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Volume 573: debated on Monday 13 January 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on Syria. I would first like to inform the House that we have reached E3 plus 3 agreement with Iran on implementing, from 20 January, the first stage nuclear agreement reached in Geneva, as set out in my statement on 25 November. We will now move to seek a comprehensive settlement on the nuclear issue with Iran.

Yesterday I attended the meeting of the core group of the Friends of Syria in Paris to prepare the ground for the Geneva II peace negotiations beginning in Montreux on 22 January. In his letter of invitation, the UN Secretary-General makes it clear that the aim is to

“assist the Syrian parties in ending the violence and achieving a comprehensive agreement for a political settlement, implementing fully the Geneva Communiqué, while preserving the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria.”

That means agreeing a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent, to meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Our united message in Paris yesterday, from all 11 countries represented, was the vital necessity of this process, the great importance of both the regime and the opposition being prepared to attend, and our determination to support a political settlement and end the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. No one should underestimate the difficulty of the negotiations ahead, but we will not give up on diplomacy as the route to stopping the appalling bloodshed, nor will we waver in supporting the moderate Syrian opposition, for if there is only a murderous regime on the one side and extremists on the other, there can be no peaceful settlement in Syria.

President Jarba of the Syrian National Coalition has always said that he is ready to attend the Geneva negotiations. His task is to persuade the rest of the moderate opposition to agree to that at a time when their towns, villages and homes are under relentless attack. The National Coalition is expected to make a final decision at its general assembly this Friday. We urge it to attend and to put the spotlight on the Assad regime’s responsibility to end this terrible conflict. Today Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov met UN and Arab League envoy Brahimi for further discussions ahead of the talks. There is a pressing need for measures that can build confidence ahead of the negotiations such as prisoner releases and progress on humanitarian access, including through local ceasefires. We call on all parties in Syria to work towards such actions.

Since my last statement to the House, the violence has remained intense. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights now puts the death toll at over 125,000 people. The regime continues to bombard Aleppo and other towns and cities, including through the repeated use of barrel bombs. These huge canisters, filled with explosives and shards of metal and dropped from helicopters on to civilian areas, have killed 600 people in Aleppo alone since mid-December, including 172 children, and injured 3,000 people. The use of this deliberately indiscriminate weapon is yet another war crime and is clearly designed to sow terror and weaken the will of the civilian population. Assad and those around him should be in no doubt that the world will hold them to account.

The deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people is also utterly unacceptable. The UN Security Council presidential statement in October last year demanded that aid must be able to reach all Syrians. However, the UN estimates that 2.5 million people inside Syria are currently not receiving assistance, including 250,000 people trapped in besieged or hard-to-access areas. Countless numbers of people are being denied access to food and medicines, and there are now sickening reports of innocent people dying from malnutrition. Last week at the Security Council we proposed a new statement calling for immediate and unfettered access for aid. This was blocked by Russia, but we will continue to seek action at the UN Security Council and to work with Russia to try to bring about progress at Geneva and in the humanitarian situation. More than half the Syrian population is now in need of humanitarian assistance: 9.3 million people within Syria, and 2.3 million refugees in the region, who are facing bitter winter conditions.

The UK has now provided half a billion pounds in aid—the largest sum our country has ever committed to a single crisis. Today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced that we have now allocated or delivered on all our funding promises. On Wednesday she will attend a pledging conference in Kuwait where the UK will make a major further donation, in response to the new UN appeal, of $6.5 billion for Syria in 2014, and we will urge other countries to be equally generous. We will also press for the lifting of sieges and access for humanitarian organisations, the immediate end to attacks on civilian areas and medical facilities, and respect for international humanitarian law.

In this House and this country we are very conscious of the importance of a greater role for women in ending conflicts and building peace. The UK has led the way in advocating a direct role for women in the Geneva negotiations. We have put forward proposals to ensure that both sides include women in their delegations, we have urged the UN to facilitate a clear role for women’s groups and civil society in the form of a consultative body present at the negotiations, and we are providing £200,000 in funding to enable Syrian women’s groups to take part.

On top of our humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, we have given more than £20 million in support for opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists. This includes training and equipping search and rescue teams, providing power generators and communications equipment, supporting and training civil administrations, and helping survivors of sexual violence.

In November last year, we announced an increase in non-lethal support to the supreme military council of General Idris, including communications assistance and medical and logistics equipment. In December, we took the decision to impose a temporary halt to deliveries of those supplies, following fighting over control of the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. We are ready to resume—and to consider increasing—this assistance as soon as we are satisfied that conditions on the ground allow the military council to take safe delivery of our equipment.

Since 3 January, Syrian opposition groups have been battling an al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group—the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”—in dozens of locations across northern Syria. Opposition groups are reported to have driven the al-Qaeda-affiliated group back in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and al-Raqqah governorates. The fighting has been accompanied by widespread public demonstrations against the torture and summary executions carried out by the extremists.

The fact that the moderate opposition is prepared to fight against these groups is a demonstration to the world that they reject extremism, just as they reject the Assad regime. It gives the lie to Assad’s claim that that there is no choice other than his regime or extremist terrorists. And it underlines the importance of supporting the moderate opposition forces to help them counter the extremists—which is vital for security in the region and in the UK. Assad’s brutality is the best recruiting tool the extremists have. Ultimately, the only long-term way to deal with the extremist threat is to reach an inclusive political settlement.

