3 September 2012 – UK Parliament debate on Syria
More than 20,000 people have now died in the conflict in Syria, up to 1.5 million are internally displaced, and 230,000 have fled to Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. According to the UN, 2.5 million people in Syria need urgent humanitarian assistance—double the number in March—and fewer than half of Syrian primary health care facilities and hospitals are now fully functional. The regime is using indiscriminate shelling, aircraft, helicopter gunships and militias to terrorise civilians. There are reports of up to 400 people slaughtered in a single atrocity in the town of Darayya.
Our objective remains an end to the violence and a transition to a more democratic and stable Syria. That is the only way to avoid protracted civil war, the collapse of the Syrian state, an even greater exodus of refugees, and further appalling loss of life. That is not just our view or the view of other western countries; it is the view of the Arab League and the vast majority of UN member states, and I particularly welcome the recent strong statement by President Morsi of Egypt condemning the Assad regime’s actions.
Despite our best efforts, the United Nations Security Council has been unable to put its full weight and authority behind a peaceful resolution of the crisis. On three occasions we have tried with our partners to adopt a Security Council resolution that would require the regime to begin a political transition, rather than simply call on it to do so. On each occasion, Russia and China have used their vetoes, most recently on 19 July. It is a terrible indictment of the Council that approximately a quarter of all those who have been killed in Syria died in the month following the last vetoed resolution.
We continue to urge Russia and China to work with us to end the crisis and to allow the Security Council to live up to its responsibilities—a case the Prime Minister made to President Putin during August, and a case I made again at the Security Council in New York last week. We are also working closely with the new UN and Arab League special representative, Mr Lakhdar Brahimi, whom I met in New York last week as well.
In the absence of that international unity, however, we have sharply increased our work to help the people of Syria in five areas: helping to create the conditions for a political transition; providing further humanitarian aid; increasing the pressure on the regime; supporting justice for victims of human rights violations; and planning assistance to a future Syrian Government. In each case our actions are carefully co-ordinated with our partners, and I organised a conference call in mid-August with Secretary Clinton and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Turkey to ensure that that is the case.
Briefly, I will take each of those five areas in turn. First, a political transition requires the Assad regime to stop the violence, but it also requires Syria’s opposition groups to win the trust of the Syrian people and provide a united and viable political alternative. We are therefore greatly increasing our work with opposition groups and political activists in Syria. The UK’s special representative
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to the Syrian opposition continues to meet opposition groups in the region, and last month I authorised his first limited contacts with political representatives of the Free Syrian army outside the country.
On 10 August, I announced an extra £5 million in non-lethal practical assistance to help protect unarmed opposition groups and human rights activists in Syria, including communications equipment, training to support the documentation of human rights violations, and other equipment for civilians. Communications equipment is en route to Syria as I speak.
We have already trained more than 60 activists in documenting human rights violations, and provided support, including equipment, for 100 Syrian citizen journalists to report on events in Syria. Activists who helped investigate the massacre in El-Houleh, for example, were trained by the United Kingdom. The new assistance I announced on 10 August is designed to support similar work and to help save lives. All the support we provide will be carefully targeted, co-ordinated with like-minded countries, consistent with our laws and values, and based on rigorous analysis and risk assessment.
The second area is action to address the humanitarian crisis. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the Syrian people. Since July, our aid has provided food to more than 145,000 people, water and sanitation for up to 60,000 people, and health care for more than 50,000 people. In August, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced a fourfold increase in UK assistance for Syrian refugees. At the UN Security Council last week, I announced a further increase in UK aid from £27.5 million to £30.5 million. It includes £2 million in new funding for medical aid inside Syria and £1 million for refugees in Jordan, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence—a particular focus for our Government ahead of our G8 presidency next year.
Both my right hon. Friend and I have visited the Jordanian border with Syria in recent weeks to meet refugees, and we have seen how the need is growing. As of last week, the $180 million UN humanitarian response plan was only half funded. There is an urgent need for other countries to help make up the shortfall. To that end, in New York I proposed, with the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, that Development Ministers and UN agencies meet to help generate donations and co-ordinate assistance. Through the conflict pool, we are also increasing our bilateral support to the Government and armed forces of Lebanon as they grapple with insecurity caused by Syria’s conflict.
