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Volume 567: debated on Tuesday 3 September 2013

The United Nations has announced that there are now 2 million Syrian refugees in the region. The United Kingdom is already the second largest donor, supporting more than 900,000 Syrians, and we will do more. The president of the Syrian National Coalition will visit London on Thursday, when we will discuss further support to save lives, promote political dialogue in Syria, and advance the holding of a second Geneva conference. We support a strong international response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, while of course fully respecting the views of the House.

I do not believe that the people of Britain want the people of Syria to feel that they have been abandoned in their hour of need. Will my right hon. Friend, who has shown such a lead, continue to work with partners in providing humanitarian aid to help to alleviate the dreadful suffering that we see in Syria, and will he consider including in that humanitarian response protection against any future use of chemical weapons?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom’s total funding for humanitarian purposes in Syria and the region is now £348 million. That is the largest total sum that the UK has ever committed to a single crisis. UK aid is funding food for more than 280,000 people a month, and drinking water for almost a million people.

My hon. Friend also mentioned protection. The package of chemical weapons protective equipment that I announced to the House just before the summer break has now arrived in the region. It includes 5,000 escape hoods, detector paper, and a stock of nerve agent pre-treatment tablets.

Given that enormous commitment to aid, will the Foreign Secretary applaud the efforts of others such as Michael Bates in the other place, who last weekend completed a 518-mile walk from London to Derry in aid of Syria’s children, raising more than £35,000 for the cause? Does not the record of aid and diplomacy achieved by the Government and the people in it suggest that the Government’s willingness to consider military action was expressed reluctantly, and alongside an enormous commitment—

Order. I do not wish to be discourteous, but we must make progress. Questions must be much pithier.

To be brief, I join my hon. Friend in saluting the work of, and the example set by, our noble Friend Lord Bates, as we should refer to him in this House. It is another example of the generosity of the British people—generosity that is being fully called on, for the reasons that I have described. However, we shall have to be prepared to do even more in the months ahead, given the immense scale of the humanitarian crisis.

It is truly regrettable that the House last week failed to vote for a motion condemning the use of chemical weapons, and to back an international response to the crisis in Syria. That was an outcome that neither the Government nor the Opposition and their leader should have wanted to see. That same evening saw reports that the Assad regime had firebombed a school. It seems that our inaction will possibly only embolden Assad and his forces. Will my right hon. Friend assure me, and the House, that the Government will continue to utilise diplomatic channels to push for a solution to the crisis?

We absolutely will. I have referred to our humanitarian work, but we must also never stop our diplomatic efforts. We have promoted a second conference in Geneva, as have other nations. The Prime Minister discussed that with President Putin last week, and I discussed it with my counterpart Sergei Lavrov. When the Prime Minister attends the G20 summit in St Petersburg at the end of the week, he will have further opportunities for discussion. There is still an overwhelming case for the holding of a peace conference in Geneva, and we will continue to work towards that.

I mentioned a moment ago the conversations we have with Russian leaders. Whether they feel that as diplomatic pressure, we shall see. Russia has proved immune to what my hon. Friend and I would normally regard as diplomatic pressure when it has come to votes at the UN Security Council. The Russians are committed also to bringing about a Geneva peace conference, so we have to work on that common ground, but not only to bring about a peace conference, but to do it in circumstances where it has a chance of success, and that, of course, has been the most elusive thing so far.

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the chances of success of any peace conference will be greatly enhanced if Iran is involved, and given the election of Dr Hassan Rouhani as President, will he say what extra efforts he has been making to reach out to the Iranian Government?

The chances would be enhanced not necessarily by Iran being involved, but by Iran playing a constructive role in trying to bring about a settlement at such a peace conference. I think nearly all of us who participated in the first Geneva conference last year where Iran was not present came to the view that we could not even have reached the conclusion we did on the need for a transitional Government in Syria had Iran been there. So it depends on the role Iran is prepared to play. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with the outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister. I have offered to meet the new Iranian Foreign Minister during the UN General Assembly in New York, and we will, of course, be able to discuss these issues.

All wars have to end with a conference and a peace solution, and in response to the question just raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), will the Foreign Secretary show a greater sense of urgency? If there is to be a peace process, it has got to involve all the neighbouring countries; it has got to involve Saudi Arabia and Iran and Russia. Will he reach out now and meet the Iranian Government to try to get them involved and use the G20 as the springboard to achieve that?

