The coming year could bring a "perfect storm of crises" in the Middle East if the world does not tackle Syria's civil war, Iran's nuclear program and the stalled Israel-Palestine peace talks, visiting British Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned.
Mr Hague, delivering the John Howard lecture at Sydney's Menzies Research Centre on Thursday, also flagged a stronger international response to the Syrian crisis, which could include supplying the country's rebels with body armour and chemical detection equipment.
"2013 will be a crucial year in the Middle East," the former Conserative Party leader told an audience of senior Liberal Party figures.
"We could see a perfect storm of crises converging if the conflict in Syria continues, the Middle East peace protest remains stalled, and if Iran will not enter into meaningful negotiations over its nuclear program."
Mr Hague said Britain, like Australia, would prefer a political solution to the bloody fighting between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces, in which at least 60,000 people have been killed.
"But if the killing and violence continues and there is no diplomatic breakthrough, the international community must be ready to step up its response," he said.
While military intervention remains unlikely, Britain has successfully pushed to hasten the end of the European Union's arms embargo against Syria – a move that could pave the way for helping arm moderate elements in the opposition.
Australia has effectively ruled out any contribution towards arming the rebels.
Mr Hague played down any suggestion of a difference of opinion between Australia and Britain, stressing that an end to the arms embargo merely gave "flexibility" to send life-saving equipment such as body armour or chemical detection equipment to the rebels.
Mr Hague added: "But how much we want to use that flexibility will depend on the situation. Our efforts are directed to a peaceful diplomatic and political solution in Syria. We don't believe there is a solution from the military victory of one side over another. That would leave Syria in an even more catastrophic position."
There was speculation that Mr Hague would miss the joint Australia-UK defence and foreign affairs talks in Perth on Friday, to attend to the hostage crisis in Algeria.
Fairfax Media understands that Mr Hague will stay for the talks, which will cover security issues in countries such as Mali and Syria, and fly out of Australia at 5.30pm (WST).
Also in Sydney on Thursday, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that Australia would present its plan for protecting medical workers and ensuring access to hospitals in Syria to the United Nations Security Council on Friday.
This would include getting a pledge from all sides not to target medical personnel, not to block access to doctors and not to attack medical facilities. This could be observed by a neutral third party.
"Australia is not naïve enough to think that we alone can achieve UNSC action to deliver a ceasefire in Syria," Senator Carr said.
"But we believe we can at least persuade others with influence in that country to press for measures allowing doctors and other medical workers to do their job."
He stressed it was "a humanitarian intervention and has no political or military aspects".
with Judith Ireland