Thirdly, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to isolate the Assad regime and cut off its finance. We have led the way on 17 rounds of EU sanctions on Syria since last May, targeting 155 individuals and 55 entities close to the regime. Senior Syrian military officers and diplomats are joining senior members of the Government in courageously turning their back on Assad, including former Prime Minister Riad Hijab. At the UN Foreign Minister Fabius and I also called for others around Assad to follow Mr Hijab’s example and dissociate themselves from the regime.
This leads into our fourth area of work—supporting justice for the Syrian people and helping to deter crimes. The UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry has reported human rights violations on an appalling scale by the regime and its militia, and also abuses by
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some armed groups. A list of individuals and units believed to be responsible for human rights violations and abuses will be submitted by the commission at the end of this month, for the purposes of holding to account those responsible for atrocities. We strongly believe that the commission’s mandate should be extended so it can continue that vital work.
We also support the initiative by the Swiss Government to build momentum for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and urge others to join these efforts. If these do not succeed, we look forward to a day when a different kind of government in place in Syria will take responsibility for voluntarily referring the situation to the ICC. The UK’s expert human rights monitoring mission visited the region earlier this year. We will continue to work to help improve the quality of information and evidence gathered by Syrian human rights activists which may be used in a future accountability process.
Any such government will face a broad range of challenges, from reforming the security sector and restoring health and education services, to ensuring people have shelter, water and food. So FCO officials are working closely with the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the stabilisation unit, and also with key allies in the Friends of Syria including regional countries, so that we develop and co-ordinate plans for assistance now.
This crisis began when the people of Syria demanded their legitimate rights and freedoms. The Assad regime has tried to crush their aspirations and extinguish their hope. We will use all diplomatic means available to us to help them, working with the UN, the Friends of Syria, the European Union, Arab countries and key allies such as France, the United States and Turkey. As I have said to the House before, we have not ruled out any options as this crisis deepens. At the UN General Assembly later this month, we will seek once again to generate the determined, concerted international action that the situation demands and that Syrian people have every right to expect.
Since the House last debated the situation, the pace of the conflict unfolding in Syria has quickened and the situation on the ground worsened. It is impossible yet to quantify the scale of the tragedy, but already, as we heard from the Foreign Secretary, the figures are stark and the suffering immense. I welcome much that he set out for the House today, therefore, but does he accept that the situation in Syria continues to represent not only, of course, a terrible indictment of Assad’s brutality but a tragic failure by the international community? The longer the conflict continues, the greater the risk of a rise of jihadism on the one hand and indiscriminate sectarian violence on the other, making a sustainable
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resolution to the conflict even harder to achieve. Military action alone will not bring peace to this country, and the bloodshed will not stop unless there is a plan to build the peace as well as one to win the war.
It is deeply to be regretted that the continuing division of the international community has meant that the UN has failed, time and time again, to take the necessary action. Since the House last debated the matter, Kofi Annan has resigned as special envoy, the UN observer mission’s mandate has expired and only today the man brought in to replace Mr Annan has described his mission as “nearly impossible”. But adversity cannot, and must not, be an excuse for inaction, so I welcome—on behalf of the whole House, I am sure—the fact that the Foreign Secretary has set out in his statement the vital and urgent support and relief that the UK is offering for the millions both within Syria and in the border regions.
The number of internally displaced people inside Syria is 10 times greater than the number of refugees in neighbouring countries, but the appeal for assistance for those inside Syria is only 20% funded, and many non-governmental organisations argue that, compared with the appeal for refugees outside the country, the allocation for those in Syria is much less in proportion to the scale of the need. Will the Foreign Secretary set out the steps being taken to address this situation? Given the recent reports of French and Turkish thinking on this issue, what assessment have the British Government made of the viability of buffer zones within Syria to protect fleeing civilians, and will he make clear the Government’s position on this, given that apparently no agreement was reached on it at last week’s UN Security Council meeting?
Alongside steps to relieve the immediate crisis, we share the Government’s view that work must be done to improve Syria’s future prospects, but given that Syria has now descended into full-blown civil war, it is vital that the Government act with real care in their engagement with the Syrian opposition. I note that the Foreign Secretary told the House this afternoon that “All the support we provide will be carefully targeted, co-ordinated with like-minded countries, consistent with our laws and values, and based on rigorous analysis and risk assessment”. In the light of this commitment, what assurances can he give on the identity, ideology and tactics of the rebel groups to which the UK Government are now providing direct support, and what specific safeguards are in place to ensure that this support is not being channelled to jihadist forces operating within the Syrian opposition on the ground?