We have always warned that the longer the conflict continues, the greater the consequences will be for regional peace and security. There have been further car bombings in Lebanon, as well as clashes on the Lebanese border. There has also been fierce fighting in western Iraq involving al-Qaeda extremists—at least in part the result of the conflict in Syria. And both Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, are generously coping with the strain of the ever-increasing burden of Syrian refugees, hosting more than 575,000 and more than 860,000 refugees respectively. We have given more than £111 million in humanitarian support to Jordan, more than £109 million to Lebanon, and more than £15 million to the Lebanese and Jordanian armed forces to help protect their borders.

One area in which progress is being made is the destruction of Syria’s chemical stocks. The first consignment of the most dangerous chemicals has now left Syria, after a short delay caused by intense fighting and poor weather. The Syrian regime must ensure that the remaining material is transported to the port as quickly as possible, to ensure that all chemicals can be eliminated by the end of June. The disposal of Syria's chemical stockpile is a strong example of international co-operation. Italy, the United States, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland and China are all making important contributions.

In addition to the support worth £2.4 million that the UK has provided to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons destruction effort, we announced on 19 December that we would accept some of the chemicals for destruction in commercial facilities here. These chemicals are similar to many other industrial chemicals routinely handled in the UK and we are working to ensure the safe management of this operation.

A Royal Navy ship, HMS Montrose, is about to join the escort of the Danish and Norwegian vessels transporting the chemical stocks from Syria. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has also informed the House today that we will provide specialist equipment for use on board the US vessel where material of greatest proliferation concern will be neutralised.

The situation on the ground in Syria is appalling and getting worse, as I have described. The threat to regional and international security continues to grow, as the conflict increasingly cannot be contained within Syrian borders. We will continue to intensify our efforts to reach a political settlement, to save lives and to protect our own security.

It is only through a political resolution that the conflict can be brought to an end. The start of the Geneva II peace conference on 22 January is an important step, and, while we have no illusions about how difficult and challenging a process this is likely to be, we will do everything possible, with other nations, to help it succeed.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and for giving me advance sight of it.

On Iran, agreeing the terms of the deal in Geneva back in November was indeed an important first step, but the real test remains how it is implemented on the ground. Given the past conduct of the Iranian regime, it is now vital that the international community remains vigilant and stringently monitors the implementation of the first stage nuclear agreement in the months ahead.

Turning to Syria, a conflict that began nearly three years ago as an uprising against the Assad regime has since inflamed sectarian fault lines within the country and mutated into a proxy regional conflict, so delivering support to those most affected by the ongoing violence remains urgent and vital. Ahead of this week’s long-awaited second pledging conference in Kuwait, Baroness Amos has already stressed that the conference will need to raise much more than the $1.5 billion raised last year if it is to meet the scale of the humanitarian need.

The Opposition of course welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement that the UK Government have now allocated or delivered all our funding promises, but earlier today the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that contributions from others have so far fallen well short. Will he therefore tell the House what action the Government are taking to encourage other nations to meet their obligations on past pledges, before further pledges are made in the coming days? We also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s efforts, along with the Friends of Syria group, to encourage the Syrian National Coalition to commit to attending the Geneva talks.

In the light of experience of such conflicts, such as the 15-year Lebanese civil war, and the apparent intractability of the factions fighting within Syria today, we all recognise the scale of the challenge, of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, involved in securing a full transitional deal in Geneva in the coming days. Yet surely the first goal at Geneva II, between the main international and regional players, could and should be to aim to secure a stop to the escalation and fuelling of the conflict.

That is why the role of Iran in particular may yet be crucial. Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran would take part in the Geneva II peace conference if invited without preconditions. He added:

“We support any initiative aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis.”

It is of course right to acknowledge the role that Iran has so far played in deepening and inflaming this conflict. Yet with the need for resolution now so urgent, does the Foreign Secretary agree that Iran’s claimed resolve to be part of the solution should now be tested, and if so, does he agree that one way of doing so is to bring Iran to the table at Geneva to participate in the conference?

A key priority for the international community at that conference must surely be to minimise the problems of overspill across the region by working with allies in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what other steps, beyond humanitarian support, the UK Government are taking to help the Governments of Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon to respond to the growing internal political and economic pressure that the Syrian conflict is placing on them?

The rise of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, such as those the Foreign Secretary mentioned, is not of course simply a concern for Syria; they form but part of a crescent of crisis that stretches from Iraq to Lebanon. Will the Foreign Secretary set out his assessment of the extent to which British citizens are playing a role in these conflicts, and will he assure the House today that our agencies are sufficiently focused on these deeply troubling developments?

The challenges to be addressed by the Geneva II conference are of course considerable, but the process under way to secure the peaceful destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile offers us a point of hope amid the death and destruction still being witnessed in the country. The Government will therefore have our support in the coming days in their effort to secure real and substantial progress in Geneva next week towards a political settlement that ends the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, including for the strong support across the House for our trying to do everything we can to make a success of the start of the Geneva II process. He is of course absolutely right to say that a beneficial early product of that could be measures that stop the fuelling and escalation of the conflict. That is why I have talked, as have Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov at their press conference today, about the great desirability of local ceasefires and improved access for humanitarian aid even before we all get to Geneva next week. These are of course things that could also be beneficial products of the process.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the role of Iran. He said correctly that Iran has done quite a bit to deepen and inflame the crisis, including through much direct support for the Assad regime and its brutal treatment of its people. Our position on Iran depends very much on its readiness to work with the outcome of Geneva I. The invitation letter of the UN Secretary-General is clear about the purpose of our invitation to Montreux and then to Geneva, where we will carry on next week, which is to implement the original Geneva communiqué of 30 June 2012. Iran was not present at that conference, but all the other nations are united behind that communiqué. That includes Russia, which was represented there.

