[Relevant documents: 35th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 2012-13, HC 86-xxxv, Chapter 4; 1st Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-i, Chapter 2]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of EU Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP amending Decision 2012/739/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria; takes note of the deteriorating situation in Syria that has led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people at the hands of the Assad regime; and supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to agree with Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the important issue of Syrian sanctions. In addition to the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my appearance today, the Government have sought to keep the House and the European Scrutiny Committee updated through statements, answers in the House and correspondence, including between the European Scrutiny Committee, which has called this debate, and the Minister for Europe.
Today’s debate is the result of the European Scrutiny Committee report dated 13 March, which referred for debate on the Floor of the House the Council decision agreed by member states on 28 February. The decision amended the EU arms embargo to allow for the provision of non-lethal equipment and technical assistance for the protection of civilians. I apologise to the House that on that occasion the Government had to override the normal scrutiny process due to negotiations on the Council decision in Brussels going to the wire. I appreciate the House’s forbearance on that, and I welcome the opportunity today to debate issues around that Council decision and subsequent developments on Syria.
Syria is one of our greatest foreign policy challenges, not least as it has brought about a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in decades. The enormity of death and destruction is horrifying. More than 80,000 people have died, a quarter of the country’s population has been displaced and more than 1 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
A year ago, 1 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian aid. That figure is now nearly 7 million, and the United Nations forecasts that it will reach 10 million by the end of this year—10 million people displaced by the Syrian conflict. To put that number in context, it is the combined populations of the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, and all are in dire need of shelter, water, food, health care and other basic supplies.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made clear, most recently in his statement to the House yesterday, our objective is to achieve a political solution to the conflict in Syria and bring an end to the terrible violence and human suffering. Sanctions are an important tool in achieving that objective, but as with any tool, they must be used intelligently to make maximum impact.
Our initial aim in imposing sanctions was to cut off the flow of funds and arms to the Syrian regime, choking off its ability to continue to wage war against its people, and to increase pressure on individuals in the regime to end the violence. Those sanctions have had a profound impact on the regime’s financial flows and put it under increasing pressure, but they have not proved decisive. The Syrian regime has continued to receive material and financial support from its international backers and been able to continue its brutality. I am proud of the leading role that Britain has played in using sanctions to put pressure on the Assad regime. We must now play a leading role in refining those sanctions to ensure that they continue to support our overall goal of achieving a political solution and ending the violence and suffering.
As the conflict in Syria deteriorated, it became clear earlier this year that elements of the existing sanctions package had become an obstacle to our efforts to help the opposition National Coalition to deliver life-saving support to civilians inside Syria, and an obstacle to our efforts to increase the pressure on the regime to end the violence. The Syrian regime has shown no remorse in targeting civilians, including those involved in distributing essential assistance. That is why we pushed to achieve an amendment to the EU arms embargo in February to allow the opposition to receive much-needed technical advice and assistance in addition to a greater range of non-lethal equipment.
The breakthrough achieved by the UK in February has allowed us and other European partners to consider a greater range of measures to help to protect civilians in Syria. The Syrian opposition needs to be appropriately trained to respect the principle of international humanitarian law. The technical assistance includes advice to the opposition to help it to get on with the business of governance and saving the lives of ordinary Syrians.
Since the amendment achieved in February, the situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate. Syria is an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. The Assad regime continues to use heavy weaponry and ballistic missiles on its own people, and there is increasingly persuasive evidence that chemical weapons have been used by the regime.
The House is well aware of the dreadful situation in Syria, and of the atrocities allegedly committed by the Assad regime, but will my hon. Friend tell us more about the atrocities committed by the people to whom he wishes us to send arms? The House and the country need to be clear on whether the good boys are on one side and the evil boys are on the other, or whether there are faults on both sides.
As my hon. Friend is aware, it is clear that there are faults on all sides, but all the evidence collected so far by the UN indicates that a greater degree of atrocities have been committed by the regime than by elements of those opposed to it. He is correct to draw attention to the latter, as the Government do. Abuse of human rights is incompatible with our values and we condemn it everywhere. However, the opposition is divided into different elements. We wish to support and are supporting those who we believe are moderate, and those who have declared their adherence to democratic principles, most recently in April. They are under pressure from the more extreme elements, but we condemn atrocities on either side. We are working with those who we believe have the right values. Those are the ones we wish to continue to be supported.
In the strategy that the Government appear to be adopting in contemplating giving arms supplies to one opposition group, are we not in danger of fuelling a civil war within a civil war? The only solution is a political one involving all countries, including Iran.
It remains absolutely clear that the UK objective is to seek that political solution. That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is on his way to Jordan today to take part in talks. The UK has made no decision on the release of any arms or any lethal weapons to any part of the conflict. The purpose of seeking to lift the arms embargo is to increase pressure on the regime and to give the moderate opposition a sense that it has extra backing, but no decision has been made on sending any arms into the conflict.
The Minister has rightly spoken of the atrocities committed by Assad and acknowledged the atrocities committed by rebel forces. Will he expand on the links between certain groups of rebel forces, such as al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda? Will he give the House an up-to-date sitrep on that?
Yes, indeed. Al-Nusra has declared some allegiance to al-Qaeda, which is one of the reasons why the United Kingdom has no contact with it. From what we know, there are a variety of different groups opposed to the regime and there are loose links between many of them. However, those in the National Council, with which we are working most closely—it has evolved in the past two years—do not want to be connected with those who have an allegiance elsewhere. They have declared their principles and values, which is why we wish to work with them. It is true that a variety of forces are now ranged against the Assad regime, but in seeking to support some of them, the House should recognise that there are those with good values who deserve to be supported as they seek to protect civilians against the barrage from the regime.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has heard the recent observation by a well-known commentator, who said, “If you’re not confused about Syria, you don’t really understand it,” emphasising the complexity of the issues with which we are dealing. May I offer him a parallel from the past? When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, those who were resisting them were supplied with a great deal of weapons. After the Russians left, and when it was necessary for the allies to take military action in Afghanistan, many of those same weapons were used against the allies. How can we ensure that what we give to the so-called good people does not fall into the hands of the bad people?
My right hon. and learned Friend is anticipating something that is not before the House. No decision has been made to introduce new arms into the situation. As we know, plenty of weaponry is already in the region. Our work has been to support the elements in the National Coalition who adhere to the values they have declared, and to provide non-lethal support and encourage them in looking after civilian areas. The dangers are real, as he makes clear. However, the point is not that no weapons are currently going in and that a change in the arms embargo would suddenly introduce them; weapons are already going in. The issue we are concerned with is how to stop the conflict. That is why we come back to the urgent need for a political solution.
