The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, as the Chief Whip has just reminded us, a large number of people want to speak today; the House is full. That shows why it was right to recall Parliament, a decision I know the Opposition strongly supported.
In setting out the Government’s position on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, I hope to do three things. I want to set out the evidence that we have of the use of chemical weapons. Then I want to set out the Government’s case for action. I will then explain the process we intend to follow, both here and in the international community.
First, however, it is important to be clear what the issue that we are considering today is not. It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict. It is not about invading. It is not about regime change, or even about working more closely with the Syrian opposition. I know that this afternoon we will hear from many noble Lords with a huge amount of experience—diplomatic, political and military—and I am sure that we will hear many nuanced arguments and that there will be discussion about the complexities of the situation. I know that we will benefit greatly from that advice but, in essence, the issue is really very simple. It is this: what should our response be to the large-scale use of chemical weapons; and, with that response, what message do we want to send to the rest of the world about their use?
To help us in our debate, the Government have placed a number of documents in the Library. There is a summary of the Government’s legal position, making explicit that military action would have a clear legal basis; and there are the key judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee, making clear its view of what happened and who is responsible. I hope that noble Lords will find that information useful.
I will start with the evidence that we have. Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that in just three hours on the morning of 21 August, three hospitals in the Damascus area of Syria received approximately 3,600 patients with symptoms consistent with chemical weapon attacks. Thousands of social media reports and at least 95 videos record evidence of attacks in at least 11 different locations in the Damascus area. There are horrible pictures of bodies showing signs of nerve-agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth. At least 350 were killed. These deaths and injuries were caused by weapons that have been outlawed for nearly a century.
The fact that the most recent attack took place is not seriously disputed. The Syrian Government said that it took place, but blamed the opposition. Even the Iranian president has said that it took place. The Syrian regime resisted calls for immediate and unrestricted access for UN inspectors, while artillery and rocket fire in the area reached a level around four times higher than in the 10 preceding days. Examining all this evidence, together with the available intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee has made its judgments, published and placed in the Library in the form of a letter from the chairman of the committee to the Prime Minister. The committee reached its judgments in line with the reforms puts in place after the Iraq war by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. The letter states that,
“there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto … took place”,
“The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible”.
“there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.
To believe that the Syrian opposition were behind the attack, we would have to believe that they would use, on a large scale, weapons which we have no evidence that they have, delivered by artillery or by air power which they do not possess, killing hundreds of people in areas already under their control. That is simply not credible.
Whatever disagreements we may have about the complex situation in Syria, there is surely no disagreement that the use of chemical weapons is wrong. For nearly a century, the international community has worked to build a system of defences to protect mankind against their use. The international agreement outlawing the use of chemical weapons was signed by Syria and dates back to the period after the Great War, a war in which 90,000 soldiers died from mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene and up to 1.3 million were blinded or burned by them.
The Geneva Protocol reflected a determination that the events of the Great War should never be repeated. It said that, whatever happens, these weapons should not be used. Our judgment is that this is the first significant use of chemical weapons this century. Together with the previous 14 smaller-scale attacks, this is the only instance of regular and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons by a state against its own people for at least 100 years.
We should not be interfering in another country’s affairs except in the most exceptional circumstances. It would have to be a humanitarian catastrophe, and it would have to be as a last resort. By any standards, this is a humanitarian catastrophe. If there are no consequences for the large-scale use of chemical weapons, there would be nothing to stop Assad and other dictators from using them again and again. If there are no consequences for breaking international agreements, the agreements themselves are rendered meaningless. Decades of painstaking work to construct an international system of rules and checks to prevent the use of chemical weapons and to destroy stockpiles would be undone and a 100 year-old taboo would be breached.
There are those who argue that, in considering our options, we should be guided only by what is in the British national interest. I agree. But surely it is in our national interest, and that of all nations, to ensure that the rules about chemical weapons are upheld. That is why the Government argue that we should play our part in a strong response from the international community, first at the United Nations, but also potentially including legal and proportionate military action; action designed simply to prevent the further use of chemical weapons and similar human distress.
The Attorney-General has confirmed that this use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity. The Cabinet considered the Attorney’s advice this morning and a summary of the Government’s legal position has been placed in the Library, as I said. This summary sets out that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets in an operation to deter and disrupt the use of chemical weapons.
We have evidence of the use of chemical weapons and a firm and sound basis to act, but we propose to take further steps both here and at the United Nations before we do so. First, the United Nations weapons investigators in Damascus must complete their work and brief the United Nations Security Council. We will also make a genuine attempt to reach a condemnatory Chapter 7 Resolution in the Security Council, backing “all necessary measures”. We yesterday put a new draft resolution to our Security Council colleagues. In doing that, we must pursue every avenue at the United Nations, every diplomatic channel, every option for securing the greatest possible legitimacy for any action we take. Only once that route has been exhausted would the Prime Minister return to the House of Commons to seek a further resolution of that House to endorse British involvement in direct military action.
There is a series of important questions about any potential operation to deter and disrupt the use of chemical weapons to relieve humanitarian suffering. Let me try to deal with these. The first is: how can we be sure that the military action envisaged by the United States of America or its allies would work? Of course, when dealing with a dictator like the Syrian president, there can be no guarantee of dissuading him from further use of chemical weapons. But our judgment reflects the assessment that Assad is likely to fear and respect a strong and focused response. Of course, there is no action without risk. But alongside the risks of action, we also have to weigh the risks of inaction.
We know that in President Assad we have a man who has stockpiled chemical weapons, and has used them repeatedly and indiscriminately in the past. He has repeatedly tested our resolve to stand up to his crimes. If we do not act, he and others will, I believe, take it as a signal that he can use chemical weapons again and again. That would risk not only further chemical attacks and further human suffering in Syria, but also greater proliferation of these weapons across the region and the world, with all the consequences that could bring. We should not tolerate the risks of inaction or allow Assad and other dictators to conclude that they can continue to deploy chemical weapons against their people with impunity.
There are those who ask as well whether we are in danger of getting sucked into a new war in the Middle East. To them I would say that the issue before us today is not about sanctioning wider involvement in Syria, horrible and devastating as that conflict is. It is purely about responding specifically to the large-scale use of chemical weapons and acting to deter and prevent them being used again.
The next question is whether we are in danger of undermining our ambitions for a political solution in Syria. The Government do not believe that there is a choice between, on the one hand, acting to prevent chemical weapons being used against the Syrian people, and on the other, continuing to push for a long-term political solution. We obviously need to do both, and we remain committed to using diplomacy to end this war with a political solution. But, for as long as Assad is able to defy international will, he will feel little if any pressure to come to the negotiating table. Far from undermining the political process, a strong and military response to the use of chemical weapons can actually strengthen it.
Some ask whether action over chemical weapons could further destabilise the region. The region has already been profoundly endangered by the conflict in Syria. Lebanon faces sectarian tensions as refugees flood across the border. Jordan is coping with a huge influx of refugees. Turkey, our ally in NATO, has suffered terrorist attacks and shelling from across the border. However, standing by as a new chemical weapons threat emerges will not alleviate those challenges; it will only deepen them. That is why the Arab League has been so clear in calling for international action. A region long beset by conflict and aggression needs clear international laws and people who are prepared to stand up for them.
There is also the question of whether intervention, however well motivated, could risk radicalising more young Muslims, including here in Britain. This is a vital question and one that the National Security Council addressed yesterday. The Government received considered analysis from our counterterrorism experts and their assessment is that, while there is no room for complacency, the legal, proportionate and focused actions that we would propose would not be a significant new cause of radicalisation and extremism. In fact, young Muslims in the region and here in Britain may well be wondering if the world will ever step up and respond to the pictures of Muslims in Syria suffering horrific injuries and death from chemical weapons. I would argue that the message to give them is that we will.
Our Parliament has on relatively few occasions been asked to consider whether to endorse the principle of the use of military force. It is inevitable that today’s debate here, and particularly in the other place, will be viewed from the perspective of the debates held before our interventions in Libya and indeed in Iraq. Given that perspective, we are right in Parliament and as a nation to be cautious and to strive to be consensual. That is why we have published the summary of our legal position and the key judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee. It is why we have deferred our decision until the United Nations inspectors have completed their immediate work and briefed the Security Council. It is why we want to try to secure a UN Security Council resolution. But the situation today is not the same as in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war. We are not invading another country; we are not searching for weapons—sadly, we have already seen their use. In 2003, Europe, NATO and the Arab League were in disagreement; today, they are in agreement. The Arab League has issued a statement holding the Syrian regime “fully responsible” and asking the international community,
“to overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime”.
The question is a simpler one now than then. It is how to respond to one of the worst uses of chemical weapons in 100 years. Do we conclude that it is all too difficult, and send the message to Assad and others that they may use chemical weapons with impunity; or should we, as the Government propose, act in a legal, proportionate and focused way, with the single objective of preventing the further use of chemical weapons, to relieve humanitarian suffering? I beg to move.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader for his measured and informative introduction to our debate this afternoon. Information and answers to questions about the situation and proposed action in Syria have been lacking, so I warmly welcome the debate. I am pleased that the Leader responded positively to our request that the House should be recalled today for consideration of the plans for military intervention, and I echo the thanks of the Chief Whip to the staff of the House. It is right that it is the Commons that should debate and vote on the issue of armed force, both to hold the Government to account and in order to confer legitimacy on any military intervention, but it is also right that our own House should in parallel debate the issue. The Constitution Committee said in its timely report, Constitutional Arrangements for the Use of Armed Force:
The Motion before us is rightly couched in very general terms, but that does not detract from the critical and grave nature of the issues before us: acts of war, the stark reality of life and death, and global stability. The burden of responsibility will lie on the shoulders of our colleagues in the other place, but the voice of noble Lords will carry great influence both in Parliament and throughout the country. In our daily debates on legislation we rightly speak of the consequences, often painful, that laws will have on the lives of individuals and wider society, but the decisions taken in the other place on this issue relate to life and death. It could be said that to carry out military action will definitely cost lives but that the decision not to take action could also cost lives.
As noble Lords will be aware, my party has tabled an amendment to the Government’s Motion in the Commons that provides clear, logical and sequential steps that must be taken before any further vote in the other place. I pay tribute to the strong and cool-headed leadership shown by Ed Miliband on this issue in the interests of our country. I regret that it is being briefed that he is playing politics. He is not; he is providing measured statesmanship.
I trust that the amendment will be carried because I fear that the government Motion is ambiguous, and such a grave decision must be preceded by a road map. This is what the brave men and women of our Armed Forces and their families, along with the rest of our nation, would expect. I pay tribute to the work of our Armed Forces, who bear the consequences of the decisions that are taken. We are hugely proud of the work that they do.
The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, a moral outrage and a crime against humanity. The question of whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria seems to be beyond doubt evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. Governments, the Arab League, journalists and non-governmental organisations, along with sources contacted by the intelligence services, agree on the use of chemical weapons. Following the attack on Damascus, the UN team of inspectors is now collecting samples that will be sent to special laboratories for rigorous analysis before the team reports to the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council. As the Secretary-General said yesterday, the team must be given time to do its job. Such actions are not and must not be a sop but part of a robust UN process. While the team is not mandated to discover who used the chemical weapons, it is clear that the evidence it collects should provide information about who was responsible. It is then that the Security Council will best be able to consider what action should be taken. This must be part of the due process.
It is important that the Arab League said on Tuesday that it holds Bashar al-Assad responsible for the chemical attack on Damascus and that it supports the use of force through the UN. We look to the US Government, our Government and others to set out their evidence in relation to the responsibility of the Assad regime. I have one specific question for the Minister in response: can the Government tell us what chemical weapon caused the appalling injuries and deaths in Ghouta, and whether it was a proscribed chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention?
Action must be taken only on the basis of evidence. Momentum is not a reason for action, so why the undue speed? Such momentous decisions cannot be taken in haste. There must be evidence before a decision is made rather than a decision taken before the evidence is available. The Government must not work to a political timetable but do what is best for our country, best for the Syrian people and best for the wider world.
Like all noble Lords I have had many conversations this week about the Government’s desire for action and, whatever the views expressed, all speak of the need for clarity and have asked a series of questions that must be answered. I hope that today the Government will be able to give real clarity about the aims of intervention and the outcome. On Tuesday the Prime Minister said that he sought to,
“deter and degrade the further use of chemical weapons”,
What are the Government trying to achieve? I realise that the Leader of the House gave some of those answers. However, is the aim of any action to punish Assad for the past use of chemical weapons, to deny the future use of chemical weapons by taking out the potential for future use, to deter future use or to exercise a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians? I ask the Minister to be absolutely clear on that. Many people, including many noble Lords, might be prepared to support action but only if it were possible to be assured that we could remove and neutralise every single chemical capability in Syria. They would want unequivocal proof that this was achievable and the sole aim of military action. Civilian lives are lost in any military action, no matter how strategic the action, so would it be possible to punish Assad or teach him a lesson if it is his countrymen who suffer rather than him and his henchmen? His repugnant actions demonstrate that he does not value the lives of others. The 100,000 already killed and nearly 2 million refugees are clear and tangible proof of his devastating cruelty. It is a nation destroyed and a whole generation with little or no hope for the future.
