My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place:
“Mr Speaker, I would like to start by saying that I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Tonroe from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who was killed by an improvised explosive device on 29 March. Sergeant Tonroe was embedded with US forces on a counter-Daesh operation. He served his country with great distinction and it is clear he was a gifted and intelligent instructor who was respected by everyone he served with. Sergeant Tonroe fought to protect British values and our freedoms, and to keep this country safe.
With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the actions that we have taken, together with our American and French allies, to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capabilities and to deter their future use.
On Saturday 7 April, up to 70 people, including young children, were killed in a horrific attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties. All indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack. UK medical and scientific experts have analysed open-source reports, images and video footage from the incident and have concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic chemical. This is corroborated by first-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers.
The World Health Organization received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian heath facilities on Saturday night with,
‘signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals’.
Based on our assessment, we do not think that these reports could be falsified on this scale. Furthermore, the Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area. A wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians.
The images of this suffering are utterly haunting—innocent families, seeking shelter in underground bunkers, found dead with foam in their mouths, burns to their eyes and their bodies surrounded by a chlorine-like odour, and children gasping for life as chemicals choked their lungs. The fact that such an atrocity can take place in our world today is a stain on our humanity, and we are clear about who is responsible. A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack. Open-source accounts state that barrel bombs were used to deliver the chemicals. Barrel bombs are usually delivered by helicopters. Multiple open-source reports and intelligence indicate that regime helicopters operated over Douma on the evening of 7 April, shortly before reports emerged on social media of a chemical attack, and that Syrian military officials co-ordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine weapons.
No other group could have carried out this attack. The opposition do not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs, and Daesh does not even have a presence in Douma. The reports of this attack are consistent with previous regime attacks. These include the attack on 21 August 2013, when over 800 people were killed and thousands more injured in a chemical attack also in Ghouta. Fourteen further smaller-scale chemical attacks were reported prior to that summer, with three further chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015 which the independent UNSC-mandated investigation attributed to the regime, and there was the attack at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April last year, where the Syrian regime used sarin against its people, killing around 100 with a further 500 casualties.
Based on the regime’s persistent pattern of behaviour and the cumulative analysis of specific incidents, we judged it highly likely that the Syrian regime had continued to use chemical weapons on at least four occasions since the attack in Khan Shaykhun, and we judged that it would have continued to do so, so we needed to intervene rapidly to alleviate further indiscriminate humanitarian suffering. We have explored every possible diplomatic channel to do so but our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted.
Following the sarin attack in eastern Damascus back in August 2013, the Syrian regime committed to dismantle its chemical weapon programme and Russia promised to ensure that Syria did this, overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. At the weekend, the leader of the Opposition cited this diplomatic agreement as,
‘precedent that this process can work’.
But this process did not work. It did not eradiate the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime, with only last month the OPCW finding that Syria’s declaration of its former chemical weapons programme is incomplete. As I have already set out, it did not stop the Syrian regime from carrying out the most abhorrent atrocities using these weapons. Furthermore, on each occasion when we have seen every sign of chemical weapons being used, Russia has blocked any attempt to hold the perpetrators to account at the UN Security Council, with six such vetoes since the start of 2017. And just last week, Russia blocked a UN resolution that would have established an independent investigation able to determine responsibility for this latest attack. So regrettably, we had no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own is not going to work. The leader of the Opposition has said that he can countenance involvement in Syria only if there is UN authority behind it. The House should be clear that that would mean a Russian veto on our foreign policy.
When the Cabinet met on Thursday, we considered the advice of the Attorney-General. Based on this advice we agreed that it was not just morally right but also legally right to take military action, together with our closest allies, to alleviate further humanitarian suffering. This was not about intervening in a civil war and it was not about regime change. It was about a limited, targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.
We have published the legal basis for this action. It required three conditions to be met. First, there must be convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale requiring immediate and urgent relief. Secondly, it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. Thirdly, the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim. These are the same three criteria used as the legal justification for the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Our interventions, in 1991 with the US and France and in 1992 with the US, to create safe havens and enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq following the Gulf War were also justified on the basis of humanitarian intervention. Governments of all colours have long considered that military action, on an exceptional basis where necessary and proportionate, and as a last resort to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe, is permissible under international law.
I have set out why we are convinced by the evidence and why there was no practicable alternative. Let me set out how this military response was also proportionate. This was a limited, targeted and effective strike that would significantly degrade Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, and with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties. As a result, the co-ordinated actions of the US, the UK and France were successfully and specifically targeted at three sites.
Contrary to what the leader of the Opposition said at the weekend, these were not ‘empty buildings’. The first was the Barzeh branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in northern Damascus. This was a centre for the research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological programme. It was hit by 57 American TLAMs and 19 American JASSMs.
The second site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons bunkers, 15 miles west of the city of Homs, which contained both a chemical weapons equipment and storage facility and an important command post. These were successfully hit by seven French Scalp cruise missiles. The third site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage site and former missile base, which is now a military facility. This was assessed to be a location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment whose destruction would degrade Syria’s ability to deliver sarin in the future. This was hit by nine US TLAMs, five naval and two Scalp cruise missiles from France, and eight Storm Shadow missiles launched by our four RAF Tornado GR4s. Very careful scientific analysis was used to determine where best to target these missiles to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks to the surrounding area, and the facility that we targeted is located some distance from any known population centres, reducing yet further any such risk of civilian casualties.
