This morning I travelled back down to London as Parliament returns following the Easter recess.
We are expecting the Prime Minister to make a statement on the situation in Syria and the military action taken over the weekend.
Like many of you, I have been following the situation on the news and have not received any formal briefing from the government. Today we hope to get some answers and clarification.
What we do know is that on Saturday morning British, American and French forces conducted targeted air strikes on facilities used by the Assad regime to develop chemical weapons – weapons used against their own people. The strikes were in response to the latest chemical weapons attack on the 7th April in Douma, which killed 75 people including young children. The World Health Organisation has also confirmed that they have treated over 500 people in Douma with nerve agent poisoning symptoms.
The evidence already made public points to the use of chlorine by the Syrian Government. The regime have a history of using, against civilians, these kinds of weapons, which are banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. In 2013 he agreed to give them all up but this has evidently not happened. In October last year the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Assad guilty of the Khan Sheikhoun attack of April. The findings were conclusive. The UK did not respond following this investigation. The UN has documented 27 chemical attacks where they have evidence the Syrian government is responsible.
Horrific violations of international law like this would usually be subject to a full United Nations investigation. But this is currently impossible due to Russia, an ally of the Assad regime, vetoing any attempts by the UN Security Council to investigate and sanction. The council are currently unable to fulfil their duty to uphold human rights. This situation has led to members of the council, including Britain, to act to enforce the law on chemical weapons. This has been done with the support of international allies, including NATO and the EU.
Today we should hear the Prime Minister set out the legal, diplomatic and military reasons for UK forces forming part of the coalition with the United States and France. We also want to hear an explanation about why this decision was not brought to parliament.
On all sides of the debate about whether the UK was right to act, there are heartfelt convictions and principled arguments.
On balance, given the evidence and Russia’s block on UN action, I believe that an action of the kind we saw at the weekend is both proportionate and justified.
Dictators around the world are looking to Syria and seeing how Assad has brutally crushed opposition with barbarism. The law on chemical weapons must be upheld and there has to be consequences for those who break it.
The action was targeted strikes at military installations, designed to erode Assad’s abilities to use chemical weapons. Not regime change. Not intervening in the bloody civil war. But a limited engagement for a specific purpose.
There have also been calls for more evidence, more investigations, more discussions at the United Nations. I can understand caution, even in the eighth year of a civil war after the Syrian people rose in the Arab Spring to seek democracy, freedom and an end to corruption. But in this incidence, more delays could have meant more chemical attacks, and more bloodshed.
For one hundred years, the civilised world has agreed that chemical weapons are beyond the pale. Chlorine. Sarin. VX. These things must never see the light of day, not on the battlefield, not the streets of civilian towns. Yet Assad uses them with impunity, again and again.
There must be a new set of practices in place to use now Russia has made it clear it will veto any accountability.
All attempts at a peaceful diplomatic solution have demonstrably failed. We all want a peaceful solution, but if a dictator is deaf to our demands, then we must show strength and unity. History has shown us this, generation after generation.
No one is beating the drums for war. But you don’t get to choose the hand you are dealt or the global situation you inherit. You have to try and build a better world in the one that you have, not the one that you wish you had.
And that means you have to face up to dictators whose determination to win a civil war mean there are no depths of brutality to which they will not sink and who give no regard to international institutions, protect as they are by their sponsor nations.
I am also deeply worried about the way the government is dealing with the Syrian crisis. Ministers, particularly Boris Johnson, do not seem to have an understanding of the situation or have any clear long term strategy to protect civilians and save lives. This is something I have called for in Parliament before (Read here: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/… and here: https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/…)
We should be using our full influence, as we have done in previous crises like Kosovo, to take a lead on the world stage to protect civilians and get help to those who need it.
The war in Syria has been going on for several years now. It is hard to accurately estimate the numbers killed since 2011. It may be as high as half a million. In 2016, from an estimated pre-war population of 22 million, the United Nations (UN) has identified 13.5 million Syrians in need of our humanitarian assistance. More than 6 million are internally displaced within Syria, and around 5 million are refugees outside of Syria.
Previous action by the RAF, which I voted for in 2015, has succeeded in its aim to drive back ISIS (https://www.reuters.com/…/islamic-state-on-verge-of-defeat-…) but the civil war continues and gets ever more horrific.
This weekend’s strikes were in direct response to the use of chemical weapons, to uphold that international red line. But we must remember that more people have been killed by conventional weapons than chemicals.
In Parliament we have raised these issues time and time again, but there does not appear to have been any sense of urgency from the government. There does not appear to be a broader strategy to prioritise the Geneva peace talks, protect civilians, and get aid to those who need it. As a result, the people of Syria have and are suffering unimaginable horrors.
Perhaps if we had intervened earlier, such a human tragedy might have been prevented? Britain’s action alongside NATO in Kosovo in 1999 shows that intervention can work and prevent further deaths, especially civilian deaths from systematic so-called ethnic cleansing. But now we will never know. The only certainty is that people are suffering. And there is no end in sight.
If we were serious about saving civilian lives, we have the power to stop ALL Assad’s airstrikes by cratering runways. We should also be airdropping aid and enforcing no-bombing zones.
Today I will be making these points in the House of Commons directly to the Prime Minister and urging government to do more to help protect lives. The weekend’s action cannot be a one off response to Syria, enforcing a red line whilst allowing conventional warfare and the brutality of the Assad regime to continue.
I hope this has given you some idea of my views. Thank you to those who have been in touch with your own thoughts.