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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:22 pm on 29th August 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 8:22 pm, 29th August 2013

My Lords, I yield to no one in my horror at the use of chemical weapons; and at the deaths so far in the Syrian war of more than 100,000 innocent persons; and the 1 million or so refugees displaced, whose situation in the desert with no basic facilities for their children, such as education, will reverberate across the region long after Assad has gone from the scene. Where, incidentally, did those chemical weapons come from? Can we cut off the supply? How fortunate it is that Syria’s nuclear reactor was knocked out a few years ago. It might otherwise have been used.

What, then, do we do? Punishment and reaction there has to be. That is easy enough to say, but what should it be? I have given up any hope of referral to the International Criminal Court; that cannot happen. In brief, it seems to me that the arguments against any military intervention outweigh the arguments, moral and political, for military intervention

My first reason is that the consequences could be irreversible and incalculable: not least, more terrorism on our streets. This we have learnt from previous incursions into the Middle East—although I must say that fear should not shape our foreign policy.

The second reason is that the public are against it both in the US and the UK as shown by the opinion polls. We will have a repeat of the demonstrations that we had against the Iraq war and it is surprising that there have not already been more demonstrations on our streets of the revulsion felt against Syrian actions.

The third reason is that it is too late. As Kissinger said in relation to the Iran/Iraq war,

“It is too bad they both can't lose”.

There may have been an earlier time when the west could have intervened, but to do so now is to take sides without the real possibility of achieving anything. Regime change will not happen. Civilians will undoubtedly be caught up and there will be retaliation.

Fourthly, we cannot afford it. Thousands of UK Army personnel were made redundant very recently. Defence cuts have left us weak and we seem to have different priorities for spending. I heard recently that we had spent three times as much on welfare, rightly or wrongly, as on defence.

Fifthly, I have not heard what our strategy is. Do we have an exit plan? How long will the intervention last? When can it be said to have been successfully accomplished? What if Assad or whoever the culprit is has more stocks of chemical weapons and is able to import more? What will our reaction be if the slaughter spreads to neighbouring countries? Since Russia is involved, this possible exercise will not be like the one undertaken in, say, Kosovo. If the US and the UK did not finish what they started and Assad survived and continued, American credibility and our own would be damaged and Iran, for example, will see that the West is impotent in relation to its collection of nuclear material. In the mean time, we are a taking our eyes off the Egyptian situation, Iran and Iraq.

The struggle in Syria will not be ended by air strikes or even the delivery of arms to acceptable rebels. There will be a showdown with Russia and reverberation across the Middle East and at home. We have never taken the moral action that maybe we should have in relation to, say, the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the protection of North Koreans, with as many horrors, because of the strength of Russia and China and their presence on the United Nations Security Council. Our morality is selective.

Is intervention better than non-intervention? I am afraid not. Would intervention prevent a repeat? I fear not. Is there a less bloody act of retribution? I cannot think of one. I am disappointed at the failure of action of the United Nations due to its structure and indeed the failure of the European Union in this foreign policy area. There has been a low-key call from Europe for a diplomatic push. I would have expected a stronger voice of leadership on this issue. If there is a failure of our international organisations, we will have a resurgence of the strength of individual nation states and religious sectarianism and violence. That is because we do not have the strong international organisations that we need at this moment.