Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the current situation in Syria and the UK Government’s approach.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate.
On the morning of 14 April, British and allied forces conducted strikes on Syrian installations involved in the Assad regime’s illegal use of chemical weapons against its own people. The strike was launched as a response to the Syrian regime’s latest chemical weapons attack on 7 April in Douma, as I mentioned a moment ago, which killed up to 75 people, including young children.
I want to begin by quoting a Syrian, Bilal Shami from Rethink Rebuild Society, which is a Syria-led organisation that I have visited in Manchester. Bilal said:
“The UK’s latest reactionary military response seems to be detached from a wider comprehensive strategy that helps end this devastating seven-year conflict.”
It is that wider strategy that I want the House now to turn to.
I thank my hon. Friend for making a very powerful case for this debate today. This week I have had several emails from Rethink Rebuild Society, which is based in Manchester, imploring Britain now to redouble its efforts to put civilians at the heart of its strategy and to make sure that the abhorrent actions of Assad that we saw a few days ago can never reoccur. I just wanted my hon. Friend to know that.
I thank my hon. Friend, and, through her, all those in the Syrian community in Manchester and in the UK beyond for the assistance they have given me in working on Syria.
We know that we cannot continue to allow the erosion of international laws that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. I explained earlier our country’s historical role in containing the use of chemical weapons—and we ought not to forget our own experience. But I do not wish to constrain our discussion today merely to chemical weapons, because, vile though they are, they are not the only means of savage killing that has taken place.
Let me remind the House that the conflict in Syria began when Assad’s forces opened fire on protesters demanding the release of political prisoners. They were not violent anarchists or subversives with questionable ties to foreign Governments, but a 13-year-old boy, his cousin and a dozen of their friends who had sprayed graffiti on a wall calling for Assad to step down. With the Syrian civil war now in its eighth year, the lack of a strategy from our Government beyond hoping that things will improve is leading only to more suffering. More than half a million Syrians have died, 6 million are internally displaced, and 5 million are refugees.
Today I call, as my colleague Jo Cox called, for a comprehensive strategy to protect civilian life. The Assad Government continue to commit violations of international humanitarian law on an almost daily basis. Let us take, for example, his barrel bombs: the brute force of dirty explosives booted off the back of a helicopter, reckless to the thought of who might be beneath. The deliberate targeting of civilians is illegal in any case, but what makes this worse is Assad’s continual terrorising of the civilian population without consequence.
That is not all. Siege warfare has returned in Syria. That is also illegal, but despite the best efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Red Crescent and other humanitarians, Assad simply will not comply with the right to food, the right to medical care, or the right not just to live but to exist in any normal understanding of the word.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the Assad regime’s continued aerial bombardment against civilian populations in Syria. Does she agree that one of the Government’s critical objectives must be to ensure that they pursue the objective of an internationally policed no-fly zone, as well as a no-bombing zone over Syria so that we can eliminate that activity? There is a stark contrast between the situation in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Assad’s untrammelled power to bomb his civilians.
My hon. Friend will know that a no-bombing zone was precisely one of the policies that Jo campaigned for when she was in this House.
This is why I will use my time today discussing what I feel we need to consider in beginning a new road map for Syria here in the UK. We need to start from a simple question: what can be done to save human life not on the basis of our simple short-term interests, but on the basis of the humanitarian principle? I know that some in the House will be sceptical. They will say, “We’ve seen this all before.” They will say that my humanitarian principle is just words. Well, in some ways they are right, because we should always be judged by our actions and not just our words.
After seeing the horrific pictures of suffering children, one with an oxygen mask over them, does the hon. Lady agree that had we not taken action over the weekend, it would have been more likely that more chemical weapons would have been used against the population of Syria?
We do not know, and we should not engage in crystal ball gazing over matters that are so serious.
Whatever actions we choose, we ought to do so in a way that promotes humanitarian principles in this country and everywhere else in the world. While actions taken in the name of humanitarian principles have not always been perfect, and we must always know and understand our own history, we cannot drive looking only in the rear-view mirror. We have to face what is in front of us and try to apply humanitarian principles in the most careful way that we can, with the benefit of past experience, rather than in an attempt to address issues passed. I ask all Members for the next three hours, whatever their view, to just focus on Syria. Do not the Syrian people deserve that from us?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will make a little progress and give way in a moment.
Because of what has happened, the international community is now seized of the importance of Syria, so it is important that we make the most of this window. The Prime Minister’s actions so far are open to debate, but I ask that we use our time now not just to review what she has done, but to task her to do more.
Let me turn to what I believe the UK’s role can be. As I said, Jo Cox asked—I ask again today—for the Government to bring forward a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians. What does that mean? In short, we need to get aid in, get desperately injured people out, deter further violence, defund Assad and demonstrate our commitment to the victims of war. All that must be done alongside a search for progressive partners around the world who wish to rebuild the consensus that saw the responsibility to protect passed in 2005. The UN needs reform—we know that—but the deadlock in the Security Council has meant half a million people dead on Syrian streets and the biggest movement of refugees since 1979. That is clearly wrong. There must be a better way, and we have to find partners who will help us.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not give way at the moment.
First, on getting aid in, medical supplies are desperately needed. I have been hearing from professionals in the region who are trying to help to save lives, and Assad’s tactic has been simply to block them. We have the resources, and we have supplies in Jordan. We have to focus on getting medical supplies and other forms of necessary aid into the places where people are besieged. I will return to that in a moment.
I want to highlight the pledging conference coming up in Brussels shortly, which the Prime Minister mentioned. I am pleased that there is an overwhelming majority in the House in favour of our aid budget. Given that support, all we ask is that the Prime Minister makes the best possible use of the aid budget for people in Syria.
Secondly, on getting people out, the tactic of Assad and his regime has been to direct civilians to a concentrated area and to group them together, saying that that will make them safe, and then to attack them. It is a bitter falsehood to say to people, “We’re going to shift you out of here to make sure that you’re safe,” before later coming back to attack them. We need to help to mount a rescue, and that means searching for the people who humanitarian organisations know are the most injured, as well as disabled children, and helping to get them out of there.
Thirdly, we ought to deter further violence. I caution everyone in the House against engaging in the behaviour of an armchair general. We should not be coming up with military solutions off the top of our head, but that does not mean we should not use the skill of our armed forces or that we should not say to our military advisers, “Look at the different groups of people in Syria, be they besieged or attacked, and give us a strategy to help each and every one of them. Tell us what we can do to deter further violence.” It is not just chemical weapons that people are facing there. Barrel bombs ought not to be dropped on children’s heads—it is as simple as that. If we cannot get the best advice on how we can deter that, I am not sure what we are for.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will give way in a moment, but I will come back to others first.
In addition, surveillance and reconnaissance assets can conduct monitoring and reporting of attacks against civilians. The UK and its coalition partners should be providing protection and support to the UN. It is within the coalition’s gift to establish a favourable air situation so that we can ensure the safe delivery of humanitarian aid. We have to get the right supplies in, and I simply ask the Government to go back and find what more they can do to open humanitarian corridors and get aid in.
As a guarantor of the rules-based international order, the Government must now ask all parties to the conflict to permit the unrestricted delivery and distribution of that aid. This has to be put in as simple and stark terms as possible. We have to articulate what we see as the next stage for accountability and whether there is a role for other routes through the UN and the International Criminal Court. The Government ought to say what they think now. The French Government recently made a number of suggestions, and I ask the Government to look at those and work with the French to see what can be done.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate her on the case she is making. Like all hon. Members, I have had contact over the last few days from constituents who are very concerned about the plight of the Syrian people. Does she agree that what she is describing is not the kind of one-off event that occurred over the weekend, for reasons that I understand—immediately to degrade chemical weapons—but a long-term and sustained diplomatic, political and, if necessary, military response? Part of that must be a communications strategy to ensure that the public in this country and more widely understand what we are seeking to achieve?
My hon. Friend makes an important and wise point, as she does normally.
We have been coming back to this place after each horrific event and asking ourselves, “How did we let this happen?” Let this time be different. Let this be the moment when we decide to take a long-term view and bring together all the best efforts of everybody in Britain to secure peace.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful case, particularly about the importance of aid. What does she think should be done to ensure that other countries follow the UK in standing by their responsibilities to deliver aid to Syria?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention. As someone who fought the battle to get a Bill through Parliament to guarantee the aid of this country, I would happily talk to parliamentarians in other countries about what they ought to do, but this debate is not about what others should do. Our Prime Minister is here, and my focus is on what she can do and what our country can do to try to assist vulnerable Syrians.
Fourthly, we need to defund Assad. Unfortunately, Syria has still managed to function as an economic actor in the world, but that cannot be right. It cannot be okay that business goes on as normal in the face of such brutality and inhumane actions by that country’s Government. I ask the Prime Minister to investigate what actions we can take to remove Syria from the SWIFT system, which provides for international financial transactions. That would send a strong signal that we are no longer prepared to tolerate Syria just going on as normal. It has involvement in a number of forums around the world, and we must go through each one and remove Syria. We need to send a message that the Syrian Government are beyond the pale and that their actions prove that they can no longer be treated as a normal member of the international community in any sphere of life, especially economically.
One thing that has been absent from these debates—whether we are talking about Iraq, Libya or Syria—is that what would offer the people of Syria a lot of hope is a reconstruction plan for after we achieve peace in Syria. That has always been absent from the Government’s thinking.
At some point, Syria must be rebuilt, but right now the bombs are falling. We ought not to have an idea that we can somehow put money into Syria and that will make it better, because my argument is actually the opposite: that would make it worse. My hon. Friend is right, however, in the sense that we have to work with Syrians—especially those in this country, and all those who are our constituents—and talk to them about the kind of vision they have for Syria post conflict. I will come on to the precise point he mentioned in a moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent work not just on this, but, like all its members, on the all-party friends of Syria group. Does she agree that, in relation to Russia and finance, the UK could look at taking a similar approach to that of the US towards oligarchs? The rouble actually dropped 30% 10 days ago because of measures that the Trump Government brought in. Does she think that such an approach would be relevant, to apply financial pressure on Russia?
I do. My hon. Friend pre-empts me, and she is quite right. In my view, the sanctions we have currently levied against Syria and its backers are insufficient. She is no longer in her place, but the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), spoke very well earlier about the need to look again at this situation and to consider secondary sanctions to reach those who trade with those trading with Syria and its backers. I am pleased that the Treasury Committee is going to investigate this matter in detail.
Fifthly and finally, we have to demonstrate our commitments to the victims of this war. We now have a large number of Syrians—people from Syria who were here before the conflict and those who have come in since—who form part of our UK society. I really think we ought to listen to and work with them and that we should build up another track of peace building. We know that the Geneva talks have stalled and that the Astana process is not going to produce what we would see as an answer, so why do we not learn the lessons of Northern Ireland and recognise that peace needs to involve not just the warring parties but all those with a stake in Syrian society? Why can we not reach out across Syrian civil society and have a British-led effort to consult those impacted by the war and who hold no power but may do so in the future? I really believe that in working with Syrian civil society, most especially women, we would find some of the answers to peace. That will not come immediately or straightaway, but by doing such early work, we could put in train a better Syria for the future.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Lady’s well-informed and very correct speech. I was pleased that she mentioned the Geneva process. One of the reasons why the process has not actually produced any positive results is that the west—the Europeans and the Americans—could not decide whether Assad should play a part in the peace process or in any interim Government. Will the hon. Lady give us an idea of her views on this subject?
I have a very firm view, which is that that is a question for Syrians to decide. In this country, the United Kingdom, we are a democracy, and we decide who we are led by. I believe that that should be the same for every country in the world, especially for Syria. It will be for Syrians to decide their leadership, not a British politician in the British Parliament.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is making a very important speech. While we may be on different sides of the argument on bombing—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Wait a second, because I want to say something positive—[Interruption.]
Order. I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman, blurt it out briefly, man.
I spent the first week of the recess in northern Syria—I left the day before the attacks happened—and I met the Kurdish leaders. My hon. Friend mentioned the involvement of women. Does she recognise that the role of the Kurdish people in involving women is really important and that any discussions must include the Kurds in northern Syria?
That is extremely helpful. I would just say to all Members that if they think they can do politics without women, well, they are wrong.
As I say, we have the potential to show British leadership in bringing people together for a longer-term vision of the peace. It will not be easy, but work invested in this now would bear fruit in the future.
On demonstrating our British commitment to the victims of war, I must ask the Prime Minister to turn her attention to the refugees. I am pretty sure she is not going to agree with me. The Government previously committed to taking 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, but I am afraid that, to me, that is not good enough. It is just 4% of the number taken in by Germany. When it comes to the figure of 3,000 children taken in under the Dubs amendment—they are not all Syrian, but some are—I just think that that is not nearly good enough, given the size and scale of this conflict. We have to demonstrate good faith, which means putting our arms out and offering a chance of life—not just to be alive, but to truly exist—to people who are some of the most unfortunate in our world. Surely, it is in our British nature to do that. Our reputation is really getting diminished on the world stage, and the issue of refugees has rubbished our global reputation.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point. Does she agree that it is particularly sad that even where British communities have reached out and wanted to help Syrian refugees, as people have done in Penarth in my constituency, the logistical and bureaucratic hurdles they have had to go through mean that they have been unable to do that, even when supported by the Home Office to resettle them? They have raised the money, got the property and put everything in place, and they want to welcome Syrian refugees, yet they are being prevented from doing so, and that has been replicated up and down the country.
