Skip to main content

Syria and North Korea

Volume 624: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2017

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by paying tribute to the Britons who were killed in tragic circumstances in Stockholm and Jerusalem. Chris Bevington was among four people who died in Sweden when a truck was driven into helpless pedestrians on 7 April. Hannah Bladon was stabbed to death in Jerusalem on Good Friday in a senseless attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.

I wish to update the House on two of the most significant foreign policy events of the last fortnight, namely the situations in Syria and North Korea. These disparate challenges encompass one common theme. In each case, hereditary dictators presiding over cruel tyrannies have challenged the essential rules that underpin our world peace. The United States has responded with strength and resolve, and in accordance with its traditional role as the guarantor of the rules-based system. In both cases, the United States has acted with the full support of the British Government.

Turning first to Syria, at 6.39 am on 4 April there was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province. The House will recall the horrifying aftermath: men, women and children convulsed in agony, some foaming at the mouth, as their bodies were poisoned by nerve gas. Rescue workers tried desperately to decontaminate the casualties. We saw children with oxygen masks clamped to their faces. Even by the standards of a civil war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, this was among the most shocking incidents.

I want to repeat for the benefit of the House exactly what we know about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, because there has been a concerted attempt to obscure the facts. We know beyond doubt that two Sukhoi-22 aircraft took off from Shayrat airfield, where we know chemical weapons are stored. We know that they were overhead at 6.39 am when, according to all eyewitness accounts, the attack took place. We know from shell fragments in the crater that sarin had not only been used, but that it was sarin carrying the specific chemical signature of sarin used by the Assad regime. Given that samples from the victims show conclusively that they had been exposed to sarin gas, there is only one conclusion to be reached: that the Assad regime almost certainly gassed its own people, in breach of international law and the rules of war. That shows the emptiness of the agreement—reached in 2013 and guaranteed by Russia—that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical weapons once and for all, and, I am afraid, exposes the misjudgment of those who regarded that deal as a substitute for resolute action.

The attack on Khan Sheikhoun is already the subject of an international inquiry by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Thanks in large measure to UK diplomacy, the United Nations now has a joint investigative mechanism with a mandate to identify any party responsible for chemical attacks in Syria, and I trust that it will report as soon as possible. The House should bear it in mind, however, that UN investigators have already found the Assad regime guilty of using poison gas on three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015.

Some Members have suggested that we arraign Assad before the International Criminal Court. I must say to them that the only way of bringing Syria before the ICC would be through a referral from the Security Council, and we tried that option in 2014, only to be thwarted by the vetoes of Russia and China. Sadly, Russia’s response to the attack on Khan Sheikhoun has been to try to protect Assad yet again. On 12 April, it cast its eighth veto on behalf of Assad in the Security Council, blocking a resolution that would have demanded the regime’s co-operation with the international investigation.

The day after the atrocity I spoke to Secretary of State Tillerson, and it became clear that the United States was considering a military response. In the early hours of 7 April, the US did indeed take action, firing 59 cruise missiles at the military air base from which the gas attack is believed to have been launched. We were given advance notice of the operation, but at no stage did the US Administration ask for our military help; they asked only for political support. Advance warning was given to Russian military personnel, who were co-located with the Syrian air force at the same base, to minimise the risk of casualties.

The Government believe that the US action was a necessary, appropriate and justified response to an awful crime. As many as 20 Syrian military aircraft are believed to have been destroyed, and, as the House will know, Assad’s air force has been bombing civilians day after day for most of the past six years. The destruction of some of those strike aircraft will in itself save some lives, but still more important, I think, is President Trump’s emphatic message that the era during which Assad’s barbarism met with passivity and inaction has finally come to an end. America’s determined response creates an opportunity to break the deadlock and pave the way for a political settlement of Syria’s tragedy, but that will happen only if Russia is prepared to bring Assad to the negotiating table and begin a transition to a new Government who will represent the sole chance of peace in Syria. After the chemical attack and the American strike, the priority was for Secretary Tillerson to convey that message to Russia with the backing of as many countries as possible. The combined weight of the G7, and like-minded countries in the region, unanimously supported the US military action as a “carefully calibrated” response to a “war crime”, and mandated Tillerson to go to Russia and urge the Russians to

“promote a real and genuine political process in Syria”.

