. In any circumstances, in Syria or elsewhere, we now have a well-established convention in this House of which I personally am a strong advocate and in which the Government as a whole believe very strongly. So, yes, the hon. Gentleman can have a broad assurance about that.

Given the stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, given that their use would affect not only Syria but the neighbouring countries, and given that the regime, which it appears is about to fall, is more likely to use those weapons, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be right in that circumstance for NATO to take preventive action under the responsibility to protect?

It is right for us to have contingency plans. It is very difficult to lay down in advance what we would do in every situation, but we have sent a very strong warning to the regime about chemical weapons. The United States has led that warning. I cannot go into the details of the military contingency plans that we or NATO have to deal with a wide variety of situations, but I can assure my hon. Friend that our contingency plans do deal with a wide variety of situations.

I listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary, specifically to what he said about the UK’s relief efforts with regard to the 100,000 people to whom we are giving food parcels. He will know that the UN is warning that it can reach only 1.5 million of the estimated 2.5 million Syrians in need of food aid. What conversations has he had with leaders of the surrounding Arab countries to help UN agencies to get improved access to those in need of assistance?

We have many such conversations; for instance, I discussed it with the Foreign Minister of Jordan yesterday afternoon. The problem is not about the willingness of the neighbouring Arab countries. We should pay tribute to them, because they very generously bear a great burden having welcomed into their countries hundreds of thousands of people. There are many people not only in the camps but staying in families and communities in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. I absolutely pay tribute to those countries. They are not the problem; the problem is the attitude of the Assad regime, whose forces do not permit humanitarian access to large parts of the country, and the fighting in many other areas that makes it hard to get access. That is one reason why, as I said, we are providing funding for armoured vehicles that can carry humanitarian assistance into certain areas so that aid workers can provide it with a greater degree of safety. We have to keep working on this with the National Coalition, keep the international pressure on the regime, and encourage countries globally to provide the necessary funding.

Returning to the UN situation, when I spoke about Syria to China’s ambassador in London yesterday, he reiterated his country’s opposition to imposing regime change. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it will be harder for Russia and China to establish good relations with the Syrian people and their next Government the longer they stand in the way of hastening an end to their painful struggle?

Yes, I very much agree with that. There is a diplomatic price in Syria and in the region for Russia and China in blocking, as they have, what we have tried to do at the UN Security Council. What we are calling for at the UN is not regime change but a transitional Government who can include members of the current regime and members of the opposition on the basis of mutual consent; of course, we understand that not to mean Assad and his immediate acolytes. China and Russia have agreed to that in our Geneva discussions, but they have never agreed to the UN Security Council putting its full weight behind a chapter VII resolution with the threat of consequences to bring it about. That is the leap that they have not been willing to make. I encourage all hon. Members to point out these things to diplomats of those countries, as the hon. Gentleman has been doing.

In previous statements the Foreign Secretary has identified specific money for work to do with sexual violence and the victims of sexual violence. In today’s statement, he said that we will intensify this work as a matter of urgency. Are further resources and funding going into that particular piece of work?

Yes, they are. We have done specific work on this on the borders of Jordan. I have now assembled a team of 70 experts to work globally on an initiative to prevent sexual violence, including doctors, lawyers, people skilled in documenting such abuses, psychologists and so on. Last month we deployed part of the team to the Syrian borders; I did not announce their location for their own safety. There will be further such deployments of British experts. Following that first trial deployment, I expect to be able to deploy them further in the region in the coming months.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell me whether the United Kingdom is able to supply body armour, not necessarily to the armed groups but to the innocent Syrian civilians who are being caught in the crossfire?

This is another very relevant point in our discussions about the arms embargo. We are not able to supply body armour at the moment. We supply the equipment that I set out in the statement, but body armour is another item that is caught by most definitions of the arms embargo as it stands. When we talk about flexibility in future, we have to bear it in mind that an arms embargo on the opposition covers equipment of this nature as well as lethal equipment.