While targeted and limited, these strikes by the US, UK and France were significantly larger than the US action a year ago after the attack at Khan Shaykhun—and specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons. We also minimised the chances of wider escalation through our carefully targeted approach and the House will note that Russia has not reported any losses of personnel or equipment as a result of the strikes. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all the British service men and women—and their American and French allies—who successfully carried out this mission with such courage and professionalism.
Let me deal specifically with three important questions. First, why did we not wait for the investigation from the OPCW? UNSC-mandated inspectors have investigated previous attacks and on four occasions decided that the regime was indeed responsible. We are confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible for this attack and that its persistent pattern of behaviour meant that it was highly likely to continue using chemical weapons. Furthermore, there were clearly attempts to block any proper investigation, as we saw with the Russian veto at the UN earlier in the week.
Let me set this out in detail. We support strongly the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission that is currently in Damascus. But that mission is able to make an assessment only of whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment—and it is currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians—it cannot attribute responsibility. This is because Russia vetoed in November 2017 an extension of the joint investigatory mechanism set up to do this and last week, in the wake of the Douma attack, it again vetoed a new UNSC resolution to re-establish such a mechanism. Even if we had OPCW’s findings and a mechanism to attribute, for as long as Russia continues to veto, the UN Security Council still would not be able to act, so we cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks.
Secondly, were we not just following orders from America? Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria—and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used. For we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised—within Syria, on the streets of the UK or anywhere else. So we have not done this because President Trump asked us to do so. We have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do and we are not alone.
There is broad-based international support for the action we have taken. NATO has issued a statement setting out its support, as have the Gulf Cooperation Council and a number of countries in the region, and over the weekend I have spoken to a range of world leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Gentiloni, Prime Minister Trudeau, Prime Minister Turnbull and the European Council President, Donald Tusk. All have expressed their support for the actions that Britain, France and America have taken.
Thirdly, why did we not recall Parliament? The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations. This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before. It was a decision which required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament. We have always been clear that the Government have the right to act quickly in the national interest. I am absolutely clear that it is Parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions. Parliament will do so, but it is my responsibility as Prime Minster to make these decisions, and I will make them.
I have been clear that this military action was not about intervening in the civil war in Syria or about regime change, but we are determined to do our utmost to help to resolve the conflict in Syria. That means concluding the fight against Daesh, which still holds pockets of territory in Syria. It means working to enable humanitarian access and continuing our efforts at the forefront of the global response, where the UK has already committed almost £2.5 billion, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. Next week we will attend the second Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, which will focus on humanitarian support, bolstering the UN-led political process in Geneva and ensuring continued international support for refugees and host countries, thus driving forward the legacy of our own London conference held in 2016. And it means supporting international efforts to reinvigorate the process to deliver a political solution, for this is the best long-term hope for the Syrian people. The UK will do all of these things, but as I have also been clear, that is not what these military strikes were about.
As I have set out, the military action that we have taken this weekend was specifically focused on degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its future use. In order to achieve this, there must also be a wider diplomatic effort, including the full range of political and economic levers, to strengthen the global norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons which have stood for nearly a century. We will continue to work with our international partners on tough economic action against those involved with the production or dissemination of chemical weapons.
I welcome the conclusions of today’s European Foreign Affairs Council, attended by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, which confirmed that the Council is willing to consider further restrictive measures on those involved in the development and use of chemical weapons in Syria. We will continue to push for the re-establishment of an international investigative mechanism which can attribute responsibility for chemical weapon use in Syria. We will advance with our French allies the new International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, which will meet in the coming weeks, and we will continue to strengthen the international coalition we have built since the attack on Salisbury.
Last Thursday’s report from the OPCW has confirmed our findings that it was indeed a Novichok attack in Salisbury, and I have placed a copy of the report’s executive summary in the Library of the House. While of a much lower order of magnitude, the use of a nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury is part of a pattern of disregard for the global norms that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. While the action was taken to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Syria by degrading the regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its use of these weapons, it will also send a clear message to anyone who believes that they can use chemical weapons with impunity. We cannot go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalised.
I am deeply conscious of the gravity of these decisions. They affect all Members of this House, and me personally. I also understand the questions that rightly will be asked about British military action, particularly in such a complex region, but I am clear that the way we protect our national interest is to stand up for the global rules and standards that keep us safe. That is what we have done and what we will continue to do. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I am grateful—along with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the Lord Speaker—for the briefing we were given by Cabinet Office Privy Counsellors today, as well as the offer of a wider detailed background briefing for all Peers.
First, I want to join in the condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Sergeant Matt Tonroe, who was killed in the service of his country. I entirely endorse the Minister’s comments. His family has rightly regarded his highly regarded military service with great pride. They, and he, would always have known how dangerous that service was—but that will not make the pain of their loss any easier. We rely on men and women such as Sergeant Tonroe to keep us safe, and we should never forget how much of a sacrifice they are prepared to make.
The attack on Douma, which has brought so much suffering, was the latest and most serious of a number of chemical weapons attacks since 2013 in Syria. The Syrian conflict is estimated already to have cost more than 400,000 lives, and many more people have been injured, maimed or forced to flee their homes as refugees. This area had already seen intense air and ground assaults when—as we heard from the Minister—on 7 April, reports and images emerged of what now appears to have been corroborated as a horrific chemical attack, leaving hundreds of people affected and around 70 dead. No one can read those reports or see the images of such suffering without being deeply moved. We completely and unreservedly condemn such attacks.
