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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:17 pm on 29th August 2013.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 8:17 pm, 29th August 2013

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose stance on these matters over many years I have come to respect. I join the many others who referred to the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I hope that the Government will listen very carefully to his wise words.

I speak on behalf of my party, Plaid Cymru, as well as for myself, in opposing any question of military intervention in Syria on the basis of the information—or rather, the lack of it—that we have at present. I would oppose military intervention in any circumstances without a specific United Nations mandate spelling out the legal basis for intervention, the parameters of any military action and the outcome that it was meant to secure.

I will address briefly three dimensions of the issue: the facts relating to the use of chemical weapons, the potential methods of intervention and the possible knock-on effects in the Middle East. We all condemn without reservation the use of chemical weapons. They can be just as gruesome as nuclear weapons—which, if we are consistent, we should also ban in the name of humanity. In the case of Syria, three questions arise. Have chemical weapons been used? The answer to this will be provided by United Nations investigators. Secondly, if chemical weapons have been used, who used them, and can be we certain of our facts in this regard? If we are, can we be equally certain about who ordered their use, and that they were not used on the orders of loose cannons using them for Machiavellian purposes?

With regard to intervention, we must surely be clear as to the specific effects of any proposed military intervention and whether any new scenario after such military action is sustainable. Frankly, when I heard American officials talking of lobbing in 100 cruise missiles—at which targets we were not quite sure—and of Obama talking about a rap across the knuckles, I was driven to the conclusion that the US does not know what it is trying to do. When I heard the Liberal Democrat leader on a BBC programme this morning being cornered into accepting that there may be many further steps, I shuddered to think where mission creep may take us.

Thirdly, there is the whole tinderbox of the Middle East regional fragility into which we may choose to fire those warning shots. One elects to throw a match into a powder keg at one's own peril. There are many extreme elements in that region who are just itching for the opportunity or excuse to fire their own warning shots or massively more at Israel. Goodness knows, there are those in Israel who would be only too glad to fire their own ultimate weapons of mass destruction as a lesson to their hostile neighbours. That scenario does not bear contemplation. One thing is certain. We should not fire random shots into a powder box. We should avoid that in order not to escalate to Armageddon.

Humanitarian considerations drive us to ban chemical weapons—and rightly so. Therefore, should not humanitarian dynamics also guide us in the way in which we respond to such weapons? Will not the course being pursued by the Government make it less likely, rather than more likely, that we can move towards political action and reconciliation? Will it make the Geneva II agenda more or less likely to progress? Will such action not escalate the humanitarian crisis, with a flood of refugees becoming a tsunami, which would cause the aid agencies immense difficulties? The NGOs just could not cope. Those humanitarian factors must surely also come into the equation. Should not any action which we take lead to the greater likelihood of a coherent road map towards negotiations? Do the Government seriously believe that firing cruise missiles as shots across the bow will increase the chances of such a road map emerging?

A child being slaughtered by chemical weapons or by cruise missiles is equally distressing for that child's father or mother. One random catastrophe triggered by a missile intended as a shot across the bow can have cataclysmic consequences, as did one shot in Sarajevo, a century ago. Have we learnt nothing from our mistakes?