I am afraid that that is the case. I agree that it is very important to get this right—it is very important to take a cautious approach and especially to work very closely with local authorities—but I am afraid the point my hon. Friend makes is true everywhere in our country. The level of foot dragging by the Home Office reveals the kind of hostile attitude that has been created when it comes to people from elsewhere. Conservative Members will disagree with me, and it is not in my nature to be unduly partisan, but I can only say to them that this is an issue on which I truly believe that to be the case and I would honestly say to them that they should look at it again.
I totally respect what the hon. Lady is saying, but I have been to a refugee camp on the borders of Syria, and most of the people there just want to go home. Does she not agree that, if we could facilitate some way of letting those people go home from the camps, it would make Syria a better place after the war?
The hon. Gentleman is right in a sense. In a conflict, we know that it is by and large better for people to be in the region if there is a possibility of their going home. That may have been a relevant argument seven years ago, but, unfortunately, the likelihood of the conflict coming to an end anytime soon is less than it was then.
Given the size and scale of the refugee camps and given the fact mentioned earlier this afternoon by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) that 25% of citizens in Lebanon are now refugees, the fact that we have committed to take 20,000 by 2020 is just insignificant given the task in front of us. There will be many people for whom a return to Syria is neither appropriate nor what they want, and I simply ask Members whether it is not part of our national character to be welcoming and to bring people here if they really need it.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and she is making an incredibly powerful point. On one occasion, she and I were in the same Lobby when it came to one of the Syrian refugee votes, but it is important that we take refugees in the context of the overall package of support that the British Government are giving to the Syrian region. We are the second largest bilateral donor in terms of international aid—second only to the United States. The hon. Lady referenced Germany, but we have given more in international aid than the rest of the European Union combined.
As I said earlier, I am very proud of my country’s record on aid. It is a record I believe all of us, right across this House, should be proud of. Unfortunately, our country’s record on aid does not do much for a sick Syrian child in a refugee camp who needs to come here and be treated by the NHS. That is the reality of the situation we face: we cannot hold up our record on aid to a family who desperately need a roof over their head—we just cannot. All I am asking is that the Prime Minister do a little more.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and I share the admiration of everyone else for the speech she is making. We have heard a great deal today about the aid cheques we have signed, but her speech is revealing that a huge amount of that aid is not actually getting through to the people who so desperately need it. Is not part of our commitment to those people not just to sign the cheques but to have the political will to ensure that the aid gets to where it is needed?
I could not have said it better myself.
I want to offer the Prime Minister another chance to do something about this. I accept that, immediately, this may be a forlorn hope, but I still want to offer her the chance. I would like her to stand at the Dispatch Box and tell me that she will double the number of refugees that we will take by 2020. Then we will know that she is really serious about global Britain. She should stand at the Dispatch Box and tell me that we will double the number of Dubs kids that we will accept, and then I will think that she really means it.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way in what is an incredibly powerful speech. I am so pleased that she raised the issue of the Dubs children, because we know that there are Syrian children in the refugee camps in Greece. This conflict has been going on for seven years, and of course people have fled further than just the nearest camps. Turkey is taking 3 million, and we have not even taken the 3,000 we said we would take when we passed the Dubs amendment. We are talking about a small fraction, but it is a fraction that is life or death for those we do not take. The Prime Minister is shaking her head. I urge her to go to the camps in Greece, see those children and tell us that they are not as worthy as the children in Ghouta, because they all need our help.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I will mention her activism again in a moment.
I just want to say to the Prime Minister that I am really serious about my request. I really feel that if we are to restore our global reputation, bring true meaning to global Britain and send a message to the world that Britain is back on the world stage, it is, as she will know, deeds, not words, that we require.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just in the large urban areas that people care about suffering and that the same welcome would be there in our smaller communities, our rural communities and our small towns? There is a welcome there, too. I believe that the people in this country are deeply, deeply compassionate. That may not always be the case in the abstract, in terms of concepts such as the refugee community, but when it comes to meeting others one on one, I think people behave differently.
There is certainly nowhere more welcoming than Clwyd South.
I will conclude on refugees by reminding the Prime Minister that the reputation of our country—our honour—is at stake. As a proud British person, I cannot accept that there is will enough to send our incredible and brave armed forces to attack Assad’s killing machine, but little will to reach out to those who ran from him. The current situation is simply unacceptable, and if the Government think this problem will go away, it has been shown that it will not. I, my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Bristol West and many, many others will never, ever stop demanding that the Government do more.
In conclusion, let me be clear that I do not seek to exaggerate the British role. We should be asking neither to be the world’s policeman nor some rehashed imperialist power. We should simply be acting like a paid up member of the human race. If our open eyes see innocence treated with brutality, we should think of ourselves neither as their only saviours nor helpless to do any good. We have the capacity to work with others to help; that is all. No grandstanding is needed, just practical help. Britain on the world stage used to have a reputation for reliability and competence. It is time we got it back. I believe the five approaches I have detailed could provide practical help to those who need it: no heroics, just assistance to bring the peace.
I want to leave the House with the words of a Syrian doctor, Radwan Al Barbandi, who now works in our NHS in Liverpool. This morning, he reminded me of the words of Martin Luther King Jr:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Radwan said to me:
“We need this domino effect to stop in Syria. We do not want any nation to be gassed by a dictator.”
I simply ask the Government to listen to Radwan and to listen to Syrians. The world will be a safer place if we can rebuild the simple principle that no ruler has the right to brutally slaughter their own citizens, not in Syria and not anywhere.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask you to clarify whether, at the conclusion of the debate, there is a difference of view within the House, it is in order for the House to divide in the normal manner even if we are beyond the moment of interruption?
Yes, because if the matter can be debated, the matter can also be resolved by a Division of the House. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, to all Members.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on her very eloquent, if rather idealistic, speech. I think we all share her ambition that we should make the maximum possible contribution to humanitarian relief in Syria. The issue is what is actually practical and deliverable. On the Conservative Benches, I think we all think the British Government’s record is exemplary compared with that of most other powers.
I also congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this emergency debate, which was a splendid initiative on her part. I was rather bewildered by the whole issue being reduced, in a way I had never seen before, to applications for emergency debates. It is my opinion that we should probably be having a two-day debate on a Government motion, so that everybody could have a reasonable length of time in which to speak. I must keep my contribution very short on this occasion and I will say no more about parliamentary accountability. At least we are having a debate now.
I am in the position of being a strong supporter of the action taken, while holding the view that we should have followed the precedent set when we liberated the Falkland Islands, when the House was recalled on a Saturday to give its approval. Margaret Thatcher did not invoke royal prerogative on that occasion. On the action that has been taken, I strongly support it. I strongly supported the action that should have been taken in 2013, when I was a member of the National Security Council. We resolved that the really serious use of chemical weapons that had taken place on that occasion should have been met with a military response as both a punishment and an attempt to deter any future use of chemical weapons. Despite the fact that I support parliamentary sovereignty on this matter, Parliament got it wrong on that occasion, as it did on Iraq a few years before. Nevertheless, the policy on Syria was, with hindsight, plainly correct. We should have responded to that attack. That we did not is one of the things that has slightly contributed to the temptation, which has been given into by Assad, to see how far he can go in using chemical weapons.
It is extremely reassuring that the British Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have played such a strong role in supporting this three-nation intervention, which has given a targeted, very precise and proportionate attack on sites associated with chemical weapons. As I said earlier, we should hold ourselves ready to do the same thing again if Assad is in any doubt about whether he might get away with going further.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
No, with great respect, I should not take too long, so I will not give way. The hon. Member for Wirral South rightly did because it is her debate, but I do not think I should.
The reason I feel so strongly is that unless we respond properly, there is a very serious danger that the use of chemical weapons, nerve agents and so on will rapidly spread. The nature of warfare in Syria and in a lot of other places in the middle east and elsewhere at the moment is essentially urban, guerrilla-type and militia-based. It is not only regimes such as Assad’s who can see that if they wish to take somewhere like Ghouta, it is much quicker, easier and less of a risk to use chlorine gas, Sarin or whatever they have than it is to rely on bombardment and street-to-street fighting, where forces are engaged in long, dragged-out, dangerous activity in which they take heavy casualties. If someone has no regard for the ethics of warfare, it is obvious common sense for them to use a substance that will wipe out every living thing in the area that they propose to occupy, once it has all blown away and been cleared up.
If we look at the world at the moment, we see I think that not just Assad but countless groups will be tempted to do that. If we had not acted last weekend, Assad, who probably intends to go on to conquer Idlib next to recover control of his country, would undoubtedly have used bigger chemical attacks. We wait to see whether he will do so in the face of threats from the United States, France and the United Kingdom. I very much hope he does not, but we should not underestimate the importance now, in the real world, in several political crises, of establishing the principle that the British Government will react and will not tolerate and allow a return to the use of chemical and similar weapons, which the world community has at least managed to ban. We have not done much else to improve warfare in this world, but we have at least managed to ban that for decades, and we should stop it coming back.
As I said, that is the reason why I feel so strongly and, for what it matters, why I was arguing in the interviews I gave last week not only for parliamentary accountability, which got picked up, but for targeted action of the kind we have had. I realise, as I said, that courage is required on the part of those who took the decision. Of course there were risks. The Russians tried to terrify the population with their usual propaganda stuff, but I suspect that we did not have public support when the attack took place, because people had got disturbed about the risks of world war three and what was going to happen, and whether we would get immersed. With hindsight, we see easily that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Cabinet showed the right judgment. It has not led to any wider risks and they were rightly not deterred, but it cannot have been an easy decision at the time.
I have already said that I support all that has been said about the maximum humanitarian contribution that the British should make to relieve distress in Syria and elsewhere, in all these war-torn places, but if we take the realistic capacity of Britain, its population, its budget and everything else, I think we are doing pretty well to make a contribution to alleviating the suffering.
On the broader point about the politics of Syria and other places generally, I hear what everybody says in asking, what is the strategy? What is the next step? Why are the British not taking the lead in making sure that all is calmed down? I wish I felt that those who said that had the first idea about exactly what solution they think they are offering to the Syrian crisis. How will the British initiative bring the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians, the Israelis and many other powers all together to produce a peaceful settlement in the country? I am sure that the British Government’s influence will be among the more useful in the Geneva process and elsewhere—our values have a great deal to offer—but let us not pretend that Britain at the moment can usefully take a political role. I see nothing that could happen that would call for military intervention by the British Government in the Syrian civil war, whether seeking regime change or anything else; indeed, that would be madness. I think that the Government have retained influence by taking part in this tripartite attack. They have acted courageously, sensibly, in the national interest and in the interests of proper humanitarian values and proper international rules of law—even in warfare—in the action they have taken.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on having made this application for an emergency debate and on the passion she showed in her speech—a passion she has shown over many years in pursuit of principle.
There will not be any victors in the war in Syria; there are only victims—the 400,000 or so whose lives have been lost and the many others whose lives have been changed by the injuries they have suffered. More than half the population have been forced to flee their homes, which have been destroyed, and large parts of the country have been laid waste. We all, without any equivocation, support the upholding of the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons, and I am sure that the House would support effective action to stop their use—we shall see whether the action taken on Saturday has a deterrent effect on President Assad—but as I said in my question to the Prime Minister, I genuinely believe that if military action is to be taken in these circumstances, it must be Parliament’s decision, not the Cabinet’s. If we do not get Parliament’s support, I do not think we will win the support of the public and give our decisions the greatest force they could have.
Why does that matter? First, ever since the vote on Iraq in 2003—I had forgotten about the Falklands vote, to which the Father of the House referred—Parliament has been asked to approve the commitment of UK forces to action: in Libya in 2011, Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015. That gives me the opportunity gently to point out that, two and a bit years after we took that decision, following the combined effort, on the ground by the Iraqi forces and the Kurds in the main, with the support of a number of countries from the air, more than 3 million people have been liberated from the cruel rule of Daesh, which committed genocide, war crimes and many other things. Parliament rejected both motions on Syria in 2013, although in the retelling of that story the House needs to remember that either of those resolutions, had they been carried, could have resulted in military action against Assad for the use of chemical weapons. If it was right to seek Parliament’s approval then, in respect of exactly the same country and exactly the same issue—the use of chemical weapons on innocent Syrian civilians—it was right to have done so last week, for exactly the same reasons.
