One of the things that I have learned about sectarian conflict is that perception is a very powerful thing. I have heard the Government make many nuanced explanations today about why military action would be

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appropriate, but let me tell them that those nuances would be lost on the middle east. The region is riven by conflicts between the Shi’a and Sunni factions, and any action that we take against Syria will have an impact. We can control the manner of our intervention, but we have learned from our experiences in Iraq and Libya that we cannot control the outcome of any intervention.

There are many powerful forces at work in Syria. In addition to the two sides in the civil war, there is Hezbollah, which brings Lebanon into the equation. When we bring in Lebanon, we bring in Israel, and when we bring in Israel, we bring in Iran. The situation could escalate quickly as the perception spread across the middle east that the west had intervened in a way that set one side against another.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): My right hon. Friend has set out clearly the potential impact of intervention across the region. Is he therefore surprised, as I am, to see that although the Opposition’s amendment refers to such consequences, there is no reference to them in the Government’s motion?

Mr Donaldson: Indeed; that is one of the weaknesses in the Government’s motion that is causing us concern. The Government talk about voices in the Arab world being raised in support of intervention, but that does not mean that any such intervention would not have consequences for the stability of the wider region. If we intervene, where does it begin and end? I accept what the Government say about intervention being focused on removing or diminishing the capacity to use chemical weapons. That is a noble objective, but I am concerned about the outcome of such an intervention. That is why I am not convinced that military intervention is in our national interest, never mind conducive to building stability in a troubled region.

Jim Shannon: Further to that point, does my right hon. Friend recognise the implications for the ethnic minorities in Syria, and in particular for the Christians, who have been subject to ethnic cleansing? Those Christians just want the support of the Syrian state and unity in their country, and yet they are subject to intimidation and persecution.

Mr Donaldson: Indeed. Other right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the religious minorities in Syria and the impact that the conflict is having on them. We have heard colourful and dreadful descriptions of what is happening in Syria.

If the Government choose to take military action and are able to persuade Parliament to take that path, we need to have some understanding of what diplomatic and humanitarian efforts will be made alongside it. There have been some contributions on humanitarian issues. In Iraq, we had Operation Safe Haven, which was designed to safeguard civilians. I would like to hear more from the Government about what we are doing on that front.

How are we using our powerful diplomatic influence across the region? Ambassadors such as Tom Fletcher in Beirut do an excellent job in trying to bring stability to the region. I would like to hear what our diplomatic outposts are saying to the Government about the potential impacts of military action in the region, because that

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would be important in informing this House about the global and regional consequences of what we decide to do.

My party is not the kind of party that takes the soft option on such matters. We recognise the atrocities that have been committed in Syria. It is terrible that 300 or more lives have been lost as a result of this atrocity. However, as other Members have rightly said today, almost 100,000 lives have been lost in Syria. If the Assad regime commits another atrocity with conventional weapons tomorrow, the next day or five days after military intervention, what will we say when we see the body bags and the scenes from Damascus, Aleppo or wherever it might be? What will we say about the human disaster that is taking place there? Is it only because of the use of chemical weapons that this House will decide that military intervention is necessary? What about the continuing use of conventional weapons, some of which were supplied by western states to the Assad regime? We need to give those matters careful consideration.

I also want to mention our capacity in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence. I say this as a member of the Defence Committee. We recently announced that the reserve capacity on CBRN is to be axed. We have axed the CBRN regiment in our armed forces. If chemical warfare is so important to us, why are we diminishing the capacity of the UK armed forces to deal with it? That is an issue that the Government need to address, and not just within the context of a review of the strategic defence and security review.

In conclusion, we will think long and hard before we vote for military action. To date, including in the debate in the House today, we have not heard anything that convinces us that it is the right thing to do in our national interest.

7.24 pm

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): Having listened to all the arguments today, read everything about this issue over the past couple of days and listened to our constituents, it is easy for Members to form an opinion against taking action in Syria. There are many compelling arguments for doing nothing. Military action is expensive. We have all heard the argument that we should be building hospitals, not spending money overseas. People say that it is wrong on principle for the US to interfere in foreign countries. We are unsure of the consequences of action in Syria and, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said, of how it might extend to other countries. There is no exit strategy. The history of Afghanistan and Iraq looms large in people’s minds.

Those arguments all have strong merits and are compelling. It is certainly true that the British public have little appetite for further military engagement in the middle east. Because of the merits of the above arguments, I could not stand here and argue for full-scale intervention to force regime change or to bring about a western-style democracy. My instincts are that it would be great to do those things in theory, but that we should not do them.

Like all colleagues, I have received my fair share—or possibly more than my fair share—of correspondence on this matter over recent days. It has largely been against military intervention. However, a piece of

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correspondence from one of my constituents, Ian Peck of Hempstead road in Watford, summed up the crucial question: should there be very precise, selective action to prevent the further use of chemical weapons? Like Mr Peck, I believe that there should be such action following confirmation in the weapons inspectors’ report.

We have to accept that any action that is taken may have unintended consequences. As Danny Finkelstein—soon to be Lord Finkelstein—argued in The Times yesterday, at the start of most military actions that history has shown to be the right decision, there was no guarantee of any definite result. He cites Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis and Tony Blair in Serbia. On the grand scale, we could cite Winston Churchill in 1940, when he decided to fight on against the Germans without any clear idea of what would happen. We have to accept that there will be uncertainty. More importantly, although we cannot guarantee or fully predict the outcome of any action in Syria, we can assume with greater certainty that taking no action would allow Assad to continue carrying out chemical attacks on his own people.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. Does he agree that in this case we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t? If we do nothing, we accept that the Assad regime can use chemical weapons and destroy its own people, with terrible consequences. However, if we do something, we must ensure that we do not do so much that we get into another war from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

Richard Harrington: I agree very much with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. Many decisions in politics, war, business and many other spheres of life have similar damned if you do, damned if you don’t consequences. However, decisions have to be made.

As I have said, I could not stand here and argue for full military intervention. We should do everything that we can on a humanitarian level to support the people of Syria. I am sure that we would all agree that they are the overriding concern in any decision that is made today.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. He says that he would stop short of any further intervention. However, suppose that we attack Assad and our Tomahawks take out a number of facilities and do some damage, but he says, “Okay, we will dust ourselves down and carry on using chemical weapons.” What then? At what point do we take further steps?

Richard Harrington: I remind the hon. Gentleman that when the western allies attacked Belgrade with Tomahawk missiles, it took them eight months to get President Milosevic to do what they wanted. I accept that this is not definite. I wish that there was a way of doing it in a day or two. I agree that there is uncertainty. I believe that we all have a responsibility not to blindly follow party lines, but to consider for ourselves, according to our own conscience, what is best. I hope that my constituents will agree that, whether one agrees with intervention or not, this is a grave and important matter.

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The truth in my case—this is a fundamental point—is that in my lifetime I have spoken to people who survived the holocaust in Nazi Germany as children and I have visited the sites of genocide in Rwanda, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I feel that if there is any way in which through my vote in this House today I can do anything that may—I agree that it is a case of “may”—deter a ruthless dictator from gassing innocent children, it is my duty to do it.

It would be ideal to be able to predict the consequences exactly. In fact, it would be ideal if we could prevent dictators such as Assad from appearing anywhere in the world. Whenever my political career ends—I hope it is just Opposition Members who hope that that will happen sooner rather than later—I do not want to wake up one morning and see children similar to those we have seen in Syria lying on the ground as victims of gas and chemical weapon attacks and find myself thinking that there was something I could have done, however small, to make a difference. That is why I support the motion and why I will support a motion for limited action based entirely on the hope that it will deter Assad and other dictators from carrying out chemical attacks.

7.31 pm

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), I begin by citing an e-mail I received from a constituent who was opposed to any intervention and who described himself as an ex-member of the armed services. Having listed some cogent reasons why military intervention was not in his view acceptable or sensible, he said at the end of his e-mail that, of course, we run the risk of washing our hands of the fate of the people of Syria, who are likely to be gassed in the future. He summed up neatly the dilemma we all face today. I would not use the phrase, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but there is a fine line involved in deciding between one course of action and another.

I want to address two points raised by the Prime Minister, but I will not do so in a spirit of party political contention, because I want the debate to progress in such a way that by the time we get to episode two we can all understand more fully the Government’s intentions, the action that might be taken and under what circumstances. It would be helpful if the Deputy Prime Minister could address my points later.

First, the Prime Minister made it clear that any action taken would have the primary if not sole objective of either deterring or degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability. There is a strong argument in favour of taking such action, but unfortunately, when pressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the Prime Minister was not able to give enough information—or certainly was not able to put it clearly enough—to convince me that his proposed course of action would achieve that end. That case needs to be put more clearly. A stronger narrative about how it might work would be a big help, not just to Members of this House, but to the wider public, who have serious concerns about what is being proposed.

Secondly, the Prime Minister said that, in the end, this comes down to judgment. Each of us has to form a judgment about what is the right course of action. I accept that all such difficult decisions inevitably come

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down to forming a judgment. In order to help me and others form that judgment we need to discuss two things over the next few days, and perhaps longer. First, what is the intelligence that exists: what do we know about it, what does it prove and show, and what can we be certain of? I accept that it is not always possible to share intelligence with the public or even with Members of this House. In his very good speech, the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made the point that the intelligence could at least be made available to the Intelligence and Security Committee, which I sit on, so that at least a few more people—nine of us, to be exact—would know exactly what is at stake. I do not want to over-claim anything. If the intelligence cannot be shared nationally, I am not sure that simply sharing it with the ISC would necessarily resolve that problem.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is talking about sharing information. I listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s speech, and he said that he had convincing evidence that young Muslims in Britain would not be alienated by this, and indeed that they were calling for military action to protect people in Syria. Would it not be a good thing if the whole House could see that evidence, because that is not what I am hearing from my constituents?

Mr Howarth: It would be a good thing if as much information as possible could be put before not only the House but the wider public. I have already made that point.

The second point that needs to be addressed is: where is the weight of world opinion? It seems to me that whenever there is a crisis of this kind—I have no qualms about saying this—the United Nations fails to live up to its promise. What tends to happen is that the United Nations Security Council will pass resolutions—I think it passed 14 on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction before any action was taken—but in the end, whatever the UN does, it tends to fall on the shoulders of coalitions of the willing to enforce its will. I am not condemning the United Nations—it is all we have—but we need to have a better way of doing these things in the future. We need to think very carefully as a country about where we fit into each of the coalitions, particularly the one under discussion.

Robert Flello: I am enjoying my right hon. Friend’s contribution; it is very good and sound. This is not a new issue. Why is it that we seem to have the same discussions time and again?

Mr Howarth: That is the point I am making. I do not think that the machinery of the United Nations is able to enforce decisions, and this is an obvious example. I accept that probably the overwhelming balance of evidence is that it is the regime that is carrying out these attacks, rather than the rebel forces, which probably do not have the capability. There is a further argument that a rogue commander might be carrying out these attacks without the knowledge or consent of the leadership and the President. If that is the case it is even more worrying if the regime works in such a way that random commanders can decide to do such things almost at will rather than be directed from the centre.

