Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:19 pm on 29th August 2013.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 7:19 pm, 29th August 2013

My Lords, in the summer of 2003 my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was here in the UK on a visit. It was his last visit to the UK because he passed away a couple of years later. At an event he was approached by a prominent journalist who said: “General, do you think that we should have intervened in Iraq?”. My father, without blinking, said: “No. Intervention should only have taken place with the authority of the United Nations”. My father spoke from experience because as a young captain he had served with the United Nations in the Congo.

The Joint Intelligence Committee report says that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons 14 times since 2012, and yet the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, in a brilliant speech, said that with 100,000 lives lost and 2 million refugees, we have not intervened, but now we want to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, in another brilliant speech, said that we have held back all these years from intervening in Syria but now, this week, the drums of war have been banging. So what has happened? This awful chemical attack is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.

We have not intervened so far but there is a point to consider which nobody has raised yet. Although we are expected to intervene, in 2010 the Government, in the SDSR, cut our Armed Forces. They got rid of our aircraft carriers. I was in India just recently. India has aircraft carriers. It might be getting new ones, but it has kept its old ones until it gets the new ones. We have cut our Harriers. We have cut our Nimrods. We have cut our troops. We are reliant on reserves, and yet now we are expected to intervene. I said in 2010, three years ago, that we did not know what was going to happen next. What happened next? Libya. What happened after that? The Arab spring continued. What happened after that? Mali. What happened after that? Oh, the Olympics. We needed our troops in the Olympics.

We do not learn. We feel that we can just call on our troops. As the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, we expect our troops just to perform—“Switch, go, fight: give up your lives. Make the ultimate sacrifice”. But what about the nation; is it behind us? We know that the country is completely not behind intervention in Syria.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We feel that we have to do something. We have our allies, the Americans, who for a century have stood by us and saved this country. We feel that we have to support them. However, in Iraq the biggest mistake in 2003 was that we had not thought through what would happen afterwards. We imagined that everything would be fine. We had not thought of the aftermath, we had not planned it. As the noble Lord, Lord King, asked, did we plan on the retaliations that would take place? I was an ambassador for the London Olympics and we were celebrating on the steps of Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005. We all know what happened the next day, on 7/7.

We know that if there is a clear strategy, it is very effective. In the first Gulf War, in Kuwait, we were in there and then out of there, mission accomplished. My father fought in the liberation of Bangladesh, when there was an East Pakistan and a West Pakistan. India waited and planned for over a year. The Prime Minister was putting pressure on the army chief but he said, “No. When I’m ready we’ll go in”. They went in and the job was done in two weeks. Here, however, we go and intervene. We say that we will do it in a proportionate manner. As we have heard, however, what about Russia, what about China, what about Iran, what about Lebanon? What about all the domino effects? We will take proportionate measures but will we get a proportionate reaction? Just yesterday the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said:

The Middle East region is like a gunpowder store and the future cannot be predicted. If President Obama gets stuck in this trap, he will certainly leave behind bad memories of his presidency. The intervention of America will be a disaster for the region”.

Those are threatening words. President Obama says that a red line has been crossed. But I question the Government’s judgment. They have cut our budgets, cut the Armed Forces and then want to rush in and intervene without even waiting for the UN inspectors’ reports. I do not understand it. Yet we have this wonderful House, with the brilliant speeches that we have heard, one after the other, and we are not even to have a vote today. The other place will have a vote but we will not. The expertise of this House is 100 times that of the other place and we do not even get a vote.

Every day we delay action, we feel guilty. A humanitarian crisis is getting worse every single day. It is only natural that we want to intervene, but we should only do that when we have exhausted all other opportunities and have a proper strategy that we have thought through. Then we can do it. In conclusion, I have always been taught that a fool makes a mistake, makes a mistake again and does not learn. A sensible person makes a mistake, learns from it and does not make it again. A wise person learns from other people’s mistakes and does not make a mistake in the first place. It is too late for us to be wise, but let us at least be sensible. Otherwise we will be foolish and the consequences will be disastrous.