I have seen this with mine own eyes. I visited a camp in Jordan nearly two years ago when there were merely tens of thousands of refugees, and it was a deeply shocking experience. I watched a family that included elderly people bent double, walking with help, and tiny children, all fleeing across the border from snipers. Their warm reception in Jordan was extraordinary. Now millions of people have fled their country, with no hope, no home, no dreams, just physical and mental problems. How can they continue to cope—likewise Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and the other countries to which they flee? Would any military intervention make the flow of refugees even greater, or smaller?
The situation is likewise for the 6.8 million people inside Syria, including the 4.25 million internally displaced people. The humanitarian crisis is bordering on an emergency. We have to ask ourselves whether military action would improve the lives of those people and improve the humanitarian situation and the ability of aid agencies to provide help.
Further questions are rightly asked about the proportionality and legality of action. Any action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region and must be legal, proportionate and time-limited. Understandably there are fears about mission creep that might follow any action. As the US chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has said:
One of the deepest concerns that is expressed, and that I share, is about the wider consequences of any action. It is probably impossible to know or calculate what the consequences would be, but have the Government really thought through the balance of risks? What would the ramifications be across the Arab and Muslim world? As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, pointed out in an excellent article earlier this week, comparisons are inevitably being made with military actions in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. In both cases neither Serbia nor Libya had friends whose support they could rely on, but this is not the case with Syria. Syria is firmly embedded in an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, which poses real dangers for the wider world. I look forward to the speech later today from the noble Lord, who is wise and has unparalleled recent experience in the region.
How would Iran respond? Would the hopes of better relations between the recently elected, more moderate President of Iran and the West be jeopardised? Does President Assad’s warning of “dire consequences” encompass Israel, where US Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistent diplomacy is impressive? Are these risks outweighed by the risk to this world of the use of chemical weapons with impunity? What are the consequences for this country, and by taking action would the Government be acting in the best interests of the United Kingdom?
These questions are difficult and uncomfortable, but they are being asked in various ways up and down the country by a public who remain deeply sceptical about intervention. Undoubtedly some of the public’s hostility is a result of our recent experiences. However, we must not be paralysed by the experience of Iraq but rather learn from it. Political leaders must lead and the Government must govern. The Government have information that influences their decisions and that we are not party to, but it is incumbent upon them to be as open and as transparent as possible. However, politicians must also take the views of the public into account. This is not a question of votes at the next election but of the conscience of the nation.
Perhaps we should ask whether our intervention would put an end to the use of chemical weapons not just in Syria but to their potential use in the wider world by other evil tyrants. The use of chemical weapons is the act of a despicable tyrant, a global bully. The moral case for action is clear. Chemical weapons cannot be used with impunity, there can be no free pass for those who use them, and military intervention must be an option. However, is a military strike the best way to deal with an immoral, unprincipled bully with no regard for humankind? This is the first time that these vile weapons of war have been used in the 21st century and I wonder whether we are considering 21st century means of dealing with this dire situation.
There is a duty on the international community to make the UN process work and to get maximum support. Diplomacy and political action must be pursued, and eventually President Assad and his closest associates must be brought before the international court for judgment. Should not the global powers remain steadfastly committed to talking and to the Geneva II peace conference? The words of John Lennon, “Give peace a chance”, are loud in many ears.
I look forward to the debate, and of course to the response from the Minister. I welcome the opportunity that the noble Lord the Leader has had to inform the House about the objectives, legal basis and anticipated effect of any possible UK military action in Syria.
Today’s vote in the House of Commons is not a green light for action. The decision whether to support any military intervention will be taken in the House of Commons once the report of the weapons inspectors has been received. It must also be taken on the basis of real evidence as to the perpetrators of the chemical attacks, it must follow proper consideration by and a vote in the Security Council, there must be a clear legal basis for proportionate action, and in-depth consideration must have been given to the consequences and risks. Our colleagues in the Commons will then be in a position to take the grave decision about military action involving UK forces. Naturally, I trust that the House will again be recalled when that decision is taken.
Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for giving us this opportunity to debate one of the most critical issues of our time: what to do about Syria. We have had several debates in the House on that issue, so I will not rehearse the arguments that I made in the previous debate on 1 July. Needless to say, I should add, for those noble Lords who were here for that debate, that my views have not changed.
Whether to intervene or not is not merely a matter of legality and international law, but is also about judgment, conscience and consequences. To act has consequences, which may be grave indeed, but to choose inaction also has consequences, perhaps graver than if we acted. We cannot know all the outcomes in advance, but we can strive to make a situation better than it might be if we did nothing.
International law, like other codified and customary law, is an evolving thing, subject to different interpretations. Parliamentarians and statesmen cannot make choices on the basis of naked law alone, as there will always be ambiguity regarding the appropriate analogies and past practice. No one situation is exactly like the last. Witness how different analogies are being employed today: this is like Kosovo, the Iraq war, Halabja, the Iran-Iraq war, World War I, and so on. We cannot make decisions on a narrow perception of legality founded only on United Nations Security Council resolutions, particularly when that course of action may not be open to us due to the cynical use of a veto by Russia and China in order to protect their geopolitical interests, irrespective of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding day by day, and which has been unfolding over the past few years.
I am extremely relieved that this Government have decided to wait for the UN weapons inspectors to confirm the use of chemical weapons. But let us remind ourselves that the weapons inspectors will not point the finger. That is not their remit, and they undoubtedly would not have been allowed into Syria if that had been their remit. Moreover, we have to recall that there was intensive and continuous shelling and bombardment of Ghouta in the days after the attack, potentially to destroy chemical and ballistic evidence, so we need to be clear as to the weapons inspectors’ ability to solve this conundrum for us.
When we are back in the hands of the Security Council and in the realm of law, will Russia and China, if it is proven that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, live up to their obligations under the 1925 Geneva Protocols to act to enforce the provisions when they are breached? I doubt it, so let me put this question to the Labour Party, whose amendment in the other place is somewhat self-contradictory. What will it do if the weapons inspectors provide information to suggest that only the Assad regime had the capacity to undertake this attack? Paragraph 3 of the amendment it is moving in the other place today requires a vote in the Security Council. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for whom I have great respect, has just spelled that out, but the Labour Party does not spell out what it might do when, despite the inspectors’ evidence, if it is forthcoming, there is a Russian or Chinese veto. In the debate on Syria on 1 July, the noble Lord, Lord Wood, argued that we,
“should spend diplomatic capital on urging other actors in the region not to take action that escalates the conflict from either side”.—[
, 1/7/13; col. 993.]
“Hallelujah” I say, but we are not in a position where we have that influence. We are not in a position where we have that influence with Russia or China. What would they do if Hezbollah used chemical weapons in Lebanon? The situation there is increasingly destabilised. It is asymmetric in Lebanon as well as in Syria. If the strategy of deterrence is not employed—and that is what we are trying to do here—to deter Assad and his allies using chemical weapons on a larger scale in the future by demonstrating that we will not stand idly by, how do we in our state of impotence prevent escalation or repeats?
I shall conclude by adding one important point from a Muslim perspective. I have lived in and been in and out of the Middle East since 1973 and I have spent the past 40 years trying to understand why anti-Western sentiment is growing in the region. I returned from Egypt earlier this month. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is in his place. He listened to the same protestations that I heard in Cairo. One of the things my interlocutors say again and again is that the West engages with them only when our own strategic interests are engaged, such as our energy needs in the Middle East. In Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf I hear the same refrain: “You don’t protect our rights, only your own interests”. A familiar question arises now with Muslims in the UK. We need to act with caution to dispel this perception. We need to be true to our values but we also need to be true to our responsibilities.
Lord Wright of Richmond:My Lords, it will not surprise those of your Lordships who have heard or read my previous interventions on Syria that I am strongly against any form of military intervention in what has long been a Sunni-Shia war. I still believe that any military attack on Syrian territory by the Americans, the French or ourselves will have disastrous consequences, quite apart from the inevitable loss of life to add to the appalling casualties inflicted by two years of this terrible war.
When I spoke in this House in March 2003, on the eve of our military invasion of Iraq, I drew particular attention to the inconsistencies of our alleged objectives for that attack. I do so again, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in the context of an imminent military assault on Syria. Is our objective, as American statements appear to confirm, merely to punish President Assad for his alleged deployment of chemical weapons? Is it a “shot across the bows”, as President Obama said—I think this morning—to dissuade President Assad from deploying chemical weapons again? Is it part of a campaign to get rid of President Assad and his Government, and to replace them by the so-called Free Syrian Army? Is it designed to put pressure on President Assad to enter into negotiations at a Geneva peace conference? Or is it aimed at the destruction of his acknowledged stock of chemical weapons? Is it designed to be a warning to Iran, for Israel’s benefit, of the readiness of the Americans to launch attacks against weapons of mass destruction?
As for punishment, it is not clear to me—and I regret that I have not yet been able to read the note on the Government’s legal position—whether they regard military action without the consent of the Security Council as legitimate under international law. Even if one accepts that the use of chemical weapons, whether by the Syrian Government, the rebels or both, is itself a breach of international law, does that justify an illegal response? We are assured that any action taken will be proportionate, but we also need assurance that it will be legal. Surely any military intervention, however proportionate, will be interpreted by much of the wider world as direct involvement in Syria’s civil war.
If the planned military action is designed to change Syria’s Government, I would argue, as I have done many times in this House, that it is no business of ours or, indeed, of our NATO partners to intervene on either side in Syria’s civil war. Have we considered the risks of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons falling under the control of the dominant rebel force—Jabhat al-Nusra and its al-Qaeda allies—in addition to the chemical weapons and agents to which, according to my information, they already have access? If this is a virtual declaration of war against an ally of Russia and Iran, have we given adequate thought to our longer-term, and surely more important, interests in either country, let alone our hopes of persuading them to put pressure themselves on their Syrian ally?
If our aim is to destroy President Assad’s stock of chemical weapons, others are better qualified than I to judge the risks of proliferation and civilian casualties—risks that were aired in debates preceding the second Iraq war, when it seemed likely that the Americans were intent on destroying what turned out to be Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. How confident are we that any destruction this time would be total, safe or effective?
If, on the other hand, we argue that military action is necessary to persuade President Assad to enter into negotiations with the rebels, does this not ignore the fact that President Assad himself has confirmed repeatedly that he is ready to attend a Geneva conference, whereas not one of the rebel groups has agreed to do so? Our objective should surely be not to punish either side in this terrible civil war but to bring all sides to the negotiating table, with the help and assistance of their friends and allies. I see that the Russian Foreign Minister has expressed the hope that others will think of their long-term interests. Have we agreed with our American and French allies an exit strategy? How do we react if President Assad uses chemical weapons again? What happens if he or his allies launch some form of counterattack?
It is ironic that this crisis should blow up precisely at the moment when we at last await Sir John Chilcot’s report of his inquiry into the second Iraq war, but I think that we should have already learnt enough lessons from that disastrous campaign to avoid making any of the same mistakes again.
Lord Howard of Lympne: My Lords, the use of chemical weapons has been illegal for almost a century. Their use was banned by the Geneva protocol, which was agreed by the international community in 1925. That ban was agreed because, as we have seen in the past week, the use of these weapons has particularly dreadful and horrible consequences. It is a ban that should be respected, observed and enforced. That is why President Obama was right, in his much criticised speech of several weeks ago, to declare that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line”. That red line has been crossed.
Therefore, the questions that have to be answered are these. Should the use of chemical weapons in breach of that ban go unmarked? Should no action be taken to enforce the ban? Should those who use them be able to cock a snook at the rest of the world and continue to use them with impunity? I believe that the answer to all those questions is no. As the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition said, there is a strong moral case for enforcing the ban against the use of these dreadful weapons.
It is precisely this kind of situation that has given rise to the evolving doctrine in international law of the responsibility to protect. To suggest that in order to achieve a badge of legality any response to the use of chemical weapons must have the support of the Security Council of the United Nations is to confuse law with the kind of realpolitik that determines the way in which countries vote in relation to decisions of this kind. No one believes that all the permanent members of the Security Council will reach their decision on the basis of a dispassionate and objective assessment of the evidence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria last week. That is what you would need if you wanted to see the Security Council as an indispensable part of a legal process. It is manifestly not what we have.
Of course, I understand that in the light of what happened in 2003 there is a good deal of scepticism about the intelligence the Government have produced. Indeed, I warned in the aftermath of the Iraq war, not least in the debate on the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the way in which the intelligence was misrepresented then would make it more difficult for Governments to take action in the future. However, as the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition has said this afternoon, we should not allow ourselves to be paralysed by Iraq. We must not allow ourselves to be paralysed now by what happened then.
My noble friend the Leader of the House has set out the further diplomatic steps which the Government intend to take, but there will come a time when decisions have to be taken, the material information that we need is available and the time for asking questions is over. I understand why the Prime Minister, in his desire to act on the basis of consensus, agreed to postpone the decision-taking moment in the other place, but for the Labour Party, having asked for and been granted that delay, to threaten to vote against the Government’s Motion this evening is, I am afraid, a descent into party politics of the worst kind.