I want to stress that we in the UK have no intention of dislodging Russian interests in Syria; on the contrary, we recognise Russia’s long connection with that country and the national interests at stake. But Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad. The unmistakable lesson of six years of bloodshed is that Assad cannot deliver what his people—and the wider world—so desperately need, namely, a peaceful and united Syria. Therefore, I hope I have the support of everyone in this House when I call on the Russians to end their blind support for Assad, stop the gas attacks and the barrel bombs, allow the delivery of aid to those who need it, deliver a real ceasefire and begin the political process that will include a transition away from Assad.

That was the message that Secretary Tillerson conveyed to Putin and to Sergei Lavrov on 12 April. We will do our utmost in the UK to hold accountable anyone found responsible for that gas attack, and we will work with our American counterparts to create the conditions for Russia to work with us and to escape its entanglement with the toxic Assad regime, which poisons Russia’s international reputation just as surely as it poisons its own people.

I turn now to North Korea. Last weekend’s events provided further proof of the threat that that country poses to international peace and security. On Saturday, North Korea paraded an arsenal of ballistic missiles in front of carefully regimented crowds. Only 24 hours later, the regime tested another missile, although this time the launch failed. Last year alone, North Korea tested two nuclear bombs and 24 missiles. I remind Members that all those tests break a series of UN resolutions dating back to 2006, when resolution 1695 was passed unanimously by the Security Council, yet on Monday the Pyongyang regime threatened further missile tests on a

“weekly, monthly and yearly basis”.

The regime is now developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the mainland United States. These weapons have not yet been fully tested, but no one can be complacent about the potential threat they pose.

Yesterday, I spoke to my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and I urged him to use Beijing’s unique influence to restrain North Korea and to allow a peaceful resolution of this crisis. By suspending its coal imports from North Korea, China has given a welcome signal of its willingness to exert pressure on the regime. Later this month, I shall attend a special meeting of the Security Council on North Korea.

All hopes for progress rest on international co-operation —especially between China and the US—and the verifiable disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The crises in Syria and North Korea represent a challenge to the law-based liberal international order in which this country believes. Britain’s role is to stand alongside the United States and our allies as we confront those threats. In that effort, we will not tire. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and join him in sending my condolences to the families of Chris Bevington and Hannah Bladon.

Obviously, the Foreign Secretary’s statement is somewhat overshadowed by another announcement today, but the issues at hand here are far more important for the future of our world than the Prime Minister’s cynical short-term manoeuvres. She talked about the need for leadership and stability, yet is happy to plunge the country into six weeks of uncertainty exactly at the time Britain needs to provide stable global leadership on issues such as Syria and North Korea. However, we should not be surprised, because on those and other global crises the Conservative party is abdicating any effective leadership role for Britain.

I turn to Syria. We were all appalled by the dreadful attacks on civilians witnessed during the Easter recess. Two weeks ago, there was the horrifying chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of ordinary villagers and injuring many hundreds more. Just two days ago—I was rather surprised that the Foreign Secretary did not see fit to mention this—there was the suicide bombing of so-called pro-regime evacuees in Rashidin, with dozens of children among those who were killed. They were lured to their deaths by the promise of free crisps—a tragic reminder that in this conflict Bashar al-Assad does not hold a monopoly when it comes to horrific atrocities against innocent civilians, including children.

We need a peaceful settlement in Syria now more than ever. Indeed, last week the Foreign Secretary said that his priority was to

“build co-ordinated international support for a ceasefire…and an intensified political process”,

and I agree with him. So why, rather than working for co-ordinated international action properly to investigate, punish and prevent the use of chemical weapons, is the Foreign Secretary instead threatening more unilateral airstrikes by the US against the Assad regime? Why, rather than engaging in that peace process, did he instead cancel his proposed talks in Moscow, and in the process so comprehensively alienate the Putin Government that they have refused to talk to Britain in future? And why, rather than ensuring that the G7 spoke with one strong voice on Syria last week, did he instead present it with a half-baked, quickly rebuffed proposal for sanctions, without doing any preparatory work to win the support that was needed?