That is the basis of Geneva II. It is about bringing about a transitional governing body with full executive authority that is formed by mutual consent. A signal of support for that being our united purpose would be very helpful in getting Iran to Geneva II. There is no problem in principle in any quarter, and certainly not among western nations, with Iran coming, but there is the practical problem of whether it is prepared to play a constructive role if it gets there. We would welcome stronger signals of that from the Iranians.

On the questions about Jordan and Lebanon, a great deal of the help that I have described is humanitarian assistance. In the case of Lebanon, where there has been violence, we use our diplomatic presence in every possible way to help the authorities to calm the situation. We also give direct support to the Lebanese armed forces. We help to finance some of their border posts. I welcome the recently announced support from Saudi Arabia for the Lebanese armed forces. It is providing $3 billion of assistance to build up the Lebanese armed forces. We have assisted Jordan with a good deal of equipment, as well as with the support that I have mentioned.

It is clear that the number of British nationals who have travelled to the region to fight is into the hundreds. We are vigilant about that and all our security agencies are focused on it. It is important to make it clear that we are prepared to act to obstruct people from doing that. The Government have the right and the power to confiscate passports. When people are resident in the UK but are not British nationals, we can cancel their leave to remain in the UK on the basis of such activity. I stress, as I have stressed since April 2011, that we advise against all travel to Syria. We of course advise people against going to fight in Syria, but we advise against all travel to Syria even for those who go there for more laudable motives. We are very limited in what we can do to assist people once they have gone there.

Our work on the destruction of chemical weapons will, of course, continue.

Although I welcome unreservedly the Foreign Secretary’s diplomatic efforts, does he acknowledge that neither he nor his American counterparts have any real clout on the Syrian moderate opposition because of our collective inability to provide them with any of the material help that they need to press home their objectives? Does that not contrast with the Russian Government’s ability to influence the Assad regime, as was demonstrated by their ability to deliver the sacrifice of all the chemical weapons within days, once the Kremlin had decided that it was necessary? If the west cannot give material help to the Syrian moderate opposition, must we not swallow our pride and work with the Russians to find the minimum that is required to bring this ghastly conflict to an end and to enable the international community to help the Syrians get rid of the jihadi terrorists who are threatening the whole of the middle east?

Of course we work with the Russians. We discuss endlessly with the Russians, in any case, if there is any way in which we can together resolve the crisis. On chemical weapons, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, working together, have made the progress that we have described.

I think that my right hon. and learned Friend goes too far in saying that we have no clout with the Syrian opposition. What he says is not true, in that stark form, of the United States and the United Kingdom. I have many extensive discussions with the Syrian opposition. I was with the leadership of the Syrian National Coalition in Paris yesterday and they do listen carefully to what we say. They know, of course, that we have sent them assistance in the past. It is not the lethal assistance that my right hon. and learned Friend has consistently called for, but we have sent a great deal of other assistance to help to deal with chemical attacks and to save lives.

We have had to put on hold the delivery of that assistance because of what happened at the Bab al-Hawa border depot in December. To deliver assistance to the opposition we have to have confidence, and this House would expect us to have confidence, in its destination and in who will have control of it. We can resume and increase such assistance when we are satisfied on that point. That is of value to the opposition, and they are conscious of what the UK can do to provide that support.

I draw to the attention of the House the fact that, as co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran, I visited Tehran as a member of an all-party delegation last week at the invitation of the Iranian Parliament.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of Iran’s attendance at Geneva II? Iran was not present in June 2012, but the circumstances were very different, not least of which was that President Ahmadinejad was President of Iran at the time and not the much more moderate President, President Rouhani. Lakhdar Brahimi, the distinguished UN diplomat, has himself called for Iran to be allowed to attend Geneva II unconditionally. I plead with the Foreign Secretary to back Mr Brahimi, and to have a conversation with Mr Kerry who seems to be saying, according to news reports today, that the current Government in Iran have to sign up to a communiqué that is now 18 months old, Geneva I, and to which they were not a party and had no decision on whether to attend because they were not in that Government.

The 30 June 2012 communiqué is 18 months old, but it is also the basis of the Secretary-General’s invitation letter to the participants in Geneva II issued on 6 January—last week. That is the basis on which we are going to Geneva II. The Geneva I communiqué is the basis of that letter: that is what we will be there to implement. Geneva I is not, therefore, just an old thing from some time ago when not everybody was there; it is the Secretary-General’s basis for the conference. It is therefore not asking too much to ask those who participate to express their support for that and their readiness to engage in a conference on that basis.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Government have changed in Iran, and what we have been able to do on the nuclear issue has changed in that time. Nevertheless, from everything we can see, the active support of the Iranians for the Assad regime, which is now carrying out some of the terrible crimes I have described, continues today, even with a change of Government in Iran. That is the background and we must not forget that. That is why we are putting the pressure on Iran to say, “If you want to come, show very clearly that you are going to engage on the same basis as the rest of us.”