The multilateral action that has followed this attack was clearly one of limited precision targeting, aimed specifically at chemical weapons installations, including storage. It is to the credit of those involved in both the planning and execution of the attack that there are no reported fatalities and that the installations have been destroyed. We welcome the fact that all our personnel arrived home safely. It must be clear that an operation of this kind cannot ever be in retaliation but must be to prevent further such atrocities.
I am grateful to the Government for publishing some of the information that was made available to the Cabinet at its meeting on Thursday. It would be helpful if the Minister could say more about the international legal position, including the advice of the Attorney-General. Clearly, the use of chemical weapons is against all international law and conventions. I am grateful for the Minister’s comments on the moral and legal case, but she will also be aware that humanitarian intervention is not universally accepted; indeed, it is disputed by some. What discussions have the Government had with the United Nations on this issue, including prior to the operation? Specifically, are any discussions ongoing?
We are also aware that this conflict remains ongoing—not just with chemical weapons but with conventional weapons as well—bringing enormous suffering with no real end in sight. It is vital that we continue to play a role in humanitarian relief and medical support and care. Will the Minister say more about this in her response? That brings us to the much-needed pressure to renew diplomatic efforts to ensure they are resumed. What discussions are taking place on that? Have the Government made any assessment of the risk of retaliation after these attacks?
A crucial part of this is the role of the OPCW. I understand that the director-general told a meeting of his executive council today that inspectors had not been allowed to visit the sites. According to Sweden’s representative on the council, Syria and Russia told the inspectors that their safety could not be guaranteed. Additionally, I am informed that Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister said that the inspectors would not be allowed to access the site until they produced an appropriate UN permit. What efforts are being made to engage with all parties? It is essential that the OPCW is allowed to continue its work and visit these sites. What discussions are taking place so that it can do that with the full co-operation of both Syria and Russia?
The Minister said that, even if the OPCW team can visit Douma to gather information about that assessment, it cannot attribute responsibility because Russia vetoed in November 2017 an extension of the joint investigatory mechanism set up to do that. Then, last week, as we heard, in the wake of the Douma attack, Russia again vetoed a new UN Security Council resolution to re-establish such a mechanism. What plans do the Government have to engage with other members of the Security Council to ensure that the OPCW has the necessary powers to undertake full investigations?
Finally, I will ask the noble Baroness about parliamentary engagement. We all understand that there will be times when Governments, in an emergency, have to act in the national interest and when there is no opportunity to return to Parliament until after an operation. We also understand that there are times when details cannot be made public—even in your Lordships’ House—and when rapid action is needed. But in the past there were a number of occasions when the Government consulted Parliament and even voted on an issue before military action. Will she say something about why in this case it was deemed impossible to consult Parliament prior to action and possible to return to Parliament for debate only after the operation had been concluded?
My Lords, I too thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches associate ourselves with the Government’s condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Tonroe.
Last week, the Government and their allies were faced with a painful dilemma. The atrocious attack in Douma was only the latest and most lethal in a series of chemical attacks that have occurred in Syria over the last year. The only credible perpetrator of these attacks is the Assad regime. The stark choice which the Government and their allies faced was either to do nothing or to take some form of military action to signal our abhorrence of the use of chemical weapons. Given the attitude of the Assad regime and its Russian allies, there was, in the short term, no third effective diplomatic avenue open.
To undertake military action the Government needed to ensure that it was legal, effective and proportionate, and did not lead to an escalation of the multidimensional conflicts that beset Syria. The strict targeting of facilities, the extraordinary accuracy of the missiles, the avoidance of civilian casualties, the forewarning of the Russians and the assurance that the military action was a one-off event appear to have met those requirements. Another requirement for the use of military action, however, that was not met was the need to gain the prior approval of Parliament. It would have been possible to recall Parliament last week at very short notice and the Government should have done so. They might have had in mind the precedent of 2013, when the Commons refused to back unspecified military action in response to chemical attacks in Syria, but the hesitancy of the Commons to authorise military action then only strengthens the case for getting its approval now.
However effective the air strikes might have been in degrading Assad’s short-term ability to manufacture chemical weapons, they do not constitute a strategy. Indeed, the Government make no such claim. But the need for a way forward in Syria that goes beyond the brutal suppression of all resistance by the current regime has never been greater. As far as the UK’s role in achieving this is concerned, we can be effective only when working over a sustained period with our allies and the wider international community.
As the Statement makes clear, the Foreign Secretary has today, alongside his French counterpart, briefed the EU Foreign Affairs Council about Syria. This is commendable but, if the Government have their way, in 12 months’ time he would not be in the room. So I repeat a question that I have put before: after 29 March next year, how do the Government foresee being able to have a voice in EU Councils when they discuss Syria and foreign affairs more generally?
As for the US, it is reported that President Macron and Chancellor Merkel are to visit Washington next week. Does this mean that the French and Germans are now speaking for the European allies instead of the E3, of which the UK was a partner, which handled the Iranian nuclear negotiations?
On the prospects of a long-term settlement in Syria, while the Geneva talks appear to be deadlocked, there are more encouraging signs from the discussions convened by Russia in Sochi with the participation of the Iranians and the Turks. What is the Government’s assessment of the potential of these talks and are they in any way associating themselves with them? Will the Government offer their support to those within Syria gathering information about those committing war crimes so that they can eventually be brought to justice before the ICC?
