[Relevant document: Tenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Further amendments to EU restrictive measures against the Syrian regime, HC 83-x.]
I beg to move,
That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.
I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to support the motion and to thank other colleagues across the House for supporting it. Matters of war and peace are extremely serious, whether we are talking about direct intervention, the provision of lethal support or, in this case, the narrower matter of arming the Syrian rebels. They therefore involve serious decisions for the Prime Minister—or for any Prime Minister. Lives are at risk, and while we accept that no decisions have been made on this matter to date, it is appropriate that such decisions should have the support of Parliament.
In many ways, the debate on this matter has already been a success. When we first discovered that the Government were seeking to lift the EU arms embargo, there was no statement from the Government; we discovered it for ourselves. Initially, there was some confusion. There was certainly no clarity as to whether Parliament should vote to authorise any arming of the rebels. At first, there was talk of consulting, and there were hints and indications. These were confirmed in media exchanges only three or four weeks ago, when colleagues on both sides of the House who support arming the rebels advocated that Parliament would not be bound by any such vote and that no such vote was required before a policy to arm the rebels was decided upon and executed.
Through the efforts of parliamentarians on both sides, and through the general debate on the matter, we have achieved greater clarity. The Government have firmed up on their promises over the past couple of weeks, culminating in the Foreign Secretary’s unambiguous statement to the House yesterday that any such decision would be subject to a vote in this place before such a policy was executed. That is definitely a positive move, and we now have greater clarity than when we first started this journey. That is very welcome.
I want to make a further point about parliamentary oversight. Having opposed the interventions in Iraq and Libya, and observed the morphing of the mission in Afghanistan into a nation-building programme, I sympathise to a large extent with the view that Parliament sometimes comes late to these decisions. We debated and voted on the question of Iraq as the troops were on the start line. When the mission in Afghanistan morphed into one of nation building, it was suggested—although not promised—that we would be in and out without firing a shot, but 440 lives later we are still counting the cost. The vote on Libya took place almost as the jets were leaving the airfields, so there are lessons that need to be learned on the parliamentary scrutiny of these important decisions.
Many Members believe that this debate is of paramount importance, because we fear the consequences of arming the rebels. There are no easy answers in regard to the bitter and bloody civil war in Syria—atrocities are being committed by both sides—but I and others would caution against the UK getting more closely involved from a military point of view. If humanitarian concerns are uppermost in people’s minds, which I do not doubt for a moment, it beggars belief that anyone could suggest that pouring more arms into the conflict would not add to the violence and suffering. The United Nations Secretary-General was absolutely right to say that there could be no military solution to the conflict. That is why putting more arms into the conflict would not be helpful.
Could we be sure, if we were to arm the rebels against Assad and Hezbollah, that we would not be supporting al-Qaeda or creating a Shi’a-Sunni cross-border conflict, and that we would not be supporting a proxy war between Russia and the west? Is it worth the risk?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. One of the problems with this conflict is that there are extremists on both sides. On the rebel side, for example, we know that al-Nusra has close links with jihadist and extremist groups including al-Qaeda. The Government have not been able to answer the question about how they would track and trace weapons to ensure that they did not fall into the wrong hands. We need to remember that in that part of the world weapons are tradable assets. Very little escapes the bazaar. Given that the situation on the ground is fast moving and fluid, it would be nigh-on impossible to ensure that such arms did not fall into the wrong hands.
Does my hon. Friend agree that things have moved on a great deal since we voted for or against the intervention in Iraq? That was a mess, and many people are now sorry that they voted as they did. It is important that we should be able to work out what is happening and make the decision ourselves. This should not be a decision for the Government.
I take on board what my hon. Friend has said, and I agree with him in large part. There is a deficit of trust on these issues, partly courtesy of the Iraq decision but also because of Afghanistan. That is why it is even more important for Parliament to express its view. We should not be bounced into a decision simply because we are heading into a recess.
We need to learn from our mistakes in other respects as well. For example, we armed the mujaheddin in the 1980s, and we armed Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran. Some of those weapons were eventually pointed against us. Many of the weapons supplied to Libya have ended up in Syria and northern Mali. We have made mistakes on this front, and we must learn from them.
Will my hon. Friend at least acknowledge that doing nothing also has a cost, and that if we do nothing, two things will happen? The Assad regime will continue to try to slaughter its own people into submission. Where 12 months ago there were hardly any Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground, there are today perhaps 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000, and if we continue to do nothing, we create the space to allow more and more jihadis to come into the ground. If we support the moderate opposition, that will stop the flaking off from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra.
I take on board what my hon. Friend says, but I think it does him no service to try to create the impression that those of us who suggest that we should not arm the rebels are insisting that we do nothing. It is actually quite the opposite. I think there is an awful lot that we could be doing—on the humanitarian front and on the diplomatic front. I will return to the issue in a minute or two, if my hon. Friend will bear with me. I will allow him in again, if he wishes to come back to me.
If I had another concern, it would be that, as has been hinted at already, the civil war in Syria is in many respects a proxy war being fought out at different levels—whether it be Sunni versus Shi’a Muslim; the old Persian gulf rivalry of Iran versus Saudi Arabia; or indeed the west versus Russia and China. The risk of pouring more weapons into this conflict and of pouring more fuel on to the fire is that we not only increase the violence within Syria but extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders in very large measure. That would be a mistake of historic proportions.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) about doing nothing, I would suggest that there is a lot more that we can do, particularly on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am listening carefully to what he is saying. Has he considered the risk of how this debate and his motion will be interpreted? The arms are pouring into Syria from the Sunni factions in Qatar and Saudi, and the Russians are pouring weapons into Syria, yet we seem to be sending the message that we will do nothing for the other side—the forces of democracy and freedom. Is that the message that my hon. Friend wants to send, because it may inadvertently be the message that the Russians will understand from this debate?
I think my hon. Friend does himself a disservice by misunderstanding the stated intention of this debate. It is not that we should do nothing; it is that we as a Parliament should have a say and that our explicit authorisation should be given before any arming of the rebels. We are not making a decision today about whether we should or should not arm the rebels. The motion is very clear that no decision should be made about arming, or, rather, that no policy should be implemented about arming
“without the explicit prior consent of Parliament”.
That is an important distinction. Let me move on, because the issue has been raised before.
The argument is often made that we are to do nothing. Well, there is an awful lot more we can do. On the humanitarian front, for example, why are many refugee camps desperately short of basic amenities? Britain has done more than its fair share—I do not deny that for one moment—but the bottom line is that there are still desperate shortages, so we could do even more there. On the diplomatic front, most people would accept that there can be no military solution to this problem in the longer term; there has to be a diplomatic solution. Why, then, as is presently the case, is the west trying to exclude Iran, a key player in the region and within the country, from the forthcoming peace talks being arranged by the Russians? Time will tell when those talks take place, but there is no doubt that there is an intention at the moment to exclude the Iranians, which is nonsensical.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for introducing this debate. Is he aware that the UK’s humanitarian assistance to the Syrian crisis currently runs at £348 million, and is already the single largest funding commitment ever made by the UK in response to a humanitarian disaster?
I am aware that we are leading the field when it comes to humanitarian relief. My response was really aimed at those who suggest that because someone does not believe in throwing more weapons into the conflict, they are advocating doing nothing. There is a lot more that can be done, even taking into account the assistance we are already giving. It cannot be denied that a number of these refugee camps are desperately short of basic amenities. As I say, more can be done on that front, despite the aid we are already putting in.
I am conscious that there is a categorical difference between humanitarian aid and arming rebels against a Government. Irrespective of whether we support the rebels in their aims, the reality is, according to the Commons Library brief, that doing so might be an act of aggression under article 2(4) of the UN convention, so it might be illegal for us to do it anyway.
I take on board my hon. Friend’s points. With law—international law in particular—one can find lawyers to substantiate both sides of an argument. I therefore tend not to focus too much on international law, although I have a sneaking feeling that we will return to the subject later on.
I hear what my right hon. and learned Friend says. That is why I think it is important that we focus on the practical and moral implications of such a policy.
In answer to colleagues’ points about doing nothing, I think that history provides a guide to what we should do. The last decade would suggest that trying to promote democracy and human rights, which is the Government’s stated objective, by force of arms can often be counter-productive. If we look at north Africa and parts of the middle east, we see the seeds of democracy stuttering into life where we have committed relatively few resources. If we look at Iraq and Afghanistan, however, it is not such a rosy picture, despite the huge cost in lives and treasure.
If we wanted to go back further, we could look at our interventions since the second world war. They have had a tendency to have an embedding effect—to reinforce the existing regimes. It is no coincidence, I put it to the House, that communism has survived longest in those countries where the west actually intervened—Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, even China. We have to be careful about our interventions.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned North Korea. Could we for the record confirm as a matter of fact that it was not the west that intervened in North Korea? It was actually the United Nations that was involved in defending the Koreans against aggression from the north and from China.
To a certain extent, but the hon. Gentleman well knows that both sides put in forces up to the 38th parallel. Yes, the northern forces attacked, but the bottom line is that both sides—including the UN—put in forces initially. Putting that to one side, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not detract from the point that interventions have tended to have an embedding effect, particularly in the other examples I provided. We have to be very careful about intervention.
As an aside, I certainly believe that we need to make greater use of soft power—the ability to coerce and persuade by non-violent means—which can often be more effective and cost-effective than conventional hard power. It saddens me to say this, although I will do so while the Minister is in his place, that we are making cuts to our soft power capability, including the BBC World Service, the British Council and, indeed, the Foreign Office itself. We need to ensure that our military are up to the mark—one is not saying anything else—but the emphasis in the past was too much on hard power. We should better nuance our approach to foreign policy, particularly in this information age.
In conclusion, I am conscious that the debate has been over-subscribed and I look forward to hearing the contributions from hon. Members. It is terribly important that we put a marker in the sand, saying that Parliament must be consulted and that no lethal interventions can take place
“without the explicit prior consent of Parliament”.
That is not to prejudge the decision itself, but the principle is there. I welcome the fact that the Government have in recent months been on a little bit of a journey on this, particularly given the indications they gave at the start, which contained no conclusive confirmation that a vote would take place before any arming of the rebels. I welcome the development and I welcome the efforts of colleagues of all parties—and indeed this debate—in helping to crystallise that fact. I very much look forward to hearing the debate that follows.
The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) spoke eloquently for the majority view in the House, as does the motion. May I apologise in advance for having to leave the Chamber if the debate runs past 3.15, as I have a long-standing speaking commitment?
I am not a pacifist. I was a Cabinet Minister when the decision was taken to invade Iraq. I was Africa Minister when we sent troops to save Sierra Leone from savagery. But as a former Foreign Office Minister responsible for middle east policy, including Syria, I vehemently oppose British military intervention of any kind in Syria.