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So far, so good: the debate has taken us a little further, but it has not taken us all the way. I hope that over the days and weeks to come the Prime Minister can get the narrative a bit clearer, so that those of us—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order.

7.39 pm

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Before I came into the Chamber today I looked at the archway through which we walk and the broken stones that were left there when the Chamber was rebuilt to remind us that we have the power of life and death over our citizens. I think that today’s debate is a prime example of the decisions we all have to make which could result in life or death not just for our citizens, but for others. However, having listened to the debate carefully all day, I still do not feel that I have enough accurate or verifiable information to support direct UK military action in Syria. At the same time, I want to send a message that we will not stand idly by while others use chemical weapons to destroy their population.

The Prime Minister did absolutely the right thing by recalling Parliament and bringing us back here to debate the situation. I believe that he also recalled us because there was a real possibility that intervention could be almost immediate. I hope that that possibility may have diminished a little with the developments that have occurred over the past two days, and I certainly praise the Prime Minister for moving his position and meeting the concerns of many of my colleagues in the House. It is a wise Prime Minister who listens and reacts to what Members of Parliament have to say on such issues. Of course, as he acknowledged in his opening speech, many of us are reluctant about matters involving peace and war because we previously sat here and listened to a Prime Minister tell us from the Dispatch Box what I now believe to have been a fabric of lies. I cannot sit here and be duped again by any Prime Minister, whether of my party or the Labour party.

My constituents’ instinct is also against any direct UK military action. Like, I am sure, all my colleagues throughout the House, I have received not just form e-mails sent by some lobbying organisation but individually composed e-mails showing the strength of feeling and fear that lie in the British population. Having said that, and despite feeling strongly that my constituents’ instincts and my own should be followed, what I have seen on the television and experienced through reports of what has gone on in Syria has struck at the very fabric of my being. However, I am unclear about our response and our objectives. What are punitive strikes? Will they send a message to Assad to use it or lose it when it comes to chemical weapons? What will be the reactions of other countries? What are the capabilities of the people who may be deployed in support of Syria? There are still many questions that need to be answered.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most dangerous aspect is the unintended consequences that military action may bring? I fear that missile strikes may further inflame tensions in the middle east, bring conflict to the wider world and provoke more terrorist attacks on British streets or those of our territories and allies abroad. What can we do to prevent that?

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Mrs Gillan: Those fears have been reflected in many communications that have been made to my office over the past few days. We need more time to consider our response, the whole situation and the implications of intervening directly through military action.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am listening to my right hon. Friend’s logic, and I absolutely agree with it. I have been to Syria twice, and I met President Assad a few years ago. I came away not knowing who on earth ran that country and which powers were behind that dictator. Does she agree that “What next?” is the most important question about the impact that any reaction by us will have, and that it has not been properly answered?

Mrs Gillan: The situation is so complicated that I believe very few people in the House, if any, know the full state of affairs. In that case, we owe it to our constituents and our armed forces to be very cautious before we take the next step of a full UK military plan.

I have spoken to the Prime Minister because of my fears. Because I am not naturally disloyal, I want to support my Government, but I have said that at this stage, with the amount of information that has been made available to me, I cannot support direct UK military action.

To me, the way in which the motion has been drafted means that it is still ambiguous. It states that the situation may,

“if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons”.

I would need further and better particulars on that. However, I seek to rely tonight on the last line on page 4 of today’s Order Paper, which states that

“before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place”.

The Deputy Prime Minister is in his place, and I know that he will sum up this long, emotional and hard debate. I can walk through the Lobby to support the coalition Government only if he gives me a firm undertaking that the vote will not be used or interpreted as Parliament’s agreement to UK military involvement, or as cover for any UK military involvement. I need that categorical assurance about today’s motion, and further, I want to hear again from the Dispatch Box that there will be a further vote in the House before military action takes place or is contemplated. I hope for that undertaking, and if I get it I will support the Government tonight. However, I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister will understand the way I, my constituents, and, I believe, the whole country, feel about intervention in Syria at this stage.

7.46 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). She is obviously thinking hard about how to vote later, and I know that a lot of right hon. and hon. Members feel the same way.

I wish briefly to address the words of the corrected motion and the intent behind it, then I will turn to the Opposition amendment. First, however, I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign

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Secretary on effectively putting the brakes on a Government who were heading for military action this weekend. Of that I think the House can agree there is no doubt. My right hon. Friends have served the country and the Commons well through their actions, especially over the past 24 hours, and I hope that the Opposition will continue to lead in the same way and act as a restraint on the Government.

This is not the debate that the House expected to have, it is certainly not the debate that No. 10 was planning, and it is not the one that the media predicted would happen, but there have none the less been some excellent contributions. Despite the fact that there will be another debate and vote next week, this has been a useful exercise in testing the issues at stake.

I turn to the motion, which I have real problems supporting. That is not because I am a supporter of President Assad—I am not—but neither do I support the jihadist element of the Syrian Opposition that has been referred to in many contributions today. The wording of the corrected motion is important. The first and second paragraphs are straightforward in their commentary and condemnation. The third introduces the requirement of military action, and the fourth, fifth and sixth are very instructive. The fourth notes

“the failure of the United Nations”.

That is the softening-up line. The fifth notes

“that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime…and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action”.

The sixth mentions the “wide international support”, including from the Arab League, for action from the international community.

The right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said that tonight’s vote was not really important, because the important vote would be next week. I say to the Liberal Democrats in particular that if we get another debate and a vote next week, I predict that those words will come back to haunt them. The Conservatives are boxing them in by saying, “You’ve got to support military action, since the UN has failed, and we don’t need it anyway. We’ve got legitimacy, because the Attorney-General says so, and we’ve got international coalition support. It’s only the Russians and Chinese who don’t support it.”

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the general secretary of the Arab League has tonight said on CNN that it shies away from backing western intervention, and that it would intensify anti-US feeling in the region? Those of us who have been sitting here all day have had a chance to google.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that information to the House. It clearly demonstrates the fragility of the international coalition lined up behind the attempt to intervene militarily in Syria.

The Opposition amendment, it is fair to say, is at least more open and honest. However, from my reading it essentially endorses the same principle: if we address certain issues and if certain conditions are met, military action can happen. I do not believe that it should happen under any circumstances. The Opposition amendment is stronger and clearer, but whereas the

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Government motion is explicit in its direction of travel towards military action, the Opposition amendment states that we will go there if the conditions in six of the paragraphs it lays out are met. My concern is about the end game and the exit strategy. There have been many excellent contributions to the debate.

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): Paragraph (e) of the Opposition amendment refers to

“precise and achievable objectives designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria”.

What are those “precise and achievable objectives”?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have exactly the same difficulty as the hon. Gentleman—I do not know what they are either. I do not think that they are identifiable. I do not think that they are achievable. My objection, as I was saying a moment ago, is that there is not an exit strategy or an end game. There have been many contributions to the debate in which colleagues have said, “If we do this, that will happen. If we do not do that, this will happen.” Only one thing is absolutely guaranteed: nobody knows what will happen if we go down the road of military action. We have seen that too often in recent decades. The difficulty I have is the fact that we do not have an exit strategy.

In conclusion, and for the hon. Gentleman’s information, I have problems with both the Government motion and the Opposition amendment. Ultimately, I do not believe that either is able to achieve the honourable ends that both sides of the House want. I am opposed to military intervention in Syria full stop. To be honest and consistent on both questions, I will vote in the No Lobby against the Government motion and against the Opposition amendment.

7.52 pm

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I am a former human rights and criminal lawyer who has worked in this country and abroad, and I want to address the legality of the process we face today. The effectiveness of chemical weapons is beyond doubt—that is why people want to use them. Their usage is a war crime and a humanitarian catastrophe, and I agree that the perpetrator, in any circumstance, should face justice.

It is a sad fact that all of our constituents are scarred by the Iraq and Afghanistan experience, which has poisoned the well of public confidence in so many ways. The public clearly lack confidence in our attempts at foreign policy. I know that the majority of my constituents in Northumberland and the majority of those in this House of Commons do not want to get involved in a civil war in Syria. Neither do I. I am clear that I have no desire for land forces or long-term involvement in this civil war, however abhorrent both sides are. I am grateful that both the Government and the Opposition have made that point clear. The reality of the situation is that we are only discussing the limited use of potential air strikes to diminish chemical weapons capacity.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s approach in holding the debate today, the decision to hold a second debate in the future, the publication of the JIC report and the Attorney-General’s legal summary. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for the meeting yesterday. The revised motion gives a stronger and greater role to the

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United Nations. If anybody could urge the United Nations to resolve this, all of us would do so. Both the motion and the amendment seek the UN’s assistance. Whether we would be able to achieve that is a separate matter.

On usage and evidence, many have made the case that there is widespread and extensive evidence—from multiple intelligence agencies and the Arab League—of the repeated use by Assad of chemical weapons in the past couple of years, certainly in excess of a dozen times. All participants admit the usage on 21 August, when 300-plus were killed and 3,000-plus were maimed. If there is a delay, we hope that the UN can assist, but what do we do if 98% of the UN wish to pass a resolution but a country such as Russia blocks us? That has been the reality for some time and I suspect that that will be the reality in the future. One has to pose the question that if an incident like the holocaust were to happen tomorrow and one of the Security Council objected, what would the rest of the world do? We have to ask whether we are prepared to allow Russia to be the sole determinant of which part of international law is to be observed. Exact parallels can be found in the Kosovo situation in 1999, when Russia sought to prevent any NATO action.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s analysis of the UN. The General Assembly is about to meet. Does he agree that using the General Assembly as a mechanism by which we could obtain a recommendation for action in Syria would be a sensible option for us to consider before exhausting all mechanisms within the UN?

Guy Opperman: I completely endorse that. In Kosovo in 1999 there were three broadly supported UN resolutions. Although not enough to get over the UN hurdle that we seek to overcome, they did provide the assistance and support that such a course would entail. We have to address what the legal basis is for any proposed action by the British or other international troops.

Bob Stewart: I will make one point. I very carefully studied United Nations Security Council resolutions in 1992 as an authority for action. It is only the Security Council of the UN, as it is currently constituted, that will give authority for international action under article 6 or article 7.

Guy Opperman: With no disrespect to my hon. Friend—my honourable and respected military friend—I disagree. Subsequent to 1991, the responsibility to protect protocols were introduced, particularly post-1999 in Kosovo. I accept that we are not in a UN article 51 charter case. We are not acting in self-defence. We are not, as a nation, in any way threatened. However, the process of R2P does allow NATO to act when certain preconditions, as set out in the Attorney-General’s guidance, are maintained.

