Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Surely the right hon. Gentleman accepts that his remorseless drive towards British military intervention through supplying arms—because that is what it is—will make the civil war even worse. Having said that, I welcome his commitment to a negotiated solution, although the only way it has a chance of succeeding is by not maintaining the precondition that Assad must go. Of course we all want to see an end to his barbarous rule, but so long as the precondition that he must go is maintained, the conference will never get off the ground.
Mr Hague: If is of course our opinion—I suspect it is the opinion of everyone in the House—that Assad should go, but we are not producing any new precondition for the conference or recommending that anybody else should do so. Our starting point for the conference is the outcome of last year’s Geneva conference, which agreed that there should be a transitional Government with full Executive powers formed by mutual consent—that the regime and opposition should each be content with those forming that transitional Government. It would be wrong to retreat from what was agreed last year—that is the only basis for peace and democracy in Syria—and we are not adding any further precondition to that.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): But will the Foreign Secretary accept that the logical next step in the strategy that he has been pursuing for six months, if not more, is to arm the opposition? That is the logical position that he is now in, but I think that it is profoundly mistaken. Every time he has made a statement on this matter in the past six months, he has carried the whole House with him in eloquently condemning the horror, the deterioration and the barbarity of the evil Assad regime, but his strategy is wrong. Just going for regime change in what is a civil war, with its Shi’a-Sunni conflict and its reincarnation of the cold war, is never going to achieve his objective. What he should be doing, instead of just promoting the opposition’s call for negotiations, is testing the willingness to negotiate that Assad expressed over the weekend. He should test it to destruction, but he is not doing that. He is pursuing a failed strategy involving a monumental failure of diplomacy, and it is making the situation worse.
Mr Hague: The right hon. Gentleman does not help his case in describing the Government’s position in that way. It very much follows from what I said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary that we believe the apparent offer of President Assad to negotiate must absolutely be tested and tested to destruction. We will certainly do that, and the right hon. Gentleman and I will strongly agree on that. If he were in government today, however, he would have to think about what else to do if that did not work, and it has not worked over the last two years—
Mr Hain: It hasn’t been tried.
Mr Hague: It has been tried countless times: Lakhdar Brahimi has been to Damascus countless times, and Kofi Annan before him went to Damascus countless times. Every possibility has been given to the regime to negotiate, but it has never entered into a sincere or meaningful negotiation. That being the case, it is not adequate to watch slaughter on this scale and say that we will stick our heads in the sand about it. It is important to have a foreign policy that relieves human suffering and upholds human rights. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would always be in favour of that.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I urge the Foreign Secretary, in his forthcoming statement to the Commons, not to change Government policy. This is a military stalemate that cannot be won by the rebels or by the Government. Handing weapons to jihadists and Salafis who are leading attacks and planting bombs will make the killing worse, not better, and will hinder aid efforts with which the UK Government are helping. I urge him not to get dragged into the quagmire of a catastrophic civil war. President Assad, with all his flaws, announced at the weekend that we need to promote negotiations, and the opposition leader has said that he is ready to do so.
Mr Swire: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and he makes a valid point. I stress again, however, that the change to EU sanctions legislation concerns the provision of non-lethal and technical assistance; it is not concerned with the provision of weapons or with arming either side. I repeat what I said earlier: the countries arming President Assad’s Government in particular should stop, because it is they who are directly contributing to the carnage unfolding in Syria.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that his use of terms such as “flexibility” and leaving “all options” on the table could be a prelude to western-backed military intervention, and that that would be disastrous? The cross-party support for his condemnation of the barbarity of Assad’s regime and for political transition would disappear, because this is a civil war. This is not a barbarous dictator versus his people; it is an increasingly deepening civil war and it will not be resolved by military action.
Mr Hague: Let us be clear that it is a barbarous dictator oppressing his own people. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not feel it necessary to argue with something that I have not said; there was no mention in my statement of military intervention, nor any advocacy of that. He is setting himself up to argue with a position that the Government have not taken. [Interruption.] Yes, I am not ruling out options, but I do not think we can do so when we are facing a situation where a six-figure number of people might die this year. It would not be responsible to do that as we do not know how the situation will develop. So I am keeping our options open, but the dangers and drawbacks of military intervention are well understood in the House and in the Government.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): But surely the Foreign Secretary must accept that his specific and chilling refusal to rule out western, British-backed military activity in Syria will make a disastrous policy even more disastrous. Nobody can win this civil war. Assad’s savage regime has the backing of at least a third of the population, including Christians and other minorities. The conflict is also a proxy for Sunni versus Shi’a, for Saudi Arabia versus Iran and for the west versus Russia and China. We have to resolve this by political settlement, not by upping the military stakes.
Mr Hague: I think I made the point a few moments ago that there can only be a political and diplomatic solution. It is also important to point out that no one knows exactly how events in Syria will proceed in the coming months and years. Situations such as the one that arose in Libya last year and the present one in Syria are uncharted territory in international affairs. It is foolish to rule out options when we do not know how the situation will proceed. However, it is right to place huge emphasis on diplomatic and political progress and on humanitarian assistance, as I have done in my statement.