I turn briefly to the efforts of the UN. I regret that it took so many months and lives for many finally to acknowledge that the Annan plan had failed—something that many of us warned was in prospect some months ago. In the light of this failure to reach an agreement on next steps at last week’s UN Security Council meeting, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the likelihood of either Russia or China changing course and supporting a UN resolution—even one enforcing sanctions on Syria or signing up to a global arms embargo? Of course, we welcome the work he set out on documenting human rights abuses but, in the light of the suspension of the UN monitoring mission, has the level of information getting out of Syria increased or decreased since the suspension of the UN mission?
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The Foreign Secretary concluded his remarks by stating: “we have not ruled out any options as this crisis deepens.” However, does he accept, and will he confirm, that there is today not the agreed legal basis, the regional support or, indeed, the public appetite for British ground forces to be deployed in Syria? It is imperative, therefore, that the Government focus their important efforts in the weeks ahead on unifying the international community’s response, uniting a fractured opposition behind a credible plan for inclusive political transition and addressing the continued and growing humanitarian need of the millions suffering in Syria today. If that is the focus of the Government’s work in the weeks ahead, they will continue to have the Opposition’s support.
Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, what he said in summing up at the end of his question is what I have been putting to the House, so we have a unity of approach across the House. In the absence of the international agreement and unity to mandate and require the implementation of the Annan plan or something very similar to it, we are setting out to continue to work on unifying the international community, to help to unite and assist the opposition in various ways and to address the humanitarian crisis. That is exactly our approach.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the deployment of British ground forces, which is not something I have heard anybody advocate in this country. However, it is also true that we do not know how the situation will develop over the coming months. It is likely to deteriorate sharply even from its current position, given the diplomatic outlook and given that a peaceful transition is becoming harder to achieve, not easier, as the fighting goes on and intensifies. Therefore, it would be wrong to rule out options, but clearly we are proceeding with care and caution in everything that we do.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the pace of the conflict has quickened. More than a quarter of the people who have died in Syria probably have died since the last time we discussed it in this House. That shows how terrible the events of recent weeks have been. He is right that that reflects not only the appalling brutality of the Assad regime, but a failure by the international community. That is due to only a small part of the international community. The UN General Assembly passed a motion on the subject, with which we were very happy, by 133 to 12 on 3 August. However, two of those 12 wield a veto in the 15-member UN Security Council, and have done so on three occasions. I said in my remarks at the Security Council last Thursday that the Security Council has failed, so I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. This is a failure of the responsibilities of the United Nations Security Council. We should be very blunt about that.
However, I have to inform the House that the prospects for a change in the Russian position are not strong at the moment. As I said, the Prime Minister and I both met President Putin when he came for the Olympics in early August. The Prime Minister discussed the Syrian situation with the President. From all the conversations that we have had with him and with Russian officials and Ministers, I think that the Russian position is likely to change only when the situation on the ground changes further to a substantial degree. Therefore, we have to
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make a success of all the other actions that we are taking, in the absence of the international agreement that we have sought.
On those topics, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the shortfall, which is serious, particularly as the crisis is getting rapidly worse in terms of IDPs and refugees. That is something that we have called on the international community to address. The United Kingdom is setting a strong example, as I have set out. The Department for International Development is doing a great job in the work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and in supplying the necessary funds, and we will continue to encourage other countries to do so. Indeed, that will be a major topic for us at the UN General Assembly ministerial week, which I and the Prime Minister will attend later this month in New York.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about buffer zones. We are sceptical in the current situation about buffer zones inside Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at our Security Council meeting on Thursday said:
“all human beings have the right to seek and enjoy asylum in another state. This is a right that must not be jeopardized, for instance through the establishment of so-called ‘safe havens’ or other similar arrangements. Bitter experience has shown that it is rarely possible to provide effective protection and security in such areas.”