It must surely be the Government’s prime objective to ensure that VX gas and weapons of mass destruction do not get into the hands of al-Qaeda. Is that not more likely if we give more support to the forces that oppose the Government, which include al-Qaeda? This is not just a civil war; it is a war by proxy between Sunni and Shi’a, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Russia and the west. Surely the Minister can see that if those weapons of mass destruction get to al-Qaeda it will make this country more vulnerable?
The hon. Gentleman raises two separate points. First, I seek to make it clear that there is no support going to al-Qaeda elements in Syria from the United Kingdom. All our support is channelled through the National Coalition, which does not have a contact to supply any matériel to forces aligned with al-Qaeda. It is precisely to encourage and support moderate elements that the United Kingdom has been working so hard, with others, in the past couple of years to ensure that those elements have the means to protect the population they are looking after.
Secondly, securing any chemical weapons that may be there is a live issue today that concerns all the nations surrounding Syria. The responsibility for securing chemical weapon stocks lies squarely with the regime. My point is that these issues are already ongoing; there are already risks and nothing we are seeking to do will add to those risks. The most important thing is to continue the work on political transition, and to take advantage of the opportunity that has been created in recent days and of the efforts that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is now engaged in. That is what needs to happen. Risks in relation to weapons are already there no matter what happens to the lifting of the arms embargo that we are discussing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on this matter. Is it not the case that 25 years ago in Iraq another Ba’athist party dropped chemical weapons on Halabja, and does he not agree that the Ba’athist party in Syria has now reached that red line? I welcome these EU sanctions, but NATO and the free world need to do much more to intervene to prevent a chemical holocaust.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We remember with horror the events of 25 years ago, which heighten our concern about the stocks of chemical weapons. As the House is aware, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, and I have repeated today, that we have plausible evidence of their use, but we have not yet got definitive evidence of where they have been used or who might have used them. That work is now in the hands of the UN; we are pressing it to get on with the work, and we encourage all nations to comply and work with the UN in order to get a definitive answer. I can assure my hon. Friend, however, that the House’s concern about chemical weapons is absolutely shared by Her Majesty’s Government.
Following on from all the points about atrocities, will my hon. Friend make every effort at every opportunity to make it clear to those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, on both sides, that the international community will make every effort in due course to bring them to trial either before the International Criminal Court or a UN special court, such as happened after Sierra Leone? We need to make it clear that eventually justice will catch up with them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I hope that the House can be proud of the part that the UK has already played, not only in making it clear that there will be that accountability, but in providing the means to ensure that that accountability happens. Providing the opportunity for training, collecting material, instructing people on what evidence to look for and the like have been an important part of what we have contributed up to now. He is correct, however, that without fear or favour those who take part in atrocities, no matter on which side they range themselves during this conflict, should be subject to the rule of law and international justice.
If we are concerned about the civilian deaths from air attacks by the regime, would it not be better to do something about stopping the regime using aircraft and helicopters to attack civilian areas, rather than give sophisticated weaponry to people who might then hand it on to others to use against us in the future?
I repeat again, at the risk of riling the House, that we are not discussing whether the UK is providing weaponry. That point has been well made. The question of air cover has been discussed before. As the House knows, the Syrian air defences are not weak, and up till now no one has considered there to be a practical way of dealing with them, but part of what I will say is about all options being open. Lifting the arms embargo will increase the flexibility available to those who might need to protect civilians, or supply those who are protecting them, in the future. It offers that necessary flexibility, but no such decision has been taken.
I recognise that the Minister is held in high esteem in the House for his response to humanitarian issues across the world. He refers to the relaxation of the arms embargo. One of the great concerns among Members is the 3.5 million refugees and displaced persons, many of them children. Can he assure people inside and outside the House that the provision of humanitarian aid—clean water, sanitation, clothing, food, blood, medicines—will continue and that the people who are really feeling the pain of this conflict will be helped?
Absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that remains a matter of the utmost priority to us. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the situation is immensely complex. There is a humanitarian disaster not only within Syria but outside, with, it is reckoned, 1.5 million refugees scattered throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and surrounding areas, and we are working to provide support both outside and inside the country. Some 71% of the latest UN plea for support has been provided, but the rest is urgently needed. We have fulfilled our pledges, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the situation in the camps and for those being hospitable to people in their homes is dire.
The hospitality being given in people’s homes is important—we think of this going on in Lebanon, Jordan and other places. It creates pressure on the domestic population, as rents go up and the local economy becomes distorted, and after a time hospitality becomes stretched and strained, so it is essential that we continue to provide support. I am proud of the way in which the United Kingdom, as the second largest bilateral donor, has been able to do that.
The Minister knows that my greatest concern is about the dangerous folly of doing anything to assist an alliance of groups that contain thousands of al-Qaeda fighters to get their hands on Assad’s chemical weapons. Rather than reiterate that, may I ask for an assurance that before there is any lifting of the arms embargo, there will be a full debate, with a vote, in this House?
In response to my hon. Friend’s first point, let me again make it clear that the efforts of the United Kingdom Government—this should not be left unsaid—are directed to supporting those who do not have the ideology and the declared aims of al-Qaeda. It is very important that that distinction is made, because those moderate forces are looking for recognition. They want to be able to say that they can hold areas and provide support to civilian populations, because they want to be able to provide a contrast with those who might not have Syria’s long-term interests at heart. That is why our support for the National Coalition is so important.
In response to my hon. Friend’s second point, I can do no better than repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who said yesterday:
“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 later said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 908-909.]
Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafists were a fairly small group about 12 months ago. Part of the problem is that they have been much better armed and are much better fighters, so that elements in the Free Syria army, which is not as well armed as the Islamists, are flaking away to them. That is one area that my hon. Friend needs to consider. Another is that the UK has the chair of the UN Security Council— the presidency—next month. That presents us with an opportunity to pursue a radical agenda of engagement with all parties, perhaps including Iran, which has elections next month.
Order. Before the Minister replies, may I remind all Members that this is a timed debate? The Minister has been generous in giving way, but this debate needs to end at 8.46 pm. At least nine Members, if not more, wish to participate, so we need to make a little more progress through the Minister’s speech if we are to get everybody in—unless those who are making interventions but are on the list plan to withdraw their names.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is always difficult: it is important to answer questions as they come up, but I entirely understand the point of trying to move the debate on. I am very much in the hands of colleagues. I will answer questions, but I know we must move on to the speeches. My remarks will not be not terribly long after this, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I thought there might be a number of questions.
Order. I am only trying to be helpful to the House. I did not set the time limit for this debate; I am only trying to be fair to Back Benchers. I do not wish to chastise the Minister; I am merely pointing out the facts before me this evening.
