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Syria: anti-Government Forces

Volume 559: debated on Monday 4 March 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on support for anti-Government forces in Syria.

I confirm that the Foreign Secretary will make a statement on this subject later this week.

The UK’s overriding goal is to achieve a political transition in Syria that ends the bloodshed on a sustainable basis. That is why we are working intensively with the United Nations, Arab League Special Representative Brahimi, the United States and our partners in the Friends of Syria to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. In the meantime, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we must continue with our life-saving humanitarian aid and practical support to the Syrian people and opposition.

A key part of our approach is to work to strengthen moderate political forces in Syria that are committed to a democratic future for that country. The Foreign Secretary announced to the House on 10 January that we had committed £9.4 million in non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition, civil society and human rights defenders. As he said at that time:

“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…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.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 484.]

Despite that assistance, the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate. According to the United Nations, more than 70,000 people have now been killed, the number of refugees in the region is fast approaching 1 million and more than 4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The longer the situation goes on, the greater the danger that extremism will take hold, the greater the danger of neighbouring countries being destabilised and the greater the extreme humanitarian distress involved. We must therefore do more to try to help save lives in Syria. That is why we led the way in agreeing an amendment to the EU sanctions regime to ensure that the possibility of further assistance was not closed off. We are now able to increase the range of technical assistance and non-lethal equipment that we can provide to the Syrian opposition.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is currently travelling in Mali and will return tomorrow to answer Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. In addition, I reiterate that he will be making a statement in the House on this very subject later this week.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I say at the start that the Government have been absolutely right to restrict aid to non-lethal support when assisting anti-Government forces in the civil war. Until recently, a strict arms embargo has been preventing the flow of weapons from the European Union to Syria, but at a recent EU summit the Foreign Secretary appeared to press for that embargo to be at least relaxed. Yesterday, he appeared to suggest that the British Government might at some stage be prepared actively to arm the rebels.

I appreciate the statement that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made today, but I suggest to him that there can be little doubt that, although there has not been a change in Government policy—there cannot be without EU approval—there has been a change in Government thinking. That prompts a number of questions. Why the change in approach and thinking? It is quite clear from yesterday’s statement that the Foreign Secretary believes that a step up in support by way of exporting arms is on the agenda. Let us not forget that, only in January, the Government were strongly advocating non-lethal support for opposition forces.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with fellow Security Council members? I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that any increase in our support by way of arms can only escalate the violence on the ground in the short term, and with it the suffering of the people. Both sides have been accused by human rights groups of committing atrocities, and that is important to remember.

What calculation have the Government made? Is the thinking that a sharp escalation will somehow bring this torrid affair to an end, and that the only way to quicken the end is to arm the rebels? Moreover, there are credible reports that extremists are fighting alongside the rebels. Will the Minister update the House on that matter, and what guarantees can he give that if we were to export arms to rebels, they would not fall into the hands of terrorists? It is difficult to ensure on the ground that that does not happen.

I advise caution. The Foreign Secretary appeared to be contemplating stepping up support for one side in the civil war, but both sides have been committing atrocities. We may be supplying the terrorists of the future and shipping arms does not reduce tensions. Such a policy would also bring us closer to intervention. When we supplied arms to Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war, a lot of people died but in the end neither side became our friend. Interventions rarely go to plan and I hope the Government will think carefully before pushing for a change to this policy with regard to neighbours and friends.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which gives me the opportunity to state again that the change in the EU sanctions to which he alluded is about non-lethal equipment and technical assistance. The Foreign Secretary was tempted yesterday on the “The Andrew Marr Show” to go further, but right hon. and hon. Members will have to wait for his statement, because he wishes—quite properly—to make his position clear in this House.

My hon. Friend mentioned the suffering of the people, and that is precisely what the change is designed to help alleviate. It is worth remembering that 4 million people are now in need of urgent assistance and that 2 million have been internally displaced. More than 900,000 Syrian refugees are in need of assistance in neighbouring countries, and my hon. Friend of all people will be acute to the dangers of unsettling regional areas close to that country.

The change under debate is about ensuring that all options are on the table and that EU countries have maximum flexibility to provide the opposition with all necessary assistance to protect civilians. We want to support moderate groups precisely to boost their appeal and effectiveness over the extremists to whom my hon. Friend alluded. I assure him that the support we provide is carefully targeted and co-ordinated with like-minded countries, consistent with our laws and values, and based on rigorous analysis.

