Syria: Foreign Affairs Committee Report — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:11 pm on 26th November 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 12:11 pm, 26th November 2015

My Lords, we are grateful to the Leader for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement, and welcome the publication of the Prime Minister’s response to the Select Committee report. Both are necessary and detailed, and cover a range of issues which all Members of your Lordships’ House will wish to consider and reflect on.

The first duty of any Government is the safety, security and well-being of their citizens. My party does not take an isolationist or non-interventionist position. We have never been reluctant to use force when it has been deemed necessary. I understand and appreciate how difficult it is when making such judgments to ensure that decisions are right and fair and that actions are justified.

Our interventions as the Labour Government in 1999 to protect Muslim Kosovar Albanians from genocide by Milosevic, and in Macedonia in 2001, were central and crucial to the protection of citizens and supporting peace. We used military action in Sierra Leone to bring order and stability, and we still have British citizens there playing a central role in building and maintaining that stability. We have also provided military support in times of humanitarian crisis; for example, fighting Ebola in West Africa.

Your Lordships’ House, Parliament as a whole and, indeed, the general public are convinced of the evil and brutality of ISIL. They are very aware of and well informed of the atrocities. Paris brought it so close to home: not only is ISIL willing to cause death, terror and mayhem—and apparently rejoicing in that—but it has the capacity to do so. If anyone doubts that such attacks will continue, they have only to look at the videos and messages posted online as recently as last night: they are chilling, they are frightening and they must increase our determination to protect our citizens.

Our efforts must focus on a comprehensive strategy to tackle not just the actions of ISIL but the environment which encourages such views to develop, and we have to support the overwhelming majority of Muslims here in the UK who themselves challenge and reject such a violent interpretation of their religion and culture. That is why any strategy to defeat ISIL has to be so much more than military action alone.

As we know, the UK is already engaged militarily, providing intelligence and logistical support to our allies in Syria who are engaged in flying missions. We are directly involved in targeted military bombing in Iraq, and we must judge any proposed extension of UK involvement against the wider support it can gain, against the contribution it will make to the chances of success and against the additional capacity it will create. Proposals that are brought forward must also be judged against how they can contribute to the future transition to peace and stability and to the protection and security of our citizens in the UK.

There are also broader issues. There is not just a war to be won; there is also a peace to be won. The issues raised by the Foreign Affairs Committee focus on extending military operations, and the committee identified seven challenges to the Government that should be addressed before the Prime Minister asks the House of Commons to consider this matter and vote. When the report was published a month ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee was not convinced that the Government would be able to provide convincing answers to the points raised. Of course, we will all want to consider with care the Prime Minister’s answers and the committee’s response.

The conflict in the region is not straightforward. Indeed, as the noble Baroness said, it is highly complex. The civil war in Syria has meant not just the physical collapse of a country but the absolute collapse of society. The skills of, and commitment to peace by, those who have been forced to leave their homeland and become refugees will be needed to build the future. So when the extension of air strikes on strategic targets in Syria is considered, it must be as part of a political, diplomatic, humanitarian and economic strategy. We will seek reassurances that the Government fully understand that, and that they will be engaged in and committed to working closely with countries across the region towards the reconstruction and a peace process. The Vienna talks are vital. Whatever the difficulties, that framework and the bringing together of so many countries provides some movement towards political and diplomatic progress.

I have a few questions for the noble Baroness that I hope she will be able to address. Can she say whether any assessment has been made of the direct threat to British citizens from ISIL here in the UK? Can she be clear about the additional capacity that British participation would bring militarily, given the support that is already being provided? Has any assessment been made of the impact of UK involvement on the success of the objectives of military engagement? Can she also say whether the service Chiefs of Staff have been able to participate directly in the decision-making process by providing expert strategic advice? The noble Baroness will understand the concerns about any possible unintended consequences of increased military action, particularly civilian casualties. Therefore, can she also say something about the impact of military action in terms of civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of UK action?

The Government’s response says that,

“a political solution to the Syria conflict”,

is “finally a realistic prospect” following the establishment of the International Syria Support Group and the Vienna talks. This is going to be a difficult process. The government response rightly states that this issue must not be reduced to a choice between Assad on the one side and ISIL on the other. In repeating the Statement, the noble Baroness was clear about the Government’s opposition to Assad. Can she say something more about the longer-term future of Assad and about how the British Government can achieve our objectives, given the atrocities for which Assad and his Government are responsible? I know where the Government stand on this but I am thinking particularly of how we think we can achieve the objective of removing Assad. Finally, can she say something further about the legal basis for military action following the United Nations Security Council meeting on 20 November?

Today’s Statement will obviously be considered carefully over the coming days before the Prime Minister brings any Motion before the other place. These are not issues on which your Lordships’ House has a vote, but I hope that—and put it to the noble Baroness that—given the military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian experience and wisdom in this House, we will have an opportunity for an early debate in addition to the scheduled debate she referred to. I urge the Prime Minister to consult those in this House whose expertise will be of great value.