I did not for a second take it that I was being chastised; I was only trying to be helpful to all colleagues—but let’s not go there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) makes two points, and I absolutely agree with him. His understanding of the situation is clear. He makes an entirely fair point about how al-Nusra has been able to garner support at the expense of more moderate elements. He makes an absolutely valid point, which I hope I have also made in my speech. He is also absolutely correct to say that we will be leading the UN Security Council next month. The Foreign Secretary set out the situation in relation to Iran yesterday. Of course Iran has influence and an interest in the area. My right hon. Friend is keen that those who get round the table for Geneva II should probably be the original cast, but my hon. Friend’s point is well made.
In any peace talks or conferences that might take place, has the coalition sorted out the leadership question? It is not clear to the public which members of the leadership will be involved in those peace talks.
We have worked closely with the Syrian National Coalition over the past couple of years, and there are recognised figures in it. The actual group that will attend the talks in Geneva—if indeed they take place there—has not been decided, but there are recognisable leadership figures in the coalition with whom we deal.
Several hon. Members
I should like to make a little more progress. I will then be happy to answer more questions, and perhaps wrap up at the end if there is time.
In light of the developments that I referred to earlier, we need to consider again how best to use sanctions to find a swift and enduring resolution to the crisis. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House in his statement yesterday:
“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.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 905.]
There is a glimmer of hope. The United Kingdom and France are working closely with President Obama and President Putin to try to find a political solution to the crisis. As I have said, we all want that more than anything else, but this is a fragile and fleeting chance. The Assad regime has made a lot of promises to negotiate but has never delivered on them, and the moderate opposition in Syria, the National Coalition, is losing faith.
We and our partners in the European Union must play our part to make the talks a success. That means building leverage on both parties—the regime and the opposition—to do a deal. We must send a message to the regime that we will not stand by while it kills its people in increasing numbers and in increasingly appalling ways. We must make it clear that, if the regime does not ensure that these talks are a success, no option is off the table. We must also show the opposition that we will support their search for a just outcome that they can sell to the fighters in Syria and to the wider population.
I wholeheartedly endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about the importance of working with our European allies and with the United Nations to put pressure on Russia in particular, because it is key to securing peace in Syria.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Recent conversations between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, President Putin, Secretary of State Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister have indicated a degree of involvement with Russia. Talking with Russia has never been off the table. Russia has great significance through its relationship with the regime in Syria, and we believe that it should now use that relationship to bring the regime to the table.
We and key allies, including the US and France, believe that lifting the arms embargo will help us to achieve the goals that I have just described. It will strengthen the hand of opposition politicians in relation to the fighters, and the hand of the moderates in relation to the extremists. It will also show that we are committed to supporting them and have the flexibility to consider further action if the regime makes a mockery of this chance for a political solution.
I want to make this Government’s position clear: no decision on arming the Syrian opposition has been taken. Amending the embargo on opposition forces would not mean that we would automatically and immediately begin arming them, although we cannot rule that out in the future; but even without acting on it, providing an exemption from the current arms embargo for opposition forces would send a powerful and timely signal to both sides. It would say to the Assad regime that a political solution is the only option, as there will be no military victory. It would tell moderate opposition forces and politicians not to lose faith in their fight against oppression or against the extremists who are seeking to capitalise on the continued instability.
Is the Minister saying that the message to the regime is that if talks do not succeed, nothing will be off the table? Some people in the opposition might interpret that as giving them a stake in ensuring that talks do not succeed, because guns and other collateral would then come into the equation. That would not help the moderates. Instead, it would help those who have a mindset of, “We’re going to be top dog, and top gun.”
If there were a realistic assumption on either side that the balance of arms could change sufficiently to give one side an advantage over the other so that there was a point to continuing the slaughter, the hon. Gentleman’s point would be well made, but the assessment that more and more people are making, on the ground and outside, is that a military solution is not possible. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, there are only two scenarios here: one is long drawn-out killing and humanitarian suffering on a massive scale, with no decisive result; the other is the peace opportunity that is now before us. I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but our argument is that, because of that assessment that there can be no military victory, let us give the moderates the sense of support and protection they might need to be flexible if conditions change. The important point is to press both sides to negotiations and talks, because that must be successful.
We make no mistake: the regime is trying to change the balance of forces on the ground even as we talk, and will do so even as negotiators meet in Geneva. Lifting the embargo for the opposition will give us the flexibility to protect civilians, save lives and respond to a major escalation in the conflict, such as the use of chemical weapons. Even if the embargo were to be lifted, we are clear that lethal supplies would be considered only if they were a necessary, proportionate and lawful response to extreme humanitarian suffering and there was no practicable alternative. Any supplies would be carefully calibrated and monitored, as well as legal; they would be aimed at saving lives, alleviating the human catastrophe and supporting moderate groups. Our policy on Syria will continue to focus on bringing an end to the bloodshed.
It is obviously a very difficult situation and I respect what the Minister is trying to do. No one believes that the UK Government are going to give arms to an organisation linked to al-Qaeda. The point is that in Syria, given what we have already heard about the strength of extremist groups, there is no way we could guarantee that such weaponry would not fall into the hands of extreme elements.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, there are no guarantees, but over time we have established a series of links with moderate groups who would have no vested interest in allowing equipment that might be used against them to fall into the wrong hands. The hon. Gentleman anticipates a situation that we are not in, but I hope I can reassure him that the risk of diversion is very much on the Government’s mind. Pathways have been found for equipment and support, which are already going in, but I say again that Members need not suppose for a moment that stuff is not already ending up in the wrong hands. That is why finding a political answer is urgent; that is why the Foreign Secretary has gone to Jordan; that is why people are gathering now to seek that. The longer this goes on, the worse it gets, and diversion becomes even more likely.
Let me conclude by saying that in both bilateral and multilateral efforts, including our vital co-ordinated efforts through the EU, we will continue to respect the rule of law for which the Assad regime has shown so little regard. At all times, our overriding objective will remain encouraging the parties to come together to agree a transitional Government who can start to build a stable, inclusive and peaceful Syria, which the people of Syria so much deserve. I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria and specifically amendments to the EU arms embargo. I commend the European Scrutiny Committee for calling this important debate.
Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned and horrified by the violent and brutal conflict and loss of life in Syria. The death toll has now reached 80,000 people, and the refugee crisis is intensifying, with more than 1.3 million people having fled to neighbouring countries. As the Minister outlined, this is a humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen in decades.
I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for giving the House an opportunity to consider specifically, in detail, the decision made by the Council of Ministers in February to amend the existing EU arms embargo to allow the transfer of non-lethal military equipment to certain groups in Syria.