Given what the Secretary of State has said about the difficulty of getting emergency aid to the millions who need it, should not the UK Government and the world community give a high priority to putting pressure on all those who have influence over parties in the Syrian conflict to allow that humanitarian aid to access places in need? Russia is an obvious example, but we also have influence and we should use it in this conflict.

Yes, absolutely. We are constantly trying to do that and that includes the pressure that we put on Russia. A major point is that the Friends of Syria—more than 100 countries—have taken up trying to put that pressure together, but on this subject, as on so many others, no amount of international pressure has succeeded in changing the brutal attitude of the Assad regime, which sees any international presence as a threat to it, even when it is an international effort to deliver humanitarian aid.

Clearly, the Assad regime is dependent on Russian and Chinese diplomatic support, but what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the possible logistical support and weapon rearmament provided by Iran to the Assad regime? If that is the case, what can be done to sever that link?

There is a good deal of overwhelming evidence, as I have said in the House previously, of the tangible assistance given by Iran to the regime. It is another aspect of the deeply unhelpful policies pursued by Iran in the region. That assistance is likely to have included, in recent times, financial assistance to the regime, but also people to assist in the conflict itself and military equipment. We do everything we can to inhibit the supply of such equipment. I have taken up several times with the Iraqi Government the issue of the overfly over Iraq of Iranian flights into Syria. The Iraqi Government have given assurances about that and, indeed, have searched some flights in recent months. We will continue to take up that issue with Iraq and, indeed, try to expose Iran’s participation in the brutal oppression of the Syrian people.

The Foreign Secretary, as a former historian, has already alluded to the need to learn the lessons of history. May I press him a little more on what steps the Government are taking to make sure that the lessons from Libya for transition to the future are learned in Syria?

Yes, we must learn those lessons. The situations are, of course, different. We must always respect the differences between these countries. The more that the national coalition can create a consensus among opposition groups about the basis, philosophy and principles on which they would like to see the country governed, the more successful Syria will be in future. That is more important than deciding which individuals will occupy which posts. It is important that they are in contact with and have influence over as many as possible of the armed groups and militias that support the opposition cause, because in Libya different groups fighting in different parts of the country did not have strong enough links for the subsequent government of the country.

The Secretary of State will be aware of reports that President Assad has offered to exchange 2,000 captured opposition personnel in return for 43 Iranian military experts and that Iran has also given him missiles. In light of this imbalance of resources, what further support can the United Kingdom and other international partners give to the opposition?

That relates to all the issues that we have been addressing over the past hour. We are giving the further, non-lethal practical support that I mentioned in my statement and we are trying to secure within the EU the flexibility to change or develop that as the situation changes in the future, for the reasons I have given. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) brought up the very good example of chemical detection equipment. We will have to look at those things if the situation continues to worsen.

We have all seen the reports of an exchange, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) is right to bring that up. The fact that there are such large numbers of Iranian military experts in Syria whose release the Iranians have had to negotiate illustrates the point we have just been making about Iran’s involvement.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to continue to speak to his international counterparts about the humanitarian assistance needed. Given that this terrible situation will only get worse because of the first winter storms hitting many of the refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere, will he undertake to speak to his international counterparts with a degree of urgency? The Foreign Secretary has also said that we are the second largest donor to the UN programmes at present. Does that suggest that richer countries are not putting in as much as they should, and is he confident that the UN target will be met?

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is urgency to this matter. As I have mentioned, we are already speaking—we have been doing so for some time—to other countries about the need to supply more financial assistance to the humanitarian agencies involved, and the United Kingdom succeeds in setting a very good example. That is part of our daily discussions with other nations from all parts of the world. It is not possible to say, given the scale of the appeal for $1.5 billion and the world’s poor track record so far in meeting it, that we are confident that it will be met, but there will be an intense effort over the coming weeks. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary is heavily engaged in it and the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will not waste any opportunity to encourage other countries to play their part.