Of the three groups in Syria—the regime, the Islamists and the Free Syrian Army—the weakest is the Free Syrian Army. As my right hon. Friend said, many have concluded that the choice is now coming down to one between the al-Qaeda-backed Islamists and the regime. Given that both are backed by Russia and Iran, however, is that not a false choice? The Islamists are happy to support the regime, which is why the regime is not attacking them. If the people of Syria are to get their country back, we should do all we can to support the moderate opposition in Syria and, if necessary, revisit the decision to supply only non-lethal weapons.

There is a three-way contest; my right hon. Friend is right. Of course, in reality it is even more complex, because many different groups make up the Free Syrian Army and the groups that are affiliated to al-Qaeda. I would never accuse Russia—or, indeed, Iran—of supporting the al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. They draw their support in other ways. Nevertheless, he makes the case for giving more support to the moderate opposition. I say again: we are ready to resume and increase our support through important but non-lethal supplies, provided we are confident about what will happen to those supplies. That is a condition on which this House would always insist.

The situation in Syria is an indictment of the international community and our failure to take seriously the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Is it not time for this Government and, indeed, the international community together, alongside the process in Geneva, to look seriously again at all options of intervention to bring this horror to an end?

It is an indictment of the international community—I will readily agree with that—and I have often spoken myself of the failure of the UN Security Council and the international community. Nevertheless, that is a failure with which we have to work, because as we have found before, with the vetoing of resolutions at the UN Security Council, we are not able to win agreement in the UN Security Council for far less radical or interventionist measures than what the hon. Lady is calling for. Therefore, we have to tackle the situation in other ways: to relieve humanitarian suffering in all the ways I have described; to promote a political settlement, working with Russia wherever we can; and to ensure that the chemical weapons are disposed of. Yes, there would have been earlier solutions, but they were not practical at the Security Council, so they would not have been legal and would not have commanded international support.

If we cannot guarantee safe delivery of non-lethal supplies, would it not be particularly unwise and foolish to start delivering weapons into this cauldron? Is it not right to concentrate on diplomacy, which is not compatible with war?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we are very much concentrating on the diplomacy. As my statement reflects, I am not proposing lethal supplies—I have always been clear that we would come to this House and have a vote if we were going to do that—but there is a role for non-lethal supplies, if they can be safely delivered and controlled, that save lives and help a moderate opposition to function, because without them diplomacy will not work. If it is only extremists and the Assad regime, diplomacy will never succeed, so there is a role for our support for the moderate opposition in that regard, but we must have confidence in how such supplies will be used.

All diplomatic progress involving Iran and Syria is welcome, but the Foreign Secretary is right to highlight the fact that the situation involving refugees in Syria is calamitous. It is also right to support refugees in situ in neighbouring countries, but there are thousands of refugees who have made it to Europe. Germany has accepted 80% of pledged places among Syrian refugees. Amnesty International has described the attitude of countries, including the UK, towards Syrian refugees as “shameful”. Why does the UK have such a poor record in not accepting Syrian refugees?

It is clear from what I have said that the UK has a strong record on the humanitarian side. Our donation, of £500 million so far, is the biggest ever in our history and one of the biggest in the world. We are the second most generous nation in the world in this regard, and we are trying to help people, as the hon. Gentleman says, in situ. On the question of refugees, last year between January and September, we accepted 1,100 Syrian refugees into the United Kingdom for asylum, treating them on their individual merits, as we do people from other nations. That fact is sometimes neglected and overlooked.[Official Report, 16 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 14MC.]

I support the Foreign Secretary’s plea to the Syrian moderate and peaceful opposition to vote on Friday to take part in the Geneva II talks. However, if they show that willingness to overcome their genuine qualms and participate, can we reward them by stepping up support, in practical and operational ways, for the peaceful opposition, as called for in the letter by many honourable colleagues in The Times today?

Yes, we can. I hope we can, and my hon. Friend will understand from what I am saying that I would like to be able to do so. I stress, however, that because of the difficulties that arose and the loss of control at the main depot in Bab al-Hawa, we had temporarily to put on hold the supplies of communications and logistics equipment we were sending in December. We will need to be assured that the restructuring of the supreme military council that is meant to be taking place over the coming days has satisfactorily addressed those problems, so that we can receive a high level of assurance in respect of the equipment we send.

Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn(Mr Straw), I was part of the all-party delegation to Iran last week, which I put on the record. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement about the tentative nuclear agreement with Iran. If there is to be a successful Geneva II process, however, I agree with the former Foreign Secretary that it must involve Iran. If other countries are involved in the Syria talks and themselves support jihadist forces in the country, questions need to be asked about the amount of resources they are putting in. Why is it that the Foreign Secretary and, apparently, the United States are still opposed to Iran being part of the process, which can bring about a permanent peace and save a lot of lives?