We all share the Prime Minister’s genuine anger at the humanitarian disaster. We all agree that Bashar al-Assad has become a callous butcher who, instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab spring reached Syria in March 2011, drove his people into carnage and chaos. Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror, and so have the Saudis and Qataris. But Britain, too, is culpable. We should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. Instead we began by demanding Assad’s unconditional surrender and departure. However, calling for regime change meant chasing an unattainable goal at the cost of yet more bloodshed and destruction, and so did supporting a rebel military victory.
That was fatal. Britain should have offered a practical strategy to end a deepening civil war, because this was never simply a conflict between a brutal regime and the Syrian people. Assad and the ruling Shi’a-aligned Alawite minority form a 10th of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant, as they fear, being oppressed by the Sunni majority. Christians and other minorities are similarly nervous about change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add the Kurds and the total reaches about 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his Ba’athist rule, but they fear even more the alternative—becoming victims of genocide, jihadism or sharia extremism.
This is not some simplistic battle between evil and good. Nor is it simply a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It is a civil war, and a highly complex one into which Britain treads at its peril. It involves Sunni versus Shi’a, Saudi Arabia versus Iran and, a cold war hangover, the US versus Russia.
I do not necessarily demur from a single word of the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the complexity of the conflict, but what effect does it have on the efforts to bring those parties to the negotiating table when the International Criminal Court makes it virtually impossible to manage any kind of orderly transition, let alone continuity in the existing regime? He seems to be suggesting that that might be one of the options.
I will address that point in a minute.
Regime change in Damascus could be the outcome of a negotiated solution, but if, as the UK and the US are effectively doing, getting rid of Assad is set as the precondition for talks, the carnage will continue. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience in Northern Ireland that setting preconditions will prevent attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground.
The Prime Minister’s “good guys versus bad guys” prism is hardly made credible by the presence of al-Qaeda fighters among the west’s favoured rebels, nor is it by the barbarous murders of innocent Syrian citizens by some rebels. Other parties have started to intervene, such as Hezbollah, in turn dragging in Israel, another lethal development. The collateral impact of 1 million Syrian refugees in Jordan is especially dangerous. Iran will not back off because of its key interests.
If the regime were somehow toppled without a settlement in place, the country could descend into even greater chaos. Russia fears that anarchy because, like the US and the UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for example, Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port in a region where the US is well placed militarily. The only way forward is to broker a settlement, with Russia using its leverage to ensure Assad negotiates seriously. Like it or not, Russia is critical, as is engagement with Iran: otherwise, a Syrian settlement will not happen.
The guidelines for a political transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference a year ago on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva II, but the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and their allies must drop their present stance and help to implement that. Preventing Iran and also Assad from attending a peace conference means that it will not even get off the ground. Transitional arrangements that reach the end point of democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity to get them to sign up: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees, including the ranks of the armed forces, must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 October 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as Government forces, should now be heeded. A Yemen-type process may even figure. There a hated president did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election.
This will all be incredibly, tortuously difficult, and I understand that Foreign Office Ministers are seeking to grapple with this on our behalf, but what is certain is that UK policy was always going to fail. The Prime Minister began with a demand for regime change, which did not work. Then he supplied “communications equipment” and other resources, which failed too. Then he tried to supply British arms and got the EU arms embargo lifted, until cross-party opposition in Parliament made that very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Unless there is a radical change, all the hand wringing and condemnation as atrocity follows atrocity is empty. Two years after the Syrian uprising, it is high time for Britain, France and the United States to change course. They, as well as their allies, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, need to recognise that neither side is going to win the civil war now destroying Syria. Instead a political solution has to be the top priority.
Britain needs to work with its friends in the Syrian opposition and persuade them to go to Geneva with a credible plan for a compromise: local ceasefires, access to humanitarian relief, and the names of prospective members of a new Government of national unity, which will include Ministers from the current Syrian Government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria be saved from the current nightmare. All this is going to be incredibly difficult, as I said, but it is the only way forward, I strongly submit. The present policy and past policies have got us into this awful mess.
I must begin by apologising to the House, and indeed to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), for not being present at the outset of the debate. I was attending a meeting of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which was held outside this building.
I agree almost completely with what my hon. Friend said and, not for the first time in the House, I am able to say that I agree in similar terms with the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). This debate is not strictly about the supply of arms; it is about whether the House should have a role in determining whether that supply should take place.
In considering the question at the centre of the motion, we must pay some regard to the consequences and to the questions that would necessarily arise. The first question is one I have repeated elsewhere: to whom would we supply arms? If we did supply them, in whose hands would they ultimately rest? What would we give? The sort of things that are being discussed are highly sophisticated—it is not like loosing off several hundred rounds from a Kalashnikov. Therefore, how would we ensure that any arms that we gave were properly used? We could only do that by sending either military or civilian technicians. That might not constitute boots on the ground in the traditional sense, but it would certainly constitute intervention.
The third question to which I believe we are entitled to seek an answer is this: what impact would the supply of arms have on the relationship between Russia and Syria? As we have already seen in the supply of shore-to-ship missiles over the last few weeks, anything that the so-called west attempts to do would be bound to be met by a similar incremental approach by Russia.
I thought I made that point a moment ago.
We have in this House in recent years established not a precedent in any formal sense, or, indeed, a convention in any constitutional sense, but on the occasion of military action against Iraq the House was given the opportunity to vote, and more recently on the occasion of possible involvement with France, supported by the United States, in relation to Libya again the House was given the opportunity to vote. It might be argued that the supply of arms does not fall neatly into that category, but my argument would be that it constitutes a major change in the foreign policy of this Government, with unknown political, military and perhaps even constitutional significance. That being the case, I would argue as strongly as possible that the House is entitled to pass judgment on this policy before it is implemented. Indeed, I go further than that: were the Government to implement a policy of this kind without allowing the House an opportunity to pass judgment, it would be an abuse of process, and would most certainly be regarded as such outside this House.
The devil is always in the detail. I hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about not giving arms directly to the opposition, but does he then believe that if we are selling arms to a third party such as Saudi Arabia and those arms then go on to Syria, we should again seek the approval of the House before selling any further arms to a third-party country such as Saudi?
My hon. Friend will be well aware that there is an agreement called the al-Yamamah agreement which regulates the sale of arms from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, and if he is suggesting we should violate that agreement I think he had better consult Ministers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and perhaps also the chief executive officer of BAE.
The point I want to make is that this is a decision of such significance and with such important potential consequences that the House should have the opportunity to pass judgment. There are those who say, “All right, we are doing nothing then.” That is true, in that we may not be doing quite as much as some of us would like, but I do not think it is an issue for regret that we are the highest single donor of humanitarian aid. I think we should be immensely proud of that, and having taken that decision, we should be encouraging others to do the same.
Let me give an illustration of that. Jordan is a country with which we are closely allied, and it is a neighbouring country in the region which has received very large numbers of refugees. The refugee camps are characterised by forced marriage, rape and violence, and the impact on the fragile economy—and, indeed, the fragile Government—of Jordan of an influx of refugees on the scale now being experienced must inevitably have an effect on that country. If we were preparing our humanitarian effort for its own intrinsic merit, we would also be creating a pragmatic outcome in helping to protect from possible instability a country that is of great importance to us and of great importance in the middle east, not least because it, along with Egypt, signed a peace agreement with Israel.
Another point the right hon. Member for Neath made very eloquently is that no solution is possible without Russia. That may be thoroughly distasteful to us, but it is a fact, and therefore establishing some agreement with Moscow and joining together—as John Kerry, the US Secretary of State suggested—could be a very powerful factor in providing the political solution that everyone agrees is necessary.
The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has twice said from a sedentary position that no one was barring Iran from any conference in Geneva, and I am delighted to hear that. He would give me even more comfort if he were to say positively that Iran would be invited, however, because this issue is of very considerable regional significance, and Ahmadinejad has been replaced by someone who is alleged to be of a less combative nature, and we now have an opportunity to test that out, and to see whether there is genuinely a change in Iran’s attitude on issues of this kind.
One further thing we can do, which I do not think has been mentioned yet, is to counsel Israel against intervention. The Golan heights, occupied by Israel, remain an issue of great political significance in Syria, particularly for the current President, whose father was the Minister of Defence when the Golan heights were lost. Israel has an interest in that regard, but I do not believe its interests would be properly served by becoming engaged militarily. I hope the British Government are putting that argument in the strongest possible terms to the Government of Israel.
Let me conclude by reiterating that this is a very significant foreign policy proposal. The Government have said that they have not yet decided whether to implement it, but if they want to have the discretion to take a decision of this kind, it can only be because they have considered that decision among a range of options. We need only look at who has signed this motion to see that they come from across the entire political spectrum. The motion is therefore the determination of those from all parts of this House, and that is why I believe the proper course of action is for it to be passed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on initiating this debate. I am opposed to arms being sent to the rebels in Syria, but let me make this absolutely clear: if I had a different viewpoint, I would still be of the opinion that it is Parliament that should decide whether or not such a decision should be taken. A great deal is said about reforms and changes for Parliament, but one of the most important aspects of the House of Commons is that major decisions such as whether arms should be sent in such circumstances should not be taken without the express and direct consent of the House of Commons.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman but, in furtherance of his argument, would he also accept that even if it were not generally the case that Parliament should have its say before such a step is taken, when it is widely known that there is very substantial opposition to what is proposed, and that it is very likely that there would be a heavy majority of opposition in Parliament, it would be particularly unwise for the Government to go ahead without letting Parliament have its say and have a vote first?
I could not have put that better myself. It is very rare for the hon. Gentleman and I to agree. I hope that does not mean that we are in the wrong on this issue. My concern is that we are going into two long recesses and the Government could make a decision arguing that, given all the circumstances, it was necessary to arm the rebels in Syria, and although the House would almost certainly be recalled, the decision would have already been taken. The Government would be asking for support from their own Members on a three-line Whip. That is why is there is a good deal of anxiety—all the more so as we start our recess next week.
During the statement yesterday the Foreign Secretary said that it is “possible to anticipate” the supply of arms and that therefore there is no reason why it should not be debated “in advance”. Let me say to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that those words have been carefully noted and the Foreign Secretary will be held to account on them by all of us if any other decision is taken when the House is not sitting.
During that statement the Foreign Secretary also spoke about the amount of support already going to the Syrian rebels—those we support. We are talking about armoured vehicles, body armour and communications equipment. Moreover, as was stated, another £20 million of supplies will be sent in the coming months. Might not the argument then be, “With all these supplies already sent, why not lethal weapons?” These things escalate, although I am not altogether certain that what has been sent has been justified.
