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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:28 pm on 29th August 2013.

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Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee 8:28 pm, 29th August 2013

My Lords, as a follower of events in Syria and an occasional contributor to discussions about it in this Chamber, I always find that the noble Lord, Lord Wright, expresses my views more clearly than I can myself and I have not been disappointed that afternoon. Like everyone else, I am aghast at what has been happening in Syria and especially horrified by the use of chemical weapons. I, too, am very frustrated and distressed by the way in which this wonderful country and its splendid population has been caught up in the much wider volatility in the Middle East of which it is now an integral and unfortunately inseparable part. We know that the Assad regime and the Ba’ath Party have behaved appallingly and appear to have used chemical weapons, but the rebels who line up with the Salafists and who indiscriminately murder Christians and Muslims are no better.

In the circumstances of now, I believe that it is naive, as my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell pointed out, to imagine that it might be possible to intervene neutrally or impartially between the protagonists in this civil war. It is bound to benefit one side or the other, and then we have become a protagonist ourselves. The beneficiary will soon forget our help and blame us for neo-colonial intervention, and the loser will hold us responsible for their setbacks. By then, we are completely involved.

Obviously, the use of chemical weapons is both unacceptable and illegal, but it does not follow that we, or for that matter anyone else, must intervene militarily even if it is legal to do so; it is merely an option. What is legal is not necessarily wise; indeed—and I speak as a lawyer—often it is not. Furthermore, recent history shows that the criminal perpetrators of mass atrocities can run but they cannot hide indefinitely from international law and its processes and enforcement.

Like many other speakers today, I am glad that the Government have toned down their bellicose stance of the weekend. We must not adopt a stance of macho belligerence; rather, we must proceed carefully within the framework of law in a manner which is pragmatic and practical in military, diplomatic and political terms. Equally, it is important that we do not allow Britain to become, or to be perceived to have become, a kind of global vigilante. We should not feel that it is necessary in any way to race to the front of the queue to join a posse, even if it is led by one of our closest allies. I find myself recalling with approval, and to my own surprise, Harold Wilson, who I believe did this country a great service by keeping this country out of the Vietnam War.

Of course, it goes without saying that we must strive in every way to contribute to the humanitarian needs of Syria and that part of the Middle East and, equally, work for the cessation of the use of chemical weapons both in Syria and anywhere else. We must also recall Bismarck’s comment that the Herzegovina treaty was not worth the bones of a Pomeranian fusilier. I see no evidence now that persuades me that Syria is worth the bones of a British service man or woman. That is the likely consequence of the kind of military intervention currently under discussion to respond to the use of chemical weapons in that country.