I can only reiterate what I said to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw)who asked about the same point: it is not a dogmatic opposition in principle; we simply want those who attend Geneva II to be there on the same basis. Let me put the argument another way. If we think back to the Geneva I communiqué, which is now the basis of the peace talks to come, I do not believe that, had Iran been present at that time, we would have been able to arrive at that agreement on creating a transitional governing body in Syria. We all hope, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, that there will be a change of policy, but it is necessary to have a little more evidence of such a change than we have seen so far in order for Iran to play a constructive role at Geneva II. We would be very pleased to see in the coming days further signals of a readiness to play such a constructive role.

The House will welcome later today the spokesman for the president of the Syrian opposition coalition, and the moderate opposition could have had no more staunch supporter than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. If the negotiations in Geneva are to succeed, and if the imbalance of forces that my right hon. Friend described so graphically in his statement is not to be addressed by the Geneva process, how can some balance be made that will give the regime an incentive to negotiate as opposed to feeling that its position is particularly strong?

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to what some of the leading members of the National Coalition have achieved, in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, in helping to bring together, in a country without any free political institutions, a coalition of people committed to a democratic and pluralist future for Syria. For the reasons my right hon. Friend described, it is important for people in other countries to help keep a moderate opposition in being and in business. We have contributed to that in various ways and, as I mentioned, we are ready to do so again, but we need assurances about how our assistance will be used. If the opposition go to Geneva II and the regime is not prepared to work on the basis of creating a transitional governing body drawn from regime and opposition, I think many people across the world will draw the conclusion that they should give increased support to that moderate opposition in the face of diplomatic blockage from the Assad regime.

I am grateful for the update but so far I am still searching for a coherent British policy on Syria. If we want to be anything other than willing participants in the failure of the international community, would it not be a good start simply to say that the future of Syria will not include Assad?

We have been saying for a couple of years that Assad has no role in the future of Syria. After all, the proposition that will be before us at Geneva II is the establishment of a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent from regime and opposition. It is inconceivable that any opposition group, however moderate or extreme, would give its consent to Assad’s being part of that transitional governing body. Nor is it realistic, after the death of 125,000 people and years of torture, abuse and murder, to think that Assad could ever again unite the people of Syria. I think it is clear to us and to most observers that he has no role in the country’s future.

Our policy is very clear: to promote the political solution, to help keep a moderate opposition in being, to deliver humanitarian assistance, and to assist with the destruction of chemical weapons stocks. On those things I think we are fairly united across the House.

My right hon. Friend has referred to a murderous regime on the one hand and extremists on the other, and to the 2.5 million displaced people in Syria who are receiving no aid whatsoever in terms of food or assistance. Within that 2.5 million, the Christian community is probably suffering disproportionately. Will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure through the United Nations at Geneva II that that community is not dismissed as a sideline?

My hon. Friend has made a very good point. This conflict has affected minorities in Syria, including Christians, particularly sharply and horribly. It is important for that point to be made, and it will be made strongly at Geneva II. It reinforces the case for seeking the political solution which alone can protect those minorities, including Christians, and for the National Coalition—the opposition—to be as broadly based as possible. I am pleased to say that there are leading Christians in the opposition ranks, and it is important for them to retain that broad support so that they do not fall into the trap of sectarianism into which so many have already fallen.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in recent weeks the jihadists—some of whom, as he conceded, are from these shores—have been promoting sectarian division between Sunni and Shi’a. Does he agree that any way forward must involve protecting not just the rights of Christians, but the rights of all people—of whatever faith—including their human rights? What guarantees does he think can be provided to ensure that that happens?

The right hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which adds to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). It must be stressed that the people of Syria, in the main, are not extreme, and have not been sectarian in their history. This is a country which, for a long time, has been able to combine happily alongside each other people of many different cultures and religions. Extremists are taking advantage of the conflict in Syria, rather than the conflict’s being a reflection of the true nature of the Syrian people, and we need a political solution to be arrived at as soon as possible so that they can return to their true nature. That is not for the benefit of any outside power; it is for them, so that they can go back to the happier solutions at which they had arrived together, living alongside each other.

May I press the Foreign Secretary on his answer to the question about refugees? The 1,500 figure that he gave referred to those who had been accepted for asylum, rather than those who had been accepted as part of a co-ordinated resettlement programme. Just before Christmas I visited the Zaatari refugee camp, and saw a project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service to support refugees living in host communities in Jordan. The situation is dire, particularly for those who are very vulnerable, which is why I want to urge the Foreign Secretary to think again. We could make a real contribution to a co-ordinated programme of resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees, who could benefit greatly from coming here.

There will of course be a variety of views about this, but I hope no one will think the United Kingdom has anything other than a strong record in trying to look after vulnerable people caught up in this conflict. We are currently providing food for 320,000 a month, medical consultations for 300,000 a month, and cooking sets and mattresses and blankets for 385,000 people. The United Kingdom is one of the most generous countries in the world in looking after vulnerable people affected by the conflict in Syria.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House who he thinks is arming the jihadist al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and what discussions has he had with the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar about shifting their emphasis towards humanitarian assistance rather than arming al-Qaeda-linked groups?

Gulf states also provide humanitarian assistance. For instance, Saudi Arabia has provided $373 million to the UN appeals, and of course in Kuwait on Wednesday we will be looking to some of the Gulf states to make huge contributions to the humanitarian appeal so we will be reinforcing this point. At the meeting we had in Paris yesterday, those states—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were very clear about channelling their support through the National Coalition and making sure it is fighting for people who want a democratic and pluralist Syria, and that is what we always look to it to do.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s confirmation that the UK has made a substantial contribution to humanitarian aid and also in relation to chemical weapons decommissioning, but notwithstanding the strength of feeling we have heard across the House today, will he accept that it is the settled will of this House that there should be no military intervention by the UK in Syria?

