4.42 pm

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Looking at the Government motion taken in the round, it appears to me, despite the statement that it has been watered down, to be something of a paving motion for military action. It includes the words

“may, if necessary, require military action”;

it refers to a

“legal basis for taking action”;

and in the penultimate paragraph, it refers to “backing military action”. It also states that

“in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations…a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy”.

The serious question is: why was a draft motion not presented to the United Nations before now; why the delay?

It is all very well referring to “difficulties”, but diplomacy has not failed utterly. It was, after all, the Russians who pressed the Syrian Government to allow the UN inspectors in on Monday. My party colleagues and I believe that any military action would prolong the conflict and lead to further bloodshed. We would call on the Government to use their influence and their relations with others to bring all the relevant parties around the table to conduct talks. The chief aim should, of course, be to prevent further loss of life.

There has been an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria for almost two years. The Government should put greater effort into ensuring a greater humanitarian response, gearing up the level of aid sent to the region. Previous military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other recent examples show that the commitment of troops without an end plan costs a very high price—both in money and in lives lost, not to mention the physical and mental scars that individuals and communities at home and abroad must therefore bear. If the UK backs US Government military action or indeed participates in it, the conflict could well draw in Russia and Iran to back Assad’s regime, possibly making diplomatic talks more difficult, and certainly not easier, in the future.

In yesterday’s Guardian, Hans Blix wrote that even if Assad used chemical weapons, the west has no mandate to act as a global policeman, and that by ordering air strikes against Syria without a UN Security Council mandate, President Obama would

“be doing the same as Bush in 2003”.

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Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): In the right hon. Gentleman’s legal experience and opinion, at what point does destroying air defences and preventing a military capability start to become regime change, and would not that be illegal?

Mr Llwyd: Clearly, regime change is unlawful in international law. Any incursion of that kind would have to take sides, so inevitably that will follow. The hon. Gentleman is right.

The timing of the decision must also be questioned. If, as some of us believe, the decision on military action has already been made in Washington and agreed by the UK Government, that is the real reason why we are here: because Washington feels that there should be some bombs falling this weekend. Many atrocities have taken place in the two years since the conflict began. Surely those seeking to take military action could wait a few days longer, to ensure that their facts are straight.

It is obvious that there is no threat to the security of the UK—that we know. The Government seek military action in order to deter and undermine chemical weapons. They may well seek that—that is fine, although military action must be sanctioned by law—but surely they should wait until the full conclusive proof is available, verified by the UN, having had the inspectors’ report. The basis of any decision on military action taken in that light, the Government’s own litmus test, should be undeniable. That is why I believe it is imperative that even within the Government’s own reasoning, they should heed the UN Secretary-General’s call for more time to establish whether chemical weapons were used and, if possible, where they emanated from.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): There appear to be two conflicting objectives in what has been set out by the Prime Minister. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that on one hand it is about policing the use of chemical weapons, and on the other a humanitarian agenda is being set out, with legal reasons why a humanitarian intervention would be possible? The three conditions could have been met in Syria at any time for many months, however, and have been met in many other countries around the world where we have not intervened, so which is the real objective in taking us forward in this way?

Mr Llwyd: That is a very good question. The abstract of the legal opinion presumes that there will be no progress via the UN, so it then goes into detail on humanitarian intervention. There are at least four flaws in that debate, but that is for another time, and no doubt we shall have that opportunity.

Even if nothing else is learned from Iraq—there are many lessons to be learned—the one lesson should surely be that weapons inspectors should be given time to carry out their work and report fully to the UN. The situation in Egypt is a timely reminder of western Governments’ fickle adherence to so-called universal principles: first supporting the movements rising against the Mubarak regime in favour of democracy, and then siding with the army when it carried out a coup and overthrew a democratically elected Government. Gaddafi was condemned for Lockerbie, then lauded for opposing al-Qaeda, then condemned again swiftly when the situation turned in Libya. In the recent past, Assad was lauded

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by the British Government. His actions now clearly are deplorable, as have been the actions of many other groups fighting in this conflict, which has descended into a bloody civil war.

The recent build-up of rhetoric regarding military action has been confusing. Last Friday, the United States and UK Governments were pressing for weapons inspectors to be allowed into Syria. On Monday the inspectors went in, albeit under difficult circumstances, but on Monday evening all indications were that the US and UK had made up their mind, and that a strike was indeed imminent. That may be why we are here today. On Tuesday the UK softened its stance, however, perhaps worried about the consequences of proceeding into conflict where there is very little public support for it—the legacy of Iraq looming large, as has been said.

Plaid Cymru will be voting against the Government motion and instead supporting the amendment tabled by the official Opposition, and if it is called, the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The past decade has seen the UK embroiled in many bloody wars, paying a high price in treasure and blood, and failing to secure any peace. The middle east is in a very precarious state as we speak. We must learn well from those mistakes. I want to place it on the record that our support for the official Opposition’s amendment today does not in any way imply that we shall in any way vote for a military strike in due course, unless the evidence supports it.

4.50 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): As the Prime Minister pointed out, poison gas was extensively used in battle in the first world war. That led to a revulsion that was formulated by the 1925 Geneva gas protocol, which banned the use of poison gases but did not prevent a country from possessing a stockpile so that it could threaten retaliation if attacked by such gases. That protocol had nothing to do with the fact that poison gas was not used in the second world war—what prevented Hitler from using it was the threat of overwhelming retaliation. Indeed, sarin and tabun were nerve gases that Nazi scientists invented in the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler proposed to use tabun in 1943 but was deterred from doing so by the mistaken belief that the allies had discovered it too, although they had not. Similarly, Churchill thought of using poison gas against the V-weapons in 1944, and decided not to do so on military advice. The gas protocol had nothing to do with it.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): If my hon. Friend is talking about Hitler’s use of gas on soldiers he should not forget that Hitler used poison gas on innocent civilians—6 million Jews to be precise.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted to have the extra minute, especially as that was the next point I was going to make, given that a large proportion of members of my family were among those victims who were gassed. Hitler used poison gas against those innocent victims because he did not give a fig for the gas protocol; he cared about whether or not people could hit back. Those victims could not hit back whereas the allies could, and that is why he did not use gas against them.

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I do not want to divert too far into that, but it is important to understand the realities of what makes countries use poison gas and what deters them from using it. In my mind, the questions we must consider resolve themselves into two, rather than the four elegantly put forward by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. My two questions are: first, is it proven beyond reasonable doubt that Assad did it; and secondly, even if Assad or his regime did it, is a military strike sensible?

On the first question, the UN inspectors will not tell us anything about whether or not Assad did it, as I understand it. All they will do is tell us whether or not a sarin gas attack took place, so we cannot look to them to point the finger as to who did it. The Joint Intelligence Committee has been cited and we can all read the summary. That summary is not conclusive and in fact states that the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this, as well it might be. If Assad did it—and perhaps he did—it was the height of irrationality for him to do the one thing that might get the west intervening against him.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): There is a clear motive for Assad to have done this. He has used chemical weapons on five previous occasions, testing the west to see if it was going to respond. He has lost control of Aleppo airport, Homs is still under rebel control and rebels are fighting in the suburbs of Damascus. Assad is getting desperate and that is why he used chemical weapons. There is no question of any circumstantial evidence that points to anyone else.

Dr Lewis: I greatly respect my hon. Friend’s opinions on this and all other related matters, but nevertheless his point would make more sense if Assad were willing to acknowledge that he had been testing the water, rather than vehemently denying that he did it.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: I will not give way as I am still answering the previous question. I think it just as likely that if the regime were responsible in some way, it might have been done by some part of the regime unauthorised by another part.

That leads me to the question of contradictory evidence, because from the leaked reports on the one hand we are getting stories that the attack was ordered by Assad’s brother in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the leadership, and on the other hand hearing that there is intercept evidence that somebody who was unauthorised was responsible and that there was a telephone conversation in which somebody said, “Why on earth did you do this?” and a panicked reaction to the unauthorised release of poison gas. The point is that it is very far from certain that the evidence stacks up. The Intelligence and Security Committee is cleared to see classified material well up to the level of the material that the JIC and the Prime Minister have seen. I see no reason why those of us who have been cleared for such access should not have it.

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I shall now move on to the second question. Let us suppose that Assad did it. Is it then sensible to reply with military action? We have heard the arguments about red lines and the sacrosanct taboo that we must stand up for. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is correct, however, and if the Assad Government did that irrational thing, it shows that they are behaving very irrationally indeed. One thing that bothers me greatly is that it is now being suggested—I say this as someone who is generally supportive of Israel—that Israeli intelligence might be the source of the evidence that the Assad Government did it. If Assad is behaving irrationally and if he is so desperate, what is to prevent him, if he is attacked militarily by us on the perceived basis of intelligence supplied by Israel, from retaliating with a chemical attack against Israel? What will Israel do? It will retaliate in turn. What will America, Iran and Russia do then?

I began my speech by referring to the first world war. Next year, we will commemorate the centenary of the events of August 1914. Those events have a worrying parallel. At that time, a series of actions and reactions drew in, in an escalating fashion, one country after another. Nobody thought that the assassination of an obscure archduke would lead to a world conflagration. As Admiral Lord West has said, this is a powder keg, and we should not be lobbing weapons into the heart of such combustible material.

4.57 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Syria did not start having an evil regime last week or two years ago; it has had an evil regime for a generation. The murder of 10,000 people in Hama is evidence of that. The world did not criticise in any way whatever.

We are told that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, if proved, transforms the situation. It would certainly make the situation ghastly, disgusting and abominable. However, Syria is not the only country in the middle east to have used chemical weapons in warfare. Israel used white phosphorous in its attack in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead—I saw the consequences for myself when I went there—but Israel gets away with it because it is on the right side of what is regarded as civilised opinion.

There is selectivity right the way through. We are told that we are being bundled into this situation because of President Obama—the same President Obama who sends a stream of drones over Pakistan, violating its sovereignty and murdering its citizens. I have no time whatever for the Syrian regime, and I condemn the use of chemical weapons, but we are being selective. Reference has been made to Egypt, where two regimes have been overthrown in two years, without a whimper. In Libya, we were told we had to protect the citizens of Benghazi, and I voted in the House to do so. Western air forces—British and French—misused a UN resolution to achieve regime change, which was illegal, and resulted in the murder of Gaddafi, vile dictator though he was, whose corpse was dragged through the streets. I do not trust what is regarded as western opinion on the middle east and north Africa.

The motion states that the Government want a UN resolution

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“to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.”

Pull the other one: they do what they want and make all kinds of excuses to justify random, murderous activity that does not even cure the situation. I ask the Foreign Secretary, if he is to reply to the debate—

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague) indicated dissent.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Ah, the Deputy Prime Minister is to reply. In that case, we are on a higher moral level.

If action is taken, what would the action be? What would its impact be? How many casualties, including among civilians, would it cause? Would Assad say, “Oh, dearie me, I must be a nice boy now”? Anyone who has been in Syria, as I was when I was shadow Foreign Secretary and was trying to liberate our hostages in Lebanon, knows that this is not a nice regime that will behave as we want. The Foreign Secretary said he wanted to punish Assad, but an Assad punished would be worse than an Assad as he is now. I will vote against the motion and against military action.