The Foreign Secretary ended last week disowned by Downing Street, ignored by Russia, and humiliated by the G7. The only straw he can cling on to, we presume, is this: that the United States State Department is still telling him what to say and do, and which countries he is allowed to visit. To that end, may I ask a final question on Syria? Based on his close relationship with the Trump Administration, can he clarify exactly what their strategy now is?

Turning briefly to North Korea, the Foreign Secretary rightly condemns the ongoing nuclear missile programmes being pursued by Kim Jong-un’s regime. I hope he will agree that, like Syria, this a crisis that can be resolved only through co-ordinated international action, through the de-escalation of tensions and, ultimately, through negotiations. So can he assure us that Britain will argue against any unilateral military action taken by the United States, and instead urgently back China’s call for a resumption of the six-party talks? When it comes to North Korea, the world needs statesmanship, not brinkmanship. We cannot afford blind loyalty to the Trump Administration if they are leading us down the path to war.

Peace in Syria and North Korea and our relationship with the Trump Administration are vital issues for the future of Britain and the world, and, as much as the Prime Minister would like the coming election simply to be about Brexit, we must ensure that these and other international concerns are not forgotten.

To that end, my final question for the Foreign Secretary is this: will he commit to join me in a televised debate between all the parties on foreign policy—no ifs, no buts? I am ready to say yes now, so will he commit today to do likewise: announce the first election debate and put his party’s promise of stable leadership on the line?

I am obviously disappointed that the shadow Foreign Secretary should choose to intrude into this very important consideration relatively separate issues of domestic political policy: we are trying to explain the position of the UK, and indeed the west, towards the Assad regime. And, by the way, we are having a televised debate now in case she had not noticed, and we should continue in that way.

To answer the right hon. Lady’s serious point, we are engaged in trying to use the opportunity provided by American action to drive forward the political process. It is not easy, and I think in all honesty that she should reflect on her approach, because what we are trying to do requires a great degree of cross-party support. We want the Russians to face up to the real option before them. If they continue to back Assad, they will be backing a regime that—I hope Members heard what I said about the use of chemical weapons—has been proved beyond a shadow of doubt to have used chemical weapons that are banned under international law. I would like the Russians to accept that there is a deal. That could be that they have an improvement in their relations with the Americans, and work together with the rest of us to tackle the scourge of Daesh. In return, the Russians need to understand that they need to make a serious commitment to a political process. At the moment, they are not doing that. They need to make a proper commitment to a ceasefire, and at the moment they are not making that commitment. They need to stop their client using chemical weapons. They said that they would do that in 2013. Rather than simply parroting the lines of the Kremlin, the right hon. Lady should support the collective action of the west, not just the G7 but the like-minded countries—

The right hon. Lady has said, for instance, that the west is divided in its attitude towards sanctions. Let us be absolutely clear that all we are trying to do is to follow where the evidential trail leads—[Interruption.] If the OPCW finds that members of the Syrian armed forces have been responsible for that attack, I hope she will agree that they should face sanctions. If she were to oppose that, I would find it absolutely extraordinary. The United States has moved to impose sanctions on a further 300 people, and there has been a large measure of support from all western countries for doing exactly that.