I pay tribute, however, to the people and Governments of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan for their generosity and hospitality. Many of the people who are fleeing Syria are initially going to camps, but in many cases they are then going to live in people’s homes, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon. We should bear in mind, as we provide the generous assistance that we are putting forward, that the people of those countries are also making an important contribution at a personal level. I paid tribute to them at the Security Council meeting last week as well.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked about support for the opposition. Of course, this is an area in which we have to proceed with care, but I believe that the necessity of providing support for people in such a desperate situation outweighs the risks involved in doing so. There are risks attached, however. We know a lot about the various Syrian opposition movements—they vary greatly—and our knowledge of them is improving all the time. Our representative to them, John Wilkes, is working hard and knows them well. I therefore believe that it is possible, subject to the legal constraints and the legal advice that we always have to take on this issue, to channel the kind of assistance that I am talking about—communications equipment, water purification kits, protective clothing—to certain groups without the items falling into the wrong hands. In any case, we are not talking about anything that could cause lethal harm to anyone else, so we have that failsafe, if you like, on the assistance that we are providing. I will keep Parliament updated regularly on how that assistance is being provided and, as far as possible, on how it is being used.
The situation is deteriorating further, and it does represent a failure by the international community, but we in this House can be confident that the United Kingdom is doing its utmost to help the millions of people caught up in this tragic conflict.
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Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and I share his frustration with the United Nations; this calls into question the influence of the Security Council as far as this matter is concerned. I am disappointed that he is sceptical about a buffer zone. That was a proposal put forward by the Turkish Government and it must be taken seriously. Is his scepticism based on a conclusion that he would be unable to garner political support for the proposal, or would there be a military problem that would render it unenforceable?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is right about the United Nations on this subject, although I should stress that, although I have very bluntly said that the United Nations Security Council is failing in this matter, that does not mean that it is failing across a whole range of others. In recent months, the Security Council has been doing its job very well in respect of issues involving Somalia and Yemen, for example, but on this subject it is blocked and failing in its responsibilities.
My hon. Friend said that a proposal for a buffer zone had been made by the Government of Turkey. These ideas are floated from time to time by that Government, but Turkey is welcoming refugees. It is of course concerned about the numbers coming in, but it is not suggesting any change to that approach at the moment. We know from bitter experience that we can advocate safe havens or safe areas only if we are absolutely confident that we will be able to protect the people in those areas and the people travelling to them. That would in turn require not only huge military force but the readiness to use that force. The international will to do that and the decision to do that are clearly not there.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to take credit for the constructive role of his own Department and the Department for International Development, and to draw attention to the lamentable failure of Moscow and Beijing to look to their responsibilities. He also mentioned the position of Lebanon, which is the most likely of all Syria’s neighbouring countries to see an extension of the conflict igniting within its borders. Is the international community sufficiently apprised of how dangerous that situation is, and of how intractable a return to civil war would be if that were to happen in Lebanon?
Mr Hague: I hope so, and I hope that we are helping to increase the recognition of the importance and fragility of Lebanon in these issues. I mentioned briefly in my statement that we are using conflict pool funding to increase the support we give the Lebanese armed forces. We are also working closely with the Government of Lebanon in understanding the whole situation and in highlighting their difficulties to the international community. I am glad to say that under the French presidency of the Security Council and the meeting we had last week, the Lebanese Government were invited to the Security Council and were able to put the very serious situation in their country directly to the Security Council. That has helped to highlight the international difficulties. We will encourage other countries to give Lebanon practical assistance of various kinds and to follow suit in respect of the refugees entering Lebanon.
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Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Despite the bleak news it contained, may I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and, in particular, the news of the significant humanitarian aid that the Government are bringing to the Syrian people? Mr Brahimi may have described his mission as “nearly impossible”, but he does have very strong contacts within the Arab League. In his conversations with the Foreign Secretary, did he tell him of any plans that Arab League members have for them to put pressure on Russia and China to lift their disgraceful vetoes, which are effectively preventing any international action against this doomed but murderous regime?
Mr Hague: Mr Brahimi is a very wise man. I pay tribute to the work of Kofi Annan, but I also welcome Mr Brahimi to this difficult post. He has set expectations as low as possible, which is a wise thing to do, particularly given the situation, but that does not mean he will be lacking in energy or ideas as to what to do. He will be working closely with the Arab League, as well as being the representative of the UN Secretary-General. The Arab League countries have indeed been putting pressure on Russia and China, but so far it has not worked. A large part of the world has been putting that pressure on, including many African nations, too. A majority of the UN member states have attended one or other of the meetings of the Friends of Syria, so the trend of international opinion is very clear, but that effort to change the minds of Moscow and Beijing has not yet been successful.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Twenty years ago, the Foreign Secretary was a member of a Government who initiated no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq without explicit UN Security Council resolutions. Is it not time, even if President Obama is not interested, that this country, France, Turkey and other European NATO countries seriously considered what we can do to stop this growing humanitarian and political disaster?