As my hon. Friend can gather from what I have said, I am not proposing that. There was no mention in my statement of military intervention in Syria. We are addressing this crisis in many other ways. I do not want to anticipate what the settled will of the House will be months and years into the future, but the Government are not planning for, and are not proposing, any military intervention of our own in Syria; he can be assured of that.

Did not this House on 29 August beneficially influence world opinion and reduce substantially the threat to the world from both chemical and nuclear weapons? Will the Foreign Secretary continue to resist the cries to give war a chance, and insist on the most likely path to peace which is through diplomacy, not through military intervention?

I hope the hon. Gentleman heard the statement I gave a moment ago because I do not know how he could have got any impression that it was about anything other than diplomatic success and, through diplomacy, making sure the crisis is addressed as best we can. On the chemical weapons, I think we have had this disagreement before. There was a very important change of policy by Russia and by Damascus on chemical weapons in September, but I believe the origin of that was the fact that military action was being considered and debated in the United States, so sometimes diplomacy benefits from the soft power having some hard power behind it.

As the Foreign Secretary knows well, the reason the moderate opposition are weak is unfortunately not only that they lack weapons. It would be extremely difficult and very dangerous for the west to try to micro-manage the balance of forces on the ground. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore please concentrate on ensuring that our humanitarian assistance is more focused, in particular in relation to Jordan? Refugees in Jordan are currently unable to work. Could we work with the Jordanian Government to ensure employment and livelihoods for refugees in Jordan?

This is also a very good point because we are now seeing people who have been displaced for the long term: children who have been away from their schools for two or three years; people who have been without work for that amount of time. That is reflected in our redefinition of some of our aid priorities, so we are trying to help in more ways than just feeding people when they are in refugee camps. We will have to shift increasingly in that direction and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary can speak about this in greater detail and with greater authority when she returns from Kuwait, but I very much take on board the point my hon. Friend makes.

The news today that there have been serious discussions about localised ceasefires—particularly in places such as Aleppo, which has suffered badly over the past year—is obviously welcome. Does the Secretary of State accept that it must be a top priority for this Government and the international community to try to roll out those localised ceasefires as quickly and widely as possible? That would help to bring support to those who are suffering in the humanitarian crisis throughout Syria, and it would also provide a good foundation for the Geneva talks and for any settlement reached thereafter.

Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was discussing that matter with the other delegations at the Paris meeting yesterday. These are very difficult things to bring about, and I do not want to heighten expectations too early. In such a complex and brutal conflict, even localised ceasefires are difficult to bring about. However, it is important to pursue discussions about that matter with Russia, and it could well be an important track to discuss at Geneva II.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the one area of progress, on chemical weapons, has been instructive? On that issue, western nations were able to agree to co-operate with Russia on a strategy. Until the parties to this conflict are no longer able to look to their respective international patrons for support because those patrons have agreed on a way forward, they will be pretty unlikely to come to an agreement in circumstances that Eugene Rogan has described not as “winner takes all” but as “loser must die”.

Yes, I think there is a lot in that as well. It is generally true to say that there is now a greater appetite among some of the outside powers for a political settlement in Syria than there might be among some of the people who are fighting each other in Syria. It was clear in our discussions yesterday that all 11 members of the core group of the Friends of Syria supported a political settlement and wanted the opposition to go to Geneva II. That included Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states, which have been mentioned in these questions. We also need Russia to assist in bringing the regime to Geneva II in the same spirit, and that is what Secretary Kerry has been pursuing with the Russians today. We will all be pursuing it with them over the coming days.

I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s acknowledgement of the impact on Christian and other religious minorities of the al-Qaeda depredations in northern Syria. I also welcome his assurances of focus in that respect. May I press him further and say that one of the key issues is humanitarian aid? Many of the people affected will require resettlement in areas in which their families have lived for hundreds of years. It will also be important to extend diplomatic assurances to those people so that President Assad does not try to recruit them as proxies to shore up his own power in Syria.

Yes, that is also true. The hon. Gentleman is looking ahead a bit, however. We are not yet in a situation where people can go back to their homes or be resettled, or where assurances can be given about the position of different communities in Syria. In a way, that would be a good problem to have. It is the next stage that we will need to move on to. Our overwhelming emphasis now is on staunching the bloodshed, but we will have to move on to those issues and he is quite right to raise them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment not to provide any lethal support to the so-called moderate rebels. When thinking about a transitional Government, may I also urge him to learn the lessons from places such as Bangladesh? It had a transitional Government put in place but they did not consider the outcomes in regard to the delivery of democracy for those people who were not part of that Government.

A transitional governing body is no easy thing to bring about in any country, and, as I said in my statement, we must not underestimate the difficulty of doing that in a war-torn, divided country such as Syria. The provision to do so by mutual consent is very important, because through that a transitional governing body could just work, mutual consent being required for the membership on both sides. It is very important to uphold that commitment of our Geneva communiqué of 2012 as we go into the talks next week.

Will any democratic settlement at Geneva II include or preclude Assad? Will it include or preclude those around him—those who are culpable in what has gone on? In particular, will it include or preclude the jihadists and the fundamentalists?

