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Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the conflict in Syria, which continues to worsen.

The Syrian regime’s military offensive against opposition-held areas around Damascus, Homs, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo is intensifying, with complete disregard for civilian life. The death toll has doubled in the first five months of this year and now stands at an estimated 80,000 people. There have been well-verified reports of massacres around Damascus by regime security forces, and of communities killed in cold blood in villages around Baniyas. Online footage has shown bodies heaped in the streets and children butchered in their homes. Ten thousand people are believed to have fled the area in the panic created by these brutal killings, and last week there were unconfirmed reports of further attacks using chemical weapons.

More than 4 million Syrians are internally displaced and a total of 6.8 million are in desperate need, including 3 million children. It is horrifying to imagine what life must be like for these children, witnessing violence and death on a daily basis, and enduring trauma, malnutrition, disease and shattered education.

This suffering has devastating consequences. It is undoubtedly contributing to a radicalisation in Syria. Syrian people are facing a regime that is using warplanes, helicopters, heavy artillery, tanks, cluster munitions and even ballistic missiles against them, often without them having the means to defend themselves and their communities. The conflict is therefore creating opportunities for extremist groups. Syria is now the No. 1 destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today, including approximately 70 to 100 individuals connected with the United Kingdom.

The conflict is also endangering regional peace and security, with more than 50 people killed in a bombing in Turkey last week, the kidnapping of United Nations peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, and cross-border shelling and clashes on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Half a million Syrians have become refugees in the past 10 weeks alone, bringing the total number of refugees to 1.5 million, 75% of whom are women and children. The UN assesses that, on these trends, by the end of this year more than 3.5 million, or 15% of Syria’s total population, will have become refugees in other countries. The Foreign Minister of Jordan has warned that Syrian refugees are likely to make up 40% of his country’s population by the middle of next year, with similar numbers predicted for Lebanon.

One of two scenarios lies ahead for Syria. On the one hand, there could be an ever more savage conflict and military stalemate, producing an even bigger humanitarian disaster, greater radicalisation and deeper sectarian divisions, further massacres, and even the collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of its territory. On the other hand—and this is what we must strive for—there could be a negotiated end to the conflict that ends the bloodshed and leads to a new transitional Government, enabling refugees to return to their homes and extremism to be contained.

All the efforts of the United Kingdom are devoted to bringing about such a political settlement and to saving lives. We have provided more than £12 million in non-lethal assistance, including to the Syrian National Coalition. That includes vehicles with ballistic protection, body armour, trucks and forklifts, solar power generators, water purification kits, equipment to search for survivors in the aftermath of shelling, computers, satellite phones, and office equipment to help people in opposition-held areas.

We have provided human rights training and support to members of Syrian civil society. We have supported human rights investigation teams to collect documentary, photographic and interview evidence of abuses, and trained medical staff to gather forensic evidence of torture and sexual violence. That material is being made available to the UN commission of inquiry and other international investigative bodies so that those involved in human rights violations can be held to account. We therefore welcome the resolution sponsored by Qatar, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 15 May by 107 votes to 12, urging accountability for human rights violations and progress on a political transition, as well as humanitarian assistance to Syria.

The Prime Minister announced last week that we would double our non-lethal assistance this year to £20 million. That will be used to provide services to the Syrian people, deliver assistance to them on the ground, forge links between different communities and opposition groups, and support better communications.

Our humanitarian funding to date totals £171.1 million. That includes £30 million, which was also announced by the Prime Minister last week, to support people in need in opposition-held and contested areas in Syria. Much of our funding is going to support refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. We have provided food for more than 150,000 people, clean drinking water for more than 900,000 people and more than 280,000 medical consultations for the sick and injured. The Government have worked hard to urge other countries to meet their commitments to the UN humanitarian appeal for $1.5 billion. That is now 71% funded and we will continue to urge other countries to do more.

We are increasing the support that we are providing to Syria’s neighbours. We are providing equipment to the Jordanian armed forces to help them deal with the immediate needs of Syrian refugees at the border and transport them safely to international humanitarian organisations. We have provided funding to the Lebanese armed forces for four border observation towers to help reduce cross-border violence in key areas and to protect and reassure local communities. We are also working with the Syrian National Coalition and key international supporters to develop plans for transition and Syria’s post-conflict needs, building on the conference that we held at Wilton Park in January.

The international focus must above all be on ending the crisis. To that end, we are stepping up our efforts to support the opposition and increase pressure on the regime in order to create the conditions for a political transition. On 20 April, I attended the meeting of the core group of the Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul, where a new compact was agreed with the Syrian National Coalition. The coalition issued a declaration committing itself to a political solution and transition, promising to guarantee the rights of all Syria’s communities, and rejecting terrorism and extremist ideology. It pledged to preserve the Syrian state, uphold international law, guarantee the safety and security of chemical weapons, and work to keep weapons out of the hands of extremist groups—commitments which I am sure the whole House will welcome. In return, the core group nations agreed to expand support to the coalition and its military council, as the United Kingdom already has done. As I speak, we are working to broaden and unify further the Syrian opposition.

