House of Lords
Thursday, 29 August 2013.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, perhaps I may start by thanking the Clerk of the Parliaments and all his staff, members of Hansard and of the leaders’ and whips’ offices who have facilitated the meeting of our House today. Naturally, there is no formal time limit for today’s debate. It is a Motion to Take Note. Seventy-five colleagues have signed up to speak. If, therefore, Back-Bench contributions are limited to five minutes, we would expect to rise by about 10.30 pm. Clearly, it means that if colleagues were to take a little more time, every minute that they took would add more than an hour extra to the rising time. Whips are very keen to assist the House with the normal passage of business and therefore from time to time, during the course of the evening, a Whip will come to the Dispatch Box to give an update on when we think the rise of the House might actually take place. Perhaps I may also remind the House that the Chamber clocks, which will start shortly when my noble friend Lord Hill rises to move the Motion, start at zero and that as soon as the clock shows “5” it means that our full five minutes have already elapsed.
Finally, as always in these cases, I remind those who are due to take part that the Companion tells us that a Member of the House who is taking part in a debate should attend the start, the end and the greater part of that debate. In addition, it is considered discourteous for Members not to be present for at least the opening speeches, the speeches before and after their own, and the winding speeches. I realise that this is for the House a most important debate.
Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons
Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
My Lords, as the Chief Whip has just reminded us, a large number of people want to speak today; the House is full. That shows why it was right to recall Parliament, a decision I know the Opposition strongly supported.
In setting out the Government’s position on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I hope to do three things. I want to set out the evidence that we have of the use of chemical weapons. Then I want to set out the Government’s case for action. I will then explain the process we intend to follow, both here and in the international community.
First, however, it is important to be clear what the issue that we are considering today is not. It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict. It is not about invading. It is not about regime change, or even about working more closely with the Syrian opposition. I know that this afternoon we will hear from many noble Lords with a huge amount of experience—diplomatic, political and military—and I am sure that we will hear many nuanced arguments and that there will be discussion about the complexities of the situation. I know that we will benefit greatly from that advice but, in essence, the issue is really very simple. It is this: what should our response be to the large-scale use of chemical weapons; and, with that response, what message do we want to send to the rest of the world about their use?
To help us in our debate, the Government have placed a number of documents in the Library. There is a summary of the Government’s legal position, making explicit that military action would have a clear legal basis; and there are the key judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee, making clear its view of what happened and who is responsible. I hope that noble Lords will find that information useful.
I will start with the evidence that we have. Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that in just three hours on the morning of 21 August, three hospitals in the Damascus area of Syria received approximately 3,600 patients with symptoms consistent with chemical weapon attacks. Thousands of social media reports and at least 95 videos record evidence of attacks in at least 11 different locations in the Damascus area. There are horrible pictures of bodies showing signs of nerve-agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth. At least 350 were killed. These deaths and injuries were caused by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century.
The fact that the most recent attack took place is not seriously disputed. The Syrian Government said that it took place, but blamed the opposition. Even the Iranian president has said that it took place. The Syrian regime resisted calls for immediate and unrestricted access for UN inspectors, while artillery and rocket fire in the area reached a level around four times higher than in the 10 preceding days. Examining all this evidence, together with the available intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee has made its judgments, published and placed in the Library in the form of a letter from the chairman of the committee to the Prime Minister. The committee reached its judgments in line with the reforms puts in place after the Iraq war by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. The letter states that,
“there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto … took place”,
on 21 August. So far as the Syrian opposition are concerned, the letter states:
“There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW by the opposition”.
The Joint Intelligence Committee therefore concluded that it is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on this scale. It says:
“The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible”.
The JIC chairman, in his letter, makes this point absolutely clear and says that,
“there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.
To believe that the Syrian opposition were behind the attack, we would have to believe that they would use, on a large scale, weapons which we have no evidence that they have, delivered by artillery or by air power which they do not possess, killing hundreds of people in areas already under their control. That is simply not credible.
Whatever disagreements we may have about the complex situation in Syria, there is surely no disagreement that the use of chemical weapons is wrong. For nearly a century, the international community has worked to build a system of defences to protect mankind against their use. The international agreement outlawing the use of chemical weapons was signed by Syria and dates back to the period after the Great War, a war in which 90,000 soldiers died from mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene and up to 1.3 million were blinded or burned by them.
The Geneva Protocol reflected a determination that the events of the Great War should never be repeated. It said that, whatever happens, these weapons should not be used. Our judgment is that this is the first significant use of chemical weapons this century. Together with the previous 14 smaller-scale attacks, this is the only instance of regular and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by a state against its own people for at least 100 years.
We should not be interfering in another country’s affairs except in the most exceptional circumstances. It would have to be a humanitarian catastrophe, and it would have to be as a last resort. By any standards, this is a humanitarian catastrophe. If there are no consequences for the large-scale use of chemical weapons, there would be nothing to stop Assad and other dictators from using them again and again. If there are no consequences for breaking international agreements, the agreements themselves are rendered meaningless. Decades of painstaking work to construct an international system of rules and checks to prevent the use of chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles would be undone and a 100 year-old taboo would be breached.
There are those who argue that, in considering our options, we should be guided only by what is in the British national interest. I agree. But surely it is in our national interest, and that of all nations, to ensure that the rules about chemical weapons are upheld. That is why the Government argue that we should play our part in a strong response from the international community, first at the United Nations, but also potentially including legal and proportionate military action; action designed simply to prevent the further use of chemical weapons and similar human distress.
The Attorney-General has confirmed that this use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity. The Cabinet considered the Attorney’s advice this morning and a summary of the Government’s legal position has been placed in the Library, as I said. This summary sets out that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets in an operation to deter and disrupt the use of chemical weapons.
We have evidence of the use of chemical weapons and a firm and sound basis to act, but we propose to take further steps both here and at the United Nations before we do so. First, the United Nations weapons investigators in Damascus must complete their work and brief the United Nations Security Council. We will also make a genuine attempt to reach a condemnatory Chapter 7 Resolution in the Security Council, backing “all necessary measures”. We yesterday put a new draft resolution to our Security Council colleagues. In doing that, we must pursue every avenue at the United Nations, every diplomatic channel, every option for securing the greatest possible legitimacy for any action we take. Only once that route has been exhausted would the Prime Minister return to the House of Commons to seek a further resolution of that House to endorse British involvement in direct military action.
There is a series of important questions about any potential operation to deter and disrupt the use of chemical weapons to relieve humanitarian suffering. Let me try to deal with these. The first is: how can we be sure that the military action envisaged by the United States of America or its allies would work? Of course, when dealing with a dictator like the Syrian president, there can be no guarantee of dissuading him from further use of chemical weapons. But our judgment reflects the assessment that Assad is likely to fear and respect a strong and focused response. Of course, there is no action without risk. But alongside the risks of action, we also have to weigh the risks of inaction.
We know that in President Assad we have a man who has stockpiled chemical weapons, and has used them repeatedly and indiscriminately in the past. He has repeatedly tested our resolve to stand up to his crimes. If we do not act, he and others will, I believe, take it as a signal that he can use chemical weapons again and again. That would risk not only further chemical attacks and further human suffering in Syria, but also greater proliferation of these weapons across the region and the world, with all the consequences that could bring. We should not tolerate the risks of inaction or allow Assad and other dictators to conclude that they can continue to deploy chemical weapons against their people with impunity.
There are those who ask as well whether we are in danger of getting sucked into a new war in the Middle East. To them I would say that the issue before us today is not about sanctioning wider involvement in Syria, horrible and devastating as that conflict is. It is purely about responding specifically to the large-scale use of chemical weapons and acting to deter and prevent them being used again.
The next question is whether we are in danger of undermining our ambitions for a political solution in Syria. The Government do not believe that there is a choice between, on the one hand, acting to prevent chemical weapons being used against the Syrian people, and on the other, continuing to push for a long-term political solution. We obviously need to do both, and we remain committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. But, for as long as Assad is able to defy international will, he will feel little if any pressure to come to the negotiating table. Far from undermining the political process, a strong and military response to the use of chemical weapons can actually strengthen it.
Some ask whether action over chemical weapons could further destabilise the region. The region has already been profoundly endangered by the conflict in Syria. Lebanon faces sectarian tensions as refugees flood across the border. Jordan is coping with a huge influx of refugees. Turkey, our ally in NATO, has suffered terrorist attacks and shelling from across the border. However, standing by as a new chemical weapons threat emerges will not alleviate those challenges; it will only deepen them. That is why the Arab League has been so clear in calling for international action. A region long beset by conflict and aggression needs clear international laws and people who are prepared to stand up for them.
There is also the question of whether intervention, however well motivated, could risk radicalising more young Muslims, including here in Britain. This is a vital question and one that the National Security Council addressed yesterday. The Government received considered analysis from our counterterrorism experts and their assessment is that, while there is no room for complacency, the legal, proportionate and focused actions that we would propose would not be a significant new cause of radicalisation and extremism. In fact, young Muslims in the region and here in Britain may well be wondering if the world will ever step up and respond to the pictures of Muslims in Syria suffering horrific injuries and death from chemical weapons. I would argue that the message to give them is that we will.
Our Parliament has on relatively few occasions been asked to consider whether to endorse the principle of the use of military force. It is inevitable that today’s debate here, and particularly in the other place, will be viewed from the perspective of the debates held before our interventions in Libya and indeed in Iraq. Given that perspective, we are right in Parliament and as a nation to be cautious and to strive to be consensual. That is why we have published the summary of our legal position and the key judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee. It is why we have deferred our decision until the United Nations inspectors have completed their immediate work and briefed the Security Council. It is why we want to try to secure a UN Security Council resolution. But the situation today is not the same as in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war. We are not invading another country; we are not searching for weapons—sadly, we have already seen their use. In 2003, Europe, NATO and the Arab League were in disagreement; today, they are in agreement. The Arab League has issued a statement holding the Syrian regime “fully responsible” and asking the international community,
“to overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime”.
Australia, Canada, Turkey and India, to name but a few, are also in agreement.
The question is a simpler one now than then. It is how to respond to one of the worst uses of chemical weapons in 100 years. Do we conclude that it is all too difficult, and send the message to Assad and others that they may use chemical weapons with impunity; or should we, as the Government propose, act in a legal, proportionate and focused way, with the single objective of preventing the further use of chemical weapons, to relieve humanitarian suffering? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader for his measured and informative introduction to our debate this afternoon. Information and answers to questions about the situation and proposed action in Syria have been lacking, so I warmly welcome the debate. I am pleased that the Leader responded positively to our request that the House should be recalled today for consideration of the plans for military intervention, and I echo the thanks of the Chief Whip to the staff of the House. It is right that it is the Commons that should debate and vote on the issue of armed force, both to hold the Government to account and in order to confer legitimacy on any military intervention, but it is also right that our own House should in parallel debate the issue. The Constitution Committee said in its timely report, Constitutional Arrangements for the Use of Armed Force:
“We consider that the House of Lords is well placed to debate deployment decisions, but that the approval of such decisions should be for the House of Commons”.
The Motion before us is rightly couched in very general terms, but that does not detract from the critical and grave nature of the issues before us: acts of war, the stark reality of life and death, and global stability. The burden of responsibility will lie on the shoulders of our colleagues in the other place, but the voice of noble Lords will carry great influence both in Parliament and throughout the country. In our daily debates on legislation we rightly speak of the consequences, often painful, that laws will have on the lives of individuals and wider society, but the decisions taken in the other place on this issue relate to life and death. It could be said that to carry out military action will definitely cost lives but that the decision not to take action could also cost lives.
As noble Lords will be aware, my party has tabled an amendment to the Government’s Motion in the Commons that provides clear, logical and sequential steps that must be taken before any further vote in the other place. I pay tribute to the strong and cool-headed leadership shown by Ed Miliband on this issue in the interests of our country. I regret that it is being briefed that he is playing politics. He is not; he is providing measured statesmanship.
I trust that the amendment will be carried because I fear that the government Motion is ambiguous, and such a grave decision must be preceded by a road map. This is what the brave men and women of our Armed Forces and their families, along with the rest of our nation, would expect. I pay tribute to the work of our Armed Forces, who bear the consequences of the decisions that are taken. We are hugely proud of the work that they do.
The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, a moral outrage and a crime against humanity. The question of whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria seems to be beyond doubt evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. Governments, the Arab League, journalists and non-governmental organisations, along with sources contacted by the intelligence services, agree on the use of chemical weapons. Following the attack on Damascus, the UN team of inspectors is now collecting samples that will be sent to special laboratories for rigorous analysis before the team reports to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council. As the Secretary-General said yesterday, the team must be given time to do its job. Such actions are not and must not be a sop but part of a robust UN process. While the team is not mandated to discover who used the chemical weapons, it is clear that the evidence it collects should provide information about who was responsible. It is then that the Security Council will best be able to consider what action should be taken. This must be part of the due process.
It is important that the Arab League said on Tuesday that it holds Bashar al-Assad responsible for the chemical attack on Damascus and that it supports the use of force through the UN. We look to the US Government, our Government and others to set out their evidence in relation to the responsibility of the Assad regime. I have one specific question for the Minister in response: can the Government tell us what chemical weapon caused the appalling injuries and deaths in Ghouta, and whether it was a proscribed chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention?
Action must be taken only on the basis of evidence. Momentum is not a reason for action, so why the undue speed? Such momentous decisions cannot be taken in haste. There must be evidence before a decision is made rather than a decision taken before the evidence is available. The Government must not work to a political timetable but do what is best for our country, best for the Syrian people and best for the wider world.
Like all noble Lords I have had many conversations this week about the Government’s desire for action and, whatever the views expressed, all speak of the need for clarity and have asked a series of questions that must be answered. I hope that today the Government will be able to give real clarity about the aims of intervention and the outcome. On Tuesday the Prime Minister said that he sought to,
“deter and degrade the further use of chemical weapons”,
by Syria, yet in a tweet yesterday he said that,
“Britain has drafted a resolution condemning the chemical weapons attack by Assad & authorising necessary measures to protect civilians”.
What are the Government trying to achieve? I realise that the Leader of the House gave some of those answers. However, is the aim of any action to punish Assad for the past use of chemical weapons, to deny the future use of chemical weapons by taking out the potential for future use, to deter future use or to exercise a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians? I ask the Minister to be absolutely clear on that. Many people, including many noble Lords, might be prepared to support action but only if it were possible to be assured that we could remove and neutralise every single chemical capability in Syria. They would want unequivocal proof that this was achievable and the sole aim of military action. Civilian lives are lost in any military action, no matter how strategic the action, so would it be possible to punish Assad or teach him a lesson if it is his countrymen who suffer rather than him and his henchmen? His repugnant actions demonstrate that he does not value the lives of others. The 100,000 already killed and nearly 2 million refugees are clear and tangible proof of his devastating cruelty. It is a nation destroyed and a whole generation with little or no hope for the future.
I have seen this with my own eyes. I visited a camp in Jordan nearly two years ago when there were merely tens of thousands of refugees, and it was a deeply shocking experience. I watched a family that included elderly people bent double, walking with help, and tiny children, all fleeing across the border from snipers. Their warm reception in Jordan was extraordinary. Now millions of people have fled their country, with no hope, no home, no dreams, just physical and mental problems. How can they continue to cope—likewise Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and the other countries to which they flee? Would any military intervention make the flow of refugees even greater, or smaller?
The situation is likewise for the 6.8 million people inside Syria, including the 4.25 million internally displaced people. The humanitarian crisis is bordering on an emergency. We have to ask ourselves whether military action would improve the lives of those people and improve the humanitarian situation and the ability of aid agencies to provide help.
Further questions are rightly asked about the proportionality and legality of action. Any action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region and must be legal, proportionate and time-limited. Understandably there are fears about mission creep that might follow any action. As the US chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has said:
“Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is harder to avoid”.
What is the end game of any action? If there were a military intervention followed by further use of chemical weapons, would we not be obliged to strike again?
One of the deepest concerns that is expressed, and that I share, is about the wider consequences of any action. It is probably impossible to know or calculate what the consequences would be, but have the Government really thought through the balance of risks? What would the ramifications be across the Arab and Muslim world? As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, pointed out in an excellent article earlier this week, comparisons are inevitably being made with military actions in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. In both cases neither Serbia nor Libya had friends whose support they could rely on, but this is not the case with Syria. Syria is firmly embedded in an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, which poses real dangers for the wider world. I look forward to the speech later today from the noble Lord, who is wise and has unparalleled recent experience in the region.
How would Iran respond? Would the hopes of better relations between the recently elected, more moderate President of Iran and the West be jeopardised? Does President Assad’s warning of “dire consequences” encompass Israel, where US Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistent diplomacy is impressive? Are these risks outweighed by the risk to this world of the use of chemical weapons with impunity? What are the consequences for this country, and by taking action would the Government be acting in the best interests of the United Kingdom?
These questions are difficult and uncomfortable, but they are being asked in various ways up and down the country by a public who remain deeply sceptical about intervention. Undoubtedly some of the public’s hostility is a result of our recent experiences. However, we must not be paralysed by the experience of Iraq but rather learn from it. Political leaders must lead and the Government must govern. The Government have information that influences their decisions and that we are not party to, but it is incumbent upon them to be as open and as transparent as possible. However, politicians must also take the views of the public into account. This is not a question of votes at the next election but of the conscience of the nation.
President Kennedy said:
“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”.
Perhaps we should ask whether our intervention would put an end to the use of chemical weapons not just in Syria but to their potential use in the wider world by other evil tyrants. The use of chemical weapons is the act of a despicable tyrant, a global bully. The moral case for action is clear. Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity, there can be no free pass for those who use them, and military intervention must be an option. However, is a military strike the best way to deal with an immoral, unprincipled bully with no regard for humankind? This is the first time that these vile weapons of war have been used in the 21st century and I wonder whether we are considering 21st century means of dealing with this dire situation.
There is a duty on the international community to make the UN process work and to get maximum support. Diplomacy and political action must be pursued, and eventually President Assad and his closest associates must be brought before the international court for judgment. Should not the global powers remain steadfastly committed to talking and to the Geneva II peace conference? The words of John Lennon, “Give peace a chance”, are loud in many ears.
I look forward to the debate, and of course to the response from the Minister. I welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord the Leader has had to inform the House about the objectives, legal basis and anticipated effect of any possible UK military action in Syria.
Today’s vote in the House of Commons is not a green light for action. The decision whether to support any military intervention will be taken in the House of Commons once the report of the weapons inspectors has been received. It must also be taken on the basis of real evidence as to the perpetrators of the chemical attacks, it must follow proper consideration by and a vote in the Security Council, there must be a clear legal basis for proportionate action, and in-depth consideration must have been given to the consequences and risks. Our colleagues in the Commons will then be in a position to take the grave decision about military action involving UK forces. Naturally, I trust that the House will again be recalled when that decision is taken.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for giving us this opportunity to debate one of the most critical issues of our time: what to do about Syria. We have had several debates in the House on that issue, so I will not rehearse the arguments that I made in the previous debate on 1 July. Needless to say, I should add, for those noble Lords who were here for that debate, that my views have not changed.
Whether to intervene or not is not merely a matter of legality and international law, but is also about judgment, conscience and consequences. To act has consequences, which may be grave indeed, but to choose inaction also has consequences, perhaps graver than if we acted. We cannot know all the outcomes in advance, but we can strive to make a situation better than it might be if we did nothing.
International law, like other codified and customary law, is an evolving thing, subject to different interpretations. Parliamentarians and statesmen cannot make choices on the basis of naked law alone, as there will always be ambiguity regarding the appropriate analogies and past practice. No one situation is exactly like the last. Witness how different analogies are being employed today: this is like Kosovo, the Iraq war, Halabja, the Iran-Iraq war, World War I, and so on. We cannot make decisions on a narrow perception of legality founded only on United Nations Security Council resolutions, particularly when that course of action may not be open to us due to the cynical use of a veto by Russia and China in order to protect their geopolitical interests, irrespective of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding day by day, and which has been unfolding over the past few years.
I am extremely relieved that this Government have decided to wait for the UN weapons inspectors to confirm the use of chemical weapons. But let us remind ourselves that the weapons inspectors will not point the finger. That is not their remit, and they undoubtedly would not have been allowed into Syria if that had been their remit. Moreover, we have to recall that there was intensive and continuous shelling and bombardment of Ghouta in the days after the attack, potentially to destroy chemical and ballistic evidence, so we need to be clear as to the weapons inspectors’ ability to solve this conundrum for us.
When we are back in the hands of the Security Council and in the realm of law, will Russia and China, if it is proven that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, live up to their obligations under the 1925 Geneva Protocols to act to enforce the provisions when they are breached? I doubt it, so let me put this question to the Labour Party, whose amendment in the other place is somewhat self-contradictory. What will it do if the weapons inspectors provide information to suggest that only the Assad regime had the capacity to undertake this attack? Paragraph 3 of the amendment it is moving in the other place today requires a vote in the Security Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for whom I have great respect, has just spelled that out, but the Labour Party does not spell out what it might do when, despite the inspectors’ evidence, if it is forthcoming, there is a Russian or Chinese veto. In the debate on Syria on 1 July, the noble Lord, Lord Wood, argued that we,
“should spend diplomatic capital on urging other actors in the region not to take action that escalates the conflict from either side”.—[Official Report, 1/7/13; col. 993.]
“Hallelujah” I say, but we are not in a position where we have that influence. We are not in a position where we have that influence with Russia or China. What would they do if Hezbollah used chemical weapons in Lebanon? The situation there is increasingly destabilised. It is asymmetric in Lebanon as well as in Syria. If the strategy of deterrence is not employed—and that is what we are trying to do here—to deter Assad and his allies using chemical weapons on a larger scale in the future by demonstrating that we will not stand idly by, how do we in our state of impotence prevent escalation or repeats?
I shall conclude by adding one important point from a Muslim perspective. I have lived in and been in and out of the Middle East since 1973 and I have spent the past 40 years trying to understand why anti-Western sentiment is growing in the region. I returned from Egypt earlier this month. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is in his place. He listened to the same protestations that I heard in Cairo. One of the things my interlocutors say again and again is that the West engages with them only when our own strategic interests are engaged, such as our energy needs in the Middle East. In Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf I hear the same refrain: “You don’t protect our rights, only your own interests”. A familiar question arises now with Muslims in the UK. We need to act with caution to dispel this perception. We need to be true to our values but we also need to be true to our responsibilities.
My Lords, it will not surprise those of your Lordships who have heard or read my previous interventions on Syria that I am strongly against any form of military intervention in what has long been a Sunni-Shia war. I still believe that any military attack on Syrian territory by the Americans, the French or ourselves will have disastrous consequences, quite apart from the inevitable loss of life to add to the appalling casualties inflicted by two years of this terrible war.
When I spoke in this House in March 2003, on the eve of our military invasion of Iraq, I drew particular attention to the inconsistencies of our alleged objectives for that attack. I do so again, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in the context of an imminent military assault on Syria. Is our objective, as American statements appear to confirm, merely to punish President Assad for his alleged deployment of chemical weapons? Is it a “shot across the bows”, as President Obama said—I think this morning—to dissuade President Assad from deploying chemical weapons again? Is it part of a campaign to get rid of President Assad and his Government, and to replace them by the so-called Free Syrian Army? Is it designed to put pressure on President Assad to enter into negotiations at a Geneva peace conference? Or is it aimed at the destruction of his acknowledged stock of chemical weapons? Is it designed to be a warning to Iran, for Israel’s benefit, of the readiness of the Americans to launch attacks against weapons of mass destruction?
As for punishment, it is not clear to me—and I regret that I have not yet been able to read the note on the Government’s legal position—whether they regard military action without the consent of the Security Council as legitimate under international law. Even if one accepts that the use of chemical weapons, whether by the Syrian Government, the rebels or both, is itself a breach of international law, does that justify an illegal response? We are assured that any action taken will be proportionate, but we also need assurance that it will be legal. Surely any military intervention, however proportionate, will be interpreted by much of the wider world as direct involvement in Syria’s civil war.
If the planned military action is designed to change Syria’s Government, I would argue, as I have done many times in this House, that it is no business of ours or, indeed, of our NATO partners to intervene on either side in Syria’s civil war. Have we considered the risks of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons falling under the control of the dominant rebel force—Jabhat al-Nusra and its al-Qaeda allies—in addition to the chemical weapons and agents to which, according to my information, they already have access? If this is a virtual declaration of war against an ally of Russia and Iran, have we given adequate thought to our longer-term, and surely more important, interests in either country, let alone our hopes of persuading them to put pressure themselves on their Syrian ally?
If our aim is to destroy President Assad’s stock of chemical weapons, others are better qualified than I to judge the risks of proliferation and civilian casualties—risks that were aired in debates preceding the second Iraq war, when it seemed likely that the Americans were intent on destroying what turned out to be Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. How confident are we that any destruction this time would be total, safe or effective?
If, on the other hand, we argue that military action is necessary to persuade President Assad to enter into negotiations with the rebels, does this not ignore the fact that President Assad himself has confirmed repeatedly that he is ready to attend a Geneva conference, whereas not one of the rebel groups has agreed to do so? Our objective should surely be not to punish either side in this terrible civil war but to bring all sides to the negotiating table, with the help and assistance of their friends and allies. I see that the Russian Foreign Minister has expressed the hope that others will think of their long-term interests. Have we agreed with our American and French allies an exit strategy? How do we react if President Assad uses chemical weapons again? What happens if he or his allies launch some form of counterattack?
It is ironic that this crisis should blow up precisely at the moment when we at last await Sir John Chilcot’s report of his inquiry into the second Iraq war, but I think that we should have already learnt enough lessons from that disastrous campaign to avoid making any of the same mistakes again.
My Lords, the use of chemical weapons has been illegal for almost a century. Their use was banned by the Geneva protocol, which was agreed by the international community in 1925. That ban was agreed because, as we have seen in the past week, the use of these weapons has particularly dreadful and horrible consequences. It is a ban that should be respected, observed and enforced. That is why President Obama was right, in his much criticised speech of several weeks ago, to declare that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line”. That red line has been crossed.
Therefore, the questions that have to be answered are these. Should the use of chemical weapons in breach of that ban go unmarked? Should no action be taken to enforce the ban? Should those who use them be able to cock a snook at the rest of the world and continue to use them with impunity? I believe that the answer to all those questions is no. As the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition said, there is a strong moral case for enforcing the ban against the use of these dreadful weapons.
It is precisely this kind of situation that has given rise to the evolving doctrine in international law of the responsibility to protect. To suggest that in order to achieve a badge of legality any response to the use of chemical weapons must have the support of the Security Council of the United Nations is to confuse law with the kind of realpolitik that determines the way in which countries vote in relation to decisions of this kind. No one believes that all the permanent members of the Security Council will reach their decision on the basis of a dispassionate and objective assessment of the evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria last week. That is what you would need if you wanted to see the Security Council as an indispensable part of a legal process. It is manifestly not what we have.
Of course, I understand that in the light of what happened in 2003 there is a good deal of scepticism about the intelligence the Government have produced. Indeed, I warned in the aftermath of the Iraq war, not least in the debate on the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the way in which the intelligence was misrepresented then would make it more difficult for Governments to take action in the future. However, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition has said this afternoon, we should not allow ourselves to be paralysed by Iraq. We must not allow ourselves to be paralysed now by what happened then.
My noble friend the Leader of the House has set out the further diplomatic steps which the Government intend to take, but there will come a time when decisions have to be taken, the material information that we need is available and the time for asking questions is over. I understand why the Prime Minister, in his desire to act on the basis of consensus, agreed to postpone the decision-taking moment in the other place, but for the Labour Party, having asked for and been granted that delay, to threaten to vote against the Government's Motion this evening is, I am afraid, a descent into party politics of the worst kind.
We are in danger of allowing the United States and France to act as the conscience of the world while the United Kingdom stands on the sidelines wringing its hands. That would be an unbearable humiliation for a country with a history such as ours. I hope that we can avoid that fate, and I commend the Government's position to your Lordships.
My Lords, I feel that in the past 24 hours some sanity has returned to our actions. I came back to the United Kingdom from holiday on Tuesday and, like many in this House who been involved in the sorts of events that are happening now, it was clear to me that we were seemingly on an irresistible move towards taking military action as early as this Sunday coming. It seemed that we were doing that in the most extreme and hurried way, and I could not understand why on earth that was happening.
There is no doubt that these things gain a momentum of their own and that the military starts focusing on what it needs to do to achieve this. I am afraid that often Governments get caught up in that rush. But we were moving much too quickly. Thank goodness, now, we have thought about this. We have pulled back from the brink and we are looking at the things that need to be in place.
For example, how on earth could we have done something before the UN inspectors, whom we had made the Russians accept going into Syria, had made their report? What an extraordinary situation to be in. Thank goodness we are now saying that we will accept that report.
I have looked at the JIC paper. Having seen JIC-speak many times, having been deputy chairman of the JIC for three years and Chief of Defence Intelligence, I accept that it looks almost certain that the regime there did carry out these actions, but our public now have no faith in this. We need to prove to them that we have solid evidence. I would like to think that there is more critical evidence. It might mean things being talked about that we do not normally like to release. As a former Chief of Defence Intelligence, I can say that I would never have liked to have given out those pieces of intelligence, but this is really important. Maybe we have to say, actually, that we will extract that one to prove that we know for sure. Our public need to know.