The second reason I argue that Parliament should have taken the decision is that military action is never without risk, particularly in this case given the number of states that have become directly involved in the Syrian conflict. I freely confess that the temperament of the current occupant of the White House, who shows little if any understanding of the responsibilities he holds as the President of the United States, made me worry last week very considerably about the consequences of what he might do. I also freely admit that those worries have been considerably assuaged since by the targeted nature of the strikes and the great care taken to ensure that there was no collateral damage, physical or diplomatic, while seeking undoubtedly to damage Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.
By definition, there are no easy choices and no certainty in the response to this conflict. There is also no shortage of advice on what we should not be doing. Earlier today, in Parliament Square, we saw the placards that appear from time to time, bearing the words “Don’t Bomb Syria”. I say from time to time because their appearance is somewhat erratic. I have never seen those placards, or reports of their appearance, outside the Russian embassy—or, indeed, the Syrian embassy while it was still open prior to 2014—although Russia and, in particular, Syria have been bombing Syrian civilians for years. Selective silence in the face of brutality is neither principled nor a policy.
Then there is the issue of humanitarian protection. If we accept the argument that no action to protect civilians can ever be undertaken or will ever have any legitimacy unless it has been authorised by the United Nations Security Council, we will have accepted that the use of a veto by any one of the five permanent members will prevent the taking of any unilateral action to protect human beings in need. I want the United Nations to work, and I want the Security Council to do its job, but the question for the House is whether the Security Council’s decisions—or the lack of them—can always be the end of the matter.
As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who is no longer in the Chamber, we should remember the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. The Kurds were profoundly grateful for what this country did to prevent them from being bombed from the air. We should think of the action that we took in Kosovo, or the action that we took in Sierra Leone. If I were asked whether I thought that we were doing the right thing at the time, I would say yes. Would we have been wrong—I use the word in the collective sense, meaning the world—to intervene in, say, Srebrenica or Rwanda to prevent the massacres? No, we would not, and it is to our eternal shame that we, as the world, failed to do so.
To the charge of selectivity, which has some force, I simply respond that the fact that we cannot do the right thing everywhere has never struck me as a very good argument for not trying to do the right thing somewhere. The truth is that airstrikes will not end this civil war, and they may not stop the use of chemical weapons. I therefore strongly agree with my hon. Friend that we need to reflect on the situation in which we find ourselves, and ask how we got here and how we can be more effective in the future.
We have been here before. The United Nations was created out of the ashes of the second world war because the world wanted to do better. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted and proclaimed the universal declaration of human rights. Article 3 states:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Article 28 states:
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”
Yet for millions of people in Syria, those rights, so nobly expressed all those years ago, have remained only words on paper—because they have lacked the means to protect themselves and their families from the attacks being made on them, because we have lacked the will to act or have acted imperfectly, or because some have chosen to look the other way and to pass by on the other side of the road. I believe that we all support the principles of the universal declaration of human rights, but we should ask ourselves how we are to uphold them in practice. They mean something—they are the ultimate expression of our responsibility for one another—yet we live in a world in which they cannot be fully realised. Let us imagine for a moment a United Kingdom in which there was peace and stability in London, genocide in Manchester, and civil war in Leeds. We would not regard that as in any way acceptable. We live in a country where it is not the case, because we have established the rule of law and democracy, but we live in a world where it is the case.
What are we discussing here? We are discussing how we fashion the means, collectively, through the United Nations, to ensure that those rights and principles are applied to all our fellow citizens.
The reason why this matters is that now, at the beginning of the 21st century, more than at any other time in human history, our relationships are defined by our interdependence. There are those who argue—I have heard them: “It is not our problem; it is not our business. We really feel sorry for them, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” The truth is that we live with the consequence of this in our minds, in the shame or concern we feel, and also in respect of refugees. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South made that point extremely forcefully, because that is a consequence of allowing conflict to happen that is not brought to an end. We cannot shut the door and close the curtains and wish that what is happening in other countries will go away.
It was out of this concern that the idea of the responsibility to protect was born—developed by the Canadian Government, adopted by the world summit. In 2009, following Ban Ki-moon’s report, the UN General Assembly adopted its first resolution on the subject. It was based on the simple but important idea that state sovereignty is a privilege, but it also comes with a responsibility. The responsibility to protect is concerned with preventing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Of course, that responsibility is not without controversy. Some argue that the nation state should be sovereign, and some object to military action in all circumstances. Others say its scope is too narrow or that we have been selective or inconsistent in how we have chosen to act in the world, and I freely grant that that is the case. But the answer is to make the system work more effectively, and I want that system to be the UN. It has a unique responsibility because of its authority and legitimacy, but it is not always capable of acting. That is why the question of the veto and whether that will in all circumstances stop us from doing something is so important. I commend to the House the initiative the previous French Government took to try to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to agree that they would forgo the veto in circumstances where there were war crimes—crimes against humanity, genocide.
I am the first to recognise the difficulty of trying to persuade countries to do that in those circumstances, but it was, and is, an attempt to deal with the conundrum we are facing. One has only to read the list of the UN Security Council resolutions that have been vetoed or threatened with vetoes or the list of the resolutions on Syria that have been passed, including at least three that call for ceasefires. We do not want in this conflict for resolutions, having even been passed by the UN Security Council, which call for a ceasefire.
The second issue is how we build diplomatic and public pressure and capacity to act. We know that one of the most powerful forces for action is bearing witness to what has happened—those who risk their lives to go and report on what has occurred. That is why President Assad is so anxious to kill those who are reporting and the doctors who say, “Why have so many hospitals in Syria been bombed?”
We must also acknowledge that we live in a world in which fake news is becoming ever more common. We used to call it lies. It is lies, but for a purpose; it is about sapping morale, undermining understanding and preventing people from acting.
I make this argument because the truth is that we have been here before, and we will be here again unless we can build a better system for stopping conflict before we get to this point. Let us be honest: in relation to this conflict, the chances are that President Assad is going to win, although what he will do with his country—which he, more than anyone else, has been responsible for destroying—I have no idea whatever.
In conclusion, I simply say that we can debate particular action at particular times and we hope it will have a beneficial effect, but the truth of this tragedy is that we can, and we must as a world, do much better.
Order. It will shortly be necessary to impose a time limit. Before that, I will call the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), who will be free of said limit, to which, however, I know he will have informal regard.
I am going to keep my remarks brief, Mr Speaker, as previous speakers have done justice to a huge range of subjects. I shall try to stick narrowly to the subject of the Government’s role. First, I should like to compliment the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing the debate. I listened with great interest to her speech and will make a couple of comments about some of the things she said, but I will not follow her down that road, if she will forgive me. I want to deal specifically with what took place in the past few days and the reasons for it.
It is important to get the background absolutely straight and to consider what led to the Prime Minister having to take this decision. Sometimes it is easy to skate over some of these things. I was looking at the House of Commons Library paper on this, which is well worth reading. It lays out in considerable detail the number of times that the Syrians have broken all the accords they made on chemical weapons. It goes on to point out, as the Prime Minister did, that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons does not apportion blame, even when it inspects. It was supposed to be going in fairly shortly, but it is now blocked from going in and we have deep suspicions about the reasons for that. There is a major effort to clear up what is in there and to get rid of people who might be able to show that they have been attacked by these weapons.
Russia has vetoed every single resolution in the Security Council. Something else that is quite interesting, and that has not come out so far, is that in December 2017 an attempt was made to get an extension of the OPCW-United Nations joint investigative mechanism’s mandate. That would have enabled the JIM to look at what was going on and would have given it the power to apportion blame. The Russians vetoed the extension of that mandate without a single question, and it was clear that they did so because they did not want that investigation to take place.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, back in 2013—when I was a member of the Government—the Government came to the House to ask for a mandate to attack areas of command and control or of chemical stockpiles. I was sad to see, when the House voted against that motion, that there were some party politics involved. However, I am not going to revisit the past, other than to say that I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given due regard to the lesson from that. We had to take action then, and serious consequences flowed from our not doing so. Back in 2013, Assad was on the back foot. There were some quite reasonable groups—I do not say that lightly—opposing him, including the Free Syrian Army. Yes, some of the more extreme groups were there, including the jihadis, but there was perhaps an opportunity to influence the direction of what might happen in Syria.
The rejection of the motion in 2013 was probably the single most devastating blow to Syria, and it has led to serious consequences. It emboldened President Assad to believe that he could go on doing what he wanted. The Russians then persuaded President Obama not to pursue the matter by guaranteeing that President Assad would produce no more chemical weapons, and that he would never use such weapons even if he had them. Of course, they have failed completely on that. So perhaps they are complicit in the use of chemical weapons; I begin to wonder whether they are, as they have used them so liberally elsewhere, particularly here on our own home soil in Salisbury.
The vote also gave the Russians the green light to pursue their own agenda aggressively in Syria, and to make the war even worse than it might otherwise have been. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) mentioned the appalling attacks on hospitals, and he was absolutely right to do so, but the question is how closely Russia has been involved in the deliberate targeting and bombing of hospitals and other civilian areas. We are beginning to see all of that in this.
The final bit about the vote in 2013—I hope the House really considers this—is that it opened the door to the takeover of most of the opposition to Assad by jihadi groups, who were untrammelled and un-resisted. With America stepping back, the reality was that the rest was left to the influence of Russia. We then ended up dealing with the worst of all worlds, with Daesh attacks both in Syria and subsequently in Iraq. That shut down many of the options that might well have been available to us.
I am in favour of the House being consulted, but the House also has to give a little leeway to the Executive when it comes to moments such as last week, when it was quite clear that urgent action needed to be taken. Urgent action is based on deep intelligence and if it is not taken quickly, there could well be further consequences later. Such circumstances are difficult, and it behoves a Government to ensure that the action they take is narrowly targeted and therefore effective in its limited regard.
Had the Government been proposing a wider operation, such as the one conducted against Daesh in Iraq or in northern Syria, they would certainly have had to come to the House to explain the nature of that. Last week was an exception; an Executive do need the ability to take such action and then come to the House to explain it and, as the Prime Minister rightly said today, take the consequences of the House’s view about that action, including whether it was justified both legally and in moral terms.
The really important point here, which we do not talk about enough, is the reality that Russia sits like a great beast behind all of what is happening. Without Russia’s involvement in Syria, much of what is going on would not be happening today. Russia’s direct and selfish involvement, which is only about its procurement of a decent-weather port in the Mediterranean and its ability to position its aircraft in Syria and to involve itself in the region, has led it to get involved in some of the worst activities that it is possible to imagine, and with complete indifference to the world order.
If we look back over what Russia has done, we see not just its invasions of Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia and so on, but its involvement in chemical warfare. In 2013, the Russians guaranteed that Syria would not use chemical weapons again. What kind of a guarantee is that, coming from a nation that poisoned the President of Ukraine, killed Mr Litvinenko by radiation, and went on to use a nerve agent to attack Mr Skripal and his daughter on British soil? That is the kind of guarantee given by a criminal to another criminal, and yet we should somehow allow it to be the protector it has not been. It suits Russia’s purposes to have Syria able to do as it pleases; that does not matter to Russia at all.
I say to the hon. Member for Wirral South that her speech was full of fine principle, which I of course absolutely sign up to and back her on, but even that fine principle prompts some serious questions. The most serious relates to what she said about keeping open the corridors of aid and about ensuring that the air is protected from attacks, because she immediately encounters the question: what do we do about the Russians? It is the Russians who have failed to allow—
I am not going give way. The hon. Lady is my constituency neighbour, but—
I was just going to ask a question.
I am going to answer it myself, if the hon. Lady does not mind. I always find that they are the best answers.
I simply say to the hon. Member for Wirral South—this is exactly the point—that we come back to realpolitik. The Russians are sitting right at the heart of the problem and, while they are still able to control it, the Prime Minister is left with having to make this kind of decision: to say that we will not tolerate the use of such weapons, even if the Russians are behind it. That is the important point.
We have to pursue an aggressive position towards Russia. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, Russia is not just producing disinformation but is outright lying about what has been going on. We need to pursue the money, and we need to put it to our European colleagues that they have to think carefully about the use of energy from Russia. It is the energy Russia sells to Europe and others that sustains this tiny economy to build its weapons and to produce its chemical warfare. If we can cut the money to Russia, we begin to cut its ability to interfere in nations such as Syria, Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia and others. The world will be a better place if Russia is restricted on that basis, and I urge my right hon. Friends to do so.
I fully accept the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took her decision, and she was right to do so. She was right in that sense to take the decision without coming to Parliament, and she is right to come to consult Parliament today. I hope we back her fully.
Order. A four-minute limit on each Back-Bench speech will now apply.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing it, and I thank Members on both sides of the House for supporting it at this important time.