On this particular point, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and anyone who is concerned about this issue to go through the Attorney-General’s guidance, which has been published today. An objective has to be identified. In this case, it would be the objective of attempting to stop the specific spread and repeated use of chemical weapons. There could be little doubt that such an outrage constituted a

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humanitarian disaster, and we would need to be satisfied that every means, short of force, had been taken to resolve this specific situation in Syria. To that end, the revision of the motion and the encouragement of the UN makes specific the assistance on this particular problem that a military officer, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, would have previously had in those circumstances. We would then have to consider that the proposed action was the only means to averting further and immediate human catastrophe. As the Attorney-General made clear, the force proposed would need to be both proportionate and specifically directed to stop the possible future use of chemical weapons.

I have already mentioned the example of Kosovo in 1999, but historians and lawyers could set out similar actions. Action was taken in Liberia in 1990 and elsewhere in the past 20 years. Surely the point is this: R2P was brought in to address the question of whether, as a last resort, humanitarian intervention is authorised under international law. We are clearly not yet in that situation, but the power to act and a lawful course are clearly set out.

Today is not about military action or involvement in another country’s civil war; all agree that the issue is not about boots on the ground. It is about a war crime—the massive use of chemical weapons—and several countries in the world attempting to prevent the extended and further use of such weapons. Before any further specific action is taken, the House will have a second debate and will be provided, I hope, with an understanding of our objectives and strategy, the upsides of action or inaction, and an exit policy. I welcome and support the revised motion on those grounds.

8 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am glad to have this opportunity to take part in this important debate. It seems that tonight Parliament has stepped back from the brink of giving the Prime Minister carte blanche to involve British forces in the bombing of Syria this weekend. I believe that the British public, whatever political party they support, will be glad that we have done so. We know—the polls tell us—that the public are overwhelmingly against such a military strike. The British public do not want to be drawn into yet another war in the middle east. They have seen that movie and know how it ends.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that had I been pressed by my own party to vote on a motion that authorised the bombing of Syria, in the current state of knowledge, I was always going to vote no—whatever the pressures and consequences. It would not have been a party political gesture, which some Government Members have mentioned. I was one of the Labour MPs who voted against their own Government on Iraq. I say to Government Members who may be wondering what to do tonight that I have never had reason to regret that vote.

It seems that the Prime Minister may be coming back to the House of Commons to authorise his war, and it may be helpful for me to set out my reservations as matters stand. The first question is about the facts. Have chemical weapons been used and who has deployed them? I heard what the Prime Minister said about the

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Joint Intelligence Committee and I know the opinion of Vice-President Biden. It is clear that the balance of probability is that Assad used chemical weapons. However, whatever the Americans say and the Joint Intelligence Committee conjectures, I do not believe that it is wise entirely to rule out the possibility that the chemical weapons were wielded by Assad’s opponents.

In these circumstances, we always have to ask, “Cui bono?”—“Who benefits?” Assad’s opponents know that only chemical weapons would trigger a reluctant President Obama to authorise a military intervention. Whatever the Prime Minister says, a military strike would inevitably tilt the scales of the civil war in favour of Assad’s opponents. Earlier, we heard that the UN investigator Carla Del Ponte said in May:

“according to testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas”.

They did it in May, and they may have done it again.

My other point is about legality. I have heard a lot about Kosovo and how in some sense it sets a precedent for this Syrian war. At the time of the Kosovan war, I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We carried out a major inquiry into Kosovo, taking a great deal of evidence about its legality. We took oral evidence from Professor Christopher Greenwood QC, Mark Littman QC and Professor Vaughan Lowe, among others, and there was a whole host of written evidence from others. What the all-party Select Committee concluded was that the Kosovo operation

“was contrary to the specific terms of what might be termed the basic law of the international community”.

We went on:

“at the very least, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has a tenuous basis in current international customary law, and…this renders NATO action legally questionable.”

Those who want to rest the argument for a Syrian war on the Kosovan precedent need to read their law again.

Finally, let me say this. In the run-up to the Iraq war, Colin Powell cited the Pottery Barn rule—Pottery Barn is a string of American china shops. The rule is, “You break it? You own it.” The notion that we can make a military intervention on the narrow point of chemical weapons is disingenuous to say the least. Were we to intervene militarily in Syria, we would take ownership of the outcome of the civil war. I see no endgame, no idea of what victory would look like in those circumstances.

I am glad to be here to speak for my constituents. I will be glad to follow my leader into the Lobby tonight, but in my view we cannot support war in the House unless it has the stamp of the United Nations.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am afraid that in the past hour and a half there have been only 11 Back-Bench contributions, as everybody has taken his or her full time and interventions. The consequence is that a lot of people want to speak but there is little time for them to do so. The limit is reduced to three minutes with immediate effect.

8.5 pm

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): Bashar al-Assad is a very lucky man. Were we having this debate in 2002, following an attack on 21 August and the successful

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interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, it might have focused a little more on the maintenance of international humanitarian law. It might have focused a little more on our alarm at the use of chemical weapons next to a NATO ally and next to Israel, which we have a unique duty to protect, and it may also have focused a little more on our need to protect innocent civilians in the first use of chemical weapons on a battlefield in the 21st century—weapons not used even by Hitler in the second world war.

Assad is lucky, of course, that we are having this debate not in 2002 but in 2013. The year 2003, which so many have referred to, intervened. We must not beat around the bush—Tony Blair and his Administration were dishonest. The result has been to injure our democracy to a degree that no other single action has done, I believe, in the 85 years since women gained full voting equality. And so we are in a position now where our decision is being influenced by that failure in 2003, and we are asked to draw lessons from that.

Mr MacNeil: If the rebels were found to have used chemical weapons, would we feel it was fine for the Russians to bomb them using the same basis as that for our proposed intervention?

Ben Gummer: One of the problems of this debate is the number of counter-factuals that people have put before the House; the Prime Minister has answered a variation of the hon. Gentleman’s.

We are dealing with facts, in this instance, where most people agree that the full likelihood is that President Assad has bombed his own people. We are asked to draw lessons, in coming to a conclusion on this matter, from the experience of 2003. One of the principal lessons is that we should expect our leaders to act with transparency, conviction, consistency and principle and to accommodate colleagues who have doubts and be responsive to their concerns. I do not think that, on many of these points, President Obama, President Hollande or our own Prime Minister can be faulted.

But a lesson is not an excuse to prevaricate with questions of increasing sophistry. It is not an excuse to change one’s mind at the first whiff of political opportunity. It is not an excuse to come to the House with a view different from the one that might have been professed in private and in public some days before.

If we allow this ghost of Iraq to influence our decision in this important debate, we risk a double calamity. Because in not considering those things that we should do, we risk not intervening when we should because we intervened when we should not have. The victims in that would not just be international humanitarian law, which without force is meaningless and a dead letter. The victims would not only be the Syrian people, who will then be attacked with Assad knowing that he would get to response. The victim could also be our own Parliament, which was shown to have lacked resolve and conviction when it knows what it is right to do.

8.9 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The situation in Syria and the surrounding area is catastrophic—at least 100,000 people have been killed and 2 million have been forced to flee the country, with the refugee camp at Zaatari alone containing an estimated 130,000 people,

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half of whom are under 18. It is difficult to ensure that aid reaches those still inside Syria—in some areas, it is impossible—or even to know their situation. Over the past two years, the international community has stood on the sidelines. Some countries, including the United Kingdom, have provided funds and resources for the refugees in the surrounding countries, but the numbers leaving Syria get larger by the day, as we have seen recently with the thousands crossing into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Many countries say that the situation in Syria is difficult and that intervention from outside would make it worse, and we have heard that argument time and time again today. However, the situation has got progressively worse without intervention. Are there any signs that it will get better? It is beyond question that everyone here would prefer a negotiated diplomatic solution to the crisis, but despite the considerable efforts of many, including the Foreign Secretary, all attempts at obtaining a United Nations Security Council resolution to try to secure that have proved impossible. It is clear that any moves at the UN would be vetoed by Moscow and Beijing. Russian and Chinese support for Assad means that there is little incentive for him to make meaningful concessions or even to discuss a ceasefire. But now the use of chemical weapons has escalated the crisis. The Joint Intelligence Committee has confirmed today that the Syrian regime has used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions since 2012, and the world has done nothing. However, last week’s large attack has led to international condemnation and, I believe, a determination to do something.

Some argue that last week there was not a chemical attack and a few say that such an attack was carried out by someone other than the Assad regime, but I believe Assad to be responsible. I accept the judgment of the Joint Intelligence Committee. It has concluded that

“there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.”

We have known for years—this is by Assad’s own admission—that Syria has chemical weapons. Intelligence leads us to believe that they can be delivered on a variety of platforms. To those who are not persuaded by the need to relieve the humanitarian crisis and who say, “Intervention has nothing to do with us; it will play into the hands of al-Qaeda”, I say that the reverse is true. We can and must intervene.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a powerful point eloquently. Does she agree that although we have heard a lot this evening and earlier today about the risks of taking action, there are also risks in not taking action?

Meg Munn: There are clearly risks in not taking action; for more than two years we have not taken action. We should have been having this debate two years ago. We should have been doing something two years ago. Our delay has led to there being no good options. We have heard time and again today about why we should not do something, but I say that we have a responsibility here. The UN’s doctrine of a responsibility to protect, which was born out of those humanitarian disasters of the 1990s, is widely accepted and must be invoked. If a diplomatic initiative at this stage could succeed, we would, of course, all prefer it to military action, but at the moment it seems to me that diplomatic and peace efforts have completely failed.

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My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition stated that the amendment will enable action to be taken even without a Security Council resolution and, on that basis, I will support it. Kofi Annan said when he resigned last year that

“as an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the security council or the international community”.

The Assad regime, bolstered with units of the Iranian republican guard and Hezbollah, wants to win, whatever it takes in lives and misery. Are we really going to continue to sit on the sidelines wringing our hands?

8.13 pm

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I know that the Prime Minister would have preferred us to be debating a motion that provided the necessary sanction for military intervention in Syria, and many have welcomed the Government’s altered position and motion, with some congratulating them on it. Perhaps that has arisen as a result of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The motion is certainly different from the one they intended to bring forward when they were seeking to recall Parliament two days ago. Although today’s motion waters things down, rows back or back-pedals to a certain extent, it still softens up Parliament, crosses a threshold and puts a firm foot on the slippery slope towards military intervention in Syria by creating a climate and the mood music which makes it easier for such action to be taken in future.

The motion may be a tactical decision—perhaps an artifice—taken to paper over cracks in what is, without question, a difficult situation, given the range of views within the Government, but we are now on that slippery slope. I will leave aside what I may think about the appalling Assad regime. I accept that, on the balance of probability, there is little plausible explanation for the chemical attack other than that it was carried out either by a rogue commander or under the instruction of the Assad regime—that is almost certain. However, I still do not believe that that justifies military attacks or that it would be wise for it to result in them.