The debate is timely, given that the EU-wide embargo is due for renewal at the meeting of the Council of Ministers next week. As a result of the Council’s agreement in February, the Foreign Secretary announced to the House on 6 March that the British Government would increase their support for the Syrian opposition and that that would include equipment that had previously been banned under the EU embargo. The change in both the scale and the type of material support from the United Kingdom clearly marked a new stage in the Government’s engagement with the opposition forces.
Since that date, and specifically on 15 April, the Government have informed the House that, among other items, a number of vehicles with ballistic protection, packs of body armour and hundreds of radios have been transferred to the Syrian opposition as gifts from the Government. Equally important, we have received details about the ongoing training of Syrian opposition members in which the UK has been involved. I am grateful for further details provided by the Minister today and by the Foreign Secretary in his statement yesterday.
We welcome measures taken by the Government that help to unite members of the fragmented opposition in Syria, help them to communicate better with each other, help them to gain a better understanding of international law and help them to protect themselves and civilians from the violence being inflicted on them by the Assad regime. However, we are extremely concerned about the suggestion that the EU arms embargo should be amended further, or rolled back completely.
In the light of the February Council decision and the forthcoming Council discussion early next week, I seek further clarification of the Government’s position from the Minister. Will he tell us precisely what the Government will be calling for with respect to any alteration in the embargo next week? It has been suggested that they are considering two options. The first is to seek an exemption from the embargo for the national coalition of Syrian and opposition forces, and the second is to remove the “non-lethal” language to allow lethal equipment. That would effectively render the embargo null and void. Which of those options will the Government seek to secure on Monday and Tuesday next week in Brussels?
What support, beyond that of France, have the Government secured in the other 25 member states of the European Union? It seems clear that Germany and Austria, among others, are opposed to the lifting of the embargo. If no agreement is forthcoming, will the Government veto the continuation of the embargo? Yesterday, in response to an excellent question from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) about the possible use of the veto, the Foreign Secretary said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 911.]
Will the Minister confirm that the Government are prepared to veto the renewal of the arms embargo next week? I think that, if they intend to do so, there are further fundamental questions that they need to answer.
First, the Government have spoken of the need to tip the balance in favour of the opposition. Can the Minister give us his assessment of the amount of weaponry that would be required to tip the balance against Assad, taking into account the support that we believe that he continues to receive from other states? Secondly, how will the Government ensure that the weapons supplied do not fall into the hands of extremists groups such as al-Nusra, which is aligned with al-Qaeda? Thirdly, given that the Foreign Secretary said that he could only offer his “best endeavours” to prevent British-supplied matérial from going to groups in Syria for which it is not intended, will the Minister tell us whether the Government would be willing to supply arms without any end-use guarantees? I am sure that the whole House would be cautious—several Members have demonstrated their concern today—about any step towards arming Syria’s opposition without a range of solid assessments and analyses from the Minister and his colleagues in the Foreign Office in regard to the end users of any British-supplied arms.
Is not the weakness in the argument that the arms may fall into the hands of the wrong people the fact not just that we can never give such guarantees, but, above all, that the wrong people already have plenty of sophisticated arms, which are being supplied perfectly legally from Russia, Qatar, Iran and everywhere else because there is no UN arms embargo?
History teaches us to be extremely cautious. In the past, the west—ourselves, the US and others—has supplied arms to forces that then turned against us, so we need to learn the lessons of history and be extremely cautious.
I totally respect the hon. Lady’s position, but history has also taught us that when we stood aside and did nothing in Rwanda, 800,000 people got slaughtered, and it took us four years to go into Bosnia, while, again, hundreds of thousands of people got slaughtered.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the loss of life in Syria. The problem with the solution that the Government seem to be offering us is that it could lead to an escalation, not a de-escalation, of the conflict by fuelling the fires of the conflict, rather than encouraging a solution.
The opposition in Syria is fragmented. What more can the Government do to help the moderate elements of the opposition unite and work together?
If the Government believe that arming the opposition in Syria is now the best option available to the EU, how will that help halt the violence and secure a peace that lasts? Are there not significant risks now and in post-conflict Syria, and what would be the implications for peace and reconciliation between the country’s diverse religious and ethnic groups after the conflict?
The Prime Minister was in Washington last week, yet in yesterday’s statement by the Foreign Secretary, we heard little detail about what the Prime Minister has discovered about President Obama’s thinking on arming the opposition. Can the Minister enlighten the House on that point? Moreover, can the Minister provide the House with more detail about the format of the US-Russian peace conference and what role our Government will play in it?
Finally, if the Government veto the continuation of the arms embargo next week and after that decide to arm the opposition, will the Minister commit to bringing that future decision before the House, so Members on both sides can vote on what the Foreign Secretary yesterday called a moral issue?
The hon. Lady has returned to the veto. Has she, like me, sought to establish whether on any previous occasion the United Kingdom has exercised a veto within the European Union in relation to the imposition of sanctions? If we were to do so in this case, what does she think the political outcome would be?
I do not know of any circumstance in which the veto has been used in this area. I agree with the implication of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question and his concern: there could be implications for other parts of the world, such as, perhaps, Iran, where we have EU sanctions. That is a point worth making.
I hope what is said in today’s debate and the caution urged by Members across the House will be reflected in the approach the Government take at the Council meetings on Monday and Tuesday. There is real concern across the House that arming the opposition will not guarantee peace in a country where sectarian, tribal and democratic impulses are all present. We are all united in our wish to see an end to the bloodshed in Syria, but serious questions remain about whether the Government’s change in policy will secure that peace. The test of the Government’s action will be whether it leads to a de-escalation, rather than an escalation, of the ongoing conflict and bloodshed.
Several hon. Members
Order. Eight Members are seeking to catch my eye to take part in tonight’s debate. I am not going to set a time limit. Instead, I ask Members to work it out among themselves. If each of them speaks for five minutes, including interventions, that will leave a few minutes at the end for the Minister to address any outstanding questions, so watch the clock, please.
I support the decision made at the last EU Foreign Ministers’ Council. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has raised no objection to the decision to provide further non-lethal equipment to the rebels or to the subsequent decision to supply further equipment to the state of Jordan.
This is a dire situation, and there are no easy answers. We are right to have stood back, and the EU arms embargo has been the right policy to date. Last March, however, the Foreign Affairs Committee raised questions for the Government about their intentions. The Foreign Secretary, in his letter to me dated 20 April, said that the policy was not “static” and that
“We cannot stand by why the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate at an ever more rapid pace.”
From that and from the Foreign Secretary’s statement yesterday, in which he said that he was quite prepared to veto the renewal of the EU arms embargo, one must conclude that although the Government might not have made a decision to arm the rebels they are seriously considering whether to do so.