We are in danger of allowing the United States and France to act as the conscience of the world while the United Kingdom stands on the sidelines wringing its hands. That would be an unbearable humiliation for a country with a history such as ours. I hope that we can avoid that fate, and I commend the Government’s position to your Lordships.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I feel that in the past 24 hours some sanity has returned to our actions. I came back to the United Kingdom from holiday on Tuesday and, like many in this House who been involved in the sorts of events that are happening now, it was clear to me that we were seemingly on an irresistible move towards taking military action as early as this Sunday coming. It seemed that we were doing that in the most extreme and hurried way, and I could not understand why on earth that was happening.
There is no doubt that these things gain a momentum of their own and that the military starts focusing on what it needs to do to achieve this. I am afraid that often Governments get caught up in that rush. But we were moving much too quickly. Thank goodness, now, we have thought about this. We have pulled back from the brink and we are looking at the things that need to be in place.
For example, how on earth could we have done something before the UN inspectors, whom we had made the Russians accept going into Syria, had made their report? What an extraordinary situation to be in. Thank goodness we are now saying that we will accept that report.
I have looked at the JIC paper. Having seen JIC-speak many times, having been deputy chairman of the JIC for three years and Chief of Defence Intelligence, I accept that it looks almost certain that the regime there did carry out these actions, but our public now have no faith in this. We need to prove to them that we have solid evidence. I would like to think that there is more critical evidence. It might mean things being talked about that we do not normally like to release. As a former Chief of Defence Intelligence, I can say that I would never have liked to have given out those pieces of intelligence, but this is really important. Maybe we have to say, actually, that we will extract that one to prove that we know for sure. Our public need to know.
Perhaps with that information we say to the Russians, “Look, this is how we know this. Why are you saying that the opposition are doing it?”. If we can have that open dialogue with the Russians, we can prove that they are doing what they are doing to support a vassal state for geopolitical reasons, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned, rather than for other reasons.
If they have to admit that this proves it, there might be an opportunity at the UN Security Council to get Russia to abstain and maybe even get a resolution. I really believe that we at least have to try to get that resolution. I am not saying that there is no justification for taking action without a UN Security Council resolution at times, but we should try to get it on this occasion.
We should also look at the possibility of other resolutions. Is there something else we can do to put pressure on this regime? I know that people say we have now tried everything to stop this conflict, which is dreadful and appalling—things that have been done are loathsome—but I wonder whether there is not more that we can do. We should do anything to avoid taking military action.
There must be some other way to skin a cat. What if what we hear about this sig int about a military commander firing weapons without authority is true? Let us suppose that we have that evidence. That would be exactly the sort of thing that we can say to Assad. We could say, “Look, we know this and this is how we know it. You didn’t like that happening. We expect to leave the level of any release of chemical weapons up to you alone, and we expect you to punish this man”. Something like that would be a good move forward. There must be other ways of doing things.
There is no doubt that Prime Ministers and Presidents think that they can have clinical little military strikes and keep control of things, but you cannot. Once you start doing these things there is the law of unintended consequences. I know that as a military man. It is extremely difficult. Therefore you go down a route that you did not want to go down, and when you get a little beyond that you go to war and have no control over where it is going. That is the horror of war. Sometimes it is in our greatest national interest, but I do not think that this is in our greatest national interest, and I am very worried about it.
If we take any military action at all, we need absolute clarity about what we are trying to achieve. What are we trying to achieve? What exactly do we want to do? There was talk by the Prime Minister of degrading weapons use by attacking their command and control. As a military man, if I attack someone’s command and control and those weapons were allowed to be used at a lower level, they are more likely to be used. We need to be really careful.
What is the ultimate importance for our nation? The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned that there are great moral imperatives, and there are, but ultimately in realpolitik there are things that are crucial to our nation. It is horrible to have to face that, but it is true. That is what we need to be clear about when we take any military action, because it does have unintended consequences. Air attacks, we know, do not make people do what you want them to do. We found that with Desert Storm and Saddam Hussein, and we found it with Milosevic. If the people are nasty enough and do not care what happens to their own people, it makes no difference. If we have a man, Assad, who is deranged enough to use loathsome weapons like this on his people, knowing that he will cross a red line, what might he do when we attack? This area is a powder keg. It would take something to go only slightly wrong—let us say he decides to pull in Israel by attacking it or he fires ballistic missiles at Cyprus—that would come under Article 5 and therefore be a declaration of war on us. What happens then? We have to think this through. I am very concerned about it.
The US and Obama were not that keen on actually going forward with this. It seems to me that at one stage we were almost driving it forward with the French. Why? I am not clear why we were doing that. Obama is now in this and I hope that the US does not take action before we do. I do not think that Obama will want to, because I think he is going to Russia next week. That could be an interesting situation.
I am out of time, so all I will say is that August and September have very bad track records for us if we look back to 1914 and 1939. In 1914, who would have believed that the murder of a minor prince would end with a million British dead? We are dealing with a powder keg here and we need to be very careful.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, yes, we need to be careful with the powder keg, and the question before us is whether an ingredient of that powder keg is going to be chemical weapons and gas. There is one mistake that we make with baleful constancy when we consider warfare action, and that is always to judge what we do in the next war by the lessons we thought we learnt from the last. That is almost always wrong. I well remember trying to persuade Parliament that we needed to intervene in Bosnia. The shadow that hung over us then was that of Vietnam, and I was constantly told, “We can’t do this. What we’ll get is body bags”. And so it is now. We are living under the shadow, sadly, of Iraq, but this is not Iraq. We are not putting boots on the ground, we are not invading, we are not seeking to govern someone else’s country, and above all this is not George W Bush, this is Barack Obama. You need only to look at what this American President has done to see how nervous, hesitant and cautious he is about taking action. Of all the arguments that are used, particularly the one that the Americans are hell bent on expanding this into some new war in the Middle East, every piece of evidence that we have about the current American Administration points in the opposite direction. That is simply an irrational argument.
This matter turns on a single question: do you take more of a risk through acting or do you run a greater risk through lack of action? That is the central question, and it was asked not least by the noble Lord who spoke previously. The aim is easily stated: it is to act as a bulwark for international law, and above all to protect one of the few pillars of international law that has been in existence for 100 years and more—against the use of chemical weapons and gas—and to act in support of international law while at the same time seeking to diminish the capacity of President Assad to continue to use such weapons. That is the aim.
So what is the strategy? It is the same as the aim. If you have a law against murder and you enforce it, you enforce it in order to reduce murder. Do you remove the possibility of murder completely? Of course not; it will continue to be committed. However, the question is: if you did not enforce it—if that law had become a dead letter—would murder increase in frequency? Of course it would. So that is the aim, and that is the strategy.
I heard the noble Lord, Lord West, talk about uncertainties. Of course there are uncertainties. You cannot take actions without having uncertainties. I would have thought that as a man who made his career in the armed services he would understand that. Every action that you take has consequences. Some of those consequences are predictable, some of them are rationally likely, some you do not know. If you do not accept that as a judgment, you do not have Armed Forces, you do not launch ships, you do not fire torpedoes, you do not drop bombs. You cannot tell exactly what is going to happen. You cannot have certainty in this, you have to have judgment. It seems to me that that is the central question here.
I cannot give certainty that this will achieve what we want. I cannot even give certainty that it will not have a widening effect. I cannot give certainty that it will not do anything—it probably will—to increase the possibility, which the noble Lord, Lord Wright, described, of a widening religious war in the Middle East. I do not think that that is stoppable now. We might be able to make sure that the damage caused to the local citizens and to the world by such a war is not increased by allowing chemical weapons to be in commonplace usage. That is what it is possible to achieve.
I come back to the central proposition. Yes, you can have certainty about the outcome. Uncertainty is attached to this, but if you want certainty you can have it. Take no action. You will then have the certainty that this chemical convention and the laws behind it will become a dead letter. You will have the certainty that chemical weapons have been used once with impunity and can go on being used again with impunity. You will have the certainty that this will happen in the other conflicts that are about to rage, and are raging, in the Middle East. You will have the certainty that in due course that will be delivered to us too. Yes, we have an interest in this. If those are the certainties you wish, then by all means take no action. If, on the other hand, you want to take some action that is best calculated to produce a better outcome, to support international law and to make sure that we will not tolerate the use of these weapons in the best way that we can, we should pursue the action proposed by the Government.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, talked about action and said that action should be taken, but not once did he describe in any way, shape or form how that action should be taken or how it could be contained.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon: My Lords, I am extending beyond my time. I do not believe that it is up to politicians to act as armchair generals — I never have and I never will. The Government have defined what they need to achieve by this action. It needs to be limited, defined, targeted, proportional and within international law. Those are the conditions of the action before us. It is up to the military to decide how the Government can pursue that.
Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, much has been said recently in this House and elsewhere about the need to learn the lessons of the past in considering the options in Syria. Of course, the trouble is that the lessons of the past do not all point in one direction. Many will believe we were wrong not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda. Let us remember that the most recent weapon of mass destruction to be used on a massive scale was the machete. Many will believe that we were right to intervene in Sierra Leone and, although we were lucky that Milosevic fell when he did, in Kosovo. Many, including the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, think that we should have intervened in Bosnia to prevent the massacre at Srebrenica. Many have serious doubts now about military involvement in Afghanistan, although it seems politically inconceivable not to have taken action after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
I believe that most people think that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, and many thought so at the time. I agree wholly with the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and argued in this House for the inquiry into Iraq precisely so that we could learn the lessons. When faced with decisions such as those we now face, it is a tragedy that we do not yet have that report. I think that most people would argue that the intervention in Libya was justified, although it is probably too early to be sure.
It is hard to draw clear conclusions for Syria from this variegated past. The lessons will need to take account above all else of the circumstances in and around Syria, and not of what happened in the past. The key questions are as follows. Would intervention be in accordance with international law? In part that will depend on what the weapons inspectors say and on the conclusions that the UN Security Council draws from their report. However, we need clarity on this, and to be confident in retrospect that, even if things go wrong, we were right to take action when we did. The Attorney-General’s advice is very helpful on that point, but I am not convinced that it is conclusive.
Would intervention achieve its objectives, and are they clear? In other words, how sure can we be that intervention will so degrade Syria’s military capability that it will not use chemical weapons again? The moral case for acting against the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is clear, but we have to be confident, even if we cannot be absolutely sure, that our action will work.
What is the risk of collateral damage? I have no qualms, even after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, in talking about collateral damage. I recall being told before the Iraq war that US missiles had 95% accuracy, so if 500 missiles were sent, 25 would miss their target. Perhaps they are better now, but one or two missiles hitting a school, hospital or crowded market can shift the moral argument.
Will intervention strengthen or weaken the United Nations? The past decade or so has shown how hard it is to reach agreement in the Security Council. The temptation is to ignore it or to try to bypass it. That temptation is huge but wrong. Surely it must be in our interest, however difficult it may be, to strengthen the United Nations.
Crucially, can we be sure that we can conduct a surgical strike and withdraw? I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord West, said. How will other states such as Iran and Israel react if provoked? How will Hezbollah react? Syria is in the middle of a vicious civil war that could only too easily draw others into a regional conflagration, with incalculable consequences for our interests and those of others. The Foreign Secretary said that this uncertainty may last for decades. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, spoke about the importance of focusing on our interests. Surely they are to work with others, however difficult that may be, to prevent that conflagration. Such prolonged instability and uncertainty cannot be in our interests, or those of the US, Israel or Russia. That, and helping to solve the appalling humanitarian crisis now engulfing Syria and its neighbours, must be our principal aim in the years ahead.
I cannot see now how military action against the Syrian regime, even if it is legal and even admitting the horrible nature of the Assad regime, will advance our key aims. If anything, the risk is that it will do the reverse.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I listened very carefully to my noble friend’s opening speech and I thought that it was extremely impressive, but so far I am not persuaded that the Government have made a case for the action that they propose. Therefore, I am glad that we do not have to rush to a vote today on the crucial issue of military intervention. Many of us would have great difficulty in supporting the Government. However, things change and move, and perhaps the situation itself will change.
We have argued in this House over and over again about many things connected with the duty to protect and the rights and wrongs of intervening in other people’s internal affairs. I do not want to go over all that to some extent weary ground. However, I should like to make one or two points.
As regards the Security Council, of course we have reached the point where it is not regarded as absolutely necessary in all circumstances, regardless of the possibilities of veto and so on, to have a Security Council resolution. All that one can say is that, first, we will not get one on this matter and, secondly, our case in the world will be substantially weakened because we will not get one. That has to be taken into account.
Secondly, I want to mention the idea of punishment. It is a curious notion, but one that is perhaps inevitable. However, it does not really make sense. It implies that there will be no response to the punishment and that the Assad regime, its friends and supporters will simply sit back and take whatever punishment we are giving. That is most unlikely. We therefore need to feed into our computer the likelihood—the possibility or, I would say, the probability—that some kind of reaction to our military action will take place.