There has been a lot of speculation about the consequences of taking such action. If we say that Assad has behaved irrationally in using chemical weapons in the first place, the risk is that the proposed military intervention will mean he is likely to become even more irrational. The situation may escalate into war and may involve other countries stepping in. We do not know which direction this is going. No one has persuaded me this afternoon either that such action will quell the situation or that it will not make it worse. We also need to consider the risk of mission creep. We may be saying that a war crime has been committed, but war crimes have been going on in Syria and in other civil wars in the past 10 years over which the international community has failed to take any action. In Syria alone, innocent children and non-combatants have been killed. What is the difference between killing a child with a conventional weapon—

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): So many speakers seem to have offered the choice between military action or doing nothing, but I do not think that anybody is suggesting that we should do nothing. If there is a

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war crime, there is a war criminal. We are talking about an international crime, the action that should be taken is against the war criminal responsible and that does not necessarily mean military action.

Andrew George: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. I say that instead of bombing them with bombs, let us bomb them with diplomacy, humanitarian aid, shelter, support, humanitarian corridors, and international negotiations with Iran and other neighbouring countries in order to address this issue. We should do that instead of carrying out the kind of surgical strikes proposed here today.

I return to what I was saying a moment ago. What is the difference between an innocent child—a non-combatant—being killed by a conventional weapon and that child being killed with a chemical weapon? It does not much matter to them or their family, because it is still a horrendous death of an innocent. We therefore need to ask whether we are being consistent in saying that this is the red line and it is appropriate for us to take this action. The key point, and the reason I am saying it is not just about the words on the page but what is between the lines, the context and having had Parliament recalled for this debate, is that it sends out a message to others that we are already on this slippery slope—the context is already there. What happens if in the next few days the intelligence suggests that the chemical weapons are being moved around the country? This Parliament cannot be called back, but other nations, such as the US and France, may see this debate and the vote we have this evening as sufficient sanction—perhaps an amber light or even a green one—to their taking military action in Syria.

8.18 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): When the Prime Minister performed his U-turn yesterday on taking action this weekend, I wondered what we would be debating today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary on forcing the Prime Minister to do a handbrake turn over the action we were clearly called back to vote on today. The Prime Minister may have changed the text of the motion, but he certainly made the same hawkish speech today. I do not accept that wanting to exhaust all the avenues with the United Nations is somehow an argument for doing nothing.

I heard the Deputy Prime Minister being interviewed this morning on the “Today” programme, and it was not his finest hour. He said that this was an atrocity that could not be ignored, which I accept, and that he did not want ours to be remembered as the generation that sat idly by, but our motion does not suggest doing that. He then said that the Government were seeking a mandate for a limited response. There we have it. That is why we are here today; the Government are seeking a mandate for a limited response, which is why our amendment is necessary and needs to be supported. Their intention was not to wait for the UN process to be exhausted, but to take precipitate action.

What is a limited response? We have no mandate to punish—that is not our role—so what is the objective? Who or what is the target? It has been suggested that we aim to “deter” and “degrade” chemical weapons. These are technical terms quite often used to make it easier for

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us to vote in favour of military action. We have also heard about “precision strikes”, “selective strikes”, “technical strikes” and the intention to “degrade”. We even have civilian deaths described as “collateral damage”. These are all terms used to convince us that we should vote in favour of a strike, but how do we contain a missile attack on a chemical weapons dump or manufacturing centre? How do we ensure that no civilians die? Would those deaths be acceptable? Would they somehow be laudable for having been created by us, rather than by chemical weapons?

We do not have an end plan, a strategy for what we want to achieve with an incisive strike or an exit strategy. We have been here before. I voted against a similar motion when my Government attempted this in 2003, and exactly the same things are being said today.

8.21 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): This has been a great two days for Parliament; I think we have won. This time yesterday morning, the motion would have been used to justify war, perhaps this very weekend. War is not going to happen. The Prime Minister has listened to his Back Benchers. We made it perfectly clear to our Whips yesterday afternoon that we were not prepared to vote for any motion that justified war, and so the Prime Minister has offered us another motion. This is not a motion for war. I will not vote for war. I would never vote for war against Syria. If there is a second vote, I will definitely vote against, but I do not believe there ever will be a second vote, because I do not believe that the parliamentary arithmetic stacks up. It does not stack up because MPs are doing their job and listening to what the public want, and the voice of the public is completely clear: they do not want war. They are scarred by what went on in Iraq. We were lied to in Parliament and we are not going to go down that route again. I voted against the Iraq war and I will vote against this one.

What would it achieve? That is what we must ask ourselves. Why is it any of our business? Has Syria ever been a colony? Has it ever been in our sphere of interest? Has it ever posed the remotest threat to the British people? Our job in Parliament is to look after our own people. Our economy is not in very good shape. Neither are our social services, schools or hospitals. It is our job to think about problems here. If I am told that we are burying our heads in the sand, I would ask: are there anguished debates in other Parliaments all over Europe about whether to bomb Syria? No, they are getting on with running their own countries, and so should we.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): If we were to punish—that is the word that springs to mind—every appalling regime by dropping missiles on it, would missiles not be criss-crossing the skies on a daily basis?

Sir Edward Leigh: Absolutely. Although we have spoken with great moral certitude in this debate, the fact is that our contribution to an attack on Syria would be infinitesimal. Have we not degraded our own armed forces in the past three years, contrary to repeated warnings from myself and others? Do we have an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean? In reality, we would simply be hanging on to the coat tails of President Obama. He was foolish enough to issue a red line. His

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credibility is on the line, not the credibility of the British people or ourselves. We do not have to follow him in this foolish gesture.

We know that we cannot destroy the chemical stocks of President Assad. We know that we can only degrade them. We know that no significant group in Syria would praise us, apart from these famous rebels, whom we have been supporting over the past two years. Who are these rebels? Does the west seriously want Assad to lose power? Do we want him replaced by a regime that includes Sunni jihadists? That is why we have over the years been buttressing what has been a stable regime. It is simply not in our national interest to bomb Syria. It would not degrade his chemical stocks and it might result in more pressure being placed on minorities in Syria.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying and he is making some very powerful points. Is he aware of comments from Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migration Watch and formerly a respected ambassador to Damascus, who has said in the last couple of days that if the regime was to fall, chaos would follow, because the kind of jihadists to whom my hon. Friend has referred would take control, which would be hugely against the interests of the UK?

Sir Edward Leigh: Absolutely. We have heard very little about what is happening on the ground in Syria. How many of those who have spoken with such moral certainty have actually visited Syria? I must confess I have only been there once, but as far as I could see, the minorities were protected. The 2 million Christians are protected by Assad. What will be their fate when Assad falls? What will be the fate of the 2 million Alawites? What will be the fate of the 22 other minorities? How much does the House know about what is actually happening in Syria? Yet we believe that we, who know so little about the complexities of the situation, have the moral right to commit execution on people. That is what we are talking about. We cannot send cruise missiles into a country without killing people. That is what we would be doing. What right has the House to say with any certainty that we know what went on that day? What right have we to say that we can sort out the situation? No, there is a better way—the way of peace and diplomacy, not of war. I cannot, therefore, support the motion tonight. I give some credit to the Prime Minister, but I will not vote for the motion.

8.27 pm

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): This debate inevitably takes place in the shadow of the decision taken in the House a decade ago to go to war with Iraq, and it is absolutely right that we learn from that experience, but the past should inform us rather than imprison us. After the experience of the 20th century, chemical weapons are rightly regarded with unique horror by the world.

It is completely understandable, in the light of the decision taken by this House a decade ago, that people want to know more about the facts of the use of chemical weapons this time. That is why it is right that we should look closely at the facts and at the reports, and analyse them very carefully. The bar to action is

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necessarily higher now because of the experience of the past decade. But in asking questions and calling for evidence, it is important that this is done as a means of taking a decision rather than a means of avoiding a decision. Let us see the evidence and the reports, but let us not escape the fact that we will still have a responsibility to decide; if not tonight, then very soon.

If the lesson that we drew from Iraq was that we must never again intervene, that military action could never again take place where repression was taking place and that it is impossible to act no matter how brutal a dictator is being to his own people, and if our policy was governed by a world-weary resignation that these issues are difficult and complex and therefore there is little that we can do, then I say that would be a dismal conclusion for victims of repression around the world. It would also be an open recognition of the diminished stance and capability of the international community, and it would beg the question as to what international law banning chemical weapons would mean if it could not be enforced.

Robert Flello: For many in this Chamber such as me, it is not about not taking action; it is about what that action is and what it is seeking to achieve. Action that is taken that makes things worse creates a worse situation.

Mr McFadden: I understand the fears expressed by my hon. Friend, but for the reasons I have set out, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was right in his speech and in the amendment not to rule out military action. People say that it is difficult and complex, and of course it is. We cannot predict with certainty the consequences of action. But difficulty and complexity cannot be reasons to give dictators the right to do as they wish to their own people. Difficulty and complexity cannot be justifications for abandoning people to their fate, including death through the use of chemical weapons. In terms of consistency, the fact that we cannot do everything and that we do not act in every circumstance is not a reason never to act, whatever the circumstances.

Naomi Long: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last statement, but the issue of consistency is important. The question in the minds of the public, and many of us in the House tonight, is, “Why in some cases and not in others?” Surely in order to reassure the public, we need to have a clear framework as to how these decisions are taken.

Mr McFadden: The use of the fact that we have not acted in the past where perhaps we should have done as an argument against action in every circumstance is, in the end, a counsel of despair and an abdication of our responsibilities.

I do not believe that tonight’s votes are the key because I do not think that this is the debate or the motion that the Government intended. But that decision and that key debate is coming. We will soon be faced with the decision and the responsibility as to what we, as permanent members of the UN Security Council and as people who have stood up against repression in the

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past, will do in the face of chemical weapons being used against innocent civilians. That decision is coming soon and we will have to take it.

8.32 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I have listened carefully to the debate all afternoon, and for me there are two occasions where military action can be justified. The first is where British interests are imminently threatened, and clearly that is not the case in this particular debate. The other is as part of a UN-sponsored humanitarian mission to prevent dictators from causing damage to their own people. I am not convinced that the Government have made that case this evening. The reality is this; there is an evil dictator, but the opposition to that evil dictator is even worse. These are people who will oppose the west at all costs and will cause damage to their own people. They are barbaric and inhuman and we should not support them in any shape or form. I would not support any regime change, or attempted regime change.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister and the Government have moved substantially over the past few days on the motion and on the rhetoric behind it. I will make clear my personal position: I will not support any military intervention at all. Should there be a second vote in this Chamber, I will oppose military intervention, because I think that it is wrong in principle. I say that for several reasons.

First, we are talking about a country involved in a civil war at the moment, and we intervene at our cost. Also, Syria is adjacent to Lebanon and Israel. The border between Syria and Israel has been peaceful for about 40 years. If we escalate the violence, do we not think that the Syrians and the Russians will react? We then escalate the problem of the middle east conflict. At the moment, this House has endorsed the principle of direct peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government. What do we think the reaction would be if we acted against Syria and then Syria reacted against Britain and potentially other countries in the region? That would destabilise those talks and probably end the chances of peace in the middle east for ever. That is the key issue.