5.2 pm

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): When the Prime Minister wanted to take military action in Libya, most of us supported him because there was a clear moral imperative: if we had not acted, tens of thousands of lives would quickly have been lost. That clear moral imperative does not stand in the action we are countenancing.

There is no doubt that the Assad regime is evil, but that is not our casus belli: our casus belli is the monstrous crime of killing hundreds, perhaps more, of civilians with nerve gas. The use of chemical weapons is not the first monstrous crime of this regime: at least 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war, most of whom were civilians. Death by dismemberment, burning, being crushed under falling buildings, gangrene or all the other outcomes of the use of conventional weapons is no better than death by nerve gas—these are monstrosities, however they are delivered. In moral, as against legal, terms many people will rightly, as they have in this debate, ask: why intervene now?

To press their case, this Government and the American Government, now supported by the JIC, have asserted, in effect, that the gassing of a large number of Syrian civilians could have been carried out only by the Assad regime. Perhaps. There are three possibilities. The first, and probably the most likely, is that nerve gas was deployed by Assad, but even the JIC says that this is an irrational and incomprehensible act. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) pinned that perfectly. Another possibility is that it could have been done by a rogue or panicky military unit in the Syrian army without Assad’s knowledge—that may be the most likely explanation—or it could have been done by the Syrian rebels with the direct aim of dragging the west into the war. These are the only people who have a clear motive that fits the crime. The JIC discounted that last possibility, but there are many reasons for us to worry about this concern. We do not want to be conned into a war, in effect, by actions designed to do just that.

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There are plenty of facts around, or at least reported facts. It is reported that the UN representative for human rights for Syria thought there was concrete evidence of rebels having sarin gas. There were reports that the Turkish authorities arrested 12 al- Nusra fighters with 2 kg of sarin gas, and other reports that Hezbollah fighters are in Beirut hospitals suffering from the effects of sarin gas.

A number of people, most notably my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have said that we must have clear evidence to show the House that, if there is a casus belli, it is real, not confected or constructed. That may mean more aggressive disclosure of intelligence than we would normally have. Given where we have been before in this House, we must consider that our intelligence as it stands might just be wrong. It was before, and we must test it rigorously.

Mr Jenkin: It is impossible to imagine how the rebels would have the capacity to shell a single location from seven different locations, which is what occurred on that occasion. Do we honestly think our own security services have not learned the lesson from Iraq or that they are not extremely cautious about the advice they make public on which decisions are going to be made? Should we not have faith in these devoted and courageous public servants, instead of joining the post-Iraq panic that is paralysing this country?

Mr Davis: If I had 10 minutes to take my hon. Friend through the forensics, I probably could. There is plenty of forensic evidence that will come out of the UN investigation and out of other data that we can obtain by other methods. It is not a question of panic; it is a question of getting the facts right before we act. It is very simple: when we are going to do things which will lead to the death of people, civilians in particular, we should get our facts right first.

That brings me to the Deputy Prime Minister on the “Today” programme this morning, talking about chemical weapons and saying—let me quote him exactly—that it is

“the first time in close to a century”

that we have seen—in Syria, he means—

“the ever more frequent use of chemical weapons.”

I recommend that he speaks to our American allies. The CIA has recently declassified and published its information on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, in which the west provided intelligence data in order for the Iraqis to be able to target their activities more effectively, killing 50,000 Iranians. How will our stance now be seen on the Iranian street? What will the pressures be on the Iranian Government when we make our holier-than-thou arguments about chemical warfare now?

I do not have time to conclude the arguments that I want to put. I will make one last point. Putin has said that the reason he provided anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrians was, in his words, to balance the war and prevent external intervention. What will his response be if we attack Syria? His response will be to feed this war more weapons, more deaths—

Mr Speaker: I call George Galloway.

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5.9 pm

George Galloway (Bradford West) (Respect): Thank God for the erudition and historical memory of the last three speakers; those qualities were almost entirely absent from the Prime Minister’s initial address. He was clearly making a speech that was not the one he intended to make here this afternoon. Otherwise, Mr Speaker, he would not have persuaded you to recall the House of Commons, at vast public expense, to decide that we were actually going to decide on this matter next week or the week after, when we shall be back here in any case. It is absolutely evident that, if it were not for the democratic revolt that has been under way in this House and outside among the wider public against this war, the engines in Cyprus would now be revving and the cruise missiles would be ready to fly this very weekend. Any attempt by the Prime Minister to pretend that he had intended to take this course of action all along is just bunkum.

The unease on both sides of the House, demonstrated in two exceptional speeches by the last speaker and the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), reflects the feelings of the people of this country. According to The Daily Telegraph this morning, only 11% of the public support Britain becoming involved in a war in Syria. Can any British Government have ever imagined sending their men and women to war with the support of only 11% of the public?

There is no compelling evidence—to use the Leader of the Opposition’s words—that the Assad regime is responsible for this crime, yet. It is not that the regime is not bad enough to do it; everybody knows that it is bad enough to do it. The question is: is it mad enough to do it? Is it mad enough to launch a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on the very day on which a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team arrives there? That must be a new definition of madness. Of course, if Assad is that mad, how mad will he be once we have launched a blizzard of Tomahawk cruise missiles on his country?

As I heard those on the Front Benches describe how bad Assad was, I wondered just why the former Prime Minister forced Her Majesty to billet him in her guest room at Buckingham Palace just a few years ago, and why a former Prime Minister recommended him for an honour. I remembered how he was hailed from all corners as a moderniser. The narrative has now changed, of course, because this Government are intent on regime change in Damascus.

That brings me to the only other point I am going to be able to make in the time available. The reason for the unease is that people can see the character of the Syrian opposition. They have seen the horrific videos that we have heard about. Take a look at the video of one of the commanders of the Syrian revolution cutting open the chest of a human being and eating his heart and liver. He videotaped himself doing it and put it up on YouTube because he thought that it might be considered attractive. Take a look at the videos of Christian priests having their heads sawn off—not chopped off; sawn off—with breadknives. Even a bishop in the Christian Church was murdered by these people. Every religious minority in Syria—there are 23 of them—is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels, whom the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing their utmost to supply with weapons and money over

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the last two years. They cannot deny that. They say that this is now about this new crime, whoever committed it, but it has been the Government’s policy for two years to bring about the defeat of the regime in Damascus and a victory for the kind of people who are responsible for these crimes.

I have 20 seconds left—

John McDonnell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

George Galloway: Willingly.

John McDonnell: If only for another 60 seconds. The hon. Gentleman made reference to arms supplied to Syria, but let us remember where those arms have come from over decades—from this country.

George Galloway: Indeed.

I now have 60 seconds at my disposal, so let me make this point more clearly. When did the 2.5 billion people of Russia and China cease to be members of the international community? Who are you on the other side to decide what the international community should do, if you are unable to persuade the Security Council to go along with your point of view? Who are you to decide that you will launch a war in any case?

I keep hearing about the unreasonable use of the veto. I have heard that many times in this House over the past few years. The United States has vetoed every attempt to obtain justice for the Palestinian people and to punish and issue retribution for international lawbreaking on the part of Israel, and nobody in this House has said one word about it.

Dr Offord: Mr Speaker, I think you will be very interested to know that several constituents have e-mailed me about comments made by the hon. Gentleman on Iran’s Press TV. One constituent claims that he said that Israel supplied the chemical for the attacks in Syria. I find it very hard to believe that the hon. Gentleman said that. Would he like to take this opportunity to refute that claim or to provide the evidence to satisfy my constituent?

George Galloway: That just shows the unreliability of green-ink letters, whether they come in the post or by e-mail. I said no such thing.

But the Syrian rebels definitely had sarin gas, because they were caught with it by the Turkish Government, as the last speaker, the former Government Minister said—I hope he will forgive me because I have forgotten his constituency. [Interruption.] No, I know my constituency. It is where I gave you such a bloody good hiding just over a year ago.

The Syrian rebels have plenty of access to sarin. It is not rocket science. A group of Shinto obscurantists in Japan living on Mount Fuji poisoned the Tokyo underground with sarin gas less than 20 years ago. One does not have to be Einstein to have one’s hands on sarin gas or the means to distribute it.

Russia and China say no to war; so do I and most people in this country.

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5.17 pm

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): One does not have to follow the oratory of the hon. Member for Bradford West (George Galloway) to realise that the spectre of the debate on Iraq in 2003 hangs over this debate. I sat undecided in the gangway listening with care to the then Prime Minister and marched resolutely into the Lobby behind him—a decision which I regret and which split my constituents and the Mitchell family. That debate did huge damage to the noble cause of liberal interventionism.

My first piece of strong advice to the Government is therefore to publish in full the evidence, of which there will be plenty more in the days to come, that has led them to conclude that the use of chemical weapons is unequivocally the work of Assad. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made the point that there is doubt about the evidence. There will be the opportunity in the days to come to help to clear up that doubt. It is hugely in the interests of the agencies and the intelligence community to do so.

There are allegations in the press today about US intercepts of communications between members of the regime. As much of that evidence as possible should be exposed to give our constituents confidence in the Government’s position. It seems clear to me that the awful events that took place in Ghutah on the night of 21 August could have been carried out only by the Syrian Government, for the reasons that have been clearly put. Let us have as much light on these matters as possible.

Secondly, I do not believe that there is any military solution to the wider situation in Syria. There needs to be a far greater effort to force the parties into a negotiating structure. Above all, that means that there must be much greater engagement by Russia and the United States. I understand the reticence of the United States in such matters, but it has been very late to give this crisis its full attention. Secretary Kerry’s recent involvement in the middle east is much to be welcomed. The UK’s less chilly relationship with Putin and Russia can help. The situation is made worse by the lack of international reaction to the earlier chemical attacks in June. At some point this logjam at the United Nations will be broken, and every sinew must be stretched to achieve that. Britain’s immensely strong and effective diplomatic abilities give us a hugely important part to play in that around the world.

Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Am I right in believing that, whether or not there is a Security Council resolution, it is still legally possible for the whole of the General Assembly to pass a resolution in considering the matter?

Mr Mitchell: I cannot give my hon. Friend a direct answer, but I refer him to the Attorney-General’s legal advice, which I think makes it clear that that is the case.

My third point is that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will recall from our earliest discussions on Syria in the National Security Council that I have been at the hawkish end of the argument about what to do. That is because, as International Development Secretary, I saw the mounting humanitarian catastrophe developing in the early days. I visited the Zaatari camp on the

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Jordanian-Syrian border when it was in its infancy, and women and children who entered it were shot at by the Syrian army as they went over the border. That camp has been strongly supported and funded by Britain and is now, in effect, the fourth biggest city in Jordan. There are now more than 2 million refugees. This is the largest movement of civilians across borders since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Appalling pressure is being exerted on the Governments and people of Jordan and the Lebanon, and more than 100,000 people have been killed, as has been mentioned.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): My right hon. Friend was an extremely good International Development Secretary. This is the largest humanitarian crisis of the 21st century and it is taking place not only in Syria, but in the countries surrounding it. One in five people in Lebanon is a refugee, and 45,000 people are trying to cross the border into Iraq. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the views of the non-governmental organisations on the ground, such as Christian Aid and its partners, which believe that an attack of any kind on Syria could exacerbate the situation further?