Let us be clear about the background to this debate. Nearly 100,000 people have died in Syria since the conflict started. So many of the people who have been killed have been civilians going about their normal lives—or trying to do so; these are the men, women and children who have been killed, on both sides. The bloodshed and the suffering continues now. The argument for the supply of arms is that the stronger the rebels—at least those rebels the British Government support—the more likely it is that the Assad regime will be brought to the negotiating table. That is the basic argument, and no doubt we will hear further arguments along those lines from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary.
I would not dismiss that view out of hand; it is possible that there is some logic in that argument. Is it not, however, much more likely that arms supplies from the west, including from this country, would simply lead, as other hon. Members have said, to even more arms for the regime from its current backers? We would have an escalating arms race. Why do we believe that if the west started to supply arms to the rebels, the countries supporting Assad’s brutal, murderous regime—Russia, foremost, but also Iran—which, without question, has no legitimacy, would not increase the arms supply likewise? As I say, an escalating arms race can lead only to further death and destruction. As has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), neither should we overlook the sectarian aspect to the conflict, with support being given to both sides in accordance with a religious divide between Sunni and Shi’a. Again, we should not intervene in that.
I want to make it clear that there are circumstances where armed intervention from this country is justified. Nobody could have been more in favour of the support given in Bosnia and Kosovo than me. I believed that we had a duty in those places to provide support, and I was pleased to be among those who did so when Muslims were facing outright massacre. In the mid-1990s, at the time of the Bosnian conflict, I said that such support should be given—unfortunately, it was often not to be given until too late—but in Bosnia and Kosovo we were not faced with extremist elements; we were not faced with elements such as those in Syria, who obviously want to bring about a form of state run along more or less the same lines as the Taliban. Syria is a different situation altogether and that should be very much borne in mind.
What should we do in the circumstances? I could not agree more with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that we should, first and foremost, maximise humanitarian relief in every possible way, bearing in mind the suffering that has already occurred. More relief should be given. Every help should be given to innocent people who have been caught up in the conflict.
Finally, we must redouble our efforts to try to bring the conflict to an end, not by sending arms, but by trying to persuade Russia and other such countries to come to the negotiating table to end the suffering, to end the war and to bring about a situation where people in Syria can once again go about their everyday lives, however much there was a dictatorship there. That is a far better way of trying to deal with this terrifying problem than sending arms to those in Syria whom we believe are on the right side. Of course, we have no guarantee that if we were to do so, those arms would go to the people we believe should be supported.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and echo the apology of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) for missing the opening comments of his speech because of the Intelligence and Security Committee meeting. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) began his comments by saying that he had supported the Iraq war but believed that intervention of the kind being considered in Syria would be inappropriate, but I come at this from exactly the other way around. I opposed the Iraq war but I have, over the past year, come to the view that intervention of the kind we are discussing would be not only ethically justified, but politically desirable.
The fact that I have come to that view is not that important. What is particularly significant is that President Obama, who has been hugely reluctant to be involved, in any way, militarily in Syria, has nevertheless been persuaded, with all the advice available to him and with all the analysis that has been made, that the time has come to change position and give military support. The British and French Governments, who have supported the European embargo, have been forced to change their view towards a different position. Governments are often accused of pandering to public opinion—going for votes—but here it is the other way around; public opinion is against supplying weapons in Syria. No votes are to be won by doing this, so it is worth asking why three of the major Governments in the world have gradually come to the view that, far from being an irresponsible act, it may not be a good solution but it is less bad than the alternatives. That is the judgment we are being asked to make.
When we use the terms “rebels” and “Government”, we must remind ourselves that more than 100 members of the United Nations—more than half the UN—have broken ranks with Syria and have recognised the Syrian opposition as the legitimate spokesmen of the Syrian people. The Arab League has expelled the Assad regime and invited the Syrian opposition to take its place. So the term “rebels” is not necessarily as significant as it often is.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, because it has been part of Assad’s tactics from the very beginning to try to force his own people and the wider international community to believe that there is a stark choice between the Assad regime and jihadi extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra and to ignore the fact that the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian secular forces and moderate Islamic forces, represent between them the overwhelming majority of the Syrian public, and to suggest that they are somehow irrelevant to this debate.
Let me share with the House why I changed my view over the past year. I did so for two reasons, the first of which is the humanitarian situation. More than 100,000 people have died so far. We are not talking about soldiers, militia or rebels; the vast majority of them were innocent men, women and children. All the analysis by human rights organisations—by Amnesty International and others—says not that every one of them was killed by the Assad regime, but that the vast majority were killed and slaughtered because of indiscriminate bombing by the Assad regime throughout Syria, particularly in the urban areas, where the opposition was active.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that it would be much more effective and better to provide a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor to help the humanitarian situation than to give weaponry to people who might pass it on to other elements of the opposition that we might not wish to have it?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not think that a no-fly zone is practical. It could not be legitimised by the Security Council and would involve massive attacks on Syrian air defences, which would essentially mean Britain, America and other countries going to war. That would not be appropriate or justified.
On a humanitarian basis, quite apart from any other argument, the Syrian opposition deserve weapons to protect their own communities. This time next year, 200,000 men, women and children will have been slaughtered in Homs, Aleppo and the various other centres that the Assad regime is trying to recontrol. From that point of view, such an approach is a consideration.
My second point goes straight to the comments made by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). I hope that we are all agreed that a political solution will ultimately end the conflict, but to have a political solution requires getting people to Geneva who are willing to make the compromises required. On what possible basis should Assad contemplate such an approach when he has refused all along to contemplate not just his own demise but any transitional Government or any new Government involving the Syrian opposition? He has ruled that out entirely. At this moment, he is even less likely to be interested in that argument.
The hon. Gentleman talked about escalating new arms supplies from Russia or Iran, but the one thing the Syrian Government and Assad regime do not need is more arms. They are satiated with arms and they have been supplied with them for the past two years. Assad knows that supply from Russia and Iran will continue for as long as he needs them, but on top of that he has Hezbollah militia fighting with his forces. That is foreign intervention and, incidentally, it shows the weakness of the Assad regime that it could not recapture the small town of Qusair by itself a few weeks ago but had to get several thousand Lebanese Hezbollah militia—
I appreciate the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend is being so accommodating and I shall keep my question short. Can he answer the practical question that the Government have so far been unable to answer? How does one track and trace the weapons going to the rebel cause to stop them falling into the wrong hands? Up to this moment, that answer has not been supplied.
Let me go straight to that point. It is perfectly fair, but I do not think it is as convincing as my hon. Friend clearly believes. First, if we provide the weapons that the Syrian moderate secular opposition want and of which they are desperately short—they are the only people who do not have such weapons as the jihadi nationalist extremists and the Assad regime already have them—on what common- sense grounds should we anticipate that to any significant degree, the Free Syrian Army, for the first time given proper means of defending themselves and advancing their cause, should wish to hand them over to the jihadi nationalists who already have them and are their sworn enemies? Jabhat al-Nusra is not even part of the Syrian National Coalition. Of course, we cannot exclude the possibility that the odd weapon might go in that direction, but to rule out providing them on those grounds alone seems unwise and unreasonable.
The broader point is that if Assad knows that he not only has Hezbollah forces fighting for him, which he needs to advance on Homs and Aleppo, but has been promised Iranian revolutionary guards and if he has the weapons, what possible reason would he have to be prepared to reach a compromise that involves his sharing power, never mind giving it up? When hon. Members who take a different point of view say that we must have a diplomatic solution, I agree. When they say that lots of things can be done on humanitarian grounds and through diplomatic initiatives, I utterly agree. They know as well as I do, however, that in the middle of a civil war, diplomacy by itself will not deliver the results required. Why should it? That happens only when both sides to a civil war realise that they cannot get military victory by themselves and therefore must compromise.
At this moment in the conflict, the Assad regime has no reason to come to such a view. It is not short of weapons and it is not short of fighters from other countries—Lebanon and Iran—so such an approach will not succeed. By all means, let us say that this is not our war and that it is all terribly tragic. By all means, let us accept that events will go on as they have been, but hon. Members must not kid themselves that anything that relies on diplomatic initiatives alone, without the real pressure that strengthening the secular opposition would provide, has even the remotest prospect of bringing peace and preventing the continuing slaughter of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian men, women and children over the months and years to come.
Democracy was born in Greece some 2,000 years ago and has come to these islands in stages. In most sophisticated democratic states, they would regard it as astonishing that we are discussing whether the elected Parliament has the right to declare war. That is taken as obvious in most states. We have begun to debate whether we should go to war rather than who should take the decision, but that is what we should be talking about today.
I absolutely agree. The assumption is being made that Governments decide whether we go to war, but even that is not true. The decision to go to war rests with the monarch under the royal prerogative. That is a key point, particularly as we might well have a change of monarch in the foreseeable future—although it is a long way off, we all hope. The change of monarch would not strengthen the case for continuing the status quo when we know that the future likely monarch has written letters that we are not allowed to see because it might endanger his status and his future prospects as the Head of State. A decision was taken by the Government, after a freedom of information inquiry and a decision by a High Court judge that anyone who lobbies Parliament should have the contents of their lobbying letters published, to censor that correspondence. That person will be in a key position on any decision about going to war. We might say that that does not matter, but it does.
The same issue came up in a little-known practical example published by the former MP for Cambridge, Robert Rhodes James, who wrote of the fear in the Conservative party, when it decided to get rid of Mrs Thatcher, that she might call a general election. At that time, she was much more popular in the country than she was in her own party and she could well have come back. No one could have stopped her in Government, in the Cabinet or in Parliament, but one person could have stopped her calling a general election if that person had said that Mrs Thatcher was a Prime Minister who was acting in her own interests and not in the country’s. I think we all know that the present Queen had the strength of character to ensure that Mrs Thatcher did not act in her own interests.
I am very sorry, but some of us voted the way we did because we believed that it was right to protect the Kurds in Iraq and for the Iraqi people to be liberated from fascism. I do not feel that I was bamboozled or bribed and I hope that my hon. Friend is not impugning my integrity.
My hon. Friend is referring to Parliament and the majority here: 139 Labour Members voted against. Nearly 50 Labour Members who had already signed motions against the war and who were already opposed, were pressurised into changing their minds and abstaining or voting for the war. That is the truth of what happened then. It was on the basis of what was probably a lie or a misunderstanding. It was certainly untrue. We went there to defend our country against non-existent weapons of mass destruction allegedly held by Saddam Hussein. We proceeded to the second greatest error that we have made in recent times. That was in 2006 when we went into Helmand province, as has been said. The hope was that not a shot would be fired and we would be out in three years, having cleared up the drug trade. We now know what happened. At that time only two British soldiers had been killed in combat. The number is now 444. What were they doing in Helmand province? Defending the country against a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat to this country.