For me, that prompts three questions: is it legal; is it wise; and how will Parliament be kept informed? To impose military force against a sovereign state is contrary to the UN charter, but we are not looking at quite that state of affairs. There is no precedent for an intervention in what is essentially a civil war. The letter of 20 April also set out the legal basis for a humanitarian intervention, stating that any such intervention would have to be a
“necessary, proportionate, and lawful response to a situation of extreme humanitarian suffering and…there is no practical alternative”.
That clearly follows out the doctrine set out in the 2005 world summit that established the principle of the responsibility to protect, but the responsibility to protect has always required a Security Council resolution, which will clearly not happen on this occasion.
There have been past interventions without a Security Council resolution—namely, in northern Iraq, Kosovo and Sierra Leone—but they were all pre-2005 and the new doctrine and they all involved repressed populations that were not in a civil war. I submit that Syria is different. This is a civil war. It is also, arguably, a breach of Syrian sovereignty. The Government have recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as
“the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”,
but that is not the same as recognising it as a Government. The definition of a Government is whether they are sufficiently in control of a territory and exercising governmental authority to constitute a Government. That is not the case here. That all adds up to a very large question mark, in the absence of a Security Council resolution, over the legal legitimacy of such an intervention.
Secondly, is it wise? As Members have intervened to point out, this is now a regional conflagration. The Arab world is split, with the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan determined not to let the Muslim Brotherhood take control of Syria, and Qatar and Turkey backing a Muslim Brotherhood constitution. Hezbollah is now engaged and Iran has indicated that a defeat for Syria is a defeat for them, too. That all adds up to its being highly unlikely that there will be a diplomatic breakthrough. Russia, clearly, remains as entrenched as it ever was.
The dilemma for the Government and the Minister is that if they arm the rebels, it will clearly lead to a huge loss of life and a possible subsequent proxy war. Not to arm them, however, will see the Assad regime continue its barbarous regime. Either way, there will be a huge loss of life. I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister will rush this, and they are wise not to do so. Frankly, I do not envy them in the judgment that they have to make.
I have concluded that the EU arms embargo has been the right policy, but that it has now outlived its usefulness. In the absence of a UN embargo, it is a very difficult situation in a complex arena. I do not believe it is sensible for the Government to have their arms tied by the EU embargo. I wish them well in seeking agreement to amend it and agree with the Minister that it sends a timely signal to the Assad regime. If he cannot reach agreement, he should be prepared to veto the renewal.
Finally, on Parliament, the Foreign Secretary said yesterday:
“Our assessment is that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is very likely to have been by the regime.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 906.]
For those of us who were here in 2003, when we went to war on the strength of an intelligence assessment that none of us had seen, that rings alarm bells. If the use of chemical weapons is used as a justification for further intervention, I invite the Minister and the Government to ensure that that intelligence is made available either to the Intelligence and Security Committee or to a committee of privy councillors. Either way, it is essential that the House is kept fully informed.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee on his contribution. I agree with everything he said, with one exception. I do not support the lifting of the EU arms embargo, and it is very important that we recognise that Britain and France are outliers in the European Union. Many other countries have been resisting moves by the UK and French Governments over recent months and there will be a decisive split in the European Union on this issue if the Government persist in the approach that they are taking. Perhaps that is what the coalition Government want, or perhaps it is what part of the coalition Government want, but it is not in our long-term interests or in the interests of future European co-operation on this issue.
I have enormous sympathy for the Minister. He is a good man and he has been put up today to defend an extremely difficult position. He has to justify a very bad policy. It is a bad policy, because the prospect of our Government providing sophisticated weaponry at some point in the future, which is the intention and which is what this is all about and has been about incrementally over the past few weeks, means that surface-to-air missiles could be used to shoot down civilian aircraft in the region—missiles which might ultimately be found to have been supplied by the UK and France to elements in the Syrian opposition, and which might then have been sold, captured or handed over by people who defected from one faction to another.
If we are going to put sophisticated weaponry into the region to deal with the brutality of the Assad regime, that sophisticated weaponry should be in the hands of people, first, who are trained to use it, and secondly, who will operate according to the laws of war and who are ultimately controlled by NATO powers—either through Turkey, our NATO ally, or through the UK, the French and the United States working collectively to bring in a no-fly zone.
Two years ago, because of the threat to Benghazi, the coalition Government said that we needed to intervene with a no-fly zone. I supported them, as did most Members in the House. Now we have seen the deaths of tens of thousands or perhaps 100,000 people in Syria already and all the other consequences—the millions of displaced people and the refugees—yet we are not prepared to act. We are, of course, waiting for Obama, and Obama is not coming. He is not prepared to move. I asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday what his understanding was of the position of the US Government with regard to arming the opposition or a no-fly zone, and I got no answer.
The real tragedy in this situation is that countries that could make a difference to end the conflict relatively quickly are sitting back, while other countries, particularly the Qataris, and Hezbollah supported by Iran, are fuelling the process—and Russia, because it wants to keep the Tartus naval base, is prepared to do almost anything to back the Assad regime. I am not holding my breath for success at the forthcoming conference. Either there will be no agreement on who will participate, or agreement will not be reached unless it is a Dayton-style process and everybody is put in a room and kept there, with international forces putting pressure on them until an agreement is reached.
The prospect is that we will perhaps start arming elements in the opposition, but the conflict will continue for a very long time, with the sponsors of the Assad regime continuing to provide more and more weaponry. Russia will strengthen the air defences and the whole outcome will be a disaster. We need to be trying not to give arms to the Syrian opposition, and instead to be battering on the doors of the White House and the Kremlin and doing far more to get the countries that really can make a difference to stop the process before it is too late.
I welcome this evening’s debate on the Council’s decision and commend the Government on securing the flexibility that we and other countries need to step up the pressure on the Assad regime. I am especially pleased that the Council document explicitly sets out the humanitarian context that underlies our rationale for action. The urgency for a political or, reluctantly, a military solution is the humanitarian imperative on which I want to focus for a few moments. We cannot talk of aiding the Syrian opposition without stressing the urgent need and plight of the Syrian people, who live in constant fear for their lives and who in their hundreds and thousands are fleeing every day.
The Syrian crisis is entering its third year, and while we hope for a political solution, a humanitarian tragedy continues to unfold before our eyes. The situation for Syrians is desperate. Life for those caught up in the spiralling violence is unbearable. As ordinary civilians fall into ever deeper despair, the humanitarian need is growing more urgent by the day. According to the United Nations’ estimates, the death toll is now 80,000; 8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; and more than 4.25 million people have been driven from their homes by the fighting to other areas of Syria, with now well over 1.3 million refugees in neighbouring countries. The majority of these refugees are women, children and the elderly, more than half of whom are children below the age of 11, suffering first and foremost from psychological trauma. These figures are alarming, but from my own experience having visited two camps in Turkey, I can say that they do not capture or convey the full extent of the crisis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees conceded that the total numbers are far higher than have officially been accounted for. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate rapidly as increased fighting and changing of control of towns and villages, in particular in the conflict areas, is driving more and more people out of the country.