On 8 May in Moscow, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov agreed the basis for a new international conference to bring together representatives of the regime and the opposition. The Prime Minister visited Russia on 10 May for talks with President Putin to cement understanding of the purpose of the conference. He held further talks with President Obama in Washington on 13 May and spoke again to President Putin last Friday. In our view, the conference, which should be held as soon as possible, should focus on agreeing a transitional governing body with full executive powers and formed by mutual consent, building on the agreement that we reached at Geneva last year.

We are urging the regime and the opposition to attend the conference and to take full advantage of the opportunity to negotiate. In the end there will have to be a political and diplomatically supported solution, if there is to be any solution at all. There is no purely military victory available to either side without even greater loss of life, the growth of international terrorism, and grave threats to neighbouring countries.

The Prime Minister and I have both spoken to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon about the conference, and we continue to support Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in his role. I am in constant contact with Secretary Kerry about the preparations. Tomorrow I will travel to Jordan to meet him and other Foreign Ministers of the core group on Wednesday, and on Monday I will go to Brussels for the EU Foreign Affairs Council on this subject. The EU should give strong support to this diplomatic process, including by agreeing further amendments to the arms embargo, without taking any decisions at present to send arms to the Syrian opposition.

The case for further amendments to the EU arms embargo on Syria is compelling, in order to increase the pressure on the regime and give us the flexibility to respond to continued radicalisation and conflict. We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives, rather than the current trajectory of extremism and murder. We have not sent arms to any side during the conflicts of the Arab spring. No decision has been made to go down that route, and if we were to pursue this, it would be under the following conditions: in co-ordination with other nations; in carefully controlled circumstances; and in accordance with our obligations under national and international law. The United Kingdom and France are both strongly of the view that changes to the embargo are not separate from the diplomatic work, but essential to it. We must make it clear that if the regime does not negotiate seriously at the Geneva conference, no option is off the table.

There remains a serious risk that the Assad regime will not negotiate seriously. That is the lesson of the last two years, in which the regime has shown that it is prepared to countenance any level of loss of life in Syria for as long as it hopes it can win militarily. We also have to persuade the opposition to come to the table, recognising how difficult it is for them to enter into negotiations with a regime engaged in butchering thousands of people.

There is a growing body of limited but persuasive information showing that the regime used—and continues to use—chemical weapons. We have physiological samples from inside Syria that have shown the use of sarin, although they do not indicate the scale of that use. Our assessment is that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is very likely to have been by the regime. We have no evidence to date of opposition use. We welcome the UN investigation, which in our view must cover all credible allegations and have access to all relevant sites in Syria. We continue to assist the investigation team and to work with our allies to get more and better information about these allegations.

The United Kingdom holds the presidency of the UN Security Council next month, and we remain in favour of the Security Council putting its full weight behind a transition plan if it can be agreed. All our efforts are directed at ensuring that the coming conference in Geneva has the greatest possible chance of success. We are entering in the coming weeks into a period of the most intense diplomacy yet, to bring together permanent members of the UN Security Council, to attempt to create real negotiations, and to open up the possibility of a political solution. The Prime Minister is fully committed personally to those efforts, and the central role of the Foreign Office over the coming weeks will be to support that process. At the same time, our work to save lives, to help stabilise neighbouring countries, and to support the national coalition inside Syria will continue to be stepped up.

With every week that passes we are coming closer to the collapse of Syria and a regional catastrophe, with the lives of tens of thousands more Syrians at stake. We are determined to make every effort to end the carnage, to minimise the risks to the region, and to protect the security of the United Kingdom.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House and giving his statement, and for advance sight of that statement. We have all watched events unfold in Syria with increasing horror, yet the whole House has not had the opportunity to discuss the conflict in Syria for some weeks.

Let me begin my questions with the key issue of arming the rebels, which in recent months the Prime Minister has suggested is key to “tipping the balance” and creating peace in Syria. Indeed, in his statement today the Foreign Secretary added: “The case for further amendments to the EU arms embargo on Syria is compelling, in order to increase the pressure on the regime and give us the flexibility to respond to continued radicalisation and conflict. We have to be open to every way of strengthening moderates and saving lives”. This signal should not surprise us. Indeed, in recent weeks, there have been newspaper reports of a confidential document that sets out a range of options that would allow the UK to send lethal support to Syria’s opposition. The Foreign Secretary has again chosen his words carefully today, but I believe that the risk of a decade-long sectarian civil war in Syria, fuelled in part by weapons supplied by the UK, should give him serious pause for thought before embracing that course.