The multi-layered conflicts being played out in Syria—Assad v al-Qaeda, Turkey v Kurds and Iran v Israel—have the potential to cause further horrific suffering and senseless violence beyond that which we have already seen. At the very least, we must ensure that action by the UK does nothing to escalate these conflicts. Last week’s raid appears not to have done so, but the Government must approach any further such interventions with great care and should take action only when they have the support of Parliament.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. As they will be aware, the UK is permitted under international law on an exceptional basis to take measures to alleviate human suffering, which is what we did. As the noble Baroness rightly said, we have published our legal position, which sets out how we believe that the military action taken has met this requirement. That is available for all to see.
The noble Lord and noble Baroness both asked about escalation. They are absolutely right: escalation is not in anybody’s interest, and I hope that the Statement I repeated made it clear that escalation was considered in discussions about what action to take. This was a discrete action to degrade chemical weapons and deter their use by the Syrian regime. We do not want to escalate tensions in the region. The Syrian regime and Russian and Iranian forces were not the target of the operation.
We are committed to playing our part to help the humanitarian catastrophe. As the noble Baroness rightly said, more than 400,000 people have been killed and half of Syria’s population has been displaced. As the Statement made clear, the UK is the second-biggest bilateral donor to the humanitarian response in Syria. Since 2012, our help has provided more than 26 million food rations, more than 10 million health consultations, more than 9.8 million relief packages and more than 8 million vaccinations. We have provided more than £200 million through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and we remain committed to continue this within that region. I can reassure the House that we remain committed to achieving our goals in Syria: defeating the scourge of Daesh and achieving a political settlement that ends the suffering and provides stability for all Syrians. Alongside our US and French allies, we will continue to pursue diplomatic resolution—as I mentioned, there will be a further meeting of various partners next week to look at how we can continue to do that.
As I said in the Statement, and as the noble Baroness rightly mentioned, it appears that the OPCW team is being prevented from continuing its assessments in Douma. This has come out in a meeting today, so it is quite early days in terms of the information being passed back, but we will now work with our international partners to see what further steps can be taken. We must at the very least find out what is happening and we will work with our international allies to do that.
The noble Lord and noble Baroness both asked about parliamentary involvement. As I am sure they are both aware, the Cabinet Manual acknowledges that parliamentary debate is not necessary where there is an emergency and such action would not be appropriate. We believe that we acted in accordance with the convention. It was necessary to strike with speed so that we could allow our Armed Forces to act decisively, maintain the vital security of their operation and protect the security and interests of the UK. This is in accordance with the convention on the deployment of troops and Parliament.
This action has shown us once again to be playing a leading role internationally. As permanent members of the Security Council, we, the US and France have a particular role in upholding the international laws that keep us safe. That is what we were doing with this action. Support has been wide-ranging, including through many of our European allies, the EU, NATO, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. We will continue to play a leading role in maintaining international order and making sure that we can keep people safe.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the consequences of inaction are often more serious than those that flow from action? Does she further agree that had action been taken in 2013 it might well have been unnecessary to take action now?
I certainly agree with my noble friend that, having looked at the assessment, the intelligence and the suffering of the Syrian people we felt that action was necessary. But let us be very clear: this was a co-ordinated and targeted strike to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and to ensure that chemical weapons do not become normalised, which none of us wishes to see.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I spoke against intervention in Syria in 2013 because I thought it was ill thought-through and poorly presented. I support the intervention this time: I believe it is properly thought-through, limited, focused and well concerted with allies. It is clearly designed to deter the use of chemical weapons. It may well do so and such deterrence is clearly to be welcomed, but this action will have little or no effect on the longer-term conflict in Syria. Will she say more about the Government’s intention to work with others—including, however difficult, the Russians and Iran—to achieve some sort of settled solution in Syria? Only in that way will there be an end to the humanitarian disaster that we now see.
I am grateful for the noble Lord’s support for the action taken. I reiterate to the House that we remain committed to the UN-led political process, but we have to be aware that it is the Syrian regime, with Russian and Iranian support, that is choosing to continue the conflict rather than come to the negotiating table. However, we will continue to try and pursue diplomatic resolution. As I mentioned in the Statement, next week we will attend the second Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, which will focus on humanitarian support, bolstering the UN-led political process in Geneva and ensuring continued international support for refugees and host countries. We are committed to finding a diplomatic solution but I think we all acknowledge how difficult the circumstances are.
My Lords, it was very good to hear that assurance from the Leader of the House on the commitment to a long-term diplomatic solution. It does not appear very loud and clear in the Statement—it is only two lines—but great energy and skill has been given to the military action and the consensus that has been gathered around it is really impressive. It would really help many of us to hear more about whether the same energy, skill and confidence that there can be a negotiated solution will be given to that, with the same sort of targeted, intense effect that was given to the military action. I want to repeat a question I asked when this House last met—in the Syria debate on the humanitarian crisis—about whether the degradation in relations between Britain and Russia was going to cause the Syrian people to be the long-term victims, because of the failure in efforts to bring all parties together. I failed to get an answer to that: will the Leader of the House say something about the state of those relations today and whether the recent deterioration has made the prospect of that concerted effort for peace possible?
I can certainly assure the right reverend Prelate that we are committed to continuing with diplomatic means and to looking for a long-term sustainable solution to the situation in Syria, because that is the only way that the Syrian people will have a bright future ahead of them. We will absolutely continue to do that. Of course, hitting these targets with the force that we have done will significantly degrade the Syrian regime’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons, which was obviously the main aim of this particular action. I also reassure him that we remain committed to the humanitarian support that we have provided. I have already set out the range of ways in which the UK has provided help—indeed, we have committed £2.46 billion since 2012, our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis—and we will continue to do so.
