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Volume 740: debated on Thursday 8 November 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have received any information regarding the origin of weapons of mass destruction currently claimed by the government of Syria to be held by that country.

My Lords, we are very concerned about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, the existence of which the Syrian foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed on 23 July 2012. The spokesperson also threatened to use such weapons against external aggressors. There has been significant public speculation about the origins of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, but I am unable to comment on the accuracy of this information.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but I wonder whether there is any case for pursuing this in greater detail. If it could be proven that these had originated in Iraq, would the original United Nations resolutions cross the border with the weapons of mass destruction? Secondly, now that we have the Syrian Government admitting widely to the use of drones that have been taken from Iraq, this would put every centre of government in Europe within a 4-metre radius of a payload of up to 10 kilograms of nerve gas.

The noble Lord is quite right to raise these concerns. Although there have been numerous newspaper articles and think tank reports, including those from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to anecdotal reports about the origins of these weapons of mass destruction, we are not aware of any firm and credible evidence to support this suggestion. In any event, UN sanctions on Iraq would not apply to Syria; we do, however, share concerns that Syria has conventional weapons on which chemical weapons could be used.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness give the House an assurance that we are not providing any military assistance at all to the so-called rebels in Syria, which could only complicate the extremely difficult mission of Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi? Secondly, I ask her to assure the House—my Lords, I have forgotten what my question was.

That makes my answering it slightly easier. I can assure the noble Lord on three very clear points. First, any support that we are giving to the opposition in Syria is non-lethal; it is in the form of humanitarian assistance and communications support. Secondly, we are fulfilling all of our international obligations in relation to the support that we are giving. Thirdly, we are abiding by the EU arms embargo.

My Lords, there is much concern that these weapons of mass destruction may fall into the hands of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah. Do the Government have any evidence that this is happening?

Thankfully, at this moment there is no evidence to suggest that the armed opposition are in any way trying to get their hands on chemical weapons.

My Lords, my noble friend may be aware that the Syrian Government have given assurances to Mr. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, that they have no intention of using chemical or biological weapons. Have the Government been in contact with the United Nations Secretary-General to ask if the Security Council could also be given those wider assurances?

The noble Baroness raises an important matter. We have heard some suggestions that the Syrians have indicated that they would not be using these chemical weapons, certainly in relation to their own people. However, going back to the foreign ministry spokesman’s threats made, sadly, in July of this year, he said they would be prepared to use them against external aggressors, as they call them.

My Lords, I note the very firm answer given by the Minister to the noble Lord, Lord Wright, about the use of non-lethal weapons. I noted in the newspapers that the Prime Minister was very moved by his visit to the refugee camp, as one would be. Will a Statement be forthcoming on the Prime Minister’s visit, because I wonder how things will move on as a consequence of that visit?

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister visited a refugee camp on the border between Jordan and Syria yesterday. He made some important points—first, in relation to a potential exit for Assad, that this country would not offer him asylum but we would not stand in the way of any other country offering him asylum, which could bring the violence to an end. Secondly, we said that we would engage more with the opposition, including the armed opposition, with a view to taking forward some political agreement. Thirdly, we committed additional funds of £14 million to the humanitarian relief efforts, which brings the UK total to just over £53 million.

Will my noble friend the Minister listen very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Wright, has said? If there are pressures in the United Nations at present to say that there is some obligation on members to get involved and intervene in some military capacity, I hope very strongly that, while we share the Prime Minister’s deep concern about the humanitarian situation and the desire to help in that way, we will not become involved in any military intervention.

We have real concerns about the ongoing violence and killing within Syria, but we are clear that the United Nations Security Council is the best format in which to take these matters forward. We have had discussion with the Russians and Chinese to try to achieve some consensus, and I think that the views of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister are very clear. When he spoke at the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September, he was very forthcoming about his concerns about the bloodshed in Syria, but we will act with international agreement.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government are giving any additional aid to Jordan to help with the influx of displaced Syrians over its borders?

The humanitarian work and support that the Government are giving is divided in relation to work within Syria, including with Palestinian refugees within Syria, but also in relation to border countries, which include Jordan and Turkey.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if, in fact, the weapons of mass destruction claimed to be owned by the Syrian Government are found to have originated in Iraq, that will be strong evidence that Saddam Hussein did after all have weapons of mass destruction?

The noble Lord is aware of the Chilcot inquiry on matters in Iraq, which has a distinguished panel including Members of this House. He is also aware that it will report to the Prime Minister at the end of 2013. it would be inappropriate for me to comment on those matters at this stage.

My Lords, we know for certain that Syria has chemical weapons and, indeed, what we do not know is how closely it was liaising with the Soviets—and now the Russians—on those weapons. It seems that those are probably the most dangerous things, if they got into the wrong hands. Could the Minister reassure us that our Government, in connection with other Governments around the world, have a method of knowing if that is about to happen and if it has happened?

At this moment in time, thankfully we do not have evidence to show that the armed opposition are in any way trying to get their hands on these weapons. However, we have made it very clear in very firm language that any use of these chemical weapons would result in a serious international response. We have also firmed up support in relation to border controls to stop anything passing between borders, and we also strengthened sanctions in June this year with the EU in relation to potential products that could top up any chemical and biological weapons stash that there might be in Syria.