The other thing that we must consider is that Syria is a satellite state of Russia. Do we think that the Russian Government will sit idly by and allow the US and Britain to bomb one of their satellite states? They will react in some way, shape or form. So we should be clear that, if we embark on military action, there will be direct military consequences for the whole region and for this country. We should send a message to President Assad, if we are convinced that he and his regime are responsible for the chemical attacks, to say, “Identify those who are responsible. Make them come before the criminal courts,” so that they can be punished in the best way possible, through due process of law.

8.35 pm

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): We are asked by the Government tonight to approve a so-called strong humanitarian response, with the implication of using force in principle and a second vote after the UN inspectors have reported, but there is no case in international law for this military attack—neither with a UN Security Council resolution authorising it,

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nor under article 51 of the UN charter, which permits a right of self-defence, but that clearly does not apply to a chemical gas attack in eastern Damascus, as that is obviously not an attack on another state. That is why the Prime Minister switched today to quoting long-standing international conventions that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. However, nothing in those conventions inherently allows other nations to take military action against such a state just because it has used chemical weapons—certainly not without wider international sanctions.

There is a second argument: what exactly—I have listened all day—is the aim of the military strike? Will it realistically succeed in achieving those goals? The stated aim is to hit Assad’s military targets, but not the chemical weapons, obviously, for fear of releasing poison gas into the atmosphere. Whatever else, this will certainly not be a short, surgical strike. I remind the House that it took 78 days of continuous bombing of Serbia before the Milosevic regime could be shifted from Kosovo, and only then when the US and UK threatened a land invasion. Even leaving that aside, no one has answered the question what will happen if the attack is made and Assad retaliates by using chemical weapon attacks on perhaps a greater scale, as his sites are all over Syria.

Let us not forget that Syria is no Libya. It is far stronger than Libya, with far more disciplined and larger armed forces, and it is still powerfully backed and reinforced by Russia. At worst, there is a very real danger of the west being sucked into a long-term war that it cannot win and that will only expose its impotence, as has happened already in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of that is to say that we should do nothing. We should press to have Assad arraigned before the International Criminal Court. We should freeze Syrian assets throughout the west. We should impose travel bans on all members of the Syrian leadership deemed responsible for the atrocities. Above all, we should press much harder for a regional peace conference, to achieve a settlement involving all the relevant parties, including the Russians. That is the only way to settle this conflict.

8.38 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher). He made a powerful point, to which I want to return a little later.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Prime Minister for recalling Parliament? Today’s debate was absolutely necessary. It has been a very good debate. Party politics have not been involved. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued different points of view. That is what is good about today.

I have been under no pressure from my Whip to vote one way or the other. That is a really good sign. Hon. Members are wrestling today with a very difficult issue. I find these occasions, when we have to decide what is morally right and whether or not we will kill people and whether, by killing them, we save other people in the long run, immensely difficult. I have made it clear to the Prime Minister that I have not made up my mind tonight, and that my decision will rely entirely on the summing up by the Deputy Prime Minister—[Interruption.] I would like to thank the Deputy Prime Minister for spending much of the afternoon listening to the debate.

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Thank goodness we have a British parliamentary democracy. We MPs can come here and influence the decision of the Executive. Everybody knows that MPs from both sides of the House have influenced the Prime Minister to change the position of the Executive. In the States, there are 100 Congressmen begging the President to let them debate the issue. We are so much better off in this House.

In response to what the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said, the question is indeed what we should do to solve this exceptionally difficult problem, because just bombing will not solve it. There needs to be a disproportionate response. What I think President Obama has done is to have got out “The West Wing” series and looked at what President Bartlet would have done under the circumstances. There is exactly that episode: “If we bomb Damascus airport, we are going to kill thousands of people, but they will never do it again.” Of course, the expert then says, “If you do that, the whole world will be against you.” The President asks “Well, what do we do?” and the reply is, “You just bomb a few buildings, which have been emptied because everybody knows which buildings are going to be bombed.” The President says, “That will have no effect,” but the experts say, “Yes, but that is actually what you have to do. You have to have a response.” That may be how it works in America, but it does not work like that here.

I am very interested in one point that I hope the Deputy Prime Minister will help us with tonight. If we vote against the motion and both motions happen to be lost, does it mean that there is no guarantee that there will be a second vote in this House?

8.41 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I shall be brief. My principal question to pose to the Treasury Bench is, what happens next if Assad does not stop his outrages? My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) posed that question to the Prime Minister and got no satisfactory answer, so let me pose it to the Deputy Prime Minister.

I refer tangentially to the sensible comments of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who I see in his place. I also think it important for the Security and Intelligence Committee or an appropriate group of parliamentary colleagues to be apprised of some of the intelligence information. It is hugely important that we understand where the weapons are, whether they are mobile and what volumes we are talking about. We appreciate that a lot of people are working on that.

When we hear the advice coming from such an august body of colleagues, I believe that we will conclude that the guidance in the Attorney-General’s report is almost unachievable; indeed, it will be unachievable. The problem we must face—the House must be mature about it—is that if we are to achieve either the goals set out in the Government’s motion or the programme of events set out in the Opposition amendment, that will almost inevitably mean putting boots on the ground. Now everyone is saying that we are not in favour of that, and I am certain that that is the view across the country. Before we get to a debate next week, it is hugely important that the analysis is done and that the House is apprised of it in a mature way, recognising the need for security considerations.

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Mr Jim Cunningham: I am sure my hon. Friend has noticed in this debate that no thought has been given by the Prime Minister—or, for that matter, the Deputy Prime Minister, who will be winding up—about the consequences for the aftermath. Are we going to be in another situation like Iraq, for example, where no thought was given to the aftermath?

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend is quite right. I am sure that those discussions are happening in private, but the Attorney-General’s briefing, a welcome document, refers entirely to the humanitarian issues. Let me repeat the sentence I cited earlier:

“Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose”.

The motion, the amendments and the advice before us tonight are about that point, and that point alone. But can we achieve that goal by means of a clinical operation? It is my assertion that that is not possible.

Before we have a further debate, therefore, that analysis needs to take place. Members need to be properly briefed, recognising the sensitivities of some of those briefing issues, so that we can make a decision fully informed of all the facts, because these are hugely important issues. I do not believe for a moment that it is possible to take out the chemical weapons capacity remotely. Does that mean it is special forces on the ground—ours or other people’s? We need to understand such issues fully before we take the decision next week. I hope that Members on the Treasury Bench take those points seriously.

8.45 pm

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Our long debate today has served two valuable purposes. First, it has served to underline the huge complexity of the issues before the House and the country. As one who came to the debate as a sceptic about military intervention, I have found it extremely useful and I hope that the country and the newspapers will have observed that Parliament is taking this issue very seriously.

Secondly, the debate has served a valuable purpose in enabling the Prime Minister and the Government to set out their precise position. In that respect, the categoric statement by the Prime Minister that it is not the Government’s intention to get involved in the wider Syrian civil war is hugely welcome. As many hon. Members have said, the message that we are getting from our constituents throughout the country is that there is no appetite for further military intervention by this country when no British national interest can be identified. I personally indorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the nature of the opposition in Syria, many of whom, I think, are absolutely disgusting. I cannot see, personally, that there is much likelihood of a better flavour of regime than the present one; my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) made that point too.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is talking about a specific, narrowly focused response to the use of chemical weapons. That is the sole objective. My colleague the former Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), said that doing nothing was equal to appeasement,

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and that the two issues could be kept completely separate. I am not sure that is possible, but just simply focusing—

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Can the right hon. Gentleman reconcile the two statements—that one can be involved in military action and somehow keep out of the civil war in Syria? Surely that action involves us, necessarily, in that civil war.

Sir Gerald Howarth: The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely valid point. That is a question that, as parliamentarians, we are entitled to ask: to what extent would the nature of the operation that the Government are proposing constitute taking sides? Hon. Members have made that point already, but let me address my concerns about the clinical strike.

I fully understand the argument that doing nothing would send a green light, that there would be further atrocities by Assad or others, and that it would send a message to others in possession of chemical weapons that they could get away, with impunity, with using those revolting weapons. There are extremely difficult issues here. However, we need to ask ourselves some questions. If it is the Government’s position that there is a narrowly defined objective, which is to send the message, “This is unacceptable. We do not wish to get involved in the wider civil war, but we wish to send you a message, ‘Do this again to your people and you will be zapped,’” I believe that we have the military means to deliver a precision strike. However, I think we need to ask ourselves, “What would the consequences be?” The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) asked the question: “What if this does not work and Assad continues? What then do we do?” What is the response of Russia likely to be? As parliamentarians, it is entirely right and proper that we ask such questions on behalf of ourselves and our constituents. That is what the country expects and I hope the Government will provide some answers to those points. If this does not work, what happens then? Will we get our hand in the mangle and be drawn into further military operations beyond clinical strikes? I expect to support the Government tonight because I think the Opposition have been playing politics with this issue.

8.49 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The options in Syria have never been easy or risk free, and today all options are bad ones. The reality is that in the past two and a half years, the international community has betrayed those secular, enthusiastic people who tried to get democratic change in their country. Because of our hang-ups about our past, because President Obama was not interested, and because of Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council, we have not given support, and that has led to the brutality, radicalisation and extremism that we confront today.

This debate has not made me proud. I am sad and I believe it tells me something about our country today when I hear people saying, “It’s none of our business” and “We shouldn’t get involved” when 100,000 people are dead and 4 million displaced from their homes. Today, increasing numbers of Kurds are fleeing Syria to go to the Kurdish region of Iraq where Saddam Hussein

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used chemical weapons to kill the Kurds in the Anfal campaign in 1988, yet nobody seems to realise the significance of that.

I have reservations about both the Government motion and the Opposition amendment because I believe they are inadequate. They both talk about deterring the future use of chemical weapons, but I do not think one can deter the use of chemical weapons simply by firing missiles symbolically—a “shot across the bow”, or whatever phrase President Obama used. I think the strategy the United States is about to launch is doomed to fail in its objectives.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): The hon. Gentleman is extremely knowledgeable about Syria and I am extremely concerned about the implications for the wider region if we launch military action—heaven forbid that we agree to do so. Will he outline to the House his assessment of the implications of military action for the wider region?

Mike Gapes: If military action is simply based on the kind of inadequate gesture politics that we seem to have coming from across the Atlantic, it will be a disaster and will inflame the people in the region. I believe, however, that non-involvement and non-intervention also has consequences, the most serious of which is that simply saying we will deter the future use of chemical weapons assumes that only the Assad regime will possess such weapons. What happens when areas of the country where chemical weapons are stored are overrun by elements of the jihadist-linked opposition who get them and pass them to al-Qaeda? What happens when, to try to secure some of those weapons and not let them get into the hands of the opposition, Assad gives them to his ally, Hezbollah, which tries to take them for potential use against Israel or elsewhere?

We must talk not only about deterrence but about the removal and ultimately the destruction of those chemical weapon stockpiles that date back to when the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia provided them to Assad’s father and his regime. I believe that these issues will be with us, however we vote today, next week and next year. In three or four years’ time we will still be confronting the issue of chemical weapons and we must get real about that. I will be supporting the Opposition amendment today, but I think we must go further.