Furthermore, it seems unclear from the right hon. Lady’s account whether she supports the American action at all. I wonder whether she could enlighten the House as to whether she is in favour of what the Americans did. For the first time in five years, the Trump White House has shown that the west is not prepared to sit by and watch while people are gassed with weapons that should have been banned—

Order. We appreciate the Foreign Secretary’s inimitable rhetorical style, but I fear that the right hon. Lady, by moving as though to intervene, supposes that she is taking part in a debate. Let us await the televised debate, if it is to happen. At this point, the Foreign Secretary can content himself with responding to questions.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

It was far from clear to me, in listening to the right hon. Lady’s response, whether she actually supports what the United States has done. I would like some elucidation on that. As I have said, for the first time in five years, that action has shown that the west is willing to stand up to the use of these vile weapons. This has given us a political opportunity that we have hitherto not had, and I think that her best bet would be to support this Government and the efforts of western countries in trying to drive that forward and get the Russians to deliver a genuine political solution—[Interruption.]

Order. I say to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that all sorts of things might be judged by some people to be intolerable, but I am afraid that what is above all intolerable is to depart from the normal process. She is a person of very considerable intellect and ingenuity. Doubtless, through her colleagues—and possibly subsequent to the statement—she can find ways of giving expression to her concern, but at this point if she could assume a Zen-like calm, the House would be the beneficiary of that.

It is obviously right that a diplomatic joint approach in Syria is more important than unilateral action. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore commit to continuing to work closely with our American allies and other partners and friends to bring an end to this barbaric slaughter in Syria?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. That is exactly what we are engaged in doing. I do not pretend to the House that it will be easy. We have been here before; we have seen the whole Kerry-Lavrov rigmarole that went on for months and months. However, this is an opportunity for Russia to recognise that it is supporting a regime that deserves the odium of the entire world. That is costing Russia friends and support around the world, but it now has a chance to go for a different approach, and that is what we are collectively urging it to do.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and I associate Scottish National party Members with his opening remarks, in which he paid tribute to those who lost their lives in Jerusalem and Stockholm. Our thoughts are with their families.

The international community must respond to what can only be described as the monstrous actions of the Assad regime. There should be an international investigation sponsored by the Security Council. If that is blocked, such an investigation should be ordered by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The mechanisms exist to enable that to happen, and the UK Government must lead the way. The findings should be taken to the International Criminal Court and those responsible should be arraigned and subjected to the force of international law.

The US air strikes on Shayrat airfield are a demonstration of the unpredictability of the Trump Administration, which many fear will only cause further escalation of the conflict. In their rush to congratulate that Administration on their recent strike, did the UK Government consider its repercussions? Until now, coalition aircraft have operated with relative freedom against Daesh in eastern Syria. Now, Russia has suspended the US-Russia air operations accord, and the Assad regime will likely activate its extensive air defences. The skies above Syria will therefore be much more dangerous for UK pilots, while Syrian civilians on the ground will suffer even more.

We in the SNP have questioned the UK Government’s policy on airstrikes from the very beginning, but now we must have answers. What changes will have to be made to adapt to the changing situation, and how will that affect the coalition aerial campaign against Daesh? UK jets and bombs will not bring peace in Syria. We call on the UK Government to reconsider their tactics and urgently present a revised military strategy in Parliament. Although dialogue aimed at ending the conflict is welcome, above all we want hostilities to cease and civilians to receive the basic food, shelter and medical care that they so badly need.

Finally, on North Korea, we urge all parties to lower tensions and use diplomatic means to work through disagreements. This is yet more evidence of the need to implement multilateral disarmament and put an end to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.

The hon. Lady will know that the UK is already the second biggest donor of humanitarian aid to the region, so we have a record that we can be proud of. I return to what she had to say about the American strike. I am looking at faces that are familiar from previous statements on Syria; month after month I have come here to update the House on how that tragedy is unfolding, and I see people who have taken a passionate interest in this subject and have called repeatedly for us to do more. Finally, the United States has taken what we believe to be condign action—action that I think is entirely appropriate—but somehow it fails to find favour with the hon. Lady.

I think that what has happened is a good thing, but we should not overstate its importance from a military point of view. We have to recognise that this is a political opportunity, and it is an opportunity for the Russians to recognise the manner of regime that they are propping up. That is the message that we need to get over loud and clear, and unanimously.