Perhaps with that information we say to the Russians, “Look, this is how we know this. Why are you saying that the opposition are doing it?”. If we can have that open dialogue with the Russians, we can prove that they are doing what they are doing to support a vassal state for geopolitical reasons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned, rather than for other reasons. If they have to admit that this proves it, there might be an opportunity at the UN Security Council to get Russia to abstain and maybe even get a resolution. I really believe that we at least have to try to get that resolution. I am not saying that there is no justification for taking action without a UN Security Council resolution at times, but we should try to get it on this occasion.
We should also look at the possibility of other resolutions. Is there something else we can do to put pressure on this regime? I know that people say we have now tried everything to stop this conflict, which is dreadful and appalling—things that have been done are loathsome—but I wonder whether there is not more that we can do. We should do anything to avoid taking military action.
There must be some other way to skin a cat. What if what we hear about this sig int about a military commander firing weapons without authority is true? Let us suppose that we have that evidence. That would be exactly the sort of thing that we can say to Assad. We could say, “Look, we know this and this is how we know it. You didn’t like that happening. We expect to leave the level of any release of chemical weapons up to you alone, and we expect you to punish this man”. Something like that would be a good move forward. There must be other ways of doing things.
There is no doubt that Prime Ministers and Presidents think that they can have clinical little military strikes and keep control of things, but you cannot. Once you start doing these things there is the law of unintended consequences. I know that as a military man. It is extremely difficult. Therefore you go down a route that you did not want to go down, and when you get a little beyond that you go to war and have no control over where it is going. That is the horror of war. Sometimes it is in our greatest national interest, but I do not think that this is in our greatest national interest, and I am very worried about it.
If we take any military action at all, we need absolute clarity about what we are trying to achieve. What are we trying to achieve? What exactly do we want to do? There was talk by the Prime Minister of degrading weapons use by attacking their command and control. As a military man, if I attack someone’s command and control and those weapons were allowed to be used at a lower level, they are more likely to be used. We need to be really careful.
What is the ultimate importance for our nation? The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned that there are great moral imperatives, and there are, but ultimately in realpolitik there are things that are crucial to our nation. It is horrible to have to face that, but it is true. That is what we need to be clear about when we take any military action, because it does have unintended consequences. Air attacks, we know, do not make people do what you want them to do. We found that with Desert Storm and Saddam Hussein, and we found it with Milosevic. If the people are nasty enough and do not care what happens to their own people, it makes no difference. If we have a man, Assad, who is deranged enough to use loathsome weapons like this on his people, knowing that he will cross a red line, what might he do when we attack? This area is a powder keg. It would take something to go only slightly wrong—let us say he decides to pull in Israel by attacking it or he fires ballistic missiles at Cyprus—that would come under Article 5 and therefore be a declaration of war on us. What happens then? We have to think this through. I am very concerned about it.
The US and Obama were not that keen on actually going forward with this. It seems to me that at one stage we were almost driving it forward with the French. Why? I am not clear why we were doing that. Obama is now in this and I hope that the US does not take action before we do. I do not think that Obama will want to, because I think he is going to Russia next week. That could be an interesting situation.
I am out of time, so all I will say is that August and September have very bad track records for us if we look back to 1914 and 1939. In 1914, who would have believed that the murder of a minor prince would end with a million British dead? We are dealing with a powder keg here and we need to be very careful.
My Lords, yes, we need to be careful with the powder keg, and the question before us is whether an ingredient of that powder keg is going to be chemical weapons and gas. There is one mistake that we make with baleful constancy when we consider warfare action, and that is always to judge what we do in the next war by the lessons we thought we learnt from the last. That is almost always wrong. I well remember trying to persuade Parliament that we needed to intervene in Bosnia. The shadow that hung over us then was that of Vietnam, and I was constantly told, “We can’t do this. What we’ll get is body bags”. And so it is now. We are living under the shadow, sadly, of Iraq, but this is not Iraq. We are not putting boots on the ground, we are not invading, we are not seeking to govern someone else’s country, and above all this is not George W Bush, this is Barack Obama. You need only to look at what this American President has done to see how nervous, hesitant and cautious he is about taking action. Of all the arguments that are used, particularly the one that the Americans are hell bent on expanding this into some new war in the Middle East, every piece of evidence that we have about the current American Administration points in the opposite direction. That is simply an irrational argument.
This matter turns on a single question: do you take more of a risk through acting or do you run a greater risk through lack of action? That is the central question, and it was asked not least by the noble Lord who spoke previously. The aim is easily stated: it is to act as a bulwark for international law, and above all to protect one of the few pillars of international law that has been in existence for 100 years and more—against the use of chemical weapons and gas—and to act in support of international law while at the same time seeking to diminish the capacity of President Assad to continue to use such weapons. That is the aim.
So what is the strategy? It is the same as the aim. If you have a law against murder and you enforce it, you enforce it in order to reduce murder. Do you remove the possibility of murder completely? Of course not; it will continue to be committed. However, the question is: if you did not enforce it—if that law had become a dead letter—would murder increase in frequency? Of course it would. So that is the aim, and that is the strategy.
I heard the noble Lord, Lord West, talk about uncertainties. Of course there are uncertainties. You cannot take actions without having uncertainties. I would have thought that as a man who made his career in the armed services he would understand that. Every action that you take has consequences. Some of those consequences are predictable, some of them are rationally likely, some you do not know. If you do not accept that as a judgment, you do not have Armed Forces, you do not launch ships, you do not fire torpedoes, you do not drop bombs. You cannot tell exactly what is going to happen. You cannot have certainty in this, you have to have judgment. It seems to me that that is the central question here.
I cannot give certainty that this will achieve what we want. I cannot even give certainty that it will not have a widening effect. I cannot give certainty that it will not do anything—it probably will—to increase the possibility, which the noble Lord, Lord Wright, described, of a widening religious war in the Middle East. I do not think that that is stoppable now. We might be able to make sure that the damage caused to the local citizens and to the world by such a war is not increased by allowing chemical weapons to be in commonplace usage. That is what it is possible to achieve.
If you will excuse me, my time is very limited.
I come back to the central proposition. Yes, you can have certainty about the outcome. Uncertainty is attached to this, but if you want certainty you can have it. Take no action. You will then have the certainty that this chemical convention and the laws behind it will become a dead letter. You will have the certainty that chemical weapons have been used once with impunity and can go on being used again with impunity. You will have the certainty that this will happen in the other conflicts that are about to rage, and are raging, in the Middle East. You will have the certainty that in due course that will be delivered to us too. Yes, we have an interest in this. If those are the certainties you wish, then by all means take no action. If, on the other hand, you want to take some action that is best calculated to produce a better outcome, to support international law and to make sure that we will not tolerate the use of these weapons in the best way that we can, we should pursue the action proposed by the Government.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, talked about action and said that action should be taken, but not once did he describe in any way, shape or form how that action should be taken or how it could be contained.
My Lords, I am extending beyond my time. I do not believe that it is up to politicians to act as armchair generals —I never have and I never will. The Government have defined what they need to achieve by this action. It needs to be limited, defined, targeted, proportional and within international law. Those are the conditions of the action before us. It is up to the military to decide how the Government can pursue that.
My Lords, much has been said recently in this House and elsewhere about the need to learn the lessons of the past in considering the options in Syria. Of course, the trouble is that the lessons of the past do not all point in one direction. Many will believe we were wrong not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda. Let us remember that the most recent weapon of mass destruction to be used on a massive scale was the machete. Many will believe that we were right to intervene in Sierra Leone and, although we were lucky that Milosevic fell when he did, in Kosovo. Many, including the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, think that we should have intervened in Bosnia to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Many have serious doubts now about military involvement in Afghanistan, although it seems politically inconceivable not to have taken action after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
I believe that most people think that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, and many thought so at the time. I agree wholly with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and argued in this House for the inquiry into Iraq precisely so that we could learn the lessons. When faced with decisions such as those we now face, it is a tragedy that we do not yet have that report. I think that most people would argue that the intervention in Libya was justified, although it is probably too early to be sure.
It is hard to draw clear conclusions for Syria from this variegated past. The lessons will need to take account above all else of the circumstances in and around Syria, and not of what happened in the past. The key questions are as follows. Would intervention be in accordance with international law? In part that will depend on what the weapons inspectors say and on the conclusions that the UN Security Council draws from their report. However, we need clarity on this, and to be confident in retrospect that, even if things go wrong, we were right to take action when we did. The Attorney-General’s advice is very helpful on that point, but I am not convinced that it is conclusive.
Would intervention achieve its objectives, and are they clear? In other words, how sure can we be that intervention will so degrade Syria’s military capability that it will not use chemical weapons again? The moral case for acting against the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is clear, but we have to be confident, even if we cannot be absolutely sure, that our action will work.
What is the risk of collateral damage? I have no qualms, even after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, in talking about collateral damage. I recall being told before the Iraq war that US missiles had 95% accuracy, so if 500 missiles were sent, 25 would miss their target. Perhaps they are better now, but one or two missiles hitting a school, hospital or crowded market can shift the moral argument.
Will intervention strengthen or weaken the United Nations? The past decade or so has shown how hard it is to reach agreement in the Security Council. The temptation is to ignore it or to try to bypass it. That temptation is huge but wrong. Surely it must be in our interest, however difficult it may be, to strengthen the United Nations.
Crucially, can we be sure that we can conduct a surgical strike and withdraw? I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord West, said. How will other states such as Iran and Israel react if provoked? How will Hezbollah react? Syria is in the middle of a vicious civil war that could only too easily draw others into a regional conflagration, with incalculable consequences for our interests and those of others. The Foreign Secretary said that this uncertainty may last for decades. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, spoke about the importance of focusing on our interests. Surely they are to work with others, however difficult that may be, to prevent that conflagration. Such prolonged instability and uncertainty cannot be in our interests, or those of the US, Israel or Russia. That, and helping to solve the appalling humanitarian crisis now engulfing Syria and its neighbours, must be our principal aim in the years ahead.
I cannot see now how military action against the Syrian regime, even if it is legal and even admitting the horrible nature of the Assad regime, will advance our key aims. If anything, the risk is that it will do the reverse.
My Lords, I listened very carefully to my noble friend’s opening speech and I thought that it was extremely impressive, but so far I am not persuaded that the Government have made a case for the action that they propose. Therefore, I am glad that we do not have to rush to a vote today on the crucial issue of military intervention. Many of us would have great difficulty in supporting the Government. However, things change and move, and perhaps the situation itself will change.
We have argued in this House over and over again about many things connected with the duty to protect and the rights and wrongs of intervening in other people’s internal affairs. I do not want to go over all that to some extent weary ground. However, I should like to make one or two points.
As regards the Security Council, of course we have reached the point where it is not regarded as absolutely necessary in all circumstances, regardless of the possibilities of veto and so on, to have a Security Council resolution. All that one can say is that, first, we will not get one on this matter and, secondly, our case in the world will be substantially weakened because we will not get one. That has to be taken into account.
Secondly, I want to mention the idea of punishment. It is a curious notion, but one that is perhaps inevitable. However, it does not really make sense. It implies that there will be no response to the punishment and that the Assad regime, its friends and supporters will simply sit back and take whatever punishment we are giving. That is most unlikely. We therefore need to feed into our computer the likelihood—the possibility or, I would say, the probability—that some kind of reaction to our military action will take place.
I want to concentrate, finally and briefly, on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has just made. The aim of military intervention must be to improve the lot of those who are suffering. There is no doubt about that suffering; we see it every night on the television. It is ghastly and intolerable but our action, if it is to be effective, must be proportionate, and must be in line with and help the people who need it. I cannot for the life of me see how dropping some bombs or firing some missiles in the general direction of Syria, with targets probably some way removed from the weapons that we have been criticising, will lessen the suffering of the Syrian people. It is likely to increase and expand the civil war in Syria, not bring it to an end.
If I felt that military action would lessen—not today, tomorrow or the next day, but in the long run —the suffering of these people and bring closer the day when that civil war comes to an end, that would change my whole attitude. I am not opposed to intervention on principle. There have been, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, cases in which we have successfully intervened, but this is not likely to be one of them. That is my judgment. Unless we are actually going to bring some help or prospect of improvement to the people who have been suffering these fearful attacks, we would be better to hold off.
This is a fairly desperate conclusion because it leaves one open to the charge that one is doing nothing. Of course that is not so. There is a mass of activity, diplomatic and economic, that we could and should undertake. We should surely have cured ourselves by now of that fearful habit of going into military action with our eyes half shut and without thinking through the consequences. My noble friend said that we are not going to take sides; but we are going to take sides. That is exactly the point, and the people whom we are assisting will be pleased and others outraged. To say that we are not taking sides seems a completely unreal proposition: we are deliberately taking sides in a civil war. That is an example—or it would be because we have not done it yet—of the lack of thought, insight and perception that has led us, over and over again, to throw ourselves into battles with the odds somewhat loaded against us and without us, as Parliament, having really thought through the consequences of what we are aiming at.
My Lords, it is inevitable that this debate looks to the past. Some of the parallels that are being drawn with past events are absolutely right. Some of them—in particular I single out what is being said about Iraq—are not necessarily helpful parallels. However, there is a parallel that matters. Just as it was essential in relation to Iraq that two conditions were satisfied, so they must be satisfied if there is to be military intervention here. I identify those two conditions as: any action must be lawful, but must also be right. Those are not the same. Being lawful is a necessary precondition to military action, but it is not enough on its own. Equally, being right and moral may well be essential, but it is not enough on its own.
My contribution to this debate is to focus particularly on the issue of legality, on which we now have, in the note from the Government, a statement of their position. I notice how it is described as a statement of the Government’s position and is divided into two parts. The first is legal principle which identifies in what circumstances military action may be lawful and the second considers whether the conditions that are set out are met. There is an important difference between them. On the first issue, I agree, or Members of this House would agree, that the primary and preferred approach or basis for legal action would, of course, be a United Nations Security Council resolution passed under Chapter 7. Will it happen? I suspect that all noble Lords in this House believe that it will not because of the existence of the veto.
Is there, therefore, another basis? This is where this potential conflict differs from Iraq as there is no pre-existing Chapter 7 resolution that could be relied upon. The Government say that humanitarian intervention would be the legal basis. That is a controversial doctrine, although more and more accepted. It was the basis on which action was taken by NATO in relation to Kosovo and the bombing of Serbia. Generally that would be recognised as justified, I think by many people in the world, and increasingly by international lawyers, although there is no basis for it in fact in the United Nations charter. However—this is essential and I am glad to see that it is made clear in the Government’s statement of legal conditions—certain conditions must be met.
First, the purpose of the humanitarian intervention must be just that. It is for humanitarian purposes. It is to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes. It is not to punish. Even though there are breaches of international law if chemical weapons are used, that does not justify the use of force for punishment. It must be to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes. That means, in itself, that one needs to be satisfied as to what has happened. Was there a chemical attack? Did it take place? Was it the result of action by the Assad regime? Critically, if action is not taken, is there a likelihood—I would say a strong likelihood—that that may be repeated? I will come back to that application.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. He will have seen reports, as I have, that the terms of reference of the inspectors now in Damascus precludes them, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, reminded us, from pointing a finger. They are not in the business, and would not be allowed to get into the business, of allocating blame or responsibility.
I did not want to deny the noble Lord the opportunity of saying something given his previous position, but he is not dealing with a point that I am making. I am not saying that UN inspectors have to say what has taken place, but one must be satisfied that that is what has happened. Secondly, the use of force needs to be a measure of last resort—you need to try everything else first—and thirdly, it needs to be proportionate. One needs to understand what that means. Proportion is not just about the same degree of force that someone else has used. It means that you are using no more force than is necessary in order to achieve your objective. The objective here would be to prevent a further humanitarian catastrophe of further attacks using chemical weapons, if that is what has happened.
When I look at the second part of what the Government say and at the JIC report, I start to have some concerns. For example, on the issue of who is responsible for the attack which took place, I find it convincing that it was the Assad side for the reasons that are given. Was it, on the other hand, the Assad regime at the very top? I notice that the JIC report says that it is believed that authority has been delegated to commanders. I have seen press reports suggesting that there may be a rogue—perhaps that is the wrong word—commander acting on his own initiative. One needs to know, because if that is what has taken place, the chances of it happening again are different from the chances of it happening again if a decision was taken at the centre. That is just one example of what one needs to analyse.
I need to conclude given the limited time. I am glad that we and the House of Commons do not have today to make a decision, because I am concerned that the answers to these questions are not yet fully given. One would need to look at the evidence. I take the point that you can never be absolutely sure about these things and should not try to be, because that is a way of shirking responsibility, but you have to make a good-faith judgment, on evidence, as to what the situation is. If and when this matter returns, the other place and this place will want to ask the question: are we satisfied, on good-faith evidence and in a good-faith judgment, that this action is necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and is no more than is needed to achieve that result?
My Lords, I am glad to be following the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, because I have great respect for the integrity that he showed at a difficult time during the Iraq war.
It is worth saying first of all, and saying strongly, that one of the issues that overlays the whole of this debate is the credibility of any action that we might take. It is, if you like, the aftermath of the Iraq war that so many of our fellow citizens and many in this House and outside it find it very hard to accept any longer even what appear to be the most powerful convictions of Governments in trying to conclude what the facts are. Therefore, I am glad that both the Government’s own Motion and the Labour Party’s amendment to it stress the absolute necessity of as much evidence as we can possibly get before we make a final decision. One of the difficulties, therefore, is that we are looking at a public who lack acceptance of the positions being put to them, and that means that it is crucial that we work on the basis of the maximum evidence that we can possibly get in the next few days. I hope that the United Nations recognises the importance of moving as quickly as it reasonably can in the circumstances.
The second thing that I want to say, and it has not been much touched on so far in this debate, is how vital it is to retain the interest and, so far as is possible, support of the Arab and Muslim powers in the world for whatever action we take with regard to what has already happened. It is crucial that Arab League, in the shape of its Secretary-General, Mr Elaraby—a distinguished Egyptian who has been in that role for some years now—has come out and said that it believes that it is right and proper to take action on the use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria. It is important that it takes that view.
I shall come a little later to the fact that the underlying clash in the Middle East is, sadly, one between Sunni and Shia and that therefore we need to think very hard about the crucial question posed by the noble Lord, Lord West, as to what else we can do. We need to take into account more than we have done the Shia and not just the Sunni powers, and it is of course the Arab League that largely represents the Sunni powers.
Thirdly, we are looking not at a single challenge but at two, and we cannot totally divorce one from the other. There is the military challenge, but associated with it—indestructibly so—is the humanitarian challenge to which the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, and others have referred. That humanitarian challenge is almost beyond our control now. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, pointed out, there are already nearly 2 million refugees outside Syria who are beginning to cast almost immeasurable pressures not only on the states immediately around such as Turkey, Jordan and, tragically, Lebanon but extending increasingly far beyond that; for example, even to the great inflow into Iraq of refugees from the Syrian campaign and civil war. What does that mean? It means, to choose again the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, that we have to associate what we do about that continuing crisis with what we do about the short-term one. That in turn requires the maximum support of the Arab world to assist us because we have to resettle all these refugees if Syria is to have a serious future.
That brings me to the final point I want to make. I regard it as little short of a tragedy that this country has no representation in Tehran, the single greatest Shia power in the region. It is quite clear that we have missed an opportunity because we did not accept the invitation extended to us—not an easy one to accept—to be part of the inauguration of the new president. I shall say two things about that. The House ought to know—I am sure there are individuals who do know—that Iran has consistently been totally opposed to the use of chemical weapons. It has taken that position in one United Nations official charter after another. Why is that? It is because it is the country that suffered more than any other from the use of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war where we, tragically, supported the Iraqis, even to the extent of arming them, against the huge losses of life by Iran. Why do I say that? It is because Iran is an ally of Syria and hates the use of chemical weapons. I suggest that it would be sensible for us to explore, possibly through the good offices of France, whether Iran would be prepared to suggest to Syria that it would be entering terribly dangerous territory to go on destroying its fellow citizens at the rate at which the Government have done over the past few weeks.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for this debate. There is nothing more serious that a Government can undertake than conducting military action. Like many others, I commend the Government on the wisdom of bringing this matter not only to the attention of Parliament but to the Security Council of the United Nations. I strongly support the decision to await the report of the weapons inspectors, without which the case for military action could be seriously undermined. The charter of the UN is clear that approval is necessary for the legitimatisation of military action unless a country is acting under Article 15—namely, self-defence—as Britain did following the invasion of the Falklands in 1982.
The evolution of the responsibility to protect is still taking place, and I have strong misgivings about that being used to justify military strikes in the next few days. In all probability, we will see those strikes. However limited, we must be clear that they are acts of war. Many Members have referred to the possible risks that that entails. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to an article that I wrote earlier this week. I believe that those risks are considerable. Syria is not Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011. Unlike those two countries, Syria is firmly embedded in a military and political alliance with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, which is almost certainly the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world. Within its ranks, that alliance is known as the axis of resistance. Syria is the bridge between Hezbollah and Iran, and neither could afford to see that relationship rupture. Syria, as has been noted, also enjoys considerable political cover from Russia. While it is improbable that Iran or Syria itself would engage in overt military action in retaliation for expected US raids, I believe that it is highly possible that Hezbollah would at the very least deepen its assistance to the Syrian regime, whose downfall it could not tolerate. It could also do so by widening the war to Lebanon, which in the past two weeks has already been the scene of two very large car bombings, where bombs have been planted in Sunni mosques.
Hezbollah might also threaten UNIFIL, the 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, in which many NATO countries are represented, including France, Italy and Spain. It might even seek to break the cessation of hostilities with Israel, which has lasted since the 2006 war. Hezbollah, an organisation that I had much to do with in my UN service in the Middle East, has already warned of the consequences of strikes against Syria and considers that it will undermine the balance of power and deterrence—concepts in which the axis of resistance believes strongly. Indeed, intervention could intensify the civil war in Syria. It would make a decisive military victory or the formulation of a compromise to end the war more difficult. In this regard—we should note this, I believe—both Syria and Hezbollah will draw some comfort from the fact that an allied military strike will not meet with support in much of the world, particularly in key developing countries with which we are trying to develop closer relations. I think of Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and even India in that regard.
Questions of legality will, as with the 2003 war, dog the West for some years to come if military strikes take place. There will also be consequences, perhaps profound, for the West’s relationship with Russia—a relationship that is hardly in good shape anyway. Seeking a political solution after air strikes would be extremely hard. Terrible though chemical weapons are, there are even worse weapons—I refer to nuclear weapons. Sitting in Tehran and perhaps watching on television missiles falling from the sky over Damascus, Ayatollah Khameini may well decide that Iran’s acceleration of nuclear power is the only option to preserve its independence. Russia and China, whose support we have counted on for so long in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, may well become less supportive of our position and that of our allies. Certainly the outlook for the next round of talks over Iran’s nuclear weapons will become much more complicated.
I believe that the Government, while seeking to prevent any further use of chemical weapons in Syria, must somehow at the same time forge a strategy that redoubles our efforts to seek a diplomatic and political solution, which is the only way to end this civil war.
My Lords, it is not often that so much has been said, and so quickly, at the beginning of a debate. The danger of repetition is very great, and it also makes it possible to be briefer than one might otherwise be. I suppose it is true, as the noble Lord just said, that our reaction to any prospect of war is conditioned by our previous experience, and my previous experience about the decision to go to war is not a happy one. It is impossible to escape the first question on this, which is certainty as to what has happened to which we are reacting. I read through the JIC report on chemical weapons use by Syria with increasing confidence that we knew what had happened, particularly when I got to the sentence which said:
“The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.
I then turned the page and found that the next paragraph stated:
“Against that background, the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August”.
That struck all the chords present in the literature that we received on the eve of the advance into Iraq.
The function of this House is to scrutinise ruthlessly what is proposed by Governments when it could cause great risk to this country. Therefore, one has to be sceptical in the extreme before one is happy to agree with a proposed military intervention. We are told that there would be no intervention in the civil war. But any military response would be directed at Assad, must be to the advantage of the rebels and will be seen as an intervention on their behalf. Nobody has considered who they actually are. The Minister will tell me when he replies, but am I not right in saying that large elements of the rebel forces are in fact jihadist terrorists, whose aims are the overthrow of democracy and the rule of law such as we have in this country? Those would be the people whose chances would be enhanced by a successful invention against Assad or the regime. That is a national interest on which we need to keep a close eye.
One really cannot get it all in in five minutes but everybody agrees in theory that we have to be clear about what we want to achieve by doing this. We call it an objective. If it is a military objective, it has to be pretty precise. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, tried to get in on the end of—I do not know why I have forgotten his name but I know it very well.
Yes, right. Past form tells me that I shall forget it again next time. She tried to get in on the end of his time to point out that nobody has said what the intervention is actually going to be but apparently it is going to be either cruise missiles or aircraft-delivered explosives. Well, if you drop bombs on dumps of chemical weapons, you are then the aggressor because you spread them around the country. On the other hand, if you decide to attack those people who are thought to be in control, you release them from control. I cannot see what an effective military intervention would be. Until we know what it is going to be and how it is supposed to succeed, we cannot give even a tentative green light.
As to a purely humanitarian intervention in the way of aid, this is a battlefield; it will not be possible to deliver it without armed support. If you have armed support, then you are invading. It is not at all clear what is being proposed when we are asked to support in principle an armed intervention. The bottom line is: will it do more harm than good in the long run? Will our humanitarian intervention actually be inhumane? Until we know the answer to those questions, we must proceed with the greatest caution. I, for one, do not see the way in which we can.
My Lords, this is an important debate on a very important issue but in many ways it is a bit late. This civil war has been going on, with increasing violence, for the past two years. Perhaps it is right that we should be focusing on it at present after what happened last Wednesday.
I agree with the Government, and with other allied Governments, that there must be a response to the events of 21 August in Damascus. To do nothing in the face of this illegal, obscene, despicable and, indeed, desperate use of poison gas would in itself be a positive act. It would be in many ways to legitimise an instrument of war that has been outlawed for almost 100 years and it would open the door to much further and wider use of these chemical weapons. Effectively, it would end the responsibility to protect that has now been established by the UN General Assembly.
What we do now in response to the atrocity of 21 August has to be the beginning and not the end of what we do about the crisis of Syria and its neighbourhood. To pretend that taking action now, whatever it might be, would end our involvement in Syria is naive, short-sighted and profoundly dangerous. There is a danger that we focus exclusively in this debate on what happened on Wednesday 21 August and relegate the other horrors of what has gone on over the past two years and what might happen next. There are 100,000 people already dead in Syria. There are 2 million people displaced; that is one-third of the Syrian population both inside and outside its borders. Lebanon has 710,000 refugees. Jordan has 520,000 refugees; that is 10% of its population. As David Miliband said in a speech he gave at Ditchley in August, that is the equivalent of the whole population of Romania coming to the United Kingdom. That is in Jordan, one of our friendly countries. Lebanon is destabilised. Turkey has 440,000 refugees, Iraqi Kurdistan has 160,000 and Egypt 110,000. Israel is on edge at every minute. Iran is on Assad’s side. Iraq is partial in the conflict. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pumping weapons to whoever wants them in that area.
Are we really saying, by focusing on this particular atrocity, that Assad can continue with horrifying violence so long as he does not use chemical weapons? Are we, after we strike, then to stand back as Assad with his new friends in Hezbollah mounts a scorched-earth policy against all his opponents? Is the fevered discussion of the past few days forcing us into the corner of saying that chemical weapons are wrong and will lead to severe punishment, but Assad can go on destroying his people and his country and we will have no further response to what he is doing? Jeremy Bowen, the profoundly brave and wise Middle East correspondent and editor of the BBC said in a programme last night that the regime in Syria is now quite ready to take whatever attack will take place and then simply to move on with what it was doing before—and that was bad enough.
To those who say that any action carries the risk of siding with one side in a civil war, I say this, which has not yet been said even by the Government: we have already taken sides. We do not recognise President Assad as the President of Syria. This country and two dozen others recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. We have taken sides. All we have not done is very much about it and it is time that we did, not only by preventing the human catastrophe of another chemical weapons attack, but by helping and supporting—indeed, arming—the anti-Assad forces which we recognise as the legitimate representatives of the people; by creating truly safe areas for refugees, learning all the lessons of what not to do from Bosnia; and by being generous with Jordan and the other countries that are bearing the unbearable burdens of the spillover. We need to make it clear that genocidal killing and ethnic cleansing by artillery, rockets, grenades and guns, as well as poison gas, are at least as evil and need to be treated in the same way.
My Lords, to follow a speech of the quality that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and to be able to agree with it entirely, is a great privilege. I thank him for making it.
It has been said frequently in this debate that our judgment should be conditioned by experience, but some of your Lordships have been very selective about that experience. We should not simply rely on the last painful experience, or make a particular selection to meet the argument. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and my noble friend Lord Ashdown mentioned Bosnia, which was a lesson to us all of what can happen if you do not take action. Sierra Leone was also mentioned as an example of the benefits that can occur if you do take action. They are part of our experience, too.
As the grandson of a teacher and her postmaster husband who faced state murder by the use of poison gas in sheds, the sight of death by gassing in the streets of Syria raises a painful sense of disgust. The purveyors of those weapons are undoubtedly war criminals who should be brought to justice if at all possible, but I am not prepared to wait for that. They demean their country, one that we all wish to welcome back into the family of nations—but sooner rather than later. My view is that, all other things being equal, if we can act now, it is our duty as a moral component of the international world to do so.