8.54 pm

Sir Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I want to explain why I cannot support the motion. The House is predicated on procedure and rules—we seek fairness in things—but the very first sentence of the motion states that the House:

“Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians”.

We have gone from an assumption to a declaration that we know that Assad did that. I could not support that under any circumstances, because I believe in some form of due process that identifies the perpetrator. We have the opportunity to do so. The Labour party amendment would take out the possibility of doing the thing that most offends most other people around the world—power determining the outcome irrespective of the facts.

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I am also a victim—if I can put it that way—of past judgments, dossiers and information. In the Prime Minister’s speech, he used only the words “highly likely”—taken from the JIC’s observations. I can see no other reason, but we normally seek to ask, “Cui bono?” No one has given a plausible explanation of why, with UN investigators in Damascus, the Assad regime would want to let off these weapons there and then. I cannot give an explanation for the actions of the most odious and horrible regime. Two generations of Assad have been prepared to slaughter. We are now faced with an empty land of hope, to which we contribute little if anything, because of our lack of knowledge of lands beyond our understanding. It was a French colony; we are British.

We ought to reject the concept that we have already tried the regime and therefore should push to war. I want my constituents to know why I cannot support a motion predicated on such a thought.

8.56 pm

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): The fundamental judgment that we all must make this evening and over the next week or two, as individuals and as a House, is whether military intervention in Syria by foreign countries, including our own, is more likely to end the civil war or to add fuel to the fire, perhaps in the ways my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) has suggested. I do not believe the Prime Minister made the case today that intervention will do more good than harm.

The Prime Minister argues in his motion that

“a strong humanitarian response is required”

and I agree with that. A humanitarian response is needed to protect civilians, but how can it be a humanitarian response to propose to use UK military might to protect Syrian civilians from one class of weapons—chemical weapons—but not to use it to protect civilians from conventional weapons, which have of course killed far more of the 100,000 dead so far in this civil war? In effect, such a proposal gives the Assad regime impunity to continue to use guns, bombs and missiles as long as they are conventionally armed and not armed with chemical weapons.

Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He was absolutely wrong, because war is qualitatively different from diplomatic action, from humanitarian relief, and from the kind of action we have taken hitherto on the crisis in Syria. It is qualitatively different because, by taking military action, we become involved in the conflict morally and in international law, and because we require young British servicemen and women to fight and risk their lives. I do not believe that we should shoulder the first burden, and nor should we ask our military personnel to shoulder the second one—to risk their lives—without having a credible plan to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. The Prime Minister did not set out such a plan today.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Would it not have been so much better if the frenetic activity of the past few days to try to build international support for military action had been devoted to trying to build international support for a peace conference?

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Hugh Bayley: Yes. I do not rule out the possibility that in the future circumstances might be such that I support military action, but an overwhelming, international shared objective would have to be built around a military plan that appeared credible as a way of ending this conflict.

We know that it is much easier to start military action than it is to bring it successfully to a conclusion. After the first Gulf war the decision was taken not to topple Saddam but to impose a no-fly zone to prevent him from using his weapons of mass destruction. We and the Americans alone, under a UN mandate, operated that no-fly zone at a cost of millions of pounds for more than a decade, but it failed to bring Saddam to heel and eventually it escalated into the second, controversial Iraq war. Once a small military step is taken, conflicts are likely to escalate because of the uncertainty involved in military action. If the Government want the support of the House and of our people, they need to provide a clear strategy for managing a military campaign.

9.1 pm

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): In 1990, the brutal regime of President Assad senior ruled three quarters of Lebanon. I was on a visit to east Beirut, part of the free enclave, when the Syrian army broke through and captured the rest of the city. A few weeks after the fighting, they butchered, in cold blood, a friend of mine, and when they found his five-year-old son hiding under the bed they killed him too. I have never since had any illusions about how evil this man is, but I have healthy respect for how rational and clever he and his horrible allies, Hezbollah, are.

I and my friends who live in Lebanon are convinced that when Hezbollah’s star began to fade under the emerging Lebanese democracy—the Cedar revolution—Hezbollah manufactured a border incident with Israel to bring on a bombardment that hugely strengthened Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon.

I firmly believe that President Assad was responsible for this atrocity, and although I do not know why he did it I would not rule out the possibility, which bears a little thinking about, that the election of President Rouhani in Iran was a disaster for Assad and Hezbollah. One of the best ways of undermining the tentative moves President Rouhani might make to build links with the opposition and a more peaceful attitude to the west would be western bombing.

I support two things that the Prime Minister brought out very strongly, the first of which is that we will go through the UN process and take it as far as we can. I agree that we cannot make the UN process, successfully overcoming the veto in every case, an absolute requirement. There might, for example, be an occasion when a vital British interest is threatened but we cannot get UN support, as well as the humanitarian examples that my right hon. Friend gave.

In saying that I shall support the Government tonight I would like to make three brief points. First, we must listen and not simply talk to countries in the neighbouring area. Secondly, we must continue to build on the excellent work we are doing in neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan, because that is what is preventing a national horror from turning into a regional catastrophe. Thirdly, we must remember that if we take military

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action, and if it is to have any effect at all, we must do so with the full intention of being willing to turn up the wick if the other side responds in the wrong way, which is a sobering thought.

9.4 pm

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): “Full stop, end of story.” Those five glib words were the best assurance that the Prime Minister was able to offer the House today against all the concerns being expressed about the risks of wider consequences of rash military intervention. It might be okay for the Prime Minister to negotiate the sophistry of the different sensitivities and anxieties in this House about whether or not there is a precise legal justification for military intervention in the current situation, but it certainly will not answer the exigencies of the situation that will open up once the machinations of intervention commence and once the exigencies of conflict are engaged, not just within Syria but potentially in the wider middle east.

Nor will that answer the serious issues that will arise—the Prime Minister seemed to comfort himself with that—potentially radicalising a whole new generation of Muslims, not just here but in other parts of the world, as they see again a western-driven intervention in this situation, but the west failing to act on continuing excesses and violations against the Palestinians, including the use of chemical weapons, which everybody knows were used. The opposition then came in the form of US vetoes, which many people in this House seemed complicit and comfortable with. Today we are hearing the rightful indignant condemnation of Russian and Chinese vetoes that have already been exercised in relation to Syria and more of which we are expecting soon.

The Prime Minister told us that he and the National Security Council are assured that research shows that the Muslim population here will not be antagonised, because they will understand the precise legal justification—that intervention was purely a response to this use of chemical weapons and nothing else. Even if people believe that that is the mood of many people now, will it remain the mood once the wider difficulties are created, and once the military intervention finds itself embedded in an ever more difficult and ever-changing situation?

It is all very well for the Prime Minister to say that the intervention is purely on the basis of the use of chemical weapons, not to impact upon the wider civil war in Syria and not to get involved in any other complications in the wider middle east. The fact is that our rightful outrage which might motivate military intervention does not excuse us from having moral responsibility for any outcomes that might flow from that intervention.

Naomi Long: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that the legal justification is the humanitarian crisis? Even without chemical weapons, there is still a humanitarian crisis. How would we justify stopping action?

Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. colleague for that point. Those of us who have concerns about the Government’s position are not saying that there should be no action. Clearly, action is needed on a humanitarian basis, but the idea that that can best be expressed in military intervention in support of the headlong rush

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that is coming from the States in the name of retribution, and the idea that retribution should become the going rate for military action in the middle east in circumstances where we are usually trying to counsel the various players and interests in the middle east against their natural impulses for retribution, seems to me to be a very rash proposition.

We have to ask ourselves the questions that the Prime Minister failed to answer today: what then and what when? If we are to see the limited intervention that the Prime Minister seems to expect, will it be some keyhole surgery-type strike which will have no wider implications and leave no wider scars or difficulties? If it does not work, what then? If there is reaction by Assad or by others in the area and there are wider difficulties, what will happen? Does the Prime Minister’s limited intervention—“No, I’m smoking, not inhaling. Our interventions are one thing and we are not involved in anything else”—stand? It will not be able to stand.

9.8 pm

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): The choice between head in the sand and boots on the ground has always, to my mind, been a false one. In recent days we have heard much about the limits to our influence on events in Syria, but we must not allow ourselves to believe that we can do nothing for the Syrian people. I recently visited a refugee camp near the Syrian border in the Kurdish region of Iraq. It was a harrowing reminder of the brutality of this war and its complexity.

In demographic terms Syria is like a photographic negative of Iraq. Both have large minority populations of Christians and Kurds, but in Syria it is the Sunnis who form the historically oppressed majority. In Iraq, we have seen what happens when a ruling minority is violently deposed. Today, large swathes of Sunni Iraq have all the characteristics of a failed state. My fear is that the envisioned post-Assad Syria would be equally unsustainable. A Sunni-dominated Syria would show no mercy to the defeated Alawites, and would therefore be completely unacceptable to the minorities, whether Alawite, Christian or Kurd, who would undoubtedly rebel with the support of regional powers.

The ever-shifting maze of internal politics and external agendas, and the sheer complexity of the situation, demand that we should be modest about what we hope to achieve. My constituents are deeply concerned about the prospect of another open-ended war in the middle east, and I will not vote for any action that would entangle us in regime change. There can be no more nation-building. We simply do not have the capability to do that; indeed, the most powerful country in the world does not have that capability.

Bob Stewart: Whatever we do, we must be quite precise about it. People talk about an exit strategy, but I have never seen an exit strategy in any other military conflict. I went into Bosnia with no mission whatever, but with just one idea: to save people’s lives. That is what we should be doing: saving the lives of people in Syria if we can.

Nadhim Zahawi: That is right. Any intervention by Britain must have a clear objective and defined limits, and our objective must be to protect civilians, as my hon. Friend has just said.

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Michael Ellis: Is my hon. Friend also concerned about those who focus on the United Nations Security Council having absolutely the final say on interventions in humanitarian crises? If a country such as Russia were to oppose intervention in some new holocaust or similar disaster because it was taking place in a satellite country in which it had an interest, would we not be hamstrung and unable to take action?

Nadhim Zahawi: That is right; my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has also made that point very powerfully.

Our objective is to protect civilians and to preserve the international taboo on the use of terror weapons. In the age of total war, there are virtually no moral limits on what a state might do in pursuit of its military objectives. Where such limits do exist, they must be upheld by responsible members of the international community. The Kurds of Iraq know that only too well. When Saddam bombed Halabja with mustard gas in 1988, the world looked on in horror but did nothing. Our inertia did not prevent further conflict; it made it more likely. With Saddam emboldened, the gassing of Halabja was followed by the invasion of Kuwait. From Munich to Srebrenica, the lesson of history is that one violation of international law leads to another.

On the question of limits, our model for intervention should be not Iraq in 2003 but the no-fly zone established over northern Iraq by the Major Government after the first Gulf war. In 1991, our objective was clear. It was to prevent Saddam’s final attempt to massacre the Kurds and the Shi’a. Crucially, however, the terms of the mission strictly limited our involvement. We were not trying to fix Iraq’s fractured politics; nor did we manage to do so. Let us remember that, with Saddam at bay, the Kurdish factions turned on each other and fought a bloody civil war. The Syrian people have to find their own vision of self-government, as the Kurds eventually did in Iraq.