As for North Korea, the hon. Lady makes a good point about the need to get rid of nuclear weapons. I think it would be foolish—I hope that she agrees—for the United States even to begin to think of getting rid of its nuclear weapons before we have a denuclearised North Korea.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for the detailed evidence he has presented to the House about the responsibility for the nerve agent attack in Syria. I commend him for giving the House that detail and, in doing so, I invite him to depersonalise his assessment of the Syrian regime simply around the personality of its President. We already have in place a mechanism by which that President will be held to account in future by the Syrian people if he wishes to seek their views under the International Syria Support Group conclusions of November 2015. That process has already been agreed on by 20 nations, and we should be relying on that and not using rhetoric that might make it more difficult to get into that process.

Finally, if I may ask my right hon. Friend about North Korea, I invite him to put pressure on the United States to try to dial down the public rhetoric. In some ways, North Korea is like an attention-seeking child who happens to belong to someone else—in this case, China. While the United States has proper responsibilities to the other nations in the area about their security, ratcheting up the rhetoric with North Korea is probably the wrong way of publicly dealing with it.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should be clear that our quarrel is not only with Bashar al-Assad, but with others in his regime. It will be possible to sketch out a route map to show how we can keep the institutions of Syrian government and yet get rid of the most murderous elements of the regime. We need to be getting that idea across clearly in the next weeks and months.

On North Korea, I am sure that my hon. Friend’s words on the need to avoid ratcheting up the rhetoric are wise—he speaks from experience—but I believe that the key lies mainly with China in this arena. It is very much in the interests of the Chinese and the Russians, who share a border with North Korea, to rein in Kim Jong-un and persuade him to abandon what I think is a path of self-destruction.

In the light of the American Vice-President’s current visit to the region to consult, one hopes, South Korea and Japan, among others, on the most effective way of containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and reflecting on the Foreign Secretary’s own experience at the recent G7 summit, does he think that there is the potential for further economic sanctions directed at Pyongyang? Does he think that China would fully support such a step?

The crucial thing is for the Chinese and others to implement the current sanctions and to allow them to have a full economic impact. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, there has been some doubt in recent months about the full application of those sanctions. The people of North Korea are living in absolute misery, penury and servitude. The trouble is that they can probably continue to live in that state for a long time to come, unless their Government see sense. We must work with the Chinese to persuade them.

Given the fact that the Chinese, in a most welcome manner but rather surprisingly, did support sanctions at the UN in 2013, the chances are that they will come to the UN Security Council meeting at the end of this month in a positive frame of mind. The Foreign Secretary is right that Russia shares a small border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is party to the six-party talks. In addition to having good discussions with his opposite number Wang Yi in China, will my right hon. Friend commit to talk to Sergey Lavrov and point out that this is another chance for Russia to rehabilitate its international reputation, which is extremely tarnished at the moment?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has great expertise in this matter. It is perfectly true that the economic relationship is overwhelmingly between China and North Korea, but, as he says, Russia certainly has a role. Russia should not be permitted to hide endlessly behind China’s skirts, a point that Rex Tillerson made in Moscow on 12 April.

In 1988, I took a cross-party group from this House to see some of the survivors of the Halabja attack. There was lot of discussion about who was responsible, and people such as Professor Alastair Hay went out to Halabja and brought back soil samples and evidence. I wonder whether experts in the UK are again being used to find out who perpetrated this terrible carnage and suffering on the Syrian people. Has the Foreign Secretary talked to such people, who could be of help again due to their experience in dealing with chemical weapons?

I well remember the right hon. Lady’s efforts in respect of Halabja, and she played a big part in hardening my heart against Saddam Hussein many years ago. She campaigned on the matter with great effect, and rightly so.

What we are doing today is supporting the OPCW’s expert fact-finding mission, and I have sketched out all we know about what happened on the morning of 4 April—the best evidence that we have so far—and I hope the House will believe that the evidence is very persuasive indeed. The fact-finding mission will now draw on a variety of sources, including samples from the victims, environmental samples, munition fragments, footage of the incident and its aftermath, and interviews with survivors, people who were first on the scene, medics and eye witnesses. The mission will be able to draw on signals intelligence, flight tracking, data analysis, meteorological information and other information that will be shared by us and other countries concerned.