Mr Mitchell: The views of the NGOs on this matter are mixed, but what is clear is that part of the contribution that Britain can make—and other countries more so—to the humanitarian situation is to fund the NGOs and agencies that are working cross-border. Virtually all the aid currently goes through Damascus. Very little aid goes cross-border into the rebel-held territory, which means that, in effect, the international community is preventing the areas controlled by the regime from starving, but starving the areas held by the rebels.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Mitchell: I am afraid I have had my injury time.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), but this is a complex situation and the NGOs on the ground disagree on the matter. Even at this late stage, we must continue to demand unfettered access for those brilliant people in the humanitarian and relief community who are risking their lives daily and to whom my hon. Friend has referred.

Finally, we come to the present situation. Chemical weapons have been used. War crimes have been committed. A violation of international law has taken place. This is a regime which stoops to gas its own people. It is hard to think of a situation which more rightly triggers the Responsibility to Protect that has been referred to this afternoon. In my view, failure by the international community to act would be far more dangerous than taking evidence-based, proportionate and legal military action as a clear lesson to human rights abusers and dictators who murder and terrorise innocent civilian populations.

5.23 pm

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): I rise to agree with many of those present and to say that, in my opinion, we are all united in our disbelief and deep sense of grief and revulsion at the tragedy that is

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unfolding in Syria. All of us in this House know that this conflict has gone on in its current phase for two years and has ripped the heart out of that country and its long-suffering people. However, my colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour party and I are gravely concerned about any prospect of military action, the bombing—whether it be selective or non-selective—of Syria and the haste with which this course appears to have been embarked on.

Our objections are based primarily on simple, straightforward moral and ethical grounds. Beyond those ethical grounds, however, are the significant practical considerations and consequences. On a practical level, we believe that any military activity will be counter-productive and will not save lives but in fact cost them. As was said earlier, it is no more pleasant for a person to be killed by a cruise missile than by gas—they are still dead. Our objective should be to be humanitarian and protect lives.

Jim Shannon: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern, and that of many Members, about the Christian minority of some half a million, who have been displaced, murdered and ethnically cleansed? Any attack upon Syria, whatever it may be, could have repercussions for the Christian minority, who are concerned about what would happen given the example of Iraq, where there were 1.3 million Christians before the war and only 300,000 afterwards.

Dr McDonnell: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, which dovetail with my point that whatever the British Government do, they should ensure that their actions do not make the situation worse or lead directly or indirectly to their excusing or justifying more deaths among those active in the conflict in Syria.

I urge the Prime Minister to pause and resist the temptation to launch a war just because there are pressures coming from some sources or because he feels it is the only option. The opinion poll showing that only 11% of the people feel favourably disposed to the concept has already been referred to, and that means that 89% are hostile to it.

I wish also to pose the question of how the sight of a British and US-led attack is likely to be perceived across the middle east, not just in Syria, especially if it is carried out without credible UN backing or on the basis of uncertain or confused intelligence. That would risk handing the Syrian regime a major propaganda victory at a pivotal point, which its supporters could rally around. The impact on the wider region is even more uncertain and potentially volatile. Even if such action could ever be morally justified, which I and my colleagues do not accept, there surely needs to be a serious prospect of an endgame that has an outcome of success and of benefit in some shape or form.

Mr MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman fear, as I do, that if the Prime Minister were to win the vote on his motion tonight, it would embolden him for future adventures? As the hon. Gentleman said, it is clear that the public, and I think majority opinion across the world, are against adding any more to the powder keg in Syria that was referred to earlier.

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Dr McDonnell: My view, which I do not think is far removed from that of other Members, is that mission creep is inevitable in any such situation. Whatever justification is put forward today, the mission would creep and change in the light of changing circumstances next week and next month. As such, it would lead to all sorts of consequences that we have not perceived at this point.

To put it more precisely, I do not think anybody in this country, in Europe or around the world wants to see another Afghanistan or Iraq. I have heard little here today to convince me of the merit of any proposed military action. We have been given no clear indication of what success might look like or how it would be measured. We are told that this action might persuade Assad to consider not using chemical weapons in the future, but I have little faith that such a course of action will not make his position better rather than worse. There is a clear risk that even more lives will be lost and even more harm done than we are trying to prevent. I can only see that cruise missile attacks will take lives—hundreds, if not thousands, of lives—of combatants and civilians alike. There is little evidence that any lives would be saved in the long run.

Mr Jenkin: What message would come from this House were we to vote for the Opposition amendment and, in effect, say that we are not going to take any action as a result of this? That would be the message.

Dr McDonnell: I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to Iraq and its consequences. We have all been left scarred by Iraq.

Many in this House and in Government will have convinced themselves of the courses of action that should be taken, but they have not convinced the public. I think the public know better. The public have long and bitter memories of Iraq and Afghanistan. All the promises and assurances issued then were not worth the paper they were written on. The public remember the contrived situation, the misleading of this House and the needless deaths of so many soldiers and countless civilians. While I would find it difficult, if not impossible, ever to tolerate or support military intervention, I believe that this House should contemplate such action against Syria only if it were UN approved and if we were convinced that it would improve the situation.

5.31 pm

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We make no more important decision in this House than to give permission to our armed forces to unleash some of their formidable arsenal. We should only do so if we feel there is democratic consent for the aim and the purpose of the conflict, and we should do so only if it is legal so to do. In my adult lifetime in politics I think that we, as a country, have intervened too often. We have too often asked our armed forces to do things that armed forces alone cannot do. I am not against all intervention. Of course, when we had to liberate Kuwait or the Falkland Islands, they were noble aims. Our armed forces performed with great skill and bravery, and the British public were behind them. We must be very careful, however, not to inject them into a civil war where we do not know the languages, where we have uncertain sympathy for the

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cultures and the conflicting groups involved, and where the answer in the end has to be a political process in the country itself and not external force.

I therefore welcome strongly the three things the Government have set out. I welcome this debate and the fact that we will do things democratically. It is our job to speak for our constituents and, if there is to be military activity, to ensure that the British public will it—they certainly do not at the moment. I welcome very much the Government’s statement that we will not arm the rebels. That is huge progress and I support that fully.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that what we would like to hear from the Deputy Prime Minister when he sums up later is a clear statement that the Government believe that in all future cases military action—immediate external assault—will not be entered into unless this House has given its say-so first?

Mr Redwood: Of course I agree with that. Any sensible Government would do that, because what Government can commit our armed forces without the implicit or actual support of the House of Commons? That can be tested at any time, so no Government would be so foolish as to try and proceed without it.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend just go a bit further and agree that anybody going through the Government Lobby tonight is not giving their approval for direct military intervention on behalf of the UK, and that the Deputy Prime Minister should make that very, very clear in his summing up tonight? There will be another vote.

Mr Redwood: I leave the Deputy Prime Minister to speak for himself and the Government.

The third thing I welcome is that the Government are not trying to influence the conflict. That is an important new development, although I am not sure how it marries with possible military intervention. If military intervention is planned, I presume that it will be against Assad and his forces and that, of course, would have some impact on the conflict. That impact might be in the direction that the Government and others wish to go, but they need to accept that there is a possible contradiction between or ambiguity in their wish not to have an impact on the balance of forces in Syria and their wish to intervene over the issue of chemical weapons.

Everyone in the House shares the Government’s horror at the use of chemical weapons and the brutality shown, perhaps by the regime. It is quite possible that the regime used them. I agree with right hon. and hon. Members from both sides who have pointed out that there have also been atrocities and horrors enough without chemical weapons—those should also shock our consciences and worry our emotions, and they do.

Given the understandable wish to respond to the use of horror weapons, we need to ask whether the Government could undertake, or assist others to undertake, a military intervention that would fulfil the purpose. That should be the only question. Of course I understand that the Government cannot come to the House and debate a

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series of targets with us in advance—that would be folly. However, I hope that the House can help steer Ministers to ask the right questions of their advisers about whether there is any type of military intervention that could make the position better rather than worse.

The military experts to whom I have talked say that the last thing we want to do is shower down bombs or cruise missiles on stocks of chemical weapons; that would degrade them, but could let them out as well. It would be a dreadful tragedy if, in an attempt to stop, by destruction, the use of chemical weapons, we infected people in the surrounding areas. That does not sound like a good idea. Bombing the factories might have a similar consequence, although perhaps the risk would not be as great as bombing the stocks of chemical weapons.

Is the idea to bomb the soldiers and their commanders who might use the weapons? That could be a way. However, we would have to ask the Government how many soldiers and officers we would need to kill to guarantee more or less that Assad would not use the weapons again. I fear that the answer might be very many, given that we are dealing with someone as mad and bad as Assad. Would we want to go that far? Are we sure that it would work?

Is the idea to bomb a load of buildings, preferably when people were not in them, so that we destroyed the command headquarters or military installations? That would be possible; western forces have done such things in other situations, normally as preparation for invasion. Again, however, how many would we need to bomb to make sure that Assad never used chemical weapons again?

I hope that the Government will think very carefully about the issues. If they wish to persuade the British people, who are mightily sceptical about our ability to find the right military response to stop Assad and his horrors, they need to come up with some answers privately and find the language to explain to Members, and the public we represent, why they have every confidence that we can achieve the noble aim of stopping Assad using chemical weapons.

I wish the Government well. If they really can come up with a way of stopping Assad murdering his own people, nobody will be happier than me. Everyone in the House would be extremely happy. But the Government have to understand the scepticism of the British people. Assad is mad and bad and it will not be easy to stop him. I fear that we will not be able to do it in a half-hearted manner with a few cruise missiles in the hope that he will not retaliate.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Reports are circulating that No. 10 has indicated that it cannot rule out a recall of Parliament again on Saturday or Sunday to debate this matter further. Have you received any information from the Government in relation to any such request? It would have implications for this evening’s debate.

Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is no; the first I have heard of that has been from his lips. We shall leave the matter there for now. He has put his point on the record.

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5.39 pm

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Later this evening, the House will divide over whether in principle this country should undertake military action in Syria. We will perhaps do justice to the suffering of the Syrian people if we first determine where, as a Parliament, we are at one.

I have no doubt that we are all united in complete condemnation of the deplorable chemical attacks on civilians in Damascus. The gut-wrenching images of those attacks are etched on all our minds as we sit here tonight. All of us seek an outcome that will bring peace and stability to the region. That much we can agree. It is also the case that this motion is less damaging than the one we were originally led to believe we would be debating. That is a tribute to the fact that Back-Bench and Opposition MPs can make a difference. To that extent, this is a good day for Parliament and for public pressure. It is clear to me that those things have helped to force the Government to think twice about their way forward on Syria.

I welcome the fact that this motion recognises that to have proceeded with a military attack as the UN weapons inspectors were still visiting the sites of the alleged chemical weapons assault would have been preposterous. It beggared belief that, once again, we could have been about to embark on military engagement, without apparently having learned any of the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. By seeking to pre-empt the outcome of the inspectors’ work, we would also have increased the likelihood that further requests for access by weapons inspectors would be denied; they would be regarded simply as a ploy for subsequent military action, regardless of the findings. As Hans Blix pointed out earlier this week:

“If the aim is to stop the breach of international law and to keep the lid on others with chemical weapons, military action without first waiting for the UN inspector report is not the way to go about it.”

Although I am pleased that the Government’s motion now accepts that we must wait for the inspectors’ reports, I am deeply concerned at their cavalier treatment of international law and I completely reject their drive towards military action. On the legal question, both the US and our Government are indicating that they are prepared to act against Syria without a UN mandate. For all that the Government’s motion talks of making “every effort” to ensure a Security Council resolution, the bottom line appears to be that they are happy to proceed without one.