My Lords, I broadly support the legal advice of the Attorney-General on armed intervention on humanitarian grounds. As Attorney-General, I developed this doctrine in Kosovo, which is an important parallel, again in circumstances in which it was hopeless to expect United Nations action. Legal advice cannot always be certain but will the Government accept that there is an arguable case—a respectable legal argument—which is enough to satisfy our Armed Forces that they have acted legally, on the same basis as they did in Kosovo, as mentioned by the Prime Minister?
I thank the noble and learned Lord for his comments and his experience in this area. Indeed, humanitarian intervention is the legal justification we have put forward, which was indeed the justification we used for intervention in Kosovo. We have published the legal advice and we believe it is right. We are very grateful to our military for the work it did over those very difficult hours.
My Lords, I find it difficult to see how anyone could reach the conclusion that this proportionate and targeted attack was anything other than lawful, although I understand it is the position of some in the other place to continue to doubt that. Having regard to the behaviour of the Assad regime, in particular following what one might call the warning of September 2013, the determination to persist in these unlawful attacks must inevitably provoke response.
However, I believe that the Government made a mistake, if I may put it as delicately as that, in not recalling Parliament—for the sake of 48 hours. If the question of urgency is to be raised in support of the Government’s attitude to that, it is worth pointing out how little urgency President Trump displayed over a period of several days. The United Kingdom was not at imminent risk. It would have been possible to debate these matters without reference to detailed and confidential intelligence and certainly without identifying targets. I do not expect the Leader of the House to agree with me, but I urge upon her that on any future occasion a more positive approach is taken to obtaining the discussion and, if necessary, the approval of both Houses of Parliament.
I thank the noble Lord for his support in relation to the legal basis for the action. I am afraid he is right: I do not entirely agree with the second part of his comments. We believe we need to maintain the prerogative powers that allow the Executive to act in emergencies to alleviate human suffering, and we felt it was necessary to strike with speed so that we could allow our Armed Forces to act decisively, maintain the vital security of their operation, and protect the security and interests of the UK.
I strongly support the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. I pay particular tribute to the extraordinary professionalism of all three countries involved. They have conducted this very difficult exercise and appear to have achieved exactly the objectives set out, with the minimum risk of civilian casualties and with the safe return of those involved in the exercise.
This is a very important point. I have had occasion in Parliament to seek the deployment of our forces and we have consulted Parliament in advance, in certain circumstances. On other occasions, I had the responsibility for being involved in launching attacks of one sort or another, which had to be done before Parliament could be consulted. But at all times, we were accountable to Parliament. We returned to it afterwards and made a full account. That is exactly what is happening now; it is accountability in Parliament.
To those people who have said, “Why couldn’t we have a good debate in advance of this?”, I say: what actual details are to be given about what is proposed and how much greater a risk would that represent for those whom we then ask to undertake that exercise? I hope the House understands that Parliament is sovereign but the Government have a responsibility. They must not duck that responsibility by ducking behind a vote taken in Parliament in advance and saying, “It might have been a tough decision but Parliament would not let us do it”. That is what went wrong before and I commend entirely the courage of the Prime Minister in taking this decision now.
My noble friend is right that this was a limited, targeted and effective strike with clear boundaries, expressly sought to avoid escalation, and with everything possible done to prevent civilian casualties. We had four RAF Tornadoes operating from the UK’s sovereign base in Akrotiri, using Storm missiles to strike a chemical weapons storage facility. The missiles were launched outside Syrian airspace and the Tornadoes were supported by four Typhoon aircraft, also operating from Cyprus.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that I, along with the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, was one of the rather few people who supported the Government’s line in this House in 2013? It is therefore not altogether surprising that I should be quite clear in my own mind that the action taken on Friday was proportionate, justified and legitimate.
Perhaps the Minister could answer two questions which have not yet come up in the discussion. First, the situation now is, in legal and international terms, quite different from that of 2013. At that time, Syria had not yet signed the chemical weapons convention and was not bound by international law, other than the agreement of 1928, not to use them. The situation is now completely different; it has signed and ratified the convention in bad faith and is now using sarin, in some cases, and chlorine, which it is illegal to use as a weapon. That makes the situation far more clear-cut. Secondly, do the Government not recognise that there will not be a peaceful settlement in Syria until all parties to this conflict—heaven knows, there are far too many of them—recognise that there is no possibility of a sustainable peace won by a military victory? I would like to hear what the Government plan to do to ensure that that truth is brought home to some of those who are engaged in that unhappy country, so that we do not have to repeat this exercise.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that despite Russia’s promise in 2013 to ensure that Syria would dismantle its chemical weapons programme, overseen by the OPCW, that has not happened. Indeed, only last month the OPCW was once again unable to verify Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons programme, so work obviously has to continue in that area. He is absolutely right as well that we need to see a transition to a new, inclusive, non-sectarian Government who can protect the rights of all Syrians and unite the country. That is what we continue to work towards and we remain committed to the UN-led political process.
My Lords, it seems just a little naive to have listened to the noble Baroness’s reiteration of the Prime Minister’s speech. Does she not agree that while we can bomb what is visible the intelligent scientists in that country, some of them trained in universities in this country and who are very good chemists, will continue to exist and to have the moral attitude that they have? That is together with the fact that the more we bomb what is visible, the more we force things underground to places which are invisible. That is one reason why parliamentary debate is so important and I wonder whether she would like to respond to that question.