Mr Hague: Clearly, we are doing a great deal, as I have set out, to address what the hon. Gentleman rightly describes as a growing humanitarian disaster. I have been careful not to rule out any option. He is putting forward a particular option, but I have to say that such an option would be practicable only with the full support of the United States of America. It is not something to advocate in the way that he did of, “Whatever President Obama thinks”; the air defences of Syria are an entirely different matter from those of Iraq 20 years ago. It is very important to bear that in mind when advocating that particular option.
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): The west’s track record on protecting minorities in interventions of this sort has not always been good. What work is being done to ensure that the minorities in Syria, including the Christians and the Alawites, will be afforded the same protection as they have received under Assad should he fall?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and this is a crucial part of our work with the opposition; it has certainly been a part of all the meetings I have had with different opposition groups from Syria. We stress, of course, that for their own success and
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support within Syria they need to represent the full range of not only political views, but ethnic origin and religious belief in Syria. It is very important that they do that. We are continuing to work with the opposition to help them present a united front and work together in a completely united way. The different opposition groups, including the Syrian National Council, have made many important and helpful statements about respect for all minorities in Syria, but we will not let up in reminding them that that requires practical action as well as strong statements.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What will the Foreign Secretary do specifically to put pressure on China and Russia to support a UN resolution enforcing sanctions on Syria and to sign up to a global arms embargo?
Mr Hague: We do not ever stop in our efforts on that point. Of course, we have done everything we possibly can to try to persuade them over the past few months, including my visit to Moscow at the end of May, the discussions I had with both the Russian and Chinese Foreign Ministers when we met in Geneva at the end of June and the meetings that the Prime Minister had in August. There is no let up in the efforts by the United Kingdom, France and the United States—and indeed many Arab countries—to try to persuade them. We will continue to do that. This subject will be a focus of discussion, as I have mentioned, at the UN General Assembly ministerial week later in September. Again, we will directly address the question face-to-face with the Russians and Chinese during that week. I imagine, without prejudging the Prime Minister’s speech to the General Assembly, that there is a high likelihood that the subject will feature in that speech. I have to be—[ Interruption. ]Yes, I might have something to do with writing it as well, but the Prime Minister will have views about what he is going to say. I have to be realistic and I am trying to be as frank as possible with the House and I have seen no sign that Russia will change its position without a further substantial change in the circumstances on the ground.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree with some observers that the new UN envoy to Syria, Mr Brahimi, must have strong, real support from the United Nations Security Council or he will fail, like his predecessor?
Mr Hague: Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. When I met Mr Brahimi in New York last week I encouraged him to be clear when he needs the support of the Security Council and to be ready to demand that support at crucial moments. I hope he will heed that advice.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander), I commend the Foreign Secretary, his colleagues and his Department for their work. May I press him on Russia? We all understand what equities Russia has had in the Assad regime, but what explanation does he offer for why Russia has a belief that its strategic advantage lies in continuing to back the Assad regime while it is falling apart, notwithstanding that it might continue for a little while?
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Mr Hague: There are several factors at work. One, of course, is that there is some regret in Russian Government circles that Russia abstained on the Security Council resolution that authorised the use of all necessary measures to protect the population of Libya. That is reflected in its approach to any subsequent parallel situation, even though in this case neither we nor anyone else has advocated a military intervention of the sort that we mounted in Libya. Russia is very reluctant to allow any resolution that it sees as leading to any such thing, despite all the reassurances we have given both directly and at the Security Council.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Russia’s assessment of its strategic interests, it is also possible that it has a different analysis of what is likely to happen in Syria. Our analysis, which I expressed in the statement and which is common in western nations, is that the Assad regime is doomed and that having spilt so much blood and presided over such a catastrophe it is not possible for such a regime to recover its authority or for Syria to return to any stable position while it continues in power. On that point, the Russian analysis might be different and that will lead Russia to a different policy position.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. A large number of Members want to contribute. I ask that contributions now be brief—one question, and clipped answers would be excellent, thank you Foreign Secretary.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): China did not veto resolutions on intervention in Libya. Have the Foreign Secretary’s Chinese counterparts explained to him what is the difference between Syria and Libya such that they are now obstructing us in the Security Council on the matter of Syria?