Beyond Syria’s borders, the problems continue. For the countries that have taken in those refugees—Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey—the burden that they face in economic, security and social terms, on their energy, water, health and educational facilities, is huge and proving a serious challenge that far exceeds their capabilities to cope with.
I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about the burdens put on Jordan in particular. Does he agree that more pressure should be put on the United Arab Emirates to contribute more to humanitarian relief?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I want to make a point about the international community’s responsibility, and that includes the Gulf states.
If the scale of the humanitarian needs continues to outstrip the support available, the risks will only soar. The pressure on Jordan’s already scarce water, energy and education resources is enormous. Approximately 40,000 Syrian students have started attending classes in Jordanian schools, and health services are strained by the average daily influx of 3,000 refugees into Jordan alone. If that influx continues at that pace, we will be looking at 1 million refugees in Jordan by the end of the year.
Where is the European Union and the rest of the international community in this devastating and desperate hour? Many promises have been made, but not enough have been delivered. I find it dispiriting that we have collectively fallen so far short of our obligations to help the Syrian people caught up in the turmoil and to alleviate the burdens borne by the neighbouring host countries. Appeals for funding to provide food, water and other humanitarian aid inside Syria have received only meagre support, while the UN Refugee Agency says that its appeal for half a billion dollars was only one-third funded. As a result of the woeful state of funding, the UN and other aid organisations can reach only 1.5 million of the people in desperate need, of whom there are probably around 3 million.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am very conscious of the time limit that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, have placed upon me and so will take no more interventions.
There was a conference in January at which $1.5 billion was pledged. The Foreign Secretary reported yesterday that payments have now reached 71% of the amount pledged, but that is still nearly half a billion dollars short. I think that we can be proud of honouring our financial commitments, but we know that there are still countries that have not done so. That is not good enough. When the Foreign Secretary goes to Brussels on Monday, there must be progress on dialogue. In the long term, the whole international community will have to pull together to find a solution to the conflict.
I am pleased that we are having this debate and hope that at the meeting in Brussels the Government will not use their veto and lead us into the danger of supplying arms to Syria. For some time now the Foreign Office has been chatting quite openly about the possibility of supplying arms. Indeed, in a letter to me of 22 April the Minister stated:
“As things stand today, there is going to be a strong case as we come towards the end of May, for the lifting of the arms embargo on the Syrian National Coalition, or some very serious amendment of the EU arms embargo”.
I just make the point, as others have, that we would be supplying arms to people we do not know. We do not know where those arms would end up or how much worse the conflict would get as a result. Anyone who doubts the leakage of arms should think carefully about the way the USA raced to supply any amount of arms to any opposition in Afghanistan in 1979, which gave birth to the Taliban and, ultimately, al-Qaeda. We should think very seriously before doing that. I hope that we do not end up with any arms supplies, or indeed any UK involvement in the conflict.
There is obviously a horrific situation in Syria, with tens of thousands dead already and hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighbouring countries, and the situation will probably get far worse for them all. That is not to say, however, that there are not huge internal conflicts within Syria or that the Assad regime has not committed enormous human rights abuses, but the west has a very selective memory on this. There was a time when western Governments were happy to co-operate with President Assad on many issues. The Assad regime received very large numbers of refugees from Iraq—mainly Palestinians driven out of Iraq after the US invasion. One thinks of the plight of Palestinian people who have been driven from country to country for the past 60 years. The anger in those refugee camps will be the start of the conflicts and wars of tomorrow. There has to be a recognition of human rights and human justice.
However, this war is becoming a proxy war for all kinds of interests. Let us just think of the countries and organisations already involved, by supplying arms, funding or what is euphemistically called non-lethal assistance. The European Union is clearly very involved, as is the United States, and Russia is clearly involved in supplying arms to the Assad Government and protecting its own base there. The Gulf Co-operation Council countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are supplying vast amounts of money and arms to the area. Iran feels under threat and thinks that it is next on the western countries’ hit list, so it is presumably helping the Assad regime in some form. Turkey is a neighbouring country that is both receiving refugees and supplying some weaponry and assistance. Israel has now got involved, with reports of the bombing that took place last week. In today’s edition of The Guardian there is a report of a land incursion near the Golan Heights that was beaten off by certain forces, we know not which.
This is a time, surely, to reflect on the western strategy in dealing with all the issues with which we have been confronted since 2001. In Afghanistan, we have spent a lot of money and lost a lot of soldiers. Lots of civilians have died, and the country remains poor, corrupt and divided. Iraq is a place that can hardly be called at peace. In Libya, we went in with the no-fly zone and spent an awful lot of money and time bombing large numbers of people, and one could hardly say that there is a western-style liberal democracy there at present. Syria was a colonial creation. The French were very good at oppressing Syrian nationalism in the 1920s, and now the country is in danger of splitting apart altogether.
If there is to be a political solution, which the Minister says that he wants, the conference that is being planned looks increasingly like a conference to impose some kind of victorious solution. A conference must include all the countries of the region and all the parties that are in any way involved in this conflict, obviously including Iran, and must recognise the role that Israel is playing. The west was incapable of getting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty conference for a nuclear-free middle east going, so I hope that it is more successful in getting this conference going.
Finally, will the Minister give an absolute assurance that there will be a debate and a vote in this House before any precipitate action is taken and before any arms are supplied to anybody, so that those of us who disagree with that proposal will get the chance to express our dissent?
Let me start with a note of criticism that relates not to our policy on Syria but to the scrutiny of European documents in this place. The Council decision was taken on 28 February and referred to this Chamber by the European Scrutiny Committee back in March. It is now nearly June; in fact, the three-month arms embargo to which the decision referred has nearly finished. This is not a criticism of the Minister, and certainly not of the Chair. I am afraid that Government business managers must address the issue, and we must all try collectively to carry out European scrutiny in a much more timely and effective fashion.
I strongly welcome much of what the Minister said, particularly his strong emphasis on the main focus of British policy being the achievement of a peaceful political solution. That has to be right, and it has to be our main objective in every decision we take. The Geneva peace process that we hope will develop over the coming months is central to this, and the role of Russia and other countries in the region is a crucial part of that process.
Some slightly ill-judged questions have been asked during the debate. The hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), who made a very wise speech, asked at one stage whether it would be legal for us to intervene in the dispute in Syria, yet I have not heard anyone on the Government Benches saying that we should intervene. We are, in the end, talking only about the possible partial lifting or changing of an arms embargo in a country in which there is no universal arms embargo. In fact, arms are flowing into the country, funded, in the case of the regime, by Russia, supported by Iran and by Hezbollah. The arms that are flowing to the jihadi elements such as Jabhat al-Nusra and possibly al-Qaeda are, by all accounts, funded from within the Gulf. Those arms are flowing in completely legally because of the lack of a UN arms embargo.
