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Syria: UK Military Action — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:48 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 8:48 pm, 2nd December 2015

My Lords, if ever there is a need to make a case for showing how this House adds value to our parliamentary system, then today’s debate deserves to be highlighted. In particular, the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, enhanced our reputation. He is an author, parliamentarian and statesman, and I could not give him greater praise than saying, as he is married to a Welsh girl and has a home in Wales, that he is an honorary Welshman to boot.

Should we join the campaign in Syria to help destroy ISIL or should we take a different route that would not involve direct military action? Both sides of this most crucial argument have been put before us. In the other place, a debate is taking place, but I doubt that the two sides of the issue have been argued with any more knowledge or passion than that which we have seen in this House. The key difference is that the Members of the other place are charged with voting for or against the Government’s Motion recommending air strikes. Whether or not to commit our forces to engage in a conflict is a decision rightly taken by the elected House. Whatever our views, our thoughts—and yes, perhaps our prayers too—must be with the Members of Parliament who have to take that very important decision tonight.

For me, I see three strands in this matter. First, do we join our friends and partners from around the globe in engaging in direct military action to help destroy ISIL? Secondly, what can Britain do to help accelerate the Vienna talks to bring peace and an end to the Syrian civil war? Thirdly, what can we do to ensure that any peace settlement endures?

The Prime Minister has sought to address these strands in his Statement to the Commons and in the document that the Government produced last week when he responded to the Foreign Affairs Committee report. His Statement has thrown up many questions and there are two that cause me some anxiety. The first is the question of ground support. Second, and linked to it, is the issue of post-conflict management. The first worry is whether or not there are some 70,000 fighters, not infected by ISIL or some other terrorist group, able to fill the vacuum and occupy those parts of Syria that the air bombardment is supposed to free from terrorist control. If there are no reliable ground forces—no allies to occupy, pacify and govern the areas liberated as a result of an allied air bombardment—then anarchy, terror and much worse may follow. I think the whole House will be listening with great care when the Minister replies to the debate on that particular point. Can he also confirm that the Americans have ceased to train the Free Syrian Army, a point made by my noble friend Lord Davies of Stamford?

What equipment do these 70,000 fighters the Prime Minister has said are ready to engage in a ground war have at their disposal? We have a pretty good idea of what ISIL has. We are told it has weaponry that includes US-manufactured Abrams tanks, MK16 rifles, 40-millimetre grenade launchers and Russian M46 130-millimetre field guns. Can our potential allies—the 70,000-strong army—match this? They will need to. Air attacks can inflict considerable damage on an enemy but well-equipped ground forces will be needed too.

Turning to the issue of air strikes, what is the Government’s assessment of the number of targets that the coalition air forces have to destroy before a ground offensive can be mounted? I share the concern of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon about the danger of civilian casualties. How will co-ordination between air power and the ground offensive be achieved?

Turning to the post-conflict period that we all want to see in Syria, here the Government give me some real concerns. When the Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence, in a report published in March last year entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, recommended a “lessons learned” from co-operation in Afghanistan, it was rejected by the Government. The committee said that the Government should review how well DfID, the MoD and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office co-operated in that unfortunate country to provide lessons learned for any future post-conflict reconstruction efforts. The Government replied that they totally disagreed. That makes many of us worry about what comes after the end of the Syria conflict, and I am not encouraged by the phrase in the SDSR last week that Britain is the “world’s leading soft power”. I hope the Minister can say something about this in his reply.

In responding to the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Prime Minister said:

The Coalition’s military campaign is just one—albeit key—strand of its strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”

The Government have argued, rightly, that we need a full and comprehensive response, including cutting off ISIL’s finances. It is by having the wherewithal that ISIL is able to pay its men, encourage the flow of foreign fighters to join it, acquire weapons and sponsor mass murder in the streets of Paris, on the beaches of Tunisia and in the skies above Sinai.

So, I have a few more questions for the Minister. ISIL is able to sell oil. Who is buying it? If we know, we should use whatever power we have to put a stop to it. With the coalition’s intelligence and cyber capabilities, we should be able to discover who is buying this oil. Perhaps we already have that knowledge. If we have, what are we doing to destroy this lucrative source of its income? Tracking money moving around the globe is more of challenge, but London is the world’s leading financial centre. What intelligence can we glean about ISIL’s money and investments? What do we know about its movement of funds? Can the Minister say anything about this? I believe that the Prime Minister had something to say about it in the other place earlier today.

Like my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, I cannot stress enough the importance of the recent peace talks in Vienna and the need to focus on both the short-term and long-term political process in Syria. That is the real end game that we all want. Getting the Americans, the Russians and, most of all, the Saudis and the Iranians into the same room is a significant diplomatic feat, but it is vital that these sides are ready and willing to make concessions and take difficult decisions. But the absence of any Syrians at the conference to end the civil war in their own country is obviously problematic. Understandably, one of the main reasons for this is that it is unclear who would represent the opposition. How will the UK intensify its international engagement, including building trust between all parties? Crucially, this means efforts to keep Iran and Russia as players in the process and maintaining the UN’s position as a credible broker throughout the process.

The timeframe agreed in Vienna for political negotiations is: to begin by the end of the year; a transitional Government in place within six months; and a new constitution and free and fair elections within 18 months. This is incredibly ambitious, and concerted political support is needed for that to succeed.

Finally, I echo the concerns expressed by the UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, about the lack of funding for humanitarian operations in Syria and the region. Jordan and other countries are already under immense pressure in providing relief for refugees, and the international community needs urgently to step up to the appeal for resources to fund essential life-saving and protection work needed across Syria.

Peace in Syria, relief from a life of misery for its people and the destruction of this most evil of terror groups must be our main focus and our objective. Britain cannot stand aside.