The struggle in Syria today is between forces funded and armed by outside sponsors, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Also participating are foreign religious groups that are not directly controlled by their sponsors, namely the Sunni Salafist and Iranian-aligned militias, together with intensely anti-western al-Qaeda fighters. I would therefore be grateful if the Foreign Secretary addressed himself to this point: if, as he states, his priority is a negotiated end to the conflict, is contemplating arming the rebels the crucial question? Surely the crucial question is how to create a sustainable political settlement in a complicated and fractured country. The conflict is so vicious today in part because the stakes are so high for each of the communities involved. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that Syria is awash with weaponry? What is his assessment of how much weaponry would be required to tip the balance against Assad, and how, in practical terms, will the Foreign Secretary ensure that weapons supplied do not fall into the arms of al-Qaeda-supporting jihadists?

The choice for the international community is not between sending military support to Syria’s opposition and doing nothing at all. Assad is sustained by external support from Russia and Iran and the foreign cash that allows him still to pay his forces. Will the Foreign Secretary explain why he did not place more emphasis in his statement on the practical steps that could be taken to choke off Assad’s finances and the country’s energy supplies through effective enforcement of sanctions? Any future actions or policies of the UK Government should be adopted only on the basis of their capacity to contribute to a peaceful outcome.

I agree with the Government that they should seize the opportunity afforded by the proposed US-Russia conference to try to end the fighting and prevent the Lebanonisation of Syria. That is exactly the type of engagement with the Russians that the Opposition have urged for many months, as the Foreign Secretary will recollect.

Syria has experienced minority rule for 40 years, so any comprehensive peace settlement for Syria must, by its nature, be inclusive. It would be wrong to underestimate the fear, particularly in the Alawite community, that a change from minority rule to democracy provokes. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore assure the House that that is the approach he will advocate in Jordan tomorrow and in his further discussions ahead of the conference?

In conclusion, we have learnt from recent history that when a country with such a range of religious and ethnic identities emerges from a bloody war, communities are slow to trust one another again. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the Government’s assessment of the scale of post-conflict planning currently under way by the international community? What role are the UK Government playing in facilitating that?

The Opposition strongly support and welcome the Government’s humanitarian funding for the Syrian people, but does the Secretary of State accept that Britain alone cannot take on the burden of upscaling the humanitarian response in Syria in the wake of any peace agreement, which all hon. Members wish to see? It is therefore vital that he delivers on the pledge he made at the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting, which he chaired: he said that his immediate priority was

“ensuring that donors who generously pledged their support at the Kuwait conference fulfil their commitments”.

How will he ensure that all those commitments are indeed turned into payments to help to rebuild Syria?

There is common ground between the Government and Opposition on supporting humanitarian efforts to assist the people of Syria; supporting the work of the human rights observers; supporting UN investigations into the use of chemical weapons; and encouraging a diplomatic resolution to this continuing conflict. However, if the Government wish to take the step of arming the rebels, I ask and urge the Foreign Secretary to come back to the House before that decision is made and make the Government’s case to Members on both sides of the House who, along with the President of the United States, continue to have concerns about the wisdom of that proposed course of action.

I am grateful, as always, to the right hon. Gentleman. While there are some differences—I will reply to his questions—there is also a great deal in common across the House. As he knows, I regularly come back to the House whenever there is the slightest variation in the situation, so if there are any developments in the Government’s policy I would certainly seek to do so. He said that we had not had the opportunity to discuss this matter for a while. I must just make the observation that, most unusually, the Opposition chose not to devote any day of the debate on the Queen’s Speech to foreign affairs. We could have discussed Syria and all other issues at great length. That was a mysterious decision and I do not want to speculate on the reasons for it, but the opportunity was there.

There is a lot of agreement on many issues. The right hon. Gentleman asked about humanitarian support. Since the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting, far more countries have supplied the funding they committed to at Kuwait. As I mentioned in my statement, the UN appeal for $1.5 billion is now 71% funded. However, that was an appeal to cover the period from January to June. We have to expect, in the near future, a new UN assessment of the humanitarian aid that will be required, which could be well above the previous appeal of $1.5 billion. This is already the biggest ever UN humanitarian appeal, demonstrating the scale of what we are dealing with. I pay tribute to my colleagues in the Department for International Development—the Minister of State is here—for all their efforts to get other countries to meet their commitments, as we in the UK have.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about post-conflict planning. We have led the way internationally, with the conference earlier this year at Wilton Park. Understandably, many minds in the opposition, and in the regime for that matter, are turned to the conflict rather than post-conflict planning. It would be good if all sides could spend more time on post-conflict planning, but we continue to give advice and discuss the matter with our partners on the Security Council. It may well be that we will hold other events ourselves to ensure that that planning exists.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the need for a political settlement to be inclusive—that is absolutely critical. The compact we made with the National Coalition at our Istanbul meeting includes a clear commitment to a democratic and non-sectarian Syria; a Syria without retribution, other than against those who have committed war crimes; and a Syria in which the institutions of the state are not dismantled. The Syrian National Coalition is concerned to learn lessons from Iraq, where too many institutions of the state were dismantled. On all those points, I think I can entirely satisfy him and be in accord with him.