Around 52 terrorists have been convicted for actions within the United Kingdom. Not one of them is from Afghanistan. They are mostly people who were born and brought up in this country. So we have had two wars on which we embarked on a false premise, and it is right that we should ensure that the decisions are taken by the House on the best information that is available. While people are rehearsing what the argument should be in the future, we have to escape from the influences on this House. There are many influences, including the influences on politicians.
We know what happens to those in Government of all parties when the prospect of war is heard—with the drumbeats banging away, they adopt a Napoleonic posture, dig out the Churchillian language and try to write their page in history. We know the pressure from people in the arms industry. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were at the side of General Petraeus in Afghanistan. They were at every secret meeting. They wrote part of his report to the Secretary of State in America and they constantly put pressure on to keep the war going and to discourage any peace initiatives. The Kagans were not employed by Petraeus. They were not employed by the American Government or the military. They were employed by the arms contractors in America.
There is a pressure for perpetual war. We know that millions were made in Iraq by the firms there after the Iraq war. We know that they will have contracts in the Syrian conflict. After those two great errors, pressure is on us now to prepare ourselves for war in Iran to protect ourselves from non-existent long-range Iranian missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear bombs. We have to look to all these pressures, which have sent 623 of our brave soldiers to their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those decisions are made here. We take them, we should be responsible, and there certainly should not be any Government pressure that settles those decisions. We should do it in future in free debate.
There should be alterations to our constitution. We have conventions now—the one going back to 2003. That should be our model for the way we face every armed conflict in which our troops might be employed.
Given that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House have given firm pledges about having a vote before arming any rebels, the motion is somewhat academic. With everything that is going on in the middle east at present, I mean no disrespect to the Minister when I say that I regret that we are not having a wider debate on the middle east, possibly with the Foreign Secretary replying.
The concern arose when the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said yesterday said that there was possibility that they would have to act without having time for the House to express an opinion. I think that that is not an unreasonable position, and I for one trust the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to make the right decision if they find themselves in those circumstances.
May I respectfully suggest that my hon. Friend could not be further from the truth when he says that this is an academic debate? Quite the opposite. There is a clear showing that the Government have moved some way since we first discovered that they were lobbying for the arms embargo to be lifted. No assurance was given in the early days, as illustrated by the fact that there were media exchanges where proponents of arming the rebels were clearly making the point on the Governments behalf that they were not confined by a vote in this place. This debate, plus the efforts of parliamentarians on both sides, have been useful in getting clarity from those on the Front Bench.
I have no wish to quarrel with my hon. Friend. What I was saying was that the motion was academic. The debate is very important. On his second point, the words that the Foreign Secretary used yesterday were almost identical to the original words used by the Prime Minister.
A number of criteria must be met before we intervene in these situations. We must be clear that the situation has been properly thought through. The first criterion should be that we should not intervene unless it makes a difference to the lives, prosperity and security of the Syrian people. When we examine that closely, it is a hard ask. It is increasingly unlikely that we will move to a situation where President Assad is forced out. He has the support of Iran and Hezbollah and Russia, who are using as a justification for their support for Assad their concern over the interpretation of the Libya resolution. They argue that there was a generous interpretation of that resolution and the bombing campaign went too far. I see that as a diplomatic excuse on their part. The Russians are concerned for two primary reasons. One is that, with an eye to Chechnya and the Muslims at their back door, they do not wish to offend their Muslim community and they do not want to lose their port on the Mediterranean.
The second criterion that must be met is that we ask ourselves whether we have exhausted all diplomatic solutions. Hopes must rest on the Geneva conference but optimism is fading. The earliest that the conference will take place is in September. I agree with others when I say that I believe Iran should be present at such a conference. I wish the Secretary of State for the United States and Mr Lavrov on behalf of the Russians well in trying to set an agenda. The most likely outcome is a rehash of the Annan plan and that President Assad will stay in office. That may turn out to be the least bad option.
On this point, I detect that the Government have changed their position. At the outset it was a precondition that President Assad should go. Of late, speeches by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister in the House of Lords have dropped that requirement. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm when he winds up whether it is a pre-condition that Assad should go as part of any negotiated settlement, or whether he accepts that we may yet have to work with him.
Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves whether there are military operations that we can sensibly undertake that will make a difference. The region is in turmoil. It is no longer the regime versus the rebels. The rebels are split into good rebels and bad rebels. Chemical weapons have clearly been used, although it is not clear by whom. The concern now, and it may well be the reason why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary set out the option to take action without consulting the House, is that those chemicals stocks may fall to the rebels. I would be grateful if the Minister, in his winding-up speech, could confirm his assessment of the risk set out by the Intelligence and Security Committee the other day and what steps he will be taking if there is a threat that they may fall into the wrong hands.
On the military side, where do we go from here? I for one do not think that throwing a few cases of rifles into the rebels’ hands will make a difference. As many have pointed out, the Saudis and Qataris are already supplying a large number of weapons. If we supply more sophisticated weapons, that will produce a response from Russia, which has pledged to match like for like. However—this is important—it might be the only way we can bring Assad to the negotiating table, so to that extent I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
My hon. Friend is making his points with great passion. I recently saw an interview with a very reasonable gentleman who lives with his family in Damascus. He made the point that although he was no fan of Assad, if the rebels win, his wife will probably have to take the veil and his daughters will not longer be able to go to school. He felt that his country would go back 100 years. What is my hon. Friend’s view of that?
I think that is a slightly exaggerated view, but no doubt there is a risk that women will be intimidated in a fundamentalist Islamic society.
To return to my point about bringing Assad to the negotiating table, I am beginning to agree with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—I am afraid that I must disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington—that some form of no-fly zone might yet turn out to be the only credible solution, and it would address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay about weapons falling into the wrong hands. We have to ask ourselves whether that is possible with a sophisticated air defence system. If it does happen, it should be on an international basis. Why must we always look to the west for solutions? Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey all have perfectly good air forces, and there is a case for an international coalition.
The fourth criterion that must be considered is whether we are prepared for the long term. We have learned many lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and much needs to be done to stabilise the region. The fifth criterion is this: exactly what is our national interest? That must be spelt out before any intervention. If chemical weapons are to be used as a justification for an intervention—I have made this point to the Minister before—the House should be shown the evidence about their use. All options must be on the table, which is why I am uncomfortable about the motion, because in truth they are not.
Finally, where has international law gone? I believe that there is more than a grain of truth in the remarks my hon. Friend made a moment ago when he argued that to intervene would be illegal. I am not convinced about the legality of an intervention. The intervention in Libya was legal because it followed a UN Security Council resolution. Taking sides in what is essentially a civil war has no legal precedent and no legal authority. Whatever the outcome of this situation, the United Nations must seriously reassess the basis of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.
The House owes the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) a debt for securing the debate, and I was pleased to support him in the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that it would take place. I hope that the House will agree with the motion, even though the Minister has already indicated that a Government motion will be tabled before any arms are sent to Syria. I look forward to his confirmation of that when he responds.
This really goes to the heart of the power of Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said, because anyone outside this place, and indeed anyone outside this country, would find it extraordinary that in the 21st century we still do not have a war powers Act and that the Prime Minister can still use the powers of the royal prerogative to take us to war, supply arms, sign treaties or anything else. Surely a democratic Parliament and democratic accountability of the Executive require a vote in the House of Commons before any major decision can be taken that would have enormous implications for our foreign policy.
Indeed, the vote on whether to intervene in Iraq was not the first consideration of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He came to that conclusion somewhat later, and I expect as a result of expediency on his part, because he wanted to corral a lot of MPs into backing the war and because many of us were demanding that a vote be held so that we could register our opposition. We have had 10 years since to pass war powers legislation, but we still have not done so. I note that next week we will debate the progress of the Wright report. It was a very good report, but perhaps we could make it a little more progressive and a little faster by making some progress on this matter.
That presupposes that we pass the resolution and that the Government do that but do not consult us, so we are about four stages away from a Minister being in contempt of Parliament. If a Minister was to be held in contempt of Parliament, the House would have to deal with it. It is more important that we get to a point at which there is proper consultation.
I believe very strongly that any decision of the House must be made well in advance of any action. I remember the House being recalled in January 1991 to support the Government’s intervention in the Gulf war, at which time a large number of British and American troops were already in the area preparing to go into Iraq, so the die was already cast. We do not want to be brought back here in August when the Government have arranged large shipments of arms to go to the Syrian opposition, which will all be stacked up at Stansted airport ready to go, and we will be asked to approve it. We want a serious decision well before any such action is even contemplated by the Government.
Does my hon. Friend accept the distinction between action that pretty much has universal support across the House—for example, going to war against Hitler or sending troops to Sierra Leone—and this or similar situations where there is clearly no consent, or at least substantial cross-party opposition, which is why this motion is so important?
My right hon. Friend is right. The motion is so important because there is such a large degree of concern over the parliamentary process and the actions that might or might not be envisaged by the Government at the present time. I do not know how many Conservative MPs are opposed to arms being supplied to Syria—I have heard lots of figures, including 50 and 80. We do not know what the figure is. I also know that a large number of Opposition Members are equally concerned about it. There is a big Back-Bench opinion on this, which is why we have secured the debate and why I hope we will get this decision, encouraged by the strength of Back-Bench opinion.
Those Members with long memories will recall that interventions and arms supplies have all kinds of unintended consequences. When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in support of the Najibullah Government, who were under a lot of pressure, the USA responded by supplying vast quantities of arms to the mujaheddin opposition, along with training, facilities, logistics and all the other things that are now being talked about in relation to Syria. Those arms all ended up with what eventually became the Taliban, and then with what eventually became al-Qaeda, and they are still around and have perpetuated the most appalling situation in Afghanistan for many years, including our intervention in that country. We should think a little more carefully about where the arms go.
Other Members have made the point about the more recent intervention in Libya and the supply of large quantities of arms to a rather complicated set of opposition groups that are not interlinked, and where are those arms now? They are in Mali, Senegal and all over north Africa. They are promoting all kinds of conflicts across the region. Were we to be so unwise as to supply arms to the opposition in Syria, where will they end up, in whose interests will they be used, and who will use them against anybody else within the civil war in Syria?
I say all that not because I am in any sense an apologist for the Assad regime. The Oxfam report estimates that about 93,000 people have already died in the recent conflict and that there are 1.7 million external refugees and a very large number of internally displaced people. The situation is truly appalling, as are the human rights situation and police state methods of the Assad Government. However, there is a far from clear commitment by all the opposition groups in Syria to any respect for human rights or any democratic approach. If we send arms, we will be supporting groups whose intentions we do not know, nor do we know where those arms will end up. All we know is that we are sending arms into a situation, people are going to use them, more people are going to die, and the prospects for peace are much further away.