I think on both sides of the House there is a sense of profound frustration and disgust at the continued violence in Syria, and consternation at the remarks made by President Assad over the weekend which—we agree with the Foreign Secretary—were “delusional”. As the Minister said, the death toll in Syria approaches 70,000 people; human rights groups have estimated that 4,000 people died last month alone. We have all been frustrated by the lack of progress at the UN Security Council to reach a collective position, and the pressure to urge for further action is understandable.

We welcome recent steps taken by the Syrian opposition coalition towards a political transition plan, and we must maintain the pressure on Assad. What is the Minister’s assessment of the current sanctions, and what steps can the international community take to ensure that they are comprehensively enforced?

Let me turn to UK support and the potential easing of the EU arms embargo in Syria. Labour Members have repeatedly stressed that all efforts must be focused on bringing an end to the violence, not fuelling the conflict. Given comments by the Foreign Secretary over the weekend, it seems there is some consideration by the British Government for the EU arms embargo to be amended further and—potentially—lifted. Will the Minister clarify today at the Dispatch Box whether that is the case?

Is the Minister aware that last week The New York Times reported that arms are being procured from a European source for the Syrian opposition, and that that is happening now? Is the Foreign Secretary aware of those allegations, and when did he and other Foreign Office Ministers become aware of them? What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his EU partners on the sourcing of arms for opposition parties in Syria?

In an interview this weekend the Foreign Secretary admitted that when it comes to lifting the arms embargo the

“risks of arms falling into the wrong hands is one of the great constraints. And it is one of the reasons we don’t do it now.”

At the same time, however, he said that he did not rule out anything for the future. What assurances or guarantees will the Government seek before lifting any arms embargo? The Foreign Secretary said that this was a matter of balancing risks, but will the Minister set out further details about how the balance of risk is currently being assessed?

We are aware that al-Qaeda is operating in Syria. What is the British Government’s assessment of the scale of its activity as part of the opposition to Assad? All of us in the House have the same objective: to end the deaths and the violence and to leave the Syrian people free to decide their own future in a peaceful Syria. All our efforts must be focused on that end.

The hon. Gentleman raises a number of interesting points, but he is working on the premise that this is somehow about lifting the arms embargo. He will be able to question the Foreign Secretary more closely on that matter later this week, but I say again that this is about non-lethal equipment and technical assistance; it is not about lifting any arms embargo. It is worth reiterating the kind of aid that we have been giving. For example, 5 tonnes of water purification equipment, power generators and communications kit were delivered in December. We have agreed funding to train Syrians to gather evidence of torture and sexual abuse, and we have trained activists to form a network of peace-building committees across five cities in Syria—[Interruption.] I would have thought that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) would have been interested in these humanitarian aspects. I shall address my points through the Speaker to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas).

There has been a change, in that the new Secretary of State Kerry and the Foreign Secretary agreed when Mr Kerry visited London last week that, because of the deteriorating situation and the increasing loss of life, the situation in Syria demanded a stronger response from the international community. At the Friends of Syria meeting in Rome, the US announced an additional $60 million of non-lethal aid to the armed opposition to bolster popular support. We believe that those are all moves in the right direction.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically what we could do to prevent arms from falling into what he described as the “wrong hands”. We are not providing arms to either side, as he well knows, and we urge countries that are providing arms to the Assad regime to desist from doing so and to stop contributing directly to the misery of that wonderful country.

Order. In order to maximise the number of contributors, I appeal for short questions and short answers.

May I put it to the Minister, as I have on previous occasions to the Foreign Secretary, that the carnage in Syria is a manifestation of the 1,500-year religious civil war between Sunni and Shi’a that is now resurgent in Iraq and Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Islamic world? The only way to stop it in Syria is to persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the one hand, and Iran on the other, to stop sending arms to their co-religionists before Syria inevitably breaks up into two separate countries, which would solve no problems at all.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving us that historical perspective. Although I have not been to Syria for many years, I know the country relatively well, and I weep when I think of the human carnage being wreaked on it by that deluded Assad—given his interview over the weekend, there can be few in the House who would not agree with that term.