I spoke in a previous debate on Syria about my experience of visiting Sarajevo and Srebrenica on a cross-party trip with Remembering Srebrenica. One particular thing that sticks in my mind is visiting an exhibition in Sarajevo of photographs of atrocities, of mass graves and of horrific scenes from Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other locations from the Bosnian conflict. The photographs were juxtaposed with images from the current horrific conflict in Syria, and I could not tell the two sets of images apart. We see all the same hallmarks: the same mass graves, the same attempts to hide evidence and the same utter violations of all the laws and standards of war, whether in the use of chemical welfare, the deliberate bombardment and barrel bombing of civilians, the denial of humanitarian aid or the denial of access to bodies such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and many others, have said has been excellent, but I will emphasise two or three key points. First, we must listen to what the Syrians themselves are saying. I have been repeatedly contacted by Syrians in my constituency, and I have met Syrians who fled the conflict. It is not just the horrific stories of those who have fled very obvious scenes of hostility but the families separated and denied access to each other. A family came to see me who had elderly family members suffering from terminal cancer, unable to access any form of medical treatment and trapped in Aleppo—the family in the UK are deeply worried.
We need to listen carefully to all those individual, personal stories, which is why I particularly support the strong points made about refugees. I have mentioned the situation of councils and what they can do. I am disappointed that the efforts being made by Croeso Penarth in my constituency to house Syrian refugees are being frustrated by the local council. I am disappointed to see the very strict rules on family reunion being interpreted in the way they are, which is why I was happy to support the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill, and it is why my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and others have rightly campaigned so hard on the issue of the Dubs children.
We must also listen very carefully to the non-governmental organisations and those who are giving witness to what is going on. We need to listen to the likes of Médecins sans Frontières when it talks about 200 fleeing patients arriving at its hospital with trauma injuries in recent days, as well as women in childbirth and children suffering from malnutrition—the UN estimates that nearly 151,000 people have fled into north-west Syria. The International Committee of the Red Cross talks of the 13 million who need aid, the four in five now living in poverty in what was once a rich country and the 1.75 million children now not in school.
There is a danger that we get caught up in online conspiracy theories and fake news. We need to listen to those Syrians, we need to listen to those NGOs and we need to listen to those journalists who are giving that testimony, rather than engaging in some sort of fantasy about who is responsible. It is Assad who is responsible, it is his allies who are responsible and it is those who block humanitarian aid, like Hezbollah and others, who are responsible. That is where the responsibility lies, and that is where we should direct our anger, our frustration and our strategy.
I come to my greatest concern, whatever the rights and wrongs of this action: I believe the Prime Minister should have come to this House before now. I believe the Government have the right to act in certain circumstances without coming here, but I do not see why that applies in this case. There needs to be a clear strategy—a political, diplomatic and humanitarian strategy. We cannot simply fire and forget. We cannot simply talk, debate and too often forget. Not just on Syria, but on Yemen, Afghanistan and so many others, we take actions, we discuss the situation in this place, then we ignore it and do not come back, but that is what we need to do.
Order. I should advise the House that unfortunately, and most unfortunately for Opposition Members, the clock to my right is not fully functioning. Opposition Members are therefore not able to see the countdown. They will have to look at the clock on the other side and make a calculation as to when their four minutes are likely to be up, although I will do my best to help with appropriate gesticulation.
I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), as she has done a service to the entire House. I do not agree with all her views, but I was more than happy to support her application. A number of right hon. and hon. Members have referred to what is sometimes called the endgame in Syria, and I think there are four possibilities. Option No. 1 is a negotiated deal with give and take on both sides, which seems to be almost out of the question. Option No. 2 is a de facto stalemate, with the effective partition of territory between opposing forces—that is possible but unlikely. Option No. 3 is a win by the rebels, which is now impossible, unless we enter the war, as we disastrously did in Iraq and in Libya. Option No. 4 is a win by the regime, which is highly probable.
In December 2015, the House voted to bomb Islamist terrorists in Syria, as we had been doing in Iraq for more than a year. For the next 17 months, we mounted more than 800 airstrikes in Iraq but only 95 in Syria. Why the huge disparity? It was because in Iraq we want one side, the Iraqi Government, to win and the other side, the Islamist fighters, to lose, whereas the situation in Syria is totally different. As I have said previously, it is a choice between monsters and maniacs, with the inhuman Assad regime on one side and the jihadist fanatics dominating the other. Right hon. and hon. Members should be in no doubt that the armed opposition in Syria is indeed dominated by vicious Islamist factions. Only the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurds, are at all acceptable to us, and they are now under attack from the Turks, who are supposedly our allies in NATO but are increasingly cosying up to the Russians.
Airstrikes risk inflicting lethal collateral damage, which is why the Prime Minister was absolutely right when she said to us earlier that this was a “targeted and limited” action. That is as it should be and that is how it must remain. I have been concerned about suggestions in the debate, once again, that we should widen this out into a broader intervention in the Syrian civil war. That will be to repeat the mistakes we made in Libya and in Iraq. I have to disagree with the Father of the House, because if we had gone to war in 2013, although there was talk about bombing to prevent chemical attacks, the reality is that it would not have stopped until we had toppled Assad and the result would have been similar to the one in Libya.
There are three guidelines we should follow in any further military action that we feel we have to take. First, we must remember that, apart from the SDF, neither side in the Syrian civil war deserves our support. Secondly, we must continue to impress on Russia that the action we are taking is solely to punish, degrade and deter the use of poison gas, and is not the thin end of a regime-change wedge. Finally, we must ensure that we have engaged in a one-off punishment that will not be repeated unless further chemical attacks take place.
May I correct what my right hon. Friend said earlier? In 2013, we had discussions in the National Security Council and in the Cabinet, and we were absolutely clear that we were asking only for targeted, proportionate attacks on sites connected with chemical weapons. The then Government had discussed and agreed that we were not going to get involved in the wider Syrian civil war, and I agree with my right hon. Friend that that is as desirable an objective now as it was then.
I am glad to have the extra time to say that my right hon. and learned Friend did not mention the conflict in Libya. With Libya, we were told exactly the same thing: that we were voting for a protective measure—a no-fly zone to protect the citizens of Benghazi—but the moment that we retrospectively gave our approval for that, it was all out for a bombing campaign to topple that regime. I do not doubt for one moment what my right hon. and learned Friend has said to the House, but I have it from other sources that I cannot quote that I am not at all far from the truth in saying that had we acted in 2013, the result in Syria would have been the same as the result in Libya. Even if that were wrong, the people who are at fault are the people who misled the House in 2011 about Libya when they did not say that we were going to try to topple Gaddafi. Had they said that, I would have voted against that action. I believe that I and the 29 other Conservatives who voted the way we did on Syria in 2013 were absolutely right to do so.
With that, my time is up, so I simply say that we should spend more money on defence so that we will have more defence options.
Britain is an open and outward-looking country and our interests do not stop at our borders. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, even within the context of the atrocities of war. This year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of world war one, in which we know and can recall from literature how gas attacks were used with such horrendous effect. That led to the processes in which the UK and others were so involved that led to the creation of the 1928 Geneva protocol and, indeed, the international consensus throughout the 20th century that the use of chemical weapons crossed a line and should not happen.
I recognise that the Government have set out some compelling points in the arguments that they have made about the need to uphold international law and the agreements that ban the use of chemical weapons. I take some reassurance from the fact that the strikes seem to have been so precisely targeted. I was concerned about the rhetoric in the run-up to the strikes about the risk of escalation, particularly with Russia so involved in the region, but the fact that there have been no hits on Russian infrastructure is certainly a positive sign. Indeed, there is a certain logic to making the attacks specific to chemical weapons facilities and research. The fact that it looks like there have not been any civilian casualties is very much a testament to the skill of our armed forces in their deployment.
Although the Government have made some strong points, I have some significant concerns. It is important in these matters to build wider support. An opportunity was missed last week, in respect not only of Parliament but of building the case with the country more widely. There was a vacuum in Government communication until the strikes had been launched. It is also important to build the case internationally. I recognise the support that has been obtained from NATO and EU partners, and I entirely appreciate the huge frustration of the Security Council veto. Russia cannot even agree to hold, or at least withhold its veto on holding, an independent investigation of chemical weapons attacks.
There are avenues that can be pursued when the Security Council is paralysed, including the United Nations uniting for peace protocol, which uses the General Assembly. What is the Government’s assessment of that? I imagine it is not without its problems, but has it been considered and could it be tried? The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) talked about the responsibility to protect, which is an important doctrine, but I slightly fear that if we do not get wider international buy-in, there is a danger that R2P being invoked by three Security Council members might undermine its wider legitimacy.
There are also concerns about President Trump. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that this was her decision, and we do not need to question her sincerity on that in recognising that, none the less, there are genuine concerns about the US Commander-in-Chief. He is erratic and unpredictable, and the question is not just whether the UK has an influence over him, but whether the sensible voices within his own Administration have an influence over him. Given that there are those within his circle who are looking for a fight with Iran, it is particularly important that we make sure that our view is expressed to them.
Does the hon. Lady have similar concerns about President Macron, who was also involved in the decision making last week?
There is a very easy answer to that. I have many, many more concerns about President Trump than about President Macron, in whom I have much more confidence as a world leader.
As I have said, there are people within Trump’s inner circle who are threatening the Iran nuclear agreement, and who are suggesting that perhaps the sanctions should not be waived again when they come up for renewal in May. Given what the UK put into negotiating that agreement in the first place, it is incredibly important that we use whatever influence we can to maintain it.
In my earlier remarks to the Prime Minister, I mentioned the issue of refugees. I absolutely agree with the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that we need to do more on that issue. There is also the long-term issue of how we create the conditions for peace. Anyone who says that that is simple, or that there is an easy soundbite for what to do, fails to understand the complexity of the situation. There is no obvious answer and no neat solution. I wish that I had one, and I am sure the Government do too. These atrocious attacks show us that, if anything, we must redouble our efforts to press, cajole and explore every possible way. I regret the way in which the Government brought this matter forward, though I accept that, in some areas, they have made a good case. I remain concerned about the issues that I have raised and hope to hear some reassurance. I recognise that there are no easy answers, but we must keep trying to find a way forward.
As we continue to learn—sometimes belatedly—from the lessons of conflict, it is right that we always strive to push ourselves forward as a nation to make better judgments about how and why we engage in conflict and who we serve to protect through our actions.
It is because of that responsibility to protect that we owe it to those who are suffering around the world not to simply stand back in the cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and to be there for them in their hour of need. Knee-jerk isolationism, ideological pacifism and anti-interventionism are not in Britain’s national interests, nor are they in the interests of the weakest and the most vulnerable in the world.
As a champion of international law, a rules-based international system, human rights, tolerance, openness and democracy, an engaged and activist foreign policy is part of who we are as a country, and those values are associated with our global influence and the leadership that we are demonstrating in the world. Of course that applies to Syria and the awful and abhorrent crisis that we have seen over the past eight years. This is the largest humanitarian crisis that we have seen in a generation, and we know that Britain stands tall, shoulder to shoulder with others, through the great leadership that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been providing to the Syrian people. I am talking about not just aid but the support within the region that she and her Government have been able to provide. That also applies to long-term reconstruction in the region and support to the countries around Syria.
At the same time, justice and accountability must be sought for the millions who have been displaced, killed and harmed through the brutality of this conflict. Those who are responsible should be subject to the right form of prosecution in the right way internationally.
As we discuss the recent events that have brought us here today—the murder of Syrian civilians, including innocent children, with chemical weapons that were outlawed by the world nearly a century ago—we know that the haunting images of human suffering will stay with us all for a very long time. Chemical weapons are uniquely indiscriminate, and we must never forget that. It is right that we proceed with care and that we openly hold the discussions that we are having today in the House. It is right that we ask ourselves the detailed questions that have been voiced here today. We must also ask ourselves what kind of nation we would be if we turned away and closed our eyes to the horrors that are killing women, children and many men every single day in the war and the atrocities that we have seen. It is absolutely right, as the Prime Minister has shown, that we send a clear message out that, if and when a brutal regime kills its people with chemical weapons that are prohibited under international law, the United Kingdom, with its commitment to peace and stability around the world, remains absolutely committed to upholding the principles of international law.
Last weekend’s chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians in Douma was a brutal and barbaric act. Seventy-five people, including children, have died. More than 500 have been treated for symptoms of nerve agent poisoning. This outrage clearly breached the Geneva protocol of 1925 and the 1993 chemical weapons convention. Only Assad has helicopters and barrel bombs. His culpability can be in no doubt. It was at least the ninth time that Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people, and he chose to use chemical weapons in Douma specifically to target civilians. This was a war crime that led to unimaginable humanitarian suffering, death and destruction. Such barbarity cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
There should, of course, be a UN investigation, but that is impossible because the Russian Government continue to veto any attempts by the Security Council, and the Syrian regime is now preventing the OPCW from entering Douma. The Syrian regime is responsible for this chemical weapons attack, and its sponsors in the Kremlin are complicit, not only because of their support for Assad and his brutal regime but because of their relentless work to undermine the ability of international institutions to function properly, thereby rendering effective diplomatic action impossible.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment that it was absolutely right for the Prime Minister to take this action. It is not only Assad who is using chemical weapons in Syria; he is being propped up very much by the Russians. We need to send a message to Assad and the Russians that chemical weapons are just not acceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is a universal message that needs to be sent to all those brutal dictators who may be considering going down this route.