The right hon. Gentleman was, however, going too far to suggest that there is somehow an alternative policy by which sanctions could be better enforced. The European Union enforces its sanctions tightly, but the House must remember that the EU is alone in the world, as a grouping, in enforcing sanctions. The United States and some of the other Arab states enforce sanctions on Syria, but there are no UN sanctions of that kind, and there are routes around such sanctions over time. It is not within the power of the EU to change that; it is within the power of the UN Security Council, but Russia and China have never supported resolutions on that subject, so that is not an available alternative policy.

I did indeed choose my words carefully on the question of arms. We are seeking amendments to the embargo, not immediately to use those amendments. The discussions we will have in the EU in the coming week, will be very important in making the Geneva negotiations take place, let alone be a success. We need more pressure on the regime. We need more encouragement to the opposition that they will not for ever have to endure, if all negotiations fail and there is no way forward, people—who may be described as rebels, but are men, women and children sitting in their communities—suffering virtually every kind of weapon that man has ever invented being dropped on them while most of the world denies them the means to defend themselves. If we come to a choice about that, it is a very important foreign policy and moral choice, which of course should be discussed fully in this House. It is a very important choice indeed. We have to bear it in mind, however, that one of the drivers of radicalisation is the availability of weapons to extremist groups and to the regime, but often not to moderate opposition groups. Of course there are legitimate differences over all such issues, and it would be a very difficult foreign policy choice. We are clear that we need amendments to the arms embargo to take EU policy in the right direction, which is what I will be working for over the coming week.

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that the business to follow, on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, is also of intense interest to right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, and it is my duty, as best I can, to protect time for debate on it. I therefore issue my usual appeal to Members to offer the House single, short, supplementary questions, without preamble, and to the Foreign Secretary, as ever, to provide us with his pithy replies.

I soberly disagree with the shadow Foreign Secretary in his opposition to military support for the Syrian National Coalition. What incentive does President Assad have to use a forthcoming conference to seek a political solution, when he continues to receive weapons of all descriptions from Russia and Iran? I know that my right hon. Friend has slowly and reluctantly come to the view that military support may be necessary. I strongly commend that conclusion and urge him to do what he can—in the cautious manner I know he will adopt—to ensure that the civilian communities in Syria are protected from the merciless onslaught from the present Syrian Government.

As he has done consistently over a long time, my right hon. and learned Friend argues the case from the other perspective. As I said, this would be an important foreign policy decision and moral choice. We certainly need to apply additional pressure on the regime in order to make for a successful negotiation, because without that pressure the regime might well believe that it can sit tight for much longer yet, even with a collapsing society and economy underneath it. I think he puts the case very well.

I entirely understand the frustration about the situation—we all share it—but if the arms embargo is lifted, is there not a risk that it could just lead to an escalating arms race between the west and Russia and Iran, whose interest in the conflict is as existential as Assad’s?

There are no options here without risks. There are risks with every possible course of action, and of course there is evidence of large flows of weapons into Syria from Russia and Iran taking place now. That is part of what is radicalising some communities in Syria. I do not want to pretend to the House that there is any option without risks. We must do everything to ensure that these negotiations succeed, but we will have to weigh fully the risk of people indefinitely having every weapon devised by man used against them without the means to defend themselves. We will have to weigh the risk of what that might do for the creation of extremist groups and the permanent destabilisation of the entire region. It is a choice between risks.

What is the current balance of strength between moderate, democratic forces and undemocratic, violent, extreme forces within the opposition? We do not want to help the latter.

I cannot give my right hon. Friend a precise percentage—obviously such a thing does not exist—but from everything that can be gathered and ascertained, the great majority of opposition fighters and supporters support the National Coalition or groups affiliated to it. That coalition is committed to a democratic, non-sectarian future for Syria, but the extremist groups are undoubtedly growing in strength. I would argue that one reason for that is that somebody who wants to join an extremist group can get a rifle and training immediately, whereas those who go to support a moderate group cannot. We have to bear that in mind in the debate we have started to have in the House.

The Foreign Secretary does not appear to deny that the provision of lethal aid to the opposition would be a huge thing to do in such a complicated situation as Syria. Is he guaranteeing to the House—because many of us are really worried about this—that he will return here for a decision before that line is crossed?

As I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary, I return to the House whenever there is a major development or change in Government policy. In all my time in government, I have never been one to try to deny the House an opportunity to make a decision about something.

If the Foreign Secretary cannot get agreement from his fellow EU member states to amend the arms embargo, will he veto its renewal?