However, those strong feelings alone would not in any way justify military action against Syrian military and political targets. For such action to be justified, it must first be founded on law. Then it must be based on evidence, it must be urgent, it must be necessary, it must be proportionate and, of course, it must be taken against a background of a mass of diplomatic activity. Some of the speeches that we have heard, including those from very distinguished former diplomats, seem to have suggested that we have not begun on any of the diplomatic activity, but we have had years of diplomatic activity—failed diplomatic activity. Now is the time, if at all possible, for the diplomatic activity to stop and for Syria to have a legal and lawful demonstration that the world, or at least part of the world, is prepared to act.
I regret that the, albeit cogent and persuasive, summary of the legal advice that has been given to Parliament and to the public is so short. Both Houses, in my view, had a reasonable expectation of seeing more of the detail, although not, of course, the whole advice—how the doubts weighed against the certainties, the checks against the balances. However, one has to trust one’s Government, at least up to a point. I accept on trust the Government’s legal advice that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, or responsibility to protect, as it is sometimes called, applies here and that, therefore, the proposed action is lawful.
The essential question, however, is whether it should be taken. Will action play a significant part in removing the use of chemical weapons from disputes taking place on this planet? I believe that the time has come when we have to say yes in answer to that question. If we do not, we will look simply like supine appeasers while other parts of the world take action.
I accept, too, that we must await the evidence that there has been use of chemical weapons—if there be any doubt about that—and that, in that context, we should await the report of the UN inspectors. The UN, in its inspectorial role, is extremely good. I agree, too, that we should take the probably token step of awaiting the deliberative role of the United Nations, but I regret very much that the United Nations in that role is now looking tragically toothless and is simply going through the motions.
It is the role of brave and moral nations on earth, including ourselves wherever possible, to take steps to ensure that international humanitarian law is made to work. In my view, given the evidence that has been produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, given the opinion that has been given by the Attorney-General, and given the trust in which we place our consciences in the hands of our Prime Minister and, in the case of my party, the Deputy Prime Minister, we should say yes to this stage and then we should assess the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, I fear that it is time to act.
My Lords, the concerns of the House are already clear. My concerns are the rationale for action, the legality of action and the effects of action.
On the rationale, of course I accept that chemical warfare is a horrific form of warfare, which was rightly banned. Nuclear weapons are horrific; biological weapons are horrific; shrapnel is horrific; and high explosives and landmines are horrific. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that if we singularise this form of weaponry, we appear a contrario to be legitimising other forms of slaughter and massacre. It seems to me that murder is murder, irrespective of the choice of murder weapon. For us to take on ourselves the job of punishing murder if it is committed with a particular weapon and ignoring the 100,000 casualties that have already taken place in Syria is paradoxical and perhaps driven more by emotion in the case of President Obama, whose red lines have been repeatedly flouted. I cannot see the logic or the legality.
I do not understand the argument about the responsibility to protect. It is the son of Kosovo. It was first articulated in Mr Blair’s Chicago speech, which was specifically designed to take on the Americans, who were arguing that bombing alone would defeat Milosevic. It was Mr Blair’s achievement to persuade the Americans and the Germans, who in the end persuaded the Russians, that if it took boots on the ground, we would send land forces into Kosovo. That is why Milosevic gave up.
Humanitarian intervention is specifically about boots on the ground. It is about the responsibility to protect, not about the responsibility to punish. It is about imposing ceasefires, separating warring parties and bringing in aid. It is about a process of enforced pacification. It is nothing to do with punishment. I do not believe that we are in that situation now. I do not believe that we should send massive land forces into Syria. However, nor do I think that it is right to borrow Mr Blair’s rationale for exactly the opposite policy, with the Government asserting that we are not going to change our stance on Syria and are not going to get involved but will simply administer condign punishment for the use of a particular weapon.
What should we do? If we want to reassert the primal importance that the world attaches to the ban on chemical weapons, we need to call for a session of the conference on chemical weapons that drew up the convention. There are 189 states parties and seven states that are not parties. With respect to the Leader of the House, Syria is not party to the convention. It would be for the 189 to bring pressure on the seven to come into line. I do not see the Russians opposing that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. I do not see the Iranians opposing that. I am sure that we need to talk to Mr Rouhani. I am sure that we need to talk to our closest ally who is affected by the situation in a way that we are not: the Turks. The Turks have an extremely strong interest in the survival of an integral Syria, because of the Kurdish problem.
We need to put our pride in our pocket and talk to the Russians. They suspect our motives and think that we want to get rid of their naval base in Syria. I hope that we do not care whether they have a naval base in Syria. I hope that we could convince them that we shared their worries about some elements in the opposition to President Assad. We will make much more progress if we can talk the Russians out of their present position of diehard hostility. That is a task that should be attempted. I want to know when the Foreign Secretary will go to Ankara and Tehran, and I want to know who will go to Damascus. We have to put our pride in our pocket and accept that the peace conference that we want must involve all parties, including the regime in office in Damascus. We cannot pretend that a peace process can be made to work without the present regime, so I hope that the House and the Government will reflect on the concerns raised in this debate, and in particular on the wisdom of the noble Lords, Lord Hurd of Westwell and Lord Robertson.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and it is tantalising that he did not have longer to develop his themes, which were based on enormous experience. I particularly agree with him that the doctrine of punishment has no place in international law. We cannot intervene in order to punish. This might not be universally accepted, especially in the United States, but it is quite clear that it is no part of international law’s right to punish somebody or to retaliate.
I want to make one additional point. I have heard a noble and gallant field marshal in this House say on more than one occasion that the first question asked of you if you visit troops who are committed to active service is, “Is the country behind us? Do the people support what we are being asked to do?”. That is an extraordinarily important question to have in mind when we consider the Syria issue. It is all very well having a military covenant and enshrining it with the force of law—it is very important that that should have been done—but we are not treating troops fairly if they are not given a truthfully positive assurance in answer to that question. That is the great significance of the opinion polls. The Government have to face the fact that so far opinion polls have been about nine to one against what is understood to be in the Government’s mind on military intervention. It is therefore extremely important that in the days ahead, as the evidence available becomes clearer, the Government make every effort to explain the basis upon which the doctrine of the responsibility to protect is founded.
I am extremely glad that the Attorney-General has published a summary of his opinion for use in this debate rather than his full opinion. I cannot agree with those who wish to see the full opinion. That gives rise to tendentious cherry picking and is unhelpful rather than helpful. The public will be reassured to see that one of the criteria to be fulfilled is a humanitarian purpose inspired by humanitarian needs of almost catastrophic proportions. That is the kind of thing that we should expect to see more readily understood in the days ahead. The days ahead are going to be extremely important. Upon them may depend, among other questions, of course, which there is no time to develop, the answer to the question in future, should it arise: “Sir, is the country behind us?”.
My Lords, in a Chamber such as this, which is peopled by so many who have borne the responsibility for authorising military action, there is a deep understanding of the gravity of such a decision. That is why there is an extensive degree of caution to make sure that we understand the justification, the purpose and the consequences of any action. It is also why I am very pleased that the Prime Minister accepted the wise suggestion of the leader of the Opposition to delay at least until the end of the inspections in Syria and the conclusions drawn by the UN inspectors, if for no other reason than that it maximises the chances of legitimising any future action and international support.
I shall say a little word on intelligence because I have read the JIC report and I listened very carefully to what the Leader of the House said. Forgive me if the scars on my back make me even more sceptical, although not cynical, when I hear words such as “highly likely”, “consistent with” and “there would appear to be no plausible alternative scenario”. Lessons have been drawn from previous conflicts, in particular from Iraq. I think the major one from Iraq has been missing. When we look back, there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and had used chemical weapons. Inspectors had been in not for 10 days but, on and off, for 10 years. Saddam Hussein himself declared that he had chemical weapons. Every intelligence agency in the world concluded that he retained chemical precursors. In short, there was “no plausible alternative scenario” to the fact that he had chemical precursors. Yet we found none. However, it might be interesting, if we ever get our hands on the stocks 500 kilometres away in Syria, to see where some of them came from.
The point I make is that there was a degree of certainty, to those of us who were reading these reports, at a level of fortitude greater than “highly likely” and “consistent with”, especially given the report, to which we were alerted today by the Associated Press, by the Director for National Intelligence in the United States,
“outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture”.
A cautious approach to this matter is therefore sensible as well as politically desirable.
Let me make my position clear. While certainty would assist in legitimising any military action, should it be decided appropriate, and in maximising support—it would in a sense overrule the veto that Russia might use—it should not compel us in advance to taking military action because two other questions must be asked. That is not because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, implied, we require certainty but because we require scrutiny, questioning, rational analysis and an understanding of the consequences.
The first of those is inside Syria itself. How do we achieve the limited objective of a punitive response and deterrence with military means that does not spill over into the civil war inside Syria? I do not know, so I ask for advice on that. Secondly, are we fully aware that this is not just a national civil war? This is the equivalent of the European Thirty Years War. It is a regional, schismatic war between Shia and Sunni, and if we proposed to intervene—my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, says that we have already taken sides on this—I commend to the House the words of the noble Lord’s old mentor, the noble Lord, Lord Healey: when you are in a hole, stop digging.
If we have already taken sides, do not let us write it in marble so that we are inevitably on the side of the Sunni, because there is a chance for some diplomatic progress along the lines, which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, around the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is no reason why Russia and Iran, which has suffered so much in that respect, would not be open, along with 189 other nations in the world, to pressurising Syria on this question. That would not remove Assad himself. But then again, that is not the express purpose of any proposed action by the Government, is it? It is to limit the future use of chemical weapons. That might be an area into which we should put our efforts, and it is more fruitful than the one which the Government appear to be contemplating at present.
My Lords, when this House last had a debate on Syria, on 1 July, I urged the Government to try to prevent any further use of chemical weapons by tabling a UN Security Council resolution requiring President Assad to admit UN chemical weapons inspectors and to give them unfettered access to any sites where past or future allegations of use were made. Unfortunately, the Government did not do that; indeed, the Minister, when she replied to the debate, did not even respond to the proposal. I say “unfortunately” not in an attempt to say, “I told you so”, but because if we had pursued that course we might be in a better place than we are now. Such a resolution, if passed, might have deterred all concerned from the use of these appalling weapons, and if Russia and China yet again vetoed any action against Syria we and our allies should at least have been able to make clear at the UN that the further use of these weapons would not pass without there being serious consequences.
Now, however, we are where we are, faced with pretty incontrovertible evidence of the use of chemical weapons on 21 August in the suburbs of Damascus that has resulted in the deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians. I hope, incidentally, that we do not have to spend too much time raking over the ashes of the intelligence failures in 2003 about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Analogies can be useful, but they are never conclusive. What was at issue at that time was possession, not use. Now it is all about use.
What should be done? We should face the fact that to do nothing would be a truly terrible option, however unattractive and risky the alternatives may appear to be. Those who have spoken of the use of chemical weapons as crossing a red line and as being a game-changer would be revealed as paper tigers. Inertia by the main western allies would be a massive encouragement to all those around the world who seek to harm our values and our interests and a massive discouragement to all those who rely on our determination and firmness of purpose to deter such actions. Moreover, inaction would make a complete mockery of the international norm of the responsibility to protect to which all Governments have signed up, a norm to which we and all the members of the United Nations agreed in September 2005. That norm has already suffered much damage in Syria, but at least there is now a chance to honour it in the face of a massive breach of international humanitarian law.
Should we be stopped by the lack of any Security Council authority for taking tough action? That lack of authority is due purely and simply to Russian and Chinese vetoes that are frustrating the will of the other members, an overwhelming majority of the council. It was a serious abuse by those two countries of their role as permanent members of the council when they earlier vetoed giving UN authority to Kofi Annan’s peace plan even though it contained no authorisation of the use of force. In addition, Russia and Iran have continued to supply the regime with lethal weapons and they seem simply to have overlooked that they, too, signed up to the responsibility to protect in 2005.
As someone who has worked hard over the past 20 or so years to strengthen the UN and make it more affective, it is with a heavy heart that I conclude that the Government’s intention to take forceful action in the present circumstances in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons and, if necessary, without UN Security Council authority, is the least bad option available. If the Government decide to go ahead on that basis and the House of Commons approves it, it could be worth while, before using force, to give the Assad regime an ultimatum to hand over all their chemical weapons to the United Nations and to allow UN inspectors unrestricted access throughout the country. That would make it even clearer where the responsibility would lie for what might follow and would make clear the limited objectives of any action taken. In any event, what is surely essential—and many other noble Lords have said this—is that any military action against the Assad regime should be accompanied by a renewed effort to convene a conference designed to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. This may seem a long shot in the present situation, but we surely must not get drawn into a situation in which a sequence of actions involving military solutions becomes the only one available.
My Lords, there is broad consensus that the actions of the Assad regime are increasingly intolerable. They have been the cause of revulsion and condemnation for some time. In particular the awful images of children suffering in what Save the Children has said is a human tragedy on a scale almost impossible to imagine has prompted the understandable response that something must be done. But we find ourselves torn between the desire to act and the certain knowledge that, in a situation so desperate and complicated, there are no easy answers. It is rare indeed for there to be such answers; certainly in matters of war there never are.
We are all scarred by the experience of recent conflicts, which have taught us that our very human instinct to intervene to stop atrocities is not always a sufficient basis on which to act. We must also have clear objectives, recognise that we may not be able to achieve all that we might wish and recognise that our actions will inevitably carry unintended consequences. But as the Prime Minister said in relation to other developments in the region, the fact that we cannot do everything does not mean that we should do nothing.
In common with many, the Middle East is a region I love and where I have a number of involvements as declared in the register of interests. I share many of the concerns expressed in your Lordships’ House and beyond about the potential consequences of taking action. There is already a serious refugee crisis, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and we face the possibility of the conflict spreading to neighbouring countries with all the instability for the region that that entails. An escalation of the conflict risks things getting worse before they can get better. I am sure that the Government will have taken into account the increased strain on neighbouring countries as more people flee Syria. Has extra money been provided to help these already overstretched Governments? Also, in any action taken, will assurances be given that everything will be done to avoid harming civilians, especially children?
We should not blind ourselves to concerns about certain elements in the opposition, notably the al-Nusra Front, and their own actions. There is a risk that in rightly condemning Assad we oversimplify into good guys and bad guys. It is never as straightforward as that. These complexities make it even more important that we define clearly the limitations of intervention. Since Iraq and Afghanistan, the phrase “exit strategy” has become familiar to us all and we should remember why. But the use of chemical weapons by anyone cannot just be ignored, so we must be sure that any action, military or otherwise, has clear goals and commands widespread support, especially, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, from the Arab and Muslim world.
Although public opinion is against intervention, I welcome the YouGov poll today where a large majority believes that the Prime Minister would act only for the right reasons. I also welcome the work that the Government have undertaken in leading the way in seeking a UN Security Council resolution. We all know that total consensus is unlikely, but it is right to try.
The American ambassador to the UN during the Cuban missile crisis, Adlai Stevenson, famously told the Russians that they were in the courtroom of public opinion. Today, it is Assad who stands in the dock and the evidence is mounting daily of his guilt. But for those who sit in judgment on him, the priority must not just be for retribution for his crimes but the best way to help his victims and protect the Syrian people. I sincerely hope that such a way can be found.
My Lords, I wanted to speak in this debate because I had many concerns about military intervention in Syria and the pace at which these events were being considered. I am glad that sanity has resumed and the timetable slowed. I do not have the depth of experience of many who have spoken or indeed who are yet to speak, but I have little understanding of the region; Iraq and Syria in particular. I have visited Syria on a number of occasions and held talks with President Assad on several. I also spent some time in Iraq during the second Iraq war. I was dispatched their seven times during the conflict and spent over three months in that war zone. Those experiences have coloured my judgment and I hope that your Lordships will view what I say through that lens. If I have learnt anything—apart from the horrors of war—it is that people can do unspeakable things to people; it is the desperation that conflict brings to the ordinary people; it is that loss of all hope.
I fully understand and accept that the use of chemical weapons is a line crossed and for that there must be consequences. But those consequences must be well thought through and proportionate, and they must stand the judgment of history. We should never let those who use chemical weapons feel that they can go without international condemnation or military sanctions. However, we must take military action only if it complies with international law and is evidence-based. That means sometimes having patience in the face of what seems to be an open and shut case. It means waiting for weapons inspectors fully to report. It also means giving this House and the other place time to digest the legal and intelligence information before rushing to a vote. It also means having some idea of the answer to the question: what happens next?
If we are to be able to make sense of the lessons of the war in Iraq, we must understand that mission creep is the enemy of the international community and the friend of chaos and fundamentalism. The fact that bombs can be launched at a safe distance and that military installations can be incinerated with minimal collateral damage lulls Governments into a false sense of security that action can be taken with minimal effect on us. But that is never where it ends. The journey goes in only one direction.
Let me be clear: I do not support military intervention over and above action taken as a deterrent against further use of chemical weapons. I support such action only provided it is proven with compelling evidence and it is part of an international alliance. I also recognise that there will be repercussions from those events.
However, the conflict is more than just the removal of a dictator. It has deeper religious roots—Sunni versus Shia—which are being played out all over the Middle East and more widely internationally. So we must also ask: what happens when and if the Assad Government are removed? What is left behind? From my experience, it is soldiers with guns but no paymaster. It is ammunition dumps unguarded. It is porous borders, foreign mercenaries and religious fanatics with kangaroo courts. It is no one in control.
In addition to the limited military action favoured by the Government, we should be concerned about the escalation of the mission, about the men and women of our Armed Forces and about who or what takes over. We should be concerned that, like in Iraq, we do not destroy the system needed post-conflict to help rebuild a nation.
I know that history marches to its own tune but we can learn from past mistakes. I fully understand that we need to stand by our red lines but we should not move them. Our job in Parliament is to guard those lines against all those who seek to draw us further into conflict where they cannot define success. I know that all roads probably lead to bloodshed and misery. Whatever we do, there is no easy resolution to what is happening in Syria and more widely in the Middle East. There is no military solution, and the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister should heed the lessons of the Iraq war. This is one of those decisions where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Finally, I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I have listened to the list of things that this action is not intended to do—the same list that the Prime Minister gave in the other place. But that has not been the mood music being played by this Government over recent months. It is that mood music that frightens us all and it should be turned down.
My Lords, I welcome very much the opportunity to speak later in this debate because of the extraordinary quality of many of the contributions that have been made and how much one can learn by listening to them. Like many noble Lords I have some experience in the region, partly from this role that I have and from recent visits and contact with many faith leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, and through 10 years of, from time to time, working on reconciliation projects.
I do not intend to repeat the powerful points that have been made on international law, which is itself based on the Christian theory of just war. That has been said very eloquently. However, I want to pick up a couple of points. First, it has been said, quite rightly, that there is as much risk in inaction as there is in action. In a conflict in another part of the world—a civil conflict in which I was mediating some years ago—a general said to me, “We have to learn that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire”. The reality is that, until we are sure that all those intermediate steps have been pursued, just war theory says that the step of opening fire is one that must only be taken when there is no possible alternative whatever under any circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, just said very clearly and very eloquently, the consequences are totally out of our hands once it has started.
Some consequences we can predict. We have heard already about Lebanon and about Iran, particularly the effect that an intervention would cause on the new Government in Iran as they are humiliated by such an intervention. However, there is a further point. I talked to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday and he said that intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities. They have already been devastated. There were 2 million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago; there are fewer than 500,000 today. These are churches that do not just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly, as they already do, if action goes ahead. That consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction.
In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome. That outcome must be one that improves the chances of long-term peace and reconciliation. If we take action that diminishes the chance for peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has to be found, whether it is near-term or in the long-term future, then we will have contributed to more killing, and this war will be deeply unjust.
In consequence, I feel that any intervention must be effective in terms of preventing any further use of chemical weapons. I have not yet heard that that has been adequately demonstrated as likely. It must effectively deal with those who are promoting the use of chemical weapons. It must also have a third aim, which is somewhere in the strategy: there must be more chance of a Syria and of a Middle East in which there are not millions of refugees and these haunting pictures are not the stuff of our evening viewing.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the most reverend Primate, who has added further quality to what I think has been a most excellent debate in your Lordships’ House. I could not help reflecting on his point: that for all Saddam Hussein’s awfulness, a measure of religious tolerance existed in Iraq. If one talks about unintended consequences, it is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein had a Christian Foreign Secretary in the shape of Tariq Aziz. There would not be much chance in any of the countries I can think of in that region of such a position being thus held in future in the light of the changes that have happened.
It is common ground in this House that the use of chemical weapons was outrageous. It was an appalling crime, a war crime, a crime against humanity. That is where we start. The question is: what does that lead us to as a conclusion for what should be done? Yesterday, the National Security Council unanimously said, “We cannot stand idly by”. That is quite true, but neither should we rush in without due consideration. We should take every possible step to get United Nations agreement to any action that we take. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has said that if we cannot get United Nations agreement, we still have responsibility, but it is how we exercise that responsibility and from what position that concerns me very much.
I am much relieved by what I think to be a more considered and more stately, or steady, approach to the problem than appeared to be the situation a week or two ago. It seemed to me extraordinary after the success of getting Russia, for the first time in this area, to agree to United Nations inspectors going to establish the truth that there was apparently some proposal that we should launch a bombing attack while they were there. There were stories that that was proposed for between today and Sunday. The change of approach seems to me very sensible. There must be every effort to establish the facts: were they real chemical weapons? Questions have been raised about what category they were in, who did it and at what level it was authorised. Obviously, then, the report must come back and must be properly considered in the United Nations. Some have said that that will not do any good because they are not authorised to find out who did it, but let us at least wait to see what they say. Facts may well come out of it which make it pretty clear what the situation is.
If it is a full report and indicates clearly what is likely to have happened—I personally believe it almost certain that the Assad regime was responsible—that strengthens our position in the United Nations, it strengthens our position with the Russians, and we hope then to get a positive Russian response. On Ban Ki-Moon, I must say that there were shades of Hans Blix about his position when he was trying to call for proper consideration. I do not want to dredge up the Iraq invasion and the Iraq war again, but we know about Hans Blix’s difficulty in that situation.
To make a small military point, the threat of force is often a lot more effective than the use of force, which often only demonstrates the limitations on such action. It seems to me essential that if we in the end decide to take action, we can show that we took every possible step in the United Nations to try to get support as further justification because, across the world, we do not have great credibility on this issue. It is no good Vice-President Joe Biden standing up to say, “I am absolutely satisfied”. It is no good Secretary of State John Kerry saying the same: “I am absolutely satisfied”. Many of us remember a very good and honourable man, Colin Powell, being put in an impossible position in presenting evidence to the United Nations which turned out to be quite wrong. It is important that we start with that.
I would then wait to see—the issue has been raised by many—exactly what action can be taken that can precisely target the objective of removing any further threat of chemical weapons. I say that against a background. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, referred to the risk of a certain proportion of missiles going astray. I remember the first Gulf War. Some will remember that that was the first time that laser-directed bombs were used, with incredible accuracy. I still remember that marketplace where one did not go in the right direction and the number of innocent Iraqis whom we killed on that occasion.
I notice the number of people with military experience who have the greatest reservations about this, which should make us think. It should make us think for this reason, too: we are looking at a situation in this region that is as dangerous as one could imagine. It is not just about Sunni and Shia. There are splits within Sunni—there is Sunni, al-Qaeda Sunni elements and a whole range of different people. Somebody told me that this risks a conflagration that could stretch from Beirut to Mumbai. That is wrong. It could go from Mali to Mumbai. We need to look at the state of countries such as Egypt, the threat to Lebanon, Syria, the refugee problems for Jordan, Yemen, the whole area and the Gulf states themselves. Some of their rulers are very worried about the situation. We must be extremely careful, and we must also be careful because it is not without risks to our own country. The statement by young Muslims that car bombs are their cruise missiles threatened us previously when the Iraq invasion took place and when we were advised that there was not necessarily a great risk of terrorism in this country increasing. That was pre-7/7 and the problems that we had. We need to be very careful indeed before we take these actions. We must work as far as we can with the United Nations and use the wisdom, authority and responsibility of Parliament to take this decision. Parliament and Congress have a role to play in this situation.
My Lords, we were urged at the beginning of this debate to remember what we were not discussing, but that has not prevented a number of us addressing those issues anyway. We were not discussing regime change, punishment or the thin end of the wedge. The tangle of knots of the noble Lord, Lord Hill, left one clear-cut issue that he wanted us to debate today. One thing, he said, and one thing only, was the question of the use of chemical weapons and what to do about it. There has been widespread, indeed unanimous, recognition of the evil of owning and using chemical weapons, the defiance of the outcomes of such usage, and of internationally agreed statements on such matters. The plea for a clear- cut, simple, open and shut discussion of this debate leaves me saying, “If only”.
The debate has drawn a number of expert people with great experience across a number of fronts to share with us their own feelings about the simple, clear-cut addressing of this question. Again and again we have learnt that 50 shades of grey might indeed be a more appropriate way of describing the varied responses and potential ways of looking at this question, whether from a legal, military, political or moral point of view. For the most part we have tried to keep on the ball, but it is clear that across all these fronts as many questions are raised by the issue of a potential military intervention as would be solved, especially, as we have heard from various quarters in the House, by an inappropriate use of or resort to force. The likelihood, even a small likelihood, of a mistake would quite simply tip the balance and make it quite likely, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested, that there would be the opposite of an improvement of the likelihood of a positive outcome in the medium and long term from whatever action we take now.
My contribution, which will be very short, is to look at things from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus and to ask how such an intervention would play out. What perceptions would it feed, real or imagined, in ordinary people? We could look internationally for starters. What would be the attitudes of people in the countries and movements that traditionally support Syria when they saw yet again an intervention of this kind from the West, bringing and wreaking its own damage? It might be very clear-cut and a precise course of action with a very welcome, simple outcome, but it might not. The peoples of the Middle East, as has been referred to again and again in this debate, are both angry and frightened at present. They are bitterly divided and increasingly violent. To launch cruise missiles into this volatile situation would be to invite the unforeseeable, and for the unwanted to make its explosive appearance. We must be terribly careful that we can convince ourselves that we have exhausted all other possibilities and looked at every other possible way forward before we take such risks, which are great.
What about the opposition forces in Syria? Who are they? Whom would we support? What inner dynamic would we be likely to create between those groups of rebels and the Government by intervening in this way? Is it not likely that even the best organised might take the arms that we might offer them, if it comes to that, without necessarily ending up as our friends—indeed, the opposite? What about the people of this country who are sick and tired of these adventures and no longer believe politicians? It would behove all of us to ensure that the public of this country were given the fullest and frankest possible information so that they can sense the genuineness of what is being proposed. We must be careful along those lines. The British public are much more aware of the weakened state of the United Kingdom in the world at large than their Governments sometimes are.
Some of us have been working for better understanding between religions, races and classes in the cities. The slightest mistake in an intervention of this kind would set back the work of people in the communities I know about by light years. We are beginning to build trust and confidence in each other and to work together to common ideals. Why is the United Kingdom in cahoots with the United States all the time, and perceived to be at the forefront of these attacks? While we condemn the use of chemical weapons unreservedly, we must try and try again to stir the diplomatic pot and keep efforts on that front alive.
We must use our imagination. For example, I read a Church of England briefing in which it was asked whether any consideration had been given to the possibility of asking the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution directing Syria to place its chemical stockpile under UN protection for the duration of the conflict, and authorising all necessary action should it refuse to do so. That is a simple proposal that we have not heard elsewhere. There must be others. Why do we not convince ourselves that we have exhausted those others before we take the action that we are now talking about?
My Lords, the underlying theme of the international legal aspects that has to some extent motivated the Government appears to be the 2005 agreement and the responsibility to protect. It does not seem in the least likely that military action taken against the Assad regime would achieve that purpose. It appears that military action would not necessarily be enough to wipe out the use of chemical weapons. It does not seem likely that it would be entirely targeted to be as effective in that direction. We will never know, because we will not be advised by military representatives, in this country or anywhere else, what the effects of such a military attack would be.
I am afraid that I see what has been published today as inadequate to justify the use of force in response to the horrific and shocking use of chemical weapons by the Assad Government. It appears to me very unlikely that military action would prevent the use of chemical weapons by Syria. It also seems highly likely that it would stimulate responses that would be damaging to other populations. Against the background of this appalling war, with some 1.7 million people going into exile and 100,000 already dead, it would be an intensification of the hostilities, not moving in the direction of pacification or reconciliation. Both of those would seem to be the prime responsibility of a country like ours, not a retaliatory demonstration of a kind that seems to be utterly unsuitable to the 21st century.
It has been something of an achievement to get the Russians to agree that they will come to Geneva, but what would be the effect of military action on that agreement? It is highly probable that they would withdraw, and I cannot think that that is an outcome that we should be looking to achieve. Surely we ought to be putting pressure directly on the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons, but a retaliatory attack is unlikely to be persuasive. If we are to exercise any influence on the Middle East and its appalling problems, our role should be a conciliatory and mediating one, not that of a participant in the use of force in that part of the world. We ought to be aligning ourselves not only with the Arab League, which is calling for action, but with the Russians and the Chinese. Indeed, we should be calling for a uniting for peace resolution in the General Assembly of the United Nations in order to create a forum in which all the interested parties can play their part.