With the Kremlin effectively dismantling the diplomatic route, we are left with no option but to apply military force. It pains me to say this, but the sad reality is that the future of Syria is in the hands of the Kremlin, Iran and the Assad regime. However, that does not mean that we have no agency or that we should allow the international norms around the prohibition of chemical weapons to wither on the vine. That is why it was right to act in the name of humanitarian concerns and assert the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. But Parliament should have had a say. That has been the way we have operated in this place for over a decade. The dispute about parliamentary authorisation reveals the shortcomings of a convention-based constitutional system. The Leader of the Opposition is therefore right that we should have a war powers Act. Of course, the devil will be in the detail. Such an Act must not be so loose as to allow the Government to do anything, but it must not be so tight as to bind the hands of the Government and those on the frontline to the extent that it would become an impossibly high bar to pass.
The costs of non-intervention are clear. Non-intervention would equate to a tacit approval of the abhorrent use of chemical weapons. A targeted strike on the installations that enable the use of chemical weapons not only degrades the Syrian capacity to deliver and use chemical weapons again, but sends a signal that their use will not be tolerated. We must therefore be steadfast and consistent. We must also do more to support those who have fled Syria to escape this barbarity, and step up to fulfil our obligations to address the refugee crisis.
My party has a proud history of standing up for the most vulnerable. We led the world to intervene in Kosovo to prevent genocide, understanding that the Russian veto precluded the UN route at that time. The Labour party is not a pacifist party. Indeed, it was a Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was the driving force behind establishing NATO. I am truly proud of the Labour party’s role, 60 years ago almost to the day, in the signing of the treaty of Brussels. We are a party that understands that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men—and, indeed, women—to do nothing. We understand the costs of non-intervention, just as we appreciate and learn from the costs of intervention. Where would we be if pacifists had been in charge in 1939?
If the only intervention that we contemplate is that with UN Security Council approval, we will be allowing the Kremlin to dictate our foreign policy. I refuse to allow my country or my party to be held hostage by Vladimir Putin. I will always uphold the fine history of my party, which is to be ready, willing and able to intervene, and to shoulder our responsibility to protect.
I think that most of us would accept that there are no easy answers to questions of this sort, just a series of hard and difficult decisions. I, for one, believe that Prime Ministers should retain the right—the leeway—to act in extremis, with the use of armed forces if circumstances demand. However, I also think that the Government accept that the reason why we are having this debate, in many respects, is that many of us believe that Government plans for military action should be subject to close scrutiny before being executed, because we have seen a litany of errors regarding our previous interventions, whether in Iraq, Helmand or Libya.
In Syria, our initial proposed policy was to arm the rebels, not realising that therein lay the greater danger. We then excluded the Russians and the Iranians from the diplomatic process. There has also been an inconsistency of objective on our part. One minute we are calling for Assad’s removal; another time we realise that his opponents perhaps represent the greater danger. Only two weeks ago, President Trump suggested that the US would turn away from Syria, and that could only have sent the wrong message to Damascus and Moscow.
Perhaps the international community’s biggest failure has been on humanitarian aid. We can be very proud of our record as a country in providing £2.5 billion since 2012-13. However, given the underfunding of the humanitarian effort in general—that contribution of £2.5 billion dwarfs those of other countries, apart from the US—the Government need to try to do more to encourage the international community to follow our lead and meet its obligations.
While acknowledging the debt that we owe to our armed forces, my concern about the latest missile strike is that our previous engagements in interventions suggest that there is a real danger of being dragged into a bigger conflict. There have been scores of chemical weapons attacks in Syria since this vicious civil war started and I worry about the risk of escalation. Russia has many more troops on the ground. This is a proxy war, as we well know, reflecting regional conflict. There are very few moderates left in Syria. The prospect of more violence, and even heightened violence, is very real indeed.
I believe that a policy is generally better if Parliament does have some oversight. I therefore suggest to the Government that they should focus on the question I posed during our proceedings the statement and at least give some consideration to the circumstances in which they would think it right to consult Parliament before actually committing our armed forces, and to what they should reflect on in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. The biggest danger is being dragged into this conflict. There is no easy answer. We need to focus on the fact that the humanitarian aid needs to be sorted out, and we need to learn the lessons of the past if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
I do not want to rehash the points made by other hon. Members, but generally I support the tone of the debate. I totally agree with many colleagues who have said that we must have a joined-up and co-ordinated strategy for how we support the people of Syria in diplomatic, humanitarian and other ways.
On the diplomatic strategy, resolution 377A of the General Assembly—the “Uniting for Peace” resolution—would allow this Government to convene an emergency session of the GA to seek a majority there. If that majority was found, it would provide a level of backing under international law that would give some legitimacy to further actions and strategies on Syria.
I want to focus most of my comments on my trip to northern Syria a week ago. I met a number of the Kurdish but also the Arab and Turkmen leaders who hold joint positions in the northern Syrian region administration. Often we talk about the disaster of Syria, but what the northern Syrian authority has managed to achieve despite all the disaster going on around it is rather remarkable, and we should be basing our strategy for Syria on that. It has achieved a bottom-up democracy in which local organisations co-ordinate at the parish level to ensure basic humanitarian provision, in which women must co-chair every single level of government—that is remarkable for the region and for the world—and in which there is a quota to ensure that 40% of seats in all authorities in the northern Syrian region are reserved for non-Kurdish minorities, which shows the pluralism that these people are trying to build. It also has a fighting force that led in fighting Daesh and its fascist ideology all the way back to the borders.
What I heard there was a feeling that these people are now being let down by the British Government. With the incursion into Afrin by Turkey, a supposed British ally, they feel that they have been left out in the cold. I spoke to the co-Prime Minister there, who said that Russia and Syria had made them an offer: if they got into bed with them, they would give them protection against Turkey. They rejected that offer; they could not get into bed with Assad because they wanted democracy.
We must ensure that we uphold the work that those people have done, rather than abandoning them to the onslaught. Hundreds of thousands of people have now been displaced in Afrin and hundreds have died. There is one thing that the Government could do. A number of military fighters in the region who have fought Daesh are ill and need advanced medical treatment, but the Government are refusing them visas through the new corridor that has opened up into Iraq—
Order. I am sorry, but we are time-constrained.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this important debate and introducing it with such evident passion.
The barbaric attack on Douma killed around 75 men, women and children, with about 500 additional casualties. According to doctors and aid workers who treated the victims, their symptoms were characteristic of an attack utilising chlorine gas. Chlorine was first weaponised as a gas by German scientist Fritz Haber and was then employed by the German army against unsuspecting French troops at the second battle of Ypres in April 1915. In contact with the air, chlorine gas vaporises into a low-hanging cloud. That would collect in the trenches, much as it did in the cellars of Douma last week, one century later.
Chlorine gas reacts quickly with water in the airways to form hydrochloric acid, swelling and damaging lung tissue and causing death by suffocation. It is a truly horrific way to die. The war poet Wilfred Owen gave a graphic description of a gas attack in his famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
The victims at Douma who choked and drowned were not soldiers, but innocent civilians, non-combatants, families, kids.
During the 1980s, at the height of the cold war, I served as an infantry officer in the Territorial Army. Our war role was to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine. We assumed that any conflict would go chemical almost from the outset, which is why I happen to know a bit about the subject. When we went to Germany, we trained in special protective suits to defend us against NBC—nuclear, biological and chemical—warfare. We were also equipped with gas masks or respirators, which were designed to give us at least a fighting chance against chemical agents in particular.
The citizens of Douma had no NBC suits. They had no respirators and they had no chance. They were sheltering in cellars as a defence against Syrian and Russian airstrikes, and that was precisely why the Syrians used gas against them, knowing that it would penetrate to the cellars and that the occupants would have no defence against it. This tactic was utterly barbaric, and I cannot believe any Member of this House would do anything but utterly condemn it.
Part of today’s debate has been about whether our airstrikes were illegal. They were not illegal; it was the Syrian chemical attack on Douma that was illegal. Our airstrikes were targeted to defend the principles of the chemical weapons convention and thus uphold international law. That is the stark reality from which the leadership of the Opposition cannot escape. We have already heard reference to Burke’s dictum:
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
We in this country did something, and we should be proud of it.
I want to focus on what I would like to call the Westminster paradox. While there are those who have taken the view that the something that must be done was the something done at the weekend, I cannot help but draw the conclusion that instead of reasserting the very best of the international rules-based system, we have set a precedent for an unfortunate and disturbing new normal that will be far more to the liking of those in the Kremlin than they would want.
It is important for all Members to recognise the difficulty that the Prime Minister faced last week. While I may not agree with the decision, I think every Member of the House should reflect on it. It was a difficult decision to make, as I think every Member recognises.
Nevertheless, I disagree with the answer the Prime Minister gave me earlier, which was that by asking that the United Nations is respected, we somehow give the Russian state—specifically the Russian regime—a veto on UK foreign policy. It seems that it is now United Kingdom Government policy that United Nations Security Council vetoes are no longer binding on the UK. That seems to be the precedent the UK Government are setting. Whether we like it or not, Vladimir Putin will be rubbing his hands at this small yet significant hypocrisy—magnified a thousandfold on Russia Today, in internet memes and in Stop the War coalition whataboutery—which contains just enough of a grain of truth to be accepted by the many who believe such things all too easily.
We know that the United Kingdom has not used its Security Council veto unilaterally since September 1972. It was, of all things, on a colonial legacy issue about the place formerly known as Rhodesia, and I am sure that the Government would not like to be reminded about that during this week of all weeks. Why does the United Kingdom have this veto? Many people have noticed the precedent that has been set. I do not doubt that the corrupt regime in Moscow will stop at nothing to prop up the wicked regime in Damascus. Equally, it will do so in relation to the various slivers of eastern Europe and the Caucasus that it has occupied, while China will supposedly do so in relation to North Korea or Burma.
So—this is a specific question that requires an answer—do the Government have any substantive policy suggestions for the structure and procedures of the United Nations Security Council now that it would seem that veto powers have ceased to work? To embark on a brave new world of UK foreign policy once since 2016 was foolish; to do so twice would be indescribable.
Let us get to the final point of the Westminster paradox. Over the course of the two referendums we have had on these islands in recent years, it would be fair to say we have been given the impression, particularly by Government Members, that the UK’s position on the Security Council was one of great responsibility and power that gave us immense privileges and, secondly, that it was derived in part from the status of this place as a cradle of liberal parliamentary democracy—something that should be restored to a supposed former glory. I fear that, in the same period in which they have diminished themselves by being about to leave the European Union, this Government have diminished the United Kingdom yet further by laying dynamite under the foundations of the international rules-based system that it did so much to create.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this debate.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) recalled the dreadful events in the battle of Ypres in 1915, which led in 1925 to the Geneva protocol, under which no country was allowed to use chemical weapons.
In 2013, Syria signed up to the chemical weapons convention. In 2014, the Russians signed an agreement with the OPCW that guaranteed that all Syria’s chemical weapons would be destroyed. Russia has vetoed resolutions in the Security Council 12 times since 2011, so I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that the UN resolution mechanism is not working.
Syria is one of the most persecuted countries on the planet. It will be one of the worst human catastrophes in the world in the 21st century. If the world does not stand up to the use of chemical weapons, as foreshadowed by the battle of Ypres, the world will have lost its moral compass. If we allow one or two dictators with warped minds to continue to use chemical weapons, the world will be a much poorer place. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was therefore absolutely right to send a signal with our allies last weekend by taking part in joint actions.
As I said, Syria is one of the most persecuted countries on the planet. The good Samaritan, all those centuries ago, did not walk by; he stopped to help that persecuted person. The world should be helping Syria; it has 6.3 million internally displaced people and 4.8 million externally displaced people. I have been to Nizip 2 refugee camp, and it is a pitiful sight.
I have seen Syrian children being educated in the Lebanon, and I have seen Syrian children looking absolutely bewildered in camps in Jordan by what they have witnessed. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the international community should be stepping up to ensure that more money is made available to assist these Syrian refugees?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He, like myself, has been to refugee camps—he in Jordan, me in Turkey—and we have seen the very difficult conditions these refugees live in. I am proud that our country and our Government, under the excellent leadership of our Prime Minister, is one of the largest donors in the world, helping make life just a little better in these camps.
In the last bit of my speech, I want to focus on one issue. A lot of people in this debate have said, “Well, we should do something,” but nobody has actually come up with what we should be doing. If the United Nations system is not working, we have to find another mechanism, and it seems to me that the only other mechanism at the moment is the Geneva peace process. The problem with the Geneva peace process, which has been going for at least five years and probably longer, is that the Americans, the Europeans and the west in general cannot make up their minds whether they want to see Assad continue in power or whether they want to see Assad go—whether he should be part of an interim Government or whether he should not.
