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Alistair Burt MP: The prospects for Syria in 2013

Burt AlistairAlistair Burt is Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Middle East, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

As Syria’s tragedy endures another new year, there will be renewed focus on what prospects there might be that by the end of 2013 there will have been some relief to the misery we see unfolding day after day.

It is taking time to be clear on all the strands emerging from the turbulence in the Arab world. One thing is already obvious – whatever similarities there might be in the causes of upheaval, each state is different, so consequences are different too. What began as a peaceful protest for reform in Syria, not regime change, was met with such violence from the Government of Bashar Assad that the protests steadily evolved into civil war. So far, so Libya. But crucial differences between the two meant there could be no comparisons in events or outcome.

Syria’s role in the Arab world was more pivotal than Libya’s. This initially held back a united Arab response. The UN was unable to take concerted action to condemn Syria’s growing unacceptable actions due to Russia’s worry that it had been outmanoeuvred over Libya by the West, and did not wish to lose its influence or ally in Syria. The complex nature of Syrian society, exploited by Assad father and son for decades, ensured that there would be those, from Christians to Allawites, who would see the regime as their only bulwark against sectarian conflagration and would therefore join the regime in resisting the change being demanded. Add to this mix the malign influence of Iran, in materially and diplomatically supporting Syria as part of its generations old conflict against Arab influence in the region, the Sunni/Shia divide, the fear of contagion to neighbouring states and you begin to see why resolving the situation in Syria has proved so intractable.

So whilst the protests began as an expression of internal Syrian opposition, there is no doubt now that it has been joined by a variety of forces from many places, with differing motives and outcomes in mind. This is a further complicating and concerning factor.

It became clear that the Assad regime was responding with increasing and unacceptable violence towards its own people, and had lost its legitimacy. The UK role evolved to working multi-laterally and bilaterally to secure the best outcome for the Syrian people, as that was also in the best interests of the UK. We have supported the efforts of the UN and Arab League joint Special Envoys to seek a political transition according to principles agreed last June in Geneva, and have continually pressed for the UN to condemn more clearly the actions of the Assad regime, and deprive it of diplomatic support. We have taken a leading role in driving sanctions through the EU, believing that a combination of economic and diplomatic pressure helps the UN process.

As part of an EU Arms embargo we have not been supplying more weapons into a volatile situation, but have been providing increasing non-lethal support to carefully targeted groups to assist with communications and medical assistance.

At the same time our officials have been outstanding in their patient work with the disparate Syrian opposition, again with a very different dynamic to that which operated in Libya, seeking to bring them together to form a credible vehicle for the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. This has been a difficult process, as no-one should underestimate the difficulties caused by the civil war which exacerbates the distinction between those in Syria and those promoting the cause of reform from outside. But the recognition by 130 nations at the Friends of Syria meeting in Marrakech on 12th December that the Syrian National Coalition does represent such a credible body was in no small part due to the persistence of the UK.

Nor have we forgotten the desperate needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled principally into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The UK is the second highest donor to international efforts, our £68.5m to date covering food, water, medical supplies and shelter. The winter will increase needs, and we are urging other nations to meet their obligations to the UN Appeal.

But 2013 dawns on a pretty bleak scene in Syria, and our anxiety increases daily. The scale of destruction is huge. Special Envoy Brahimi, to whom I spoke on New Year’s Eve, talks of damage on a scale of Berlin post 1945, and of a further 100,000 who may die this year.

With urgency we are tackling the following. Firstly intensifying still further the diplomatic efforts to have the regime end the violence against its people, and commence the political transition to which all UN Security Council members are committed. This involves supporting the Special Envoy and continuing to explore with Russia ways in which the Assad regime can be moved. Secondly working with the Syrian National Coalition to build its legitimacy, and ensuring that adherence to human rights, to protection of minorities and to prisoners becomes fundamental to the new Syria. This will involve isolating those extremists who cannot accept the democratic nature of any transition. Thirdly increasing the preparations for ‘the day after’ Assad, working with multi-lateral organisations, other countries and those in touch with those on the ground in Syria who must keep the bread being baked, the water and power on, and ensure civil protection when the regime falls.

None of this will be easy. Success will depend on events, many of which are beyond the UK’s control, nor are we naïve in relation to those whose agenda may be very different to the desire for peace of the majority of Syrians. That is why we must keep all our options open, and ensure maximum flexibility with EU sanctions and its arms embargo. Syria is unfolding as a tragedy, one which may well endure for a time even after Assad, but the greater tragedy would be for us and the rest of the international community to turn away. The UK will not do so.

Foreign Secretary William Hague has been assiduous in keeping the British people and Parliament updated through regular statements to Parliament. Expect this to continue in 2013.


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