We are told that intervention could be legally justified without a Security Council resolution under the UN’s responsibility to protect, but the 2005 UN world summit outcome document, in which the Heads of State unanimously approved the new international norm of the responsibility to protect, subsequently approved by UN Security Council resolution 1674, states clearly that it is still subject to UN Security Council agreement. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect, again stressed that it is to be implemented in accordance with the UN charter. That means that the central decision-making authority is the UN Security Council. The conclusion from all this is clearly, if inconveniently for the Government, that military action against a sovereign state, other than in self-defence,

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without the authority of the Security Council cannot be justified under the responsibility to protect. On that issue the Labour amendment is also, unfortunately, very weak; it regards international law as an inconvenience. That makes it all the more important that our deliberations today are informed by all the relevant information and based on sound legal grounding.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government’s position would be far stronger if instead of coming here proposing military action, they had come here to tell us that they were having serious discussions with the new Government in Iran and a new round of talks with Russia, and that they were trying to build a consensus in the region to bring about what must happen at some point—a political solution to this crisis?

Caroline Lucas: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. As he rightly highlights, we have an opportunity now with the new regime in Iran and we should be responding to a more moderate leader there, yet by going ahead and giving a signal that military action is the direction in which we are heading, we absolutely undermine the authority of that new leader in Iran.

I was making the case that we should have seen the Attorney-General’s full legal opinion and that this one-and-a-half-side summary is simply unacceptable. While I am on the subject of further pieces of information that could have usefully informed this debate, I wish to refer hon. Members again to the Chilcot report—that missing report which has gone absent without leave. It is unacceptable that, yet again, many people are talking about the importance of the legacy of Iraq and we do not have that document, which would have given us the lessons to be learnt.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Lady seems to be making a reasonably powerful case against any use of military force whatsoever. Faced with one motion that does not rule it in and a Labour motion that does not rule it out, is not the logic for all those who have spoken against military action today, including those on the Labour Benches, to vote against them both?

Caroline Lucas: The hon. Gentleman’s point is, unfortunately, a very strong one—[Interruption.] He knows what I mean.

I remain to be convinced that a military attack would deter, rather than escalate, conflict in the region, which is why I agree with what the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) just said. I have yet to hear what the strategy would be for Syria and the wider region in the event of an attack. I listened carefully to the Deputy Prime Minister on the radio this morning. It was put to him that Assad could well retaliate against an attack, but when he was asked what we would do in the face of such an escalation, answer came there none. I remain concerned as well about the impact of flouting international law. To intervene without the due resolution would send a message to everyone else that international law can be ignored when it is inconvenient.

As the law of the jungle takes hold, it will be increasingly difficult to condemn similar actions by others. I am increasingly convinced, therefore, that only a political and diplomatic solution will solve the war raging in

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Syria and by extension hold its spread beyond the region. That is why I will not support the Government’s motion and why I tabled my own amendment setting out that the case for military action had not been made. I am sorry that we will not have an opportunity to put that amendment to the vote, because it would have addressed the issue raised by the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Had it been accepted, we would have had a genuine choice tonight.

We need to strain every sinew to get all relevant parties around the table for peace talks. On so many levels, as others have said, this is a proxy war, which is why we need China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and many others involved as well. We also absolutely need to redouble our efforts to support refugees. We are hearing from many of the development agencies, including Oxfam, that the situation facing those refugees, both in Syria and the wider region, is appalling. More than 8 million people are now in desperate need of supplies. That is why people who say, “If we don’t have military action, it is equivalent to doing nothing”, are so misguided. There is much we can do on refugees and a political solution.

5.46 pm

Sir Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): In this kind of debate, there comes a point when people say, “Everything’s been said, but not everybody’s said it”, but I hope that all of us who speak in the second half of the debate will help to reinforce the key arguments and still manage to draw out some particular aspects that have not yet been addressed.

Had we been debating the motion we expected earlier in the week, I would not have been able to support it. I still have grave reservations, however, and if I support the Government tonight, that will not give them any right to expect me to support them in a subsequent vote. It is important that that is understood. As is agreed on both sides of the House, that does not mean that there is not a case to be made; at the moment, however, it has not yet been made.

I understand the passion expressed, people’s abhorrence and the desire that something be done, but it is very dangerous if we do not decide that that something will work rather than make the situation worse. My concern is that we do not know what the response will be. The argument is that there would be a highly forensic, targeted attack to eliminate the regime’s capability to continue with such acts. Apart from the fact that we cannot ensure that there will not be collateral damage, there is the added problem that if it does not take out the regime, the regime and its allies will still have some capacity to act and might act in ways that escalate the situation.

Speaking as Chairman of the International Development Committee, which is responsible for holding to account the Government’s aid programme, I welcome the contribution from the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who addressed with deep knowledge and passion the commitment we are making. Of course the United Kingdom should be using humanitarian assistance to help the people distressed in this conflict, but so far £345 million of our aid programme has been diverted to supporting refugees in this conflict zone, an area of the

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world where we would otherwise not be spending any of our aid money, because it is not a poor region. By definition, that money has been taken away from poor people in Africa and south Asia because of a conflict. We must not do anything that makes that conflict worse and results in even more displaced persons and refugees, whom we will inevitably want to help.

Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman raises some substantial doubts. The Prime Minister earlier spoke about this being a matter of judgment. Surely anyone with such doubts in the Prime Minister’s judgment could not support him tonight.

Sir Malcolm Bruce: I think it is a matter of judgment. I am giving my judgment and the Prime Minister has given his.

The point that the motion and the amendment have in common—that is the result of the progress made in the past few days—is that we should allow the UN process to continue to the point where, we hope, it can be a determinant, and that this House will have an opportunity to decide before any military action takes place. Those are two important facts, which I would not want to vote against. If neither the motion nor the amendment is carried, the Government presumably could say that they had a mandate to do something immediately. We have to be careful what we vote out, as well as what we vote in.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): My right hon. Friend expressed earlier his concerns about the case for military intervention not having been made, and those concerns will be shared by many people across the House, but has he recognised that the motion is in fact not about military intervention? It simply does not rule it out, which is why the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), which said that the case has not yet been established, was irrelevant. That is the case that would have to be made for any future motion. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Sir Malcolm Bruce: I accept that, and I think I have made clear that what I want to see is how this action will take place in a way that will not make the situation worse. If I do not hear that, I will find it impossible to support that proposition. That is why I am grateful that we are being given time.

The truth is that we are being asked to make a decision because the American Government have made a decision on the basis of a red line that President Obama set. I am not sure whether, when he set that red line, he was naive in the assumption that it would not be stepped across or whether it was a challenge. Certainly it has reached a point where he feels bound to respond and is looking to his allies to support him. I do not think that we should be discourteous or unreasonable as allies, but we are entitled to consider our own interests.

On the point of the UN process and the point at which it would be legitimate to take action even without the UN, we must understand that Russia has a very direct interest that it is promoting. It has the capacity, as a permanent member of the Security Council, to use its veto. I do not believe that Russia should be entitled to say “That is the end of the matter” and that no action

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can be taken regardless of how the situation escalates. Clearly there has to be a legal framework that does not paralyse the UN because one member takes the view that its interests will not allow it to support what the rest of the international community wants. That is why the proposal that perhaps a General Assembly resolution might be part and parcel of the process is important.

That leads me to the conclusion that we need to determine the British position—not just how much we would like to support our allies, of which generally I am in favour, but the extent to which our involvement matters and our position in the world is enhanced, and on the bases that we will have improved rather than deteriorated a situation and that the British people will understand what we are doing. At this moment, I do not think any of those points has been answered satisfactorily.

I suspect that action is likely to take place in the next few days. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to explain to us what will be the position of the British Government if action takes place before the House meets again, whether there is any likelihood of the House having to meet sooner than Monday and, indeed, if we would be asked to sanction a specific programme. The Government need to be able to make it clear what action is being taken, why they believe it will be effective and why they do not think it will make the situation worse. It will be only on that basis that I can be persuaded to support a second motion.

5.53 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) and I agree with a number of things he said. I also very much welcome the change of heart of the Government, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in not calling us here today to vote for immediate action against Syria. I would ask the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in conversation at the moment, to answer this simple question: why are we here today? Why could this not have waited for a few days?

Mr MacNeil: With reference to the earlier point of order that Parliament could be recalled on Saturday, does the hon. Gentleman agree that to recall Parliament before Monday would be absolutely farcical?

Albert Owen: It would be farcical, and folly. I think it is folly that we are here today, to be honest.

The Foreign Secretary, whom I admire as an individual, has been out of sync with many of my constituents and the British public in the way he has dealt with events in the past few days. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) in praising Government Back Benchers, the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Foreign Secretary and others for putting pressure on the Prime Minister and No. 10 to change their minds and to allow us to have two votes and to listen to the UN. I believe that that is what the British public want. They want us to have a rational debate, to look at all the issues and to come to the right conclusion.

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I feel that what has happened has slightly tainted the Government on this occasion and that our international reputation has been slightly damaged.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I agree that the Government have made a tactical change from calling the House to debate a motion that would have supported military action, but the fact that we are called here to debate a motion that includes the option of military action surely places us on the first step of a slippery slope that leads to a new mood and a climate in which that becomes acceptable.

Albert Owen: I believe that it is an escalator and that this could be the first, very dangerous, step.

I praise the Leader of the Opposition and others for getting, at least, a breathing space to allow us to take a step backwards. Using the UN is the right way forward. The UN is not a perfect organisation but it has greater legitimacy than the United States, the United Kingdom and other nations acting alone. That is important.

I have been consistent on this point since I have been in the House. I voted against my own party and against the Government on Iraq, because I did not think that it had the legitimacy of the UN and the international community. I voted with the Prime Minister and the coalition Government on Libya, as the operation had greater legitimacy because of the UN support. We saw clearly that Benghazi would have been invaded and that there would have been thousands and thousands of deaths. That was the right action to take.

I strongly agree with General Lord Dannatt, who is reported as saying that if the international community were of one voice on this matter, the case would be compelling. At the moment, it is not. There is a lot of work to be done. There is a real danger that a divided international community, as many others have said, would lead to a proxy war by some of today’s superpowers, using Syria to unleash greater dangers than we are seeing internally in that country. Let us be clear: what has happened in Syria is abhorrent. There are no ifs and buts about that, but we have to be careful to ensure that we do not make the problem worse in that country, that region and the whole world.

On the UN inspectors and chemical weapons, let us not forget that these inspectors were called in before the most recent atrocity. They were investigating alleged gas attacks—we have heard different numbers today—and they were aided to get into Syria by Russia. We should be putting more pressure on Russia in future, at the G20 and other meetings, to get the Russians to help us to resolve the crisis in Syria. The UN inspectors had a few days to do their work, and yet action has been proposed by the United States, the United Kingdom and others that will hamper their work if it goes ahead.

Let us not forget that we have been here before with the Iraq debacle and whether the international inspectors could carry on their work. The reality here is that, if we were to unleash a strike on Syria, it would not just hamper Syria, but put at stake the UN’s credibility. So I hope that issues become clearer over the next few days and months. In the words of Ban Ki-moon, we must give the UN inspectors and peace a chance. There are other routes that we could be going down now. The humanitarian route is an obvious one. Why are we not talking about creating humanitarian corridors in Syria,

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protecting the people there and getting in the UN inspectors to make it clear what has happened and how we can help those people who are suffering from the civil war?