I am afraid that I find the Government’s proposals and the conditions they have attached totally unreassuring. Certainly we need to know what has happened, and certainly we need the reports of the UN inspectors, but surely the goal is not punishment: rather, it is reconciliation. Punishment is no part of international law, which has been made clear by several other speakers. Reconciliation is both a matter of judgment and a matter of law, and that is where our sights should be focused.
My Lords, the Leader of the House began and finished his speech in opening this debate by referring to the issues before us as simple. On one level they are simple. It is simple to say that the use of chemical weapons and the results of the casualties that they can inflict are abhorrent, that they are a moral outrage and that therefore the issue is simple. I fully agree with the notion that we should do all we can to prevent their use, but I take that simple notion and hold it up against the complexity of the situation that is the civil war in Syria, and that apparently simple aspiration melts away against that complexity.
For the past two years, looking at the Syrian civil war we have agonised over what form of military intervention we might be able to follow, but each time we have pulled back because the issues are too difficult. We have pulled back from arming the opposition because we do not really know enough about it and there is a high likelihood that some of the weapons that we supply will wind up in the hands of the same people we are fighting in Afghanistan. We have pulled back from a no-fly zone because the technical and practical difficulties are too great. We do not have the ability to take out the Syrian integrated air defence system. That is too difficult. That would require a major military operation. We have pulled back from that. If we cannot do that, we cannot establish humanitarian corridors or safe areas.
We have pulled back from military intervention because the risks and consequences, whether intended or unintended, are too great and the uncertainties that we have identified are too many. But we are still looking at possible intervention in the Syrian civil war, and we are now looking at it in the narrower context of taking military action in this apparently simple manner of deterring the further use of chemical weapons. Even within that very limited objective, have we really thought this through in the way in which the military would require intervention to be thought through? Can we state with certainty what our strategic objectives are?
We are told now that our strategic objectives are actually very limited, that regime change is not the objective, but we have been saying for the past two years that Assad cannot stay as leader of that country. We are unclear about our strategic objective, in which case we can have no campaign plan that adds up. The campaign plan must have a beginning, middle and end and it must take us to an exit strategy that leaves the place that we have gone to in a better situation than it was before we went. I do not think that we know how to do that because the risks, uncertainties and unintended consequences are too great.
So what do we do? Clearly, your Lordships believe that we should be doing something. Doing nothing is probably not our historical responsibility. What we should be doing, in my view, is two things, in the main. First, we should renew with great ferocity our diplomatic activity, particularly to try, through greater dialogue with the Russians, to bring some degree of unanimity to the United Nations Security Council. Why is Russia so key? Russia is so key because Assad looks at the world from Damascus and he looks at the West and says, “They don’t like me but I don’t care. I look to the east and the Russians support me, and the Iranians, and to an extent the Chinese. I don’t care about the West. From my perspective, I am supported and I am in position because the Russians are supporting me”. We have to work the dialogue with the Russians in a very open way and, dare I say it, work much harder than we have been able to do in the past, because some degree of unanimity is really important in the UN Security Council.
We also have to work much harder for regional engagement and regional peace. What if we had bombed Iran two years ago? Would we have any chance of the kind of dialogue that is now potentially beginning with Iran? No, there would be no dialogue there. Regional engagement is critical.
The other major thing that we should do is rigorously apply law. When a leader of a country has broken international criminal norms, he must know that there is a very high probability that he will wind up in the dock somewhere in The Hague. I have given evidence in The Hague against leaders who have done just that; I am doing so again later this year. Assad and others must know that if they do that, this will be their fate —unless they are killed in the execution of their crimes.
Finally, what has been happening in our country this week has been very interesting. The drums of war were banging very loudly two or three days ago. The people did not like it. The dialogue and the debate have changed. The other place has been considering a different Motion from the one that was probably intended, looking for more time, a second debate, a second vote. The drumbeat has got quieter, and that is really important. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, has already alluded to this: the people who have to carry out the military actions that we might or might not require are the soldiers, sailors and airmen of our Armed Forces. They are not some kind of elite who are kept in a box and just wheeled out when they are needed; they are citizens, like your Lordships and me, who absolutely have to know that what they are being asked to do is what the country wants them to do and what the country believes is right. We do not govern by consensus, but we are a democracy and the people have a very important voice in this.
I am delighted that the drumbeat has become more muffled. I do not support intervention in Syria in any shape or form at this time. Circumstances might change. There might be an international agreement if we work the diplomatic peace and regional engagement better. There might then be an opportunity, rather like Dayton, for an international force to go in to implement an agreement. That is a long way away, but it is the only set of circumstances in which I would be prepared to support military intervention.
My Lords, what happened in Damascus last week was a horrifying atrocity of the highest order, the perpetrators of which must be held to account. I hold no candle for Bashar al-Assad and condemn him for any atrocities either authorised by him or carried out in his name. If he was responsible for this latest outrage, he must be brought to book.
However, I believe equally that we should not make judgment of guilt without due process—that is what, perhaps naively, I thought the ICC was there for—and military action without due process would prejudge it. As the example of Iraq showed, speculation based on intelligence is not enough. Like the noble Lord, Lord Reid, I do not believe that the JIC assessment of “highly likely” is enough either.
The Motion in the other place endorses military action against Syria in principle, but at the same time, emphasised by the urgency with which this debate has been held here today, it also implies military action in practice, and we would be foolish if we were to think otherwise. I have to tell your Lordships that I strongly oppose both.
A long-distance military strike, however carefully targeted, would be profoundly wrong. President Obama yesterday described such actions as “a shot across the bow”. Such a shot, I always understood, is intended to miss but to warn. What we are looking at now is very different: not a warning shot but one intended to strike and to harm. To fire such a shot would be to take part, with no exit strategy, in a civil war which has nothing to do with us or our national interest.
I feel strongly about this. As the Official Opposition spokesman in the House of Commons who wound up the debate of 18 March 2003, on behalf of the Conservative Party I supported Tony Blair’s disingenuous decision to invade Iraq, a support which with the benefit of hindsight I have deeply regretted ever since. I believed then what we were told the intelligence indicated and I now know that I was wrong to do so. Whatever the legal advice—and I say this as a lawyer and with respect for all other lawyers here—it is only advice. I personally believe that, without United Nations sanction, any military action on our part would be illegal. At least in Iraq there were many unimplemented Chapter 7 United Nations resolutions. For the moment, no such justification exists in relation to Syria.
We are told that this is not about regime change but about deterrence, but we were told that about Iraq as well, only to be told afterwards that it was about regime change all along. In this case, our Government, as has already been mentioned, have made it clear from the very start that they wanted to see President Assad gone. Moreover, we now risk giving succour, if not arms, to the very jihadists whom we have fought and are still fighting at such human cost in other parts of the region. To put it mildly, this is irresponsible folly.
The Motion reflects the United Nations’ doctrine of the responsibility to protect, but it begs the question: to protect whom and how? Is it to protect those allegedly being chemically attacked by Assad but not those being slaughtered by Jabhat al-Nusra or even by our so-called friendly rebels and, if so, why?
I have to say that we do not do the Middle East very well. Albeit unintentionally, over these past years we have exacerbated Muslim extremism against the West both at home and abroad. We inadvertently encouraged AQ into Iraq, and we paid the consequences for that. We welcomed the Arab spring, which has now reintroduced political Islamism across the region. We stood by while others in the region actively supported Islamist forces in Syria. A western military strike now would give those same Islamists even more encouragement.
What would it achieve? Would it achieve provocation, retaliation, and regime change? If there were regime change, what would it change into? Would it change into a Sunni Islamist Government, a dismembered and dysfunctional Syria and, as the right reverend Prelate said, increasing anti-Christian sentiment as well? And all in a region which is a powder keg. Once we start, how do we get out? In Iraq, it took eight years; in Afghanistan, it took 14 years; in Syria, we just do not know. Syria’s civil war is not our business. Moreover, it is now part of a far bigger conflict between Sunni and Shia which is not our business either. We should just keep out.
My Lords, like the noble Marquess and many in this House, I voted for the invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was a non-executive director of the Defence Logistics Organisation of the Ministry of Defence and therefore close to the organisation in support of that action. I had good cause to believe that we and the Americans could achieve our joint military objectives. After the first few weeks and the cheering sight of a poisonous dictator toppled, statues being pulled down and the bad men in disarray, the picture looked very different with sectarian murder, lawlessness and a disbanded army prowling with the weapons nobody made it give up. I had not—none of us had—foreseen all that, but if you open a Pandora’s box, you get what you get.
Here we are faced with a very different and much stronger moral case for military intervention. Because I feared from the general rhetoric flying around that I might find myself voting this week, I worked out what I thought and assumed for the purpose of my thinking that a dreadful chemical attack was ordered and carried out on 21 August by the Assad regime. However, I remain unable to support military intervention, despite powerful speeches by good friends such as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my old colleague in arms and noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.
In the Commons today, the Prime Minister was at pains to distinguish the action envisaged in this case from the invasion of Iraq. He also sought to suggest that the action proposed would be limited to punishing those responsible and putting chemical weapons beyond use. I fear he is being hopelessly unrealistic about how any military action by us would be received. No one would believe that it was not personal. No one would believe that we were not directing the action to regime change, and why should they when we have from the outset opposed the Assad regime, declined to recognise him and recognised the opposition instead? Most people would believe that we had seized our opportunity for regime change using a very high moral ground to justify our actions. Nor does the concept of limited-target military action hold water. Even as we speak, we surely know that the Syrian Government, like any people of sense, are doing their best to put their weapons and their senior personnel, whether guilty of this particular outrage or not, beyond harm, even, by precedent of Saddam Hussain, packing them around with innocent civilians.
Noble Lords have wondered aloud about what the consequences of not interfering militarily would be. Do we really believe that the Russians, following very different interests from us, voting against us in the UN, as they have, really see their national interest being progressed by allowing the Assad regime to go on using chemical weapons now that their use has been so exposed? Who do we think actually insisted that the Assad regime admitted the UN inspectors? Surely it has to be its principle supporters. It was not taking any notice of the UN or us. The Russians may not be our friends but that does not make them either short-sighted or stupid.
It is very tempting to want to punish the guilty and take revenge for the murdered innocents. It is even more tempting, given that—as in the Iraq case—the US and we probably have the military power to do just that. We might be able to do it and have a happy few weeks, as we did in Iraq, while we rejoice in the defeat of the wicked. But short-term rejoicing has already brought long-term sadness and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, as other Members have noted. I can believe only that it would be like that again, and I shall not be able to support military action.
My Lords, I am firmly convinced of the arguments put forward by noble Lords such as the noble Lords, Lord Jay of Ewelme and Lord King of Bridgwater, that we must to nothing to undermine the role of the UN in all this and that we should be strengthening it. I will come back to one specific way in which we could be doing that.
First, I return to the remark of my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine, in which she referred to a list of things that would make the public or other countries cynical. I should like to add to that list and mention it to those of your Lordships who think that without the UN we can be arbiters of undoubted evil doings. Can we be confident that we as a country are not knowingly contributing to all sorts of human rights abuses and abusive regimes? Sadly, the answer at the moment seems to be no. It came emphatically in a report of Sir John Stanley’s committee, the Committee on Arms Export Controls, published just before the Summer Recess. It said:
“The scale of the extant strategic licences to the FCO’s 27 countries of human rights concern puts into stark relief the inherent conflict between the government’s arms exports and human rights policies”.
We make £12 billion of sales to countries of human rights concern—not £12 million but £12 billion. I hope that we do not stand here in a few years’ time, some time down the road, and find that we are now condemning a regime to which we have been supplying the means of repression. Let us take the arms export licensing and human rights issue far more seriously and have another look at those licences.
Secondly, awful though this use of chemical weapons is, the prospect of a Middle East nuclear war is infinitely worse. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, rightly raised this point. The efforts to create a Middle East nuclear-free zone, brave as they are, have not seen the UK, France or the US put their strength behind efforts to make that initiative succeed. In political circles here, you hear a lot of rumours about Iran’s alleged wish to make weapons-grade fissile material but almost nothing about Israel’s obdurate refusal even to discuss its nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we can sell Israel £8 billion of arms, according to the report from which I quoted. How can it be that we are continuing with such sales in the light of a refusal even to come to the table and discuss nuclear disarmament issues in, as many noble Lords have said, such a powder-keg area of the world?
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is due for another review conference in 2015. However, the NPT has been at such an impasse that the UN has created another working group to get some momentum going. Are we helping that initiative? No—far from it. Our deputy permanent representative, Mr Guy Pollard, said on 6 November in New York, on behalf of the UK, France and the US, that we see “little value” in the initiative and, more shockingly, that we did not support the establishment of the OEWG or,
“any outcomes it may produce”.
I assume that that means positive outcomes, too. Are we to understand that even if it produces some incredibly positive outcomes, we will not support it?
The Minister was kind enough to write to me about our non-participation in the OEWG. In the light of events in Syria and the potential for a much more unstable Middle East, will the UK put a massive renewed effort into helping towards the success of the Middle East nuclear-free zone conference that the UN is currently sponsoring, and the other non-proliferation disarmament initiatives, such as the example I have just given?
My Lords, I normally speak only on countries where I have on-the-ground experience, which is not the case with Syria. However, I feel compelled to convey concerns expressed by people for whom I have profound respect, currently living and working in Syria, witnessing and enduring the horrific situation there.
First, I refer to Damascus-based Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch. Speaking to the very respected charity Aid to the Church in Need, he argued that military intervention by the West against the Assad regime in Syria would be disastrous, stressing that, despite the ongoing conflict, reconciliation initiatives are still viable and should be the top priority. While condemning chemical weapon attacks, he highlights concerns about foreign fighters coming into Syria. He says:
“Many people are coming from outside Syria to fight in the country. These fighters are fuelling fundamentalism and Islamism … and the problem is compounded by the flow of arms into the country … The extremists are wanting to fuel hatred between the Christians and Muslims … and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace”.
Of course, not peace at any price, but serious consideration of alternative measures, as emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord West, and other noble Lords, and in accordance with paragraph 4(ii) of the paper on the UK Government’s legal position, which states that,
“it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”.
The patriarch, who last week narrowly escaped a bomb blast close to his home in Damascus, has described the threat of western armed intervention as
“a tragedy—for the whole country and the whole Middle East”.
He highlights the implications for the suffering of Syrian civilians, including the 450,000 Christians now either displaced within the country or forced to flee as refugees abroad. Describing his country until recently as a,
“beacon of hope for Christianity in the Middle East”,
he highlights growing concern that Christianity is being eradicated from the very place Christ and his first disciples once knew as their own.
I shall now move beyond the plight of Christians to the plight of all civilians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, which has been highlighted by CAFOD, working with partners inside Syria and neighbouring countries. In Syria, as other noble Lords have reminded your Lordships, nearly 100,000 people have been killed since the beginning of conflict in March 2011, many of them women and children, with 5,000 deaths every month. There are 6.8 million people in need of assistance, including 4.25 million internally displaced—a figure that has doubled since the beginning of 2013. Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, the long-term repercussions of the conflict are huge, with an estimated economic cost of more than $48 billion, which is more than 80% of GDP.
One-third of all homes—1.2 million houses—have been damaged or destroyed. Livelihoods have been ruined, healthcare, education systems and the economy have collapsed, and food is scarce. The civil and social fabric is in ruins. Recovery and reconciliation will be deeply challenging. Reconstruction costs will be huge. As has been pointed out by other noble Lords, there are also regional implications for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and north Africa, as 1.9 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, exacerbating economic, political and sectarian tensions, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, which bear the brunt of the huge refugee crises. An international military response will increase spillover of the humanitarian crisis. Official Lebanese government figures for 27 August reported 4,000 refugees fleeing across the border in one day.
CAFOD’s partners both inside Syria and across the region are clear that the only lasting solution is a political settlement through dialogue and diplomacy. Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, has emphasised that a potential military response,
“exposes thousands of people to more dangers. Further wars have never been the answer; political might and influence however have given better and more peaceful results. We pray that peace will reign”.
It must also be emphasised that it is not only Christians who are suffering from the violence. Many Muslim groups and communities are also being attacked and are living in constant fear.
For many years, despite a despotic regime, Syria ensured freedoms for diverse faith traditions and for women which were enviable in comparison with its neighbours in the Middle East. There are real fears that any replacement regime, almost inevitably ruled or influenced by Islamists, will reduce Syria to the potentially irreversible destruction of religious freedoms and women’s rights. I therefore share the profound concerns about a military intervention that could unleash even more suffering. Bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice must be the priority, not supporting, either directly or indirectly, militias that are also committing heinous and egregious violations of human rights. Adding to the number of hapless refugees and escalating the conflict seems to be neither rational nor productive. It will simply add to the totality of human misery, and certainly the first to suffer will be the minorities in Syria.
My Lords, the earlier policies of Her Majesty’s Government on Syria, where we have intervened politically against Assad from the start, thus fuelling the conflict, and today’s proposals for unspecified British military intervention in a civil war between deeply antagonistic Muslim sects in the heartlands of Islam are so ill considered, confused and risky that I believe that in due course it may be necessary to set up an inquiry to discover why our policy-making process on Syria has failed so badly.
In the mean time, I ask the basic question: what is the essence of a foreign policy? First, it is to know and understand what has happened and what is happening. Secondly, it is to make a well informed judgment of what may happen. Only then can one construct a policy that puts British national interests first; as far as possible, takes into account the concerns of other nations, particularly those of our allies; and has full regard for the security, prosperity and peace of the world. On these simple tests, I believe that the British foreign policy on Syria has been and is dangerously flawed, and that is why so many on all political sides have little confidence in what the Government are suggesting.
Last night, I received an e-mail from someone whom I much respect in New York, an American who has been a long-term observer of the political process in the United States. He wrote: “It seems that the British Government’s finger is closer to the trigger, at least for the moment”. I find that very disturbing.
My Lords, the Parliament that we sit in, when it considers military intervention in another country, is undertaking one of its highest duties and one of its most anxious tasks. That we should be asked to consider intervention in a civil war in the Middle East with a religious background that has gone on for years and is likely to end only with the defeat of one side or through exhaustion beggars belief. I am sorry to be so blunt. It is fraught with difficulty and danger, particularly in terms of the law. We in this country and the world at large will not accept the intelligence assessments of this event to justify action. That will no longer be the way to persuade people. They will want evidence.
On 23 August, CBS ran a news item suggesting that the US had been tracking chemical weapons movements in the days prior to 21 August. Whether that was right or wrong does not matter. It shows the kind of evidence that people will want to see. At the weekend, as other noble Lords may have heard, a retired Mossad officer proclaimed his confidence that recordings would exist of conversations illustrating the movements of these weapons and the associated decision-making. That will have to come out if we want to persuade not only this country but the world of the legality of action.
Humanitarian intervention depends on a substantial number of countries supporting it, not just we in the West who know best. The substantial number is bound to include countries in the Arab world. Are they in favour of what will happen if we have military intervention? I very much doubt it.
There is a greater difficulty. Why do we talk about punishment? Punishment should be reserved for the people who have committed these war crimes, not for states. What the law expects at this stage is not punishment but the elimination of chemical weapons if it can be achieved, and, if not, deterrence. I have seen nothing that indicates that this action will achieve either. We will bomb Syria and the chemical weapons will continue to exist there. These are serious difficulties. When we talk about “we”, it should refer to a substantial part of the world, not just the West.
There is danger. Let us be frank about it. When we consider Hezbollah, Iranian-backed jihadists and al-Qaeda’s terrorist networks around the world, do we seriously think that they will lie dormant if we bomb one side in Syria? That is a most dangerous judgment to make when our people will be at risk. As the most reverend Primate said about Christians, do we seriously think that if this action is taken, there will not be reprisals and advantage taken of the weakest people who will be associated with the West? These are terrible consequences that will be as great if not greater in their volume than the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria.
This is a terrible state of affairs. Going into Syria with bombs will make it worse. We should not do it—and we should certainly not do it until we have taken every step along the route map that my party set out in the amendment tabled in the other place. Lastly, we certainly should not take this step unless it expresses the majority view of our nation.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, talked about the elimination of all chemical weapons. It is a chilling thought that the Syrian Arab Republic is one of only five states that have neither signed nor acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992. The others are Somalia, North Korea, Angola and Egypt. Two states have signed but not ratified the convention: Myanmar and Israel. So there are two countries in close proximity, one of which has not signed or ratified the convention—Syria—and the other, Israel, that has not ratified it.
The prohibition of chemical weapons was not novel, even at the time of the Geneva Convention of 1925. The Brussels Convention of 1874 prohibited the employment of poison or poisoned weapons and the use of arms, projectiles or material to cause unnecessary suffering. Its aims were restated in 1899 in the Hague Convention, whose parties declared their agreement to abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which was the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. Of course, that convention proved futile in the First World War, which resulted in 100,000 deaths and 1 million casualties from gas.
The 1925 convention was more successful. Many of us in this House may remember the constrictions on the cheeks and the smell of rubber from the wartime infant gas masks, some of which were bizarrely made to look like Mickey Mouse. We had cause to be thankful that gas, although expected, was not widely used—or used at all in the Second World War in the European theatre. But it was used by the Italians against the Ethiopians in 1936, by the Japanese against the Chinese in 1938 and of course, as many speakers have mentioned, in the Iraq/Iran war in the 1980s. There must be the gravest concern to ensure that it is not used in any Syrian conflict.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, posed the question: what happened? We must find out not merely whether chemical weapons were used but exactly what happened. There are assertions in the document produced as the UK Government’s legal position which can be challenged. For example, it is said that the large-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime in a heavily populated area is a war crime, and it is likely that the regime will seek to use the weapons again. The question that must have occurred to your Lordships when we had news of these terrible events was why on earth would Assad, the president, use poison gas of some form or another when the United Nations investigators were actually there? Why would he do it?
The only solution I can think of is that somewhere below him in the chain of command some commander, maybe of a relatively junior rank to whom responsibility for guarding these weapons or using them had been delegated, had taken leave of his senses and employed them in the shocking way that we have heard. If that is so, what is our response to be? Is it without further investigation simply to bomb and shell or strike at targets in Syria with the inevitable consequence that innocent civilians would be killed?
I have heard Ministers, the Prime Minister and others say that it is all a question of judgment. But judgment normally follows the evidence. Judgment does not come first. A great deal more investigation must be undertaken into what happened to ascertain the facts before we can inflict on the population of Syria that which is proposed.
The responsibility to protect doctrine, which it is suggested was a cloak for the Government in earlier conflicts—and I will not go into that—is not a new idea. It has been at the heart of United Nations General Assembly discussions since 1946. The International Law Commission spent more than 70 years before the 2005 United Nations conference discussing the principles that should be applied. But it concluded, even after all its considerations in 2005, that the Security Council is still the only means through which a state can legally intervene in the affairs of another state. It is essential that, when the evidence is clear, the matter goes back to the Security Council because I believe that if the evidence is clear to the world all members of the Security Council will unite in their condemnation of something that has been recognised as abhorrent for getting on for 150 years.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my namesake. The army of Thomases in this House is not quite as large and impressive as it used to be in the days when we were led by Lord Tonypandy and supported by Lord Thomas of Gwydir, but all the same we have one or two cards left to play, I believe.
This is a very well educated and well read House, so I need not apologise for recalling Kipling’s novel, Kim. Noble Lords will remember that the hero, Kim, looks through the windows of an officers’ mess in Punjab and hears the colonel saying to the adjutant, “Remember, this is punishment, not war”. I suppose we are now seeing Colonel Obama dictating a similar statement to Major Cameron, who is clearly the adjutant at this present time. Punishment is something that Colonel Obama has mentioned on several occasions, and plainly it is an important matter for him.
I have one suggestion that I hope will commend itself to your Lordships. It is a new diplomatic approach. Once we have discovered or confirmed that President Assad was responsible for the use of these weapons, we should go back to the United Nations, certainly to the Security Council. Like my namesake, I think that in those circumstances it is conceivable that even Russia and China will support us if the evidence is not controversial. We should then adopt a procedure that was characteristic of what happened—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, will confirm this—during the Korean War. At that time, in 1950, the Russians were known not to be likely to support the idea of a task force sent by the UN to Korea, but the Governments of the time got round that by having something called the “uniting for peace” procedure, whereby the General Assembly was asked to take action by a two-thirds majority and, indeed, it did. The Korean War was fought by the UN under those circumstances. After that, having established ourselves well with the UN, we should then dispatch a mission of various representatives to President Assad. As this is a House of bishops, why not include in the delegation a number of churchmen? That might inspire the Syrian leaders to realise that at least we are capable of novelty, if nothing else.
I have many other suggestions to make, but unfortunately my four minutes are up.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. I confess to speaking in this debate with some apprehension. My knowledge of foreign affairs is limited to a short period when I was the parliamentary private secretary to Geoffrey Howe, now the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Wright, was the Permanent Secretary and the patience with which he chose to educate me.
This debate is an object lesson for people who say that the House of Lords is a waste of time and a waste of space because if any of us was unsure, the quality of the speeches we have heard has been very compelling. I find myself very much in sympathy with what the noble Lords, Lord Wright, Lord Kerr and Lord Dannatt, said.
I do not know how many people were listening to the “Today” programme this morning, but Nick Robinson opined that we were in a period of great uncertainty and difficulty because it appeared that Parliament was dictating to the Government—shock, horror. Not even the BBC seems to realise that the Government are accountable to Parliament. I hope that the Government will have listened to the debate and the points that have been made in this House. It shows how far things have gone.
I cannot resist just very briefly telling the noble Lord that I met Nick Robinson coming in and I did say to him, “How on earth did you get through that programme without mentioning that we were having a debate in the House of Lords as well?”.
Clearly he thinks that that is not as much of a crisis. I very much doubt that any of the speeches that have been made today will be featuring on the “Today” programme tomorrow.
I think that my noble friend Lord Howard, who is not in his place, was a little unfair in describing the leader of the Opposition as playing party politics. When I heard on the radio that the Prime Minister and President Obama were going to launch an attack, I was filled with dismay. The contributions that have been made by the Opposition—which is their duty—have helped to make us all think twice about the issues. Of course, I absolutely agree that the use of chemical weapons is a moral question. But it is also a moral question to use high explosives to destroy women and children and inflict pain and suffering—all the events that are going on in Syria. Surely the moral question is: what can we do to bring this to an end and to end the suffering? For the life of me, I do not believe that bombing Syria is going to make things any better or any easier or advance that cause. The consensus that we have heard today has been very much along these lines.
Of course, I accept the intelligence that has been given. I was actually against the Iraq war. I could not understand why, if Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, he would not produce some of them and say, “There you are. Take them away and destroy them”. I think he got himself into a position where he claimed he had them but could not save face by then saying, “Actually, I was lying”, so we got into a position where everybody believed he had them and we went into a disastrous war with him.
If your Lordships will permit me to tell one story that had a heavy influence on my opposition to the Iraq war, I went to climb a mountain behind K2 in the far north-east of Pakistan on the borders with China and India. We had 40 Sherpas. They came from a village without television or radio; they were carrying 20 stones at 19,000 feet; they had no education and an average life expectancy of 35. Their hostility to the Americans astonished me. They thought that the Americans acted only in their own interests and took more than their fair share of the world’s resources. I thought, “Where is this coming from?”. This was in the summer before 9/11. When we had shock and awe, I kept thinking, “Thank goodness they do not have televisions”, and, “How many people around the world are going to be radicalised by this action?”.
It defies common sense to say that if we were to bomb Syria it would not result in radicalisation. I do not know where the Joint Intelligence Committee gets its view that this would not happen. We have considerable Muslim populations in this country and elsewhere in Europe. It would be an act of supreme folly. By the way, we have not got any money to be spending on these missiles. If we have the money, let us spend it on providing aid and support to the victims of this conflict and in trying to get agreement.
I have one final point. It worries me that we are getting so far away from the Russians and Chinese. I read in the newspapers that the Russians are describing us as “monkeys with hand grenades”. This is deeply worrying. This thing is not going to be resolved without Russia being on board. As has been repeatedly said, the Middle East is in an explosive situation. We need to make friends with the Russians or at least find a way of working with them. If we fire these missiles, we will make that absolutely impossible.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, and I think that I agree with every word that he said. Having listened to this debate, it seems that there are really no good options. Every one has its downside. Despite the horror of 100,000 killed, 1 million refugees and the victims of terrible chemical warfare, the right course of action is still not clear—except that the case for armed force, for bombing, has not been made. Certainly, we would need more evidence. We have to wait for the weapons inspectors. We need more intelligence information that is in the possession of our Government and others than we have seen so far. Above all, we need evidence of Assad’s responsibility for the use of chemical weapons. It has already been suggested that the decision to use them may have been made at a lower level in the Assad military. It will be hard to prove—it will be difficult to get the evidence for that—but if that is the case, certainly if there is a hint of it, we cannot take action against the regime quite as has been envisaged.
My question is this: what is the hurry? For heaven’s sake, why are we in such a desperate hurry? Until a day ago, the view was that both Houses were being recalled today in order that there could be an attack at the weekend. That has been allayed a bit, thanks to many voices including that of the Official Opposition in the Commons. I cannot understand what the hurry has been. Why do we have to rush into something so difficult and so sensitive?
Another question has not been answered despite having been put. What are our aims in this? Yes, we can shell, bomb and attack various installations in Syria, but what are our aims? Having destroyed some of the assets there, if we go down that path, what happens then? Suppose we destroy one or two command-and-control centres? Surely they could be replaced, and then where would we be? What progress would we have made? I am not clear how we can contemplate doing anything unless we know clearly what our aims and objectives are. Frankly, I think the Government do not have those and we are not going to get very far.