My hon. Friend will understand that negotiations with other EU states about the arms embargo are going on now, and there are different forms of amending it. We will meet as Foreign Ministers in Brussels next Monday to look at those discussions in detail. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are prepared to do that if necessary, but of course we are looking for agreement with other EU member states.

Surely the right hon. Gentleman accepts that his remorseless drive towards British military intervention through supplying arms—because that is what it is—will make the civil war even worse. Having said that, I welcome his commitment to a negotiated solution, although the only way it has a chance of succeeding is by not maintaining the precondition that Assad must go. Of course we all want to see an end to his barbarous rule, but so long as the precondition that he must go is maintained, the conference will never get off the ground.

If is of course our opinion—I suspect it is the opinion of everyone in the House—that Assad should go, but we are not producing any new precondition for the conference or recommending that anybody else should do so. Our starting point for the conference is the outcome of last year’s Geneva conference, which agreed that there should be a transitional Government with full Executive powers formed by mutual consent—that the regime and opposition should each be content with those forming that transitional Government. It would be wrong to retreat from what was agreed last year—that is the only basis for peace and democracy in Syria—and we are not adding any further precondition to that.

Although historical analogies are dangerous, I fear that if we were in 1917 now, the Government would be advocating backing the Russian revolution on the basis that the Mensheviks might come out on top and not the Bolsheviks. Is it not a fact that thousands of al-Qaeda fighters are fighting in order to overthrow Assad? If they get their hands on his chemical weapons stocks, woe betide us in the west.

My hon. Friend is quite right about the importance of extremist groups not getting their hands on chemical weapons stocks. That is one reason for strengthening more moderate groups in Syria, rather than letting the extremists gain greater strength, which is what is happening on the current trajectory. I will not follow him into all his historical analogies, but he will be well aware that Winston Churchill pretty much pursued the policy he was just talking about.

Given the accelerating humanitarian crisis in Syria, the Foreign Secretary will know that Oxfam and other humanitarian organisations are warning not only of the importance of diplomacy, but about the amount of weapons going into the country. Will he give serious consideration to the fact that if the embargo is lifted and more weapons go in, it will be akin to pouring petrol on a fire?

Of course I always take very seriously what is said by Oxfam and other NGOs. We will all have to weigh heavily all the different sides of the argument, but we must bear it in mind that, as things stand, people who have done nothing wrong—except to want dignity for their country and freedom for themselves—are being butchered. We must bear in mind what that does to their political opinions and whether that is acceptable, to us in the western world or to any part of the world. We will have to make our choice about that.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s remarks, including those relating to the EU arms embargo. Does he agree that the negotiated political solution that we all want would become less likely if either the murderous Assad regime or the extremist jihadi militants believe that they can defeat those fighting for democracy and win by force and terror alone?

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. That is absolutely right, which is why, in everything we are doing to send help into Syria and to deliver humanitarian assistance, we are trying to bolster the more moderate opposition forces with the practical help that we have given so far. Otherwise, it will become a contest between a murdering criminal regime on the one hand and the extremists on the other. That would be the worst situation of all for the world to be left in.

The brutality of the regime is hardly in question, but have not both sides committed terrible war crimes against humanity? Why should the House believe that the sending of arms to the rebels will help to resolve this terrible conflict, rather than escalating it?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, having listened to my statement, I am not asking this country to make that choice at the moment. We are talking about amending the arms embargo. He is quite right to say that crimes have been committed by both sides. He should also know that the military and civilian leadership of the National Coalition have expressed their utter horror at such things, and that they are doing their utmost to ensure that they are not done in their name. We can all understand, in a country with so many different groups fighting in such a disparate way, that extremist groups and others do things that are not within the control of those commanders. The United Kingdom is resolutely against any such crimes and wants the perpetrators to be held to account, whether they are in the Government or the opposition.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has made crystal clear the catastrophic consequences of a failure to deliver a negotiated settlement. I also welcome the recognition of the fact, ugly or otherwise, that the Russians are absolutely central to the process and are now being seriously engaged. Given that both sides in the conflict are increasingly steeped in blood, and that many players on both sides are guilty of war crimes, does my right hon. Friend agree that we might need to be flexible on the question of retribution for such crimes if we are to deliver a settlement that will take Syria out of this wretched crisis?

I hope that such judgments will be a matter for the Syrian people in their own state and through their own judicial system. I know that that seems a long way away today, but I hope that that will be the way forward. It will also be open to a future Syrian Government to refer their own country to the International Criminal Court. These matters must be dealt with through the proper processes and I do not want to speculate about how many people have committed war crimes, but, on the regime side at least, it will be a very large number.

If it is important not to dismantle the institutions of the state, is anyone talking to the Alawites to see what a post-Assad Syria would look like?

That is partly the purpose of the negotiations. We want the regime and the opposition to engage in serious negotiations about how a transitional Government would work. The National Coalition has set out its commitment to a non-sectarian Syria, which would include the role of the Alawites. We do not have any such vision from the regime, because it has not set out a vision other than one in which President Assad stays in power and negotiations take place only with the tamer elements of the opposition. I hope that the negotiations are sufficiently successful that they get into the matter of the nature of a Syria after transition.