We should learn the lessons of Iraq. We deposed Saddam Hussein and all the Ba’athists who knew how to govern Iraq. We must not make the same mistake in Syria. If we depose Bashar al-Assad, we must not get rid of the Alawites. If we do, we will lose the ability of those who know how to govern this very difficult country, which is composed of a lot of ethnic minorities. If it is to succeed and we are to come up with any sort of peaceful solution, the Alawites have to be a part of it.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. What would be the plight of the Christians in Syria if Bashar al-Assad were deposed?
It is very hard to know. There are so many ethnic minorities in Syria—the Kurds, the Christians, the Shi’a, the Sunnis and numerous other groupings—it is very hard to see how a peace process would work. Suffice it to say that we have a duty to the Syrian people to try to find a peace solution.
We must work doubly hard at the Geneva process with our American allies. We have to decide whether the Assad Government should continue. We have to decide who is invited to that peace process. There are different views on whether the Iranians, the Saudis or the Israelis should be invited. Who else should be invited? Get them all around a table, start talking and see whether we can come up with a peace process. I simply end by saying again that all those centuries ago the good Samaritan did not walk by. He stopped and tried to help. It is imperative that the British Government not only continue to help the refugees in the camps but strain every last sinew to see what we can do to help to produce a successful peace process in Syria.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has a done a typically valiant service for the Syrian people today by reminding us all that the focus of our efforts ought to be, ultimately, on them. I will spend a few moments on the action the Prime Minister rightly authorised at the weekend, but I want to use the majority of the few minutes I have to talk about what the future can be.
On the authorisation of strikes, as the Prime Minister knows, many of us have been pushing for this for months and, in some cases, years. It was the right decision. It was courageous. We should all welcome the fact that the RAF seems to have executed them in such a professional way, destroying the target while minimising civilian casualties and wider collateral damage. The action was necessary and worth supporting to reset the red line against chemical weapons use anywhere in the world, but I hope we also can use this opportunity to make a genuine difference for the Syrian people.
I understand and accept what the Government say about wanting to avoid escalation by not seeking to change the balance of the civil war in Syria, but let us be careful in understanding what we potentially mean by that. This is a regime that uses chemical weapons as part of a worked out panoply of violence and war crimes against civilian people. It is worth remembering that the chemical attack last weekend only came about as part of an effort to try to move rebels out of the enclave in Douma. When they refused to go, the next day a chemical weapon was dropped on them. It was therefore part of a grotesque siege strategy that breaks all international conventions.
The consensus was that Russia, Assad and Iran would have it all their own way in Syria and that nothing could be done. We have shown that that is not the case. When the right targeted action is taken, we can make a difference. While we should not seek to intervene in the outcome by taking sides in the civil war, there is more that we can do with military support to back up the Syrian people. The people of Idlib now face a final, terrible siege, just as many other towns and cities have across Syria. We could say with our allies that we will guarantee humanitarian access to those people. We would not intervene militarily on the side of opposition groups—I accept that is difficult —but we could say that we will guarantee vital aid supplies to stop the grotesque war crime of siege tactics being used against those people. I really hope that the Government will take heart from the way in which they have been successful over chemical weapons and consider taking that forward in the vital weeks ahead.
I join colleagues from across the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing today’s debate. There is limited time available, so I will discuss only briefly some key issues that have been raised.
On the timeliness of action and how the decision was taken, I am clear that we could not have waited. The power of the strikes last week was not really to do with the munitions that were launched or the targets that we set, but to do with the fact that we were acting in concert with the United States and France very soon after such an abhorrent attack in Syria. Although Parliament must now hold the Government to account for the decisions that they have taken, we should be clear on our limitations. We are all relying on open-source information and the things that we have seen on social media. We do not, and cannot, have the luxury of seeing the high resolution, real-time satellite imagery that will have been at the disposal of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, or the other surveillance assets that we have in theatre, or the signals intelligence and human intelligence that she will undoubtedly have had access to in making her analysis of what happened two weekends ago and how we should respond.
In my view, the Prime Minister made entirely the right call. She chose a course of action that was limited in scope and proportionate and that was expertly delivered by our world-beating Royal Air Force. She chose to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability, to deter its use in future and to demonstrate to Assad and his Russian backers that such behaviour would not be tolerated. She did not seek to facilitate regime change; nor did she furnish either side with a tactical advantage on the ground. In my view, she made exactly the right call, because last week was not the time for more diplomacy, more humanitarian efforts, more inspections or more pressure of other types. Let us be clear that all have their value in the medium and long term, but we know that any of those activities last week would have been stopped by Russia, and we would therefore have been unable to launch any sort of response to the chemical attacks.
Let us be clear: we are responding to war crimes. We are responding to a dictator who gassed children in his own country. We had the capacity to do the right thing, and we did it. I am not a warmonger in advocating such a course of action, nor is the Prime Minister. I was sent by Her Majesty’s Government into harm’s way in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland four times. I know what it is to be sent into those situations and to put my own life on the line. I also know that the Prime Minister has in the past sat down with the families of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country, so she, too, knows the gravity of the decisions that she is taking and the cost that it can have for those who serve in our nation’s armed forces.
Having been in a situation where I have gone away at the behest of Her Majesty’s Government to do what was deemed to be in the UK’s national interest and having heard those conflicts being debated in this place, I have found it outrageous today to hear the Prime Minister’s motives questioned in the way that they have been. The idea that she took the decisions that she did to give us a boost in the local elections or to suck up to Trump is just an outrageous accusation and it cannot at all be true. My right hon. Friend carries a responsibility that the rest of us do not. We all see the pictures on TV and in the press. We all share the outrage, but only she gets the full intelligence and only she has the power to direct a response. It was brave of her not to delegate that decision to Parliament last week. She did absolutely the right thing for our country and for the people of Syria.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for her initiative in securing this important debate.
I share the moral outrage expressed on both sides of the House—Assad and his henchmen are barbarians and the desire to do something to stop them is deeply and keenly felt, as colleagues on both sides have expressed sincerely and passionately—but our guiding principle must surely be that whatever we do must have the best chance of reducing suffering in the region, and I remain to be convinced that the military strikes we have seen are the best way of doing that. Airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities might help us to avoid feeling impotent and irrelevant, yet taking action that risks escalating and creating further loss of life and suffering would only perpetuate the problems we all want to solve. Moreover, in places such as Libya, as in Syria, such action has time and again proved a distraction from the difficult, relentless and all too frequently neglected work of waging peace, which is a lot more difficult than waging war.
In my brief speaking time, I want to challenge those who suggest that those of us who question the military action are somehow in favour of doing nothing. That is not the case. There is a vast amount we could be doing. For example, we should be cracking down on Russia, through further sanctions, and pursuing diplomatic channels too. It is worth noting that US sanctions against Russia are finally beginning to bite. Last week, new US sanctions against seven oligarchs, 17 top officials and 12 companies led to tens of billions of dollars in losses on Russian markets within just a few hours last Monday, and the rouble recently suffered its biggest daily fall in over three years. We now need to double down on these actions, even if that has an effect on our own economy. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) would probably find it as worrying as I do that I find myself in agreement with him over the issue of energy in the EU. We could be taking more action there to put pressure on Russia, even if it comes at a cost to our own economies.
While moral outrage is all very well, we also need to invest in our own moral authority. Britain urgently needs to get its own house in order if it wants to be a credible positive influence on the world stage. That means deploying the UK’s considerable power and influence in the world to advance the full enjoyment of human rights; scaling back and ending alliances of convenience with repressive, aggressive or corrupt states such as Saudi Arabia, beginning with a ban on arms exports to such states; restoring the UK’s diplomatic capabilities, starting with a reversal of the cuts to the FCO budget; championing constructive engagement and multilateral forums; and in the longer term, as others have said, working towards reform of the UN as well. We also need to expend serious and sustained effort to enhance and expand UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding capabilities and to strengthen and fully resource the International Criminal Court and the process of establishing and supporting war crimes tribunals. How can we be serious as a state about peacebuilding if the Government continue to boycott UN attempts to prohibit nuclear weapons, especially at a time when the world faces the renewed threat of nuclear strikes?
Finally, two quick things: I completely agree with everything that the hon. Member for Wirral South and others have said about the importance of taking more refugees, and I have been supporting a war powers Act for many years, but it has to be a free vote. We cannot outsource our responsibility for making that decision to the party Whips. We, as MPs, have to take that moral decision.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this debate. A year ago virtually to the day, I was in Lebanon, and one of the purposes of my trip was to look at and learn about the impacts on Lebanon of the hospitality it had shown to refugees from Syria. I met many Syrian refugees, and we spoke to them through an interpreter. We can be very proud of this Government’s record in the region in supporting refugees from Syria.
It is clear, however, that we need broader action from other countries. In particular, we must put pressure on Russia to stop what it is doing in Syria. As we all know, that is what will lead to access for humanitarian aid. Moreover, if Russia told Assad to stop using chemical weapons, he would stop using them. They provide him with cover. They provide him with the excuse that enables him to do it.
I deeply regret the vote that took place in the House in 2013. I think that we opened the door by failing to act. I had not been elected then, but had I been, I would have voted for action. I support the Prime Minister’s action now, and I also support the idea that the Government must have the flexibility to act in a limited, proportionate and speedy way to deal with what was, in this instance, a very real threat.
Part of the international rules-based order concerns human rights, and the way to enforce that is through the International Criminal Court in the context of war crimes. The problem is that it takes years. We have all seen the cases involving Rwanda and Kosovo, and we know how long it has taken to secure justice in those cases. The fact is that, given this dreadful blight—this barbaric and horrific use of chemical weapons—we cannot afford to wait.
Justice will, I hope, come to all the commanders who have been involved in those decisions in Syria. I hope that very good records are being kept, but we know that, ironically, the Syrian Government are keeping their own records. In the words of Human Rights Watch, there has been
“a bureaucratic effort by the Syrian security apparatus to maintain a photographic record of the thousands who have died…since 2011”.
We have access to some of those records through defectors.
I support what the Prime Minister has done. I urge the House to make the effort to secure the evidence which, in the longer term, will lead to the prosecutions and convictions of Assad and the Russians who were on the ground acting as so-called advisers, who turn a blind eye to these breaches of international law, and who, I would argue, are complicit in encouraging them. That, in the longer term, is where we need to take action. However, I completely support the Prime Minister and the action that she took on Saturday.
Last night I held a meeting in my constituency. Many experts—academics, as well as people who had worked in Syria to deal with the humanitarian crisis there in Syria—wanted me to convey to the House their universal condemnation of the heinous crimes that we have all witnessed, and that condemnation has also been expressed throughout the House. This is not just a question of chemical weapons. We must also focus on the conventional weapons that have stolen the lives of so many, injured so many more, and displaced even more again.
I am not talking about an intervention here and there; I am talking about a consistent foreign policy that will address the real crisis that we are seeing in so many failed states in the world. It confuses me that we do not talk about the consistency of the atrocities that we are witnessing in Yemen, in Gaza, in the Rohingya community and in Syria, and about applying the same processes to them. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has called for a war powers Act, which is essential. We need consistency if we are to engage with members of the international community, and we need consistency from them too. We must not only find a mechanism for the future, but assess the instruments that are available to us, as global players. We must ensure that the instruments of the United Nations are working effectively to serve the needs of the universal crises that we are witnessing today.
A couple of other issues were raised at the meeting last night. First, the voices of the Syrian people have not been heard in this debate. It is absolutely crucial that we listen first and foremost to the people either displaced or currently living in Syria; those voices have so much more weight. This is about Syria, not other state actors, and we must turn to it.
We must also raise the real concerns about the humanitarian efforts. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) was absolutely right to talk about the need for consistency in our approach, and whether somebody is suffering within Syria or is displaced in the region or is elsewhere in camps across Europe, it is vital that the UK steps up to the mark and fulfils its responsibility to so many people who are suffering today.
That means looking at the small number of people we have brought into our country to date and asking whether more can be done. There is a question about the Dubs amendment, and we must ask whether that is enough and whether we can, as a country, go further; I say we can.
We must also look at the way we conduct our foreign policy. I listen carefully to the words spoken in this place. Often I have heard loose language from the Foreign Secretary, or words of provocation. We need to make sure there is good governance over our foreign policy, too.
Committing British forces is a grave responsibility; no right-thinking Prime Minister takes any pleasure in doing so, but no responsible Prime Minister should shrink from taking action where basic humanity and the national interest demand that.
On basic humanity, I fear we might as a world collectively have forgotten the peculiar horror of chemical weapons. They are particularly appalling, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) did us a service by invoking the poetry of 100 years ago. No one who heard it can fail to have been struck by some of what he quoted, and I remember as a child being appalled by the description of “white eyes writhing” in the face of a British soldier who had been affected and blood coming “gargling” from “froth-corrupted lungs”. There can be no doubt that President Assad would, if left unchecked, use this means as an easy, cheap and ruthless weapon to mop up any lingering resistance, so this must never be normalised.
The second point is that the credibility of the rules-based order is at stake. Over 190 nations are signatories to the chemical weapons convention, including Russia and Syria. To turn a blind eye is in effect to give a green light.
