Middle East Peace Process, Syria And Iran

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I support the Foreign Secretary in his efforts to build on the success on chemical weapons that has been achieved through negotiations by securing an early Geneva II conference. It is crucial to get the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrian Government there, along with our international allies and the moderate opposition. He may have to refuse to accept that recalcitrant, let alone jihadist, opposition groups can exercise a veto.

May I also ask the Foreign Secretary to schedule a full day’s debate on Syria on a substantive motion, because we have not had a chance to discuss Syria policy in detail, despite his admirably regular updates? A pre-agreed motion might afford the House an opportunity to unite around Syria policy, when in August we were divided on military action.

Mr Hague: Personally, I am entirely open to such a debate. The Leader of the House is here. I do not know whether he is open to it, given all the pressures on him, but he will have heard the legitimate point that the right hon. Gentleman has made.

The progress that we have made in setting an ambition to convene the Geneva II peace conference has involved working closely with Russia. It is the product of the five permanent members of the Security Council working together during the General Assembly. That is an important and welcome step on Syria, given the history of the past two and a half years.

Syria – We Need To Be At The Negotiating Table

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I wish the Foreign Secretary every success in the attempt to remove chemical weapons from Syria? I am sure he will acknowledge, however, that they account for just 1% of all the casualties in this awful civil war. Will he use his influence to persuade the whole of the opposition, a significant part of which is opposed to the process now going on in the United Nations to resolve the chemical weapons issue, to come to the negotiating table, because it takes two to tango? It will be difficult enough getting Assad and the Russians and the Iranians lining up; it is essential that he use his influence to get the opposition willing to negotiate as well.

Mr Hague: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is very important that the regime and the national coalition are ready to negotiate in a second Geneva conference on the basis of what was agreed at Geneva last year. A large part of the discussions that I had with the national coalition last week was that they must be ready to do that at any time, and that their own dissociation from the use of chemical weapons must be made as clear as possible. They received that message very, very strongly from me last week, and they will continue to do so.

G20 – Syrian Civil War Can Only Be Ended By Negotiated Settlement

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Can I take it from the Prime Minister’s statement that he now agrees that the Syrian civil war can only be ended not by military action but by a negotiated settlement, however difficult, involving the Iranians, the Russians and, yes, Assad too? Will he use his influence with the opposition forces, which have so far been unwilling to come to such a negotiation, to say that they must have ceasefires locally and access to humanitarian relief, and nominate people who will serve as Ministers alongside existing Government Ministers in a Government of transition to prepare for elections?

The Prime Minister: We would certainly encourage all parties to take part in the Geneva II talks when a date is set and they get moving. It is obviously in all our interests to see that political process work. The only point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that at the same time it is absolutely right for the British Government and other like-minded Governments to stand up for the millions of people in Syria who want a future free from terror—a future free from Assad. We need to make sure that there is a Syrian opposition who are strong enough, both on the ground as well as diplomatically and politically, to do that.

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.

Syria – We Don’t Want To Repeat The West’s Failure Over Bosnia

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): We are all caught between horror at what is going on, and Britain’s and the west’s failure over Bosnia and not wishing to repeat that, but the only hope is to redouble the efforts that the Foreign Secretary has indicated he is pursuing with the Russian Government. Their strategic interests through their Mediterranean port in Syria and their other interests in Syria hold the key. Whether we like it or not, we are not going to achieve any progress by on the one hand encouraging the Russians to think that western intervention is yapping at their heels, and on the other hand thinking that just by berating them we are going to get any progress. The truth is that, whether we like it or not, we have to engage them and make them see that their own strategic interests will be advanced by resolving this problem, which probably only they can do.

Mr Hague: That is entirely the case that we are making. Of course we often make some criticism of their position, as they do of ours, in public but we have a good working relationship with the Russian leaders. I have discussed this many times and at great length, as the House can gather, with Sergei Lavrov and will no doubt do so again over the coming days. We will keep making exactly that case because, as we have been discussing over the past few minutes, all the alternatives to bringing about the full implementation of the Annan plan or something very close to it are extremely bloody and have unknowable consequences.