On a positive point, the national coalition has committed to protect the rights of minorities and is also working to increase minority representative membership within the coalition. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we want to ensure that any peaceful, democratic transition to the more open society that the Syrian people deserve should respect the rights of all the citizens of that country, be they Alawite, Sunni or Christian.

I urge the Foreign Secretary, in his forthcoming statement to the Commons, not to change Government policy. This is a military stalemate that cannot be won by the rebels or by the Government. Handing weapons to jihadists and Salafis who are leading attacks and planting bombs will make the killing worse, not better, and will hinder aid efforts with which the UK Government are helping. I urge him not to get dragged into the quagmire of a catastrophic civil war. President Assad, with all his flaws, announced at the weekend that we need to promote negotiations, and the opposition leader has said that he is ready to do so.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and he makes a valid point. I stress again, however, that the change to EU sanctions legislation concerns the provision of non-lethal and technical assistance; it is not concerned with the provision of weapons or with arming either side. I repeat what I said earlier: the countries arming President Assad’s Government in particular should stop, because it is they who are directly contributing to the carnage unfolding in Syria.

I congratulate the Minister of State on stepping in at short notice, particularly for a brief with which he is not familiar. I agree with him completely that there are several questions—who is arming, what they are being armed with and the nature of the EU embargo—that will be far better answered by the Foreign Secretary later in the week. A humanitarian disaster is occurring on the Jordanian and Turkish borders with Syria. Will he give us an indication of the levels of help and assistance being given by the British Government?

It is not for me to question the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I think that somewhere inherent in his remarks was a compliment—at least I like to think so. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary, who as he says is better placed to answer these questions, will give him a full update on humanitarian assistance to the neighbouring countries to which he alluded.

Advice to UK Governments has been that regime change cannot be the objective of military actions. Although there is cross-party consensus condemning the Assad regime and its brutality, will the Minister assure the House that proper respect will be shown to international law?

I wish only that President Assad showed any interest in international law, any law, or any kind of human decency—a decency that the EU and the countries that are trying to help the people of Syria are currently showing.

I welcome the Minister’s cautious yet well-informed replies. In the case of Syria, should we abide by the rule of three used by the Foreign Secretary with regard to Libya, which is that no state should intervene militarily except where there is a strong humanitarian and legal case, regional support and explicit UN sanction—three things notably absent 10 years ago in Iraq?

No one is talking about intervention of that sort, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that in Syria there are now 4 million people in need of urgent assistance, 2 million people have been internally displaced, and 900,000 refugees are in need of assistance in neighbouring countries. The instability that that is causing in Syria is evident for all to see, but the instability that it is causing in the region is, in the long term, as much of a worry.

Will the Minister clarify what forms of non-lethal force multipliers will be given to help an already well-armed opposition which is being supplied by some Arab countries, and which has captured many arms supplied by Russia and Iran to the Assad Ba’athist-fascist regime?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was tempted to list them during his interview on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday, but resisted doing so. As a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Gentleman will understand that the proper place for the Foreign Secretary to list them and state policy is right here in the House. He will be doing just that later this week.

If the dreadful Assad regime is overthrown, as the Government wish, the Government will no doubt feel very pleased. However, how long will that pleasure last if the successor regime contains elements of al-Qaeda, which then gets its hands on the stocks of Syrian chemical weapons that are known to exist, and uses them against the west?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, although there are a lot of ifs in his question. The whole point of providing the additional aid is to bolster the opposition groups in Syria in order to prevent the country from sliding into the kind of anarchy that he describes.

Is it not the case that, although all options are still on the table, the slaughter on the ground continues? Does the Minister agree that sadly this is another demonstration of the inadequacy of international organisations, most particularly the United Nations, in dealing with these problems as they arise, and is it not time for major a reform of how international organisations respond to these situations?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s continuing concern about the inability of either Russia or China to take the same view as other members of the UN Security Council, but I am proud to stand in front of the House to announce that the UK and its EU partners have taken this measure. Where we lead, others should follow.

The Minister will note the reports about divisions within the Syrian coalition. For example, Mr al-Khatib, the leader of the Syrian coalition, on the one hand wanted discussions with the regime, but on the other hand did not want to go to Rome to take part in the international conference. What steps are being taken to unite the opposition? Without a united opposition, there will be no real transition in Syria.