I want to concentrate, finally and briefly, on the point that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has just made. The aim of military intervention must be to improve the lot of those who are suffering. There is no doubt about that suffering; we see it every night on the television. It is ghastly and intolerable but our action, if it is to be effective, must be proportionate, and must be in line with and help the people who need it. I cannot for the life of me see how dropping some bombs or firing some missiles in the general direction of Syria, with targets probably some way removed from the weapons that we have been criticising, will lessen the suffering of the Syrian people. It is likely to increase and expand the civil war in Syria, not bring it to an end.
If I felt that military action would lessen—not today, tomorrow or the next day, but in the long run —the suffering of these people and bring closer the day when that civil war comes to an end, that would change my whole attitude. I am not opposed to intervention on principle. There have been, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, cases in which we have successfully intervened, but this is not likely to be one of them. That is my judgment. Unless we are actually going to bring some help or prospect of improvement to the people who have been suffering these fearful attacks, we would be better to hold off.
This is a fairly desperate conclusion because it leaves one open to the charge that one is doing nothing. Of course that is not so. There is a mass of activity, diplomatic and economic, that we could and should undertake. We should surely have cured ourselves by now of that fearful habit of going into military action with our eyes half shut and without thinking through the consequences. My noble friend said that we are not going to take sides; but we are going to take sides. That is exactly the point, and the people whom we are assisting will be pleased and others outraged. To say that we are not taking sides seems a completely unreal proposition: we are deliberately taking sides in a civil war. That is an example—or it would be because we have not done it yet—of the lack of thought, insight and perception that has led us, over and over again, to throw ourselves into battles with the odds somewhat loaded against us and without us, as Parliament, having really thought through the consequences of what we are aiming at.
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, it is inevitable that this debate looks to the past. Some of the parallels that are being drawn with past events are absolutely right. Some of them—in particular I single out what is being said about Iraq—are not necessarily helpful parallels. However, there is a parallel that matters. Just as it was essential in relation to Iraq that two conditions were satisfied, so they must be satisfied if there is to be military intervention here. I identify those two conditions as: any action must be lawful, but must also be right. Those are not the same. Being lawful is a necessary precondition to military action, but it is not enough on its own. Equally, being right and moral may well be essential, but it is not enough on its own.
My contribution to this debate is to focus particularly on the issue of legality, on which we now have, in the note from the Government, a statement of their position. I notice how it is described as a statement of the Government’s position and is divided into two parts. The first is legal principle which identifies in what circumstances military action may be lawful and the second considers whether the conditions that are set out are met. There is an important difference between them. On the first issue, I agree, or Members of this House would agree, that the primary and preferred approach or basis for legal action would, of course, be a United Nations Security Council resolution passed under Chapter 7. Will it happen? I suspect that all noble Lords in this House believe that it will not because of the existence of the veto.
Is there, therefore, another basis? This is where this potential conflict differs from Iraq as there is no pre-existing Chapter 7 resolution that could be relied upon. The Government say that humanitarian intervention would be the legal basis. That is a controversial doctrine, although more and more accepted. It was the basis on which action was taken by NATO in relation to Kosovo and the bombing of Serbia. Generally that would be recognised as justified, I think by many people in the world, and increasingly by international lawyers, although there is no basis for it in fact in the United Nations charter. However—this is essential and I am glad to see that it is made clear in the Government’s statement of legal conditions—certain conditions must be met.
First, the purpose of the humanitarian intervention must be just that. It is for humanitarian purposes. It is to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes. It is not to punish. Even though there are breaches of international law if chemical weapons are used, that does not justify the use of force for punishment. It must be to prevent further humanitarian catastrophes. That means, in itself, that one needs to be satisfied as to what has happened. Was there a chemical attack? Did it take place? Was it the result of action by the Assad regime? Critically, if action is not taken, is there a likelihood—I would say a strong likelihood—that that may be repeated? I will come back to that application.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving way. He will have seen reports, as I have, that the terms of reference of the inspectors now in Damascus precludes them, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, reminded us, from pointing a finger. They are not in the business, and would not be allowed to get into the business, of allocating blame or responsibility.
Lord Goldsmith: I did not want to deny the noble Lord the opportunity of saying something given his previous position, but he is not dealing with a point that I am making. I am not saying that UN inspectors have to say what has taken place, but one must be satisfied that that is what has happened. Secondly, the use of force needs to be a measure of last resort—you need to try everything else first—and thirdly, it needs to be proportionate. One needs to understand what that means. Proportion is not just about the same degree of force that someone else has used. It means that you are using no more force than is necessary in order to achieve your objective. The objective here would be to prevent a further humanitarian catastrophe of further attacks using chemical weapons, if that is what has happened.
When I look at the second part of what the Government say and at the JIC report, I start to have some concerns. For example, on the issue of who is responsible for the attack which took place, I find it convincing that it was the Assad side for the reasons that are given. Was it, on the other hand, the Assad regime at the very top? I notice that the JIC report says that it is believed that authority has been delegated to commanders. I have seen press reports suggesting that there may be a rogue—perhaps that is the wrong word—commander acting on his own initiative. One needs to know, because if that is what has taken place, the chances of it happening again are different from the chances of it happening again if a decision was taken at the centre. That is just one example of what one needs to analyse.
I need to conclude given the limited time. I am glad that we and the House of Commons do not have today to make a decision, because I am concerned that the answers to these questions are not yet fully given. One would need to look at the evidence. I take the point that you can never be absolutely sure about these things and should not try to be, because that is a way of shirking responsibility, but you have to make a good-faith judgment, on evidence, as to what the situation is. If and when this matter returns, the other place and this place will want to ask the question: are we satisfied, on good-faith evidence and in a good-faith judgment, that this action is necessary to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and is no more than is needed to achieve that result?
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I am glad to be following the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, because I have great respect for the integrity that he showed at a difficult time during the Iraq war.
It is worth saying first of all, and saying strongly, that one of the issues that overlays the whole of this debate is the credibility of any action that we might take. It is, if you like, the aftermath of the Iraq war that so many of our fellow citizens and many in this House and outside it find it very hard to accept any longer even what appear to be the most powerful convictions of Governments in trying to conclude what the facts are. Therefore, I am glad that both the Government’s own Motion and the Labour Party’s amendment to it stress the absolute necessity of as much evidence as we can possibly get before we make a final decision. One of the difficulties, therefore, is that we are looking at a public who lack acceptance of the positions being put to them, and that means that it is crucial that we work on the basis of the maximum evidence that we can possibly get in the next few days. I hope that the United Nations recognises the importance of moving as quickly as it reasonably can in the circumstances.
The second thing that I want to say, and it has not been much touched on so far in this debate, is how vital it is to retain the interest and, so far as is possible, support of the Arab and Muslim powers in the world for whatever action we take with regard to what has already happened. It is crucial that Arab League, in the shape of its Secretary-General, Mr Elaraby—a distinguished Egyptian who has been in that role for some years now—has come out and said that it believes that it is right and proper to take action on the use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria. It is important that it takes that view.
I shall come a little later to the fact that the underlying clash in the Middle East is, sadly, one between Sunni and Shia and that therefore we need to think very hard about the crucial question posed by the noble Lord, Lord West, as to what else we can do. We need to take into account more than we have done the Shia and not just the Sunni powers, and it is of course the Arab League that largely represents the Sunni powers.
Thirdly, we are looking not at a single challenge but at two, and we cannot totally divorce one from the other. There is the military challenge, but associated with it—indestructibly so—is the humanitarian challenge to which the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme, and others have referred. That humanitarian challenge is almost beyond our control now. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, pointed out, there are already nearly 2 million refugees outside Syria who are beginning to cast almost immeasurable pressures not only on the states immediately around such as Turkey, Jordan and, tragically, Lebanon but extending increasingly far beyond that; for example, even to the great inflow into Iraq of refugees from the Syrian campaign and civil war. What does that mean? It means, to choose again the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, that we have to associate what we do about that continuing crisis with what we do about the short-term one. That in turn requires the maximum support of the Arab world to assist us because we have to resettle all these refugees if Syria is to have a serious future.
That brings me to the final point I want to make. I regard it as little short of a tragedy that this country has no representation in Tehran, the single greatest Shia power in the region. It is quite clear that we have missed an opportunity because we did not accept the invitation extended to us—not an easy one to accept—to be part of the inauguration of the new president. I shall say two things about that. The House ought to know—I am sure there are individuals who do know—that Iran has consistently been totally opposed to the use of chemical weapons. It has taken that position in one United Nations official charter after another. Why is that? It is because it is the country that suffered more than any other from the use of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war where we, tragically, supported the Iraqis, even to the extent of arming them, against the huge losses of life by Iran. Why do I say that? It is because Iran is an ally of Syria and hates the use of chemical weapons. I suggest that it would be sensible for us to explore, possibly through the good offices of France, whether Iran would be prepared to suggest to Syria that it would be entering terribly dangerous territory to go on destroying its fellow citizens at the rate at which the Government have done over the past few weeks.
Lord Williams of Baglan: My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for this debate. There is nothing more serious that a Government can undertake than conducting military action. Like many others, I commend the Government on the wisdom of bringing this matter not only to the attention of Parliament but to the Security Council of the United Nations. I strongly support the decision to await the report of the weapons inspectors, without which the case for military action could be seriously undermined. The charter of the UN is clear that approval is necessary for the legitimatisation of military action unless a country is acting under Article 15—namely, self-defence—as Britain did following the invasion of the Falklands in 1982.
The evolution of the responsibility to protect is still taking place, and I have strong misgivings about that being used to justify military strikes in the next few days. In all probability, we will see those strikes. However limited, we must be clear that they are acts of war. Many Members have referred to the possible risks that that entails. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, referred to an article that I wrote earlier this week. I believe that those risks are considerable. Syria is not Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011. Unlike those two countries, Syria is firmly embedded in a military and political alliance with Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, which is almost certainly the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world. Within its ranks, that alliance is known as the axis of resistance. Syria is the bridge between Hezbollah and Iran, and neither could afford to see that relationship rupture. Syria, as has been noted, also enjoys considerable political cover from Russia. While it is improbable that Iran or Syria itself would engage in overt military action in retaliation for expected US raids, I believe that it is highly possible that Hezbollah would at the very least deepen its assistance to the Syrian regime, whose downfall it could not tolerate. It could also do so by widening the war to Lebanon, which in the past two weeks has already been the scene of two very large car bombings, where bombs have been planted in Sunni mosques.
Hezbollah might also threaten UNIFIL, the 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, in which many NATO countries are represented, including France, Italy and Spain. It might even seek to break the cessation of hostilities with Israel, which has lasted since the 2006 war. Hezbollah, an organisation that I had much to do with in my UN service in the Middle East, has already warned of the consequences of strikes against Syria and considers that it will undermine the balance of power and deterrence—concepts in which the axis of resistance believes strongly. Indeed, intervention could intensify the civil war in Syria. It would make a decisive military victory or the formulation of a compromise to end the war more difficult. In this regard—we should note this, I believe—both Syria and Hezbollah will draw some comfort from the fact that an allied military strike will not meet with support in much of the world, particularly in key developing countries with which we are trying to develop closer relations. I think of Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and even India in that regard.
Questions of legality will, as with the 2003 war, dog the West for some years to come if military strikes take place. There will also be consequences, perhaps profound, for the West’s relationship with Russia—a relationship that is hardly in good shape anyway. Seeking a political solution after air strikes would be extremely hard. Terrible though chemical weapons are, there are even worse weapons—I refer to nuclear weapons. Sitting in Tehran and perhaps watching on television missiles falling from the sky over Damascus, Ayatollah Khamenei may well decide that Iran’s acceleration of nuclear power is the only option to preserve its independence. Russia and China, whose support we have counted on for so long in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, may well become less supportive of our position and that of our allies. Certainly the outlook for the next round of talks over Iran’s nuclear weapons will become much more complicated.
I believe that the Government, while seeking to prevent any further use of chemical weapons in Syria, must somehow at the same time forge a strategy that redoubles our efforts to seek a diplomatic and political solution, which is the only way to end this civil war.
Lord Elton: My Lords, it is not often that so much has been said, and so quickly, at the beginning of a debate. The danger of repetition is very great, and it also makes it possible to be briefer than one might otherwise be. I suppose it is true, as the noble Lord just said, that our reaction to any prospect of war is conditioned by our previous experience, and my previous experience about the decision to go to war is not a happy one. It is impossible to escape the first question on this, which is certainty as to what has happened to which we are reacting. I read through the JIC report on chemical weapons use by Syria with increasing confidence that we knew what had happened, particularly when I got to the sentence which said:
The function of this House is to scrutinise ruthlessly what is proposed by Governments when it could cause great risk to this country. Therefore, one has to be sceptical in the extreme before one is happy to agree with a proposed military intervention. We are told that there would be no intervention in the civil war. But any military response would be directed at Assad, must be to the advantage of the rebels and will be seen as an intervention on their behalf. Nobody has considered who they actually are. The Minister will tell me when he replies, but am I not right in saying that large elements of the rebel forces are in fact jihadist terrorists, whose aims are the overthrow of democracy and the rule of law such as we have in this country? Those would be the people whose chances would be enhanced by a successful invention against Assad or the regime. That is a national interest on which we need to keep a close eye.