By hitting the targets that we have hit, we have significantly downgraded the Syrian regime’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons. As we have seen from the use of the nerve agent on the streets of the UK, there has been a pattern of disregard for international norms. Part of what we absolutely have to do is to reinstate the global consensus that chemical weapons cannot and should not be used.
My Lords, this is a sober moment for this country because, although we are extremely relieved that the operation has been successful, we have not seen the threatened Russian retaliation yet, so the game is not over and it is time to reflect a little bit. I am concerned that the Statement repeated here said two things. One was that speed was essential, yet we took seven days. The definition of an emergency is a serious, unexpected and often dangerous situation demanding immediate action. The second thing we have been told today is that the House of Commons is not to be trusted. Despite assurances given by Mr Hague in 2011 and the assurances Mr Cameron gave after the Chilcot report in 2016, when he repeatedly told the other place that it would be extremely exceptional that the convention that had been agreed and established in both Houses would be disregarded, this week that convention has been disregarded. The Minister may know that I had a Private Member’s Bill to codify a war powers Act that would have allowed this action to go ahead had it been codified. Will the Government now go back and contemplate resolving this once and for all?
I am afraid I disagree with the noble Baroness’s question. We made a decision and there was a Written Statement a couple of years ago. The position remains that we will not be codifying the convention in law or by resolution of the House in order to retain the ability of this and future Governments and the Armed Forces to protect the security and interests of the UK in circumstances that we cannot predict and to avoid such decisions becoming subject to legal action. That is what we have stated and that remains our position.
My Lords, there is a great deal to be welcomed in the Prime Minister’s Statement, but does my noble friend recall that the last time we debated the bombing of Syria more than 70 Members spoke and only three clearly supported bombing Syria on that occasion? Of course, these circumstances are very different, but perhaps that reluctance came from the fact that there have been 20 years of failure of British foreign policy in the Middle East—one might even take it back to Suez. Interventions in the Middle East have been ill-planned and have generally missed the point. The term “Mission accomplished” should never be used in these circumstances. If this intervention is to be supported—and I do support it—and it is to continue to be supported and stand the test of time, does my noble friend accept that this should form part of a developing strategy for British foreign policy intervention in the Middle East and not simply be yet another example of gesture politics which over the past 20 years have stumbled from one confusion to the next?
I do not accept that this is gesture politics and I hope that the explanation given in the Statement makes clear how thought through and intelligence based this action was. We hit a specific and limited number of targets in order to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and to deter their use. That is what this action was about and that is what it has successfully achieved.
My Lords, I strongly agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, said about legality and I think the Kosovo precedent is very apt. I support the Government on it. I also very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord King, said about the circumstances in which one can and cannot consult Parliament in advance, and I support the Government on that. My unease is precisely over not knowing what the future strategy is. When the Statement speaks about diplomatic action, I would feel happier if it told us about when we are going to get an embassy in Damascus. I would feel happier about the idea of our involvement in international discussions on the future if we stopped saying that the man who is actually winning the civil war must go before there can be any future settlement. It seems to me that we have parroted that slogan for too long, and we have to face the fact that we have not done very well. As many people have been killed in that country, where we have not intervened, as have been killed in Iraq, where we have intervened. We need to be a little humble about our approach and think about a strategy for real diplomatic engagement.
As I have made clear, this action was specifically focused on degrading the regime’s chemical weapons capability. Our position remains that we do not believe there can be a sustainable peace in Syria with Assad in power, and that we need a transition to a new and inclusive non-sectarian Government. We will continue to work diplomatically and, as I have mentioned a couple of times, we are attending a conference next week aimed at supporting the future of Syria and the region. We remain committed to the UN political process and will continue to use all the diplomatic means that we can to achieve a lasting peace in Syria.
My Lords, in the Statement the Leader of the House said that the intelligence cannot be shared with Parliament. If that is the case, can the detailed intelligence be shared with the Intelligence and Security Committee? As I understand it, since the period when I was on the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord King, the services have been far more open with that committee. If that is the case, why do we not now use it as a vehicle for providing the information that Parliament requires?
As the noble Baroness said, there have been briefings on Privy Council terms and various other things that happen today. I do not know specifically about that committee. I can go and check and am happy to write to the noble Lord. Where information can be shared, it will be. We have published the Attorney-General’s advice. We are trying to be transparent where we can, but obviously we have to respect the intelligence services as well.
My Lords, in August 2013 I was working in the Ministry of Defence, and I well remember the vote. Surely the lesson from August 2013 is not what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said; surely it is that, as my noble friend Lord Howard said, inaction can be much worse than military action, however awful that may be. The convention that has sprung up that Parliament must be consulted before taking any military action is foolish. No Government can survive without the support of Parliament for military action, but to stop to allow parliamentarians, who have very little knowledge of the issue, to take a vote, as happened in August 2013, is the wrong lesson. I suggest that it is likely and reasonable to believe that many Syrians have died from chemical attacks because Parliament voted against taking action nearly five years ago.
Bringing forward this Statement was the first opportunity through which to update Parliament. I am very pleased to say that this Thursday we have brought forward a debate within this House to take note of the national security situation. The list is open, so I look forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions to that later on this week.
My Lords, in the snake pit of competing interests and proxy wars in Syria, it will have been of little comfort, as the noble Lord said a few moments ago, to hear the words “Mission accomplished”, certainly for the relatives of some 400,000 people who have died and the 12 million displaced in Syria. I too would welcome more from the noble Baroness about what diplomatic action we are going to take to try to bring a conclusion to this terrible conflict.