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I would like to see humanitarian protected areas. That would take troops. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that?

Albert Owen: A UN peacekeeping force could be used. There are many ways to do that, but I would rather see that alleviate people’s suffering than bombing from Cyprus and ships. Yes, we must consider helping people on the ground, but military action should not be our first option—it should be the last—and humanitarian corridors could work if we had the will of the Security Council and the United Nations working together, rather than polarising them, which is what we are doing by threatening military strikes now.

We need a rationale; we need an international solution; and we need to listen to our constituents. Overwhelmingly, the people of Britain are telling us no to immediate action and no to strikes. We should listen to them. The country was divided over Iraq. On this issue, it is united in saying no to military action now. Let us get the humanitarian effort under way.

6.1 pm

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I am extremely reluctant to endorse military action in Syria. My reluctance does not spring from any doubts about the facts of the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Those who suggest that the atrocity of 21 August was committed by his opponents on their own supporters to provoke intervention by the alliance are allowing their hostility to military action to fuel their imagination in the absence of any concrete evidence. But my right hon. Friends were right to delay any decision until the UN inspectors have reported.

Nor does my reluctance spring from doubts about the legality of action to deter or prevent the further use of chemical weapons, even without a UN resolution, but I am puzzled why the United States, the United Kingdom and France stepped forward with alacrity to take on this unpopular task. France, from which I have just returned, is the country whose willingness to do so can most easily be explained. The decline in President Hollande’s support was checked only by his successful intervention in Mali, with boots on the ground. More importantly, France has always believed that it has a special involvement in Syria. However, President Hollande, and indeed anyone else who is thinking of serious involvement on the ground in Syria, should read a report of the last time that France was involved in Syria, written by President Hollande’s predecessor, de Gaulle, when he was still a commandant in 1931, describing how it took six years and nearly 10,000 French dead to restore peace in Syria after the first world war. We all do well to remember just how difficult that country is to pacify.

The involvement of the United States and the United Kingdom is much more puzzling. Obama voted against Iraq. By no stretch of the imagination is he an interventionist cowboy; nor are my right hon. Friends

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the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister rabid neo-cons. I can only suspect that one reason is the fear that inaction now that red lines have been crossed would send a message to Iran that it has little to fear if it continued to develop nuclear weapons. That is a legitimate and powerful reason, but it can have difficult consequences.

My main concern is that, although the Government’s intentions as laid out in the motion are limited, military action will unleash pressures to become further involved. If Assad takes whatever blow we inflict upon him but then goes on and appears to be winning, would we tolerate a war criminal being allowed to win? Would there not be enormous pressures to switch the balance back against him, and would it not be hard to resist pressures to arm the rebels? If we are partly motivated by a concern to send a message to Iran, will it not be seen as difficult to allow Iran’s ally to win?

Let us suppose that Assad desists from the further use of chemical weapons, to go on committing what might be called conventional atrocities, as he has. Will not our commitment and its legal basis that this is not about chemical weapons but about the duty to protect people lead us to be pressed to take action against that type of atrocity? Indeed, if those atrocities are committed by the other side, or sides, in the war, will we not be pressed to take action on them?

What keeps me out of the No Lobby tonight is my confidence in the judgment of the Foreign Secretary, with whom I have worked in many roles, subordinate and inferior, and my confidence that he would not use his good judgment unwisely in this matter—nor would the Prime Minister—but what I need to persuade me to join them in the Yes Lobby is the clearest possible assurance that they will resist the forces to go further if we do get involved and say, “So far, but no further.”

6.6 pm

Mr Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I have been to Syria on two occasions as part of delegations and had audiences with President Assad, and they were certainly illuminating. Syria is ruled by him as a family fiefdom and has a history of brutality. Its political structure—the Ba’athist party—is modelled on the old Russian Communist party. I say that because I do not, however, believe that President Assad is a fool, but I will return to that later.

What has happened to the people of Syria is a crime against humanity, and it is imperative, as the Leader of the Opposition said, to bring the conflict to an end as soon as possible. War crimes have been committed by both sides, and Assad should be held accountable in due course for declaring war on his own people. When it was alleged that chemical weapons had been used in the latest atrocity, I welcomed the fact that UN weapons inspectors were to go to the site. However, I was very concerned when almost immediately the Foreign Secretary appeared on television, dismissively making pre-emptive comments about the fact that the evidence that they might find may already have disappeared or have been contaminated and that they might not find anything. I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary is not an honourable man, but his comments reminded me very much indeed of what was said in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq by the USA and Britain.

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We were told at the time that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction. We were told that the weapons inspectors would not find any WMDs because they had been very well hidden. We were told that there was incontrovertible evidence from the intelligence services that WMDs existed. Finally, in the last debate on the subject in the Chamber, we were told that the WMDs could hit this country within 45 minutes. What happened subsequently? We found out that what was said was not true, that the intelligence had been sexed up, that the weapons of mass destruction did not exist and that political decisions had been taken at President Bush’s ranch in America way before the conflict began.

Indeed, I ask the Government to answer this tonight: if the Chilcot committee report could be published, instead of disappearing into the ether, a lot of people would like to know whether what I and other people have said is correct, so when will the Chilcot report be released? Furthermore, as I and others have said, the consequences of Iraq caused poison to enter British politics, leading to a total distrust of politicians and Governments. There are, of course, consequences in this case, and they have been well outlined by other Members.

Turning back to President Assad, I said at the outset that I did not think he was a fool. He was educated in the west; he was trained as an eye specialist; and he is married to someone who was brought up in this country and worked for a merchant bank. The Assad family has ruled Syria for generations and it is not, of course, averse to brutality or atrocities. Assad’s father killed 50,000 people after an uprising in Homs during his reign. This is a brutal family, but let us consider this: the regime, as we all know, has chemical weapons, and it used to have a nuclear capability, which was taken out by the Israelis in 2007.

Tim Farron: On that point, I agree that Assad is not a fool. Will he therefore sit up and take notice of the fact that although Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court, if we built up a dossier to convict him as a war criminal at some point in the future, he would have nowhere to go if he did not comply?

Mr Godsiff: As I have clearly said, I believe that Assad should be held accountable for his actions and should be brought before the international courts.

The regime has the full patronage of Russia, which can veto resolutions in the Security Council. Syria has some of the most sophisticated weaponry around, supplied by Russia and Iran, and it has total control over the skies in Syria. It has helicopter gun ships, and also a surrogate army fighting with Syrian Government forces in the shape of Hezbollah. As my good friend the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) rightly said, what is in this for Assad? Why should he deliberately participate in an atrocity guaranteed to bring an international response—the one thing that he does not want, and the one thing that all the disparate organisations fighting against him do want?

Mr Jenkin: The American intelligence services believe that Assad did this; the British intelligence services believe Assad did it; the French and even the German

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intelligence services believe it; and the whole Arab League thinks Assad did it. Is this debate to be conducted on the basis that we in this House know better than all these experts? Can the hon. Gentleman name one expert on Syria who does not believe that President Assad is responsible for this attack? Name one.

Mr Godsiff: Let me answer the hon. Gentleman in this way. I said earlier that what happened over Iraq had poisoned British politics, but more to the point, many Members vowed privately at the time—the hon. Gentleman was here—that they would never again believe one single solitary assurance given by any Prime Minister who came to the Dispatch Box to say, “Trust me; I’m taking this country into a military adventure.”

Let me return to this point: why would Assad do this? What is in it for him? Dictators have one unifying thing in common: they want to remain in power; they want the spoils of being a dictator and all that goes with it. Why on earth, then, would the Assad regime wish to bring on itself cruise or Tomahawk missiles? Why on earth would it want western countries to get involved in the Syrian civil war? Why on earth would it want to lose power?

6.14 pm

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): We should reflect first on the awful responsibility of our leaders who find themselves as chief executives in these circumstances. The witnessing of an appalling crime on television, played out endlessly on YouTube and other internet sites, showed that something utterly dreadful had happened. The President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom or the President of France, who all command armed forces that could do something about it, then faced many pressures. The shadow Health Secretary spoke emotionally about wanting to address this appalling crime when he appeared on television last Sunday, but I think the shadow Foreign Secretary was probably not wildly enthusiastic about the implications of what his right hon. Friend said when he gave vent to his feelings. It then falls to this Parliament coldly to consider the effect of taking action when it is felt that something must done, yet the evidence shows that the action might makes things worse rather than better.

On the issue of attribution, there was an intriguing piece of information, perhaps a leak, placed in The Timesabout what was apparently a SIGINT—signals intelligence—report of a conversation between the Assad defence ministry and the field commander of the chemical weapons unit. It was described as a rather panicked conversation. I can see no conceivable reason why Assad would have directed this particular use of weapons on this occasion, although I can see that such weapons could be used where the responsibility has been delegated to field commanders to help them out when they are in desperate situations. The Joint Intelligence Committee information seems to suggest that that might have happened on this occasion. As the JIC suggests, there has been low-level use, and I would agree that the responsibility almost certainly sits with the Assad Administration, although whether it sits with President Assad personally is another issue.

Mr Graham Stuart: If our aim is to deter further use of chemical weapons and protect people, is my hon. Friend aware of any ultimatum previously given by the

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west to Assad on the use of chemical weapons? If not, would not the more logical response be to lay down a credible threat, rather than one artificially limited by some time frame, stating, “If you fail to undertake not to use chemical weapons, we will degrade and deter you by military strike and bring you to the table”? Might that not have more effect than a short-term military strike now?

Mr Blunt: The difficulty is legality, which is why the Government have been dancing on the head of a pin, making the case that this is absolutely and only about the use of chemical weapons—because nothing else in international law would justify the sort of intervention that is being proposed if agreement at the UN Security Council cannot be reached. If we get to that grave position, I think we have to be pretty certain about the effectiveness of the military action before we take it. Are we going actively to degrade chemical weapons? There are hideous practical problems in attempting that, with the potential of awful collateral damage. If we go after the command and control structure in a way that is sufficiently active to degrade it, that plainly means going after Assad himself, thus actively intervening on one side in the conduct of the war.

The critical point about the consequences was put by the Leader of the Opposition in his speech, and it is implicit in the motion. I rather wish that the Opposition had been more direct about the implications of what the right hon. Gentleman was saying. He was saying that if the consequences of our military action were to threaten the Geneva II process, which should mean Assad and his Government on the one side and the rebels on the other sitting down, engaging in politics and reaching a deal to escape from the current position, the action would not be worth engaging in. I think that case is overwhelmingly strong. It is the Russians, supported by the Chinese, who have put themselves in this position by vetoing any attempt to bring about wider international action, so the responsibility is theirs to get their client to the negotiating table.

The responsibility to act is not ours, particularly on much more doubtful legal ground around the use of international humanitarian law, which could get us into a potentially hideous situation with unforeseen consequences. If we are lucky, what we are debating here and perhaps again next week is a very limited British involvement in quite a small international operation of firing off some scores of cruise missiles to make a point about deterring action. We might be firing one cruise missile so that our hand is, as it were, on the dagger of international action.