In any case, any decision that we make surely has to take account of the interests of the Syrian people. I am not convinced that military intervention would bring benefits to the Syrian people, however one looks at it. It is widely accepted that military force cannot make things better in Syria. The question is how much worse military force might make things in that country.
Of course, as has already been said, we are not just talking about Syria. We must have concern for the stability of the region as a whole. I shudder to think what will happen in the region if there are massive attacks by Britain, the United States, France and perhaps other countries. There will be revulsion at this and we will lose the moral high which we have been trying to claim all along.
Then again, it is possible to attack some of the installations in Syria without effectively taking sides in a civil war. We cannot say we are not doing so; we are bound to be doing it. We are taking action on one side against the other. How many of the people in the Syrian opposition are actually jihadists? How many of them would represent a type of Government which, if they controlled Syria, would be pretty inimical to anything in which we believe? If we have taken action to bring them into power, we will have a lot to answer for.
There are clearly large stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria. I note that Syria is one of several countries that has not signed or ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. I wonder whether it would not be possible to resume diplomacy with Russia and Iran and say, “Look, we are not going to attack but Assad has got to get rid of these chemical weapons. There has to be a clear and publicly demonstrated policy of removing those chemical weapons from the soil of Syria”. Surely even the Russians might just listen to that and say, “If nothing else changes but those weapons have gone, we will not have lost out but the people of Syria might benefit because they could not be used again”.
Finally, we need to think hard about the refugees. There is a desperate crisis, whether it is in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq. We need to finish our discussion on this by saying that we must commit ourselves as the West to doing more to help those countries to deal with these many millions of refugees.
I finish as I started: at this stage, I am simply not persuaded of the case for military intervention. There would have to be a lot of interesting evidence before I changed my mind.
My Lords, it is with a heavy heart that we assemble here today. As a result of the welter of political posturing during the past 24 hours, I believe that the UK’s international credibility has been badly damaged. We are seen to be blowing hot and cold over Syria and proposing military actions that are supposed to be surgical and non-invasive, yet we say that Assad must be punished. We are very late in the day to start to punish him after 100,000 people have been killed.
Our credibility in the Arab world is at an all-time low. As the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, said, we do not do the Middle East very well. Our reactions to events in Egypt last month, where, whatever way you want to describe it, a military coup took place and more than 900 people were killed, are seen as hypocritical on the Arab street. Having failed to act 18 months ago in Syria when we could have influenced events, we now have a full-blown crisis with Russia, Iran and their satellites pouring money and weaponry, as well as manpower and technical assistance, into the mix.
All this reminds me of the sad story of the Marsh Arabs, whom western Governments encouraged to rebel against Saddam. When push came to shove, we scarpered into the distance and we left the Marsh Arabs to take Saddam’s punishment. When our rhetoric does not match our capability, are we not sucking these people into something that we cannot deliver?
We recognised rebel groups 18 months ago as the legitimate Government of Syria, but we have not followed that through and given them assistance. Now assistance has come from outside. The Russians thought that Assad was finished and were repositioning themselves more than a year ago, but, with Iranian and Hezbollah support, Assad’s position has been strengthened. In no way is Putin going to back off; he has us now precisely where he wants us.
We are moving to a point where the humanitarian crisis in Syria may no longer be the dominant factor in determining how the UK and the West in general react, but the credibility of western leaders and Governments could be a growing consideration. I regret President Obama’s red line, because it said that up to that point Assad could do everything he liked with impunity, and he did. That was a mistake that President Obama will regret.
When I hear phrases such as “no boots on the ground” or “limited response” being used by Governments, it reminds me of the language that was used at the outbreak of the First World War: “The boys will be home by Christmas”. How many times have we heard that? When troops were deployed in Northern Ireland, they were there for 40 years in the longest operation that the Army ever had.
We cannot tell what will happen if we are convinced to act militarily and it is futile to say that we can use only limited force. What does that mean? No plan ever survives contact with the enemy. We have no idea what will happen. If the military is deployed to attack Assad, the aim must be to overcome him and win; you cannot go in for a draw. By saying that we will confront him with one hand tied behind our backs is counter- productive. I do not envy the Prime Minister the decisions that he must take in the coming days given that ignoring a chemical attack poses great risks for the future, but if we are going into a mission only half-heartedly, there can be no successful outcome.
The trumpet has sounded an uncertain note and military action against that background is dangerous. The advocates must be convinced and convincing in proposing such measures. It is clear that we will return to these matters shortly, perhaps for a definitive decision. At that stage, all of us will have to declare a final verdict based on the case then presented, but in the mean time can the Minister tell the House whether measures have been put in place to protect our bases in Cyprus from missile and air attack? Can he also tell us whether the right mix of vessels is deployed in the Mediterranean to ensure the maximum protection for Navy personnel and assets?
My Lords, in the summer of 2003 my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was here in the UK on a visit. It was his last visit to the UK because he passed away a couple of years later. At an event he was approached by a prominent journalist who said: “General, do you think that we should have intervened in Iraq?”. My father, without blinking, said: “No. Intervention should only have taken place with the authority of the United Nations”. My father spoke from experience because as a young captain he had served with the United Nations in the Congo.
The Joint Intelligence Committee report says that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons 14 times since 2012, and yet the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, in a brilliant speech, said that with 100,000 lives lost and 2 million refugees, we have not intervened, but now we want to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, in another brilliant speech, said that we have held back all these years from intervening in Syria but now, this week, the drums of war have been banging. So what has happened? This awful chemical attack is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.
We have not intervened so far but there is a point to consider which nobody has raised yet. Although we are expected to intervene, in 2010 the Government, in the SDSR, cut our Armed Forces. They got rid of our aircraft carriers. I was in India just recently. India has aircraft carriers. It might be getting new ones, but it has kept its old ones until it gets the new ones. We have cut our Harriers. We have cut our Nimrods. We have cut our troops. We are reliant on reserves, and yet now we are expected to intervene. I said in 2010, three years ago, that we did not know what was going to happen next. What happened next? Libya. What happened after that? The Arab spring continued. What happened after that? Mali. What happened after that? Oh, the Olympics. We needed our troops in the Olympics.
We do not learn. We feel that we can just call on our troops. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, we expect our troops just to perform—“Switch, go, fight: give up your lives. Make the ultimate sacrifice”. But what about the nation; is it behind us? We know that the country is completely not behind intervention in Syria.
We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We feel that we have to do something. We have our allies, the Americans, who for a century have stood by us and saved this country. We feel that we have to support them. However, in Iraq the biggest mistake in 2003 was that we had not thought through what would happen afterwards. We imagined that everything would be fine. We had not thought of the aftermath, we had not planned it. As the noble Lord, Lord King, asked, did we plan on the retaliations that would take place? I was an ambassador for the London Olympics and we were celebrating on the steps of Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005. We all know what happened the next day, on 7/7.
We know that if there is a clear strategy, it is very effective. In the first Gulf War, in Kuwait, we were in there and then out of there, mission accomplished. My father fought in the liberation of Bangladesh, when there was an East Pakistan and a West Pakistan. India waited and planned for over a year. The Prime Minister was putting pressure on the army chief but he said, “No. When I’m ready we’ll go in”. They went in and the job was done in two weeks. Here, however, we go and intervene. We say that we will do it in a proportionate manner. As we have heard, however, what about Russia, what about China, what about Iran, what about Lebanon? What about all the domino effects? We will take proportionate measures but will we get a proportionate reaction? Just yesterday the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said:
“The Middle East region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted. If President Obama gets stuck in this trap, he will certainly leave behind bad memories of his presidency. The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region”.
Those are threatening words. President Obama says that a red line has been crossed. But I question the Government’s judgment. They have cut our budgets, cut the Armed Forces and then want to rush in and intervene without even waiting for the UN inspectors’ reports. I do not understand it. Yet we have this wonderful House, with the brilliant speeches that we have heard, one after the other, and we are not even to have a vote today. The other place will have a vote but we will not. The expertise of this House is 100 times that of the other place and we do not even get a vote.
Every day we delay action, we feel guilty. A humanitarian crisis is getting worse every single day. It is only natural that we want to intervene, but we should only do that when we have exhausted all other opportunities and have a proper strategy that we have thought through. Then we can do it. In conclusion, I have always been taught that a fool makes a mistake, makes a mistake again and does not learn. A sensible person makes a mistake, learns from it and does not make it again. A wise person learns from other people’s mistakes and does not make a mistake in the first place. It is too late for us to be wise, but let us at least be sensible. Otherwise we will be foolish and the consequences will be disastrous.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria. I personally accept that legal justification for a proportionate action can be found. If Geoffrey Robertson QC agrees with the Attorney-General, that range of legal advice is enough for me.
I accept what the Prime Minister, the JIC, the Foreign Secretary and their advisers say: that the great likelihood is that last week’s chemical weapons attack is the work of Assad’s forces. However, that is not the end of it. The Government argue that the action which they contemplate is not an intervention in the Syrian civil war but an exercise in deterrence, President Obama issued a deterrent warning against the use of chemical warfare by Assad and was ignored, and action must therefore be taken against Assad or deterrence will have failed.
Two things seem to me to be wrong with that argument. First, deterrent theory works by being clear and understood by both sides. Some of us sat at the feet of the great Michael Quinlan on these matters. Mutually assured destruction at the time of the Cold War worked because two players who understood each other understood the risks and knew what the consequences were. I am sorry to say that President Obama issued unclear threats, and we do not know whether there is in Syria a rational opponent playing the same game by the same rules. Nor do we see a clear read-across to other situations. What would we do if, say—and I hope it is unimaginable—China, used chemical weapons in a local war, or Russia herself? The deterrent argument seems to me to be more like that deployed at Suez: that if one dictator nationalises things, all dictators will nationalise things; or at Vietnam: that if one domino falls, all the other dominos will fall. Those were not good arguments then. You can paint yourself into corners with red lines.
Secondly, if we accept the deterrent theory argument for a moment, action in pursuit of it is inevitably also an intervention in the Syrian civil war, the consequences of which we cannot predict. Here is one—not implausible, it seems to me—scenario. We fire rockets that degrade Assad’s command structure and perhaps damage identified chemical weapons stores. In the ensuing chaos, the toughest anti-Assad fighters, the al-Qaeda affiliates, gain momentum and capture one of the chemical weapons stores. We observe them, from satellites, taking material away. What do we do then?
An action in defence of deterrence that makes things worse on the ground for the people of Syria will not be justified. We had one literary allusion from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton; I beg your Lordships’ indulgence in giving one more. In Conrad’s great story Heart of Darkness, Marlow, the narrator, is sailing around the coast of west Africa on his way to the Belgian Congo. He comes across a French battleship that is firing shells into the continent of Africa. Conrad tells us:
“In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent … There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding”.
We are in danger of getting ourselves into a position where young Arabs and Muslims think that our policy in the West towards their part of the world is a little like that of Conrad’s French battleship, firing into a continent—and there is a touch of insanity about it.
My Lords, first, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the statement at the beginning of the debate today, and I particularly welcome the indications from the Government that they have slowed down their approach and will take more time to deal with this issue. That has been welcomed by the House and the country generally. Secondly, I urge that we ensure that as we slow down and examine this issue carefully, we do it to our own timetable and are not responding to the timetable set down by others, such as the USA.
I come at the Government’s proposal with a degree of scepticism. I am sure that I am in line with many of the population. This is not because of a lack of sympathy or abhorrence about what has happened to the Syrian victims. There is concern for them and the Syrian population as a whole, and there is concern for the wider implications of the consequences that might arise from any military action on which we embark. I can be quite honest that my scepticism is based to a degree on the fact that, like others who have spoken today, I gave full support to the intervention in Iraq and subsequently going into Afghanistan. As time has gone by and I have seen what has happened, I have come to regret the decisions that I took at the time. I am very anxious to ensure that as I approach this issue, we do not repeat some of the errors of the past and what has happened in the recent past. I say this in a week especially when more than 50 people were killed in Baghdad and after a report from the United Nations that last month alone more than 1,000 civilians were killed in Iraq. This continues to escalate on a worrying scale.
The test that we ought to be exercising increasingly, even though people say that we should not be conditioned by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan is: have we improved the quality and safety of life for the people in Iraq? A number of our ambassadors have posed the same question indirectly. We should also be asking whether our actions have improved the quality and safety of life for our citizens here in the UK. I read Mr Blair’s article in the Times and went through the barricades that now surround this building, which were not there 10 years ago. When I look at our public buildings around the country and our utilities and see the extent to which they are surrounded and guarded, which was not the case a decade ago, and I look at the cost and burden to the public, it is not difficult to understand why this time round the public are extraordinarily against what is being proposed by the Government. It behoves us to take account of that and to pick up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that we cannot ignore the knock-on effect on our troops if we decide to move forward without the full support of the people. I hope that we will not rush headlong into further action.
It is 10 years since we went into Iraq and it is high time that the public and we ourselves saw the Chilcot report. When can we expect to see it so that we can start to learn some lessons that we might apply in the future? The public and Parliament are entitled to know all the evidence about the use of chemical weapons, which it is now indicated we will get. Who is responsible for ensuring that every effort at UN and diplomatic levels will be made and will continue to be made? The public will be looking for that more than perhaps Parliament has expressed they will.
I am not going to repeat some of the points that have been made about the UN, but more work needs to be done at that level and on an international basis. We have had quite a remarkable debate today, and I should like to suggest to the Minister—I put this in a positive way—that so many suggestions and proposals have emerged, which I sense have not been addressed by the Government in their full respect, that he should ask his officials to take the debate away and draw up a document in which we can see those suggestions and proposals. We will learn about where the Government have taken appropriate action, or think they have, or where no action on the lines that some people have suggested has been taken. This should be drawn to the attention of the Foreign Secretary and he should be required to report back to us on the actions to be taken, with a full report then placed in the Library of the House.
My Lords, 10 years ago, several of us who are in the House today took part in the Iraq debate, for which there were 115 speakers. I remember in particular the contribution of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. It has been reflected in today’s remarkable debate by the noble Lords, Lord West and Lord Dannatt. There is no doubt that our military heroes have a rooted practicality in their view of these intensely difficult foreign affairs issues. I also recollect that on that occasion there was opposition to our going into Iraq at roughly two to one among those who contributed to the debate. This afternoon, at a rough reckoning, it is more like eight to one or even 10 to one against the notion of unilateral intervention—by “unilateral”, I refer of course to America and France as well.
As a lawyer, the legality issue is one that I cannot avoid, and we have heard some plain speaking on it. I put it to the House that the justification for humanitarian intervention depends, because it is a common law justification, on that unilateral intervention being reasonably likely to lead to less violence, death and destruction and to more chance of a resolution of the deep, underlying issues. Many other speakers have alluded to the fact that the likely consequence of a unilateral attack on the chemical weapons installations in Syria will be precisely the reverse. It will intensify the extremism, radicalise even more, and undermine the tender shoots of reconciliation within Syria. Indeed, I am not thinking of Syria alone because the whole region is unbelievably unstable, staggeringly fragile and frighteningly liable to internal explosion. One must look very carefully at the Government’s case for saying that the action they may eventuate would be justified by international law. I doubt it.
The reason why the consequences of such an intervention would be wholly counterproductive is again one that other speakers have referred to: that, sadly, the United States and the United Kingdom in particular are not viewed in the region as being honest brokers. We have form and we do not have clean hands. We are regarded as being very far from even-handed. I make these remarks having travelled extensively throughout the Middle East over the past 12 years, and that is the message I get again and again. Of course we act with sincerity and try to do our best. However, for example—I am sad to have to raise it, but one cannot avoid it—if one considers what is happening in Israel and Palestine, the fact remains that Israel is colonising the West Bank by military force and has been doing so for more than 20 years. The colonisation goes on and on, and Gaza is under siege. What happens? We go on supplying arms and America goes on giving financial support. There is no way in which the average Muslim who is interested in the politics of his country and region can view what we are doing as remotely justifying our intervention in Syria in the way that is now being contemplated. Look at our support for Saudi Arabia, which is scarcely a model state in terms of democracy and progressiveness. Look at what has happened in Iraq and Iran, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady Williams and other noble Lords.
Iraq is a very striking example. As the noble Baroness said, in 1982 we supported Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran. We supplied his weapons, and he subjected the Iranians to gas and chemical weapon attacks for some considerable length of time. What did we do about it? I cannot recollect that we did anything. Now we have the current attitudes. I emphasise that for us to go in, however good our intentions, would be potentially fatal.
Finally, I want to ask, what do we do? I liked the phrase “ferocity of diplomatic action”, which the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, used. That is just what we need, and imaginative action at that. Through the UN and through our work with Russia—and, I hope, with Iran and everybody else—we will maximise what chance there is for a peaceable resolution, not just in Syria but across the whole Middle East.
My Lords, no doubt many noble Lords will have read the claim in yesterday’s Times that weapon strikes against Syria following the chemical weapon incident on 21 August were legitimate—one of Thomas Aquinas’s conditions of a just war. The use of the word “war” seemed typical of a media-induced frenzy, on the back of which the Government appeared to be proposing that moral outrage justified unilateral military action, whatever the consequences. Thankfully, the measured introduction to today’s debate by the Leader of the House suggests that Mr Miliband has succeeded in introducing a degree of common sense into the situation, which appeared to be getting rapidly out of control, revved up by unsubstantiated assertions such as Mr Hague’s public statement that President Assad was responsible.
All this reminded me of my thoughts about the invasion of Iraq. In December 2002, I wrote to Mr Blair on behalf of a group that had met at the Royal United Services Institute to discuss non-military alternatives—those intermediate steps mentioned by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—pointing out the damage that unjustified military action would do to the United Kingdom’s national interests by undermining the relationships that we had built up in the Middle East over many years, encouraging extremist Muslim organisations such as al-Qaeda to take retaliative action against the West in the West, and by causing us to be seen in the Muslim world as a warmonger rather than a peacemaker. Any international action should demonstrate a clear balance between long-term objectives and short-term gains, with regional issues paramount.
What particularly concerned the military members of the group was that this was the first time that we could recollect our Armed Forces being sent to war without feeling that the public was behind them, a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and my noble friend Lord Dannatt. Needless to say, we were not listened to, and in March 2003 I wrote in the London Review of Books that,
“perhaps our involvement in such a deliberate breach of international law will so change the world order that much wider rethinking will anyway be required”—
hence my concern about what our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary seem to be proposing. What is its aim? What evidence is there about exactly what chemical agent was used, and by whom? What moral or other authority do we have that justifies taking unilateral action against one side in another country’s civil war before United Nations inspectors have completed their work?
The United States, and by implication its allies, ought to be very careful about claiming the moral high ground in the chemical weapons era. Although Syria remains one of the five countries that has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, neither America nor Russia destroyed their declared stockpiles by the 29 April 2012 as required.
Do the Government not recognise the irony of us appearing to support al-Qaeda, which is so strongly represented in the so-called rebel forces? Finally, do the Government think that members of our Armed Forces are impervious to public opinion? Much as I deplore the use of chemical weapons by anyone, with the long-term consequences of our recent short-term interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan staring us in the face, I simply cannot imagine why the Government do not recognise that taking unilateral action is bound to inflame an already burning situation. In terms of national self-interest let alone common sense, I say yes to humanitarian and diplomatic assistance and a contribution to a legal, proportionate and considered international response, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations, but a resounding no to unilateral military action.
My Lords, at this stage in this extremely good debate, I want to concentrate on just one set of questions. Where is the rest of the world on this matter? Why is it coming out as just an American and British-led western affair, maybe with France tagged on the end? Where is the wider international support that the Motion in the other place this afternoon refers to? Where are the other great rising powers in the new global order? Where, in fact, is the coalition of the willing—eastern, western and southern—that we need?
The spreading use of chemical weapons is just as much a threat to the huge modern megacities of Asia, rising Africa and emerging Latin America, many of which have higher incomes than we do, as it is to the USA and the United Kingdom. The citizens of Changchun, Shanghai or Nanking are just as much in danger as we are. In fact, one could argue that the threat from Middle East regional devastation and from missiles flying around the area is greater for China than for America. Half of China’s soaring oil imports of about 5 million barrels a day come from the Middle East, quite aside from the soaring price of crude oil itself.
Most of Japan’s oil and gas imports come from the same source. As Japan’s deep troubles with nuclear power continue, so will its colossal and rising imports from the Middle East region. Some 75% of all gas and oil imports from the Middle East go not westwards to America, us or Europe, but eastwards to Asia, much of it through the Strait of Hormuz. That is predicted to rise to 90% by 2020. Very little flows west and to America almost none at all—in fact shortly it really will be none at all.
So where are all these great nations—the new powers in the new landscape in this crisis? I understand that the Arab League seems to be onside, at least verbally. But where are the other great powers which have demonstrated all the economic growth and which have most to lose from more chaos in the Middle East? Where are India, South Korea, Brazil, Australia, Indonesia or Malaysia? Where are the new super-rich ASEAN nations on which we increasingly depend for our own investment? Where are the new alliances such as the Shanghai Cooperation group or the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the increasingly connected and modernised Commonwealth network that is of increasing importance? Even the Russians, who take a totally different view on how to handle Syria, as we know, are just as much threatened by chemical weapons spreading as we are—as indeed is even Iran, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reminded us.
My biggest fear is that this is all emerging not as a global issue, but as a purely American-led western action. The USA is a great ally and friend, and a great nation, but too many of its policymakers have a misapprehension about America’s role in a now-transformed international landscape. Nobly but wrongly, its leaders speak about superpower leadership but, nowadays, in this network world, the role has to be partnership not leadership. America’s partners all over the world—a coalition of the willing, as I say—need to address the chemical weapons horror and make the chemical weapons convention hold or be strengthened, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, rightly suggested.
I know that Ministers have tried in vain to get a wide and constructive response through the United Nations. However, if we cannot get this together through the outdated machinery of the UN—if the UN cannot unite—then we have to try other routes. At all costs, that should not mean ending up with a West-only initiative. Power now has to be shared between the old West and the new East and South. With power goes responsibility and the duty to co-operate. Governments and diplomats now have to learn to play the network. It is a new game in which our skilled diplomatic forces, our fabled diplomacy, can help lead us and guide us. A new constellation of powers, alliances and influences across the whole world has already taken shape, and the sooner we recognise that in facing this issue the better.
My Lords, I have always been a liberal interventionist. If you live in a globalised world, you intervene if you think that something is wrong. When we debated this issue on 1 July I said that the question in Syria was not whether we were going to intervene but when. We could have intervened long ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, among others, has said. Many hundreds and thousands of people have been exiled and killed, including women and children. We had perfectly good cause to intervene under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. We did not intervene. We now face another opportunity for intervention, but I think that we are not going to intervene. It is quite clear that the mood of the House and the country is, “This is terrible, it should not happen and it is a moral outrage, but we are not going to intervene”.
However, we are going to intervene sooner or later because this war is going to last for much longer than we think. It is not just a Syrian civil war. As I said last time, this is part of a 40-year crisis of the Muslim Middle East and will go on. It is not just a Shia-Sunni war; it is a sort of rehearsal, like the Spanish Civil War, for the bigger conflagration that is about to come. We should therefore dread the possibility that the UN inspectors will find evidence and that perhaps the UN Security Council will co-operate. Then we will intervene. All the consequences that people have mentioned regarding what will happen if we intervene—all the side-effects and responses—will happen, even if there is full legitimacy for our move. In war, there are no clear, clean outcomes. The Second World War, which was the last, as it were, just war, was full of mistakes on all sides. There were the most God-awful tragedies, but we still respect that war because the end result was better than when it started.
What has finally come out in Iraq is a Shia majority and democracy—the only one in the Middle East. We got that regime change. In that debate, I said that I did not care about weapons of mass destruction; I cared that Saddam Hussein was a danger to his own people. That was why I wanted us to go into Iraq. I am a liberal interventionist. The whole problem is that the US and UK have created this structure for international order, which we have been embellishing by duties such as the “responsibility to protect”. We have now lost the will to sustain it. We may have also lost the power to sustain it, but we have certainly lost the will to sustain it. Red lines can be drawn, but red lines will be withdrawn and then drawn somewhere else.
We have now perhaps to rethink our entire doctrine. International order is a global public good. Do we have the strength and resources to provide it and protect it? We will have to come to the conclusion very soon that, even together with America and France, we do not have the will or the power to sustain the global public good we created. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked why the eastern powers are not intervening. They did not create this order; they do not care for this order; why should they defend this order? It is our responsibility, but we will not defend it. It is clear to me that the poor Prime Minister, on holiday, when the blood rushed to his head, thought, “My God, I must intervene”. I think that he should not go on holidays and then we may have a better world.
What we are facing now is that we are chickening out and that we will intervene the next time when circumstances will be much more against us. That will happen when this general war in the Middle East touches Israel. When Israel is under threat, that is the final red line that America will draw. That is when it will go and then we will be in a much worse circumstance than we are in right now. We will have another debate then.
My Lords, it might be better if some leading politicians went on much longer holidays and never came back.
I do not support military action against Syria, and I hope the Government will listen to the overwhelming balance of views in your Lordships’ House today, which range from people who are cautious, do not want to go ahead very quickly and think that the Government have not quite got it right, to people who take the view that I do: it is likely to be a disaster at any time.
I am sorry to be speaking against the policy of my leader, the Deputy Prime Minister and other of the leading members of my party, including my noble friend Lord Ashdown, for whom I have great admiration, but when my noble friend says that the choice is between action or no action, to act or not to act, the problem is that his view of action is military action and nothing else. As various noble Lords have said, military action ought to come after everything else has been tried. The other point about action or no action is that if you take no action for the time being, you can always go back to act in future; once you have taken military action, there is no going back whatever. If it turns out to be disastrous, you are lumbered with the consequences for ever.
The pulling back by the Government in the past few days has been a good thing. It has clearly been in response to public opinion; I think that it has been a response to an opinion in the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats as well. It has also been a response to what has been happening in the House of Commons among the politicians. Of course, the press will always try to personalise it and say that it is a big victory for one side or the other. I think that it is a victory for the House of Commons which, as a body, has been responsible for this being pulled back. In recent times, people have said, “Parliament is a waste of time, the House of Commons is toothless and not like it used to be”, and so on, but from time to time we get events and crises when the House of Commons, in particular, can rise to say, “Thus far and no further; we want a change”. I think that this is a victory for democracy as much as anything else.
As for public opinion, we should be concerned about it not just in this country but in the world—in the Middle East and the Arab world. The Minister, in introducing the debate, said that the Arab League was all on board. Yes, the Arab League stands for the Sunni establishment, by and large, in the Middle East; it certainly does not speak for some other countries and, in particular, I am not sure that the leaders of the Arab League speak for the Arab street.
One problem is that while Sunni opinion throughout the world may be watching and may be not too concerned about things at the moment because there is an evident dictator, a brutal sectarian dictator who is a version of Shia, once it goes wrong, if only 1% of the hundreds of cruise missiles that may be launched lose their way and hit a hospital or a residential area, the television pictures will be around the world within 24 hours and opinion can change very quickly indeed.
As far as Muslims in Britain are concerned, I have no doubt that British action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan have played a central role in radicalising people. There are two aspects to this. Most of the ordinary Muslims in Britain come from the south Asian subcontinent. They are mainly Sunnis and mainly attend the mosques of a moderate variety of Islam. People I have spoken to recently in my own area in Lancashire have commented that what is going on in Syria is dreadful, the chemical attack was appalling and Assad is a bad man, but that when western countries go in to try to sort things out, they almost always seem to make things worse. I do not think that there will be lots of people out on the streets in demonstrations, like there were 10 years ago when a lot of us went on the big march. I do not think a lot of Asian people will do that at the moment, but the problem is the small number of individuals who for various reasons—their contacts, their psychological disposition or whatever—are subject to radicalisation. I have no doubt that if the missile attack on Syria takes place, it will almost certainly contribute to serious radicalisation and possible future serious incidents in this country.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I see no rationale whatever in the UK attacking the Assad regime on the grounds that chemical weapons may have been used. We are all horrified by TV pictures of the suffering of innocent civilians in the civil war between different religious factions, but those on the receiving end would probably say that innocent men, women and children being killed or maimed by chemical weapons is no worse than their being killed, maimed or wounded, or having the limbs of those near and dear to you blown off, by more conventional means of mass killing. The use of even more weaponry, however tactical, will simply increase that suffering.
I understand President Obama’s wish to be seen as a strong and decisive world leader with his talk of red lines that must not be crossed, but the strength of a world leader should not be measured solely by the flexing of military muscle. There is even greater strength in looking to and promoting solutions to underlying religious conflict in Syria and surrounding countries and, importantly, in working to make the UN truly effective.
The USA is doing its image immense harm by constantly seeking to bypass the UN and act as the world’s policeman. It has no moral authority to do so. It is the only country in the world to have used atomic weapons. It used chemical weapons, including Agent Orange, to devastate and impoverish vast areas of Vietnam, which led to hideous deformities in the unborn. We have heard today that its use is prohibited by the 1925 Geneva convention. It has used napalm and cluster bombs. Today, it uses drones to invade the sovereign territory of other countries to kill, main and destroy those it does not like. Such behaviour does not go unnoticed in the Middle East and the rest of the world. It is wrong to pretend that the USA has a moral right to lecture the rest of the world on ethical values. I understand our historic special relationship with the USA, but a good friend should act to deter such behaviour.
