Arms To Syria

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke eloquently for the majority view in the House, as does the motion. May I apologise in advance for having to leave the Chamber if the debate runs past 3.15, as I have a long-standing speaking commitment?

I am not a pacifist. I was a Cabinet Minister when the decision was taken to invade Iraq. I was Africa Minister when we sent troops to save Sierra Leone from savagery. But as a former Foreign Office Minister responsible for middle east policy, including Syria, I vehemently oppose British military intervention of any kind in Syria.

We all share the Prime Minister’s genuine anger at the humanitarian disaster. We all agree that Bashar al-Assad has become a callous butcher who, instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab spring reached Syria in March 2011, drove his people into carnage and chaos. Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror, and so have the Saudis and Qataris. But Britain, too, is culpable. We should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. Instead we began by demanding Assad’s unconditional surrender and departure. However, calling for regime change meant chasing an unattainable goal at the cost of yet more bloodshed and destruction, and so did supporting a rebel military victory.

That was fatal. Britain should have offered a practical strategy to end a deepening civil war, because this was never simply a conflict between a brutal regime and the Syrian people. Assad and the ruling Shi’a-aligned Alawite minority form a 10th of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant, as they fear, being oppressed by the Sunni majority. Christians and other minorities are similarly nervous about change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add the Kurds and the total reaches about 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his Ba’athist rule, but they fear even more the alternative—becoming victims of genocide, jihadism or sharia extremism.

This is not some simplistic battle between evil and good. Nor is it simply a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It is a civil war, and a highly complex one into which Britain treads at its peril. It involves Sunni versus Shi’a, Saudi Arabia versus Iran and, a cold war hangover, the US versus Russia.

Mr Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I do not necessarily demur from a single word of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the complexity of the conflict, but what effect does it have on the efforts to bring those parties to the negotiating table when the International Criminal Court makes it virtually impossible to manage any kind of orderly transition, let alone continuity in the existing regime? He seems to be suggesting that that might be one of the options.

Mr Hain: I will address that point in a minute.

Regime change in Damascus could be the outcome of a negotiated solution, but if, as the UK and the US are effectively doing, getting rid of Assad is set as the precondition for talks, the carnage will continue. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience in Northern Ireland that setting preconditions will prevent attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground.

The Prime Minister’s “good guys versus bad guys” prism is hardly made credible by the presence of al-Qaeda fighters among the west’s favoured rebels, nor by the barbarous murders of innocent Syrian citizens by some rebels. Other parties have started to intervene, such as Hezbollah, in turn dragging in Israel, another lethal development. The collateral impact of 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan is especially dangerous. Iran will not back off because of its key interests.

If the regime were somehow toppled without a settlement in place, the country could descend into even greater chaos. Russia fears that anarchy because, like the US and the UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for example, Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port in a region where the US is well placed militarily. The only way forward is to broker a settlement, with Russia using its leverage to ensure Assad negotiates seriously. Like it or not, Russia is critical, as is engagement with Iran: otherwise, a Syrian settlement will not happen.

The guidelines for a political transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference a year ago on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva II, but the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and their allies must drop their present stance and help to implement that. Preventing Iran and also Assad from attending a peace conference means that it will not even get off the ground. Transitional arrangements that reach the end point of democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity to get them to sign up: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees, including the ranks of the armed forces, must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 October 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as Government forces, should now be heeded. A Yemen-type process may even figure. There a hated president did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election.

This will all be incredibly, tortuously difficult, and I understand that Foreign Office Ministers are seeking to grapple with this on our behalf, but what is certain is that UK policy was always going to fail. The Prime Minister began with a demand for regime change, which did not work. Then he supplied “communications equipment” and other resources, which failed too. Then he tried to supply British arms and got the EU arms embargo lifted, until cross-party opposition in Parliament made that very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Unless there is a radical change, all the hand wringing and condemnation as atrocity follows atrocity is empty. Two years after the Syrian uprising, it is high time for Britain, France and the United States to change course. They, as well as their allies, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, need to recognise that neither side is going to win the civil war now destroying Syria. Instead a political solution has to be the top priority.

Britain needs to work with its friends in the Syrian opposition and persuade them to go to Geneva with a credible plan for a compromise: local ceasefires, access to humanitarian relief, and the names of prospective members of a new Government of national unity, which will include Ministers from the current Syrian Government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria be saved from the current nightmare. All this is going to be incredibly difficult, as I said, but it is the only way forward, I strongly submit. The present policy and past policies have got us into this awful mess.