Our experience is that such fact-finding missions are able to reach conclusions in very difficult circumstances and, going back to the point I made to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), we need such information to create the evidential trail to the individuals responsible. There is good evidence already, and we will use what we have, when and where possible, not only to impose sanctions but to pursue prosecutions for war crimes.

My right hon. Friend says that Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad but that the Assad regime’s position in Syria is wholly dependent on Russia, and that Russia must accept its responsibility for the attack. If Russia’s reputation is to be rehabilitated, the first important step will be to help ease the Assad regime out of Syria.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is crucial to understand that the Russians, as they have freely admitted in the past, do not have any deep spiritual affinity with Bashar al-Assad. They do not love him but are wedded to him for the time being. I believe that, in the long term, there can be no future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad in power, and we have to find a way forward. What we want to do now is to reach out to the Russians, to get them to understand that point and to commit to a serious political process, and we should not abandon that goal.

I do not regret any of my votes opposing military intervention in Syria, because at various times we were asked to oppose one side or the other, but if there had been no military retaliation in response to the chemical attack, is there not a case that it would have encouraged Assad to do it again?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and it is why we should acknowledge that the United States has changed the terms of trade in Syria. It is now up to us to make the most of this opportunity to get political change.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the tone with which he made it. One of the purposes of the American action the other day was, as it would have been in 2013, to demonstrate to President Assad that he cannot militarily subjugate all his people and, therefore, to give force to negotiations in which he will actually have to concede something. The difficult question is this: had the US Secretary of State asked my right hon. Friend for some sort of support that evening, what would have been his answer? Do he and the Government consider themselves bound by the decision of the House in August 2013 and David Cameron’s statement afterwards? If so, does he intend to return to the House to discuss the matter further? If not, what might the United Kingdom be able to do to demonstrate its force and resolve against such actions as those we saw from President Assad the other week?

As my right hon. Friend knows and as I said, we were not asked for specific support, but it is my belief—I stress that no such decision has yet been taken—that were such a request to be made in future and were it to be a reasonable request in pursuit of similar objectives, it would be very difficult for the United Kingdom to say no.

Hannah Bladon was a student at Birmingham University, and our thoughts and prayers are with her, her family and her friends. As a result of her having been stabbed to death in Jerusalem, has the Foreign Office changed any of its travel advice?

I repeat my condolences to the family of Miss Bladon. All I can say is that although we are offering consular assistance to her family, at the moment we are not changing our general advice about travel to Israel.

Given the vile propaganda role of Asma al-Assad in propping up a murderous and barbaric war criminal, will the Foreign Secretary update the House as to what discussions he has had with the Home Secretary so that we can send a very clear message that such a role is incompatible with British citizenship?

We do not discuss individual citizenship cases, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, although I understand the feelings she is expressing. What I can tell her is that Asma al-Assad, in common with her husband, is certainly on the sanctions list.

The Foreign Secretary’s original statement was comprehensive and measured, but it had one significant omission—there was no mention of Turkey. There are 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and, as he knows, the Turkish Government and President Erdogan have called for a no-fly zone. Others, including myself, have called for a no-fly zone over Idlib. What discussions are ongoing about how to protect civilians in Syria, not just from chemical weapons, but from barrel bombs?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and he is right to draw attention to the cardinal role of Turkey in this whole crisis. As he knows, Turkey has borne the brunt of the huge tide of refugees, and I agree very much with what he is saying about no-fly zones, which are strongly supported by Rex Tillerson and the US. However, they cannot be delivered without a ceasefire, which is why I return to this challenge we are making to the Russians: it is up to them not just to stop the barrel bombs that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but to deliver a real ceasefire.