Mr Hague: That is a difficult explanation; certainly, they have tried to explain. They support a great deal of what we say, and the analysis and what should be done and the need for a peaceful transition in Syria, but they stop just short of supporting a chapter 7 resolution that would embody that in a UN resolution. I think the reasons are similar to the ones that I just gave to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) about Russia.
Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): What can the Foreign Secretary tell the House about worrying reports today of clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish forces on or near the Syrian border? Does he agree that, whatever happens in Syria, this does not constitute political cover for the Turkish Government to attack over their border or further to oppress the Kurdish people?
Mr Hague: I absolutely agree that this does not provide political cover for that, and I have not heard any suggestion from the Foreign Minister of Turkey that it would do so. I am concerned about a series of clashes on the Turkish border involving serious loss of life, including among the Turkish armed forces, in a number of recent incidents. I have expressed our
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condolences to Turkey on those incidents, and this underlines the need to tackle the situation in all the ways that I have described.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): While I thank my right hon. Friend for all the actions he is taking, last week I met a coalition of most of the major American friends of Syria groups, which make the point that, at the current rate of attrition of 300 deaths a day, in the next 10 weeks—to the American presidential election—there could be another 10,000 people killed. They also make the point that, each day, people face Assad’s helicopter gunships and tanks. They are frustrated with the help that they are getting from the international community. What further can the international community do to prevent these dreadful atrocities?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is sadly right on the arithmetic, but the policy of the United States on the issue is identical to the one that I have been expressing as the policy of the United Kingdom, and that is a generally common feature across American politics as the United States comes to its presidential election. I have no information that there would be a sharp change in that policy should there be a change of Administration, so we have to continue to do the things that I have set out to keep up the pressure for international unity and action, and in the absence of those, in the five different ways that I have set out, to deliver ever increasing help, including to the Syrian opposition groups, to people caught up in the conflict.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said about the generosity of ordinary people, particularly in Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere, quite apart from what Governments might be doing in taking in Syrian refugees. The United Kingdom has stepped up to the plate in the support that we are giving to the refugee relief effort. He says he is making representations to other countries to meet and to make up the shortfall. What response is he getting and what further pressure can we apply to other countries to step up to the plate as well?
Mr Hague: We cannot force other countries to do so. We can highlight the good example that we have set; that is one of the reasons that I went to the Security Council in New York last week. We can work through the European Union to increase aid, although the use of EU funds is at a good level. However, many nations in the EU have not made large bilateral donations. I will take that up with my EU colleagues, all of whom I will see at the end of this week, but we shall be active through our embassies all over the world, and very active in the forthcoming General Assembly, when we will be able to address all the nations of the world.
Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): With regard to regional players, what efforts is my right hon. Friend making, alongside his colleagues in the Department, to engage such organisations as the Arab League, as well as wider players such as Kurdistan and others that share borders with Syria, to reach some sort of resolution?
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Mr Hague: We work closely with the Arab League, which has done a good job and has passed its own sanctions or measures on Syria. Of course, we want to make sure that those are more uniformly implemented, so we will continue to discuss that with it. I visited Jordan at the beginning of the recess, and I will very shortly visit a wide range of other countries in the region to encourage the sort of co-ordination that my hon. Friend describes.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I welcome the steps taken by the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House an update on the level of assets of the Assad regime that have been seized in London? I know that this is a terrible crisis, but will he also keep his eye on the ball as regards Yemen, because the situation there is still at crisis level?
Mr Hague: Yes, we certainly keep our eyes on Yemen. Indeed, the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), is currently on his way to the latest meeting of the Friends of Yemen in Riyadh, at which the Friends of Yemen will encourage relevant donations to help with the situation in Yemen.
We have taken all the action necessary under the asset-freezing decisions of the European Union in relation to 155 individuals and 55 entities. I am not sure that it is possible to quantify that in pounds, but if it is, I will write to the right hon. gentleman.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I know it is not an immediate priority, but has my right hon. Friend raised with the Syrian opposition the issue of the future of any chemical weapons stocks currently held by the Assad regime that might fall into the hands of the opposition?