One really cannot get it all in in five minutes but everybody agrees in theory that we have to be clear about what we want to achieve by doing this. We call it an objective. If it is a military objective, it has to be pretty precise. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, tried to get in on the end of—I do not know why I have forgotten his name but I know it very well.
Lord Elton: Yes, right. Past form tells me that I shall forget it again next time. She tried to get in on the end of his time to point out that nobody has said what the intervention is actually going to be but apparently it is going to be either cruise missiles or aircraft-delivered explosives. Well, if you drop bombs on dumps of chemical weapons, you are then the aggressor because you spread them around the country. On the other hand, if you decide to attack those people who are thought to be in control, you release them from control. I cannot see what an effective military intervention would be. Until we know what it is going to be and how it is supposed to succeed, we cannot give even a tentative green light.
As to a purely humanitarian intervention in the way of aid, this is a battlefield; it will not be possible to deliver it without armed support. If you have armed support, then you are invading. It is not at all clear what is being proposed when we are asked to support in principle an armed intervention. The bottom line is: will it do more harm than good in the long run? Will our humanitarian intervention actually be inhumane? Until we know the answer to those questions, we must proceed with the greatest caution. I, for one, do not see the way in which we can.
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My Lords, this is an important debate on a very important issue but in many ways it is a bit late. This civil war has been going on, with increasing violence, for the past two years. Perhaps it is right that we should be focusing on it at present after what happened last Wednesday.
I agree with the Government, and with other allied Governments, that there must be a response to the events of 21 August in Damascus. To do nothing in the face of this illegal, obscene, despicable and, indeed, desperate use of poison gas would in itself be a positive act. It would be in many ways to legitimise an instrument of war that has been outlawed for almost 100 years and it would open the door to much further and wider use of these chemical weapons. Effectively, it would end the responsibility to protect that has now been established by the UN General Assembly.
What we do now in response to the atrocity of 21 August has to be the beginning and not the end of what we do about the crisis of Syria and its neighbourhood. To pretend that taking action now, whatever it might be, would end our involvement in Syria is naive, short-sighted and profoundly dangerous. There is a danger that we focus exclusively in this debate on what happened on Wednesday 21 August and relegate the other horrors of what has gone on over the past two years and what might happen next. There are 100,000 people already dead in Syria. There are 2 million people displaced; that is one-third of the Syrian population both inside and outside its borders. Lebanon has 710,000 refugees. Jordan has 520,000 refugees; that is 10% of its population. As David Miliband said in a speech he gave at Ditchley in August, that is the equivalent of the whole population of Romania coming to the United Kingdom. That is in Jordan, one of our friendly countries. Lebanon is destabilised. Turkey has 440,000 refugees, Iraqi Kurdistan has 160,000 and Egypt 110,000. Israel is on edge at every minute. Iran is on Assad’s side. Iraq is partial in the conflict. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pumping weapons to whoever wants them in that area.
Are we really saying, by focusing on this particular atrocity, that Assad can continue with horrifying violence so long as he does not use chemical weapons? Are we, after we strike, then to stand back as Assad with his new friends in Hezbollah mounts a scorched-earth policy against all his opponents? Is the fevered discussion of the past few days forcing us into the corner of saying that chemical weapons are wrong and will lead to severe punishment, but Assad can go on destroying his people and his country and we will have no further response to what he is doing? Jeremy Bowen, the profoundly brave and wise Middle East correspondent and editor of the BBC said in a programme last night that the regime in Syria is now quite ready to take whatever attack will take place and then simply to move on with what it was doing before—and that was bad enough.
To those who say that any action carries the risk of siding with one side in a civil war, I say this, which has not yet been said even by the Government: we have already taken sides. We do not recognise President Assad as the President of Syria. This country and two dozen others recognise the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. We have taken sides. All we have not done is very much about it and it is time that we did, not only by preventing the human catastrophe of another chemical weapons attack, but by helping and supporting—indeed, arming—the anti-Assad forces which we recognise as the legitimate representatives of the people; by creating truly safe areas for refugees, learning all the lessons of what not to do from Bosnia; and by being generous with Jordan and the other countries that are bearing the unbearable burdens of the spillover. We need to make it clear that genocidal killing and ethnic cleansing by artillery, rockets, grenades and guns, as well as poison gas, are at least as evil and need to be treated in the same way.
Lord Carlile of Berriew: My Lords, to follow a speech of the quality that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and to be able to agree with it entirely, is a great privilege. I thank him for making it.
It has been said frequently in this debate that our judgment should be conditioned by experience, but some of your Lordships have been very selective about that experience. We should not simply rely on the last painful experience, or make a particular selection to meet the argument. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and my noble friend Lord Ashdown mentioned Bosnia, which was a lesson to us all of what can happen if you do not take action. Sierra Leone was also mentioned as an example of the benefits that can occur if you do take action. They are part of our experience, too.
As the grandson of a teacher and her postmaster husband who faced state murder by the use of poison gas in sheds, the sight of death by gassing in the streets of Syria raises a painful sense of disgust. The purveyors of those weapons are undoubtedly war criminals who should be brought to justice if at all possible, but I am not prepared to wait for that. They demean their country, one that we all wish to welcome back into the family of nations—but sooner rather than later. My view is that, all other things being equal, if we can act now, it is our duty as a moral component of the international world to do so.
However, those strong feelings alone would not in any way justify military action against Syrian military and political targets. For such action to be justified, it must first be founded on law. Then it must be based on evidence, it must be urgent, it must be necessary, it must be proportionate and, of course, it must be taken against a background of a mass of diplomatic activity. Some of the speeches that we have heard, including those from very distinguished former diplomats, seem to have suggested that we have not begun on any of the diplomatic activity, but we have had years of diplomatic activity—failed diplomatic activity. Now is the time, if at all possible, for the diplomatic activity to stop and for Syria to have a legal and lawful demonstration that the world, or at least part of the world, is prepared to act.
I regret that the, albeit cogent and persuasive, summary of the legal advice that has been given to Parliament and to the public is so short. Both Houses, in my view, had a reasonable expectation of seeing more of the detail, although not, of course, the whole advice—how the doubts weighed against the certainties, the checks against the balances. However, one has to trust one’s Government, at least up to a point. I accept on trust the Government’s legal advice that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, or responsibility to protect, as it is sometimes called, applies here and that, therefore, the proposed action is lawful.
The essential question, however, is whether it should be taken. Will action play a significant part in removing the use of chemical weapons from disputes taking place on this planet? I believe that the time has come when we have to say yes in answer to that question. If we do not, we will look simply like supine appeasers while other parts of the world take action.
I accept, too, that we must await the evidence that there has been use of chemical weapons—if there be any doubt about that—and that, in that context, we should await the report of the UN inspectors. The UN, in its inspectorial role, is extremely good. I agree, too, that we should take the probably token step of awaiting the deliberative role of the United Nations, but I regret very much that the United Nations in that role is now looking tragically toothless and is simply going through the motions.
It is the role of brave and moral nations on earth, including ourselves wherever possible, to take steps to ensure that international humanitarian law is made to work. In my view, given the evidence that has been produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, given the opinion that has been given by the Attorney-General, and given the trust in which we place our consciences in the hands of our Prime Minister and, in the case of my party, the Deputy Prime Minister, we should say yes to this stage and then we should assess the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, I fear that it is time to act.
On the rationale, of course I accept that chemical warfare is a horrific form of warfare, which was rightly banned. Nuclear weapons are horrific; biological weapons are horrific; shrapnel is horrific; and high explosives and landmines are horrific. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that if we singularise this form of weaponry, we appear a contrario to be legitimising other forms of slaughter and massacre. It seems to me that murder is murder, irrespective of the choice of murder weapon. For us to take on ourselves the job of punishing murder if it is committed with a particular weapon and ignoring the 100,000 casualties that have already taken place in Syria is paradoxical and perhaps driven more by emotion in the case of President Obama, whose red lines have been repeatedly flouted. I cannot see the logic or the legality.
I do not understand the argument about the responsibility to protect. It is the son of Kosovo. It was first articulated in Mr Blair’s Chicago speech, which was specifically designed to take on the Americans, who were arguing that bombing alone would defeat Milosevic. It was Mr Blair’s achievement to persuade the Americans and the Germans, who in the end persuaded the Russians, that if it took boots on the ground, we would send land forces into Kosovo. That is why Milosevic gave up.
Humanitarian intervention is specifically about boots on the ground. It is about the responsibility to protect, not about the responsibility to punish. It is about imposing ceasefires, separating warring parties and bringing in aid. It is about a process of enforced pacification. It is nothing to do with punishment. I do not believe that we are in that situation now. I do not believe that we should send massive land forces into Syria. However, nor do I think that it is right to borrow Mr Blair’s rationale for exactly the opposite policy, with the Government asserting that we are not going to change our stance on Syria and are not going to get involved but will simply administer condign punishment for the use of a particular weapon.
What should we do? If we want to reassert the primal importance that the world attaches to the ban on chemical weapons, we need to call for a session of the conference on chemical weapons that drew up the convention. There are 189 states parties and seven states that are not parties. With respect to the Leader of the House, Syria is not party to the convention. It would be for the 189 to bring pressure on the seven to come into line. I do not see the Russians opposing that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. I do not see the Iranians opposing that. I am sure that we need to talk to Mr Rouhani. I am sure that we need to talk to our closest ally who is affected by the situation in a way that we are not: the Turks. The Turks have an extremely strong interest in the survival of an integral Syria, because of the Kurdish problem.
We need to put our pride in our pocket and talk to the Russians. They suspect our motives and think that we want to get rid of their naval base in Syria. I hope that we do not care whether they have a naval base in Syria. I hope that we could convince them that we shared their worries about some elements in the opposition to President Assad. We will make much more progress if we can talk the Russians out of their present position of diehard hostility. That is a task that should be attempted. I want to know when the Foreign Secretary will go to Ankara and Tehran, and I want to know who will go to Damascus. We have to put our pride in our pocket and accept that the peace conference that we want must involve all parties, including the regime in office in Damascus. We cannot pretend that a peace process can be made to work without the present regime, so I hope that the House and the Government will reflect on the concerns raised in this debate, and in particular on the wisdom of the noble Lords, Lord Hurd of Westwell and Lord Robertson.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and it is tantalising that he did not have longer to develop his themes, which were based on enormous experience. I particularly agree with him that the doctrine of punishment has no place in international law. We cannot intervene in order to punish. This might not be universally accepted, especially in the United States, but it is quite clear that it is no part of international law’s right to punish somebody or to retaliate.
I want to make one additional point. I have heard a noble and gallant field marshal in this House say on more than one occasion that the first question asked of you if you visit troops who are committed to active service is, “Is the country behind us? Do the people support what we are being asked to do?”. That is an extraordinarily important question to have in mind when we consider the Syria issue. It is all very well having a military covenant and enshrining it with the force of law—it is very important that that should have been done—but we are not treating troops fairly if they are not given a truthfully positive assurance in answer to that question. That is the great significance of the opinion polls. The Government have to face the fact that so far opinion polls have been about nine to one against what is understood to be in the Government’s mind on military intervention. It is therefore extremely important that in the days ahead, as the evidence available becomes clearer, the Government make every effort to explain the basis upon which the doctrine of the responsibility to protect is founded.
I am extremely glad that the Attorney-General has published a summary of his opinion for use in this debate rather than his full opinion. I cannot agree with those who wish to see the full opinion. That gives rise to tendentious cherry picking and is unhelpful rather than helpful. The public will be reassured to see that one of the criteria to be fulfilled is a humanitarian purpose inspired by humanitarian needs of almost catastrophic proportions. That is the kind of thing that we should expect to see more readily understood in the days ahead. The days ahead are going to be extremely important. Upon them may depend, among other questions, of course, which there is no time to develop, the answer to the question in future, should it arise: “Sir, is the country behind us?”.
Lord Reid of Cardowan: My Lords, in a Chamber such as this, which is peopled by so many who have borne the responsibility for authorising military action, there is a deep understanding of the gravity of such a decision. That is why there is an extensive degree of caution to make sure that we understand the justification, the purpose and the consequences of any action. It is also why I am very pleased that the Prime Minister accepted the wise suggestion of the leader of the Opposition to delay at least until the end of the inspections in Syria and the conclusions drawn by the UN inspectors, if for no other reason than that it maximises the chances of legitimising any future action and international support.
I shall say a little word on intelligence because I have read the JIC report and I listened very carefully to what the Leader of the House said. Forgive me if the scars on my back make me even more sceptical, although not cynical, when I hear words such as “highly likely”, “consistent with” and “there would appear to be no plausible alternative scenario”. Lessons have been drawn from previous conflicts, in particular from Iraq. I think the major one from Iraq has been missing. When we look back, there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and had used chemical weapons. Inspectors had been in not for 10 days but, on and off, for 10 years. Saddam Hussein himself declared that he had chemical weapons. Every intelligence agency in the world concluded that he retained chemical precursors. In short, there was “no plausible alternative scenario” to the fact that he had chemical precursors. Yet we found none. However, it might be interesting, if we ever get our hands on the stocks 500 kilometres away in Syria, to see where some of them came from.