I suppose that if Prime Minister Blair did nothing else, he at least so sensitised the body politic that we are here having this debate in recess, and we are yet to be in a position where we are even authorising a very limited use of military action. However, we are intervening in a situation where, in the analysis of Eugene Rogan, this is not about winner takes all in Syria; it is about loser must die. So the idea that we will send an effective deterrence message with a limited use of military action does not stand up.

We need to consider other responsibilities. This month, the Egyptian Government have, with malice aforethought, murdered well over 1,000 of their own citizens to suppress people who were supporting what had been previously

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an elected Government. What are they to think about the fact that we are getting ourselves into a position to intervene over Syria, and yet we have said precious little about a crime that is on the scale of five or 10 times what we are debating here? It has not been part of an insurgency yet, but the Egyptian Government have almost certainly kicked an insurgency off as a result of what they are doing.

We need to examine what we are doing and whether it will work. I do not think it will; I cannot support it.

6.20 pm

Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Syria’s use of chemical weapons is either a huge mistake or, in my view, a calculated attempt to test the resolve of the west, post Iraq and post Afghanistan. If we look at the possibility that it was a mistake, it could have been an official or a general who gave orders to the relevant Government department for the use of chemical weapons without the direct instruction of Assad; that scenario has been put forward by reports appearing in Foreign Affairs magazine. Alternatively, it could be a test to see whether Syria could get away with the use of weapons of mass destruction, and whether the west would not have the stomach for a challenge. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria earlier, and until the recent red line from Obama the west did not react, other than to threaten a red line.

The weapons inspectors said that they needed another four days to finish their investigations, plus, I am sure, a short time after that for their report to be collated. Many of us believe that the regime is responsible for the attacks, and those attacks are probably authorised from a very senior level—probably Assad himself. But the inspectors need to report back to the UNSC purely and simply to establish due process—something that did not happen through the Iraq conflict and the Iraq war that followed. I was a relatively new MP, sat on the Bench just behind the Prime Minister, in 2003 when we took the decision. We thought we had good intelligence, and that intelligence was later found to be false. One of the lessons of the Iraq war is that we wait for due process to be followed through the UN before action is taken.

Obviously, the resolution tabled by the Prime Minister under chapter VII preceded the weapons inspectors’ report, so we knew full well that the Russians and Chinese would be likely to veto that resolution. Our debate today obviously takes place before the weapons inspectors have finished, because powers elsewhere have decided to go ahead before the Security Council has determined whether the evidence from the inspectors is sufficient to meet the burden of proof required. It is clear that without that Security Council resolution, any military action would, like that of a previous Labour Government, be illegal.

Mr Newmark: The hon. Gentleman is putting huge stock in the UN, but the UN will not apportion blame. The only thing that the UN is doing is validating that chemical weapons were indeed used, and we all know that.

Mark Hendrick: Yes, we do all know that, but it is a prerequisite of the due process, and the UN procedure, that that is established through the inspectors. That

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must be the basic building block on which the Security Council makes a decision. In addition to that, as the Prime Minister has said, there must be a lot of intelligence from different intelligence services around the world, and the inspectors’ report will add to that information. So that is just a basic building block; it is not a decision in itself.

Therefore, as I said, action may be illegal, despite the doctrine of responsibility to protect. Despite what the Attorney-General says, I and many others around the world are not convinced that the six criteria required by the doctrine have been met. The unintended consequences of that could be catastrophic, for the following reasons.

By using those weapons, Syria has crossed the red lines set by Obama. Iran is watching, helping to arm the regime and sending its own forces to the regime. The Russians are arming the Syrians to the hilt and wondering whether the west will act against the use of WMD. Iran knows that if Syria can get away with using WMD, its own WMD, as well as its development of nuclear weapons, could well be ignored, and Iran could go on to produce more WMD and nuclear weapons without the intervention or involvement of the west. That may provoke a response, if that were to be allowed, from the Israelis. The Israelis will be looking, at some point short of Iran’s having developed nuclear weapons, to possibly take matters into their own hands. Indeed, if the situation kicks off with the western intervention in Syria, and Iran responds, and if Syria responds with an attack on Israel, that could be the perfect excuse for the Israelis to try and deal, not only with the WMD question and Syria, but also the nuclear question and Iran. We need to take these things into consideration before we decide, as a result of any UNSC deliberations and a UNSC decision, what action we take.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has taken the right decision. Let us go the UNSC route. If Russia and China say no and veto, for political reasons rather than the reasons of the evidence that we all know about, we must make a decision. Only once we have seen the evidence from the inspectors will we be able to decide what that decision shall be.

6.27 pm

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): The House has been recalled not to sanction military strikes in Syria, but to deplore the use of chemical weapons. I think we can all agree on that. I hope we can agree, too, that there must be a second vote in this House before any direct British military response: no vote, no strike.

Certain of our traditionalists will no doubt delight in pointing out that under the rules of Crown prerogative, no Commons approval is actually technically required for a Prime Minister to take us to war, and historically they are correct, but Parliament is waking up and asserting itself. As the Prime Minister himself pointed out as Leader of the Opposition, the Crown prerogative, that constitutional quirk that has handed 10 Downing street the powers of a mediaeval monarch, needs changing. No Prime Minister should embark on a non-defensive war without the consent of this House. In recognising that, the Prime Minister has been wise, not weak.

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Having a sovereign Parliament means that sometimes, yes, a Prime Minister will be told to pause and think again. Good. Democracy works.

Not unreasonably, the Leader of the Opposition, like most on the Government side of the House, would like to see more evidence—evidence from UN inspectors— before voting on military action. If the casus belli is the use of chemical weapons, let us be certain who used them. If the UN is going to help provide us with the evidence, though, we must not make the mistake of believing that the UN can confer legitimacy on military action. Legitimacy to go to war comes not from the UN, nor from international law or international lawyers, nor even from our own National Security Council. That sort of legitimacy comes only from below, not from above. It comes from the demos and those they elect. When the time comes for that second, crunch, vote, there can be no buck-passing, no deferring to a higher authority, no delegating. It will be our responsibility alone, and all the more weighty for that. If I am certain that this House needs the final say on our policy towards Syria, I am far less certain as to what that policy should be. There are, I think, no good outcomes.

Mr Jenkin: Has my hon. Friend just demonstrated the shortcomings of this system of decision making and giving Executive decisions to a legislative body? That is contributing to the paralysis of our nation. If we do not trust our Prime Minister to take decisions of this nature, we should not have trusted him with the office of Prime Minister.

Mr Carswell: If the alternative to rushing into a conflict that may have significant implications is that we pause, I would not describe that as paralysis but as good governance. It is vital to recognise that the Executive do not control the legislature; the legislature must control the Executive. Sending our young men and women to war is a decision of massive consequence, and it is right and proper that the House should exert its authority and give legitimacy to that decision. I understand and respect the case for intervention, and I think no one in this House or anywhere else is calling for a land invasion. What is envisaged is an aerial bombardment to punish and deter those behind the chemical weapons outrage.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman says that the only thing envisaged is an aerial bombardment, but does he have any idea about the envisaged length of time of that bombardment?

Mr Carswell: That comes to my next point—no, I do not. I am deeply unconvinced about what missile strikes and bombing will achieve or how long they will need to continue, and we have yet to hear how they might achieve their objective. Neither am I clear where British military involvement might end. Since the second world war, Britain has mostly fought what might be called wars of choice, but if we initiate hostilities in the eastern Mediterranean, will what follows continue to be fought on our terms and in the way we choose? Ninety-nine years ago, almost to the day, the Austrian chiefs-of-staff launched a punitive attack on Serbia. It did not end there.

There are serious players in this fight with serious military kit lined up behind the different factions in

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Syria. Are we ready to deal with what they might do and how they might respond? I need to know before I vote for any strikes, and I think the good people of Essex would like us to know whether the Government know what they are doing before we vote to sanction such action.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have argued with great passion and determination that we in the west must take a stand for democratic values, and I agree. The Arab spring of 2011, like Europe’s spring of 1848, saw the hopes of liberals and reformists raised. However, the autocrats fought back in Egypt and Syria as they once did in Italy, Paris, Poland and Austria. As we once did in the 19th century, so we must do again in the 21st century. We must promote the liberal and reformist cause, and the constitutionalist one where possible. As in the 19th century, where possible we must avoid war with the autocrats.

Democracy and liberalism will one day seem as firmly rooted in the south and east of the Mediterranean as they do in the north, but if spreading democratic values is to be the cornerstone on which we are to build British foreign policy, let us do so consistently. We cannot act in defence of democratic values in Syria two months after we failed to speak out in defence of the democratically elected Government in Egypt. We cannot act when hundreds of civilians are murdered in Damascus, but continue to arm the Egyptian junta that slaughtered a thousand in Cairo. We cannot champion the right of self-determination in one part of the Arab world, yet ignore those who seek basic human rights in another, including the Gulf.

I am unconvinced that the Government’s intended course of action in Syria is part of a coherent strategy, and I will not support military action until I am convinced that it is part of such a strategy. I am still undecided whether we should support the motion, oppose it, or abstain. I am fearful of being seen to back military action, I am unwilling to abstain, yet I find there is little in either the Government or the Opposition motion with which I can disagree.

6.34 pm

Mr Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): A lot has been said already at this late stage but I agree with the powerful points made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who talked about the context in which individual decisions are being made. Let us be brutally honest. The Americans were not really interested in the middle east; they were going to look to the far east, and Syria was contained in a number of different ways.

We see on television one brutal reality on the ground, but there is another reality that has not come out, because we never really debated properly how we would arm the rebels. The rebels are already being armed. We know about the Saudi and Qatari money; we know about buying Croatian arms and how they pushed through Jordan. We know about a whole series of grading operations, not by official US forces—no, but there is a lot of “brigadier, retired”, “general, retired”, who are there helping to do what the Americans needed to do, which is to try and find out who could and could not be properly armed. There is a lot of mythology about where we are in terms of the reality of how the Syrian conflict has been contained.

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Let us look at what has been proposed today. What are we going to do? Apparently we are going to send in a few Tomahawk land attack missiles to give Assad a bit of a spanking because he has used chemical weapons. That is nonsense and a ridiculous proposition that will lead us to the position that a lot of people have already begun to explain. We cannot write Assad a letter and say, “By the way, the TLAM missile was only to give you a spanking over chemical weapons. It didn’t mean that we were interfering in your conflict in any way, shape or form.” Frankly, that is nonsense. We cannot compartmentalise such activities in the way suggested, and there will be an effect. What will that effect be? Well, there is lots of information about why we are trying to do this. “He has used chemical weapons.” Who has used chemical weapons? The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) dealt with that point earlier in a powerful contribution. It could have been a rogue commander. Assad is not necessarily directing. It could be that the regime’s assets are being used, but who is using them?

I remember being involved in all sorts of discussions about Iranians kidnapping British forces when we were in Iraq—hon. Members may remember that exercise. That was not sanctioned by the central regime in Iran— whatever that might look like—but it was a rogue operation by an Iranian guard commander who saw an opportunity when everybody was on holiday to nick the boat. They obviously took advantage of that as best they could—why would they not?—and we got into all sorts of mess. Do not imagine that under such circumstances, and particularly in a war situation, Assad and his people are so monolithic and well-organised that there are no differences among them. This is difficult information to try to grade out and decide who was responsible on any day for any particular activity.

Mr Arbuthnot: The hon. Gentleman is making a good point. Does he think that if a rogue commander under the Assad regime made use of chemical weapons, the fact that that regime has those detestable and illegal weapons puts responsibility for their use, if they have delegated responsibility, on the Assad regime itself?

