Syria: Chemical Weapons — Private Notice Question
3:08 pm

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their response to the briefing from the United States Department of Defense that their intelligence sources have detected the movement of Syrian chemical weapons components in recent days; and President Obama's statement yesterday that Syria would be held accountable for any use of such weapons.

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

My Lords, we share President Obama's deep concerns about Syria's chemical weapons. Any use of chemical or biological weapons would be abhorrent and universally condemned. Any use of chemical or biological weapons would make us reconsider our calculations and revisit our approach to Syria. We continue to work closely with our international partners, including the United States, to monitor closely developments relating to Syrian chemical weapons. We continue to urge the Syrian regime not to use these weapons and to ensure that they are secured.

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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean (Labour)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Today the Secretary-General of NATO has echoed President Obama's view that any use by Syria of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable. Can the Minister tell us what discussions Her Majesty's Government are having on this issue with the United States of America and within NATO, and will she confirm media reports that Foreign Ministers meeting today in Brussels are discussing the deployment of Patriot missiles into Turkey?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

My Lords, a number of discussions are ongoing in relation to both the NATO formats and other bilateral and multilateral formats as well. As I reported to the House about a month ago, we are discussing a number of options in relation to Syria. We have always made it clear that we need to do more. The noble Baroness is aware of the challenges that we have had at the United Nations Security Council in this matter. However, in light of this recent information which has come to light, we are keeping our discussions under constant review.

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Lord Wright of Richmond (Crossbench)

My Lords, whatever the origins of the present problems in Syria, does the Minister agree that that country is now involved in a very dangerous civil war between Sunnis and Shias and that it would be disastrous for the British Government to become militarily involved in any way?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

My Lords, we have always indicated that we must do all that we can to bring the fighting and bloodshed to an end. The noble Lord will be aware from my previous Answers that we have worked closely with the opposition, who have now formed a formal opposition, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, whom we have now formally recognised. We continue to support the opposition in trying to bring this bloodshed to an end.

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Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour)

My Lords, Russia is the main supplier of weapons to Syria and the main protector of Syria in international fora. What evidence is there, if any, that Russia takes this matter seriously? Do the Government accept that evidence, and is there any evidence that Russia is seeking to restrain the Assad regime from the use of chemical weapons?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

We know that Russia shares our concerns about the use of chemical and biological weapons. We use all opportunities that we have in discussions with our Russian counterparts and, indeed, this matter was again raised in discussions that I had with the Russian ambassador only a few weeks ago. As for our concerns about where Russia has failed to act, specifically at the United Nations Security Council, the views of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister were very clear when he spoke at the United Nations.

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Lord King of Bridgwater (Conservative)

My Lords, the Minister will recognise that if Patriot missiles are to be deployed, it must be solely for the purpose of ensuring the protection of Turkish citizens and the military situation in Turkey, and as the noble Lord, Lord Wright, has said, it must in no way become the thin end of the wedge, with our becoming militarily involved in that area. Does my noble friend welcome the fact that, as I understand it, President Putin is currently with Prime Minister Erdogan in order to discuss their relationship, and so that President Erdogan can give him a better understanding of Turkey's position? We will see what Turkey can do to persuade the Russians of the importance of recognising the seriousness of the situation in Syria. It would be very welcome if Russia could be discouraged from giving too much support to the present regime.

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

I agree with much of what the noble Lord has said; he comes to this issue with great expertise. Turkey is an important ally, and in relation to the humanitarian effort and support for the refugees it has been on the front line of this conflict.

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Lord Triesman (Labour)

My Lords, Jihad Makdissi, the Syrian Foreign Ministry's senior spokesman, said in July 2012 that chemical weapons would not be used against the civilian population. That statement is wholly unconvincing: Syria is one of six states that have not signed the chemical weapons convention; its biological weapons research is proceeding; and, of course, it was another Baathist regime which thought nothing of using chemical weapons against its own people. Indeed, some remains are being exhumed this week in a forensic effort at Halabja. Is NATO's Secretary-General Rasmussen perfectly reasonable to argue that the use of chemical weapons is completely unacceptable and that it is right, if necessary, to seek the protection of Patriot missiles for Turkey? Is it not right to seek peace in the region, of course, but also to be prepared realistically for further atrocities by President Assad?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

The noble Lord is right: it was earlier this year that the Syrian regime first accepted that it had these weapons. However, we treat with caution what has been said by spokespeople on behalf of the regime. The noble Lord may also be aware of reports this morning that Jihad Makdissi may have left the country. Of course, if it is true, we welcome that. There is some suggestion that he has defected from the regime, but it also raises concerns about assurances that he may have given in the past and about the current intentions of the Syrian regime.

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Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, at the start of this difficulty I urged Her Majesty's Government to focus less on identifying another side to give military support to and more on giving support to our allies in Turkey who are on the front line of this problem and are very familiar with it. One of the difficulties particularly about giving weapons to the opposition is that it deepens division and exacerbates the conflict. Many people from Syria have been fleeing into Turkey and there are many tens of thousands of refugees. Even the talk about chemical weapons will ensure that those numbers increase to a flood. I do not suggest that Turkey cannot economically cope with these refugees, but it has been made clear to me by the Turkish Government that they would welcome an input from Her Majesty's Government in the form of political support in the difficulties Turkey faces in dealing with massive numbers of refugees. Is it possible that Her Majesty's Government have already been discussing this; or if not, is it something that they will take up urgently?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

I can assure my noble friend that we are in discussions with Turkey not only on these matters but, indeed, about the financial support that DfID has been giving on the border and the expertise and political support that we have given to Turkey in this matter. Although I hear the points that my noble friend makes about supporting our allies in the region, it is also important that a solution for Syria is brought about by the people of Syria. It is right that when the people of Syria come together in the form of an opposition we recognise it. I can, however, assure my noble friend that we are not supplying any weapons to the opposition.

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Lord Elton (Conservative)

My Lords, this information comes to us as a result of surveillance by the American intelligence services. Can my noble friend tell us whether that surveillance has also confirmed that Syria is already using cluster munitions in this war? As cluster munitions continue to claim casualties for decades after their use, the casualties inflicted are far larger in number among the civilian population than among the forces engaged in combat, and the largest proportion of those casualties are children. Although chemical weapons are also horrid, they exact their price, move on and evaporate. In view of that, can we not also take as much notice of that horrible event as well?

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Baroness Warsi (Conservative)

My noble friend makes an important point. Weapons of any kind-conventional, chemical or biological-can cause the destruction to which my noble friend refers. Chemical and biological weapons, as the noble Lord said earlier, are to be deplored.