Political consensus on this vital issue is incredibly important. It will serve only to weaken the United Kingdom if we are divided on foreign policy, which is why I am so disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition has flip-flopped on this issue. We might not be able to stop the killing in Syria, but we might be able to render the situation a little less terrible. If we want to live in a civilised world, some things must be beyond the pale. I will be supporting the motion tonight.

9.13 pm

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I have spent a lot of time this summer working with a veterans group in Tyneside called Forward Assist, which works with people who have left the forces and fallen through the cracks in society. Talking to those men and women made me realise what we ask them to do. We do not just ask them to go around the world and to be prepared to die for us; we also ask them to be prepared to kill for us. We ask them to do abnormal things. Most people would run away when someone was firing at them, but we ask those people to run into the gunfire. Those people are our constituents and the husbands, wives, sons and daughters of our constituents. They say to us clearly that if we are going to commit them to such action

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again, we must do it on the very best evidence. We have heard today that we do not have that evidence or the certainty that we need.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with the many Members who have expressed concerns about the apparent timetable for action before the recall of the House? Does he agree that being seen to act through cruise missiles or airstrikes should not be confused with taking more cautious but effective action against the regime?

Mr Anderson: It is clear that we are being driven by a timetable that has no basis in anything other than appeasing America, which says that the red line that it drew last year has been crossed. We saw the same thing 10 years ago when we were driven by the deadline of an American President—the deadline for him to get re-elected in 2004. We were wrong to follow America then and we would be wrong to follow it now.

The Labour amendment helps to bring clarity, but I make it clear to my Front Benchers that if the amendment is passed, it will be no more than a checklist. It will be a job sheet for the Government and the Opposition to work through so that they can say to the people of this country that they have the support of the United Nations and that there is more clarity and better evidence before they bring us back here to vote again. I want to make it very clear to my Front Benchers and to Government Front Benchers that even if the motion goes through amended, it will not be an automatic green light for anybody in this House to say that we are supporting military action. It will be a statement that we will come back in a given period with good information and good evidence, that we will have another debate and that we will then decide whether to support military action.

The ghost of Tony Blair haunts this debate, but the ghost of Hans Blix haunts it even more. We should have listened to him in 2003. We should have given him time and waited. We ignored the one independent voice in the arena. We should not do that again. We should be very clear about what we are doing tonight. We are giving the Government nothing more than the remit to improve what is happening. We are not giving the green light for any military action whatsoever.

9.17 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Parliament has done its job today: it has applied the brakes to a headlong rush into unilateral western military action.

The problem with the motion, which is undeniably full of a series of truths, is that it draws one into agreement. However, there is a sting in the tail, which is that it asks us to agree that unilateral western military action is legally justified. I do not agree with that statement. For that reason, I am sorry that I will not support the Government motion tonight.

The country is almost unanimously opposed to unilateral western military intervention. That is not because we are a nation of appeasers and apologists; it is because the nation rightly has weighed up the risks of such action exploding into a wider military conflict with hundreds of thousands more deaths.

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Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why many of our constituents are so opposed to this debate taking place is that they believe we are about to vote on military action? Of course, that is not the case, as the Prime Minister made clear today.

Dr Wollaston: The point is that agreeing to the legality of military action inevitably sucks us closer to the cliff’s edge. That is why I will oppose the motion.

Mr Bacon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Wollaston: I will not at this stage.

The Arab League has supported the principle of UN-backed intervention, but it has stated today that it does not back unilateral western military intervention. That is right. It undermines the Arab League when the west constantly steps in and makes decisions instead of allowing it to develop a regional solution that could lead to lasting peace.

We cannot destroy Assad’s arsenal of weapons. That has been made clear. The best that we can do is to deliver a warning. Are we seriously suggesting that no nation in the Arab League is capable of delivering that warning? Is Saudi Arabia not capable of that? If not, what on earth are we doing arming all these nations to the teeth? It is time for the Arab League to step up to the plate and for western countries to recognise that we cannot continue to impose solutions, because those solutions fuel resentment and harden attitudes; they raise the question about the double standards of the west across the middle east.

Where was the world’s policeman in 1985 when Iran was under sustained attack from chemical weapons? It suited the west to support Iraq in that situation. Why did we allow the world’s policeman to weaponise white phosphorus? When white phosphorus contacts the skin and burns as it oxidises, it burns right down to the bone. If that is not a chemical weapon, what is? Why is the world’s policeman allowing the USA to sell cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia? The point about cluster bombs is that they continue to kill and maim children long after the combatants have left the field. We need to be very clear. Why is the world’s policeman not calling a coup a coup in Egypt? These are the kinds of issues that cause burning resentment across the middle east, with good reason. It is time that we let the Arab League come to a regional solution, if we are going to achieve lasting peace.

To be wary of war is not to stand idly by, but a realistic appraisal of the risks and learning from past experience. The British people are not standing idly by; they are delivering humanitarian aid, but they do not feel that humanitarian aid from the west is best delivered in the form of a cruise missile.

9.21 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): These debates are carried on in a spirit that is not real. What we should be asking ourselves is not why now, but why us? This is not about weapons of mass destruction or chemical weapons. During my time in the House we have witnessed terrible atrocities involving chemical weapons, from Saddam

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Hussein internally in his war with Iran to the Israeli use of phosphorus bombs. We stood by then—we did not do anything.

We know why we are here tonight: it is due to the fact that the President of the United States made a foolish threat that there was a red line that should not be crossed. He now finds that it has been crossed and if he does not do something it will be an act of humiliation.

Why us? The same question was not answered during the Iraq war. We debated then the feeling that, if we did not go to Iraq, Saddam Hussein would continue to rule. Our contribution to Iraq was great in terms of the heroism, professionalism and sacrifice of our soldiers—there were 179 victims—but Tony Blair was told by Bush that he was not needed. Tony Blair was invited to pull out. When we get the long-awaited report of the Chilcot inquiry we will know that it was as a result of Tony Blair’s refusal to pull us out of that war and to stop deceiving the House that 179 British lives were lost. That is a terrible price to pay for the vanity of one man. He has appeared again in this controversy and I think it would be very helpful for him and the nation if he had a prolonged period of invisibility and silence.

We are not involved in this, but we are here tonight. We are the fourth highest spenders in the world on weapons and on defence. Why should we be there? We are a small, northern European nation. Yes, we should do the things we are very good at, which are human rights and peacekeeping. We did a splendid job in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, but the investment we made in blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq was dreadful. We went into Helmand with the hope that not a single bullet would be fired and that we would be there for three years and then leave having solved the drug problem. Two British soldiers had died up to that point; now, 444 have lost their lives.

9.24 pm

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I begin by commenting on the analysis of my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) and for Reigate (Mr Blunt)? Their remarks were well worth rereading, but I differ from them on the conclusion that they drew tonight. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan)—although I, like she, will vote with the Government tonight, they cannot expect that it is a blank cheque. I, too, want the Deputy Prime Minister to accede to the request that she made.

We have seen this evening the report of the Joint Intelligence Committee stating that it is reasonably sure that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical warfare strike on 21 August. That is likely to be true on the balance of probabilities. I do not think it is fair to say that we could prove it beyond all reasonable doubt, but for tonight’s purposes, bearing in mind the last two paragraphs of the Government’s motion, I believe it is the best we can do.

I also accept that an attack upon the Assad regime’s chemical weapons factories and stockpiles, even if it caused the loss of human life beyond the Syrian military, could be lawful irrespective of whether we, the United States and France had prior United Nations Security Council approval. However, what concerns me is that we find ourselves here today in something of a short-term

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hurry, albeit that we have taken some time to get here. It is difficult for a Back Bencher to reach any firm conclusion about what our strategy is and how, tactically, we are to achieve the end goal of that strategy.

It is, of course, entirely proper for the Prime Minister to concentrate on the chemical warfare aspect of the crisis, but much as he wants to do that, many inside and outside the House cannot see 21 August and our response to it in isolation from the context of the Syrian civil war and how we went into Iraq.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): My hon. and learned Friend says that we are in a hurry, but we have taken more than two and a half years to come to this position and are where we are only because there has been an escalation through the use of chemical weapons.

Sir Edward Garnier: I said that we were in a short-term hurry, albeit that it has taken us a long time to get here.

Some 100,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million displaced because of the other terrible actions by the Syrian regime and opposition forces, and 350 were killed by the chemical attacks and many more injured. Whatever the method of earlier killings, it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that military action to deal with chemical weapons could well lead to action to consolidate that military gain and then escalate to other action. In the light of the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, the public suspect mission creep, to use that hideous expression. It is only because of the final words of the Government’s motion—

“before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place”—

that I am prepared to vote with the Government this evening.

However, I am concerned that much of the anodyne and uncontroversial nature of the motion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, is an attempt to suck us into a particular position irrespective of the merits of it and the evidence on the ground. I am also concerned that there is a distinction between the third paragraph of the motion, which requires

“military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons”,

and the 10th, which refers simply to “deterring” it. I urge the Government to listen hard to what has been said tonight, and not to—

Mr Speaker: Order.

9.28 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): There are 196 recognised world nations, 165 of which have formally signed the convention on the use of chemical weapons. Two have failed to ratify it fully—Israel and Myanmar. Five have not signed it, including North Korea, South Sudan and Angola. Egypt has also not signed. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said earlier that no other country in the middle east had failed to sign, but Egypt has. I do not know the level of its chemical weapons, but it has certainly failed to sign the convention. Earlier today, the Prime Minister said that Syria had signed. Syria has not signed the convention on chemical weapons.

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We must be careful that it is not just up to the US, the UK and France to decide when conventions are broken. There are 165 nations in the UN who have signed. We have said that there must be a UN vote. We have not said that it must be won. Those 165 nations must have the opportunity to add their voices and to make it clear that they too are appalled and horrified, and opposed to the use of chemical weapons. Russia is a signatory and must clearly bear responsibility for supporting Syria. Syria must be Russia’s responsibility if it refuses to sign up to the UN Security Council’s opposition to the use of chemical weapons.

We must be fearful, and careful that we do not create a further rejection of western Governments within the middle east. We do not want to appear to take sides in what is increasingly becoming a Sunni-Shi’a conflict. In refugee camps, we are already seeing greater radicalisation and groups dividing on religious grounds.

Any action we take must clearly be in the national interest of the UK, accord with a viable plan and produce a workable strategy that will not increase problems for the UK and the wider middle east region.

9.31 pm

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. The speeches have genuinely been a testament both to the wealth of experience and the expertise contained within this House, and to the concerns, questions and fears of many of its Members. In particular, all Members will have been grateful for the speeches given by former Foreign and Defence Secretaries on both sides of the House. Given the time available, and the number of Members who have spoken, I cannot hope to acknowledge all the contributions, but I wish to place on record both my respect and my gratitude for the tone of the debate, the nature of the interventions and the sincerity of the speakers.