No option is without risk, but given the west’s poor track record of arming groups and individuals—the mujaheddin and Saddam Hussein, for example—and given that certain rebel groups are allying themselves to al-Qaeda, will the Foreign Secretary answer the one question that he has so far failed to answer? How would he prevent the arms that are being poured into the area from getting into the wrong hands?

My hon. Friend is getting ahead of where we have reached in our policy making. We could supply arms only in carefully controlled circumstances, and with very clear commitments from the opposition side. I cannot at this stage go into what arrangements could be made—some of them would necessarily be confidential—but we would want to be able to assure the House and the country that we had confidence in any such arrangements. That is a subject that we might have to return to.

The Foreign Secretary said that he was in constant contact with US Secretary of State John Kerry. As a result of those constant contacts, is he in any position to ascertain exactly the US Administration’s position? Why have they failed to act on President Obama’s so-called red line? Does the US support arming of the rebels or will it consider a no-fly zone?

There is no mystery about the position of the United States. In public as well as in private, the US is driving the initiative put together with Russia on 8 May to have the Geneva conference. Secretary Kerry is therefore working very hard on the diplomatic side of all this work. The US is very sympathetic to any means of putting greater pressure on the regime ahead of the conference, including the European Union matters I have been talking about, while fully recognising that it is for EU states to decide on that. It is the view in America, as it is our view, that it is important for the facts on chemical weapons to be established in the eyes of the world. We have sent our evidence to the UN team, and particularly after what happened in the last decade it is important for our claims about the existence or misuse of weapons to be established, preferably by the United Nations.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the United Arab Emirates regarding its funding of decent facilities and medical care for Syrian refugees in Jordan, and the contribution that it has made to the humanitarian effort to date?

The UAE makes a big contribution. I have had many discussions with the UAE Foreign Minister and will do so again in Jordan this year. It has given substantial assistance—I do not have the figures with me and it does not necessarily publish all the figures—to setting up humanitarian camps, including in Jordan. We encourage it, as we do all other countries, to increase such work.

What leads the Foreign Secretary to believe that the commitments made by members of the Syrian National Coalition in the compact are worth the paper they are written on?

I suppose that one could ask that question about almost any statement by most opposition groups in many parts of the world, or indeed by many Governments in many parts of the world. It is our view, as Foreign Ministers of the core group, that the Syrian National Coalition is sincere in its commitments, which is based on our knowing the people involved over some months and seeing how the opposition has developed. They know that the commitments are very important to their future success and they have discussed them at great length. They contain and comprise a steadily broadening group of people of different ethnicities, origins and professions. I believe the sincerity of the commitments, but I also believe that the coalition is worried about the growth of extremist groups and knows that support would be lost over time unless it gets enough support from the rest of the world.

Across the middle east, Shi’as are becoming increasingly targeted by Sunni extremists, and it is partly for that reason that Iran is backing the regime and indeed the Alawite community. If the Foreign Secretary is genuinely serious about trying to resolve at an international conference a political and diplomatic-supported solution, will he perhaps entertain the prospect of allowing Iran to contribute to that conference, which is also the wish of Russia?

Iran did not attend the previous conference in Geneva and our baseline or starting assumption—although this is a matter for all the nations involved—is that the next Geneva conference should involve the same group of nations. Of course, that does not exclude creating mechanisms to consult other nations that are not at the conference. Iran has many motives, which are perhaps more complex and substantial than those my hon. Friend mentions, and it certainly plays a major role in bolstering the Assad regime. It was not our view at the time of the previous Geneva conference that Iran’s presence would be conducive to reaching any agreement on anything or any solution at all, and therefore we were not in favour of including Iran at the first Geneva conference. These matters are for discussion with all the nations involved.

The Foreign Secretary gave a rather disappointing answer to the last question. Clearly, if the humanitarian crisis and all the killings are to end, there must be a political solution; and a political solution must involve all the countries, all of which have complex demands and aims, including Iran. May I ask the Foreign Secretary to be much more specific? What contact is he having with the Iranian Government, and what preparations are being made to include them seriously in any conference on the future of Syria?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely entitled to be disappointed with my previous answer, but it was my answer. Let me put it differently. I doubt whether, if Iran had been represented at the Geneva conference last year, we would have reached agreement even on the step of being in favour of a transitional Government formed by mutual consent. At least the permanent members of the Security Council and the other nations present were able to agree on that at last year’s conference, but I am sceptical about whether we would have agreed on it if Iran had been in the room.

If weekend reports are correct, the Russians have beefed up their fleet in the Mediterranean and supplied anti-ship weapons. Does that not mean that they are upping the ante? Has my right hon. Friend any cause for optimism that if the Russians turn up to the next peace conference, they will negotiate in any meaningful manner?