We know that President Assad is a cruel dictator, but he is not mad. It is difficult to believe that he would deliberately try to provoke America into going to war against him. It gets even murkier if we look at Saudi Arabia, America’s Sunni ally in the Middle East. It was a Saudi-owned news channel, Al Arabiya, which first broke the story of the supposed chemical attack. The Saudi Government, with United States approval, have been supplying arms to the rebel groups. The use of chemical weapons can only strengthen the hand of the Sunni factions, both inside and outside Syria. These include al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. It is not in the West’s interests to strengthen their hand. For these reasons, I oppose military action.
My Lords, I ask the House to note that I have written a number of letters to the Prime Minister expressing my deep reservations about why we are involved in Syria at all. It seems to me that it is not in this country’s interests and never has been.
I also frankly do not approve of our policy in north Africa and the Middle East and have said so clearly. This crusade of western-type democracy to be imposed upon others with significantly different cultures from our own seems to have resulted in the chaos that we see now in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and the subject of today’s debate, Syria. If you look at Syria, a relatively young country created after the First World War, you will see that this is its fourth civil war. The war is not new to that country; this is just the current, awful manifestation.
As I look at the situation and the media coverage of the past few days, and the idea that we are going to launch a strike at any moment, I ask myself—my noble friend Lord Howell raised this—who in the world today believes that the United States, the United Kingdom and a couple of other countries should be policing the world? That is not what the vast majority of the world believes; it looks to the UN to provide that. We must work with the UN to make sure that that happens. However difficult it may be to deal with the Russians, the Chinese or anybody else, we have to find ways to work with them and to make that succeed.
Turning to the chemical weapons issue, on the last incident—I am amazed to hear that there were 14 other occasions; certainly I was not aware of them and would like to know why they were not more broadly publicised—we frankly still do not know who did it. We know that it happened. The House knows that I have had deep involvement in Sri Lanka and I know that evidence can be and is fabricated by rebel groups. I have seen it with my own eyes, with the Tamil Tigers’ accusations about certain of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government. Frankly, I do not believe that al-Qaeda is totally innocent in Syria; it may be and it would be wonderful if it was, but I wonder. If it was the Government, what was their motive? Was it a central government decision that there should be a sudden strike on a suburb of Damascus? Far more likely is the suggestion of my noble friend on the Liberal Benches that it was probably, possibly, a rogue element in the Syrian army. Let us reflect on what happened on our side in the Second World War. We had a number of rogue actions taken against government orders; that is not unusual in war and we should never forget that. That was, to a degree, the implication of what the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said.
Should there be any military intervention? Frankly, those of us who have done a bit of gardening recently know that the worst possible thing you can do to a bonfire is to put petrol on it. The Middle East is a huge raging bonfire at this point in time. If we send in missiles of any sort—I speak as a former RAF pilot, as is my noble friend to my left—however good the pilot, the radar and the homing device may be, they can go wrong. As others have indicated, that could be catastrophic. For me, there should be no military intervention.
However, the West should do something. We have to do more in terms of diplomacy. I was privileged to go out and try to help in Sri Lanka and the Maldives immediately after the tsunami. I was amazed at the amount of support and help that was given to millions of people in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in a situation that killed well over 100,000 people overnight. There was a wonderful reaction by the Disasters Emergency Committee and equally wonderful reactions by numerous Governments. With all the experience that this country has in providing great NGOs, why on earth can we not take the lead on the humanitarian front and forget all about any military intervention?
Although he has just left the Chamber, I shall finish by saying how grateful I am to the Leader of the House, as well as to the Leader of the Official Opposition, for sitting through almost every speech. My only request is that, having done so, they should both make sure that the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition know the strength of feeling in this House.
My Lords, I very much doubt whether any of us will be able to forget the harrowing television pictures of the children and their look of fear and bewilderment as they literally choked and writhed to death. This was a heinous crime, for which those responsible must, sooner or later, be brought to account. But as this debate has made very clear, the issue is how that is done without punishing the innocent, exacerbating the future costs and dangers, and proving to be totally counterproductive. We have to listen to the advice and wisdom of men and women with considerable military experience, such as in the speeches that we have heard in this debate from my noble friend Lord West and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt.
As we grapple with our abhorrence at the cruelly poisoned children and, indeed, the adult victims, we must never forget the 1.8 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. We can do something about their plight and face up to the future destabilising effect of so many refugees across the Middle East—just think of the story of the Palestinian refugees and how that is being compounded by this situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, has just said, we should be at the forefront of the humanitarian battle, and indeed we should support the people of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere who have provided so many with a home.
Here in Britain we are very good at persuading ourselves that the world will automatically see things as we see them. As someone who has spent most of my life travelling the world in international work, I ask how many people we really think will believe that this is just to deal with chemical weapons. Of course they will not believe that. They will see it as an intervention in a civil war and as us punishing the regime in Syria for the terrible things that have happened.
The other thing of which we sometimes persuade ourselves is that somehow Syria is self-contained and that we can clinically look just at Syria and take appropriate action. Syria is intimately involved with Egypt, Iran, Iraq and the whole Middle East situation. Military action would have great implications for any prospect of a Middle East settlement and peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. In this context, we are foolish if we imagine that anything that we do will not have implications far wider than Syria.
I also suggest that we should look at our own credibility. This is not an easy thing to do. The peoples of the world do not necessarily see us as self-evident champions of the rule of law and arbiters of justice. They look at us and see rendition, Guantanamo Bay and torture. As we have heard, they see the story of arms sales to reactionary and oppressive regimes. They see us insisting that our nuclear arsenal is essential to our self-defence. They see our allies in the past as having not altogether clean hands on chemical warfare and they see us believing that somehow, if we are to make a contribution, our possession of these things must be taken for granted.
There is resentment in much of the world—we must face this—about being managed by the traditional great powers. This resentment plays into the hands of extremists and al-Qaeda. That is why the UN road is so important. If action is to be taken, it must be in the context of the widest possible global international consensus, not just among the traditional powers but among the deprived and excluded people of the world as a whole, because the world is seeking a change in the power balance. All this is absolutely central to how we approach the situation that we are debating.
Of course we must go on in the Security Council. We must not be fatalists but must keep at it. We must also think of the UN Uniting for Peace Resolution 377 of 1950 in the Korean context and make sure that whatever is done has widespread global endorsement and not just that of the traditional powers.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose stance on these matters over many years I have come to respect. I join the many others who referred to the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I hope that the Government will listen very carefully to his wise words.
I speak on behalf of my party, Plaid Cymru, as well as for myself, in opposing any question of military intervention in Syria on the basis of the information—or rather, the lack of it—that we have at present. I would oppose military intervention in any circumstances without a specific United Nations mandate spelling out the legal basis for intervention, the parameters of any military action and the outcome that it was meant to secure.
I will address briefly three dimensions of the issue: the facts relating to the use of chemical weapons, the potential methods of intervention and the possible knock-on effects in the Middle East. We all condemn without reservation the use of chemical weapons. They can be just as gruesome as nuclear weapons—which, if we are consistent, we should also ban in the name of humanity. In the case of Syria, three questions arise. Have chemical weapons been used? The answer to this will be provided by United Nations investigators. Secondly, if chemical weapons have been used, who used them, and can be we certain of our facts in this regard? If we are, can we be equally certain about who ordered their use, and that they were not used on the orders of loose cannons using them for Machiavellian purposes?
With regard to intervention, we must surely be clear as to the specific effects of any proposed military intervention and whether any new scenario after such military action is sustainable. Frankly, when I heard American officials talking of lobbing in 100 cruise missiles—at which targets we were not quite sure—and of Obama talking about a rap across the knuckles, I was driven to the conclusion that the US does not know what it is trying to do. When I heard the Liberal Democrat leader on a BBC programme this morning being cornered into accepting that there may be many further steps, I shuddered to think where mission creep may take us.
Thirdly, there is the whole tinderbox of the Middle East regional fragility into which we may choose to fire those warning shots. One elects to throw a match into a powder keg at one's own peril. There are many extreme elements in that region who are just itching for the opportunity or excuse to fire their own warning shots or massively more at Israel. Goodness knows, there are those in Israel who would be only too glad to fire their own ultimate weapons of mass destruction as a lesson to their hostile neighbours. That scenario does not bear contemplation. One thing is certain. We should not fire random shots into a powder box. We should avoid that in order not to escalate to Armageddon.
Humanitarian considerations drive us to ban chemical weapons—and rightly so. Therefore, should not humanitarian dynamics also guide us in the way in which we respond to such weapons? Will not the course being pursued by the Government make it less likely, rather than more likely, that we can move towards political action and reconciliation? Will it make the Geneva II agenda more or less likely to progress? Will such action not escalate the humanitarian crisis, with a flood of refugees becoming a tsunami, which would cause the aid agencies immense difficulties? The NGOs just could not cope. Those humanitarian factors must surely also come into the equation. Should not any action which we take lead to the greater likelihood of a coherent road map towards negotiations? Do the Government seriously believe that firing cruise missiles as shots across the bow will increase the chances of such a road map emerging?
A child being slaughtered by chemical weapons or by cruise missiles is equally distressing for that child's father or mother. One random catastrophe triggered by a missile intended as a shot across the bow can have cataclysmic consequences, as did one shot in Sarajevo, a century ago. Have we learnt nothing from our mistakes?
My Lords, I yield to no one in my horror at the use of chemical weapons; and at the deaths so far in the Syrian war of more than 100,000 innocent persons; and at the 1 million or so refugees displaced, whose situation in the desert with no basic facilities for their children, such as education, will reverberate across the region long after Assad has gone from the scene. Where, incidentally, did those chemical weapons come from? Can we cut off the supply? How fortunate it is that Syria’s nuclear reactor was knocked out a few years ago. It might otherwise have been used.
What, then, do we do? Punishment and reaction there has to be. That is easy enough to say, but what should it be? I have given up any hope of referral to the International Criminal Court; that cannot happen. In brief, it seems to me that the arguments against any military intervention outweigh the arguments, moral and political, for military intervention.
My first reason is that the consequences could be irreversible and incalculable: not least, more terrorism on our streets. This we have learnt from previous incursions into the Middle East—although I must say that fear should not shape our foreign policy.
The second reason is that the public are against it both in the US and the UK as shown by the opinion polls. We will have a repeat of the demonstrations that we had against the Iraq war and it is surprising that there have not already been more demonstrations on our streets of the revulsion felt against Syrian actions.
The third reason is that it is too late. As Kissinger said in relation to the Iran/Iraq war,
“It is too bad they both can't lose”.
There may have been an earlier time when the west could have intervened, but to do so now is to take sides without the real possibility of achieving anything. Regime change will not happen. Civilians will undoubtedly be caught up and there will be retaliation.
Fourthly, we cannot afford it. Thousands of UK Army personnel were made redundant very recently. Defence cuts have left us weak and we seem to have different priorities for spending. I heard recently that we had spent three times as much on welfare, rightly or wrongly, as on defence.
Fifthly, I have not heard what our strategy is. Do we have an exit plan? How long will the intervention last? When can it be said to have been successfully accomplished? What if Assad or whoever the culprit is has more stocks of chemical weapons and is able to import more? What will our reaction be if the slaughter spreads to neighbouring countries? Since Russia is involved, this possible exercise will not be like the one undertaken in, say, Kosovo. If the US and the UK did not finish what they started and Assad survived and continued, American credibility and our own would be damaged and Iran, for example, will see that the West is impotent in relation to its collection of nuclear material. In the mean time, we are taking our eyes off the Egyptian situation, Iran and Iraq.
The struggle in Syria will not be ended by air strikes or even the delivery of arms to acceptable rebels. There will be a showdown with Russia and reverberation across the Middle East and at home. We have never taken the moral action that maybe we should have in relation to, say, the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the protection of North Koreans, with as many horrors, because of the strength of Russia and China and their presence on the United Nations Security Council. Our morality is selective.
Is intervention better than non-intervention? I am afraid not. Would intervention prevent a repeat? I fear not. Is there a less bloody act of retribution? I cannot think of one. I am disappointed at the failure of action of the United Nations due to its structure and indeed the failure of the European Union in this foreign policy area. There has been a low-key call from Europe for a diplomatic push. I would have expected a stronger voice of leadership on this issue. If there is a failure of our international organisations, we will have a resurgence of the strength of individual nation states and religious sectarianism and violence. That is because we do not have the strong international organisations that we need at this moment.
My Lords, as a follower of events in Syria and an occasional contributor to discussions about it in this Chamber, I always find that the noble Lord, Lord Wright, expresses my views more clearly than I can myself and I have not been disappointed this afternoon. Like everyone else, I am aghast at what has been happening in Syria and especially horrified by the use of chemical weapons. I, too, am very frustrated and distressed by the way in which this wonderful country and its splendid population has been caught up in the much wider volatility in the Middle East of which it is now an integral and unfortunately inseparable part. We know that the Assad regime and the Ba’ath Party have behaved appallingly and appear to have used chemical weapons, but the rebels who line up with the Salafists and who indiscriminately murder Christians and Muslims are no better.
In the circumstances of now, I believe that it is naive, as my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell pointed out, to imagine that it might be possible to intervene neutrally or impartially between the protagonists in this civil war. It is bound to benefit one side or the other, and then we have become a protagonist ourselves. The beneficiary will soon forget our help and blame us for neo-colonial intervention, and the loser will hold us responsible for their setbacks. By then, we are completely involved.
Obviously, the use of chemical weapons is both unacceptable and illegal, but it does not follow that we, or for that matter anyone else, must intervene militarily even if it is legal to do so; it is merely an option. What is legal is not necessarily wise; indeed—and I speak as a lawyer—often it is not. Furthermore, recent history shows that the criminal perpetrators of mass atrocities can run but they cannot hide indefinitely from international law and its processes and enforcement.
Like many other speakers today, I am glad that the Government have toned down their bellicose stance of the weekend. We must not adopt a stance of macho belligerence; rather, we must proceed carefully within the framework of law in a manner which is pragmatic and practical in military, diplomatic and political terms. Equally, it is important that we do not allow Britain to become, or to be perceived to have become, a kind of global vigilante. We should not feel that it is necessary in any way to race to the front of the queue to join a posse, even if it is led by one of our closest allies. I find myself recalling with approval, and to my own surprise, Harold Wilson, who I believe did this country a great service by keeping this country out of the Vietnam War.
Of course, it goes without saying that we must strive in every way to contribute to the humanitarian needs of Syria and that part of the Middle East and, equally, work for the cessation of the use of chemical weapons both in Syria and anywhere else. We must also recall Bismarck’s comment that the Herzegovina treaty was not worth the bones of a Pomeranian fusilier. I see no evidence now that persuades me that Syria is worth the bones of a British service man or woman. That is the likely consequence of the kind of military intervention currently under discussion to respond to the use of chemical weapons in that country.
My Lords, this has been a very well informed debate. It is not to be unnecessarily partisan but rather to get my one party point out of the way first that I say that it has been a great strength to the Labour Party’s position that it has thought through many of the questions which have been posed for answer today. That was in effect set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in opening from our Front Bench.
The speeches by the noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond and Lord Dannatt, reflected great diplomatic and military experience. It is perhaps not often recognised by people who have not been in the military that the logistics involved in anything that is being talked about are very considerable. If you do not have Brize Nortons scattered around the eastern Mediterranean, you have to get the stuff to Cyprus first and so on. It was with some incredulity that I kept reading that something was going to happen on Sunday, leaving aside the point, also made very tellingly, that the chemical weapons dumps are apparently spread around Syria and that to take them, or to do anything to make sure that they could not be used again, you would have to have thousands of boots on the ground. I ask the Minister to comment on that particular point in his reply. That rather suggests to me that that is probably true. We have a few days to reflect on where we are trying to get to. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, regime change is now not apparently our objective. If it is not, I do not quite follow the logic of some of the speeches that have been made.
I will pick one example from the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who can correct me if I am wrong. Why, I ask myself, can we not arraign the President of Syria before the International Criminal Court and charge him with offences which, if proven, would cause him to spend the rest of his life in The Hague? I thought he meant by his argument that because that is very difficult we do not have to go through a process of jurisprudence. The noble Lord is a lawyer—I do not understand it. Who will take the President of Syria to the International Criminal Court, or does he not believe that we have a procedure other than a military one, which clearly is not a juridical procedure?
How does the noble Lord propose to get President Assad to the International Criminal Court physically?
Indeed. The question about what we did in Yugoslavia, et cetera, comes up. The noble Lord is shaking his head as if to say, “Therefore we should assassinate him”. I am sorry—I have given way once, and the noble Lord did not give way to me.
Justify your accusation.
I am just putting the point that if we think that some surgical strike can stop his authority being exercised to do these things, why do we not make more of the procedure? If we think he is guilty of an offence under the chemical weapons convention, should we not give more thought to how we bring him before the International Criminal Court, and would that not be a productive way of engaging with the Russians, perhaps, as someone has suggested, with a conference of the parties signatory to the convention on chemical weapons?
The Foreign Secretary is fond of using a sort of metaphor in this debate that if the Security Council fails to do what we want—I think this is how the argument runs—we should ask what we call the international community to act. That has been said so many times. I ask the question: what, in this context, is the international community supposed to be if it is not just the less than 10% of the world who are our friends in this regard?
My Lords, my interests are as declared in the register.
I should like to focus on the proposition that military action should be taken if it is clear that Assad has used chemical weapons. I believe that there is a need for a far greater clarity about the thinking behind such proposals before we can have a sensible discussion about its merits. If military action is not backed up by a UNSCR, what is the legality of such a step in this case? Why is it thought that a limited strike would prevent further humanitarian disaster? I will return to that point in a moment. It is that—not the breaking of the chemical warfare convention; the legal advice we have had this afternoon is silent on that—that is the only real justification here for military action.
I pick up the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, about the need to reassure our servicemen taking part in this proposed action. The legal case needs to be explained and made particularly clear to them.
What will be the objectives of such an attack? The noble Lord, Lord Wright, provided us with a list of examples earlier on. Let me concentrate on just a couple. Is it to punish Assad and thereby deter him from the further use of chemical weapons? If so, what is the assessment of how this can be achieved against a man and a regime hardened by years of brutal civil strife? Why on earth do we think that he will care? Are we judging that he has the same standards and morals that we have?
Is the objective to target chemical warfare dumps? If so, how convincing is the evidence that we know where they all are and whether they are in penetrable bunkers? What will be the measure of success? Chemical weapons are extremely difficult to destroy completely. The most common method is incineration at very high temperatures over a sustained period in contained systems. Munitions used by the military almost never reproduce such effects, especially the ones designed to penetrate hardened structures. Another problem is the sheer volume of material. Estimates put Syrian stockpiles in the hundreds of tonnes of various types. What considerations have been given to collateral damage from chemical weapons released by a strike, possibly generating a worse humanitarian problem? The fact is that chemical weapons are extremely difficult to destroy. It can be done effectively only by having boots on the ground.
Assuming, therefore, that we are furnished with some sort of clear objectives, where is the lay-down of the consequences of an attack? I believe that the Government have said that this will not be about regime change. But what happens if Assad is killed? We have normally failed to kill the leaders of unpleasant regimes in the past. This time, accidentally, we will probably kill Assad.
Notwithstanding the opening comments of the noble Lord the Leader of the House, we can be absolutely certain that within the region we will be judged as having taken sides in a civil war and that the attack by us will be seen by many as giving succour to the opposition. How is it intended that we will handle the view that we have allied ourselves to some extremely unpleasant actors playing for the opposition in Syria?
We can also be pretty certain that any attack will have collateral damage in which innocent civilians will be killed. What is the Government’s view on the proportionality of such an eventuality? In other words, what number of civilians killed will be deemed acceptable in, say, the punishment of Assad?
What estimates have been made of the likely reactions of Syria’s neighbouring states and Hezbollah, and how will these be managed? The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, made some telling points here. Especially, what is the estimate of what might be the nature of any retaliation from Syria or surrogates? For example, there is evidence today that Syrian-inspired cyberattacks are already escalating. They are very competent at this. Are we ready for a full-scale cyberattack? Should there be any post-strike analysis? How will this be achieved, given the sophistication of Assad’s air defences?
Do the Government have an exit strategy for any military adventure? If Assad brushes off the attack and uses chemical weapons again, what will be the next move? A “shot across the bows” implies sinking the ship at the next shot. Will the Government say whether it has been determined what will be the nature of that follow-on shot? If it is going to involve serious commitment of our Armed Forces, I hope that the Prime Minister will reflect on the damaging and strategically dangerous cuts that he has made to our defence capability over the past three years.
Finally, if the inspectors’ report leads to the conclusion that—contrary to what we have been told today—it is in fact the opposition in Syria who have deployed chemical weapons, what will be the Government’s course of action?
My Lords, I think we can be confident that we would all agree that the Government have got one thing absolutely right today: they put down a Motion on which there could not be a vote in this House. I think that was a very wise move. We are all familiar with the expression “mission creep”, but we should also be aware of language creep. I notice that, in ministerial language, what was the Assad Government has now become the Assad regime. When the dog is given a bad name, it knows what to expect next. When I read the JIC assessment, I noticed that it said,
“it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks”,
but when I heard the Prime Minister speaking in the other place today, that had morphed in his words into the “certainty” that it had done so. I think this is almost certainly an unconscious act of creep, but it displays a lack of intellectual rigour which unhappily is characterised in so much of the development of policy on more than this one matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, rightly questioned the exaltation of chemical weapons above even nuclear and biological weapons. Others have also questioned that. Indeed, as many terrorist victims in this jurisdiction, let alone in Syria, might say, being battered to death with a hammer or a gun butt is not a pleasant way to go, but we have no moral objection to the people who did that, procured it or ordered it to be done taking their place even in government in this country.
I find myself in the somewhat unnatural position—it is certainly an unusual position—of agreeing completely with the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. It does not often happen; we should celebrate this matter. Indeed, there were so many others whom I agreed with that I cannot list them all in my allocated time, but notably my noble friend Lord Hurd and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, expressed many of the concerns that worry me. Like them and many others, I am not satisfied that Ministers have adequately thought through the likely, let alone the possible, consequences of the course of action to which they seem unnaturally attracted. We in this country may think that the use of force against the Assad Government will be seen in the way that we would like it to be seen, but in the Middle East, and perhaps in Moscow too, it will be seen, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, suggested, as an intervention against President Assad and in favour of the rebel forces. I ask myself whether that is what the Government intend. Do they really intend to intervene on behalf of the rebel forces or for it to be seen in that way across the Middle East? I am far from convinced that if Assad were to be brought down it would any more bring peace to Syria than the fall of Mubarak has brought it to Egypt. I think we are now all becoming convinced that the Arab spring did not last very long and that a deep and long winter has now set in instead. I wish that my friends in government will really think before they drift into places where they never intended to go, but I doubt that they are in any mood to do so.
My Lords, the decision on whether or not to intervene has become an increasingly difficult problem over recent years and will continue to do so given the current state of the Middle East. It is a profoundly difficult decision. If you do not intervene, lives will be lost and, if you do, lives will also be lost. The lesson of Iraq is not necessarily “Do not intervene,” but, “If you intervene, make sure that you have thought through the post-conflict situation”. That is where those sorts of things go profoundly wrong.
My problem is not whether we should use force. I am prepared to see force being used in this situation. However, I cannot see what the object would be of using force now. I could see it right at the beginning, but what is the purpose of military intervention of some type now? There is a case for intervention to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being used again. I understand that; it is laudable and proper. My problem is that I do not know how you would achieve that end. What military actions would you take to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being used again, whether in Syria or in the immediate neighbouring areas by agents of the Syrian Government? I believe that the Syrian Government used them. If it was the opposition, the Syrian Government would be in a position to show us the various stores that the weapons came from; they have never attempted to do so, nor claimed that they had lost any to the rebels.
If the purpose of intervention is to stop weapons of mass destruction being used, I need to know how it would work. That is where I get worried, because Barack Obama’s use of the word “punishment” comes from the idea that you can prevent these weapons from being used if you impose enough force on the regime to make it think twice. That is a dubious proposition.
The one area in which it could work would be if it were combined with a diplomatic initiative, which might involve reaching out to Iran. A couple of speakers have made the point that Iran has strong views about weapons of mass destruction, not least because Saddam Hussein used them against the Iranians, who saw the sheer horror of them. If Iran could be persuaded to come on board in putting pressure on the Syrians not to go on using them, the threat of force might be useful. Once you have used that force, however, there is no going back. I do not know where that would lead.
The only other purpose of using force would be to try to pressure Assad to go to the negotiating table and to persuade Russia to put pressure on Assad to go. I have made the point to the Leader of the House in previous exchanges that I do not see that either Russia or Assad has an interest in going into serious negotiations while they see that they have a chance of winning more on the battlefield. The general approach is not to negotiate if you are winning. If Assad can go on using weapons of mass destruction, he will win.
People sometimes say to me, “Saudi Arabia is pouring in arms”, and so on, but there is a difference. Russia’s aid is that of a sophisticated power with a lot of ability right across the range. That is not true of the armaments going to the opposition, so I am not at all convinced that that is equivalent. If you use the threat of military action to get Assad to negotiate, that might be of benefit. Apart from that, I cannot see how military intervention would work at this stage. That is not to say that we should rule it out for all time, but those are currently the only two points where there might be an advantage and I cannot see how they might be achieved.
My final point worries me deeply. Russia is in a strange position on this. President Putin sounds like someone who is obsessed with the United Sates, almost as though he feels inferior, has had his nose put out of joint by it and wants somehow or other to gain his revenge. The United States is no longer the dominant power that it was for the first 50 years after the Second World War. Other powers are coming up. That makes this very dangerous. When you get that sort of instability, you get bigger wars.
Finally, this is the Middle East. We are into something that will last for decades. The Foreign Secretary was right. Unfortunately, a lot of it is between those who believe either in the Sunni/Shia struggle or, more seriously, it is about whether you have religion as a central part of government or separate from it. That will be an important question, not only for the region but for the rest of the world.
My Lords, according to the Order Paper, the purpose of this seven-hour or so debate is to take note of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. One thing that is quite clear from this debate is that the Government should take note of what has emerged in it. What has emerged is something very close to consensus and, among certain categories of Members of this House, I think, unanimity. The emerging consensus clearly is that people are absolutely unconvinced that the case has been made. Unanimity has come from Members of this House who come from the diplomatic profession and those who have served in the military. I may have missed one or two speeches, but I have not heard anybody from either of those two backgrounds state any support for what, in effect, we are really debating. If the Order Paper asks us to “take note of”, what are we actually debating?
I have spoken this afternoon to a number of Members of this House who in recent days have come back from holiday abroad where they have not been reading English newspapers or listening to the English media. Without exception, they have been absolutely startled by what they have been confronted with the moment that they landed at Heathrow or arrived back here: a virtual media assumption that war is about to occur and an aggressive, even macho tonality that would be delighted—that is the implication—were we to be the first to press the button on any action. That is extraordinary. What has happened in the past 24 hours has broken that momentum and mood, and thank goodness for that.
Many Members of this House were here on 18 March 2003, when we debated this situation before the military action in Iraq. I participated in that debate. I remember the grave reservations that I felt and, I hope, expressed at the time, that the case had not been made. Many Members of this House felt the same thing. It is clear that the case is not being made.
Let us just look at the criteria that would be crucial and decisive in making the case. Clearly, there has to be an element in which it is explained that our national interest is somehow involved in this outcome. We are, after all, committing our own people and would be committing our own Armed Forces. That case is not made. We have to be convinced that there is an exit strategy. There appears to be none and, indeed, not much thought about one.
We have to be persuaded that we are hitting the right targets and that, above all, it would act as a deterrent. I find interesting the phrase from President Obama: “a shot across the bows”. It is of course clear that a shot across the bows is not meant to hit anything. A shot across the bows is a warning. The second shot is the one that is meant to register. What would the second shot be? I think that it is clear that the majority view in this Chamber is that if you send off the first warning shot, other shots will follow, so one has to think very carefully about it.
I shall be followed in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Birt. I spent three decades of my life as a television journalist and in the television profession. I have to say that one thing that has fuelled the momentum of the debate is the ghastly photographs that we saw of the victims of chemical attack. However, if you are in television journalism, you know that what matters is not just the pictures that you see but the pictures that you do not see. For example, in the Iraq war, there were pictures of appalling damage that was done, which, although our media received them, were never transmitted because they were thought to be too repulsive. These pictures were sickening and tragic but they were transmittable, and because they were transmittable they were in a sense latched on to as a justification for the military action and they fuelled the mood. I think that we have now pulled back from that mood and our approach is much more considered. I finish by urging that part of that consideration should be about what this country and our allies could do to alleviate the appalling refugee crisis that is now enveloping the entire region.
My Lords, throughout history, nations have taken military action out of self interest, but they have increasingly acted with the good of others prominent, or at least present, among their motives. As many have mentioned, we intervened in Sierra Leone to prevent an elected Government being deposed by gangsterism. We deterred a possible massacre in Kosovo and we helped to throw out Saddam after his unlawful invasion of Kuwait. Out of common humanity, I am one who strongly supports the fundamental notion of using military force to avert barbarity. I regret, as does President Clinton, that in Rwanda we failed to stop the worst massacre of modern times, and that we stood by in Bosnia.