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is no lack of urgency either on the part of Her Majesty’s Government or many other Governments around the world, and he will know that Secretary Kerry has applied himself very hard in recent months to trying to bring about the Geneva peace conference and, along with America’s partners around Europe, trying to work closely with Russia on this. As I was just saying, the test for Iran is whether it is really prepared to play a constructive role, because we must remember that Iran has, from all the evidence presented, been actively supporting the Syrian regime, including in the killing of so many innocent people in Syria. It has not played a constructive role so far, but we are prepared to talk to it.

What the Syrian people need is a ceasefire, not a barrage of cruise missiles. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the media have reported that Senator John McCain has said that President Obama has told him that this will not just be a punishment strike, but it will be a wider military action in order to tip the balance towards the opposition? Will the right hon. Gentleman dissociate himself entirely from such sentiments?

I do not believe that to be the intention of the United States. President Obama has made his purpose very clear, but in any case he has now referred this to the United States Congress so I think we have to allow, as the US Administration has called for, the US Congress to make its decision. We had our vote last week, and the US Congress will have its vote, but President Obama is very clear that any action proposed by the United States would be to deter the further use of chemical weapons. I think we can take him at his word on that, and I am not going to criticise him for putting that forward.

Let me return to the diplomatic initiatives the Foreign Secretary mentioned. Will he first offer the House an assurance that the British Government will be urging the attendance of Lakhdar Brahimi at the G20 meeting in order to facilitate a discussion that many of us would judge necessary on Syria? Secondly, will he consider the establishment of a Syrian contact group so that not just Iran but Russia and, indeed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could, as principal sponsors of the respective sides of this conflict, be engaged in trying to find a way towards Geneva?

To be clear, we expect the discussion on Syria at the G20 to be in a series of bilateral meetings. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the formal agenda of the G20 is set by Russia working with the rest of the G20 and is about a wide range of trading and economic issues. But Syria will dominate the bilateral meetings during the G20, and we would expect it to do so. Of course, we want Mr Brahimi to be involved; we usually facilitate and support his involvement in all critical discussions that take place around the world on these matters, but the right hon. Gentleman must remember the point about the bilateral meetings in St Petersburg, and we continue to work with the core group of the Friends of Syria to promote dialogue in Syria, to try to bring about a peaceful settlement. Ultimately, as other hon. Members have said, there has to be a political solution, and so, of course, we will continue with that work.

I think that the House will be disappointed by an admission from the Foreign Secretary that Lakhdar Brahimi will apparently not be in attendance in St Petersburg and nor will this be on the formal agenda of the grouping of the 20 countries. May I urge the Foreign Secretary to consider requesting the Russian Government to place the issue of Syria at the top of the multilateral agenda? Secondly, does he not accept that there is a fundamental difference between Friends of Syria—those only supporting the rebels—and a contact group, which would contain parties to both sides of the conflict?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does understand, from experience, how these meetings are conducted; it is in the bilateral meetings that Syria will be a dominant issue in St Petersburg—and should be. The Prime Minister will, of course, be pursuing it at every possibility and through every channel in St Petersburg, as he has done and as I have done in a whole series of bilateral and multilateral meetings in the past few months. Our problem is not being unable to discuss these things in the international community; it is being unable to agree how we bring about a transitional Government in Syria, formed from the Government and the opposition by mutual consent. There is no shortage of venues and platforms for discussing those things—we have had two and a half years of discussion on this; it is agreement that is elusive, not a forum for discussion.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the humanitarian problem extends not only to those who have sought refuge outside Syria, but to the very large number of internally displaced persons, on whose behalf the Red Crescent is working tirelessly to seek to alleviate their suffering? Is he satisfied that proper opportunity is available to all organisations, inside and outside Syria, that have humanitarian objectives in mind?

My right hon. and learned Friend asks a very important question. The answer is that I am not satisfied that all the access is there. British aid is, through non-governmental organisations and the international agencies, reaching into many parts of Syria; it is reaching people in all 14 governorates of Syria. So British aid is being widely distributed inside Syria, as well as outside it. But there have often been, and continue to be, severe problems on humanitarian access, which is often not permitted by the regime. It is another testimony to the callousness of this regime towards its own people that not only has it killed so many tens of thousands, but it obstructs the delivery of aid, including medical supplies, to people in its own country who desperately need it.

What kind of message does it send to the rest of the world that until recently the UK Ministry of Defence was providing and paying for the training of senior military officers from the Assad regime?

I think that the House knows the attitude that we have taken to the Assad regime from the beginning of these problems at the beginning of 2011. Successive Governments made diplomatic approaches to the Assad regime and were right to do so. That happened under the last Labour Government and under the current Government, but once these troubles began and it became clear that Assad was setting about dealing with them by trying to suppress and murder so many of his own people, our approach radically changed. That is true of the Ministry of Defence, as well as of all other Departments.