It is important that the rules-based order is not purely focused on chemical weapons; there are so many other aspects to this. The 1951 refugee convention sets out the rights and responsibilities of nations to grant asylum, and there is the Paris climate accord and the Geneva conventions with the restrictions on the use of mines and cluster munitions. If one pillar of the rules-based order is corroded, the whole structure is weakened, and rogue nations could become a rogue world.
It is also important to make clear the limits of this action that are in place. The UK is not in the business of regime-change. We know from history that large-scale intervention of that nature is very difficult and the middle east presents boundless opportunities to make a bad situation worse. That is not what this was about; it was targeted, limited and proportionate, and focused on protecting civilians and upholding international law. It was manifestly the right thing to do.
I start by echoing the disappointment of many of my colleagues that there was not a parliamentary vote on this issue. The Government do not have an overall majority. Given that there were going to be legal questions, that the President of the United States was tweeting about this on Wednesday and that the Prime Minister had clearly come to the conclusion that we were going to act on Thursday, there was time for Parliament to be recalled on Friday. The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) were powerful, and it is very regrettable that the vote did not happen.
Notwithstanding that, there is no question but that Assad is a murderous tyrant. He is undoubtedly breaking international law and guilty of war crimes. It is important to make the point that stopping someone else committing war crimes does not, in itself, mean that you have acted within the law. The measure that the Government are citing in relation to the alleviation of humanitarian suffering would count equally for the hundreds of thousands of people murdered by Assad using conventional weapons. The Government need to be clear on the legality of what they are saying. However, I entirely share their revulsion at the use of chemical weapons, and I entirely recognise why that is seen as a red line.
During the earlier statement, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said that all the evidence pointed to the attack being chlorine-based, and that the Government seem to be attacking sites at which sarin was produced. That was an important point. The fact that the President of the United States has made a glib response suggesting that this is “mission accomplished” and that it has all been dealt with is a real cause for concern. We will watch with great care to see what happens now, but the idea that we have taken a substantial step and will never see a repeat of this kind of attack is deeply questionable.
The important point has been made tonight that inaction has just as many consequences as action does. However, I do not share the shame of some of my colleagues over the vote in 2013. As the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, if we had taken a decisive step against Assad back in 2013, we would have paved the way for ISIS. It was right for us to have concerns about that vote.
I want to finish by focusing on the United Nations Security Council. I entirely recognise the Prime Minister’s concerns about Russia’s role in that. Russia is clearly acting as a block on the Security Council. We have not heard, however, whether the Government will make serious efforts to stop Russia being on the Security Council. If we are saying that the United Nations route is broken, what are we actually doing to get the international community to recognise Russia as the pariah state that it is and to stop it being a permanent member of the Security Council, where it is currently able to block any steps that we take? I look forward to hearing what the Prime Minister has to say on that. I am very concerned about the steps, but I also recognise that—
Order. Thank you very much. I call Dr Sarah Wollaston.
In her powerful opening speech, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) rightly pointed out that chemical weapons were not the only method of vile killing in Syria. However, there is a reason why their use is such a heinous crime under international law. I would like to address that, and also to make some remarks about those who fail to accept the role of Russia in attacks—not only in Syria, but here on the streets of the UK.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) spoke immensely powerfully about the effect of chlorine gas, and I would like to add some comments about nerve agents—or cholinesterase inhibitors, as those chemicals are known. They are also indiscriminate. They can affect anyone who comes into contact with them—not only the women and children who are their intended victims in Syria, but those who come to their aid. They are particularly dangerous because they persist in the environment and because their victims require intensive care facilities that are simply not available in countries such as Syria.
It is only because of the availability of that intensive care here that the three individuals affected in Britain have survived, but their injuries will be persistent. These are hideous chemicals. They attack both the peripheral and the central nervous system, leaving people’s lungs filling up with fluid while paralysing the muscles that would allow them to clear their lungs. They cause painful blurring of vision, terrible abdominal pain, muscle twitching and incontinence of bowels and urine. Nerve agents are a particularly cruel way for people to die, which is why it is absolutely right that the Prime Minister took decisive and timely action on the behalf of this House.
The lesson of 2013—I regret my vote at that time—is that inaction also has consequences. Of course, Iraq hung heavily over the debate then, and we can never know what might have been. As the hon. Member for Wirral South said, we should not constantly be looking in the rear view mirror, but we must learn from the past as we look forward. The lesson from the past is that if we do not act, we will see the increasing use with impunity of these truly hideous weapons of mass destruction. To those who say that this is not our fight, I say that it absolutely is. It is our fight in Salisbury, and it is a grave threat to humanity all around the world. To those who deny Russia’s involvement, I say look at the findings that have already been presented to the United Nations. There is incontrovertible evidence of the use of sarin gas and chlorine gas.
Proportionate and limited action has been taken to degrade the storage and production of truly horrific weapons, and I think we will all come to feel that the action that has been taken jointly with our allies will save lives in the future. It was humanitarian action. I fully support the Prime Minister, and I hope that the whole House will at some point have the opportunity to vote to show that this was the right thing to do.
I am grateful that the House has finally been provided with the opportunity to debate the merits of engaging in further military action in Syria—nearly 72 hours after the UK, US and France carried out air strikes. Whether we send our forces into action overseas is the most important decision that this House can debate. However, instead of that being fully debated here, the first reports that our forces had engaged on foreign soil came through the tweets of President Trump on Saturday morning. That is not good enough.
Let me be clear: no one in the House will think that the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians should go unpunished. However, the Prime Minister has been unable to say to this House that the weekend’s action in Syria will absolutely prevent such acts from happening again. She has been unable to say what the long-term strategy is for ensuring the safety of civilians and bringing an end to the conflict. She has been unable to answer the question, “What is next?”
To be clear, I am not some sort of absolute pacifist. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) made a strong argument for action, stating that if we did not act, the use of chemical weapons, nerve agents and the like would become more widespread. I get that, and it is hard to disagree with that basic premise. If presented with evidence beyond reasonable doubt of an abhorrent act, clear objectives set out as part of a strategy to end the violence and a clear exit strategy with a plan for peace, I would vote for action.
We owe effective planning of any military action not only to the Syrian people, but to our armed forces before we commit them to action. By any measure, we have not had that. Instead, taken with no long term strategy or parliamentary consultation, this action risks escalating the situation in one of the most complex theatres of war ever seen on this planet, and innocent civilians will suffer the most.
We are living through the worst humanitarian crisis since the second world war, with more than 5.6 million Syrians fleeing the country and 6.1 million people having been displaced since the conflict began. The UK Government have shifted their military approach towards Syria, so the UK Government now have a duty to look again at their approach towards helping the refugees who have been displaced as a result of the violence in Syria. I accept that the Government’s work to assist refugees in the region has been good, but we must, particularly after our own escalation, do more to support those who have fled to Europe to escape the violence, particularly those children currently residing in European refugee camps. Not to do so would be an abdication.
We all want to see a peaceful resolution to the situation in Syria. The use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians is unforgivable, and those responsible must be held to account. As we seek to find a way forward, we need calm heads and strong leadership—I am not convinced that any leadership team involving President Trump offers either. His tweets leading up to the action were worthy of the school playground. lf it were not for the fact that this is the cold war foes, the USA and Russia—with unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, Presidents sizing each other up—it would be funny, were it not so deadly serious.
Finding a peaceful resolution to the atrocities committed in Syria should be a cross-party endeavour that seeks to unite this House and this country. The Prime Minister’s pushing ahead without Parliament’s approval is a serious mistake, and I urge her not to make the same mistake again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) on securing this debate.
I, like many, am horrified by the Assad regime’s actions against its own people. It is beyond belief that any regime would use conventional weapons, let alone chemical weapons, against civilians, and I would expect any Government to condemn the regime and take action. The UK has the capability and the world standing to act for those who cannot. The Prime Minister has the heavy burden of judging the security assessments and making decisions to act in defence of the British people or to act on humanitarian grounds.
It therefore disappointed me that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, chose to describe the action in Syria as “a macho strongman stand-off.” I am proud that we have a United Kingdom Prime Minister who can take the difficult ultimate decisions, because to ignore the use of chemical weapons is to encourage their use, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) made clear. If the SNP is waiting for the UN, it is clear that Russia will block it. If it is waiting for absolute proof, how? Again, the Russians and the Assad regime will block it.
This is important because it is now that we should stand shoulder to shoulder and show leadership. The hon. Member for Wirral South spoke passionately about the suffering, and we must stop the atrocities. We must act to defend international law. It is more likely that the Assad regime will take notice if the protection of its Russian overlords is undermined.
The precision of the proportionate response has demonstrated to Assad and his forces that they are not beyond the reach of international action, and I ask hon. Members here and in Holyrood to show leadership and to recognise that we can achieve our humanitarian aid ambitions, as the hon. Lady said, only if we take action. I implore the Prime Minister to take action if intelligence shows it is needed.
To argue for no action is to turn a blind eye to a far-off atrocity. We cannot say, “This is not our country and not our cause.” This is chemical weapons, this is a war crime and this is our cause.
I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate and for her powerful speech.
Earlier this month on 7 April, in the town of Douma in eastern Ghouta, the absolute horrors of chemical weapons and chemical warfare were laid bare. There were two chemical strikes in one day. At 19.45 more than 500 patients, mostly women and children, arrived at local medical facilities suffering from exposure to a chemical agent. Gassed as they sought shelter, families and loved ones were murdered in the most horrifying circumstances.
The survivors showed signs of respiratory distress, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns and the emission of a chlorine-like odour. None of us in this Chamber could have been unmoved by the distressing pictures of children that were streamed across the world revealing the atrocities unfolding in Syria, but it is important to note that eastern Ghouta has now been besieged for months. Over the last few months, more than 1,700 civilians have been killed there. The horrors of war, of chemical and conventional weapons, have terrorised the people of eastern Ghouta and the people of Syria.
In February, I raised the perilous situation with the Prime Minister, calling on her to redouble efforts in upholding UN resolutions and seeking a political solution. She pledged to work towards finding a political solution. I accept the position of leadership that the Prime Minister has, and I warmly welcome the way she has conducted herself with the other party leaders, the way she has communicated over the course of the past few days and the briefings we have had from the intelligence agencies, but Scottish National party Members cannot associate ourselves with the attacks that took place last weekend. In our opinion, the actions of the UK Government have weakened the UK’s ability to act as a peace broker to bring the warring parties back around the table.
We must see what has happened with the chemical strikes as a wake-up call to all of us, and we must redouble our efforts to make sure the Geneva talks can yield results. We must do this for the benefit of the people of Syria, who the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) talked about. As the images of children being treated for breathing difficulties and the irritation of their eyes were beamed around the world, the US President lost no time in tweeting senseless comments, telling Russia to “get ready” for a missile strike on Syria. I call on the Prime Minister, with her Government, to join me in condemning such reckless and foolish language from the President. UK foreign policy should be set by the Government, with parliamentary approval, and not by the US President or anyone else.
Last Thursday, the SNP cautioned the Prime Minister against taking a decision on airstrikes without a full parliamentary debate and vote. We called for Parliament to be recalled on Saturday and for democracy to be respected. Regrettably, we have not been able to have a debate in Government time, with a meaningful vote on a motion that we can amend. For that reason, and with considerable regret, I must signal to the House that we will seek to divide the House on the motion. We will do that because we do not believe that on the basis of a three-hour debate this evening we have had sufficient time for Members of Parliament to fully reflect and give their opinion on what has happened, and to discuss the way forward. I regret that so many of my SNP colleagues have not had the opportunity to speak on behalf of their constituents.
It is disappointing that Parliament was sidelined in favour of presidential tweets. I hope that the Prime Minister will disassociate herself from the President’s most recent tweet, which crudely stated “Mission Accomplished!” Once again, we have seen OPCW investigators disregarded and Parliament bypassed. That is why the SNP has reiterated calls for a war powers Act. [Interruption.] I regret that I can hear people saying that that is nonsense, because the Government had the responsibility, as the Father of the House said, to make sure we had a two-day debate. We owe it to the people of this country, as well as to the people of Syria, to make sure that democracy takes place, and that is what we have failed on. We must have a Government who are accountable to Parliament.
I realise that time is short, but I make the point that many countries around the world place constitutional controls on the use of military power. The SNP believes that a triple lock on military deployments, based on the principles that military actions need to be in accordance with the UN charter, and properly agreed by government and by Parliament. I shall sum up by saying that we must all do what we can to bring an end to the crisis in Syria. Efforts must be redoubled to kick-start the Geneva peace talks. The suffering of the Syrian people has gone on for too long. Will the Prime Minister leave no stone unturned in increasing diplomatic efforts to bring all sides together? For the good of the Syrian people, that is our humanitarian responsibility.
This is a Back-Bench-led debate, so I will be brief to give time for the Prime Minister and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) to respond.