I would also like to return to what she said about the veto that has been used in the Security Council and the accountability to which people will be held, whether they are responsible for genocidal crimes against humanity, in the case of Daesh, or for chemical weapons being used, in the case of the Syrian regime. What are we doing to create new mechanisms, such as a regional court that does not need a decision taken by the Security Council, which could be established by the United States, France, the UK and our allies so that those who have been responsible for these depredations will be brought to justice? Surely what marks us out from people like Assad or, for that matter, Daesh is our belief in the upholding of the rule of law.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord’s sentiment. Russia has used its veto six times on the topic of chemical weapons use in Syria since 2017, including, as I mentioned, the recent veto of the draft resolution which would have established an independent investigation. Of course, we have used other mechanisms. Through the EU, we have brought sanctions against those involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and we will continue to try to work through international bodies to ensure that those who commit these heinous crimes are brought to justice.
My Lords, I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord King and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said about the role of Parliament. I express the hope and, indeed, make the request that in the debate on Thursday, when we will have a chance to discuss these things at some length, the Government come up with a coherent position. Although the Prime Minister said that this was not about regime change, we have from the word go reduced our potential influence by refusing to recognise what might be an ultimate outcome by derecognising the regime. The first thing we should do as we seek to bring parties together is to establish a diplomatic presence in Damascus. Can we please not have that ruled out yet again?
I can certainly reiterate that this action was not about regime change or intervening in a civil war; it was about preventing further humanitarian catastrophe and restoring the international norm against the use of chemical weapons.
My Lords, I agree that a line must be drawn internationally against the use of chemical weapons, but does not this terrible war also represent a catastrophic failure of UK foreign policy, beginning with bombast from David Cameron in 2011-12, which I am afraid the noble Baroness has repeated today, that Assad must go, refusing to allow both him and Iran into the negotiations—in other words, excluding the main players? This has never been about a barbaric Assad, as he is, against his people, but a complex civil war of Sunni versus Shia, of Iran versus Saudi Arabia, of the US versus Russia, an inter-state and proxy conflict involving also Israel, Turkey and the Kurds. Britain will remain culpable as long as we adopt a partisan role, rather than an honest broker role to promote a negotiated settlement to what otherwise looks like a war without end.
I certainly agree that this is an extremely complex situation and we need to pursue a diplomatic resolution, which is why we need a genuine and sustained ceasefire; we want an independent investigation into the recent attack; and we want safe passage for aid convoys and medical evacuation. The noble Lord is right that this is a complex area. We will continue to work with our international partners and allies to try to help to get a resolution in this area, because the people who are suffering, the Syrians, have been suffering for far too long.
My Lords, I should like to focus on that part of the Statement which refers to the alleviation of humanitarian suffering in Syria. Do the Government recognise the greater urgency which now exists and will they, with respect to both the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement programme and the vulnerable children’s resettlement programme, bring forward the timescales that they are working to and increase the number they are prepared to help?
We can certainly be proud of the humanitarian approach that we have taken to the area. Our commitment to resettle 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees fleeing Syria remains. More than 10,000 people have been resettled through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme so far, with about half of those children. Indeed, Eurostat figures show that, in 2016, the UK resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any other EU member state. Overall, more than a third of all resettlement to the EU was to the UK. That is a record of which we can be proud.
I declare an interest as a former ambassador in Damascus and as a member of the board of the British Syrian Society.
I understand the reasons for the Government’s actions, I support them and I strongly endorse what the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Jay, said on the subject. I also endorse their concern at a lack of strategy in tackling what is an extremely complex situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, so clearly explained.
The reality is that the Assad regime is winning the civil war and, given that it has the support of Russia and Iran, it is going to stay there. So we had better wake up to that. This will not be popular, but we need to move from the support that we are giving to his opposition to a neutral position where we can actually help, with such influence as we have, to get some kind of discussion going. Let us face it, it will be a discussion that will leave in place the present regime in Damascus, whether or not it is led by Bashar—which, by the way, is very much the wish of many of those in the government-controlled region, especially the minorities, and especially the Christians.
All I can do is to reiterate that we remain committed to the UN-led political process. This particular action was about degrading the regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use. We remain committed to broader diplomatic efforts to deal with the Syrian crisis in a broader sense, but this military action was specifically focused on chemical weapons.
I commend the Prime Minister for her courage and resolution in authorising the action over the weekend, and also our Tornado pilots for the excellent job that they did, together with those charged with cybersecurity and other responsibilities. Does this event not point to the need for us to review particularly our naval capability and our capability to launch missiles from ships? Does it not point to the fact that, in an increasingly dangerous world, we need to consider the needs of defence expenditure in the immediate future?
As I am sure my noble friend knows, the defence budget for 2018-19 is £37 billion. We are committed to meeting the NATO guideline to spend at least 2% of our GDP on defence every year of this Parliament, and this commitment should be seen as a floor not a ceiling. Of course, the purpose of our modernising defence programme is to make sure that our defence is configured to address the evolving threats that we face, which is why we have put in place a plan for more ships and planes alongside greater spending on special forces and investment in stealth aircraft, nuclear submarines and cyber technology.
