David Cameron promised today that Britain will not “plunge recklessly” into deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war, but said it was not possible to ignore the escalating slaughter going on in the country.
The Prime Minister was addressing the House of Commons on the outcome of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland which was dominated by tensions over the Syrian conflict, but resulted in an agreement committing leaders of the world’s most influential countries to an attempt to revive peace talks in Geneva.
While acknowledging that there were “very different views” among G8 leaders over Syria, Mr Cameron told MPs that the “open, honest and frank” talks at Lough Erne had resulted in agreement on the principle that “there is no military victory to be won and all our efforts must be focused on the ultimate goal of a political solution”.
The PM also hailed what he said was significant progress on his economic priorities of boosting trade, tackling tax evasion and increasing business transparency, which he said would now be “written into the DNA” of future gatherings of world leaders at G8 and G20 level.
Mr Cameron told MPs: “We are faced with a dramatically escalating humanitarian disaster, with more than 90,000 dead and almost six million people having had to flee their homes.
“There is a radicalisation of terrorists and extremists who pose a direct threat to the security of the region and also the world. There is a great risk to the peace and stability of Syria’s neighbours and the longstanding international prohibition on chemical weapons is being breached by a dictator who is brutalising his people.
“None of this constitutes an argument for plunging in recklessly. We will not do so and we will not take any major actions without first coming to this House.
“But we can’t simply ignore this continuing slaughter.”
Mr Cameron said the international community should reject President Bashar Assad’s warnings that his departure would leave the country in the hands of violent extremists, pointing out that the G8 had agreed such groups must be “defeated and expelled from their havens in Syria”.
And he left little doubt that an assurance contained in the summit communique, that Syria’s police and armed forces will not be disbanded in the event of a change of power, should be seen as a tacit encouragement for security chiefs in Damascus to remove Assad in a coup.
The assurance would “send a clear message to those loyalists looking for an alternative to Assad”, he told MPs.
He urged the international community to support proposed peace talks in Geneva. The White House revealed last night that US, Russian, and UN officials will meet in Geneva on June 25 to begin discussions on who should represent the regime and opposition sides at the talks.
Mr Cameron told MPs: “We are committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. This is not easy, but the essential first step must be to get agreement between the main international powers with influence over Syria. That is what we have done at the G8 in Lough Erne. We must now turn these statements into actions.”
The PM said the economic principles contained in the Lough Erne Declaration, signed by the leaders of the G8 countries – the UK, US, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia – amounted to “a bold new pro-business agenda to drive a dramatic increase in trade and to get to grips with the problems of tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance and corporate secrecy”.
He told MPs: “This agenda has now I believe been written into the DNA of the G8 and G20 summits, I hope, for many years to come.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband raised concerns over reports that the Geneva talks may not begin until July or even August, and asked Mr Cameron to make clear whether he is keeping open the option of supply arms to the rebel forces before the negotiations begin.
The PM responded that no date had been agreed by the G8 yesterday, but added: “There is a real sense of urgency and we all want to see this happen in the weeks ahead.”
Mr Miliband told the Commons: “The reality is that we didn’t witness the long hoped-for breakthrough on Syria at the G8 summit and we should be candid about that.
“None of us should doubt the difficulty of the choices that confront this Government and governments around the world. The Prime Minister knows that on the steps agreed this week on terrorism, on the issues of Afghanistan and Libya, I have given him my full support.
“But can I urge him in the months ahead to proceed with the greatest possible clarity about his strategy and purpose and seek to build the greatest possible consensus across this House.”