I go back to what I have referred to before. What we are seeking—the basis of the invitation letter from the UN Secretary-General—is a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent. Such a thing, drawn from regime and opposition, would naturally guard against the extremes, as each side would have to agree to the representatives of the other. That would not be a recipe for Assad to continue, as I mentioned earlier, or for the al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists to have a role. Again, that shows the importance of our sticking to this principle and this formula in the forthcoming negotiations.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what support his Department is providing to individuals working for aid agencies, and their families, to ensure that they are getting all the information and support they need to keep as safe as possible while carrying out their vital work, for which I am sure the whole House will wish to thank them?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the people working for the aid agencies do an extraordinary job. They are often in danger, and quite a number have lost their lives in the Syria conflict. They are the unsung heroes, and she is right to refer to them in the House. Of course we do everything possible to provide the information and equipment they need, but if at any stage she or any other hon. Member thinks there is more we need to do on that, we are always open to ideas.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for the advance copy of it. He mentions the E3 plus 3 agreement with Iran. What impact will that have on the sanctions against that country? Will there be an early release of them?

As I mentioned to the House, we were able to announce in the past 24 hours that this agreement will come into force next week, on 20 January. That means that the sanctions relief we have offered Iran starts from then. That will involve the amendment of some European Union sanctions and United States sanctions, and it means that the US will unfreeze a certain amount of Iranian assets—that will be spread over the six-month period of this agreement. It is anticipated that this amounts to about $7 billion of sanctions relief for Iran, provided the Iranians are sticking to their part of the agreement on the nuclear issue. That agreement is then renewable for further periods of six months while we work on a comprehensive solution. So a limited measure of sanctions relief is available to Iran from 20 January.

My right hon. Friend, with his command of history, will know that Britain, America and Russia have all had embassies sacked by mobs in Tehran, although in the Russian case that happened rather longer ago. Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to a change in attitude by the slightly more moderate regime in Iran, and indeed in Damascus, lies in persuading the Russians that they share the same interest in this as we do in the long run?

That is a very important factor. I have often discussed it with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Prime Minister has discussed it with President Putin, and the American leaders continue to do the same. After all, it is in the interests of Russia, as with all of us, to make sure that extremism does not take hold, in Syria and in the wider region. That means that we all have to work together on bringing about a political solution. So we hope that, just as we have done that on chemical weapons, we will be able to do it during and around the Geneva II process to make a political process viable. We will spare no effort to work with Russia in bringing that about.

I had a meeting earlier today with the chief of staff of the Syrian National Coalition, who claimed he had evidence that the Iranian and the Assad regimes are providing covert support for ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—and Islamists operating in Syria. He said that the target of ISIS is not the Assad regime but the Free Syrian Army. Is the Foreign Secretary aware that all attacks are taking place on the Free Syrian Army with the support of Assad? If he is and believes it to be true, does it not put a totally different complexion on the war in Syria in that the Free Syrian Army is on its own? We should look at more ways to support it and not just provide humanitarian assistance.

I am aware of that suggestion. Whatever the truth of it, it is the case that the Assad regime has fed the growth of extremism. I cannot corroborate statements of it giving direct support to such groups, but if there were such evidence I would be interested to see it. None the less, it is its position, its politics and its brutality to the people of Syrian that have fed the growth of extremism. Assad is not the alternative to the extremists; he is producing them. Although I cannot confirm exactly what he says, I think it supports the same analysis, which means that we must do what we can to keep a moderate opposition in business, with all the constraints that we have discussed in our questions today.

What is the Government’s assessment of the flow of arms into Syria from the arms markets that emerged in Libya after our action there?

It is not possible to be precise about such things. Clearly, arms flow in from many different sources and in many different ways. Funnily enough our concerns about arms in Libya are more about the ones that remain there. There is more evidence of those arms remaining in Libya. We are working on a UN decommissioning programme to be able to take arms out of Libya and out of commission in Libya. Of course we cannot be precise about those flows of arms, but my hon. Friend can be sure that a high proportion of them that flowed into Libya in 2011 are still in the country. However, there would have been more of them had we not taken the action that we did, which helped to bring the conflict in Libya to an end.

The Assad regime and the al-Qaeda affiliates have been targeting medical teams. It is extremely difficult for the people in Syria and in the refugee camps around the region to access complex medical care. Is it not time now for the UK to respond to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ urgent request for countries to open their doors to cases of complex medical need, particularly to those who have also been victims of torture?

A number of views have been expressed in the House about that. I reiterate our very strong work and commitment to help people in such countries. I know she is making a slightly different point, but that is where we are concentrating our help. That includes providing 250,000 medical consultations within Syria as well as tens of thousands outside it. The UK is playing a very big part in trying to provide medical care to the most vulnerable people. I am afraid that I cannot offer her more than that at the moment.

As we were responsible, almost 100 years ago, for drawing up the borders in this part of the world, it would perhaps seem most appropriate that we now play our part in helping to contain the Syrian crisis within those borders. I know that in his statement the Foreign Secretary said that we are giving £15 million to Lebanon and Jordan. Compared with our generous humanitarian assistance, that does not strike me as a huge amount of revenue for those countries. Will he assure the House that we are doing all we can to ensure that the conflict stays within Syria itself?