The Foreign Secretary rightly dealt at length with the chemical attack, but I was surprised he did not take the opportunity to condemn also the appalling attack on Shi’a civilians in which 126 were killed, including 68 children, when fleeing from Foah and Kefraya. This highlights the problem faced by Alawites, Shi’a and Christians in Syria: however much they detest Assad, as we all do, they rely on him to protect them. For too long in this House, we have tried to engage in regime change—in removing Saddam, Gaddafi and now Assad. We should concentrate on humanitarian work and on protecting minorities in the middle east.

I fully appreciate the point my hon. Friend makes and he is perfectly right when he says that our thoughts should equally be with the 126 victims of that appalling attack, many of whom were children, as the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said. There are many, many victims in this conflict, but the overwhelming majority of the 400,000 who have died in the past five or six years—I believe this war is now in its seventh year—have been victims of the Assad regime and its supporters. For that reason, I must say to my hon. Friend that I understand his hesitations, which are of course shared by many people, who think instinctively that perhaps it would be better to stay with the devil we know, but this is a very, very odious devil indeed, and as I look ahead I just cannot see how Bashar al-Assad can remain in power in Syria in the long term. We have to go back a long way in history to find somebody who has murdered quite so many of his population and retained office.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Of course, it is not for any of us in this House to decide who runs Syria; that is a choice for the Syrian people.

We should judge recent events in Syria as being successful only if they form part of a comprehensive strategy to protect civilian life. What conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with the Secretary of State for International Development about getting the aid that we as a country have paid for to those who need it in Syria? Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, we were able to call for such action for Aleppo, but we failed. Now, people in Idlib are being targeted in a way that we have discussed in this House previously. What strategy do we have to save civilian lives, to get aid in, to get people out of Syria so that they can receive medical attention, and to help to save each and every life that we can?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s consistent campaigning on this issue over the years. She is right to draw attention to the appalling humanitarian situation. Around 1.5 million people are still being besieged by Assad’s regime, which is using starvation as an instrument of warfare. On what we are trying to do, I go back to my earlier points: there must be a ceasefire and the Russians must make it possible for the humanitarian convoys to access the people who need help. That is what we are trying to promote, not only in Geneva but at the Astana talks. It is up to the Russians. We can build the exit for them, and I think it is an attractive exit: they have the chance to get long-term western support for the rebuilding of Syria; they would have their strategic interests in Syria—at Tartus and Latakia—protected in the long term; and they could have a political role in Syria’s future, but they have to ensure that there is a ceasefire, an end to the barrel bombs and a proper political process.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the outcome of that proper political process would be, given that even commentators who absurdly used to claim that there were 70,000 moderate fighters against Assad in Syria now accept that the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is run by Islamists? While accepting that Assad is a monster in the tradition of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, does the Foreign Secretary also accept that there is a distinction between punishing him for using chemical weapons and removing him to replace him with a virulent Islamist regime?

I strongly agree with the wisdom of that remark. It will be essential to have a political process that preserves the institutions of the Syrian state while decapitating the monster.

The international community has failed in Syria for too long, so I echo the Foreign Secretary’s comments: some action was indeed needed, and may be needed in future. His statement was quite rightly firm on Russia, but it did not give a sense of how the peace talks will move forward, which, as well as Russia changing its position, is clearly essential.

As several hon. Members have said, in the end, the new constitution and arrangements for Syria will be a matter for the Syrian people, but there are certainly people in Syria on either side of the debate who could come together to form a new federal Government for the country and take it forward to a much brighter future.

Russia has propped up the Assad regime for far too long. When I met the Russian ambassador a year ago, I urged him to request that his Government find a new home for Assad outside Syria to enable the political process to move forward and create peace in that country, but he declined. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for Russia to change its mind on that matter?

To the best of my knowledge, the Russian President suggested that Bashar al-Assad should find refuge in some Gulf country, which I shall not upset by naming.