However, the consequences of military action cannot easily be predicted. It can be quick and decisive in pursuit of a clear goal, as in the Falklands, but it can also spiral out of control, as in our second venture in Iraq. Military action is not only unpredictable, it is never cost-free. It will always involve sacrifice and pain. In World War II, the United States had to transform its economy, mobilise millions and suffer massive loss of life to save a continent an ocean away from totalitarianism.
The issue before us, that of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is heinous and grotesque. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, has just mentioned, the sight of those bodies—men, women, children and babies—in neat serried ranks enshrouded in their kafans was heartrending. So what, as many have asked, should our objective now be; what our response? A civil war of great complexity is raging within Syria with a multiplicity of groups and their supporters defined by faith, politics and other national interests—the splits within splits that were graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord King. I can see no immediate prospect of any military or diplomatic intervention that would bring an early end to that tragic conflict, although the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, among others, credibly delineated a pathway that might draw in Russia and Iran.
The reasonable objective of a finite, limited and clinical military strike could be, as many have said, to deter the further use of weapons of mass destruction in Syria and even elsewhere in the world. But for all the aforementioned reasons, before picking the military option, there must be a reasonable expectation, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, suggested, that more good than harm will flow from such an action. It is not clear that it will. The situation in Syria is unusually tangled. We have a ruthless regime in place with advanced weaponry, which is fighting for its life with few options open to it. Moreover, Syria is located in the most troubled and unsettled part of the world—the “powder keg” described by the noble Lord, Lord West—riven by rivalry, history and hate. Syria is itself sponsored and supplied by a nuclear superpower.
We can all be genuinely united in our sense of outrage and repugnance. We will all want the whole world to signal that the use of such weapons is unacceptable. We will all agree that those involved must in due course and when possible—and it will be possible—be brought to justice before the international courts. However, like most who have spoken in this excellent, informed debate, I am not yet persuaded that military action is the right course in this particular set of circumstances.
My Lords, I am of the gas mask generation. I remember the gas mask I had as a little boy in the war. My horror of chemical warfare was brought home when I read for the first time that extraordinary poem by Wilfred Owen, which will be familiar to many of your Lordships, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which tells in the most graphic language of a gas attack in the First World War. So I completely understand the revulsion and horror of the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others. Of course, they have seen this and they want to do something about it.
However, let us remember that before the 350 who died last week—terrible as that incident was—100,000 had been slain in Syria. Was not each one of those deaths as much a blot upon the escutcheon of those responsible as the others? As I have listened to this remarkable debate, and thought of the inexact prescription of Ministers for what should be done, I could not help but think of “King Lear”:
I will do such things—
What they are yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
We have to be more exact and prescriptive than that. A theme that has run through this debate is the need for a proper diplomatic offensive.
In a couple of years’ time we shall be marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The United Nations is far too toothless. We should be using all our best endeavours to bring together Russia and China. China will increasingly dominate the world as this century progresses. As has been pointed out by a number of contributors to this debate, we should also be looking at Iran and opening up dialogue there. In doing these things, we should of course be seeking to put pressure on Syria and other rogue regimes and doing it in a way that can have them tested at the bar of world opinion.
International law has to be internationally enforced. The concept of a shield, that there should be a United Nations force permanently established, would not be realisable in the immediate future. But there is no reason why we should not seek to work towards it. I very much hope that we would. Our own nation is not able to play a full and vibrant part in any military, naval or air bombardment of Syria—nor should it. Someone quoted Bismarck and the Pomeranian soldier and it is right.
It is truly vital that this country’s endeavours should be on the diplomatic front. That does not mean that we should never intervene anywhere. As colleagues who were in the other place with me will know, I was almost alone on the Tory Benches arguing for intervention in Bosnia. I am glad I did and I am glad that eventually we did, although sadly it was after Srebrenica. But that was a very different, European conflict. We do not have specific interests in Syria, save the interest that the Middle East should cease to be a powder cauldron. The noble Lord, Lord Reid, in a remarkable speech, said that we were talking about a regional war. He likened it to the Thirty Years’ War, and it could last for 30 years. Even the Foreign Secretary talked in terms of decades.
In the past two or three weeks while we have been off, I have been reading a very remarkable book about July 1914. What comes across is that nobody in Vienna, London, Petrograd or Berlin wanted a world conflict. However, because of diplomatic bungling and ineptitude, and an unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes, the world moved forward inexorably over a six-week period into a conflict that transformed it for ever.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, talked about Pandora’s box. I will leave your Lordships with a quotation from one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries of the second half of the 20th century, Ernie Bevin, who said, “If you open that there Pandora’s box, you don’t know how many Trojan horses will come out”.
My Lords, I always seem to find myself in tandem with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is a delight to follow him. The House is very grateful to the Leader for introducing this important debate and putting on record what in general we feel in the House of Lords. It reflects extraordinarily well on the House.
I will make five brief points. The first is on the question of trust. Some 10 years ago I gave a speech on the proposed invasion of Iraq. I remember saying in that debate, in one of my many very poor speeches in this House, that while I was against the invasion of Iraq, we had to trust our leaders, who had information that we did not have. I now feel in complete disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who argued that we have to trust our leaders. The value of this House is that we are independent and that we do not entirely trust our leaders. Part of the reason we are here is to offer an alternative, non-political view. The value of that has been shown greatly today.
Secondly, it is very important that we see leadership. That was shown extraordinarily well by two speeches. One was from the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who started the debate. The other was from the noble Lord, Lord Hurd. Both noble Lords showed the experience of age. I am afraid that one issue that can be clearly seen is that in general the leadership of all parties is pretty inexperienced. This is an issue that we face, and why the House of Lords in its present state is so valuable.
I will also address the issue of certainty. It is very difficult to deal with uncertainty, but one thing that we must do in a mature world is just that. What worried me very much about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, was his certainty that by going for military action we would do something, while the experience of our military leaders who spoke in this debate—my noble friend Lord West and the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt—clearly showed that we will have to live with uncertainty and balance it in a much better way.
The next issue is that of humanitarian concern. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said everything that I wanted to say but much more eloquently. He pointed to the humanitarian issue. If we really want to be of any account and to be humanitarian, rather than lob shells into Syria, why should we not open our borders to refugees and help the other countries that they are going into? That is very unlikely to happen, but it shows the curious situation that we are in.
The last question is that of psychology. Do we really consider that by lobbing shells into Syria we will soften Assad’s heart? It is worth looking to the Book of Genesis and the question of Pharaoh. Again and again, he is threatened with attack. Finally he suffers the most targeted strike of all, which is the killing of the first-born, who are particularly targeted as Egyptians. It does nothing but affect Pharaoh’s pride, which is what would happen with Assad as well: it would be the same sort of thing. Haaretz newspaper, which is part of a free press in Israel that is reporting very fairly on the situation, yesterday argued very clearly that it is not only Assad who commits atrocities; the other side are quite capable of doing so as well. It pointed out that if we start lobbing shells into the situation, we may cause not merely a mess but a quagmire. That is what it said in its reporting yesterday.
It said one other thing, which I thought was rather pertinent. It argued, for example, that the issue to some extent is that we have the perception—it has been said in this debate, somewhat unfortunately—that somehow Israel is responsible for this situation in some way. The problem, rather opposing what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, said, is that Israel sees itself surrounded by Syrias. It is surrounded by nations that are not likely to take democratic action in the way that we would expect. It is inevitable, therefore, that it hardens its heart and appears to be a great deal more intransigent. We have to be extremely careful how we handle the whole issue of the Middle East.
My Lords, it is a privilege to be taking part in this excellent and well informed debate and to listen to so many expert speeches. Perhaps by this time, the Government understand that there is no support for their policy—in this House, anyway.
The second thing I want to say is that there has been some criticism of the Opposition for their attitude to the Government’s original position. I do not believe that that is right. I think the Opposition should be praised for the action that they have taken to ensure that both Houses of Parliament are having a proper discussion of this very important matter, not only to this country but to the rest of the world, and, indeed, to prevent this country being bounced into military action, led by the United States, over this weekend.
The general public here are fed up to the teeth with the United Kingdom getting involved in wars in faraway countries that are not to protect our vital interests. They resent money being spent on these conflicts while their living standards and services are being squeezed. They also understand that military interventions increase the risk of retaliation by extremists on this country and, indeed, others. Why the rush to take military action even before the United Nations inspectors have reported? That has been remarked on by many noble Lords this afternoon, and perhaps the Government should explain in more detail why they are so anxious to rush to military action. I am completely opposed to military intervention in the Syrian conflict, especially since it is being rushed into being without having clear objectives and without considering the long-term implications of such action.
Why not try peace? Why are we not peacemongers rather than warmongers? Why do we want to rush into war every time something with which we do not agree goes wrong? Why not drop the absurd policy of refusing to allow President Assad to attend peace negotiations? Why do we allow rebels, including al-Qaeda, to dictate the terms of negotiation? Negotiations are the only way forward if the civil war is to end and a stable Government established. Any other way will lead to complete and utter disaster. Of course, like all other noble Lords, I deplore the use of chemical weapons in any circumstances, but I also deplored the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the use of napalm on innocent civilians. Etched on my memory is the picture of that naked little girl running down the street flaming from being enveloped in napalm, so I am certainly opposed to weapons of that sort and to the use of depleted uranium in Fallujah. It also killed and maimed countless people and destroyed huge areas of property, but I am afraid that the British Government sat idly by when such atrocities were being carried out.
Finally, we now understand that the Chilcot report is to be delayed until 2014. That is a complete and utter disgrace. Indeed, the report should be published forthwith so that it can help us to understand how to deal with this crisis, which has so many implications and can lead to so many more lives being lost, people being maimed and property being destroyed.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the trenchant remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. The framework of this debate about government action has been the 1920s international convention about chemical warfare and the practice of intervention by foreign countries for humanitarian purposes, but in the 1920s there were no satellites or internet. One of the important changes is the role of communication, to which I shall return.
Chemical warfare was one of the heinous methods deployed by Saddam Hussain. There was plenty of evidence for it in his attack on the Kurds, but it was not so clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, reminded us, whether he was planning to use those weapons in 2003. There was, however, enough suspicion that the allies intervened. I voted to support the Government. Scientists were particularly doubtful at that time about the estimates of the range over which his weapons could endanger other countries and about how rapidly they could be deployed. No United Kingdom or United States scientific report was produced before, during or after that conflict. The Chilcot report may have some evidence of that sort.
In the case of Syria, as the excellent Joint Intelligence Committee report stated, toxic chemicals were discharged last week with a devastating impact on thousands of people. The timings and location of some of the releases have been reported and intelligence has identified which weapons were used, but we must now have much more open scientific data, which should be produced by several countries. Unlike in previous conflicts, this information is now available in near real time. For example, complex chemicals can now be detected though satellite measurements in the urban areas where this conflict is taking place, and the gases that enable these chemicals to be dispersed can also be computed so that it is possible to make predictions.
This work is going on in the United Kingdom and European laboratories of space and environment companies, and if more of this information were made available, particularly in collaboration with Iran, Russia and China, which all have these instruments and can make these measurements, it might be possible through the much wider distribution of information for us to understand what is going on and particularly for people to see what is going on. As we now know, people are much less suspicious of data in real time. Any report, such as the report of the United Nations inspectorate, excellent as it is, may take several weeks to be produced and people then wonder what has happened in the report.
My first point is that it would be very important to enable people on both sides in Syria and in the Middle East to have more information about what is happening. I believe it will make more likely collaboration with other countries with which we want to negotiate, which has been a theme of this afternoon. Ultimately, this may be the most powerful way to put political pressure on parties, and this will surely support other organisations in their humanitarian efforts.
I should like to make a final remark. Perhaps the government chief scientist, the chief scientists at the MoD and other organisations, and people with military and political experience might consider in some detail how we could distribute more information on the internet and broadcast generally—in all countries and produced in collaboration with countries—whereby it might be possible to have confidence in what is happening. At the moment, there is little confidence because the information comes from different countries. We might enable wide populations across the Middle East and other areas in conflict to track and communicate the illegal use of weapons.
My Lords, in deference to noble Lords’ patience after more than five hours of debate, I am not going to repeat what has been said by many who are more experienced than I. Hence, I want to look not exclusively at Syria but at the United Kingdom in relation to the current Syrian provocation. I would suggest that we as a nation have for the past 16 years become an abject follower rather than an incisive leader of world opinion. How sad. I do not believe that the United Kingdom can, from this point in history, take a military initiative that will benefit us or the various people in the Middle East, including Syrians, who are daily the victims of sectarian warfare and sectarian oppression.
We should not evaluate the situation in the Middle East on the basis of the United Kingdom’s Christian-based values—although, I suppose, this Government have largely abandoned those, too. Of course one deplores that there are several hundred victims of chemical weapons, and we have a responsibility to identify and cite before a war crimes court those who have ordered or executed these outrages. I heard a debate between the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall and Lord Carlile, about the effectiveness of that. Citing leaders before a war crimes court would, from the moment we did so, cause the perpetrators and those who follow them to recognise that whatever they may achieve in the short term they have become internationally irrelevant and international pariahs until the day they die. Why do we imply that the hundreds who died as a result of the use of chemical weapons are any more to be regretted than the tens of thousands who have died equally horribly, up to this moment? Will we, however accurately we target whatever we identify as appropriate, add one iota of justice to the situation?
I have lived with sectarian conflict for many years. That was where religion was used as an excuse for terrorism. However much we may take so-called appropriate action in Syria, will it produce other than justification to those who regard religion as a cause—who are willing to become human bombs—whether in Iraq, Syria or here on the streets of London? I will not even venture into the capacity of Syria or Iran to attack our sovereign bases in Cyprus.
Moreover, we are in danger of deluding ourselves that if we can minimise deaths arising from our intervention and concentrate on Assad’s armaments Russia would not resupply? Russia will do so. We must know that the ineptitude of the United Nations as an arbitrating organisation would be even further neutralised by any direct provocation that led to a greater schism between the western powers, Russia and so on. Nor do we need provocation such as the preordained red lines, or was it lines in the sand? What a presidential own goal that was. I listened to President Obama this morning. He sounded so implausible that I cannot help but wonder why we British, with hundreds of years of diplomatic experience, appear almost blasé about tagging ourselves to his coattail. Let us just pause at this point and examine where we have failed and where we could have more effectively intervened diplomatically but failed to do so. I am not going to give the House a long list, but I think of Zimbabwe, where for years we virtually ignored the plight of the Matabeles; of Cyprus, where we have long and carelessly abdicated our guarantor responsibilities; and of Northern Ireland, where we subsidise ex-terrorist prisoners at seven times the rate that we compensate the victims of their terror. That is where our Government have failed for so many years now.
I conclude by expressing the hope that my contribution might just help bring a degree of reality to the questions we face. Perhaps at another time we can develop opportunities rather than, like today, trying to build justice on the sands of hopelessness that we would import from Washington.
My Lords, I have never before spoken about foreign policy in this House. I have been here nine years, and whenever I felt the urge to do so, I looked around at the experts in this House and thought better of it. But when I was listening to the messages coming from the Government a couple of days ago, I thought I should come in, stand up and at least be counted and express a view.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, said that he was talking for the man on the Clapham omnibus. Today, I am the woman on the Clapham omnibus. I am not convinced that any military intervention would be to the benefit of the people of Syria, the ordinary people who are suffering in Syria, and I believe that most people in this country feel the same way. I have listened with enormous care to the debate today, and I found it enormously heartening because there were so many moving speeches. I want to mention particularly the noble Lords, Lord Wright of Richmond, Lord Jay of Ewelme, Lord Hurd, Lord Tebbit—I never thought I would say that—and so many others.
I particularly want to pick up on something the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said about the mood music—he used another phrase. It has been getting worse in the past two or three years. Every time Syria has been mentioned by the Government there has been a sort of worsening approach to talking about it, which has made me feel deeply uneasy. I do not know what the outcome of the Syrian civil war will be, but I do know that at this point a blow against that regime is going to be a blow for the opposition. The House of Lords notes give me a list of 15 organisations in that opposition, and half of them I would not want to support. It therefore seems to me that the international community has got to think very carefully about what it does. We say that we cannot allow people to use chemical weapons with impunity and that it is illegal to use them, but in fact we have let other regimes use other weapons with impunity without too much difficulty.
The other words that people use about what the meaning of the strike would be—“retaliation”, “showing them they can’t get away with it”, “punishment” and “vengeance”—form no moral basis for escalating the conflict. It is fanciful to think that the regime will not continue to attack rebel civilians through other means. It would contribute to less safety and less security in that region. We know very well that we cannot change this regime; only the Syrians can do that for themselves. Civil wars have to be sorted out by the community in which they occur. The regime cannot be changed by us—we have demonstrated very clearly that we do not know how to do it in this very difficult region, and we should not be trying to do so in any way, or making any move to support action in that direction. Therefore, I say no to any form of military intervention. Sometimes not to take a legal, offensive way to express our views is the moral thing to do. Sometimes it is more difficult to sit on our hands and say, “No, we must not act”, but that is what we should do.
My Lords, I agree with the vast majority of the opinions that have been expressed in this House tonight. Noble Lords will therefore hope, silently thinking, “Why doesn’t she sit down, then, and we can all go home a little bit sooner?”. Sadly, I am not going to do that. However, I will try to emphasise some of the questions that have been posed to the Government by other speakers and perhaps add some questions of my own. It will be a sort of aide memoire for the Minister when he comes to sum up at the end of the debate.
First, why did the Foreign Secretary immediately attribute the chemical weapon attack on civilians in Damascus to President Assad when no evidence had been presented? Are we to assume that as with the previous Government, conclusions have been drawn and acted upon without the evidence first being gathered and made public? I hope not. Is the intelligence source for recent events in Syria the same source that was used for the allegation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction? What is the significance of the large delegation of Israeli security officials in Washington this week, having talks all week with US National Security adviser Susan Rice? I merely pose the question.
What guarantee can the Government give—many noble Lords have made this point—that they will not make the situation in Syria far worse, without dealing with the stocks of chemical weapons held there? What extra assistance will the Government give to countries surrounding Syria which have already received more than 1.9 million refugees? If we have money to burn, literally, why are we not helping those refugees and spending money within Syria, if we can get it in there, on all those displaced Syrians who have been driven from their homes?
What retaliation is anticipated from Syria and its allies, such as Iran and Hezbollah? What would we do as a country if Israel was attacked? People in the Government of Israel, some of them in the present Government, make Mr Netanyahu look like a pussycat. There are some quite difficult characters there. Is it true that Israel has missile systems supplied by the USA which could deliver nuclear weapons? The noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who is not here at the moment, reminded us of the potential for nuclear war starting in the Middle East, and my noble friend Lady Miller always takes every opportunity to point out the danger of nuclear weapons.
Why has the Geneva II conference not taken place, especially after Russia persuaded Syria to accept the weapons inspectors, and what efforts have been made to reopen communications with George Sabra, the Syrian National Council leader? The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said that we need ferocity of diplomatic action. We do indeed. What efforts have been made to penetrate the Assad regime and try to separate the factions within it? Has any consideration been given to some reports that the chemical attack was misjudged or went wrong in some way? Did President Assad even know that it was taking place? I do not actually share the view that he is a very, very bad man. He may be a very weak man, for all we know. But we do not seem to know.
Finally, I must commend the Government for their determination to take action against a country which has broken international law. We did not do so when Iraq attacked Iran with chemical weapons. We did not do so when Iraq attacked its own people in Halabja. But this time they want to take action. Can we then hope, from now on, that the Government will call to account every country that breaks international law in the future whether or not they are our friends or allies?
My Lords, there is little fresh to be said after so many wise words this afternoon, but sometimes in the retelling an argument gains strength. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the mood of the House today.
There is a ghost in the room. No one can reread Prime Minister Blair’s speech of 10 years ago without recoiling in despair and disbelief. The damage done by that policy makes our current Prime Minster’s task far more difficult. Sadly, our word is no longer accepted in many parts of the world, so if we claim to be acting on behalf of the international community we need to make very sure indeed that the international community believes us.
That brings me to the point made by my noble friend Lord Hill, our Leader, in his very fine opening speech this afternoon. He said that a strike would be solely about chemical weapons, nothing more; we would not be intervening in a civil war. But I fear that that is not how much of the world would see it. We are scarcely a disinterested party in Syria. We have stripped recognition from the Assad Government—or regime, as my noble friend Lord Tebbit would have it. We have openly talked about arming the rebels. No matter what we said, we would be seen as taking sides yet again. If we intervene in the civil war in Syria, we would be stepping ever more irrevocably into that bloody swamp of religion and political and cultural rivalries that, so sadly, is so much of the Middle East.
I do not accept that it is a choice of mounting this air strike or doing nothing. There are non-military alternatives that we really have to explore. We have heard a lot of that this afternoon. There is a new Government of sorts in Iran, and in China. The leaders of the world next week are gathering in Moscow. The weapons inspectors in Syria have not even finished their job. The world would swoon in disbelief if we attacked Syria before any of those other alternatives had been fully explored.
What happened in Syria is truly hideous, but we must resist the temptation to do something simply so that politicians can sleep soundly in their beds having done battle with their consciences. We must be cautious. Remember the lessons of the past that go back not just to Blair but to Suez and before that. I wonder whether our moral compass has been steady enough over the years so that when we drag our consciences through the sand we can expect others to stand up and salute.
We might just spend a little time in sober reflection of the fact that—as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, were talking about earlier—it was we in the West, Britain and the United States, who were the prime military suppliers to the Saddam Hussein regime when he was mounting appalling chemical attacks on Iran. I wonder whether, if we at least acknowledged that fact, it might open some of those closed doors in Tehran. While we are talking about Iran, I also wonder whether, if we strike Syria because of its chemical weapons, it means that we have to support Israel if it strikes Iran because of its nuclear capabilities. The consequences of what we do in Syria can never be confined to Syria.
I have spoken before in this House about Syria. It is late in the evening. I commend the Government for their caution and want to see very much more of it. I wish the Prime Minister and his advisers wisdom and patience and I wish the people of Syria peace.
My Lords, it is with a heavy heart that I rise today. As so many of your Lordships have remarked, the tragic situation in Syria deserves the most extreme condemnation from all nations. I am saddened by the willingness of certain groups in this country, the United States and Europe to advocate military action to punish whoever in their view is responsible for recent transgressions. To witness evil and not to fight is not credible, yet to set oneself up as judge, jury and executioner over another sovereign territory is to assume an arrogance that itself cannot be condoned. The notion that those who have the military power should intervene in others’ disputes at their own discretion could have potentially dangerous consequences, especially in regions such as south Asia. The defence of human rights, if it is sincere, is commendable, but it must be authorised by proper international procedures and sustained by wide international support if it is to be credible.
In this instance, even those who do not have an in-depth knowledge of the Syrian conflict are aware that layer upon layer of sectarianism, ethnic conflicts, tribal wars and other hatreds have been unleashed. Jumping into this turmoil seems at the very least to be lacking in wisdom and failing to recall the recent lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our international reputation is not enhanced by appearing to be trigger-happy. So many other western interventions in non-western areas since the Second World War have been disasters, such as in Vietnam, Algeria, Suez, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt, to name but a few. In these days of our own internal difficulties, we do not need more. There are many other methods—from sanctions and indirect assistance to evoking international law—that can be pursued. Let the cauldron boil if it must, but let us not voluntarily get burnt by plunging into it.
People to whom I talk, particularly in the developing nations, cannot understand why we keep taking it on ourselves to intervene in other countries’ issues. We must not forget the heavy cost in terms of those in our own armed services who lose their lives or suffer terrible injuries in these conflicts and whose families are so affected. I pay tribute to all the brave service men and women who sacrifice so much.
Finally, let us remember one sad message of history. There is no such thing as a short Middle East war. Once you are in it, you are in for a long and brutal ride. The proposed conflict fills me with a deep sense of foreboding. That is why I urge the Government to practise restraint and beware of becoming an instrument of the confrontational arrogance of others.
My Lords, it has been a privilege to hear the speeches that we have heard today, based on a rich variety of experience and introduced by my noble friend the Leader of the House: the military reality from the noble Lords, Lord Dannatt and Lord West of Spithead; diplomatic experience from the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond; and political sense from my noble friend the Marquis of Lothian. It is clear that we have cause to be thankful that Parliament was not invited today to approve direct military action against Syria, which, we are told, could have happened as early as this Sunday—in three days’ time. I am sorry to have to say this, but to me it is amazing and disquieting that until 36 hours ago the Foreign Secretary was speaking in just those terms—immediate action—and that the Prime Minister, apparently supported by the Deputy Prime Minister, was planning to move such a Motion today. How could this be, to vote on the issue before the United Nations weapons inspectors have even reported? We are, it seems, indebted to the leader of the Opposition that such a vote has been deferred until next week. To have voted now to unleash the missiles would have been a ghastly mistake with incalculable consequences, as a number of noble Lords have indicated. Let us be profoundly thankful that so far it has been avoided.
Have we in Britain learnt nothing? We conspired with France to generate the Suez debacle in 1956 and we invaded the wrong country—Iraq—in 2003 in the aftermath of the al-Qaeda attack of 9/11 on New York. Now it is proposed to bomb Syria to,
“restore international peace and security”,
to use the appropriate wording. Thank heaven that we have not yet done so, with the risk of total instability in the Near East and with the Israel/Palestine question never far from the surface.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, reminded us that the motivations of the United Kingdom do not always seem so noble to foreign eyes. My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean pointed out that shock and awe do not always win friends. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, expertly explained how a legal case might be made for military action against Syria in the absence of a Security Council resolution, but is military action in the form of missile strikes what we really want? Surely now is the time for fresh diplomatic initiatives. If the Security Council is blocked by a veto from doing or discussing anything, what about the General Assembly of the United Nations? A number of noble Lords have referred to Resolution 377 in 1950 for Korea and the Uniting for Peace resolution, an approach that might be used more constructively than generating cruise missile strikes. There has to be a better way to make effective the world’s abhorrence of gas warfare and I hope that the Government can find it before the proposed second Motion in Parliament next week.
My Lords, history is littered with examples of military interventions that did not work out as planned. We know from experience that things can end up worse than before. Experience also tells us that, if you have no strategy for what happens next, you should avoid intervening. The desire to respond to the atrocities in Syria is entirely understandable, but that response should be based on firm evidence, with international backing for action and with an outcome that can be predicted with a reasonable degree of certainty. The outcome of any intervention must be better, not worse, for the people of Syria. It has to save lives and shorten the civil war, not create a wider conflict in the Middle East. It is difficult to see how a military intervention will achieve any of these objectives.
The Leader of the House said earlier that the Government were right to be cautious, but I am not sure that they have been. I was puzzled earlier this week by the talk of the possible recall of Parliament, since the House of Commons is back next Monday anyway. What was the reason for the rush? We have to conclude that a decision in principle for imminent military action had already been made, without giving time for the UN to report. The timetable for such a course of action is very hard to understand. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will explain the timing when he replies. The UN inspection team needs a few days to complete its work and the Security Council needs the opportunity to consider its findings. What is the point of our involvement with the UN if we are not prepared to listen to its evidence and opinions? The UN Secretary-General said yesterday that we should give peace a chance. He is right. Military strikes will inevitably extend the conflict.
This debate has been constructive and detailed and has demonstrated that the reasons for intervention are unclear. Perhaps the Minister will explain in replying why the Government wish to intervene in the way that they propose. Is it just to punish the Syrian Government? If so, how will the action undertaken be a punishment? Is it to destroy chemical weapons stockpiles? It seems not. Is it to deliver regime change? It seems not. Is it to shorten the civil war? That might be the aim, but the danger is that it will lengthen it and extend its area. Is it simply a humanitarian intervention? If so, how will it prevent a further use of chemical weapons? Without people on the ground, which the Government have rightly ruled out, how will the humanitarian intervention work?
Unless the Government are much clearer about their aims and about the outcome that they want, military action will not help. It will make things worse. We should be influenced by the number of military experts, including noble Lords in this Chamber, who are counselling against intervention. We should be influenced by the fact that a majority of people in the UK are against intervention. We should be influenced by the need for the evidence of complicity by the Syrian Government to be irrefutable; we need better evidence than that it is highly likely that they were complicit at a senior level.
We also need to consider the potential role of the new Government of Iran. A number of speakers in your Lordships’ House today talked about this. Iranians have suffered the use of chemical weapons on their country and could play a much more central diplomatic role in the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria.
There is no consensus in the UK for military intervention and no consensus internationally, either. Yes, we have a duty to protect, but we also have a duty to think about all the possible unintended consequences. Many speakers today said that it was time to engage with Russia, China and Iran at a political and diplomatic level, and I agree absolutely. That is not an argument for doing nothing, but an argument for doing something that can build peace and security in Syria and in the wider Middle East.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the very instructive contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I speak today because I am deeply alarmed about possible military intervention in Syria. I am pleased to see that the Labour leader’s intervention has enabled a pause for us to consider further options and wait for the UN inspections.
The pronouncement by our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that a military strike could be allowed under international law without agreement in the UN Security Council has rightly been questioned in many quarters. The brutal and unjust war in Iraq must be echoing through the minds of many in our country and elsewhere in the world. It seems that we have failed to learn the lessons of our aggressive misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. We all witnessed the result of shock and awe. It meant that innocent men, women and children died. They were blown to smithereens by our own lethal weapons. The pictures of this were blanked out on our screens. We have surely caused evil to rise from every corner of the latent globe. The entire region is ablaze. This will cost the world economy dearly, and will leave Iraq and Afghanistan totally fractured and without any sign of stability, let alone peace and justice.