The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) asked whether we were fuelling the fire. It is quite difficult to see how it could be fuelled any more—there is already an inferno. In effect, the EU arms embargo is a little like a sticking plaster floating in a flood. The country is already awash with arms. The most sophisticated arms are going to the regime and, I am afraid, to the jihadis, who are gaining ground against other elements.
As I said, I am worried about the tone of some Members’ speeches. I admire in many respects the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), but he fell foul of this trap. To talk as though no democratic or moderate force is present in the country—to simply ignore its existence—is to make a fatal error. We have fallen into that trap in many parts of the world over the decades. We have assumed that democracy, moderation and the rule of law could never exist in Latin America, eastern Europe or Africa, but one after another, the peoples of those continents and regions have shown that they are capable of fighting for freedom and democracy without falling into the hands of extremism. If the Arab spring taught us anything, it was that Arabs too can be moderate, Arabs too can fight for democracy and Arabs too can resist the temptations of extremism.
The Syrian conflict did not begin with western intervention. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for Islington North did strongly imply that, but we will both have to check the record. The Syrian conflict began with Syrian people rising up against a dictatorship, in exactly the same way as the conflicts in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and the conflicts that are still tentatively going on in other countries. If we talk as if this is an endless and inevitable bloodbath carried out by wild-eyed foreigners, we do a grave injustice to those who are trying to promote values that we would recognise. The Syrian National Coalition has endorsed the values of democracy, pluralism and the rule of law. [Interruption.] There is laughter behind me. I am surprised that Members think that this is funny.
The Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian army are implicated in crimes. Those should be investigated and we should put intense pressure on the coalition to clean up its act and ensure that its fighters respect civilian populations. We must do our best to make these people, who are clearly no angels, behave in a way that would make us proud to support them. To simply ignore them and assume that the conflict will end up as a Sunni-Shi’a battle between the Assad regime and jihadis could be an historic mistake.
As I have said, the most important thing is that we do everything we can to support the Geneva process and a regional, political solution. That has to involve Russia because it is critical to the process. It will inevitably draw in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, although I am not sure whether it is practical to have those two countries at the Geneva peace conference because it might end up as more of a Sunni-Shi’a fight than it was before. We have not only a political and diplomatic duty, but a moral obligation to ensure that the peace process works. Provided that they have not been annihilated in the meantime, present as partners in that peace process must be those who are fighting for freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
Although this debate is somewhat retrospective, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out, it raises important questions about our current and prospective roles in the conflict in Syria.
I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter). I have spent seven years travelling to Syria and have had the opportunity to meet Bashar Assad and other members of the regime several times. The tragedy that is unfolding for the silent middle in Syria is terrible to behold. It is a beautiful country that is being dismembered day by day. We must think very carefully about our next steps.
What is the situation today? On one side is the Assad regime, which is responsible, as we have heard, for more than 80,000 deaths, more than 1 million refugees and more than 4 million internally displaced people. The regime has 300,000 soldiers plus the dreaded Shabiha, 16,000 pieces of heavy artillery and an air force. It has the Russians on its side, who are providing hardware such as S300s, Yakhont surface-to-ship missiles and the most robust air defence system in the middle east other than Israel’s, as well as military advisers who are increasing in number day by day. It also has the Iranians on its side, who are providing the Revolutionary Guard and strategic advice, and it has Hezbollah on its side. It has electronic intelligence, money and arms provided by the Iranians, and it even has the Shabiha being formed into a national defence brigade by the Iranians, who are giving direction.
What does the opposition side have? Simply, it has two groups that are highly fragmented—the FSA, which has about 30,000 people, led by General Idris, who essentially have just small arms at their disposal; and on the other side, as many colleagues have said, the Salafis, who have about 3,000 to 5,000 people and are themselves fragmented. We have heard about Jabhat al-Nusra, but there is also Liwa al-Islam, Liwa Saqour and Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, among other Islamist groups that are fighting there.
So we have an asymmetric war in which Bashar Assad has no incentive whatever to negotiate seriously. What are our options? They are fourfold. One is a containment strategy that would prevent the conflict from spreading, but unfortunately it would merely lead to more death. Another is a no-fly zone, as proposed by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). That would indeed tip the balance, but it would put the lives of our Air Force pilots at risk, and I do not believe that after Iraq and Afghanistan, the military establishment in this country has any appetite for that.
The third option is lifting the arms embargo, which I believe would put pressure on Bashar Assad. However, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) will also make this point when he gets his opportunity to speak—there is a risk that arms may fall into the wrong hands. However, the signal that we would send by lifting the arms embargo would put pressure on the regime.
The final option is a radical diplomatic engagement strategy. In that regard, we have two opportunities before us. One is the fact that the UK holds the presidency of the UN Security Council next month, and the other is that there are Iranian elections next month, which may provide an opportunity for us to press the reset button regarding engagement with Iran. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, we need to engage with all parties—the Gulf states, Turkey, the EU and the US as well as Syria, Russia and Iran.
Time is running out. We must show Bashar Assad at Geneva that he is at the last chance saloon. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to exert pressure through a two-pronged strategy of radical diplomatic engagement with all parties and a real threat of lethal support to the FSA. Only then will there be a real prospect of ending the tragedy unfolding in Syria.
Order. We have two more speakers. If each takes five minutes and no more, we will have a few minutes for the Minister at the end. I call Robert Halfon.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to raise three points. First, I welcome the renewal of restrictive measures against Syria and any amendments that increase pressure on the Assad regime, but I fear that they do not go far enough. Secondly, the Government and the EU need to take further action against groups, particularly Hezbollah, that support the Syrian regime. Thirdly, this is not about intervention but about muscular enlightenment, and we must act now. I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) said that the Government’s actions were fuelling the conflict, because they have taken every diplomatic course, yet 80,000 people have been killed in the past three years.
I strongly support the McCain plan, which states that we need to work together as an international community to protect civilians by suppressing Assad’s air defences. The advantages of following that policy are plentiful. It would give us safe space where essential humanitarian aid could be given out, especially medical supplies, food and water, and a valuable area where the anti-Assad forces could train and become a more effective fighting force.
We talk about the problem with arming the opposition, but the fact is that because we have done nothing over the past two years—I am talking not about our country but about the free world—the Islamists have inevitably filled the vacuum. We must not forget that organisations such as Hezbollah are arming the Islamist groups, which is why we have to identify the correct opposition groups that believe in a more democratic and free Syria. I believe that we can do that.