Mr Hague: Yes, we have raised the very important issue of weapons stocks held by the Assad regime. I also raised it at the Security Council last week, and asked the UN Secretary-General to ensure that what is called the investigation mechanism is ready to be deployed if we have any reports of such chemical weapons being used or moved. Of course, a very strong warning has been sent by the United States and this country to the Assad regime about any possible use of chemical weapons. We have discussed the issue with the opposition as well.
Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): What are the Foreign Secretary’s immediate concerns regarding the deployment of Syria’s chemical weapons? What does he think is likely to happen in the current situation?
Mr Hague: Well, there are only isolated and anecdotal reports of the use of such weapons—nothing that is verified on any substantial scale. Some of the refugees whom I met in Jordan in July referred to the use of poisonous weapons against them, but it has not been possible to verify that, and they meant that in the sense of small arms at a local level—not that that would be acceptable in any way. We do not have any evidence of the use of chemical weapons. Our hope and expectation is that they will not be used, but if they were to be used,
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it would be an extremely serious matter, and it might change some of the international calculations about this crisis.
John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): I should like to ask the Foreign Secretary about the non-lethal practical assistance being provided to protect unarmed opposition groups. What level of confidence does he have that we have the intelligence and infrastructure to monitor where that money is spent and ends up, so that my constituents can have some assurance that the money is not being wasted, and that our investment is in the right side of this war?
Mr Hague: We do have a good deal of information about how such equipment is used. I cannot say to my hon. Friend or to the House exactly how all such information will be arrived at, but we have information about how the equipment that we have provided so far is used, and are able to check on it in various ways, and will be able to do so, in various ways, in future. I can give him a considerable level of reassurance about that, but there is some risk; that is why we are supplying only non-lethal practical assistance in the first place. As I say, in such a desperate situation, the benefits and the need to supply such equipment outweigh whatever risks are attached to it.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the stabilising factors after the break-up of the Soviet empire and then the break-up of Yugoslavia was, paradoxically, the emergence of rather small states where people could live in harmony with each other, rather than being spatchcocked together? Instead of trying to preserve Syrian unity, might there be some case for two or three nations and states in Syria, none of them with the absolute power or military authority to oppress the others?
Mr Hague: That, ultimately, would be for the Syrian people, not for us, to decide. Whether or not that is something that they will want as an option in the future I do not know, but I doubt it, since I find the majority of the opposition groups from Syria strongly committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria. In any case, there are downsides. Although I accept much of what the right hon. Gentleman says about small nations, it is also true that when small nations are made out of a large nation, that can create a great deal of chaos, movement and sectarian conflict, so there are dangers in that as well.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for the hard work that he is doing to oppose the atrocities of the Assad regime. Can he tell the House what progress is being made by international aid organisations in securing greater access to civilians at risk, particularly in Damascus, and what steps the Government are taking to support these important activities?
Mr Hague: My hon. Friend puts his finger exactly on a very difficult problem. There is some access; a good deal of aid does get into Syria. In particular, there are some areas of Syria where the regime has very little control on the ground, so much of the aid that I spoke about in my statement is getting through to people in Syria, but of course there are places where it is
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phenomenally difficult. The regime does not allow humanitarian access. That is another example of what a brutal and appalling regime it is. One of the things for which there was a general call at the Security Council last week was unimpeded access for aid and for humanitarian agencies to all parts of Syria.
Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary talk about additional humanitarian assistance being made available, particularly the £1 million to Jordan to help with refugees, focused on victims of sexual violence. Is that proving to be a big problem? What is its extent, and how will that money be allocated?
Mr Hague: It is a big problem. It has been a depressingly tragic and horrible problem in a series of recent conflicts around the world. It has, of course, been a problem through many periods of history, but we know much more about it today. Rape as a weapon of war is certainly used in the conflict in Syria. One can hear about that first hand from the refugees whom I have met in Jordan, and no doubt in other countries as well. Raising the awareness of this and dealing with the impunity that has existed for too long in this area will be a major foreign affairs theme of our G8 presidency in 2013, so it is something that we are already working on and feel passionately about in the case of the refugees fleeing Syria now.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I totally understand and accept my right hon. Friend’s assessment that the Assad regime is doomed. At some stage there will probably be anarchy in Syria. In such circumstances the international community will demand action, and that action will be humanitarian. From bitter experience may I suggest that humanitarian action without protection for the people going in would be rather silly? May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that any action that we contemplate should include a military element—not necessarily a British element, I hope, but international decent, good, well-trained forces to look after the people who are trying to save lives in Syria?