Our silence on many occasions is deafening to the cry for freedom of many oppressed people in the region. Many Muslim countries and communities I have visited say that it is all too clear to them where and why we have chosen to defend some regimes while turning the other way when demonstrators are crushed and military coups replace elected Governments. Many say that this belies any talk of protecting rights, freedoms and human life. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that more military intervention will inevitably radicalise many.
There are three obvious bases for any military action: a UN mandate, self defence and responsibility to protect against crimes against humanity, assuming that all peaceful means have failed. In this case, a UN mandate may be blocked by the Security Council. On self defence, I have yet to hear a strong argument that Britain is directly at threat from Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Responsibility to protect requires clear and convincing evidence of what has taken place and who is responsible for what.
I ask the Government: where is that evidence? Where has it come from? What is the source? The UN Secretary-General said yesterday that we need to give diplomacy a chance and allow the inspectorate to produce its report. There seems to be an overwhelming consensus, at least in this House, to wait for that report. Can the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will await the UN report before any action is taken? The drive behind our proposed plans for a strike is focused on the responsibility to protect. That is hugely controversial, as has been said by the noble Lords, Lord Wright, Lord Jay and Lord West, among many other distinguished speakers. The arguments so far presented are flawed in their very inception. We need to allow the UN inspectors to do their jobs and to wait for their analysis.
Punitive strikes will have massive casualties. President Obama’s shot across the bows has clearly stated shortcomings. BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen remarked that a limited strike would represent merely a pinprick to the infrastructure of the Assad regime. Surely we already know the consequences of our attacks on the Iraqi civilian population.
Having heard today’s debate, I am confident that we will not allow our Government to add to the numbers of innocent children lying dead and dying. Furthermore, it would be likely to destabilise an already complex dynamic in the region. There is every possibility that such a strike could result in the unleashing of retaliation and counter-retaliation from a range of actors in the region: Iran, Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah, as has been mentioned. As for further intervention to prevent humanitarian catastrophes, the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and others have said that we are already too late. Any such move by France, Britain, the US or its regional neighbours will not stop the two-year ongoing civil war in Syria, but will certainly exacerbate it and lead to greater casualties on all sides.
Twice in the last century, after the First and Second World Wars, there was a major reshaping of the Middle East. This was done not in the interests of the people of the region but of the imperial powers and interests. The West’s ability to learn from those poor judgments has proved negligible, while the propensity to repeat those mistakes continues. Sobbing morality does not wish away the grievous and continuous impact on the present-day Middle East. We have watched Syria’s innocent dying for two years, and in a week that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech I reflect on the line:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
Today, our House has spoken. It is correct that we should do everything in our power to end the terrible suffering in the region. However, it is vital that our action must be legitimate, with clearly stated objectives. Those responsible for the poison gas attack of 21 August in Ghouta must be brought to justice sooner or later at the hands of a free, democratic Syria. I hope that we will take heed of the UN inspectors and their findings, and then return to Parliament to decide the next step.
My Lords, six and a half hours ago, my noble friend the Leader stood up to launch this debate and made a series of very interesting statements, of which four stuck in my memory at that time and have haunted me through the day.
First, my noble friend said that there were 3,600 hospital cases after the attack and 350 dead, but he did not say whether the 3,600 were all injured by the same condition that killed the other 350, because it was not defined whether all the injuries were caused by chemical attack or by blast bombs. He went on to say that there had been a series of attacks of artillery and mortar fire during the hours that followed but did not give an explanation.
Then we heard, thrillingly, from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, who I thought teetered on the edge of one of the most spectacular confessions in the history of television but then fell back from it. I thought for a moment that he was going to give us the reason for the artillery attack, which was of course to keep the television cameras out while they arranged the bodies of the children for the cameras to come in. I am sure that this is what has been going on.
My noble friend the Leader went on to say that there was no substance to any allegations made against the rebels for having done the attack because there was no evidence of any weapons. If my noble friend the Leader would like to put £20 on the table, I will match it with another £20 and we will toss which one of us goes to Waitrose tomorrow and which one to Sainsbury’s, and we will come back with the entire ingredients required to make enough ricin to wipe out the entire attendance in the House of Lords today, which reached a peak of 232—very similar to the 350 who were dead. He could always keep it of course and put it away in reserve for the day when he gets tired of his job and decides to abolish the House of Lords. This is a very easy construction; there is no massive secrecy about how to make this darned stuff. In fact, an author called Felix Francis, the son of the racing novelist, Dick Francis, has written a book in which he has very helpfully published the recipe for making ricin and provided the entire cooking instructions. It is available for about £2 and any terrorist can buy a copy of it.
I was first introduced to the whole question of this self-made device by Dr David Kelly when he was assigned to me by the SIS back in April 1989 when I had to research, identify and locate the components of the Iraqi supergun, which was initially thought to be for the delivery of poison gas. Dr Kelly explained to me very helpfully that it could not have been, because the diameter of the gun required what would have amounted to a 1 tonne shell. That was far too big for the successful and efficient distribution of nerve gas, which had to come in smaller shells because it dissipates so quickly after impact.
In these cases, we open up a whole host of questions which we need to urge upon the United Nations inspectors. We really need them to get this one put down. If we have 232 people in this Chamber today, they have been contained within an area of 3,400 square feet. We have been tightly packed but comfortable. If there were 3,600 injuries, as the Leader has said, we should be looking at 10 times that space to accommodate the gathering of people who were injured. However, if there were only 350 dead, it is inconsistent with the use of nerve gas across that whole level, because the whole impact of that nerve gas would spread out and kill most of the 3,600, so there are not enough dead to make sense in the figures that were given by the Leader.
We need the United Nations to provide us with a map of where the bodies were as accurately as it can. It could start off by buying 3,600 white-headed pins and putting one pin in the map of the area to show exactly where everybody was. After that, could it then please substitute red pins for the people who were killed by nerve gas and everything else so that we finally end up being able to see what has happened? At the end of the day, my money is very firmly on the fact that the rebels did it and not Mr Assad. We should pursue this one, otherwise we are going to be the biggest Pazzis in history in falling for this, and it is wrong.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the House for the knowledgeable and detailed debate we have had. It reflects the complexity of the circumstances on the ground—the facts; the assessment of the possible consequences of anything we do; and, indeed, the ethical issues. Winding up for the Official Opposition obviously and rightly leads me to express my conviction that the amendment being considered in the House of Commons today in the name of the leader of the Opposition is the right approach. The very stark balance that we have heard in the debate in this House probably suggests that everybody has the same sense of caution before proceeding rapidly. That is not party political; it is just serious people thinking very hard about what we should do.
We are dealing with an appalling crime. It is plain from the undisputed evidence available that a large number of people have been savagely murdered with poison gas—babies, children, women and men, dying in convulsions. Of course, it is true, as colleagues in this House have pointed out, that 100,000 have already died from a variety of causes. But that is not in itself a reason to blunt or dim our revulsion. No tyranny should be able to act with impunity. The Attorney-General is certainly right to say that he has no doubt that this is a war crime—a crime against humanity. Of course, such crimes against civilians can be committed with a wide variety of weapons, not only gas, but it is a war crime.
The United Kingdom claims no special rights in arriving at such a judgment. We are part of an international system. We share our responsibility with others around the world and that is why we helped to seek the weapons inspection by the United Nations. Our special responsibility, if we have one, is to look at ourselves candidly—at whether we are meeting the exacting standards of our own making—before we ask anything of others, especially our exceptional Armed Forces. This House will want to get it right.
The attacks in Ghouta reawaken a horror that has stalked us for well over a century. I believe that it takes a very particular kind of dictator to gas his own people. That poses the question of how we should proceed. For a start, we must proceed with absolute clarity on the facts. Our judgments must be based on the facts. There should be no moves in the dark or with inconclusive information. Many noble Lords rightly start with the fundamental understanding that action has its consequences. Only a liar or a fool will say that they know exactly what those consequences will be. Inaction has consequences that are as profound. Whatever we decide, we should be in no doubt that this dictator and others will conclude that they can use any weapon, however venal, if it carries no consequence for them. If, as in Syria, a tyrannical ruler with a tyrannical army is overstretched militarily, these weapons might become a cheap and deadly alternative to using other kinds of force.
We need a proper sequence to arrive at a decision. The watchwords to guide us towards credible decisions are “proof” and “legitimacy”. In my view, the people of the United Kingdom will accept nothing else. First, the evidence from the United Nations inspectors must be presented and assessed. Ban Ki-Moon is right to demand it. Were proscribed weapons used? What is the compelling evidence that is available about perpetrators? The evidence is plainly growing but it has to be assembled and assessed properly. The Government were at risk of moving well ahead of having the evidence that they would need—that we would all need—to feel that there was a compelling case.
Secondly, the United Nations must be taken seriously and treated with respect, even if it sometimes disappoints gravely. It must explore all sensible options; many suggestions have been made in this Chamber today. The United Nations, however, cannot be treated as a sideshow.
Thirdly, the legal justifications must be clear. I wish to emphasise what was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in their forensic approach—mixing, it is true, both law and doing the right thing but none the less setting out what those criteria should be. It is also clear, and I want to be clear, that in a United Nations context Russia cannot dictate the international decisions in this matter. Of course it is better to approach them diplomatically, but a veto cannot necessarily be the final word in these circumstances.
Fourthly, the strategic aims must be explicit. What intervention is contemplated and what aims will they be said to have served? We need evidence-based decisions in all these areas. I am afraid that the Government have yet to make their case and the House has said that forcefully over the long hours of today. They must go further in what they have to say, and I advise that they do not do it in a rush but that they do it soon, because a febrile atmosphere can be dissipated only by a timely response.
The alternatives must be included in that evaluation—alternatives which have been suggested in this House and elsewhere. The evidence itself does not dictate the options and the judgments that should be reached—judgments on regional balances, consequences for minorities and so on. A wide variety of matters of all kinds must be considered. Evidence will tell us how safe our footing is, but then comes the political judgment of what will make the lot of the Syrian people better and also what is required in our response to war crimes. Those are both responsibilities.
Finally, we should not downrate the importance of the responsibility to protect. This addition to the 2005 millennium conference at the United Nations in which some of us were involved was a huge advance for the United Nations and I am proud that the United Kingdom was a decisive part-author of that development. The tests of action and of what kinds of action can be taken only when we have taken every sensible rational step to establish the facts and the evidence. That is what we owe our country and the international community.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for that extremely constructive speech, and by saying that this is very much an area in which the Government are looking for the widest possible consensus across the parties. I have spent much of the past two days working within the coalition on making sure that we have an agreed position. Perhaps I can say that one of the many areas in which this is not another Iraq is that we have been going through a very carefully constructed series of discussions and consultations within the Government. As the Opposition Front Bench will also know, there have been a series of discussions with the Opposition to try to make sure that everyone is as closely as involved as possible and that the information is exchanged as broadly as possible. Therefore, in all sorts of ways this is not Iraq 2.0.
This has been a take note debate, so of course the first thing I should say is that we will take note of the very many concerned and cautious speeches that we have heard in the course of the past few hours. The mood has been very sober and very concerned, although some noble Lords have perhaps not followed the newspapers as well as they might have. As I will come on to say later, the suggestion that we ought to try the diplomatic track appears to ignore the enormous efforts the Government have been putting in in recent months. As we have heard tonight, the shadow of Iraq falls over all our discussions.
I will stress one obvious thing. One or two noble Lords have talked about a unilateral operation. This would in no sense be a unilateral operation. Indeed, a number of other Governments have asked if they might be included in the operation, and the levels of support are large for some response to this clear breach of international law. The Arab League has condemned it and a number of other Governments have condemned it; the Turks have been very clear and the European Union has been very clear—this is not the sort of position in which we found ourselves in March 2003. We have a much broader coalition and much clearer evidence. Much of that evidence is open evidence. A lot more is in widespread diplomatic telegrams of not particularly high classification. The regime is thought to have used chemical weapons in much smaller quantities on somewhere between 10 and 14 previous occasions. On some of these, there appears to be sufficient evidence to report them to the United Nations.
What was different about this intervention was that it was on a much larger scale. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said in his opening speech, there were attacks on 11 different locations in the Damascus area. That is very hard to cover up. It also suggests that it is unlikely to have been an operation conducted by a junior officer on his own. It was clearly conducted by a large series of simultaneous operations, suggesting a senior command structure, and it was conducted in Damascus, close to the central command structure of the regime. Of course, it is possible that we may discover that President Assad was not previously informed, but this is not a rogue incident that happened in Aleppo, Homs or somewhere else; it happened in 11 different locations in Damascus. That suggests that we have much stronger evidence, not a dodgy dossier of the sort that one or two noble Lords have suggested that this might again be.
The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, asked what chemical was used. All the evidence we have suggests that it was diluted sarin, which is one of the many chemicals banned by the chemical weapons convention, but as she will know, the chemical weapons convention bans the use of all poisonous chemical agents in warfare or conflict of this sort.
There is compelling evidence, and more compelling evidence will be presented as the UN inspectors provide what will be a preliminary report. I again remind the House that the inspectors have not been asked to attribute responsibility; they were asked simply to confirm that chemical weapons have been used. The scale of this chemical weapons attack suggests something that is way beyond the capacity of the opposition to have conducted. The projectiles used were those that no one has any evidence that the opposition has access to, and the attacks were made on opposition-controlled areas. Therefore, the very strong probability is that this was an Assad-regime attack and that it was ordered by people relatively high up within the current regime.
On the legality, we have heard a number of very expert speeches, in particular that of the former Attorney-General, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, who rightly said that we have to include a large number of considerations, including that force should be used only as a last resort. That picks up what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said about the just war doctrine. There are occasions when one has to use force, but one should be extremely cautious about how one approaches it. That is the approach that the Government are taking.
The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, suggested that perhaps chemical weapons were all over Syria and might therefore be in the hands of the opposition. We have seen no credible evidence or reporting that any terrorist group in Syria has acquired regime chemical weapons stocks.
Given their very wide spread, it is very likely that to control them in some way you would have to have boots on the ground.
So far as we know, the weapons are still well controlled by the regime, and one of our expectations is that if there are indications that the regime is losing control of them, the Russians as well as others will be very concerned about that loss of control.
A number of noble Lords have talked about punishment. I regret that one or two of our American allies have used the word “punishment”. The intention is deterrence, not punishment. The intention is a limited and proportionate response that will deter the regime from thinking that it can use chemical weapons again. The risk of inaction, about which my noble friend Lord Ashdown and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, have also spoken is that if we do nothing the regime is likely to assume that it can use chemical weapons again, and in larger quantities if it wishes. The argument, therefore, for a limited, carefully calibrated and proportionate response is to say, “Thus far and no further”.
My Lords, can the noble Lord help us? It would be very helpful if he said what sort of form this limited and proportionate intervention might take.
For very obvious reasons, I am not able to say that. I am privy only to some of the discussions that have taken place on this, but I can assure him that the intervention would not be aimed at command structures. Someone suggested that we want to take out the President himself or, indeed, that it would be aimed at chemical weapons stocks. For very obvious reasons—
How does my noble friend square the statement that we are not bent on regime change when the Government do not recognise the regime?
My Lords, in a limited operation you do not attempt to go for regime change. Perhaps I may go on to my next point. We are of course all concerned to learn the lessons of Iraq. Disastrously, our American allies dismantled the entire structure of the state and the armed forces when they went into Iraq. The reason why we are all attempting to achieve transition in Syria is that we maintain as much as we can of the current state and social structure. We are all aware that to allow the Assad regime to collapse altogether would be to risk chaos following. That is why we have been pursuing, through Geneva I and, we hope, the Geneva II conference, proposals for some form of agreed transition in which—with, we hope, the help of Russia and others—some members of the regime would be removed but which some of the officials within the current regime would help to manage. We are not, therefore, attempting to promote that sort of disastrous regime change.
My Lords, I am somewhat confused because the noble Lord is talking about a strategic strike in which nothing would really happen to change regimes. Now he is talking about what the Government are trying to do to ensure a proper transition. The two things do not really go together and I am slightly alarmed as well as confused.
My Lords, there are of course unavoidable links between any military intervention and the much broader issue: how can we help to provide a secure and more stable future for Syria? However, moving on to the second diplomatic track, we have been engaged for the past year in attempting to promote a broader political transition in Syria. That was the purpose of the Geneva I conference and part of the purpose whereby we have been working with the Syrian National Council, now the Syrian national coalition, which would recognise—
My Lords, first, can the Minister tell me, in the event of this strike in some form being made, and there is a repetition of the use of chemical weapons, what do we do then? Clearly the Government must have thought this through. Secondly, can he tell me when the Government in Damascus became the regime? Thirdly, can he explain a little more of what he has just said about the efforts that the Government have been making to achieve regime change? I had not understood that we were in the business of bringing down the regime and replacing it.
My Lords, there is a civil war in Syria. So far, 100,000 people have been killed and 2 million people are refugees outside Syria. The society and economy of Syria are in the process of being destroyed, which requires the international community to try to resolve the situation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The whole House has great respect for him but I feel that he has rather missed the mood of the Chamber today. He says that 100,000 people have been killed already. Can he give us the Government’s estimate of how many more people might be killed if we engage in a strike against Syria?
My Lords, if we are engaged in a strike on Syria it will be limited and very deliberately targeted, and not intended to cause any significant number of casualties. We are attempting to deter further chemical attacks. We are also attempting to defend the principle of international law. Let me say to those who say that it does not matter how you are killed, by whatever weapons, there are differences. The international community and international law have outlawed weapons of mass destruction. Chemical weapons have been illegal internationally since 1925. That is a red line and if we do not support the principle that using chemical weapons either against your own people or against members of another state is different, we are simply allowing that major principle of international law to decay. That is the principle with which we are engaged. At the same time, we and others, including the Arab League, the World Muslim Council, the European Union, and many others are working to try to resolve the situation and the conflict in Syria.
I was amazed to hear from a number of people the question: why do we not pay more attention to the diplomatic channel? Why has the Geneva II conference not yet taken place? We had hoped that the second Geneva conference would take place this July, and the Russians did their best to delay it. We hoped then that it would take place in September; we now hope that it may take place in November. The level of diplomatic activity in which Her Majesty’s Government have been engaged in the past few months has been enormous. I was in the Foreign Office yesterday reading transcripts of conversations with heads of government, foreign secretaries and others from 20 or more different Governments, ranging from Japan, to Russia, to Australia and to the United Arab Emirates. We are actively working on the diplomatic track. Unfortunately, we have not found much support from our colleagues in Russia or very much support from the Chinese, although the Chinese Government have condemned officially the use of chemical weapons. The diplomatic track is our preferred option, and we are working on it. The use of force is a last resort to be used only if other methods break down.
Before the Minister leaves the diplomatic issues, today’s debate is about Syria and the use of chemical weapons. I wonder whether the Minister can enlighten me. It seems to me that today the Government, when talking about Syria and the use of chemical weapons, have concentrated almost exclusively on the question of military force. When the Government have been talking about diplomatic means, they have talked about the transition from civil war to a new regime. Perhaps he can tell us a little more about the diplomatic measures that have been taken to address the question of chemical weapons, ratification, signature and mobilising the 189 countries, including Russia and Iran, which are liable to be more sympathetic to that issue than to regime change, into putting pressure on the regime. In short, what diplomatic measures are being taken to address the question of chemical weapons rather than regime change?
My Lords, we have also been discussing the chemical weapons question with the Russians. To my knowledge, as of late this afternoon they had not accepted that it was the Syrian Government who were responsible for the use of chemical weapons, so there are real problems there.
Does that mean that the answer to my question is, “None”, and that, for whatever reason, there has been no diplomatic initiative—as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, and me—around the Chemical Weapons Convention and the mobilisation of international opinion to put pressure on the Assad regime to address the question through diplomacy? If there has been, will the Minister tell us about it, as this debate is about chemical weapons rather than regime change?
My Lords, there has not been action within the Chemical Weapons Convention. As the noble Lord knows, Syria is not a member of the convention and we did not have the sense that the other members of the P5—the Russians and the Chinese—would support a move down the Chemical Weapons Convention road at this stage. However, I will take the noble Lord’s point back into the discussions that are continuing.
A number of noble Lords mentioned that there might be much to be gained by conversations with Iran. There are contacts with Iran, which helpfully condemned the use of chemical weapons. We all understand that the Iranians suffered very badly from these weapons in the past. However, the Iranian regime is very complex, and dealing with it is very difficult. It will take some time to make much progress in that direction.
I am conscious of the time. I will rapidly talk a little about our humanitarian response. I can confirm that the United Kingdom is providing very substantial humanitarian assistance as far as possible—although this is difficult—both to those displaced within Syria and to the very large number of refugees outside Syria. We expect to maintain and increase that further.
I was struck by the contributions of a number of noble Lords who talked about the growing scepticism about western leadership, and whether we now have to accept that others will help provide leadership in maintaining a stable and lawful international system. That is a much broader question than that of tonight’s debate. It suggests an interesting shift in elite British thinking, and I suspect that we will return to talking about the implications for British foreign policy in future.
I wonder whether the Minister will enlighten the House. In the light of the fact that in the past few minutes the House of Commons has defeated the Government Motion, what is plan B?
My Lords, it is very kind of the noble Lord to ask me to respond three minutes after that happened. I am sure that plan B is to consider the situation. We will continue to discuss with a wide range of international partners the possibilities and implications of these circumstances.
The Minister started off by saying that this was not Iraq II. He then spoke about the 10 to 14 times that this had happened before. According to the report, it has happened exactly 14 times. The Minister then said that we do not know whether it was a senior or junior officer, and then that it could be, should be, possibly was or must have been a senior officer. The preliminary report talked of a strong possibility. Then came the phrase, “as far as we know”. We have heard from many noble Lords who spoke in the debate on Iraq 10 years ago, when there was a two to one majority against going into Iraq. The Government at the time did not listen. Now the majority is nine or more to one. Why did the Government want to rush in last week with all these uncertainties? That is what we find very difficult to understand.
My Lords, briefly, when a clear breach of international law has taken place, there is a very delicate calculation about how rapidly you respond or how long you should wait until the evidence is entirely clear. If you wait too long, it becomes impossible to respond. Of course you do not rush in immediately, but you should, as we have done, at least indicate rapidly that you intend to respond and that you do not intend to let it pass unnoticed.
My Lords, forgive me; I know that the Minister wishes to wind up and it is somewhat unfair to put him on the spot. However, to follow up the question from my noble friend Lord Robertson, I realise that the government Motion has only very recently been defeated but I would hope that the Government already had a plan B in mind when they took the substantive Motion to the Commons this afternoon. It is clear that at some point in the very near future the Government will have to come back to the House of Commons to explain what action if any they will now advise to the House of Commons. I therefore ask the Minister and the Leader of the House this: in the vacuum that seems to exist at the moment and the great concern that has been expressed this afternoon, I would hope that when the Prime Minister comes back to the House of Commons to report on his future action, this House also will be recalled so that we, too, can debate the future action.
I note the noble Baroness’s request. Perhaps I may say that, as I understand it, both the amendment and the Motion were defeated in the Commons, so we are now perhaps in a state of consensual confusion on this across the parties.
We have before us a range of very serious issues. First, international law and international convention have clearly been broken. Secondly, we have active consultation with a range of Governments around the world about how we contain the increasingly bitter Syrian conflict. I know that my colleagues the Ministers have been discussing with a range of other Governments, including the Russians and the members of the Arab League, how we might now convene the Geneva II conference. It is certainly my hope that we will manage to reconvene the Geneva II conference as soon as possible.
That takes us to the broader issue of the future of the Middle East as a whole and our relations with the Muslim world, a subject that one or two noble Lords have touched on. That is a very broad subject, which we have discussed in this House on one or two occasions this year. We all need to pay very considerable—
Before my noble friend sits down, let me say that I think that it is rather unfair to ask him about what the Government are going to do in consequence of the votes in the other place this evening. However, I think that it was also rather unfair of him not to tell me whether there was a plan for what to do if we did take military action and there was another incident of the use of chemical weapons. Is there a plan for that? Is he privy to it, even if he cannot tell us what it is?
My Lords, I am not privy to the full military plans of the Government, but if I were I would not be able to tell him on the Floor of the House. What I can tell him is that inaction also has consequences. We are talking in particular to the Russian Government, who appear to be concerned as the scale of this chemical weapons attack becomes clearer. We hope that the diplomatic track may become easier as the seriousness of what happened in Damascus on 21 August becomes clearer to a range of other Governments. In all of these the use of force itself is—and I end on this—a last resort. Our preference is always for the diplomatic track. However, we have to bear in mind that international law and international conventions are to be observed and supported.
Forgive me, but I have just been informed by my noble friends that the Prime Minister has in fact reacted in the House of Commons to the defeat of both the government Motion and the amendment laid by my right honourable friend the leader of the Opposition. As we are sitting, I wonder if it might be apposite to call for us to adjourn at pleasure, just for 10 minutes, so that perhaps the Minister or the Leader could report on what the Prime Minister has said in the other place.
My Lords, I understand that Mr Miliband posed a question to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister as to the impact of both the defeats tonight—each of the Motions was lost. I understand that the challenge was whether my right honourable friend the Prime Minister would give an undertaking that he would not override the will of the House, and I believe that he has given that undertaking. There is a rolling Hansard, and I suggest that that is something that will be finalised with the Hansard tomorrow.
I think that it is impossible for the Government to deliver what the noble Baroness is asking for, which is to find out exactly what was said in the Commons and, within a matter of time, report it here. Certainly those who have been using their iPads and the modern technology that that gives, including the Clerk of the Parliaments, have been following proceedings in another place. Our proceedings are here. It is very fair for the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition to ask what next steps may be made. I can only say what the Prime Minister has said currently in another place. Clearly, I suspect that there may be other developments tomorrow. However, that is my understanding as it currently stands—that the Prime Minister will consider the matters as they have developed in the Commons.
My Lords, perhaps I may press the noble Baroness a little further. I understand that today the State Department said that it was not concerned or would not be deterred in any way in deciding what it was going to do by what this Parliament decided. The consequence of that may well be, therefore, that the United States may take action quite soon. Indeed, there were suggestions that that might happen this weekend. For that reason, and because the House has been recalled—it is more of an emergency for this House because it was not due to sit next week—it would be enormously helpful to know what might happen next and what involvement this House might have in it. That is why I would certainly support the suggestion of my noble friend for at least a short adjournment to see whether there is a plan B and whether the government Front Bench can advise the House on what that plan B is.
Asking us to provide a full sketch of a plan B at 23.00 on a Thursday night is not possible. I am of course not privy to what the Americans may or may not be planning. We all take what is being said on the opposition Benches under consideration, but at the moment we cannot predict what will happen over the next few days.
My Lords, I have no wish to make life more difficult for the Government when they are already in a rather difficult position, but I really do think that, given the wisdom we have heard from both the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition and from other speakers, it might be worth while for this House to take a 10-minute break. If there is no news to deliver, that is fine, but a 10-minute break is a sacrifice we could make to our sleep if it would give us some clarification on what should come next. I find it quite difficult to believe that we cannot find some news to deliver to the House in that time.
Perhaps I may assist my noble friend because obviously I did not explain myself clearly enough on the first occasion. A short adjournment tonight would achieve no more than I have been able to give the House to assist it with the general statements that have been made by the Prime Minister in another place. My right honourable friend has given an undertaking and no more is being said in another place. Therefore, there is no more to be reported at this stage. This House has made its views very clear and very cogently and another place has done so too. This is a Take Note Motion. The noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition wishes to engage in a requirement that we should make commitments now to recall the House in certain circumstances. I do not postulate on the unknown; I deal with the known. All colleagues know that when I give my word, I keep it. I have listened today and I have taken note. My word is always that this House should have an opportunity to contribute its views. It has done that today. I suggest that we should now conclude our proceedings and continue to consider the result of everything in both Houses today.
My Lords, I think it is time to conclude the proceedings. If I could assist the House further, I would do so. I invite the Lord Speaker to conclude our proceedings.
My Lords, this is a matter of a military operation. It is a matter of potential life and death. It is a matter on which both Houses were recalled. I would like the Government to explain this, but from my reading of it, the House of Commons has voted against an in-principle decision to have military action and against a conditional decision to have military action. When the Prime Minister said, “I will act accordingly”, we are surely entitled to know what that means.
We are asking for a 10-minute interval. We are not asking for a plan B or the plans of the US Department of State, but we are asking what the Prime Minister understands of tonight’s vote when he says, “I will act accordingly”. If there is no clarity after 10 minutes, the noble Baroness can tell us that there is no clarity. But it would be difficult to accept the Prime Minister’s statement, assuredly, that he will act accordingly if we are told that he has no idea what that means.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Reid, is inviting me to give this House an opportunity which the House of Commons does not have. That House has accepted the words of the Prime Minister and adjourned. I find it difficult that this House now questions whether the Prime Minister’s words should be examined further by this House at this hour.
If another place has accepted what the Prime Minister has said, short of bringing the Prime Minister here I do not see what further way I can adopt to assist the House. Whereas that may be a novel procedure that this House may wish to adopt in the future—I do not wish to be flippant because this is such a serious matter—much as I do my best to help this House it would be a little unusual if we were to adjourn to interrogate the Prime Minister when his words have been accepted by the leader of the Opposition in another place.
It is time. We have taken note. We have made our views heard very cogently in both Houses. It is time.
House adjourned at 10.53 pm.