Yes, but I am not in any way excluding the possibility that we will need to do more on that. That is what we have given so far and it is hugely appreciated by Lebanon and Jordan. Some countries are in a position to do much more; I mentioned briefly that Saudi Arabia has announced a $3 billion donation to build up the Lebanese armed forces, largely to be delivered and implemented by France. I hope that my hon. Friend will also bear it in mind that those countries are rightly receiving assistance from other quarters as they try to contain the crisis.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving the House this update. Will he talk about Russia’s blocking of a statement condemning the atrocities in Aleppo as well as a statement calling for immediate unfettered access for aid agencies? What more can be done to ensure that Russia lives up to its responsibility to the most vulnerable in this conflict, regardless of the politics?

We must continue to discuss that with Russia. I mentioned in my statement the discussions today between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. They covered some of these issues, such as how humanitarian access can be improved ahead of next week’s talks and the possibility of localised ceasefires. Of course, we are disappointed that Russia is not readier to agree international statements or resolutions at the UN that we ought to be able to pass and that it would be wholly appropriate to pass and enforce. The Russians are not prepared to do that, so we try to work with them in other ways to relieve humanitarian suffering and we will spare no effort in doing so.

President Putin has made some small conciliatory steps in connection with the forthcoming winter Olympics. Is there any sign that the same logic and approach apply to his thoughts on Syria?

We will see. The subject is very different and, of course, Russia has played an important role in the work on chemical weapons—it has been and remains indispensable in that regard. I hope that, following the discussions today between the US, Russia and the UN, Russia will demonstrate its readiness to deal with the Syrian regime. The Syrian Foreign Minister is going to Moscow this week and I hope that the Russians will say to him, “There are now certain things you have to do to relieve the suffering and to give humanitarian access, as well as to go to the Geneva talks, fully in the spirit of the Geneva communiqué, to bring about a transitional governing body.” We look to Russia to make those things plain to Damascus.

It has been said that that Mr Jarba attended the Friends of Syria meeting in Paris and asked for certain guarantees and commitments before the Geneva II conference. What requests were made by Mr Jarba and what was the response of the Friends of Syria group? On Iran and the E3 plus 3 agreement, does the Secretary of State understand the concern raised by many countries in the middle east about the agreement? What steps have been taken to get those countries to have confidence in it?

Of course we understand the concerns about the agreement with Iran. People will inevitably be sceptical about that and we have given extensive briefings about the detail, which has greatly reassured many countries. Those countries will want to know that we are monitoring it very carefully and that the International Atomic Energy Agency is playing the full role it needs to. We want to know that, too. They will want to see the evidence over the coming months that the agreement is working, which is completely understandable. In the meeting yesterday, President Jarba of the National Coalition asked for more support for the National Coalition, in whatever way any country around the table could provide it. I made it plain, as I did just now, that we can resume and increase the support we give through non-lethal supplies provided we can be confident about where it will be delivered to and who will be using it.

I welcome the measures that have been taken on the agreement with Iran on nuclear arrangements, but the key is to monitor compliance with the terms. Reports suggest that Iran is still pursuing the use of advanced centrifuges, which would give it nuclear weapons capability. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what additional arrangements are being made to monitor Iran’s compliance with its agreement with the United Nations?

That is an absolutely crucial point. Our monitoring of the agreement involves the formation of a joint commission by the E3 plus 3 and Iran, and there is a very active role for the IAEA. It is important that all the agreements that Iran has made with the E3 plus 3 and the IAEA are enforced and monitored. The IAEA is determined to do that; it was agreed, in the implementation plan, that that would happen. We, and the IAEA, will monitor this very carefully indeed.

Last night, I returned from a four-day trip with the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists to the Nizip 2 refugee camp, just inside the Turkish border. Turkey’s amazing humanitarian action and our aid programme—its provision of food, in particular—should be complimented. While I was there, I met representatives of UNICEF, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and AFAD and, separately, Syrian opposition leaders and military commanders, as well as dozens of refugees, whom we are helping with winter clothing and a social action project. All the Syrians I met want their country back and are desperate to return home. I urge the Foreign Secretary to take all steps necessary to enable Syrian refugees to return to their homeland, both diplomatically through Geneva II, and ultimately through the provision of safe havens.

I applaud what my hon. Friend and other colleagues have done in going to assist the people in that region, and I do not doubt at all the sincerity of the message that he brings back, which is that people want to be able to go to their homes in peace. That again underlines the urgency of the political process that we are beginning next week. It is a formidably difficult process, but it is right to start and to try a political process; that is the only sustainable hope of peace. He can be assured that we will give every effort to that.

There have been calls—some from unexpected quarters, and some from the Chamber today—for the UK to take a small number of refugees in this crisis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is pure tokenism? If the UK were to take 500 refugees from a pool of more than 2.5 million people who have been displaced from their country, it would have very little effect. The answer really is for the UK to stick with its policy of supporting the refugees in situ, so that they can return to their country when the conflict is over.

Ours is a generous policy, as I say. Whatever views people across the House hold on the subject, I hope that no one will say anything other than that the United Kingdom is among the most generous and big-hearted nations on earth on this. We are by some distance the second largest donor country in the world, helping hundreds of thousands of people with medical consultations in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. That is the right policy for the United Kingdom, and it is making a very positive impact.