The point I make is that there was a degree of certainty, to those of us who were reading these reports, at a level of fortitude greater than “highly likely” and “consistent with”, especially given the report, to which we were alerted today by the Associated Press, by the Director for National Intelligence in the United States,
“outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture”.
Let me make my position clear. While certainty would assist in legitimising any military action, should it be decided appropriate, and in maximising support—it would in a sense overrule the veto that Russia might use—it should not compel us in advance to taking military action because two other questions must be asked. That is not because, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, implied, we require certainty but because we require scrutiny, questioning, rational analysis and an understanding of the consequences.
The first of those is inside Syria itself. How do we achieve the limited objective of a punitive response and deterrence with military means that does not spill over into the civil war inside Syria? I do not know, so I ask for advice on that. Secondly, are we fully aware that this is not just a national civil war? This is the equivalent of the European Thirty Years War. It is a regional, schismatic war between Shia and Sunni, and if we proposed to intervene—my good friend, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, says that we have already taken sides on this—I commend to the House the words of the noble Lord’s old mentor, the noble Lord, Lord Healey: when you are in a hole, stop digging.
If we have already taken sides, do not let us write it in marble so that we are inevitably on the side of the Sunni, because there is a chance for some diplomatic progress along the lines, which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, mentioned, around the Chemical Weapons Convention. There is no reason why Russia and Iran, which has suffered so much in that respect, would not be open, along with 189 other nations in the world, to pressurising Syria on this question. That would not remove Assad himself. But then again, that is not the express purpose of any proposed action by the Government, is it? It is to limit the future use of chemical weapons. That might be an area into which we should put our efforts, and it is more fruitful than the one which the Government appear to be contemplating at present.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, when this House last had a debate on Syria, on 1 July, I urged the Government to try to prevent any further use of chemical weapons by tabling a UN Security Council resolution requiring President Assad to admit UN chemical weapons inspectors and to give them unfettered access to any sites where past or future allegations of use were made. Unfortunately, the Government did not do that; indeed, the Minister, when she replied to the debate, did not even respond to the proposal. I say “unfortunately” not in an attempt to say, “I told you so”, but because if we had pursued that course we might be in a better place than we are now. Such a resolution, if passed, might have deterred all concerned from the use of these appalling weapons, and if Russia and China yet again vetoed any action against Syria we and our allies should at least have been able to make clear at the UN that the further use of these weapons would not pass without there being serious consequences.
Now, however, we are where we are, faced with pretty incontrovertible evidence of the use of chemical weapons on 21 August in the suburbs of Damascus that has resulted in the deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians. I hope, incidentally, that we do not have to spend too much time raking over the ashes of the intelligence failures in 2003 about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Analogies can be useful, but they are never conclusive. What was at issue at that time was possession, not use. Now it is all about use.
What should be done? We should face the fact that to do nothing would be a truly terrible option, however unattractive and risky the alternatives may appear to be. Those who have spoken of the use of chemical weapons as crossing a red line and as being a game-changer would be revealed as paper tigers. Inertia by the main western allies would be a massive encouragement to all those around the world who seek to harm our values and our interests and a massive discouragement to all those who rely on our determination and firmness of purpose to deter such actions. Moreover, inaction would make a complete mockery of the international norm of the responsibility to protect to which all Governments have signed up, a norm to which we and all the members of the United Nations agreed in September 2005. That norm has already suffered much damage in Syria, but at least there is now a chance to honour it in the face of a massive breach of international humanitarian law.
Should we be stopped by the lack of any Security Council authority for taking tough action? That lack of authority is due purely and simply to Russian and Chinese vetoes that are frustrating the will of the other members, an overwhelming majority of the council. It was a serious abuse by those two countries of their role as permanent members of the council when they earlier vetoed giving UN authority to Kofi Annan’s peace plan even though it contained no authorisation of the use of force. In addition, Russia and Iran have continued to supply the regime with lethal weapons and they seem simply to have overlooked that they, too, signed up to the responsibility to protect in 2005.
As someone who has worked hard over the past 20 or so years to strengthen the UN and make it more affective, it is with a heavy heart that I conclude that the Government’s intention to take forceful action in the present circumstances in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons and, if necessary, without UN Security Council authority, is the least bad option available. If the Government decide to go ahead on that basis and the House of Commons approves it, it could be worth while, before using force, to give the Assad regime an ultimatum to hand over all their chemical weapons to the United Nations and to allow UN inspectors unrestricted access throughout the country. That would make it even clearer where the responsibility would lie for what might follow and would make clear the limited objectives of any action taken. In any event, what is surely essential—and many other noble Lords have said this—is that any military action against the Assad regime should be accompanied by a renewed effort to convene a conference designed to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. This may seem a long shot in the present situation, but we surely must not get drawn into a situation in which a sequence of actions involving military solutions becomes the only one available.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, there is broad consensus that the actions of the Assad regime are increasingly intolerable. They have been the cause of revulsion and condemnation for some time. In particular the awful images of children suffering in what Save the Children has said is a human tragedy on a scale almost impossible to imagine has prompted the understandable response that something must be done. But we find ourselves torn between the desire to act and the certain knowledge that, in a situation so desperate and complicated, there are no easy answers. It is rare indeed for there to be such answers; certainly in matters of war there never are.
We are all scarred by the experience of recent conflicts, which have taught us that our very human instinct to intervene to stop atrocities is not always a sufficient basis on which to act. We must also have clear objectives, recognise that we may not be able to achieve all that we might wish and recognise that our actions will inevitably carry unintended consequences. But as the Prime Minister said in relation to other developments in the region, the fact that we cannot do everything does not mean that we should do nothing.
In common with many, the Middle East is a region I love and where I have a number of involvements as declared in the register of interests. I share many of the concerns expressed in your Lordships’ House and beyond about the potential consequences of taking action. There is already a serious refugee crisis, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and we face the possibility of the conflict spreading to neighbouring countries with all the instability for the region that that entails. An escalation of the conflict risks things getting worse before they can get better. I am sure that the Government will have taken into account the increased strain on neighbouring countries as more people flee Syria. Has extra money been provided to help these already overstretched Governments? Also, in any action taken, will assurances be given that everything will be done to avoid harming civilians, especially children?
We should not blind ourselves to concerns about certain elements in the opposition, notably the al-Nusra Front, and their own actions. There is a risk that in rightly condemning Assad we oversimplify into good guys and bad guys. It is never as straightforward as that. These complexities make it even more important that we define clearly the limitations of intervention. Since Iraq and Afghanistan, the phrase “exit strategy” has become familiar to us all and we should remember why. But the use of chemical weapons by anyone cannot just be ignored, so we must be sure that any action, military or otherwise, has clear goals and commands widespread support, especially, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, from the Arab and Muslim world.
Although public opinion is against intervention, I welcome the YouGov poll today where a large majority believes that the Prime Minister would act only for the right reasons. I also welcome the work that the Government have undertaken in leading the way in seeking a UN Security Council resolution. We all know that total consensus is unlikely, but it is right to try.
The American ambassador to the UN during the Cuban missile crisis, Adlai Stevenson, famously told the Russians that they were in the courtroom of public opinion. Today, it is Assad who stands in the dock and the evidence is mounting daily of his guilt. But for those who sit in judgment on him, the priority must not just be for retribution for his crimes but the best way to help his victims and protect the Syrian people. I sincerely hope that such a way can be found.
Lord Alli: My Lords, I wanted to speak in this debate because I had many concerns about military intervention in Syria and the pace at which these events were being considered. I am glad that sanity has resumed and the timetable slowed. I do not have the depth of experience of many who have spoken or indeed who are yet to speak, but I have little understanding of the region; Iraq and Syria in particular. I have visited Syria on a number of occasions and held talks with President Assad on several. I also spent some time in Iraq during the second Iraq war. I was dispatched their seven times during the conflict and spent over three months in that war zone. Those experiences have coloured my judgment and I hope that your Lordships will view what I say through that lens. If I have learnt anything—apart from the horrors of war—it is that people can do unspeakable things to people; it is the desperation that conflict brings to the ordinary people; it is that loss of all hope.
I fully understand and accept that the use of chemical weapons is a line crossed and for that there must be consequences. But those consequences must be well thought through and proportionate, and they must stand the judgment of history. We should never let those who use chemical weapons feel that they can go without international condemnation or military sanctions. However, we must take military action only if it complies with international law and is evidence-based. That means sometimes having patience in the face of what seems to be an open and shut case. It means waiting for weapons inspectors fully to report. It also means giving this House and the other place time to digest the legal and intelligence information before rushing to a vote. It also means having some idea of the answer to the question: what happens next?
If we are to be able to make sense of the lessons of the war in Iraq, we must understand that mission creep is the enemy of the international community and the friend of chaos and fundamentalism. The fact that bombs can be launched at a safe distance and that military installations can be incinerated with minimal collateral damage lulls Governments into a false sense of security that action can be taken with minimal effect on us. But that is never where it ends. The journey goes in only one direction.
Let me be clear: I do not support military intervention over and above action taken as a deterrent against further use of chemical weapons. I support such action only provided it is proven with compelling evidence and it is part of an international alliance. I also recognise that there will be repercussions from those events.
However, the conflict is more than just the removal of a dictator. It has deeper religious roots—Sunni versus Shia—which are being played out all over the Middle East and more widely internationally. So we must also ask: what happens when and if the Assad Government are removed? What is left behind? From my experience, it is soldiers with guns but no paymaster. It is ammunition dumps unguarded. It is porous borders, foreign mercenaries and religious fanatics with kangaroo courts. It is no one in control.
In addition to the limited military action favoured by the Government, we should be concerned about the escalation of the mission, about the men and women of our Armed Forces and about who or what takes over. We should be concerned that, like in Iraq, we do not destroy the system needed post-conflict to help rebuild a nation.
I know that history marches to its own tune but we can learn from past mistakes. I fully understand that we need to stand by our red lines but we should not move them. Our job in Parliament is to guard those lines against all those who seek to draw us further into conflict where they cannot define success. I know that all roads probably lead to bloodshed and misery. Whatever we do, there is no easy resolution to what is happening in Syria and more widely in the Middle East. There is no military solution, and the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister should heed the lessons of the Iraq war. This is one of those decisions where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
Finally, I say to the noble Lord the Leader of the House that I have listened to the list of things that this action is not intended to do—the same list that the Prime Minister gave in the other place. But that has not been the mood music being played by this Government over recent months. It is that mood music that frightens us all and it should be turned down.
The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I welcome very much the opportunity to speak later in this debate because of the extraordinary quality of many of the contributions that have been made and how much one can learn by listening to them. Like many noble Lords I have some experience in the region, partly from this role that I have and from recent visits and contact with many faith leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths, and through 10 years of, from time to time, working on reconciliation projects.
I do not intend to repeat the powerful points that have been made on international law, which is itself based on the Christian theory of just war. That has been said very eloquently. However, I want to pick up a couple of points. First, it has been said, quite rightly, that there is as much risk in inaction as there is in action. In a conflict in another part of the world—a civil conflict in which I was mediating some years ago—a general said to me, “We have to learn that there are intermediate steps between being in barracks and opening fire”. The reality is that, until we are sure that all those intermediate steps have been pursued, just war theory says that the step of opening fire is one that must only be taken when there is no possible alternative whatever under any circumstances. As the noble Lord, Lord Alli, just said very clearly and very eloquently, the consequences are totally out of our hands once it has started.
Some consequences we can predict. We have heard already about Lebanon and about Iran, particularly the effect that an intervention would cause on the new Government in Iran as they are humiliated by such an intervention. However, there is a further point. I talked to a very senior Christian leader in the region yesterday and he said that intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian communities. They have already been devastated. There were 2 million Christians in Iraq 12 years ago; there are fewer than 500,000 today. These are churches that do not just go back to St Paul but, in the case of Damascus and Antioch, predate him. They will surely suffer terribly, as they already are, if action goes ahead. That consequence has to be weighed against the consequences of inaction.
In civil wars, those who are internal to the civil conflict fight for their lives, necessarily. Those who are external have a responsibility, if they get involved at all, to fight for the outcome. That outcome must be one that improves the chances of long-term peace and reconciliation. If we take action that diminishes the chance for peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has to be found, whether it is near-term or in the long-term future, then we will have contributed to more killing, and this war will be deeply unjust.
In consequence, I feel that any intervention must be effective in terms of preventing any further use of chemical weapons. I have not yet heard that that has been adequately demonstrated as likely. It must effectively deal with those who are promoting the use of chemical weapons. It must also have a third aim, which is somewhere in the strategy: there must be more chance of a Syria and of a Middle East in which there are not millions of refugees and these haunting pictures are not the stuff of our evening viewing.
Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the most reverend Primate, who has added further quality to what I think has been a most excellent debate in your Lordships’ House. I could not help reflecting on his point: that for all Saddam Hussein’s awfulness, a measure of religious tolerance existed in Iraq. If one talks about unintended consequences, it is worth remembering that Saddam Hussein had a Christian Foreign Secretary in the shape of Tariq Aziz. There would not be much chance in any of the countries I can think of in that region of such a position being thus held in future in the light of the changes that have happened.
It is common ground in this House that the use of chemical weapons was outrageous. It was an appalling crime, a war crime, a crime against humanity. That is where we start. The question is: what does that lead us to as a conclusion for what should be done? Yesterday, the National Security Council unanimously said, “We cannot stand idly by”. That is quite true, but neither should we rush in without due consideration. We should take every possible step to get United Nations agreement to any action that we take. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has said that if we cannot get United Nations agreement, we still have responsibility, but it is how we exercise that responsibility and from what position that concerns me very much.
I am much relieved by what I think to be a more considered and more stately, or steady, approach to the problem than appeared to be the situation a week or two ago. It seemed to me extraordinary after the success of getting Russia, for the first time in this area, to agree to United Nations inspectors going to establish the truth, that there was apparently some proposal that we should launch a bombing attack while they were there. There were stories that that was proposed for between today and Sunday. The change of approach seems to me very sensible. There must be every effort to establish the facts: were they real chemical weapons? Questions have been raised about what category they were in, who did it and at what level it was authorised. Obviously, then, the report must come back and must be properly considered in the United Nations. Some have said that that will not do any good because they are not authorised to find out who did it, but let us at least wait to see what they say. Facts may well come out of it which make it pretty clear what the situation is.
If it is a full report and indicates clearly what is likely to have happened—I personally believe it almost certain that the Assad regime was responsible—that strengthens our position in the United Nations, it strengthens our position with the Russians, and we hope then to get a positive Russian response. On Ban Ki-Moon, I must say that there were shades of Hans Blix about his position when he was trying to call for proper consideration. I do not want to dredge up the Iraq invasion and the Iraq war again, but we know about Hans Blix’s difficulty in that situation.
To make a small military point, the threat of force is often a lot more effective than the use of force, which often only demonstrates the limitations on such action. It seems to me essential that if we in the end decide to take action, we can show that we took every possible step in the United Nations to try to get support as further justification because, across the world, we do not have great credibility on this issue. It is no good Vice-President Joe Biden standing up to say, “I am absolutely satisfied”. It is no good Secretary of State John Kerry saying the same: “I am absolutely satisfied”. Many of us remember a very good and honourable man, Colin Powell, being put in an impossible position in presenting evidence to the United Nations which turned out to be quite wrong. It is important that we start with that.
I would then wait to see—the issue has been raised by many—exactly what action can be taken that can precisely target the objective of removing any further threat of chemical weapons. I say that against a background. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, referred to the risk of a certain proportion of missiles going astray. I remember the first Gulf War. Some will remember that that was the first time that laser-directed bombs were used, with incredible accuracy. I still remember that marketplace where one did not go in the right direction and the number of innocent Iraqis whom we killed on that occasion.
I notice the number of people with military experience who have the greatest reservations about this, which should make us think. It should make us think for this reason, too: we are looking at a situation in this region that is as dangerous as one could imagine. It is not just about Sunni and Shia. There are splits within Sunni—there is Sunni, al-Qaeda Sunni elements and a whole range of different people. Somebody told me that this risks a conflagration that could stretch from Beirut to Mumbai. That is wrong. It could go from Mali to Mumbai. We need to look at the state of countries such as Egypt, the threat to Lebanon, Syria, the refugee problems for Jordan, Yemen, the whole area and the Gulf states themselves. Some of their rulers are very worried about the situation. We must be extremely careful, and we must also be careful because it is not without risks to our own country. The statement by young Muslims that car bombs are their cruise missiles threatened us previously when the Iraq invasion took place and when we were advised that there was not necessarily a great risk of terrorism in this country increasing. That was pre-7/7 and the problems that we had. We need to be very careful indeed before we take these actions. We must work as far as we can with the United Nations and use the wisdom, authority and responsibility of Parliament to take this decision. Parliament and Congress have a role to play in this situation.
Lord Griffiths of Burry Port: My Lords, we were urged at the beginning of this debate to remember what we were not discussing, but that has not prevented a number of us addressing those issues anyway. We were not discussing regime change, punishment or the thin end of the wedge. The tangle of knots of the noble Lord, Lord Hill, left one clear-cut issue that he wanted us to debate today. One thing, he said, and one thing only, was the question of the use of chemical weapons and what to do about it. There has been widespread, indeed unanimous, recognition of the evil of owning and using chemical weapons, the defiance of the outcomes of such usage, and of internationally agreed statements on such matters. The plea for a clear- cut, simple, open and shut discussion of this debate leaves me saying, “If only”.
The debate has drawn a number of expert people with great experience across a number of fronts to share with us their own feelings about the simple, clear-cut addressing of this question. Again and again we have learnt that 50 shades of grey might indeed be a more appropriate way of describing the varied responses and potential ways of looking at this question, whether from a legal, military, political or moral point of view. For the most part we have tried to keep on the ball, but it is clear that across all these fronts, as many questions are raised by the issue of a potential military intervention as would be solved, especially, as we have heard from various quarters in the House, by an inappropriate use of or resort to force. The likelihood, even a small likelihood, of a mistake would quite simply tip the balance and make it quite likely, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested, that there would be the opposite of an improvement of the likelihood of a positive outcome in the medium and long term from whatever action we take now.
My contribution, which will be very short, is to look at things from the top deck of the Clapham omnibus and to ask how such an intervention would play out. What perceptions would it feed, real or imagined, in ordinary people? We could look internationally for starters. What would be the attitudes of people in the countries and movements that traditionally support Syria when they saw yet again an intervention of this kind from the West, bringing and wreaking its own damage? It might be very clear-cut and a precise course of action with a very welcome, simple outcome, but it might not. The peoples of the Middle East, as has been referred to again and again in this debate, are both angry and frightened at present. They are bitterly divided and increasingly violent. To launch cruise missiles into this volatile situation would be to invite the unforeseeable, and for the unwanted to make its explosive appearance. We must be terribly careful that we can convince ourselves that we have exhausted all other possibilities and looked at every other possible way forward before we take such risks, which are great.
What about the opposition forces in Syria? Who are they? Who would we support? What inner dynamic would we be likely to create between those groups of rebels and the Government by intervening in this way? Is it not likely that even the best organised might take the arms that we might offer them, if it comes to that, without necessarily ending up as our friends—indeed, the opposite? What about the people of this country who are sick and tired of these adventures and no longer believe politicians? It would behove all of us to ensure that the public of this country were given the fullest and frankest possible information so that they can sense the genuineness of what is being proposed. We must be careful along those lines. The British public are much more aware of the weakened state of the United Kingdom in the world at large than their Governments sometimes are.
Some of us have been working for better understanding between religions, races and classes in the cities. The slightest mistake in an intervention of this kind would set back the work of people in the communities I know about by light years. We are beginning to build trust and confidence in each other and to work together to common ideals. Why is the United Kingdom in cahoots with the United States all the time, and perceived to be at the forefront of these attacks? While we condemn the use of chemical weapons unreservedly, we must try and try again to stir the diplomatic pot and keep efforts on that front alive.
We must use our imagination. For example, I read a Church of England briefing in which it was asked whether any consideration had been given to the possibility of asking the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution directing Syria to place its chemical stockpile under UN protection for the duration of the conflict, and authorising all necessary action should it refuse to do so. That is a simple proposal that we have not heard elsewhere. There must be others. Why do we not convince ourselves that we have exhausted those others before we take the action that we are now talking about?
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the underlying theme of the international legal aspects that has to some extent motivated the Government appears to be the 2005 agreement and the responsibility to protect. It does not seem in the least likely that military action taken against the Assad regime would achieve that purpose. It appears that military action would not necessarily be enough to wipe out the use of chemical weapons. It does not seem likely that it would be entirely targeted to be as effective in that direction. We will never know, because we will not be advised by military representatives, in this country or anywhere else, what the effects of such a military attack would be.
I am afraid that I see what has been published today as inadequate to justify the use of force in response to the horrific and shocking use of chemical weapons by the Assad Government. It appears to me very unlikely that military action would prevent the use of chemical weapons by Syria. It also seems highly likely that it would stimulate responses that would be damaging to other populations. Against the background of this appalling war, with some 1.7 million people going into exile and 100,000 already dead, it would be an intensification of the hostilities, not moving in the direction of pacification or reconciliation. Both of those would seem to be the prime responsibility of a country like ours, not a retaliatory demonstration of a kind that seems to be utterly unsuitable to the 21st century.
It has been something of an achievement to get the Russians to agree that they will come to Geneva, but what would be the effect of military action on that agreement? It is highly probable that they would withdraw, and I cannot think that that is an outcome that we should be looking to achieve. Surely we ought to be putting pressure directly on the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons, but a retaliatory attack is unlikely to be persuasive. If we are to exercise any influence on the Middle East and its appalling problems, our role should be a conciliatory and mediating one, not that of a participant in the use of force in that part of the world. We ought to be aligning ourselves not only with the Arab League, which is calling for action, but with the Russians and the Chinese. Indeed, we should be calling for a uniting for peace resolution in the General Assembly of the United Nations in order to create a forum in which all the interested parties can play their part.
I am afraid that I find the Government’s proposals and the conditions they have attached totally unreassuring. Certainly we need to know what has happened, and certainly we need the reports of the UN inspectors, but surely the goal is not punishment: rather, it is reconciliation. Punishment is no part of international law, which has been made clear by several other speakers. Reconciliation is both a matter of judgment and a matter of law, and that is where our sights should be focused.
Lord Dannatt: My Lords, the Leader of the House began and finished his speech in opening this debate by referring to the issues before us as simple. On one level they are simple. It is simple to say that the use of chemical weapons and the results of the casualties that they can inflict are abhorrent, that they are a moral outrage and that therefore the issue is simple. I fully agree with the notion that we should do all we can to prevent their use, but I take that simple notion and hold it up against the complexity of the situation that is the civil war in Syria, and that apparently simple aspiration melts away against that complexity.
For the past two years, looking at the Syrian civil war we have agonised over what form of military intervention we might be able to follow, but each time we have pulled back because the issues are too difficult. We have pulled back from arming the opposition because we do not really know enough about it and there is a high likelihood that some of the weapons that we supply will wind up in the hands of the same people we are fighting in Afghanistan. We have pulled back from a no-fly zone because the technical and practical difficulties are too great. We do not have the ability to take out the Syrian integrated air defence system. That is too difficult. That would require a major military operation. We have pulled back from that. If we cannot do that, we cannot establish humanitarian corridors or safe areas.
We have pulled back from military intervention because the risks and consequences, whether intended or unintended, are too great and the uncertainties that we have identified are too many. But we are still looking at possible intervention in the Syrian civil war, and we are now looking at it in the narrower context of taking military action in this apparently simple manner of deterring the further use of chemical weapons. Even within that very limited objective, have we really thought this through in the way in which the military would require intervention to be thought through? Can we state with certainty what our strategic objectives are?
We are told now that our strategic objectives are actually very limited, that regime change is not the objective, but we have been saying for the past two years that Assad cannot stay as leader of that country. We are unclear about our strategic objective, in which case we can have no campaign plan that adds up. The campaign plan must have a beginning, middle and end and it must take us to an exit strategy that leaves the place that we have gone to in a better situation than it was before we went. I do not think that we know how to do that because the risks, uncertainties and unintended consequences are too great.
So what do we do? Clearly, your Lordships believe that we should be doing something. Doing nothing is probably not our historical responsibility. What we should be doing, in my view, is two things, in the main. First, we should renew with great ferocity our diplomatic activity, particularly to try, through greater dialogue with the Russians, to bring some degree of unanimity to the United Nations Security Council. Why is Russia so key? Russia is so key because Assad looks at the world from Damascus and he looks at the West and says, “They don’t like me but I don’t care. I look to the east and the Russians support me, and the Iranians, and to an extent the Chinese. I don’t care about the West. From my perspective, I am supported and I am in position because the Russians are supporting me”. We have to work the dialogue with the Russians in a very open way and, dare I say it, work much harder than we have been able to do in the past, because some degree of unanimity is really important in the UN Security Council.
We also have to work much harder for regional engagement and regional peace. What if we had bombed Iran two years ago? Would we have any chance of the kind of dialogue that is now potentially beginning with Iran? No, there would be no dialogue there. Regional engagement is critical.
The other major thing that we should do is rigorously apply law. When a leader of a country has broken international criminal norms, he must know that there is a very high probability that he will wind up in the dock somewhere in The Hague. I have given evidence in The Hague against leaders who have done just that; I am doing so again later this year. Assad and others must know that if they do that, this will be their fate —unless they are killed in the execution of their crimes.
