The Syrian Foreign Minister suggested on 22 June that Britain and other European nations are inciting division in Syria. In reality we seek the opposite. European Foreign Ministers met on 20 June and agreed that “the only way to provide stability for Syria in the long term (is) a peaceful transition to democracy, based on national unity and respectful of the rights of all citizens.”
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague and other European Ministers stressed that the only route to this stability is through a political process. They called again on the Syrian authorities to launch a credible, genuine and inclusive national dialogue and meaningful political reforms without delay.
They also emphasised that for this process to take place it is necessary for the Syrian authorities to stop violence, stop the arrest and intimidation of Syrian citizens, and release all those arrested in connection with the protests as well as other political prisoners who remain in detention despite the recent amnesty.
The second amnesty announced by President Assad during his recent speech offers an opportunity to release figures like Kamal Labwani, who were not released under the first amnesty. I very much hope this opportunity will be taken.
Mr Muallem also said that EU sanctions target the livelihood of Syrian citizens. The reality is that the serious problems facing the Syrian economy today are a result of the collapse of tourism and investment, and of big drops in transit trade and consumer confidence. These problems are a direct and predictable consequence of the way the Syrian authorities have chosen to deal with the crisis, by using security agencies to disrupt peaceful protests by force. The targeted sanctions that the EU has so far taken are directed against 30 named individuals and 4 entities who are associated with the violence perpetrated by the Syrian authorities against their own people. This cannot be used to blame outsiders for the economic problems that Syria now faces.
I was pleased to hear Mr Muallem’s call for diplomats in Syria to be objective and to report what we see. British diplomats responded positively to an offer of access to Jisr Al Shughour on 20 June. We have been pressing for similar access for international humanitarian agencies as well as international media and diplomats to other places where there has been violence in Syria, such as Deraa, Homs, Tal Kalakh, Talbisa, Rastan and Baniyas where there have been reports that Syrian civilians have been killed during protests. A UN report indicates that over 1,000 people have been killed in Syria in recent months, and over 10,000 detained. This is a completely disproportionate response to a largely peaceful protest movement.
What our diplomats saw in Jisr As Shughour was consistent with an attack by armed people on a Syrian military post, and other public buildings. We condemn violence from all sides, and call on demonstrators in Syria to uphold the largely peaceful nature of the protests. The right of security force members to defend themselves cannot justify the shooting of unarmed protesters. And the only way to ensure objective reporting of the often complicated situation in Syria is through unfettered access.
Since I first visited Syria over thirty years ago, I have known its people to be proud, independent and welcoming to foreigners. Most Syrians I know do not want foreign intervention, and this is not Britain’s approach. But they do want to know that the rest of the world stands with them in their present peaceful struggle for the same fundamental rights and opportunities to which people everywhere are entitled, and which people across the region are currently demanding.