We should also recall, again for those with short memories, that there have been times when the Syrian Government have been very popular with the west. Syria has been a supporter on various occasions. There are suspicions that it has been used as part of the extraordinary rendition process. There have been lots of temporary allies across the region. Indeed, successive British Governments sought to have good relations with Gaddafi at various times, and there have been many others.
Finally, I want to make two brief points. First, on the refugee question, there are a very large number of Palestinian refugees in Syria who have made their way there from Nakba in 1948, from Iraq after its invasion, and at many other times. They are now being driven out, being treated very badly by many of the opposition groups in Syria, or ending up in Lebanon with very little support or resources, just like all the others.
Secondly, the answer has to be to look for a political solution to the whole issue that must involve Iran, Russia and all the neighbouring countries. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring money and arms into the situation. Russia is supplying arms to Syria at the present time. Iran, as a neighbouring state, feels that the war in Syria is a precursor to a future invasion of Iran. I want the Minister to say that there is a serious attempt to use the opportunity of the new President of Iran to engage with the Iranian Government. We should obviously condemn Iran’s human rights record—the executions and all the other human rights abuses—but we will not achieve a political solution in the whole area unless we engage with all the powers that be, which must obviously include Iran. A date needs to be set for Geneva II so that we can bring about some kind of political solution that will end the fighting. All wars have to end with a political solution; let us have it now rather after another 100,000 are dead.
I begin with a word of appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting a debate on this motion. Without wishing to be over-pedantic, I think it is necessary to remind the House of what the motion states:
“That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.”
This is not a debate about whether lethal force should be made available to the Syrian opposition: we will want to have that debate if and when the Government propose to supply such lethal assistance. I have to say that some Members, though not the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), have made entire speeches that made virtually no, and in some cases absolutely no, reference to the terms of the debate.
I shall indeed keep my remarks short—perhaps even shorter than the four minutes that I am now allowed—by making one specific point about the debate and one specific point about the debate after this one, which I hope we will get if ever we reach the possibility of lethal weaponry being supplied. If the assurances from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House are worth what we wish and believe they are worth, there should be no prospect whatsoever of anybody on the Front Bench or on either side of the argument about supplying arms voting any way other than for this motion. I trust that they will do so. I also trust that there will be a vote today, even if its mechanics require a certain degree of contrivance by those of us who have sought to bring this debate to the House.
I have been making my point about the debate after this one week in, week out, month in, month out. It is a simple point about weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons—are known to exist in very substantial quantities in Syria. We went to war in Iraq precisely to keep al-Qaeda from any possibility of getting its hands on weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons—that were thought to exist in Iraq. In this situation, people who wish to supply lethal aid can have no guarantee that, if Assad falls, the chemical weapons that he holds will not fall into the hands of the jihadists who are fighting on the side of the opposition. You do not have to believe me, Mr Speaker—you just have to look at the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual report, which says at paragraph 67:
“The security of these chemical weapons stocks”—
that is, Assad’s stocks—
“is also of serious concern. The Chief of SIS noted the risk of ‘a highly worrying proliferation around the time of regime fall.’ There has to be a significant risk that some of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region—if this happens the consequences could be”—
I am extremely grateful for that intervention. I am absolutely certain that there can be no guarantee—in playing with weapons with an opposition as mixed as this one—that the people who end up on top will be the moderate, secular, democrats about whom we have heard so much in this debate. I must finish the quote from the ISC report, which concluded that
“if this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.”
There are almost as many strands in the alliance of opponents of supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition as there are in the Syrian opposition itself. I have not made some great journey from the Thatcherite right of the Conservative party to the centre left of the political spectrum—despite your excellent example, Mr Speaker, in that respect—and I do not intend to do so. I believe in the security of this country, so I will vote no in the future debate about supplying weapons to the opposition, but we should all vote yes in today’s vote on Parliament having its say first.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), because I recall that he and I went to Sierra Leone together when we were both members of the Defence Committee when our Government had, rightly, intervened to defend democracy against people who were practising a form of terrorism against the population.
I am, by instinct and nature, a humanitarian interventionist. I support the responsibility to protect. I believe—I still say it, and it will get me criticised in some quarters—that voting for the intervention in Iraq in 2003 was the right thing to do, and I will not apologise for it. I believe that there are sometimes circumstances where it is right to take action without a United Nations Security Council resolution. For example, when John Major’s Government introduced a no-fly zone they did so without a UN resolution.
I will come to Kosovo, but I do not want to get diverted into the Balkans at the moment.
I also believe, though, that we have to look to the consequences of our actions and make judgments. I am not persuaded about suggestions that we provide sophisticated weaponry to opposition groups in Syria; in fact, I am very concerned about them. I am a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. We have accountability through the House and its Select Committees, and we monitor the transfer and sale of arms to states. However, the Government seem to be preparing to adopt a position that is not about transferring weaponry to states, but about providing weaponry to factions within a state. We might say that the National Coalition is the sole legitimate representative, although I do not hear that phrase being used quite so forcefully now, but it is certainly not the Government. Our Government would therefore be taking a decision to supply weaponry to a faction within a wider faction, within a state that still has a Government who control part of the territory, while other areas are controlled by warlords and tribal clans—the Kurdish people have almost total autonomy in one part of the country, as was the case for the Iraqi Kurds. Fundamental questions are being raised, so there would need to be an explicit vote in the House if such an action were taken, because it would set a lot of precedents. We all remember things such as arms to the Contras in the United States.
I will support the motion not simply because it is time to assert parliamentary sovereignty once more, but because there would be wider implications of such a decision by the Government. I am also worried that arms would be given to neighbouring states and then passed on, which raises additional problems. We need to explore issues such as end-use agreements, but any proposal will require an explicit vote of support.
For many reasons, it is absolutely right that the House expresses its view before any lethal action is taken in Syria. If we arm the rebels, that is likely to be the first of many interventions. We cannot place arms in the hands of rebels and then wash our hands of the consequences, and history tells us that we cannot get half-involved with lethal force in a conflict zone and then expect a quick, simple and bloodless exit at the time of our choosing. If we impose a no-fly zone, as has been mentioned, we will need aggressively to remove anti-aircraft assets, and if we arm the rebels with sophisticated weaponry, we will need to get in there and train them. This step would be the first of many on a slippery slope, so Parliament must have its say. If step one is to arm the rebels, step two is to become engulfed in a war and to be dragged into all the consequences that follow or, worse still, to risk the moral hazard of abandoning the rebels we wished to encourage and support. By arming rebels, we also risk catalysing an explosion of violence in the middle east.
We cannot half-fight a war by arming rebels, so I urge the coalition Government to honour their commitment on giving Parliament a say. It would be unwise to oppose the motion, as it confirms the Government’s position, and they would stand to gain by taking note of the motion, which expresses the views of the majority of the British public.
When it comes to declaring war and sending our troops into battle, I for one believe that it is the Government’s job to decide. War making is the Government’s responsibility, but arming rebels is a different matter. While the view of the House today will not be binding, it would be unwise to forbid it, or to ignore its expression, which is why I support the motion that was kindly tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). The motion puts us in a position in which we can debate and vote, and thereby avoid the first step on the conveyor belt to all-out conflict, so it is right that we are having today’s debate and that Parliament is allowed to express its view.
I shall cut down my speech, given the time limit, but let me say that war is a serious business, so there is honour in a calm, considered and reflective approach that takes account of the interests and wishes of the people as expressed through their Parliament. Parliament must be allowed to express its view. We must not lead Britain into a foolhardy conflict on a false premise for reasons of misdirected concern. Britain should not dive head first into another bloody conflict with a tenuous link to our national interest, as has been said. Such a conflict could cost us dearly in terms of lives and repercussions over decades. Action should certainly not be taken without the buffer of a prior parliamentary judgment. I want to play no part in fuelling a conflict in pursuit of an ill-defined goal, so I urge hon. Members to support the motion. Above all, however, I urge the coalition Government to support the motion because it confirms their current position.
As the House may recall, in 1992-93, I was the first British United Nations commander sent into Bosnia. I was sent for humanitarian reasons and with the mandate of the Security Council. The Bosnian Muslims were fighting for their lives, with precious few arms or equipment, primarily against the Bosnian Serbs, who had largely appropriated the weapons and equipment of the Yugoslav national army. In comparison with the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serbs—and indeed the other warring faction, the Bosnian Croats—were well equipped. I never saw a Bosnian Muslim tank. The only armoured vehicles they possessed seemed to be a few 4x4s with makeshift metal plates strung along their sides.
I remember despairing that so many civilians were dying but no one was able to defend them. In my reports up the chain of command, I repeatedly argued that we should get involved, as well as arm, equip and train the Bosnian Muslims so that they could better protect themselves, even though that would have meant challenging the then European arms embargo. Of course I felt that way on the ground—who would not have done, given what my soldiers and I witnessed? If I was in Syria today, I would feel exactly the same way. My heart bleeds for anyone trapped in that country.
With the passage of time, I have often wondered whether there would have been a change in events if we had armed selected belligerent parties in Bosnia. My conclusion now is that it would not have made much difference. However, Syria is not like Bosnia, and I shall cite two obvious differences.
First, the Bosnian Muslims were united, unlike the diverse groups that constitute the Syrian rebel opposition. Worse still, it seems that the most militarily successful group among the rebels is the al-Nusra Front, which is directly affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels in Syria are hardly a credible, unified entity. Even if we were to arm the apparently moderate Free Syrian Army, there is no way we can forecast its chances of securing power after the eventual fall of Assad.
Secondly, we operated in Bosnia under Security Council resolution 775, which was agreed by all five permanent members of the highest international authority in the world. However, there is no international mandate for action in Syria—Russia and China will not sign one.
I would be willing to consider supporting humanitarian active operations into Syria itself. Under certain circumstances, I might even support some form of international military protection for aid convoys. However, I have two caveats. As things stand, there is neither the agreement of the warring factions to such operations, nor a Security Council mandate for action. In truth, addressing those circumstances seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Unless circumstances or the current situation change radically, I would not support British arms being sent to the Syrian opposition, if such a question ever came before the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate. Given the shortage of time, I shall focus on the wording of the motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, we are discussing the principle of the House having a vote on any decision, not the merits of sending lethal assistance into Syria. I believe very strongly that it is Parliament that should decide and that we should give the Government our steer. A second debate would give us all the opportunity to give our views and listen to contrasting ones, and then we could decide whether we should get involved in Syria and how. That is what today’s debate is about: giving this House its say.