I think that we have to try, although my hon. Friend’s question is entirely valid. Of course we disapprove strongly of continued arms sales to the regime. Those arms are being used by the regime in the present conflict, and there has been the recent announcement about anti-ship missiles. I do not think that that helps in the present circumstances. At the same time, we must work with Russia, which is a partner on the United Nations Security Council. As time has shown, we cannot pass any resolution on this subject without working with Russia. Therefore, rather than expressing optimism or pessimism, I say that we must do our utmost to succeed—to have a successful negotiation—and must create all possible conditions to allow it to be successful. The first of those conditions was agreeing with Russia on holding the negotiation; now we must try to make it a success.

The scale of the suffering outlined in the Foreign Secretary’s statement is truly appalling. May I ask him to say a little more about the evidence of the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and about the impact that that evidence is having on discussions about possible arms supplies to the opposition, both within Europe and with the United States?

As I said in my statement, we have some credible evidence about the use of chemical weapons, particularly sarin; but, as I also said in my statement, that does not give us evidence about the scale of use. There are a number of reports and accounts, and in some cases there is actual physical evidence, of the use of chemical weapons on a small, localised scale, which could easily mean that the regime is testing how the world will react. The use of such weapons is, of course, totally unacceptable on any scale, but, in our view, that is the pattern that is emerging.

What is important now is for the United Nations investigation for which we called, and which is being mounted by the UN, to have access to all the relevant sites, but so far the regime has denied it access. That is a rather telling point in itself. Of course, the regime’s preparedness to use any weapons at all against the people of its own country should affect the debate that we have about how we are to help those people.

What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with his Russian counterpart about the status of the port of Tartus, and about the alleged presence of tens of thousands of Russians in Syria today?

I have had many discussions with my Russian counterpart about all the issues concerning Syria. We are not denying Russia’s relationship with Syria in any way. Indeed, we think that whatever that relationship is, it would be best preserved by a peace settlement in Syria, and we are happy for Russia to take the credit for that if it plays a constructive and leading role. We are not saying that Russia is not entitled to be in Syria, and we are not calling on any future Government of Syria not to allow any Russian presence or port facilities. While my hon. Friend is quite right to refer to the issue, it does not constitute an obstacle to our efforts to work with Russia on a negotiated settlement.

The Secretary of State told us that evidence has already been gathered of crimes of sexual violence. How will his preventing sexual violence initiative ensure that those guilty of those vile crimes are brought to justice, and what expertise is there in the PSVI in order to support children to access justice?

I am grateful for that question. The hon. Lady knows that one of the first deployments of a team of experts on preventing sexual violence has been to the Syrian borders, in order to gather evidence about these crimes, and to make it easier for others to do so. It is the gathering of evidence that is always very difficult in these situations. I anticipate that there will be many further deployments throughout this year, including to the Syrian border. That expertise also helps to address issues of violence against children, which is all too common. I will keep the House regularly updated on this.

Order. I would like to move on at 4.30 pm, preferably—if at all possible—having accommodated everyone, so that is the bar for Members and the Foreign Secretary.

I have listened very carefully to what the Foreign Secretary has said, and I shall try to throw him another lifeline regarding Iran. Given that Iran is supplying arms, money, men and intelligence, does he agree that the elections in Iran in four weeks’ time, after which Mr Ahmadinejad will no longer be in place, may present an opportunity for us to press the reset button in our relations with Iran?

I will give very short answers from now on, following your injunction, Mr Speaker. We must always have hope about elections in other countries, but I am not over-optimistic, let us say, about a major change on this issue, although we are open, of course, to an improvement in our relations with Iran in the right circumstances.

The opposition in Syria is clearly already being supplied with, and is obtaining, arms from outside the country, which implies that to make a difference in the balance between the opposition and the regime there will have to be a qualitative and quantitative increase, or change, in the type of supplies being provided to them from outside. Does that not run the risk of creating the very spiral of violence and further aggression and conflict about which those on both sides of this House are clearly so concerned?

Those decisions are for the future. As I said earlier, there are risks in any course of action or inaction on this issue, but that is a decision for the future. All we are deciding at present in the European Union are the terms of the arms embargo.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend’s remarks on assisting refugees and fragile neighbouring states, may I suggest that the enormous growth of the terrible refugee camps is providing a breeding ground for al-Qaeda, and that it is in our western interests, as well as a demand of humanitarianism, to squeeze the wealthy local countries to do more to help these people?

Since I and my colleagues at the Department for International Development try to do that diplomatically, we do not normally express it as squeezing the wealthy countries. We have subtler ways of putting it, but I know what my hon. Friend means, and we are engaged in that.