Mr Havard: I do not disagree. Those responsible should be punished, although I am not sure that sending TLAM missiles is a punishment. People have mentioned the International Criminal Court, and I agree. These people must be held to account for their actions at some point. We do not now have an immediate almost knee-jerk reaction—it was going to be knee-jerk but it is a week late now—to the situation. The strike is apparently “targeted”, but I do not know what that means. It is targeted in the sense that we know where we will throw the missile, but it is hardly a surgical, contained or compartmentalised activity. Will we do that, or will we have a broader constituency of people who can start to prosecute the idea of bringing those people to account at some time or another?

The idea that if we do not do something now for those stated reasons we will not do anything is nonsense. There are lots of other things that can be done that we should probably have been doing for a long time and will have to do now. We must accept one thing: we will not get anywhere towards resolving the problem for the Syrian people unless and until we grapple differently

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with the question of those terribly difficult Chinese people and them nasty Russkies. We must incentivise the Russians to be involved in a process that caters for some of their needs. Libya has been mentioned several times, and it has often been said that they are smarting from what happened in Libya. Well, I do not know where we will be on Monday—according to certain reports, we might be here on Sunday—and things might have happened that are out of our control. The Americans might have done something. However, unless and until we can say to the Russians, “Okay. We understand some of your concerns,” and incentivise them to be in the plan, we will not resolve the situation. Any American activity now will not resolve the situation. Later, the UN could agree and we might have to take military action. The idea of sending half a dozen aeroplanes to Akrotiri is a good one, because if some of the whizz-bangs go bang at the weekend, we might well be dealing with a situation in the area—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order.

6.40 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I very much welcome the decision to delay the vote on whether we should take military action until the UN inspectors have had their chance to report. It makes no sense whatever for the west to make great play of getting the UN weapons inspectors in to inspect the site only to have a vote in the House without getting their report and without determining the evidence on the ground.

Perhaps the rationale for the debate has moved on. Welcome though that is, the debate gives hon. Members the opportunity to ask questions of the Government. I remain unconvinced by the arguments for military action that I have heard this evening. It is important that the House lays down markers, so that, when we have the next debate, the Government hopefully come to the House with better answers.

Let us begin with the evidence. There is no doubt that foreign policy should be based on firm evidence and grounded in legitimacy. We know there are no easy answers on Syria, but we must acknowledge that atrocities have been committed by both sides in this vicious civil war. There have been claims and counter-claims on both sides in relation to chemical weapons, and yet nothing has been verified. Even the JIC document, brief though it is, is in terms of probabilities and possibilities, but not of certainty. At the end, the JIC admits that it has no idea as to Assad’s motivation in committing to chemical weapons when he was gaining ground and winning the battle. We must therefore have careful consideration of the evidence.

Mr Jenkin: The JIC concludes that it is highly probably that the Assad regime is responsible for the attack. That is the consensus among all reputable intelligence services, including the Arab League intelligence service. I put it to my hon. Friend that the only people who contest the evidence probably do not want to believe the certainty that Assad did it. I include my hon. Friend among those

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people. He does not want us to get involved, and is therefore reluctant to believe in the certainty that Assad did it.

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend is attributing motives to me, which does not do him justice. The bottom line is that we have asked the UN inspectors to go in and inspect the site. We should at least wait and see what they say when they return—[Interruption.] If my hon. Friend wants to intervene again, he is welcome to do so. We are talking only of a couple more days before we get the report. One hundred thousand people are already dead. We need only a couple of days to ensure we have a calm assessment of the evidence. That is not asking too much, yet the motion reads that the

“House…Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria…by the Assad regime”.

That is a statement of fact, but it is not correct until we at least have the UN inspectors’ report.

Martin Horwood: I will try to save the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) from saying for a sixth time what he has said. The JIC report comes to a strong conclusion. It says not that it is bewildered, but simply that it cannot put a “precise motivation” on the attack, and concludes that there are

“no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”.

As the motion states, it is not the responsibility of the UN weapons inspectors to attribute blame.

Mr Baron: The JIC document states clearly that it cannot understand the “precise motivation”. The document is in terms of probability. I put this question to the House, and particularly to those who want to intervene militarily: what is the harm in waiting for the UN inspectors to come back and present their evidence? We should not forget that the west did its utmost to get those weapons inspectors to the site. At the very least we can wait a couple of days to see what they say after their due inspections. Otherwise, what was the logic of sending them there in the first place? Sending them there and not waiting for the report would not make sense.

The second question is of legitimacy. Is military intervention without a UN resolution legitimate?

Mr Jenkin: And legal?

Mr Baron: And legal.

Mr Jenkin: They are two different things.

Mr Baron: International law is terribly subjective—there are no hard and fast rules, but the best we have is the UN. Is such action legal? Many have suggested that we should look to the concept of the responsibility to protect, which was introduced in 2005, but that is not linked to chemical weapons. R2P could have been invoked 100,000 lives ago. Therefore, the idea that it becomes relevant because chemical weapons have been used is a non-starter.

We must also ask questions about the military objectives—there are many questions on, for example, the scope of the operation and the potential for mission creep. What happens if Assad uses chemical weapons again or if the rebels use them? There are very few answers, and we need more. The decision to commit to military intervention and potentially to commit soldiers

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to war is one of the most serious the House can make, if the not the most serious. We need to base such a decision on firm evidence and not on speculation.

Many accuse those of us who question the idea of military intervention by saying, “You believe that nothing should be done. You’re in that camp that says, ‘We should wash our hands of it and let them get on with it.’” Utter tosh! So much more could be done on the humanitarian front. The refugee camps are desperately short of basic amenities. Britain has a good record—we have done a lot of the heavy lifting—but we could do a lot more, as could the international community. Tens of thousands of women and children are living in extremely poor conditions, and yet the west is saying, “There’s very little more we can do to help the humanitarian situation,” which is utter nonsense.

The west could also do a lot more on the diplomatic front. It makes no sense whatever to exclude Iran from the forthcoming peace talks, but that is what we currently intend to do. Iran is a key regional player and a participant in this conflict. Excluding Iran from the talks is utter nonsense. We need to go that extra diplomatic mile. This is a cliché, but it is true: you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends. We need to talk to the Iranians if we hope for a diplomatic solution. A political and diplomatic solution, and not a military one, is the only long-term solution to this vicious civil war. The Syrian people have suffered enough. We must have answers to those questions.

6.48 pm

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): A few days ago, I found myself rushing to switch off the television because my five and seven-year-old boys were in front of the news when it was showing images of men, women and children who had been gassed and were lying on the floor dead—they were in front of our eyes. It is impossible to have watched events unfold in Syria in the past few years and to have thought anything other than, “If not now, when?”

It is impossible to have watched the footage in the past week and not to have felt the instincts of liberal interventionism pulsating in our consciences. That instinct tells us that we cannot be isolationist, and turn a blind eye to mass murder and wash our hands of the responsibility to act. It is impossible not to think back to the difference that British intervention made for the people of Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Libya and wonder how it can be replicated for the people of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. However, the tempering of those instincts should be a resounding message seared on the memories of many Members: liberal intervention can fail—and it can fail badly. It can fail if we have no vision of the outcome, no definition of success and no route map to the exit; it can fail if we allow our thirst for justice to trump the patience to secure the greatest possible legitimacy for our action; and it can fail if we forget that our first responsibility is not to make matters worse.

Iraq is not a reason to absolve ourselves from our responsibilities in Syria, but it is a reason to exercise caution, invoke clarity and define a conclusion. This Government seek a blank cheque to use British armed forces in Syria without convincingly and coherently answering the most crucial questions. What constitutes success for a military intervention? If a negotiated

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settlement is the goal, will military intervention make it more or less likely? Are we comfortable that our intervention is limited to punishing the use of chemical weapons, rather than explicitly to protecting the lives of the Syrian people?

Is it fair for the Prime Minister to imply, as he did today, that this is a humanitarian intervention, when his only ambition is for Britain to be the dispassionate referee of a brutal civil war? If a short and limited military intervention leads not to the cessation of the use of chemical weapons but to an escalation of hostilities or, even worse, retaliation, do we further escalate our involvement or back away entirely? If we escalate, are we comfortable with the slow creep that will place the lives of more war-wary members of our armed services at risk? We need to know the scale of our intervention, the limit of our commitment and the nature of our involvement before we can be asked to affirm it. Parliament cannot be expected to vote on pure sentiment; it needs to vote on specifics.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend, like me, is sickened by the number of times we have voted for war, sometimes to my great shame. What is the hurry? The civil war has been going on for two years. Is it not time that we got on with negotiation and diplomacy?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I know that hon. Members turn away because they think I might not stop them if their intervention is too long. I remind Members that they should address their comments through the Chair so that I can sit them down if they go on too long.

Mr Lammy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is precisely right: there is nothing in the motion that could not have been debated next week. We should be very concerned about the speed and haste that is indicated beyond this place.

We should remember that conflicts do not take place without context. This conflict will not take place without history, without suspicion of our intentions or outright hostility to our presence. Syrian Government assertions that French, British and American agents launched the chemical attacks to pave the way for intervention might attract ridicule in this Chamber, but let us not be so naive as to think that there will not be many willing subscribers to this conspiracy theory across the middle east. We must never underestimate the cynicism that surrounds our motives and those of our allies. We must never underestimate the fact that even the most humanitarian of objectives can be misconstrued as a nefarious attempt by the west to project its power. We must never underestimate the fact that we must first win the battle of perception above all else.

Any intervention needs to be demonstrably scrupulous, must involve more than just the usual suspects and must be the last resort of a process that has visibly exhausted all diplomatic means. The recent ratcheting up of rhetoric has come at the expense of reason and has eschewed responsibility. The cacophony of tough words and the insidious indication that attacks could take place as early as this weekend have not facilitated diplomacy or the forging of alliances.

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We need cooler heads rather than broader shoulders. The Government must abandon the march for “war by the weekend” and assure the House that any military intervention will be countenanced only after the weapon inspectors have been given time to investigate, free from external pressure. The process might be long and arduous but it is necessary and right.

We are holding this debate on the anniversary of the speech that Martin Luther King made, but he made another speech in 1967 against the Vietnam war. We should reread his words.

6.55 pm

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Like many Members, I have deep reservations about the actions we are contemplating. I am therefore pleased by the changes made to the Government motion, regardless of whether they were prompted by last-minute demands by Labour Members—although quite why they proposed an amendment almost the same as the revised motion is a little beyond me.

I welcome the common-sense decision to allow the weapons inspectors to report before we take the final decision to act and the UN’s work to secure consensus for action. Colleagues on both sides of the House have expressed scepticism about whether Russia will vote for it, but I urge the Government to wait until a Security Council resolution can be proposed and voted on before taking any further action.

Russia and China abstained in the vote on the no-fly zone over Libya, and there is scepticism among colleagues who believe that this will happen again, but in the face of overwhelming support among the rest of the international community Russia would be further marginalised and the legitimacy of international action, with or without a supporting UN Security Council resolution, would be increased.

Regardless of whether we agree with Russia, it is entitled to its point of view, which is that action could lead to further destabilisation in the middle east. Ironically, if we do not get the Russians to vote on a resolution we give them an opportunity to make mischief and blame western imperialism and themselves to contribute to destabilising the region.