I mentioned chemical weapons in my intervention on the Minister, and we must find out which companies have supplied the Assad regime with chemical materials. We know that up to 500 companies supplied Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons that allowed him to attack Halabja, and I hope that the Government will look into the issue. We must proscribe Hezbollah—not just the armed wing but the political wing—because of its activities in supporting the Assad regime and the suppression of the people.
No. 10 Downing street said in April 2013 that there is “growing evidence” that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) said that we need evidence for that, but we have seen it on BBC television. I do not want to go back 25 years and let another Halabja happen, and it looks like that is coming. We must take action now.
I will not give way because my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) wants to speak. We have done everything possible diplomatically, and it is right that we take further action in supporting the right opposition groups, creating safe havens, and showing people that we want to stop mass genocide.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that Syria is a melting pot for a proxy war that is being fought out either directly or indirectly at various levels, whether it is Sunni versus Shi’a Muslims; the west versus China or Russia; concerned minorities within the country, such as Alawites and Christians, against what could follow; or Iran versus Saudi Arabia. It is a crossing point for conflict, and I urge the Minister and the coalition Government to think carefully before they pour more arms into a conflict that could not only escalate the violence within the civil war, but lead to an escalation of an arms race beyond Syria’s borders which, at the end of the day, could be a mistake of historic proportions.
History is very important. Our track record of arming groups or individuals is not good, no matter what anybody says. We armed the mujaheddin, and there is a fair chance that a good number of those weapons were used against us. We armed Saddam Hussein and supported him in his war against Iran—again, some of those weapons were probably pointed at us. History is important because it teaches us that if we support, arm and intervene in regimes, civil wars and conflicts, often what we are trying to remove or put right becomes embedded even further.
Look at our efforts since the second world war to take on communist regimes around the world—in Korea, China or Vietnam. Despite western interventions, those regimes are essentially still in place. If our goal is to create a sort of stability and liberal democracy of our making, we have only to look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where democracy is not flourishing, despite the high cost in lives and treasure. It is flourishing in north Africa and other regions of the middle east where the west has played a much more minor role.
I urge the Government to think carefully before going down the road of arming the rebels. The Minister was right to say that that is not the narrow debate we are having tonight, but he must accept that we are debating an EU Council decision made on 28 February which is up for renewal—or certainly revisiting—on 1 June, and he cannot deny that the Government have been flying kites on this issue. We are therefore right to raise it on the Floor of the House tonight, particularly given that the decision will be revisited shortly—on 1 June, I understand.
I ask the Minister to consider one or two other points. We do not know much about the rebel forces, but we do know that some are linked to al-Qaeda and some have committed atrocities. Tracking and tracing weaponry that we put into Syria because we would deal only with the moderate elements is beyond the capability of any western Government, unless we had troops on the ground to monitor the situation more closely, and I am sure the Minister will not suggest that course of action.
There can be little doubt that the more weapons we put into a conflict, the more the violence escalates. The idea that we can put weapons into a civil war and not inflate or escalate the violence beggars belief. Of course putting more weapons in will increase the violence. That is why Oxfam and a number of charities that have people on the ground have come out publicly in the past week or two to say, “Do not do it. Do not go down that road, because bad things will happen.” There is already a humanitarian crisis in Syria. Pouring more weapons into the conflict cannot do any good; it can only escalate the violence within the country.
In the minute I have left, I urge the Government instead to focus on diplomacy. Diplomacy has not yet run its course. We have the conference suggested by the Russians, which we should pursue to the very end. We should also do what we can on the humanitarian side, where more can be done. Hon. Members have made a number of suggestions that we should explore, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) made the point that we could do more from a humanitarian point of view.
One last time, I urge the Government to refrain from exploring the view that we should arm the rebels. Syria is the crossing point of a conflict that arming the rebels could escalate. We could be very sorry for what follows.
I thank all colleagues for their contributions to this short debate. We have covered a lot of ground, and I appreciate how colleagues have handled it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) reminded me of the line from “Argo”, which could have been used in a number of other films. There are no good choices. They are all bad choices. What we are trying to do is make the best of a very difficult situation. Virtually every colleague understood the complexity and difficulty of the situation, and that, after two years of unrelenting killing by the regime, we are left with very difficult choices.
I will do my best to cover a number of points made in the debate, but colleagues will appreciate that I might be unable to cover every point made. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) raised a number of questions. If she looks back on my responses to interventions, she will see a number of the answers, such as on the balance of weaponry and diversion. I understand the issues and try to do my best to deal with them.
The Government are seeking consensus with our EU partners. The sanctions stand or fall by consensus. Clearly, the Government are determined to try to get consensus within the EU. If consensus is not possible and the sanctions fall, we would be prepared to introduce domestic sanctions to cover the gap, but our intention and determination is to do things by consensus.
I have sought to reiterate to the House that our policy remains to seek a political solution. A number of speakers were anticipating a point that we have not reached. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said, that is not illegitimate in this debate, but I firmly counsel colleagues that questions about whether we should arm people are not on the table. He and other colleagues cannot believe for a second that the risks and the dangers, such as diversion, are not top among the concerns of colleagues in the Foreign Office and throughout the Government. As a number of speakers said, however, the situation is already dire. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and other colleagues spoke of what is already happening and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) and others spoke of the humanitarian situation. Changing the EU arms embargo will not suddenly make the situation worse. It is already horrendous. We are trying to do something different.
The purpose of seeking to lift the arms embargo is to give the flexibility to which my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) and for Braintree (Mr Newmark) referred. Lifting the embargo gives flexibility, assists the moderates against the extremists, assists the politicians against those who wish to see solely a military solution, and gives flexibility in circumstances we do not know. Unless it is lifted, the process of lifting it in difficult circumstances would be almost impossible. Decisions after that will be of enormous complexity and difficulty, and the Government are well seized of that.
I cannot stress often enough to the House the importance the Government place on the current political process, and its urgency. That is foremost in all our minds. Colleagues across the House have spoken about the impossibility of the military situation, and that is why it is so important that the Foreign Secretary is backed wholeheartedly in the efforts that he and others are making to achieve peace.
Finally, on the point about coming to the House, it is important to repeat the remarks the Foreign Secretary made yesterday:
“men, women and children…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.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2013; Vol. 563, c. 909.]
He drew attention both to the urgency of the situation, what is happening at the moment, and his determination to have the matter fully discussed.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).
Question agreed to.
That this House takes note of EU Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP amending Decision 2012/739/CFSP concerning restrictive measures against Syria; takes note of the deteriorating situation in Syria that has led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people at the hands of the Assad regime; and supports the decision of Her Majesty’s Government to agree with Council Decision 2013/109/CFSP.