I believe that many people in this country feel there is a democratic deficit. They do not feel engaged with us in this place and I think that if a decision is made outside this House, it will further widen that gulf. We should give Parliament and Members of all parties a say. We were voted in here to represent people’s views and that is what we should do.
When we sent troops into Iraq it was controversial and many people had a view on it. I was not a Member of this place when that decision was taken, but it was voted on here. If the decision about Syria is made elsewhere, how will we be answerable to our constituents? If we make the decision here, we will be. This is about the democratic deficit.
There is no bigger decision for an elected member than whether to send our troops to war—it is a huge decision—but deciding whether to send arms and lethal assistance is a close second. That is why the decision should be taken by this House. It should be taken not only for ethical reasons, but for democratic reasons. This House will be held responsible for the decision no matter who makes it. We will have to answer to our electorate, whether it be through our surgeries, e-mails or letters. That is why I think that we as Members should be allowed to contribute to the decision.
As has been said, the British public remember Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside these walls, I sense among my High Peak electorate a growing reluctance for this country to get involved in foreign conflicts. My constituents ask whether it is our place to be the world’s policeman. We could debate these issues in a second debate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East referred so eloquently earlier on. If we have that second debate—I believe we should—the public may not agree with the decision this House makes, but if they can see that it has been made through democratic means in this Chamber I think they will acknowledge it. If it is not made in that way and is made in a closed room, I think they will be unforgiving.
It is ironic that in a discussion on democracy in a far-off land we are debating our democratic right to make a decision. Democracy is a very precious commodity —that is why we are talking about it. Other countries would love to have it. Democracy should not only be held and cherished; above all, it should be used. In this case, it is crucial that we use it, and use it in this place.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate and I shall be as brief as possible.
Like other Members present, I spent some time as a member of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, which gave me a picture of some of the issues at stake. Like every previous speaker and many of my constituents, I am appalled by the unfolding events in Syria—by President Assad’s attacks on his people, the bloodshed, the destruction of whole communities of whole towns and cities, and the huge transfer of refugees out of, and displaced people in, the country. Like many other contributors, I am frustrated that the usual levers do not seem to work, that ethics and morality do not seem to have any force, and that nations outside Syria are making the situation ever more complex. Even an appeal to the basic common sense and pragmatism of the country’s leaders is not delivering results. In the meantime, the killing and destruction continue. There is also the threat of chemical weapons, which I will ask the Minister about when I conclude.
We are, of course, very angry about our impotence in this situation. I caution the Government against letting their anger spill over into a feeling that something must be done to assuage it. This has to be about principled and measured steps. There are already at least two bulls in this particular china shop and we should not put a third bull in there.
That brings me to the issue of any proposal to supply arms and military equipment to the Syrian National Coalition and its affiliates. There are many issues on which the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who introduced the motion, and I do not agree, but on this issue we very much do agree. Of course, it is right for this or any Government to use careful and deliberate decision-making processes when deciding whether they want to use force and, if so, what level of force. Of course, they will want to keep their cards close to their chest—they do not want every card they hold to be put up in lights before it is played—and, of course, they will want to choose the timing of any announcement, not simply because it might meet this House’s satisfaction, but because it may be very important in terms of international negotiations. I accept all of those constraints —if I may put it that way—on how the Government might proceed, but I have to say that successive Governments have a very poor record of judging which cards to play and how and when to play them.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what should not be lost in the political debate is the people aspect and the fact that 4 million people are internally displaced in Syria, more than 1 million people are refugees outside Syria and more than 100,000 lives have already been lost? Surely the Government’s focus should be on both an humanitarian and a diplomatic resolution.
I shall devote at least 15 seconds of my remaining time to precisely that point. Examples have already been given—I will not elaborate on them—of decisions taken by previous Governments of all colours that have not always turned out for the best.
I say to the Government that it would be really unhelpful if all their thinking, assessments and deliberations resulted in them activating their decision on, let us say, 29 July, bypassing this House completely. I believe that that is the concern that lies behind the motion. It would be just as unfortunate if Ministers were to say on 29 July that the House had considered the issue today. This is not the debate about whether this House approves or disapproves; it is a debate about this House approving. I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is nodding. I know that he is a gentleman of great good will and understanding and I look forward to his explicit confirmation of that point.
What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and potentially being directed, ultimately, at the United Kingdom? Will he acknowledge robustly that the constitutional and parliamentary situation has evolved in the past decade and that the Government now accept that this Parliament must have oversight in good time and must be the body with authority when the decision is taken?
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important debate on parliamentary consent for arming the Syrian rebels.
Last month, I wrote to the Prime Minister to highlight what I believed were the very real concerns among colleagues and the public about the possibility of British involvement in Syria escalating, and I asked for assurances that prior to any decisions being taken to supply arms to the Syrian National Coalition, or any other groups in Syria, a full debate and vote would be held in Parliament, and that if Parliament were in recess, it would be recalled to facilitate this important debate. In addition, I wrote that I believed that the division and sensitivity the issue evoked, among colleagues across the House and the general public, dictated that the matter be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny and debate before we potentially became further involved in another middle eastern conflict.
More than 80 colleagues on the Government Benches co-signed the letter, as they were concerned that this action could be taken without the consent of this House. The only precedent during this Parliament for the use of military intervention abroad is Libya, where a Government motion was carried after the intervention had started. I accept that events dictated that swift action was necessary in that case and that in some matters of defence time does not always allow for a parliamentary debate, but I do not believe that this constraint applies to the proposal to arm rebels in Syria. I point out that I still await a response from the Prime Minister to the letter.
On my specific concerns about arming Syrian rebel groups, I return to Libya and what has happened since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime during the Arab spring. Professor Michael Clarke, when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a couple of weeks ago, stated:
“There is a lot of evidence that Libyan weapons are now circulating pretty freely in the Levant”—
the Levant comprising several countries in the eastern Mediterranean with unstable regimes or internal issues. He also made the following shrewd observation:
“Weapons never go out of Commission; they just go somewhere else. Almost all weapons find a new home once a war is over”.
That sums up two principal concerns of many Members: about the groups it is proposed be armed and about what control we and other NATO members would have over those arms once supplied. The evidence in Libya suggests that the new Government have little control over weapons stocks and that they have seeped out of their control, no doubt finding their way on to the weapons open market and into the hands of the highest bidder.
These concerns need to be addressed in a parliamentary debate, especially given that they are held by many groups and individuals outside the House. For instance, Amnesty International has stated:
“Unless the UK government can first ensure and demonstrate that such requirements are met and there does not remain a substantial risk of misuse for serious violations of human rights or International humanitarian law they should not supply any weapons or munitions to any Syrian armed opposition groups.”
It also points out that although it is clear that the Syrian Government are committing the majority of war crimes, armed opposition groups are increasingly resorting to hostage taking and to the torture and summary killing of soldiers, members of pro-Government militias and civilians.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, on 14 June the United States announced that it would supply direct military aid to the Syrian opposition. I would ask the question—
I echo many of the sentiments expressed today; any decision on arming rebel forces must rest ultimately with Parliament.
I want to stress that this type of decision cannot be taken lightly. I have visited refugee camps in Turkey and talked to those who have fled for their lives, and I believe we need a chance to scrutinise the situation carefully and to consider the consequences of our actions, for which we would all be responsible. We all want to see the balance of power altered so that the Syrian people have a chance at rebuilding their country, but my concern is that the Government’s suggested proposal—that to strengthen certain rebel groups would bring Assad to the conference table—is like a very high-risk chess move or a game of bluff that could go badly wrong. One has only to consider the reaction of Russia and Iran to the easing of the EU arms embargo. They immediately bolstered the Assad regime militarily.
I want to consider another question that underscores the complexity of the challenge. Why, after more than two years of fighting, is Assad still in power? We can point to the material support provided by Iran and Russia, which is significant; another factor might be the international community’s reluctance to intervene militarily; but what is often underestimated is Assad’s domestic backing from key communities beyond his core Alawite constituency. The Ba’athist regime has promoted a secular society in which the Christian community, which constitutes 10% of the 22 million population, as well as Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Druze and other Shi’ites and secular Sunnis have coalesced to shore up Assad’s base.
What motivates and unites these communities is not so much any inherent love of the Assad regime, but fear—fear of the chaos that would ensue if Assad was overthrown; fear that the rebels will bring about not the peaceful, multi-sectarian society to which we all aspire, but violent retribution against them. This is where my concerns lie.
Rebel groups have been accused of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas such as Aleppo, and there are reports of extrajudicial killings of pro-Government civilians. Human Rights Watch found that Syrian rebels have kidnapped, detained and tortured Government fighters and supporters, and we all know that when the heavy lid of authoritarian rule is lifted, sectarian and tribal aspirations are often violently unleashed.
If the Government’s plan A is to force Assad to the conference table and it fails, and if plan B is for the various opposition groups to succeed militarily, we may face a humanitarian catastrophe. Those groups already show no mercy and will, I fear, set out to massacre any group seen or perceived to have supported the Assad regime. We will then not be dealing with 1.5 million refugees, but with perhaps 4 million, 5 million or 6 million people fleeing across the borders to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. I believe the priority is to bring Assad, Iran and Russia to the conference table.
In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and I have probably spent more time in Syria than most Members of this House, including meeting Bashar Assad up to 10 times over a six-year period. My experience of Syria is very different from the Syria we have heard about today. Syria has always been a highly secular country. There is no Salafi tradition in Syria; it has more of a Sufi tradition and a mystical approach to Islam. There was no sense of radicalism there, so how have we got from where we were to where we are today with a highly sectarian divide and the potential for a fragmented Somalia on the Mediterranean?
We must remember how this began, which was when a 13-year-old boy in Daraa had the audacity to urinate on a poster of President Assad. The security forces took him, beat him up, killed him, cut off his penis, and returned him to his parents. That sparked massive outrage among civilians in five different cities and was the beginning of the Arab Spring. Those who point to hardly any complicity of the Assad regime in causing what is happening today should think carefully. It made a very bad situation worse with civil disobedience met by repression. Ultimately, individuals felt that they had to protect their communities, and small militias were set up in various towns. The Free Syrian Army was really a fragmented group of people, and only more recently has it become a little more co-ordinated under General Idris. The Syrian National Council has been equally dysfunctional and has not sought to reach out at all beyond the Sunni community.
In February when I was in Cairo, there was an opportunity and the Russians said that they would try to lead engagement. The regime was feeling insecure, but unfortunately Minister Lavrov dropped the ball. He did not do anything and, in fact, the opposite happened. Iran and Russia provided more arms, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard bolstered the Assad regime, including his personal bodyguard, which became a member of the IRG. Until then I had always believed in engagement, but Al-Qusayr was a turning point. The regime knew it could not win alone, so Iran and Hezbollah came in and gave it the support to win Al-Qusayr. I changed my mind and believe that one needs to do a little more than simply provide humanitarian aid. From my understanding of Assad, he will have to be pushed, or driven kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.