My Lords, I have just come back from Syria—I spent five days there last week—so I wanted to share what I saw over there. I was the guest of the Kurdish democratic forces of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. I wish to address the issue of the alleviation of humanitarian suffering but also commend the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Hain and Lord Cormack, for pointing out that there is no discernible strategic logic in what the Government are doing.
I saw something very inspirational in northern and eastern Syria. I saw the building of a genuine democracy, led by women. There were women and men co-chairs in a local democracy. I saw the participation of the Assyrian Christians as well as the local Sunni Muslims in building that democracy. I went to a cemetery where, for young men and young women, the average date of birth was 1995, in a war that went on four years ago in Kobane; they gave their lives to resist Daesh/ISIS. I also met injured soldiers who had fought with British forces all the way to Raqqa in order to defeat that iniquitous force. So I saw something extraordinarily inspiring, but I also saw something terrible that has not really been mentioned—the fact that Turkey has invaded Afrin, which is part of Syria. It has actually bombed for 56 consecutive days and has paid local al-Qaeda and al-Nusra forces, as well as defeated Daesh forces, to expel the Kurds and Christians from their homes in Afrin. They are now refugees from a land that they have lived in for more than 4,000 years.
I find it disquieting that I have not heard anything from the Government on this issue. Very specifically, will the Government maintain the British forces in Manbij to deter Turkey from expanding its war into the other areas that are controlled at the moment by the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria? What steps are they taking to provide humanitarian aid to the refugees, of which there are now many tens of thousands? In what way have they expressed their disquiet to the Turkish Government about a policy of ethnic cleansing?
I reassure the noble Lord that we have called for the de-escalation and protection of these citizens and are urging our Turkish counterparts to do everything they can to minimise humanitarian suffering. We support ongoing discussions between Turkey and the US and believe that a negotiated agreement, taking into account the security concerns of both parties, is necessary to prevent further conflict. However, we remain concerned about suggestions of further operations and are calling for a period of stability to allow for the distribution of aid and humanitarian care for these citizens. We will continue to monitor the situation.
My Lords, I support the Government’s view that there needed to be a response to the appalling chemical attack on Douma. I am sure that considerable care was taken in assessing the Rubik’s cube of possibilities that might flow from military action undertaken with our allies. Can the noble Baroness the Leader of the House confirm that the decision-making process was what the Prime Minister, in the National Security Capability Review published on 28 March, called “Chilcot-compliant”? In other words, was the Government’s 10-point Chilcot checklist applied before the final decision was taken to launch the Tornados’ missiles?
I can certainly assure the noble Lord that the lessons from the Chilcot report have been learned and we have paid attention to it.
My Lords, is the Minister basking in self-congratulation about the UK’s humanitarian aid to Syria? I remember the night when we voted on the Dubs amendment. We wanted 3,000 children from Syria to be accepted into the UK and those on the Government Benches walked into the Not-Content Lobby. Is that a measure of congratulation? There are still children in Calais and Dunkirk, yet every step we take builds a barrier—a wall, not a bridge—for those children.
I am sorry that the noble Lord thinks we have been self-congratulatory. I do not believe that we have. This country has a strong record in this area and we should be proud of it. We have committed to resettle 480 unaccompanied children from Europe under the Dubs amendment and over 220 children have already been transferred to the UK. We provided refuge, or other forms of leave, to more than 9,000 children in 2016 and more than 42,000 children since 2010. That does not take away from the suffering of the many children who we have not been able to help. However, we do have a record in this area and we will continue to do what we can to help those most in need.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has drawn our attention to the impunity of the individuals who make it possible to invent weapons of this disgusting nature. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has again drawn attention to the fact that it is almost impossible to pursue individuals. From the large number of atrocities that are committed round the world, the number who are caught and punished is very small indeed. Will my noble friend take on board the concern of those two Peers and myself that usable mechanisms should be developed so that individuals do not feel sheltered by corporate membership of corrupt regimes but are themselves in danger if they break United Nations conventions?
I absolutely accept the concerns of my noble friend and other noble Lords. That is why we were pleased that today’s European Foreign Affairs Council has confirmed that it is willing to consider further restrictive measures on those involved in the development and use of chemical weapons in Syria. We have also brought sanctions, through the EU, against those involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria. We will continue to work to bring those who commit these terrible crimes to justice.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that I have concerns about the intelligence that absolutely, certainly shows that Assad’s people did this. However, assuming that they did, I believe that the action was proportionate and well conducted. It was the right thing to do and right not to go before Parliament. However, I will raise the point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. We dropped, effectively, eight bombs. Let us not now consider ourselves this great power that can have global reach. I am afraid that our military has been squeezed and squeezed. We had a Type 45 there, which should have had 60 cruise missiles on board. However, because of cuts through the years we do not have that. I am afraid that no matter what is said, the military has been starved of resources and we are in a position where, if we are needed for proper action—something larger than this—the nation will find that the military cannot do it. That is of great concern. Does the Minister believe that we are spending sufficient money on defence, bearing in mind the now clearly apparent risks in the world?
On the noble Lord’s first point, we worked with our allies to establish what happened, and a significant amount of information, including intelligence, indicated that this was a chemical weapons attack. We have analysed a lot of intelligence and the World Health Organization has received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian hospitals with signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals. So we believe that the evidence was there. On defence spending, the noble Lord will be aware that the UK is one of very few allies both to meet the NATO spending guidelines, spending 2% of GDP on defence, and to spend 20% of annual defence expenditure on major equipment and associated research and development. We recognise the evolving threats, we continue to invest in defence, and we once again thank our brave armed services for all the work they do for us.