Let me start on the common ground. This House stands united in its revulsion at the reports of the use of chemical weapons being deployed against innocent men, women and children in Syria. The use of chemical weapons is not just deplorable; it is both immoral and illegal. Since the Geneva protocol of 1925, the use of such weapons has been prohibited. Hon. Members are therefore right to be horrified and revulsed by reports of their use, and to be deeply concerned as to how to protect the international prohibition of their use that has been in place for decades.

There is also common ground across the House in recognising the suffering and the scale of the slaughter in Syria. In the past two years, more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Already 2 million refugees have fled Syria, 1 million of whom are children. All of us should be proud of the humanitarian aid that the British Government and British non-governmental organisations have provided to help alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria and the wider region. Now, however, as the crisis deepens and the pressures on Syria’s neighbours grow, the international community is right to intensify the diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to help relieve the suffering and prevent further bloodshed.

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Ultimately, a way will have to be found back to talks. We all recognise that, and that the process to get to talks will need to involve not just the Russians but discussions with neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon and, yes, Iran, as well as those within Syria.

In the light of these recent attacks and the wider circumstances, we all recognise that on Syria the House faces the prospect of grave and difficult choices. All of them involve real risks and challenges. There are no good choices available, and that includes the choice not to act. Every judgment will have consequences, and all the consequences of any judgment cannot be known at the time when that judgment is exercised.

As the Opposition, we believe that our national interests are best protected not by rushed action, which would seek to bypass vital steps that the Security Council could and should take, but by multilateral efforts and a world order governed by rules. There have been reports in the media that we are seeking a UN moment in Syria, but as the Leader of the Opposition told the House earlier, these are not our words. The right response from the British Government is not to engineer a UN moment, but to adhere to UN processes and international law.

I freely acknowledge the limitations and past failures of the United Nations, but it remains the indispensable institution of international law and that is why my party continues to believe that it should be the focus of both diplomacy and action.

Let me turn to the substance of the amendment for which we will be voting this evening. We believe that the House deserves and the country expects more clarity than is set out in the wording of the Government motion. Specifically, our amendment sets out a road map for decision, with clear steps that would need to be taken and conditions that would need to be met before the use of force could be authorised.

Let me address directly a point made by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), a man for whom I have great respect. I want to talk about the differences between the Opposition amendment and the Government motion, and why they matter. The test set by our amendment for the Syrian regime’s responsibility for the use of chemical weapons is “compelling evidence”. That test is absent from the wording of the Government motion. I do not believe, not least because of past mistakes, that satisfying ourselves that evidence of Assad’s responsibility is compelling is too high a hurdle to expect—indeed, I suggest that the public would expect nothing less ahead of any UK military action in Syria. That threshold should be explicitly stated in the motion.

Secondly, our amendment explicitly states that the United Nations Security Council would need to have considered and voted on the evidence presented by the UN weapons inspectors. No such commitment to a Security Council vote is contained in the Government’s motion. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s remarks earlier today did not once make explicit a reference to a vote of the UN Security Council on a resolution in relation to Syria. That matters because surely to exhaust, and be seen to exhaust, the processes of the United Nations would be crucial to seeking the broadest possible support for any subsequent military action on an alternative

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legal base. Such a vote—and, let us freely acknowledge, quite probably a veto—in the Security Council of the United Nations would also make it clear where each member of the Security Council stood.

Thirdly, our amendment states that in making a decision to commit force, regard must be had to the potential consequences in the region. The region is experiencing unprecedented turmoil. Syria as a nation state is dissolving before us. That disintegration has already exacerbated sectarian tensions across the region, destabilised neighbours and caused horrific refugee and humanitarian crises. It is surely reasonable for the impact of any military action to be explicitly considered in that context, and that consideration should appear on the face of the motion.

Fourthly, our amendment specifies that any decision to authorise force would be time limited. Given the deep anxiety in the House and across the nation about the risk of deepening and ever longer engagement in Syria, that would mean that the House would not give the Government authority for an open-ended military commitment. These are material issues. I urge Members on both sides of the House to reflect on those differences and support our amendment.

Surely Members can also understand that the need for such a clear and considered road map to decision is made all the more crucial given that in recent days there have been real and growing concerns in the country that we are being pushed too quickly towards military action on a timetable set elsewhere, without due process being followed and the necessary steps being taken. Indeed, the case for action is not helped by the suggestion from some of our allies that the objective has more to do with punishment than with protection. Let me be very clear with this House: punitive action—action motivated by a desire to punish—would have no basis in international law. To be legal, the objective of any such mission would need to be to protect the people of Syria, not to punish the rulers of Syria.

Guy Opperman: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Alexander: I am keen to make a little progress.

Let us be candid as to why we are gathered here this evening—[Interruption.] I will take interventions, but let me develop the point. Once the Government accepted our case, late yesterday, that there needed to be a further vote of the House of Commons when the evidence is available to us, today’s debate truly became a parliamentary recall in search of a public rationale. This morning, it was then reported on the BBC that the House was being asked by the Government motion to agree tonight to the principle of British military action in Syria, without a vote having taken place at the UN Security Council or that body, or indeed this House, having yet had sight of the UN weapons inspectors’ report. Although it would be wrong to rule out the use of force before the evidence is before us, it would also be wrong to rule force in before the evidence is before us. That is why Labour has tabled an amendment, why we will be voting for our amendment, and why we will be urging Members from all parts of this House to support it.

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9.41 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): What we have seen today is this House at its very best. I have sat here throughout almost all the speeches and interventions, all of which, without exception, have been sincere, thoughtful and sombre. They have reflected the sombre and anxious mood in the country. I congratulate all Members on the tone in which very respectful differences have been expressed on a very difficult decision and dilemma we are grappling with today. I also wish to thank the Leader of the Opposition, and I actually agree with the vast bulk of what he says. Yes, there are differences between the motion and the amendment—I still think that the Government’s motion is more exacting in some important respects than the Opposition’s amendment—but we all agree on the fundamental issue, which is that something very grave happened last Wednesday, and that it was an affront to humanitarian law and to our values. We must take it seriously, and we must consider and weigh very carefully the responses necessary to try to inhibit those kinds of abuses of human rights and of the values we all share in the future.

Many questions have been raised in the debate and many comments were made, and I cannot possibly cover them all in the time available to me. However, I would like to group my comments to address three issues. The first is the various doubts that have been expressed, entirely understandably, about the risks of escalation. The second is the evidence necessary in order for individual Members in this House to take a view on this issue. The final one is the legality and legitimacy of the decisions we face.

Comments about escalation came from different directions. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who said that much as one can legitimately worry about escalation of any action being taken, one should equally, if not more so, worry about escalation flowing from inaction. Inaction is not a choice without consequences; it is a conscious choice that says to those who wish to deploy chemical weapons against their own people that they are more likely, and will operate in a more permissive environment, to do so on a larger scale in future. Others—

Mr MacNeil rose

The Deputy Prime Minister: Let me just make some progress. Others, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), worried about escalation if action was taken. Let me be clear: our motion is very tightly defined. The sole aim—the sole aim—is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons—nothing more, nothing less. It is not about invasion, regime change, entering into the Syrian conflict, arming the rebels or boots on the ground.

Several hon. Members rose

The Deputy Prime Minister: If I may, I will make a little progress.

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President Obama’s intentions are highly limited and so are ours.

The second area about which a lot of concern was expressed—very reasonably and understandably—was the evidence necessary to take a view about exactly what happened and who was responsible. It is right that there should be scepticism, particularly after 2003 and the events surrounding Iraq, and there is widespread scepticism in the country, but let us not let scepticism topple into outright suspicion of what are key persuasive facts. It is not for nothing that the Joint Intelligence Committee concluded

“that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”

and that it was

“not possible for the opposition to have carried out a chemical weapons attack on this scale”.

There are eye-witness accounts, videos and social media.

We know that the regime has used chemical weapons on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions prior to what happened last Wednesday, and there is no evidence that the opposition has these chemical weapons or controls stocks of chemical weapons. Neither does it have the artillery or air power to deliver them. That might not be sufficient for everybody, but I would simply suggest that legitimate scepticism should not sweep those very compelling facts under the carpet.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is being reported that No. 10 Downing street is briefing the media that the position of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is giving succour to the Assad regime. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to distance himself from and condemn that briefing?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I wholeheartedly agree with—I know the Prime Minister does, too, as we all do—recognise, understand and in many ways share people’s anxieties in wrestling with this terrifically difficult dilemma. That is the spirit in which this debate has been conducted for close to eight hours and that is the spirit in which I believe we should treat the matter.

Another cluster of questions concerned the legality and legitimacy of any measures that might be taken. The hon. Members for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and many others spoke on this issue. The Attorney-General has confirmed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity. The Government’s legal position, there for everyone to see, is also clear that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for the deployment of UK forces and military assets in an operation to deter and disrupt the use of chemical weapons, if the House, in a separate vote and a separate debate, were ever to decide to deploy. Let me be very clear on that point, because many right hon. and hon. Members expressed some anxiety about it: the motion in no way sends out an amber light message or is permissive of military action. Military action would only ever be undertaken by our country or be permitted or mandated by the House on the back of a separate

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debate and separate vote. In other words, right hon. and hon. Members can support the motion today and be entirely free to refuse or withhold their consent to military action, if that was put to the House.

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): I seek clarification regarding the reference in the penultimate paragraph of the motion to “direct British involvement”. Will the Deputy Prime Minister describe what that means? If the Americans chose to attack this weekend and used, say, Akrotiri, the base in Cyprus, would that be an indirect involvement by this country? I ask because, if the Syrians then targeted it with a Scud missile in the proceeding days, we might be drawn into the conflict.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Direct action would mean the UK taking part in any strikes designed in an American-led military operation. I cannot be clear enough on this point; that would only ever take place if there were a separate debate and vote in this House.

Mrs Gillan: The Deputy Prime Minister knows of the concerns that there is an incongruity in the way in which the motion has been drafted. Will he once again repeat for the sake of the House and for Members who would like to support the Government tonight that the vote will not be used as a fig leaf to cover any sort of UK military intervention? We need that assurance—that there will be another vote—and we need it from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in order to support the Government tonight.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can be unequivocal and unambiguous; yes. The motion is very clear on this point. There will be no decision taken on any military participation on the part of the UK without a separate debate and a separate vote. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. There is a rather disorderly atmosphere now in the House. I want to hear the Deputy Prime Minister and I feel reasonably confident that he wants to hear himself.

The Deputy Prime Minister: On the issue of legitimacy, as the motion stipulates, we are of course committed to a proper UN process in which we hear at the earliest possible opportunity from the weapons inspectors and, of course, where the matter is brought to the Security Council.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that any indirect action will not be undertaken by the Government also unless there is a further mandate from this House?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The only decision that we envisage needing to be taken is about direct military action in an American-led operation. [Interruption.] Let me be clear. In other words, there is no scenario in which we envisage indirect action. That is something we will consider and we will always listen to the House.