My solution is fivefold. First, radical diplomatic engagement is absolutely necessary including—I agree with all Members of the House—with Rouhani and the Iranian regime. This is time to press the reset button.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if we persist in doing nothing, the situation will continue to deteriorate and the radical Sunni factions will come to dominate the opposition to Assad? They are providing a playground for terrorism, where British citizens are going to train as terrorists and coming back to this country.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, there are 70 to 80 citizens of the United Kingdom who are today with Jabhat al-Nusra and the more radical groups. However, those groups represent only 5,000 or 6,000 people on the ground, versus the silent majority of 15 million Sunnis.
The second part of the strategy, beyond radical diplomatic engagement, should be containment. We must protect the likes of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey from becoming infected by this explosion. Thirdly, we must provide more aid, not just to Jordan and Lebanon, but internally.
Yes, I do, although that is not without its dangers. When we ask the UN to do something, we have to think about what protection it will get.
My fourth point is that the Syrian National Council must become less dysfunctional. It cannot be a puppet of the Qatari regime, which it has been to date, representing just the Sunnis. It must reach out to the Alawites, the Kurds, the Druze and the Christians.
My fifth recommendation is this. I am not asking for British soldiers on the ground or for our pilots’ lives to be put at risk; I am asking for what the Syrian people have set out to me time and time again. We need to rebalance the situation on the ground. We need to arm the Free Syrian Army and support General Idris. If we do not, unfortunately more and more of the Free Syrian Army—the moderates—will drift towards the extremists. I am afraid that inaction will breed extremism and the fragmentation of Syria. Supporting the Free Syrian Army is also more likely to bring Assad and Russia to the negotiating table.
Returning to the point of this debate, I would not wish to bind the hands of the Executive on a foreign policy matter where our soldiers’ and our pilots’ lives are not at risk. Therefore, I would oppose the motion.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs told the House in 2011:
“We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 799.]
Today we are making a far smaller request to the Government. We are not asking for a veto on declaring war, or even on the right to be heard before using deadly force. Many would argue that we should, but we are not. We are simply saying: let us vote before our Government sell or give weapons to people who may one day want to turn them on us. Today is not about whether we should arm the rebels; it is about whether the Government will listen to their MPs. As has been said, if we were to give arms, what possible assurances could the Government provide us with that such weapons would not find their way into the hands of terrorists or jihadists? Today we are asking for Parliament to be allowed to share the enormous responsibility for such a decision.
We in this Chamber do not act for ourselves; we act together, collectively, on behalf of a nation. We did not get a vote—nothing was put to Parliament—in 2001 following the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan or when British troops were deployed to Mali. They were far greater commitments, risking the lives of British servicemen and women. Those men and women and their families have no choice but to put their trust in their elected Members of Parliament to protect them from the Executive when the Executive might have been misled. We can all look back through history to see where mistakes have been made. That is relevant, because the consequences of arming the rebels might not lead to the deployment of our troops, but they will still be the target of terrorists and they will need the support of the public.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important that Parliament should have its say and a vote before any such thing was considered because the British people are uneasy about the interventions made in their name in other places in the last decade?
As always, I have no difficulty in agreeing with my right hon. Friend.
We are behind our forces because they are fantastic. They are fantastic because they perform brilliantly, morally and humanely, and we are proud of them because they protect us. We, as MPs, must protect them from the risk of terrorism, and from fights and wars that we do not need.
We have a precedent for lethal force debates. All we are asking is for a similar opportunity to vote before arming the Syrian rebels. On Libya, Parliament was given a say. In March 2003, the Labour Government held a debate and a vote on the deployment of British troops in Iraq, even though they were not obliged to hold a vote and not obliged to take heed of the result. However, Parliament was given the opportunity to express a view.
We ask today that the coalition Government extend a lesser courtesy to us than the Labour Government did in 2003. After all, Parliament is elected to act on behalf of the people. How can we act on behalf of the people if we are not given the chance to vote on a matter as important as involving ourselves in a foreign conflict?
My speech has changed about four times in the course of the debate as I was trying to find a way, without fear of repetition, of saying things that have not been said already. I note the motion, and I note that essentially this is a legal and constitutional debate. With all due respect to those on the Front Bench and the Minister, I wonder why there is no legal representation here.
The debate is necessary because of the complexity of Syria and the wider region, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing it. I look up at the Annunciator screen, which shows the title of the debate as “Arms to Syria”, and wonder whether it should say “Arms to the Middle East”. We are considering arming the Free Syrian Army, but we also have arms contracts going back many years with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. We have never come to this Chamber to authorise the Government to make those arms deals. I am therefore not in favour of the motion.
If the motion concerned committing British forces on the ground in Syria, I would suggest it appropriate, for reasons that pre-date my time in the House, to have a debate and a vote. On Iraq and on other conflicts we have been involved in, the public have lost faith in the democratic process in relation to how Britain engages in military conflicts around the world. All I see in the world at the moment is increasing chaos, so I suspect that we will find ourselves involved in other conflicts in the middle east in the near future. We need to take the British public with us, and that involves our being able to go back to our constituencies and make a case for intervention.
Syria is a country created by the colonial pen strokes of Sykes-Picot, and other countries across the middle east were created by former colonial masters. On top of that, one lays the Sunni/Shi’a split, a sense of an Islamic reformation taking place, and the unresolved issues concerning democracy and Islam. I am no historian, but it feels like the Catholic Church in the 16th century wrestling with how to give power back to Governments of free and increasingly democratic nations. Because of the complexity of the situation and the fact that we are trying to look at these issues through the prism of countries that will probably not exist in 10 years’ time—there will be fragmentation—it is extremely difficult to come here and talk about sending arms to a particular country that would not have existed had it been created on tribal lines and by taking ethnic loyalties into account.
I have a lot of sympathy with my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, but UK foreign policy should be about what is in Britain’s best interests. I think it is in Britain’s best interests to have as coherent and consistent a policy as can be applied across the middle east. After Syria, this situation could fall into Lebanon, Jordan and, dare I say it, Saudi Arabia, with the consequent impact on energy prices and so on. It is in Britain’s interests to garner the trust and support of the wider Arab public, and not just intervene and fiddle around the edges. I could come here and vote for a commitment on the ground in the middle east. I struggle to come here to vote for a commitment to arm just one particular force.
Last year, when I was in north-east Lebanon, I went to a village that had been shelled by the Syrian regime. I met a woman who had just come over the border. She had lost her children, her husband and her legs when she was hit by a Syrian army shell while fleeing from her village. Imagine being in a village in England with the Royal Artillery shelling the village, then being harried by the Grenadier Guards and 42 Commando the Royal Marines. It is unthinkable.
I totally accept that it is perfectly reasonable for a Government to do something without the consent of Parliament in an emergency, in order to maintain surprise or while conducting covert operations. However, we are not talking about Bosnia today; we are talking about Syria, and the House of Commons should be given a say.
I want to echo something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said earlier about public distrust. I agree with him, given the disastrous cock-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a journalist and as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the way in which pliant officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office have done the will—or what they think is the will—of their political masters. In future, if it is possible, we need the reality check of a Commons vote in order to create clarity and avoid the activities of some of the more pliant civil servants who will always play back what they think their political masters want.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) to speak, I should inform the House that I have asked the Front Benchers to stick to 10 minutes each, which they have kindly agreed to do. It will then be possible to have a brief wind-up speech from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron).
It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), said that the debate was academic, but with all due respect, I disagree with him. He then proceeded to make many valuable points in an excellent speech, which rather defeated his earlier argument. It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who eloquently illustrated the seriousness of the situation in Syria through an individual experience.
I have only a little time, and many hon. Members have already spoken, but I shall of course make reference to the horrific situation in Syria, and to the fact that more than 90,000 people have died there. I shall not focus on that, however, because, as the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has pointed out, the motion relates to the question whether a debate and a vote should take place before lethal support is supplied to any opposition group in Syria.
On this side of the House, we have for some time supported the provision of non-lethal support to Syria, including water purification, vehicles and other support of that nature. But we and many Members from across the House remain sceptical about the merits of sending yet more weapons into Syria’s brutal war. For many months, Labour has been calling on a regular basis for Ministers to come to Parliament to make their case before any decision was taken to arm the Syrian opposition. It is therefore highly appropriate that we are debating the matter today, and I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing the debate. I also thank those who supported the application to the Backbench Business Committee to secure the debate. It is important that we require the Government to come back to the House before any decision is made to supply lethal weapons to anti-Government forces in Syria.
The House still has no codified role in approving participation in military action. In 2003, the Iraq war debate established a working precedent—certainly a powerful political precedent—that UK troops should not be committed unless there had been an opportunity for Parliament to express its view on the matter. In addition, retrospective approval for the deployment of forces to Libya was sought on 21 March 2011—three days after the announcement of British participation.
Opposition Members believe that this House should observe the existing convention and help build a convention that before UK troops are committed to conflict, the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate and to vote on the matter—except, of course, where there is an emergency and where such action would not be appropriate.
The national debate about the Iraq war defines the present context in which the approach to intervention takes place. We have seen that intervention of itself does not secure answers. Rather, it is a starting point, which can have both positive and negative consequences. The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in the middle east—a history that colours perceptions of any actions that we take in this area. We must take account of those perceptions when assessing whether any intervention we take will be for the best. We must also define very closely indeed what the intervention should be. If lethal equipment is supplied, to whom will it be supplied and how do we ensure we support its end-user?
I think the hon. Gentleman should direct that question to the Minister rather than to me. I am sure that the Minister will respond to it in his winding-up speech.
The motion does not relate specifically to the deployment of British troops. The unique nature of the issue—supplying arms to a non-state actor—was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We are supplying arms to a selected group within the opposition. While there might be a strong breadth of international support for that group, in the context of an ever-evolving and moving situation in Syria, it is difficult to know exactly who these people are and how on earth we could in any sense restrict the supply of any equipment to a particular group. We need a real opportunity to discuss the issue closely before committing to supply lethal equipment. We need to discuss it and to vote on any Government proposals before a final decision is taken. Difficult questions must be addressed and answered before any steps are taken to commit lethal UK resources. We have a responsibility to ensure that our actions will not make the position for the people of Syria worse.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the beginning of this month to ask what assessment the Foreign Office had made of the EU common position on arms sales, to which the UK is a signatory. My right hon. Friend asked whether the Foreign Office would share that assessment with the House. Can the Minister confirm whether that assessment of the common position will be shared with us? We are clear that the need to have a debate on this issue is not an alibi for ceasing to strive to reach a negotiated political transition at a Geneva II peace conference. We want that to happen as soon as possible, and we would welcome an update from the Minister about the current status of preparations for such a conference. Picking up a point made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is it a precondition of UK Government policy for President Assad to step down before any discussions take place? That needs to be clarified at this juncture because that was a precondition at an earlier stage.
