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Geneva Conference on Syria

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

6. What his policy is on the possible inclusion of Iran as a participant in the forthcoming Geneva conference on Syria. (160003)

No decision has been made on participation. Our priority remains to see a diplomatic process in Geneva that succeeds in reaching a negotiated end to the conflict, but we will have to be prepared to do more to save lives and pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously if diplomatic efforts are to succeed.

Politicians should leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution. Does the Foreign Secretary therefore understand widespread concern that we are not giving diplomacy the best chance if Iran, a key player in the region, is excluded? Will he do what he can to encourage its inclusion?

It is of course important that the conference in Geneva brings together sufficient groups and powers to agree a sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but it is also important to have the ability to start from common ground. That is what was agreed at Geneva last year—that a transitional Government should be created, with full Executive powers, formed from regime and opposition by mutual consent. We have seen no evidence that Iran agrees with that agreement, which we made with Russia and others. In the absence of such agreement, it is hard to believe that Iran would play a constructive role at the Geneva negotiation.

I hope Iran is included, because it is a key player, but whether or not it is included, can the Foreign Secretary say to the House in absolutely crystal clear terms that, if the Government decide to send arms to Syria, there will be a vote—I choose my words precisely—on a substantive motion before that decision is executed? Within that, I define as arms British planes policing a no-fly zone and possibly bombing anti-aircraft installations of the Syrian Government, and training, which could be training on the ground. Will he confirm a quote in The Sunday Times on Sunday:

“One senior Tory source said…‘The bottom line is that we will avoid at all costs a vote as we don’t think we can win it’”?

This is a cross-party matter.

It is a cross-party matter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made the position clear, so I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman needs to look at “a senior Tory source”. There is no Tory more senior than the Prime Minister. [Interruption.] Occasionally, one or two might think they are, but there are no Tories more senior than the Prime Minister and he has made it clear that the Government have a strong record of holding votes in the House of Commons on these issues when it is necessary to do so. We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action.

Order. We are deeply obliged to the Foreign Secretary, but we have quite a lot to get through and we need to be a bit sharper.

I would like to think that I heard the word “yes” in that answer, but I am afraid I did not. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the unholy alliance between Iran and the Assad regime, how does it help the interests of this country to change yet another Arab dictatorship into another Islamist state, complete with weapons of mass destruction for al-Qaeda to use against us?

My hon. Friend must bear in mind that the change happening in Syria is not one that was activated here in the United Kingdom—it started in Syria. It came from the people of Syria themselves, as it has in many other countries, where many people want economic opportunity and political dignity for their own countries. The situation we face now is that the crisis is getting worse. We need a political solution and we will not get one if the more moderate and pragmatic parts of the Syrian opposition are exterminated over the coming months.

I hope the Foreign Secretary can help simple folk like me to understand things a little bit better. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) asked a specific and precisely worded question on a substantive vote under a certain set of circumstances. Was his answer to that yes?

I do not know many other ways of having votes in this place on a specific issue than having a motion that talks about that issue. I was expanding on the right hon. Gentleman’s question to try to cover all eventualities. Of course we have a vote on an issue of that kind in the House of Commons. [Interruption.]

Iran and Russia have consistently supported the Assad regime. Given the recent reports that 4,000 republican guards are to be deployed to Syria, is it not even more important that Iran’s presence at the conference is taken seriously? They are part of the problem and therefore part of the solution.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but it is possible to argue that in both directions. As I said a moment ago, it is important to have at Geneva sufficient groups and sufficient powers to be able to make a workable and sustainable settlement of the conflict in Syria, but there is a balance between that and including those powers or groups that would make a settlement to the conflict impossible. None of Iran’s actions to date on Syria has been in the interests of promoting a solution or political settlement.

The Foreign Secretary has just reiterated the Government’s support for a Geneva II conference. Will he set out for the House whether he believes that the UK’s supplying arms to elements of the Syrian opposition would increase the likelihood of those talks taking place—or, indeed, succeeding—and how, if he and the Prime Minister decided to pursue that course of action, he would be able to provide assurances to the House on the likely end use of UK-supplied weapons?

We have not taken any decision about that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. As he also knows, I have said in the House before that if we did so, it would be in certain circumstances: in conjunction with other countries, in carefully controlled circumstances and always in accordance with international law and our own national law. But we have taken no such decision to do so. We are clear that to save lives and promote a political solution it is necessary to give more support to the national coalition of the sort we have announced before in the House. That remains our position, and we believe it helps a political solution.