It is absolutely understandable that most of the questions have concentrated on the agonising choices that the Foreign Secretary has had to make, but may I press him a little further on humanitarian intervention, and in particular on non-governmental organisations seeking much clearer action to secure humanitarian access to the 4.25 million people displaced inside Syria? What further information can the Foreign Secretary give us on that?

There are many diplomatic moves on that, including the resolution that was carried in the United Nations General Assembly. We continue to appeal at all times for that access. This could, of course, be one of the angles explored at the Geneva conference, since it should be something on which all sides can agree, but so far the regime has proved very resistant to allowing international NGOs, for instance, uninhibited access to the areas where that is needed.

Britain bears a heavy responsibility for the drawing of the current boundaries across the Levant, many of which did not respect traditional tribal boundaries. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns about the potential for an overspill from the Syrian crisis across these fluid borders, especially into Jordan and Saudi Arabia?

I share those concerns very much indeed, and that is why we are giving the assistance to Lebanon and Jordan to which I referred in my statement. I shall discuss the issue further with the Foreign Minister of Jordan on my visit there on Wednesday.

The reluctance of the Christian minority to support the Assad regime or the opposition coalition has led to reports filtering back that that minority is being denied humanitarian aid. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House an assurance that that matter will be looked into and that the Christian minority will have access to the £171.1 million of humanitarian aid that he said was available?

Yes. As I mentioned, £30 million of that assistance is for communities inside Syria, if we, NGOs and others can get it to them—that concern is partly to do with the issue about which we were talking a moment ago. We absolutely want to get the assistance to all concerned and we will raise that point at the forthcoming conference.

Given our upcoming presidency of the UN Security Council, what discussions have been held about the option of a no-fly zone over Syria?

There is no agreement in the UN Security Council on those options. My hon. Friend knows that Russia and China have vetoed much less radical resolutions and an effort at the UN to introduce a no-fly zone would meet the same vetoes. It must also be said that the great majority of the weaponry being used against the people of Syria is not delivered from the air, so there are fundamental problems with such a proposition.

It is clear that there are no good options in Syria, and only a series of bad ones, including doing nothing, which will have consequences in itself. If we are asked to lift the EU arms embargo, will the Foreign Secretary be able to give us any reassurances about the future end use of those weapons or will it simply be a leap in the dark?

I hope that I covered that point earlier, and we will not do anything that is a leap in the dark. The choice must be made based on the balance of risks, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will not stand at the Dispatch Box and ask the House to undertake a complete leap in the dark.

Senator Kerry has said that President Assad cannot be part of any transitional Government. Does the Secretary of State agree with that view, and will he clarify the Russian view on that statement?

My view, like Secretary Kerry’s, is that Assad should have left long ago in order to save lives in his own country. The terms that we are working on, from Geneva last year, are that a transitional Government should be formed by mutual consent. Of course, mutual consent between the opposition and the regime is unlikely to include opposition consent for President Assad to be a feature of an Administration.

I could of course give a long answer to that question, but I would be disobeying your request, Mr Speaker. I have always taken the position that all countries in the region are entitled to protect their national security. That applies to Israel as well and of course it is very important for those who have weapons in the region not to transfer them to Hezbollah or other groups that will misuse them in further conflicts.

I have visited Syria twice and on the last occasion met President Assad, and it is quite clear that he does not necessarily run the country—rather, it is run by a shadowy regime of military and Assad family members. May I gently suggest to the Foreign Secretary that the inevitable fall of Assad should not be treated as an end in itself?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to have a functioning state in Syria in which all people have their own legitimate stake and to have the democratic, non-sectarian Syria that I have been describing.

What action has been taken to date to bring together the different factions of the opposition and what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans for that in the future?

Many of those factions have come together in the National Coalition. We have been working on that and we have a special representative to the opposition at ambassador level who works with them daily on all the issues and encourages them to come together. Further meetings are taking place about broadening support, particularly with more Kurdish involvement, and that work is going on.

I served as part of a very effective no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s in Operation Warden. Did my right hon. Friend notice the television pictures last week of the alleged use of chemical gas weapons, which were delivered by helicopter, rather than by artillery shells?

Yes. I was not implying, in my answer to an earlier question, that there is no regime air activity, but a huge amount of its activity is through shelling and mortars, and if chemical weapons are used, they can be fired from artillery. Air activity is one factor, and that is the complication when it comes to advocating a no-fly zone.

Yes, Turkey plays a very important role in all our diplomatic work on Syria. Of course, it is extremely anxious about the extent of the crisis, and is grateful for the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles inside Turkey. We should pay tribute to the Turkish people, who are showing their hospitality to huge numbers of refugees while enduring outrageous bomb attacks, such as the one that we saw a few days ago.

I hope that the Foreign Secretary will be signing copies of his textbook on the timely handling of questions to Ministers. There were 36 Back-Bench questions in 35 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. I point out to the House that there is a further opportunity to consider these matters tomorrow in the Chamber, as the relevant Minister has kindly just informed me.