We are aware that the UK, the US, Russia and other countries have agreed in principle to a Geneva II conference, but there are delays. One reported reason for the repeated delaying of the conference is the disagreement among different groups over electing a new leader for the opposition. Now that Ahmed al-Jarba has been elected, when is the conference likely to convene? It is obvious that the need to secure a ceasefire is of the utmost urgency, so will the Minister please confirm that anyone who can play a role in securing a ceasefire can be involved? Earlier, he seemed to indicate from a sedentary position that that was the case. I would be grateful if he clarified that at the Dispatch Box.
What role is the Arab League now playing? It was active at an earlier stage in trying to secure some breakthrough but we have heard much less about its role in recent times. If any party at all is being excluded from the talks, can the Minister explain what the grounds are for exclusion?
The continuing tragedy is that Syria is a stain on the institutions of the international community because we have all failed to prevent the scale of the killings in the past two years. We must not lose sight of the scale of the horror that is happening in the country. I am sure that the Minister will do his utmost to secure some kind of breakthrough, but it is equally important that the House has the opportunity to discuss the implications of supplying lethal equipment to opposition groups in Syria before that decision is made. We have heard this afternoon that the House, not universally but overwhelmingly, supports the motion. I would be grateful if the Minister did so, too, on behalf of the UK Government.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for raising the issue. I agree that it is more than useful to have this debate. I have no intention of opposing the motion before the House today. I would like to set out briefly the situation in relation to Syria, to comment on the substance of the motion and then to deal with some of the questions that have been raised on the motion and wider issues. Clearly, however, so much was covered that we will not be able to get through it all.
The situation in Syria is genuinely appalling and is getting worse at an ever-more rapid pace. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the number of deaths will soon exceed 100,000 people. Since last July, on average, 170 people have been killed every 24 hours. By the end of the year, 10 million people—half of Syria’s pre-conflict population —will be likely to be in need of humanitarian assistance. Neighbouring countries are struggling with the refugee crisis.
The brutal Assad regime has used chemical weapons on his own people. We are concerned to see new, unconfirmed reports over the weekend of further chemical attacks in Homs. We judge that Iran is providing personnel, equipment, weapons and financial assistance to the Assad regime, which is also being supported by thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
The Syrian people and the legitimate opposition are caught between this brutal regime and its backers on one side, and extremists on the other. We must not accept what Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal regime is extremists and terrorists. I am keen to disabuse any colleagues who have strayed into that area during their remarks. There are millions of Syrians who want a peaceful and democratic future, and legitimate forces are fighting for their interests. We should be on their side. However, the extremist groups operating inside—affiliated to or aligned with al-Qaeda—are taking advantage of ungoverned spaces created by the conflict. They pose risks to UK national security. We judge that more than 100 UK-linked individuals of concern have travelled to Syria. Some individuals returning to the UK could pose a long-term terrorist threat.
As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in his statement to the House, faced with this growing and protracted crisis to which there is no end in sight, we have three objectives: to promote a political solution in Syria, which I again make very clear is the Government’s overriding imperative; to help to save lives; and to protect the national security of the United Kingdom.
To this end, we have doubled our humanitarian assistance for Syria to £348 million. I commend to colleagues a very good document—this is straying into the interests of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—on UK aid in response to the Syria crisis, dated 4 July. It deals with some key facts on what we are doing. I will ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that it is e-mailed to every colleague, because, as more than one Member has mentioned, the humanitarian assistance is not a by-product of the UK’s involvement. We are entitled to be very proud of what this country is doing in that regard, and I would like colleagues to be well aware of what we are doing and to talk about it. We must not consider it to be some sort of backwater.
No, not yet.
We are also providing technical assistance for the protection of civilians. That includes advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them—including in respect of helping the opposition counter regime forces as they attack towns under opposition control—and on co-ordination between civilian and military councils, and on how to maintain security during a transition.
Amending the arms embargo on Syria in May also supported these aims. As the Prime Minister has said, lifting the arms embargo on the Syrian National Coalition sent a powerful signal that there is no moral equivalence between Assad on the one hand and the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, recognised by over 130 countries, states and other entities, on the other. It also increases pressure on the regime to negotiate seriously. We now have the flexibility to respond in future if the situation continues to deteriorate and if the Assad regime refuses to negotiate.
Let me come to the nub of the motion, just to be clear once again to the House. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in his statement to the House:
“On the question of any future lethal support—arming the opposition or intervening militarily ourselves—the Government’s position has not changed. No decision has been made, and any decision would be put to the House on a substantive motion.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 379.]
And as he said in the House on 18 June:
“We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 746.]
I absolutely applaud the Minister and I have great respect for his being absolutely clear. I agree that there has never been any change to the policy or the wording of the view that no decision has been taken, but I suggest with great respect that there has been movement by the Government on the assurances in the wording of the motion since it first travelled this journey. I urge the Minister to look back at what was said initially when many of us in this place urged the Government to put such a motion to a substantive vote.
Well, I do not believe so. Let me comment on something that is at the nub of this: the long shadow of Iraq. I am convinced that when this Government took office we were very well aware of the deficiency in trust felt in the nation on account of that. My sense is that, particularly in respect of the area my portfolio covers, in the last two or three years both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have repeatedly updated the House on circumstances as they have arisen. They have been very conscientious in doing that. The National Security Council was created precisely to try to find a structure that could address the concerns about foreign policy decisions that people had felt in the past. I believe that right from the beginning as the UK considered all its options—and I repeat, despite whatever I have said, that all options remain on the table—both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been very keen to ensure that the House has been engaged, because ultimately this is an issue of trust.
That leads me on to the point made by the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) about the possibility of something being sneaked through in the recess. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) also talked about that. The whole point of what the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing has been to generate trust in the House. If the Government were to do something and then seek retrospective support in respect of an issue where Members felt we should have come before the House in advance, that trust would be broken, which would run contrary to what the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister wish to convey. It may still be the case, of course, that emergencies arise that require the Head of Government to have the flexibility to make decisions in the national interest, as the House would expect, and the debate on Iran some time ago indicated that no hands should be bound. The clear intention of what I am saying and what the Foreign Secretary has sought to do, however, is that the Government want to keep the confidence of the House by going this extra step. So there is no question of our trying to use the recess or another opportunity to do something, because we would then have to come back to the House—and what would be the House’s reaction? I have tried to make clear the intention on which the Government are determined to act.
In the brief time available, I wish to cover one or two more of the questions raised, including those about Geneva and President Assad put by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who spoke for the Opposition. I know that you are very generous to us, Mr Speaker, so if I stray for one minute, having taken an intervention, I hope you will kindly let me do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said that many people were asking what is in our national interest. Importantly, whether a decision is made to arm or not, there is a UK interest that needs to be considered. Let us make no mistake: whether we continue on our current course or do something different, we are involved. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we have an interest in promoting peace in the most conflict-ridden areas. It is to the discredit of the international community that that has not been possible, but that has not been due to any sparing of effort on our part at the United Nations. The conflict has been spilling over into neighbouring areas, as we have seen with Hezbollah and Lebanon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) said, if empty space is used, that is where a threat to and an attack on the United Kingdom can come from. We know that people are going out there to be radicalised, and that will come back to bite us as well. Whatever is done—whatever decision is taken—nobody in this House can escape the fact that there is British interest in Syria. Accordingly, our main interest is in closing this down and ending the conflict. This is not a plea from me to arm; I am saying that unless the conflict is ended, British interests will continue to be further damaged.
Iran clearly has an interest in this. It did not accept Geneva I. Who knows what is possible, but Iran’s interest is noted and is there. The removal of Assad is not so much a precondition from the United Kingdom; this is not the UK’s involvement in negotiations. It was clear from the beginning that this issue is difficult for an opposition that is being killed daily by Assad’s regime, but the practicalities now are that there are no preconditions if people can get to a position to negotiate that we want.
The point I want to make is that if a negotiated solution emerges, it will have been negotiated by representatives of the Syrian National Coalition. I think that, in a way, it is their call; it is not for us to say. The reason we take the view that Assad’s legitimacy is gone is plain from the facts, but the United Kingdom is not involved in setting preconditions for the negotiations; that is for the parties involved.
I want to correct one misconception that has been abroad: that all the opposition is the same and we are allied with people we have seen performing extremist acts and acts of the greatest brutality. That is not the case. On 20 April, the Syrian National Coalition declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law, and it rejected discrimination and extremism. It also declared that it would guard against the proliferation of any supplied lethal equipment and would return such equipment at the end of the conflict, and confirmed that the supreme military council operates under the civilian authority of the coalition.
As for whether each side is as bad as the other, we condemn human rights abuses perpetrated by anyone involved in the violence in Syria, but we note that the last report by the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, published on 4 June, said that although there was evidence of human rights abuses committed by the opposition, those
“did not…reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”
There is no equivalence.
My final point is that if colleagues here are to get us to the position we all want to get to—a negotiated peace—they would do well to consider the graphic description by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) of why that might not happening at the moment. No matter what we decide to do in the future, I suspect that his remarks, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, should be taken in by everybody here as we go forward and take the difficult decisions we have to take. This is not easy—there is more than one side to the question—but the arguments raised by my two colleagues will take some consideration by all of us.
This has been a well-informed, well-attended and useful debate, in which the wording of the motion has been paramount. Since we first discovered that the Government were aiming to lift the EU ban on arms exports, the Government have travelled some way. There was a lack of clarity at the start of the journey, as illustrated by the fact that very recently—only a few weeks ago—Members who are in their places in the Chamber today were appearing in the media believing that the rebels should be armed and expressing the view that Parliament did not need to give its explicit prior consent. We have that clarity now and I thank the Minister for it. I also thank Members on both sides of the House for pressing for clarity from the Government.
Let me turn briefly to the specific issue of whether or not to arm. There has been no answer to the charge that more weapons would mean more violence and more suffering, to the charge that it would be nigh on impossible to track and trace weapons to stop them falling into the hands of extremists on the rebel side or to the charge that if one pours more weapons into the conflict and adds more fuel to the flames it could extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. Most who have spoken would agree that more can be done on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts.
I urge all Members to support the motion, regardless of their views on whether we should arm. I for one will not press it to a vote, but I would fully understand colleagues who might wish to do that given the strength of feeling on the issue. I urge all Members to support the motion, if they can.
That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.