This debate should have taken place before action was taken—we made that clear during proceedings on the statement. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South not just on securing the debate, but on the way in which she opened it. She is absolutely right to call on the Government to redouble their efforts to put the interests of civilians in Syria first. I hope that the whole House shares my respect for her demand and for her commitment to that cause, particularly to the cause of refugees from Syria whose lives have been torn asunder and who see ahead of them a future of waste in refugee camps all around the region, or of trying to get to Europe to try to survive. We need to have them at the forefront of our minds and just think what their memory is going to be, decades down the line, of this era in the early part of this century in which they lived in refugee camps while everybody else in the world was getting on with their lives.
The House has been asked to vote on military action in Syria twice; both times it has been heavily divided. Syria does not suffer from a lack of military action. Multiple actors have committed atrocities—chiefly the Assad Government, but also ISIS and a whole host of different warring groups. In a brief speech that drew on the history of the interventions in Iraq and Syria, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) described the situation in Syria as a choice between “monsters and maniacs”. I would not choose those words myself, but the primary forces in that country are indeed totally unpalatable to all of us in the House. Multiple powers are funding and arming groups on the ground, and they have been there ever since the outset of the terrible Syrian civil war seven years ago. Let us not forget, however, that human rights abuses in Syria did not begin seven years ago; it has been a place with an appalling human rights record for a very long time.
The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) was correct in his analysis that Russia wants to retain a regional ally that allows it to maintain a naval base in the Mediterranean. There is some equally brutal realpolitik on the part of the US in its wanting to diminish an opponent in the region. That agenda is shared by Saudi Arabia, which has also been funding various jihadi groups. Iran fears the outcome and is intervening. Israel fears a greater Iranian influence in the region, so it is intervening, too. Unfortunately, Turkey has grasped the opportunity to attack Kurdish communities across the border in Syria. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for the visit he made and his support for the Kurdish people’s right to their own identity. Whatever the final outcome in Syria, I hope that the Kurdish people are respected and get the right to their own self-identity, as they deserve.
We have a grotesque spectacle of what Lord Curzon once described as the “great game” being played out, with the Syrian people treated as expendable by too many sides. I agree with Members who have expressed their will that the Syrian people must be put first. No one pretends that diplomatic efforts are not incredibly difficult, and they are often imperfect, but they have to be an alternative to yet more military action. It is too easy to advocate bombing raids and too easy to be cynical about the potential of diplomatic efforts. We all know that the UN-led Geneva process has stalled and that the talks have collapsed, but we can also remember the limited success that was achieved by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, which did indeed lead to the destruction of 600 tonnes of chemical weapons, overseen by the OPCW.
I am not giving way as there is not much time.
Everyone knows that the United Nations has to be the central part of bringing about long-term peace in the region. It is the only body capable of securing that peace. Let me be clear: we all deplore the vetoes by Russia that have prevented the process from going ahead. But let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Preserving a rules-based international system through the United Nations is in all our best interests. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:
“There’s an obligation, particularly when dealing with matters of peace and security, to act consistently with the Charter of the United Nations and with international law in general. The UN Charter is very clear on these issues…I urge the Security Council to assume its responsibilities and fill this gap. I will continue to engage with Member States to help achieve this objective.”
Indeed, the Government’s own “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015” identifies
“the erosion of the rules-based international order”
as a particular challenge that is likely to
“drive UK security priorities for the coming decade”,
and one that would make it
“harder to build consensus and tackle global threats.”
There are dangers in arrogating to ourselves the right to take action selectively under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. For example, there is a crisis in Yemen, and there have been vetoes at the UN Security Council by other parties, and indeed by the UK, to prevent even moderate criticism of the pernicious role played by Saudi Arabia in that conflict. When three agencies call Yemen the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, does that give a green light to other countries to intervene on humanitarian grounds and under a right to protect? I argue that it does not.
In October 2016, the Government floated a draft resolution calling for a permanent ceasefire in that country to allow for immediate humanitarian relief and talks on a political solution, yet, seven months on, that draft resolution has still not been formally presented to the Security Council. Ironically, there is a danger that selective interventions can undermine an international legal process.
I pay tribute to many who have spoken in this debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who talked about the refugees and demanded that the British Government make a greater contribution. One should consider the impact on Lebanon and Turkey. Those countries are far poorer than our own, but both are hosting more than a million refugees. The impact on Greece is enormous. Germany, to its credit, has taken a very large number of refugees. We should consider the future of those children growing up in refugee camps. We have a humanitarian obligation to support refugees and children, and to offer a place of refuge to them. I ask this question: have the Government done enough? Have they done enough to support refugees and have they taken enough into this country? I argue that they have not.
The chemical weapons attacks were unbelievably disgusting, illegal and wrong. We all know that, at the end of the day, the only solution in Syria has to be condemnation and the resumption of a political process. The appalling use of chemical weapons has at least drawn the attention of the House to a crisis in which 400,000 have died, 500,000 have been made refugees, and 13 million people are in need of support. I urge the Government to do all that they can to reconvene the Geneva process and to encourage a political process that will eventually bring peace to the people of Syria.
This debate has, for the most part, been conducted with calm and dignity. We have listened with interest to what everyone has said. Let us make the call from this House that we want to see peace in Syria, and that is best brought about by a political process. Let us make our energies available to bring about that process.
Let me start by thanking the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing the debate—I congratulate her on doing so. I welcomed her powerful contribution, which included her support for the action that we have taken. Nobody can doubt the passion with which she spoke about this subject. She has shown care, concern and compassion for Syrian refugees in many of her contributions in this House.
The persistent and abhorrent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime cannot go unanswered. It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of these weapons in Syria, and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should never, ever be used.
Although I recognise that there are some issues on which there have been disagreements this evening, I welcome the widespread revulsion of this House over the use of chemical weapons, whether in Syria, on the streets of the UK, or elsewhere in the world. I welcome, too, the universal admiration and support that has been expressed today for the remarkable men and women in our armed forces. They once again put their lives on the line to serve this country, and their bravery and professionalism was essential to the success of this mission.
I would like to address head-on some of the most critical questions that have been posed about the military action that was taken. First, there was the question of whether we should have just tried harder at diplomacy. Together with our international partners, we have tried time and time again to use diplomatic channels to prevent the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against its people. The chemical weapons convention, UN Security Council resolutions and decisions of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons executive council all require Syria to produce a comprehensive declaration of its chemical weapons programme.
Following the sarin attack in eastern Damascus back in August 2013, the Syrian regime even committed to dismantle its chemical weapons programme, and Russia promised to ensure that Syria did this, overseen by the OPCW. The Leader of the Opposition referred to action that was taken, but more than five years later, the reality is that Syria did not dismantle its chemical weapons programme and the Russian guarantee had no value. Indeed, the director general of the OPCW reported just last month that Syria had not provided credible evidence to account for 22 serious issues. This includes agents present at facilities that have not been declared and types of chemical warfare agent that Syria has not declared at all. Furthermore, the OPCW has recorded more than 390 allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria since its fact-finding mission was established in 2014.
The OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism has found Syria responsible for using chemical weapons on four occasions between 2014 and 2017, including at Talamenes in April 2014, at Sarmin and Qamenas in March 2015—both involved the regime using chlorine—and at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April last year, when the regime used sarin to kill around 100 people, with a further 500 casualties. Relying on diplomatic action alone has failed to alleviate the humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons in each of these cases. It did not prevent the atrocity in Douma on 7 April, and it would not prevent future chemical weapons attacks either.
I remind the House that, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members have said, inaction is not an option—my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made that very clear. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said that inaction would have led to more significant chemical attacks. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who I think we all recall making a passionate speech in this House on the issue of action in Syria in 2015, said that selective silence in the face of brutality is not a principle and is not a policy.
Let me address one of the biggest concerns that I know many people had in advance of the decision to take this military action in Syria: would such action make things worse? I was clear that the answer is no, but only because of the specific and precise nature of the intervention that we have made. This action was not about intervening in a civil war and it was not about regime change. Neither have we begun a long military campaign; the action that we have taken was limited and targeted. It was purely about alleviating further humanitarian suffering in Syria caused by chemical weapons attacks by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring the use of these weapons in Syria and beyond. So this was a limited, targeted and effective strike with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
Did the prospect of a retaliation of a cyber nature from the Government of Russia feature in the Prime Minister’s calculation?
As I said during my statement, of course, when we were considering taking this action, we considered a whole variety of ways in which it might be possible that there was reaction, but as I also said in response to a number of hon. Members, we ensured that we took the action in a way that reduced the risk of escalation taking place. As I have said, the way we did this expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties. But if the hon. Gentleman is talking about the possibility of Russian cyber-attacks, he does not have to wait for us to take action in Syria for Russia to get involved in cyber-attacks on this country or, indeed, on many other countries.
Together with our allies, we have hit a centre for the research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological programme, we have hit a chemical weapons bunker, which contained both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post, and we have hit a location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment whose destruction would degrade Syria’s ability to deliver sarin in the future. Hitting these targets with the force we have used will not have a negative impact on the already complex situation in Syria. What it will do is significantly degrade the Syrian regime’s ability and willingness to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons. That is a good thing for the Syrian people and for the security of the wider world.
As we consider our action, we should recognise the role that Russia has played in Syria. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) brought home to the House the reality of Russian activity. We should recognise not only the support being given to the Assad regime by Russia but also Russia’s actions in the United Nations. I want to set out what has happened to the recent resolutions that we and our international partners have tried to secure to constrain the chemical weapons use of the Syrian regime.
On 28 February last year, a resolution to impose sanctions on Syria for the use of chemical weapons was vetoed by Russia. On 12 April, a resolution to condemn the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria calling on the regime to co-operate with an investigation was vetoed by Russia. On 24 October, a resolution to renew the mandate of the mission that investigates the use of chemical weapons in Syria was vetoed by Russia. On 16 November, a resolution to renew an international inquiry into who is to blame for chemical weapons attacks in Syria was vetoed by Russia. On 17 November, a resolution to extend the joint investigative mechanism inquiry for one month was vetoed by Russia.
On 10 April this year, a resolution to establish an independent mechanism investigation to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use in Syria was vetoed by Russia. Russia’s behaviour means that relying solely on the United Nations Security Council is tantamount to accepting that no action should be taken in response to these chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians in Syria. As the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) pointed out, relying on that would mean giving the veto on our foreign policy to Russia, and that is not something that we are willing to accept.
I just want to mention one issue about which the hon. Member for Wirral South spoke particularly passionately, as she has done previously—that of refugees. She welcomed and valued the aid that we have given. I continue to believe that it is important that we are providing this significant amount of support in the region as the second-biggest bilateral donor. We have been able to provide healthcare, educational and other support to hundreds of thousands of children in Syria and the surrounding countries for the same investment that it would take to support 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children here in the United Kingdom.
These are not easy decisions to take, but it is right to get a balance of support in the region, which enables us to give more support to more people and more children, and at the same time to bring here those who are particularly vulnerable and in need. The hon. Lady is right: while the military action was focused on degrading chemical weapons, we need that wider effort in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria, dealing with Daesh and continuing to press for action in the Geneva process.
This year, we mark the centenary of the end of the first world war, brought home to us starkly this evening by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). The international community came together at that point to stop the use of chemical weapons. This weekend Britain, France and America sent a clear message to those who seek to rip up the international rulebook: stop, and stop now.
I want to finish this debate by thanking each and every Member who has contributed. I want to thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has made a special effort to come for the end of the debate; I have always appreciated his friendship in this matter. I want to thank all those Members who wrote to you, Mr Speaker, in support of the debate. What we do in this House, we do best when we do it together. I want to thank the Prime Minister. I may disagree with her on many issues, but today I have admired her fortitude.
Most of all, I want to thank Syrians—Syrians in the UK and Syrians elsewhere in the world who have shared with me their experience and told me what they have been through. It is they and they alone who we should listen to most carefully. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, too. He heard my message that we ought to focus on Syrians. The Father of the House described me as elegant if idealistic. That is a badge I am proud to wear. [Hon. Members: “Which one?”] Both.
The Leader of the Opposition describes neither of the primary forces in Syria in very glowing terms. Perhaps it is idealistic to think that the primary forces for Syria are Syrian civilians, but that, I am afraid, is what I think. It is they we ought to listen to. I am glad that the Prime Minister heard what we all have to say. I remain deeply uncertain about her strategy, and I am sure, not taking for granted the views of my colleagues, that the all-party parliamentary group on friends of Syria will want to write to her.
I will finish where I began, with the words of Jo Cox. She said:
“British policy on Syria has wandered aimlessly, a deadly mix of timidity and confusion. The lack of a coherent response, not just by Britain but by the wider international community, has allowed the situation in Syria to fester”.
It must end.
claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Main Question put accordingly.
16 April 2018
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House has considered the current situation in Syria and the UK Government’s approach.
Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [Lords]
Bill to be read a Second time tomorrow.
I always make this point but I make it again: if, unaccountably, Members or others are leaving the Chamber or its environs because they do not wish to hear the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) address the House on the important matter that awaits, I trust that they will do so quickly and quietly, so that the rest of us in large numbers can listen with rapt attention to the hon. Gentleman.