These things are never exact in what is an ever changing situation, but clearly the meetings in Rome, those before Rome and those that will follow on from Rome are all designed to bolster the opposition so that it can speak with one voice and be seen as a credible, accountable and democratic alternative, concentrating on human rights and the rights and welfare of the people—in stark contrast to the current regime, which we must all pray the opposition replaces at the earliest opportunity.

I understand the Minister of State’s temptation to look behind him at the person by whom he is being questioned, but if he could face the House, we would all be doubly grateful.

Will the Minister update the House on what discussions the Government have had with Turkey and tell us whether Turkey is arguing for or against lifting the arms embargo?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will no doubt wish when addressing the House to update Members on the situation in Turkey, as well as that in all other neighbouring countries and others closely involved in Syria.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to put Lebanon at the heart of the Government’s considerations? It is a country that has been repeatedly destabilised and brutalised by the Assad regime and which currently enjoys the only cross-confessional army in the area, which is widely respected.

My hon. Friend mentions another country affected directly by the actions of the Syrian regime—and a country I know well—and clearly we have to watch the situation there. I think the Foreign Secretary was in Lebanon as recently as last week and again will want to update the House on what he discussed there. He met refugees, among others, while he was there.

The New York Times and other reports have claimed that the Croatians have provided weapons, paid for by the Saudis and with the tacit support of the United States, to the Free Syrian army and that there is emerging evidence that grenade and rocket launchers have been found in the hands of jihadist movements. Is this the case? I know it is difficult on a Monday afternoon responding to an urgent question, but will the Minister say what representations the UK Government have made to Croatia about this?

I am not aware of the story that the hon. Gentleman alludes to, but he follows the press more closely than most people in the House. I will write to him with the full facts.

I have recorded in the register my recent visit with the Council for European Palestinian Relations to Lebanon to visit some of its 20,000 double refugees—Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria but who have now fled to Lebanon and so have been made refugees twice over. Will the Minister ensure that his colleagues in the Department for International Development liaise with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—because that body, not the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is dealing with these refugees—to see what extra assistance the UK Government can give?

Indeed. I have seen UNRWA’s work at close hand in the past, and a very excellent job it does.

I think that the United Kingdom has a good story to tell. Our total funding for Syria and the region now stands at £139.5 million, and will provide humanitarian aid such as food, medical care, blankets and clean drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and, critically, in the region. That is something that I feel the House should applaud.

Is the Minister aware that a number of Syrian, Kurdish and Muslim extremists are travelling to Syria to join the rebellion and fight along with al-Qaeda? What steps is he taking to prevent that insurgency from extending to the United Kingdom?

The sooner we can bring the situation in Syria to an end, the sooner we can reduce the need for any kind of people to seek to fight on one side or the other. The way in which to do that is to embolden the official opposition, which we are supporting. We hope that these new measures will go some way towards strengthening the opposition and allowing it to position itself as the Government in waiting.

In response to questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) and me during his last statement to the House on 10 January, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the European Union arms embargo covered non-lethal items such as body armour and kits to protect or guard against the use of chemical weapons, and spoke of the need for flexibility in regard to the embargo. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the policy has not really changed?

Let me repeat that the amendment of the EU arms embargo allows us to provide a wider range of non-lethal equipment and technical assistance that will do more to save lives. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary intends to make a statement to the House about UK assistance on Wednesday 6 March, and the details are being finalised.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has already mentioned Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons. What contingency arrangements have been made by the British Government and our allies in case Assad decides to use those weapons, or they fall into the hands of extremist groups?

Any use of chemical or biological weapons would of course be abhorrent, and would send a further signal of the depths to which the Assad regime would be willing to stoop to attack its own people. The regime is under intense international scrutiny, and any use of such weapons would be universally condemned.

May I ask what efforts are being made to bring the Syrian crisis to a conclusion through the G8, especially given that one of its members is the Russian Federation?

I have not seen the agenda for the forthcoming G8 summit, but I have no doubt that Syria will be discussed, even if it is not on the agenda itself.

Many people will see this as mission creep, and will feel that we are being drawn ever more into a civil war and the taking of sides. Is that a fair description?

No, it is not a fair description, and I have spent the past 35 minutes or so trying to illustrate why it is not. Today is about non-lethal equipment and technical assistance to embolden the Syrian opposition and encourage it to provide a credible Government to replace the brutal dictatorship of President al-Assad.