The third change that I welcome is that a further vote must be held before any military action is agreed. Without that, I would not have been able to support the motion.

I still worry that we might be embarking on a slippery slope: that what we agree today will pave the way to further action. I worry that we are being softened up. The motion still provides that the UN must be allowed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any action taken. It states that

“every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution…before any such action is taken”.

The implication is that if we do not get the UN resolution we will take action anyway and that that will be the next step. If the UN cannot get the consensus it needs, will we not already have tacitly supported military action? It is only one small step to approve “limited” action, and once you have done that you are on the road. It is a bit like pregnancy: a woman cannot be a little bit pregnant—either she is or she is not.

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Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I appreciate the hon. Lady’s concerns, but I think she is debating something we are likely to discuss next week. Does she agree that we should not allow the conscience of Russia and China to be our conscience when we are considering potential action?

Lorely Burt: I entirely agree. I am not suggesting that we take no action; I simply think that we must have international approval before taking that step.

Having bombed supposed chemical weapons sites, what then? With all that human suffering, surely we should intervene further. As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) commented, would we really want to allow President Assad to win? Several hon. Members have expressed concern about military action and they, like me, fear mission creep. Not every member of the public has researched these issues in detail, but they have a strong feeling. Only one person in four supports military action. Members of my own party are fearful of that and have urged me to vote against. Even the chambermaid at my hotel yesterday, before I left my family holiday in Wales, said to me, “Please don’t let them vote for war.” I will not.

In summary, I do support action, as I said to the hon. Lady, but under the present circumstances, not a military solution.

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): No one wants war, but does the hon. Lady agree that there is a war, whether we want it or not, and if we choose to do nothing at all and further atrocities are committed and further chemical weapons attacks take place, what comfort will that be to any of us?

Lorely Burt: I am not suggesting that we do nothing, but in order to ensure that we act with maximum legitimacy, we must have transparent international law on our side and make sure that the actions that we take have wide international approval. If not, we run the risk of being condemned as a pariah by Russia and giving the Assad regime an excuse for more action. At present I support action, but not a military solution. I want to make it clear that unless we act with a wide international coalition within transparent internationally agreed law, I will not vote to take military action in Syria in the future.

7.1 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I remember, 10 years ago, like many Members, sitting on the Government Benches listening to the whole of the Iraq debate and agonising about how I should vote. I remember my heart telling me that I should support my leader—I particularly wanted to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my good friend—and my head telling me throughout that debate, “No, there’s something wrong here,” and I voted no. I voted no, understanding that many members of my own party in Vauxhall probably supported the war, although most did not. Many people in my constituency supported the war, although most did not. There was an even split at that time.

On this occasion, 10 years on, I am very clear and I am not agonising. I oppose military action in this case.

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Whatever the Attorney-General says and despite all the legal paraphernalia that we have been bombarded with, for the general public this is almost like agonising on the head of a pin. Legal arguments will not wash with the public or with me when it comes to what is right and what is wrong. It would be wrong and, importantly, counter-productive to take military action against Syria. I am not a pacifist. I was one of the first people, together with a number of my colleagues but long before my Front-Bench team did so, to argue strongly for intervention in Bosnia. I also supported the Falklands war, so I am not a pacifist.

The question is how bombing, no matter how strategic, how precise and how short, will make things if not better for the Syrian people, at least not worse. I believe that it will not do so and I have yet to be persuaded by anyone who has spoken in this debate that it would make things better for the Syrian people. I found the speech by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) very commanding indeed. I do not support Assad or the regime. As many Members have said, it has been an appalling regime for many years. It is worth remembering that we provided many of the regime’s arms. I wonder who provided the components that make up the chemical weapons. I would not be a bit surprised if some came from this country and other countries in the west—[Interruption]—and of course from Russia, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) says.

It has not been proven absolutely that the chemical weapons were used by Assad. It probably was Assad—

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Hoey: No.

We have had information before that poison gas had been used and Carla Del Ponte, who was the UN commissioner in Syria, pointed out that it was the rebels who had used it. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me when he winds up the debate, if, despite what everyone thinks, the weapons inspectors find that it was the rebels or some rogue general who used the chemical weapons last week, the Prime Minister will be saying the things that he did about the use of chemical weapons? The doctrine of prevention, which I had hoped—

Mr Newmark: I have huge respect for the hon. Lady. To help her in her thinking, let me point out that Damascus is defended by the president’s brother, Maher. He is responsible for the fourth division and he is ultimately responsible for the heinous chemical attack that took place. Given the industrial scale with which those chemicals hit three, four or five different areas, it would be impossible for the rebels to do it to themselves, besides the fact that it would be incredibly counter-intuitive.

Kate Hoey: I do not think that has been proved or that we have any proof that bombing will make things any better or get rid of the chemical weapons, if they are there. We need to remember that once we cross that line of military action, as other Members have said, even if it is a short strike and very few civilians are killed, which is highly unlikely, the result will be that when anyone is killed in future years in Syria, whoever has killed them or whatever the background, the west will be blamed. The United Kingdom will be blamed, as

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has happened throughout the middle east, and we will see the repercussions on our streets in the form of increased extremism.

Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned that some of her constituents in the past were for and some against, but that in this case they were almost unanimous in opposing military intervention. She may be aware that I am one of her constituents. If I came to her surgery and said, “I am disgusted and horrified by pictures of children being poisoned by chemicals and I want something done about it,” and if she says that military intervention is not the answer, what would she suggest? What is the alternative?

Kate Hoey: I have many suggestions and many Members have made suggestions. I do not think we have worked through the United Nations mechanism. It may not be a brilliant organisation and we may all have criticisms of it, but there is a lot more that could be done. We should be putting much more diplomatic pressure on Russia. We should call in the Russian ambassador and say, “We are going to expel you from this country if you do not change Russia’s attitude.” There are a number of things that we could do. Military action is the very last option. I do not believe that we should go down that line.

Any military action will, as I said, lead to a completely different attitude among many of our Muslim communities in this country. It will be the catalyst for the build-up of all sorts of extremism. I know that it is an extraordinarily difficult decision for Governments in these situations and for the Opposition, but in such cases we must always reflect on what is in our national interest. I do not believe that our national interest will be served by military intervention in Syria or that that is the way forward for this Parliament. We may return to the issue in a few days, just because America is calling the shots. What will the Prime Minister say if, over the weekend, America decides to go it alone? How much influence will we have had? It is quite wrong that we are being pushed by America. We should take our time, reflect and make it very clear that we are not going to rush into something that will ultimately not be in our national interest.

7.9 pm

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for whom I have huge respect. I want to begin by agreeing with the Foreign Secretary that this is a moment for democratic nations to live up to their values. The use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s regime is a moral outrage that cannot go unchallenged. I will therefore be supporting today’s motion.

Less than 24 hours ago, I was on the Syrian border, where I have spent the past few days meeting Syrian opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army—the FSA. The brigade commanders and fighters I met were from all backgrounds. Many were doctors, teachers, farmers and engineers; they represented a broad cross-section of Syrian society, including Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and, yes, Alawites as well. I also had the opportunity to meet General Idris, the head of the FSA, and President Jarba, the head of the Syrian Opposition Council. As colleagues will know, I also met

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President Assad several times over the five-year period between 2006 and 2011. So I come to this debate fairly well informed on Syria and its people.

The use of chemical weapons in war is particularly abhorrent, as we saw in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, and again last week when the Assad regime inflicted a chemical weapons attack on Ghutah, a suburb of Damascus. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, that attack resulted in at least 3,600 casualties. In 1925, in the aftermath of the first world war, the Geneva gas protocol was passed to ban the use of such weapons.

A year ago, a red line on the use of chemical weapons was drawn for the Assad regime, but since then, it has been testing the elasticity of that red line with the repeated small-scale use of such weapons, according to witness statements, video evidence and physiological samples that have been tested here at Porton Down as well as in the US and elsewhere. In fact, last week’s chemical weapons attack was possibly the 14th such attack by the Assad regime on its own people. It was only the fact that it was on such a large scale and took place in the capital itself that led us in the west to decide that enough was enough.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech based on his knowledge of the situation on the ground. What assessment has he made of the size of the chemical weapons arsenal, and of which country might have helped Syria to establish it in the first place?

Mr Newmark: That is a very good question, and I suspect that I know my hon. Friend’s direction of travel in asking it. There is no evidence, at least that I am aware of, that the Russians or the Iranians helped Syria to develop that arsenal, although I would not be surprised if they had done so.

Peter Hitchens wrote recently, in support of the Assad regime, that the Syrian Government were not lying and that it made “more sense” for the opposition to poison and kill more than 1,000 of their own people. If that is the case, however absurd, why, if they had nothing to hide, did the Syrian Government and their chief sponsor on the Security Council, Russia, block the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors from going to the site when they were only 15 minutes away? Instead, they continued to bombard the area and to degrade the evidence as much as possible. I find it astounding how this kind of double-think has become common currency among many of those who oppose the war. That includes some Opposition Members who have been retweeting articles along those lines from the Voice of Russia. Frankly, I would rather believe our Government and our intelligence agencies than Russia and President Assad.

That chemical weapons have been used in Syria is in no doubt. The question is whether the regime itself delivered them. My understanding is that the intelligence drawn from eye-witness statements, video footage and electronic intercepts is extremely compelling. This raises another question: do we have any confidence in our intelligence agencies at all? My answer is yes. Just because Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were economical

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with the truth about the intelligence that they used to get us into Iraq—through what has become known as the “dodgy dossier”—that should not taint our view of the current evidence that the intelligence services have been collecting on this matter. That evidence puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of Bashar al-Assad and his brother, Maher.

Bob Stewart: I was an officer trained in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, and one of the things that I learned on my course was that only a professional army could manage and use chemical weapons. There is no doubt in my mind that the rebels would not have the capacity or the ability to use such weapons. I am sure that when the report comes back from the United Nations inspectors, it will not be able to identify who threw them or used them but it will perhaps be able to say that they were used. In my mind, however, there is no doubt that only a professional army—and not the rebels—could use chemical weapons.

Mr Newmark: I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his thoughtful intervention.

Those opposing military action say that, notwithstanding the increasing evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, we should let the UN inspectors do their work first. To them I say this: of course, but we should remember that the inspectors’ remit is not to apportion blame for this atrocity; it is merely to confirm that chemical weapons were in fact used. Does any Member in the House doubt that such weapons were used? Of course not. Those opposing military action say that we need a UN resolution to back any action, but we will never get such a resolution while Russia, the Assad regime’s key supporter, remains a member of the Security Council. In fact, Russia has blocked every single move to condemn the Assad regime since this conflict began.

Dr Huppert: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Newmark: No, I am afraid I cannot.

The result is that the UN is failing to live up to its mandate to protect. We therefore need to find a coalition of the willing. Why? Because we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to go unchallenged. As President Jarba said to me earlier this week, western silence and inaction are killing his people. If we do not support today’s motion, and if we do nothing, it will give a green light to the Assad regime to go on slaughtering and gassing its people with impunity. For that reason, I support the motion.

7.16 pm

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Democratic Unionist party has never been found wanting when it has come to supporting military action on behalf of our nation when it was deemed necessary. That has happened on at least three occasions during my time in Parliament. I have to say, however, that I have not yet heard a compelling argument today to convince me that military intervention in this case is either necessary or in our national interest.