Saturday 24 March 2018

Syria’s ambassador in London summoned to Foreign Office

David Hughes and Tim Sculthorpe

SYRIA'S ambassador in London has been summoned to the Foreign Office for the Government to make clear its "abhorrence" at the violence in the country, William Hague told MPs.

The UK's ambassador in Damascus has been recalled to London for talks on the situation in Syria, the Foreign Secretary added.

Mr Hague condemned President Bashar Assad's "doomed" and "murdering" regime in a strongly worded Commons statement on the crisis.

He was also highly critical of China and Russia for vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at ending the bloodshed.

Mr Hague said their actions were a "betrayal of the Syrian people" and increased the likelihood of civil war.

Mr Hague said: "We will use our remaining channels to the Syrian regime to make clear our abhorrence at the violence that is utterly unacceptable to the civilised world.

"The Syrian ambassador to London was today summoned to the Foreign Office to receive this message."

Over the weekend a dozen protesters were arrested amid violent scenes at the Syrian embassy in London.

Mr Hague said: "Despite our deteriorating relations with the Syrian government we remain committed to ensuring the safety of its embassy and staff in London.

"We expect the Syrian authorities to provide the same protection to our embassy in Damascus."

Explaining the recall of ambassador Simon Collis, Mr Hague said: "I have today recalled to London our ambassador from Damascus for consultations.

"He and his team work in extremely difficult conditions to ensure that we have an accurate picture of what is happening in Syria."

Mr Hague told MPs: "The human suffering in Syria is already unimaginable and is in grave danger of escalating further.

"The position taken by Russia and China has regrettably made this more likely.

"However this Government, this House, and our country and our allies will not forget the people of Syria.

"We will redouble our efforts to put pressure on this appalling regime and to stop this indefensible violence."

Russia and China were the only two nations on the 15-strong Security Council to vote against the Arab League-backed resolution.

Mr Hague said: "They chose to side with the Syrian regime and implicitly to leave the door open to further abuses by them.

"They did so while President Assad's tanks were encircling Homs and shells were pounding the homes of Syrian civilians, killing up to 200 people, and on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Hama.

"We regard this veto as a grave error of judgment by the governments of China and Russia.

"There is no need to mince words about this. Russia and China have twice vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council.

"Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people. In deploying them, they have let down the Arab League, they have increased the likelihood of what they wish to avoid in Syria - civil war - and they have placed themselves on the wrong side of Arab and international opinion."

Mr Hague continued: "The Syrian regime may have drawn comfort from events at the UN Security Council,

"But we will do everything that we can to make sure that comfort is short-lived.

"This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime. There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally or with its own people."

Mr Hague pledged to continue to support the Arab League's efforts and encouraged the proposal to appoint a special envoy.

The UK "will seek to widen the international coalition of nations seeking a peaceful and lasting resolution in Syria".

This would include playing an active role in an Arab-led group of Friends of Syria "to demonstrate the strength of international support for the people of Syria and their legitimate demands, to co-ordinate intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime, and to engage with Syrian opposition groups committed to a democratic future for the country".

The UK will "intensify" contact with the opposition in Syria and, Mr Hague said.

At the United Nations, the UK would continue to raise the issue of Syria, including the possibility of a resolution at the General Assembly.

Further European Union sanctions could be agreed at the meeting of foreign ministers on February 27.

Mr Hague added: "We will work with others to ensure that those responsible for crimes in Syria are held to account.

"At the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March, we will work to ensure the strongest possible mandate to scrutinise human rights violations in Syria, so that those responsible know that there will be a day of reckoning and that they will be held to account."

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said the Commons statement came "in the dark shadow of the brutal slaughter continuing even today" in Homs.

"Responsibility for the death of these innocent people lies at the door of President Assad and his murderous regime," he said.

It was clear that "the regime has no future and that Assad must go".

Mr Alexander continued: "The recent failure, of which you have just spoken, to reach agreement in the Security Council is such a stain on the conscience of the world."

He said he had not and would not make any criticism of the Government for its stance on dealing with Syria but he did request further information on how Mr Hague was dealing with certain aspects.

He urged Mr Hague to speak to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in advance of his meeting with Assad tomorrow.

Mr Alexander asked: "Have you sought or received any assurances in this meeting the Russian foreign minister at least will reflect the wider will of the international community that Assad must go?"

The shadow foreign secretary asked Mr Hague to press for a joint Arab League and European summit to discuss the way forward to "best co-ordinate the vital steps that now require to be taken".

Mr Alexander also asked about the "level of ambition" for further sanctions expected to emerge from a meeting of European leaders on February 27.

He added: "How recently have you spoken with your Turkish counterpart about the steps Turkey could and we hope should be taking to increase peaceful pressure on Assad?"

Mr Alexander said: "Shortly before this statement, word reached us the US had closed their embassy in Damascus and withdrawn all diplomatic staff from Syria. You made clear in your remarks our ambassador in Damascus has been recalled for talks.

"Will you outline what the Government's assessment of the utility of existing diplomatic channels in light of the continuing violence?"

He concluded: "We welcome the steps already undertaken by the Government to try and increase the pressure and deepen the isolation of President Assad and the Syrian authorities.

"I fear this weekend's Security Council veto has been taken as a green light for sustained slaughter by the Assad regime. Efforts must now be redoubled to end the violence and get a peaceful resolution to the past 11 months of bloodshed."

Replying, Mr Hague said: "(An EU/Arab League summit) is indeed one of the possibilities of bringing together a wider group of nations to address the crisis but I think it would be preferable to have a meeting that goes beyond the European Union and the Arab League since there are also African nations who have been very supportive at the Security Council, Latin American nations as well.

"It's probably best to have as inclusive as possible an international gathering and group that goes beyond Europe and the Arab world - that would be my preference."

But the Foreign Secretary warned the extent of any further sanctions agreed in Europe later this month would be limited because the majority of possible sanctions were already in place.

He said there was an oil ban in place and sanctions placed on more than 100 individuals and entities following 11 earlier rounds of sanctions.

Mr Hague said: "There will be further tightening up of those sanctions we can introduce but I stress, the majority of the sanctions we can introduce we have now introduced, so I don't want to exaggerate what we can do on February 27."

Mr Hague said he had "very regular" conversations with his Turkish counterpart, including last week in New York, and he added: "Turkey was a co-sponsor of the resolution and I would expect Turkey to be very active in the new, informal international grouping we expect to be formed."

The Foreign Secretary said he was in daily conversations with Russia and China but added that what Mr Lavrov had in mind for his visit was difficult "because the Russians are on a different track" to the UK.

Mr Hague said the position of Britain's embassy in Damascus would be kept under review, despite the American decision to order a complete pull-out today. He said he had discussed the position with the UK's ambassador in Damascus immediately before making his Commons statement.

He told MPs: "We have been aware for some days the American embassy would close today. This is primarily on security grounds - our embassy premises are in a different situation and their security is slightly easier to maintain. We will review all options.

"I would prefer that if we make a further change to our diplomatic relations with Syria to act in concert with a wide number of other nations. We will stay close to our partners in the Arab world and in the European Union on this.

"I'm not ruling anything out but there are advantages in maintaining an embassy as long as we can in terms of understanding the situation on the ground, being able to discuss the situation with a variety of people in Syria, being able to impress on some members of the regime the gravity of the situation they have got themselves into.

"I'm not announcing at the moment any closure of our embassy - we will keep that situation under close review

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