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said, “I stress that we have no intention of dislodging Russia from Syria.” Well, we would be fools to think that we could. He then went on to say, “But Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad.” For the past seven years, Putin has supported Assad through thick and thin. He will not suddenly develop a conscience, as we can see from his actions over the years in Chechnya and elsewhere. We are left in a position in which Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council, will constantly block any military attempts, which leaves us with a scenario where Trump could take unilateral action, as he did on the Syrian airfield. Although I supported that particular action, how far are we supposed to support Trump in those actions without the backing of the Security Council? Clearly, he could take such action against Assad and against President Kim in North Korea.

I disagree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, it is difficult. Of course the Russians have been backing Assad for many years, but this is an opportunity for them to have a new bargain in which there is a ceasefire, an end to the barrel bombs and an end to the chemical weapons—a real political solution—and in exchange they get a genuine relationship with the United States, join the rest of the world in the war against Daesh—[Interruption.] Yes, and they have an acknowledgment that they have a way out of the quagmire of Syria and that the west will step in, once it is possible, to pay for the reconstruction of that country.

Iran has committed hundreds of troops and billions of dollars to Syria. Furthermore, many Iranians in living memory have been victims of chemical attacks. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that his Department is taking advantage of the full diplomatic relations that we now have with Iran to put pressure on the Assad regime?

Yes, we certainly are. An important point to make to the Russians is that, in the end, it is the Iranians who are benefiting from any progress that the Assad regime makes. It is the Iranians who are the whip-holders in that relationship. In the end, the Russians need to detach themselves from the Iranians as well as from Assad.

I hear what the Secretary of State is saying, but a new report from Human Rights Watch suggests that US forces last month failed to properly confirm targets before launching a missile strike in Aleppo, killing dozens of civilians, including lots of children. They even destroyed a building that it has been established was a mosque. As the UK Government cheerlead yet more US airstrikes in Syria, what steps will he take to avoid yet more civilian deaths in Syria?

Obviously, we deplore any civilian deaths in Syria, but I also deplore any false equivalence between American actions and the dropping by the Assad regime of barbaric weapons, which were banned in 1925.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s call for a peaceful and united Syria—who could disagree with that—and especially the need for the humanitarian protection of civilians, but does he agree that putting down shutters is never a productive way forward? In that light, will he confirm that he remains in regular contact with his Russian counterparts?

I appreciate the statement from the Foreign Secretary, and extend my sympathy and thoughts to the Bevington and Bladon families. He mentioned that his Government have to deal with odious devils. Of course some of those devils are home grown, and this Government have been able to deal with them in the past. It may seem attractive to remove one leader from power in terms of regime change, but does he accept that the real lynchpin in Syria is Russia? What is the true state of his relationship with Russian officials and of the relationship between Her Majesty’s Government and the Putin regime?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the end, it was the Russian intervention that saved Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Russians have it in their hands to change the outcome in Syria for the benefit of not just the Syrian people, but Russia as well.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, but, to echo the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), there are Members who are concerned about this phrase “regime change” and any policy that moves in that direction. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the US moves towards a more explicit regime-change policy with regard to Assad, we would support it only after a vote in this House endorsing such a policy?

The policy of the Government is spelt out very clearly in resolution 2254, which calls for a political process leading to a transition away from the Assad regime. I think my hon. Friend will agree that that is the right way forward.

The Foreign Secretary confirmed that the regime had been responsible for three previous chemical attacks on civilians. Given that, can he confirm whether there is international support for targeted sanctions against military commanders, despite the way the negotiations went earlier?

I am grateful for that question because there was never a proposition for general sanctions against Russia, for instance. That was a piece of media ectoplasm, if you like, Mr Speaker. We have strong support for the idea of taking the evidence that the fact-finding mission will accumulate, using it to isolate the individuals who may have been responsible—by the way, there may be Russian military advisers who are complicit—and not only imposing sanctions on them, which I know my hon. Friend agrees would be the right thing to do, but arraigning them for war crimes.

What role does the Foreign Secretary see the United Kingdom playing in confronting the bellicose actions of the North Korean regime?

The most important and useful thing we can do is to intercede with our Chinese friends to stress to them the huge influence that they have in this matter and get them to use their economic weight to get Pyongyang to see sense.