Finally, what has been happening in our country this week has been very interesting. The drums of war were banging very loudly two or three days ago. The people did not like it. The dialogue and the debate have changed. The other place has been considering a different Motion from the one that was probably intended, looking for more time, a second debate, a second vote. The drumbeat has got quieter, and that is really important. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, has already alluded to this: the people who have to carry out the military actions that we might or might not require are the soldiers, sailors and airmen of our Armed Forces. They are not some kind of elite who are kept in a box and just wheeled out when they are needed; they are citizens, like your Lordships and I, who absolutely have to know that what they are being asked to do is what the country wants them to do and what the country believes is right. We do not govern by consensus, but we are democracy and the people have a very important voice in this.
I am delighted that the drumbeat has become more muffled. I do not support intervention in Syria in any shape or form at this time. Circumstances might change. There might be an international agreement if we work the diplomatic peace and regional engagement better. There might then be an opportunity, rather like Dayton, for an international force to go in to implement an agreement. That is a long way away, but it is the only the set of circumstances in which I would be prepared to support military intervention.
The Marquess of Lothian: My Lords, what happened in Damascus last week was a horrifying atrocity of the highest order, the perpetrators of which must be held to account. I hold no candle for Bashar al-Assad and condemn him for any atrocities either authorised by him or carried out in his name. If he was responsible for this latest outrage, he must be brought to book.
However, I believe equally that we should not make judgment of guilt without due process—that is what, perhaps naively, I thought the ICC was there for—and military action without due process would prejudge it. As the example of Iraq showed, speculation based on intelligence is not enough. Like the noble Lord, Lord Reid, I do not believe that the JIC assessment of “highly likely” is enough either.
The Motion in the other place endorses military action against Syria in principle, but at the same time, emphasised by the urgency with which this debate has been held here today, it also implies military action in practice, and we would be foolish if we were to think otherwise. I have to tell your Lordships that I strongly oppose both.
A long-distance military strike, however carefully targeted, would be profoundly wrong. President Obama yesterday described such actions as “a shot across the bow”. Such a shot, I always understood, is intended to miss but to warn. What we are looking at now is very different: not a warning shot but one intended to strike and to harm. To fire such a shot would be to take part, with no exit strategy, in a civil war which has nothing to do with us or our national interest.
I feel strongly about this. As the Official Opposition spokesman in the House of Commons who wound up the debate of 18 March 2003, on behalf of the Conservative Party I supported Tony Blair’s disingenuous decision to invade Iraq, a support which with the benefit of hindsight I have deeply regretted ever since. I believed then what we were told the intelligence indicated and I now know that I was wrong to do so. Whatever the legal advice—and I say this as a lawyer and with respect for all other lawyers here—it is only advice. I personally believe that, without United Nations sanction, any military action on our part would be illegal. At least in Iraq there were many unimplemented Chapter 7 United Nations resolutions. For the moment, no such justification exists in relation to Syria.
We are told that this is not about regime change but about deterrence, but we were told that about Iraq as well, only to be told afterwards that it was about regime change all along. In this case, our Government, as has already been mentioned, have made it clear from the very start that they wanted to see President Assad gone. Moreover, we now risk giving succour, if not arms, to the very jihadists whom we have fought and are still fighting at such human cost in other parts of the region. To put it mildly, this is irresponsible folly.
The Motion reflects the United Nations’ doctrine of the responsibility to protect, but it begs the question: to protect whom and how? Is it to protect those allegedly being chemically attacked by Assad but not those being slaughtered by Jabhat al-Nusra or even by our so-called friendly rebels and, if so, why?
I have to say that we do not do the Middle East very well. Albeit unintentionally, over these past years we have exacerbated Muslim extremism against the West both at home and abroad. We inadvertently encouraged AQ into Iraq, and we paid the consequences for that. We welcomed the Arab spring, which has now reintroduced political Islamism across the region. We stood by while others in the region actively supported Islamist forces in Syria. A western military strike now would give those same Islamists even more encouragement
What would it achieve? Would it achieve provocation, retaliation, and regime change? If there were regime change, what would it change into? Would it change into a Sunni Islamist Government, a dismembered and dysfunctional Syria and, as the right reverend Prelate said, increasing anti-Christian sentiment as well? And all in a region which is a powder keg. Once we start, how do we get out? In Iraq, it took eight years; in Afghanistan, it took 14 years; in Syria, we just do not know. Syria’s civil war is not our business. Moreover, it is now part of a far bigger conflict between Sunni and Shia which is not our business either. We should just keep out.
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico: My Lords, like the noble Marquess and many in this House, I voted for the invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was a non-executive director of the Defence Logistics Organisation of the Ministry of Defence and therefore close to the organisation in support of that action. I had good cause to believe that we and the Americans could achieve our joint military objectives. After the first few weeks and the cheering sight of a poisonous dictator toppled, statues being pulled down and the bad men in disarray, the picture looked very different with sectarian murder, lawlessness and a disbanded army prowling with the weapons nobody made it give up. I had not—none of us had—foreseen all that, but if you open a Pandora’s box, you get what you get.
Here we are faced with a very different and much stronger moral case for military intervention. Because I feared from the general rhetoric flying around that I might find myself voting this week, I worked out what I thought and assumed for the purpose of my thinking that a dreadful chemical attack was ordered and carried out on 21 August by the Assad regime. However, I remain unable to support military intervention, despite powerful speeches by good friends such as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my old colleague in arms and noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.
In the Commons today, the Prime Minister was at pains to distinguish the action envisaged in this case from the invasion of Iraq. He also sought to suggest that the action proposed would be limited to punishing those responsible and putting chemical weapons beyond use. I fear he is being hopelessly unrealistic about how any military action by us would be received. No one would believe that it was not personal. No one would believe that we were not directing the action to regime change, and why should they when we have from the outset opposed the Assad regime, declined to recognise him and recognised the opposition instead? Most people would believe that we had seized our opportunity for regime change using a very high moral ground to justify our actions. Nor does the concept of limited-target military action hold water. Even as we speak, we surely know that the Syrian Government, like any people of sense, are doing their best to put their weapons and their senior personnel, whether guilty of this particular outrage or not, beyond harm, even, by precedent of Saddam Hussain, packing them around with innocent civilians.
Noble Lords have wondered aloud about what the consequences of not interfering militarily would be. Do we really believe that the Russians, following very different interests from us, voting against us in the UN, as they have, really see their national interest being progressed by allowing the Assad regime to go on using chemical weapons now that their use has been so exposed? Who do we think actually insisted that the Assad regime admitted the UN inspectors? Surely it has to be its principle supporters. It was not taking any notice of the UN or us. The Russians may not be our friends but that does not make them either short-sighted or stupid.
It is very tempting to want to punish the guilty and take revenge for the murdered innocents. It is even more tempting, given that—as in the Iraq case—the US and we probably have the military power to do just that. We might be able to do it and have a happy few weeks, as we did in Iraq, while we rejoice in the defeat of the wicked. But short-term rejoicing has already brought long-term sadness and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, as other Members have noted. I can believe only that it would be like that again, and I shall not be able to support military action.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am firmly convinced of the arguments put forward by noble Lords such as the noble Lords, Lord Jay of Ewelme and Lord King of Bridgwater, that we must to nothing to undermine the role of the UN in all this and that we should be strengthening it. I will come back to one specific way in which we could be doing that.
First, I return to the remark of my noble friend Lady Falkner of Margravine, in which she referred to a list of things that would make the public or other countries cynical. I should like to add to that list and mention it to those of your Lordships who think that without the UN we can be arbiters of undoubted evil doings. Can we be confident that we as a country are not knowingly contributing to all sorts of human rights abuses and abusive regimes? Sadly, the answer at the moment seems to be no. It came emphatically in a report of Sir John Stanley’s committee, the Committee on Arms Export Controls, published just before the Summer Recess. It said:
“The scale of the extant strategic licences to the FCO’s 27 countries of human rights concern puts into stark relief the inherent conflict between the government’s arms exports and human rights policies”.
We make £12 billion of sales to countries of human rights concern—not £12 million but £12 billion. I hope that we do not stand here in a few years’ time, some time down the road, and find that we are now condemning a regime to which we have been supplying the means of repression. Let us take the arms export licensing and human rights issue far more seriously and have another look at those licences.
Secondly, awful though this use of chemical weapons is, the prospect of a Middle East nuclear war is infinitely worse. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, rightly raised this point. The efforts to create a Middle East nuclear-free zone, brave as they are, have not seen the UK, France or the US put their strength behind efforts to make that initiative succeed. In political circles here, you hear a lot of rumours about Iran’s alleged wish to make weapons-grade fissile material but almost nothing about Israel’s obdurate refusal even to discuss its nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we can sell Israel £8 billion of arms, according to the report from which I quoted. How can it be that we are continuing with such sales in the light of a refusal even to come to the table and discuss nuclear disarmament issues in, as many noble Lords have said, such a powder-keg area of the world?
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is due for another review conference in 2015. However, the NPT has been at such an impasse that the UN has created another working group to get some momentum going. Are we helping that initiative? No—far from it. Our deputy permanent representative, Mr Guy Pollard, said on 6 November in New York, on behalf of the UK, France and the US, that we see “little value” in the initiative and, more shockingly, that we did not support the establishment of the OEWG or,
“any outcomes it may produce”.
The Minister was kind enough to write to me about our non-participation in the OEWG. In the light of events in Syria and the potential for a much more unstable Middle East, will the UK put a massive renewed effort into helping towards the success of the Middle East nuclear-free zone conference that the UN is currently sponsoring, and the other non-proliferation disarmament initiatives, such as the example I have just given?
Baroness Cox: My Lords, I normally speak only on countries where I have on-the-ground experience, which is not the case with Syria. However, I feel compelled to convey concerns expressed by people for whom I have profound respect, currently living and working in Syria, witnessing and enduring the horrific situation there.
First, I refer to Damascus-based Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch. Speaking to the very respected charity Aid to the Church in Need, he argued that military intervention by the West against the Assad regime in Syria would be disastrous, stressing that, despite the ongoing conflict, reconciliation initiatives are still viable and should be the top priority. While condemning chemical weapon attacks, he highlights concerns about foreign fighters coming into Syria. He says:
“Many people are coming from outside Syria to fight in the country. These fighters are fuelling fundamentalism and Islamism … and the problem is compounded by the flow of arms into the country … The extremists are wanting to fuel hatred between the Christians and Muslims … and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace”.
Of course, not peace at any price, but serious consideration of alternative measures, as emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord West, and other noble Lords, and in accordance with paragraph 4(ii) of the paper on the UK Government’s legal position, which states that,
“it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”.
“a tragedy—for the whole country and the whole Middle East”.
He highlights the implications for the suffering of Syrian civilians, including the 450,000 Christians now either displaced within the country or forced to flee as refugees abroad. Describing his country until recently as a,
“beacon of hope for Christianity in the Middle East”,
I shall now move beyond the plight of Christians to the plight of all civilians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, which has been highlighted by CAFOD, working with partners inside Syria and neighbouring countries. In Syria, as other noble Lords have reminded your Lordships, nearly 100,000 people have been killed since the beginning of conflict in March 2011, many of them women and children, with 5,000 deaths every month. There are 6.8 million people in need of assistance, including 4.25 million internally displaced—a figure that has doubled since the beginning of 2013. Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, the long-term repercussions of the conflict are huge, with an estimated economic cost of more than $48 billion, which is more than 80% of GDP.
One-third of all homes—1.2 million houses—have been damaged or destroyed. Livelihoods have been ruined, healthcare, education systems and the economy have collapsed, and food is scarce. The civil and social fabric is in ruins. Recovery and reconciliation will be deeply challenging. Reconstruction costs will be huge. As has been pointed out by other noble Lords, there are also regional implications for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and north Africa, as 1.9 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, exacerbating economic, political and sectarian tensions, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, which bear the brunt of the huge refugee crises. An international military response will increase spillover of the humanitarian crisis. Official Lebanese government figures for 27 August reported 4,000 refugees fleeing across the border in one day.
CAFOD’s partners both inside Syria and across the region are clear that the only lasting solution is a political settlement through dialogue and diplomacy. Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, has emphasised that a potential military response,
“exposes thousands of people to more dangers. Further wars have never been the answer; political might and influence however have given better and more peaceful results. We pray that peace will reign”.
For many years, despite a despotic regime, Syria ensured freedoms for diverse faith traditions and for women which were enviable in comparison with its neighbours in the Middle East. There are real fears that any replacement regime, almost inevitably ruled or influenced by Islamists, will reduce Syria to the potentially irreversible destruction of religious freedoms and women’s rights. I therefore share the profound concerns about a military intervention that could unleash even more suffering. Bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice must be the priority, not supporting, either directly or indirectly, militias that are also committing heinous and egregious violations of human rights. Adding to the number of hapless refugees and escalating the conflict seems to be neither rational nor productive. It will simply add to the totality of human misery, and certainly the first to suffer will be the minorities in Syria.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, the earlier policies of Her Majesty’s Government on Syria, where we have intervened politically against Assad from the start, thus fuelling the conflict, and today’s proposals for unspecified British military intervention in a civil war between deeply antagonistic Muslim sects in the heartlands of Islam are so ill considered, confused and risky that I believe that in due course it may be necessary to set up an inquiry to discover why our policy-making process on Syria has failed so badly.