Mr Hague: There is an important point in my hon. Friend’s question: we could be dealing at some stage with the complete collapse of the Syrian state, a situation of anarchy and the breakdown of all order—there are many anarchic attributes to what is happening now—even in areas that have been less affected, and even in Damascus itself. That is why it is important that we do not to rule out any options for the future. If we come to that point, we must bear in mind his wise advice on this point.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): May I ask the Foreign Secretary to be more specific about the situation facing Palestinian and Kurdish people? There are reports that Palestinian refugees have been prevented from staying for any extended period in either Lebanon or Jordan. In answer to an earlier question he made the point that the Kurdish people are under attack within Turkey by Turkish forces and within Syria itself by some of the opposition groups. Is he confident that the opposition groups in Syria respect minorities and their rights?
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Mr Hague: One of the important aspects of bringing the opposition groups together is uniting in one co-ordinating body the Kurdish elements of the opposition with the rest so that the point the hon. Gentleman makes is well understood and accepted by opposition forces in Syria, and we are of course encouraging that. There have been additional problems for some Palestinian refugees, on top of the tragic situation. We always make the point to neighbouring countries that Palestinian and Kurdish refugees have the same rights as all other refugees have to seek safety and asylum in neighbouring countries.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): The Foreign Secretary quite rightly mentioned five areas of work for himself and his colleagues. The first and the fifth are obviously mutually dependent and revolve around the condition and quality of the opposition, so I would like to probe how those links between the opposition and the outside will be developed in the immediate future.
Mr Hague: They are being developed all the time. There was a constructive meeting last week in Cairo of opposition groups, which we hope will be built on, and the UK special representative to the opposition is working with them on an hourly basis and giving good advice. We are working in that respect with countries such as Turkey, France and the United States and, importantly, with Arab countries, and we will continue to do so. I always stress to Syrian opposition groups that when a country such as ours faces an existential crisis, such as the last world war, across all parties we come together and sink all differences for the duration of the crisis. Syria is in an existential crisis and that is exactly what they need to do.
Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): Following the horrific airstrikes by the Assad regime, an estimated 180,000 refugees have fled across the border into Jordanian refugee camps. What representations will the Foreign Secretary make to his international counterparts to ensure that the estimated $700 million funding shortfall is met and a humanitarian disaster avoided?
Mr Hague: I hope that I have covered that in answer to previous questions. I made the very strongest possible representations at the Security Council last week, in bilateral meetings and in the Security Council itself. We will be doing this over the coming weeks through our embassies around the world and with our European
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Union partners—I will meet them all at the end of this week—and of course the Prime Minister and I will pursue this with all the nations of the world at the UN General Assembly later this month.
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I should like to commend my right hon. Friend on the measures he has taken to make progress on this matter. A protest group called Together We Can – For Syria in my constituency has been writing repeatedly to the Foreign Office. I would like him to clarify what changes on the ground Russia would like to see before getting further involved?
Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. It is my view that there would have to be changes on the ground for Russia to change its position. Russia itself has not spelt out such conditions or criteria. At the meeting in Geneva at the end of June Russia signed up to an agreed transition in Syria and the creation of a transitional Government, as we all did, in the hope that that would make any other measures unnecessary, but now we have to make sure that such a transitional Government is actually created. Russia has not spelled that out; I am simply giving the House my analysis.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to highlight the Russian Government’s disgraceful role in the barbarism we have seen in Syria, or at least in preventing the international community coming to a single mind on it, but will he clarify whether the statement made by his hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) yesterday in a national newspaper—that the British Government have written to the Russian Government to tell them that the 60 officials involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky or the corruption he unveiled will not be welcome in this country—is accurate?
Mr Hague: I think that if I gave much of an answer to that I would be going very wide of the subject of the statement, and I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr Speaker, but I can say that there has been no change in our immigration policy. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be able to comment on that in due course.
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