Lots of constituents have contacted me about Syria over the last 48 hours, the vast majority of them urging me to vote against the UK getting involved in any military action.
It turns out that tonight’s vote isn’t going to be the decisive one - the Government has worded its motion to try to address public concern and it now reads:
That this 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;
- recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;
- agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this 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;
- notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
- notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
- notes the wide international support for such a response, including the statement from the Arab League on 27 August, which calls on the international community represented in the United Nations Security Council to “overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible”;
- believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action;
- therefore welcomes the work of the United Nations investigating team currently in Damascus and, whilst noting that the team’s mandate is to confirm whether chemical weapons were used and not to apportion blame, agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission;
- believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place; and
- notes that this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.
The key section is in the second to last paragraph – there will be a further vote in the House of Commons once the UN Security Council has had the chance to consider the findings of the UN investigators and before any “direct British involvement” in military action. Given this, I am happy to vote for tonight’s motion.
On the substantive issue, I find myself conflicted.
Like most of the constituents who have contacted me, I don’t want to see the UK involved in another war in the Middle East.
On the other hand, if the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its own citizens and it is allowed to get away with that, it sends a terrible message both to that regime and to other authoritarian regimes around the world. History teaches us the danger of democracies not taking a stand against aggression and clear breaches of international law.
I think there are six key questions we need to answer.
First, how sure are we that the Assad regime was responsible for what happened?
The Prime Minister today published a letter sent to him by the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). A full copy is at the end of this post but the key quote is:
“We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions from 2012. This judgement was made with the highest possible level of certainty...We think that there have been other attacks although we do not have the same degree of confidence in the evidence...Unlike previous attacks, the degree of open source reporting of chemical weapons use on 21 August has been considerable. As a result, there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass fatalities on a larger scale than hitherto...took place...There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the...possession of chemical weapons by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternatives to regime responsibility”.
That’s pretty strong stuff. It is right, however, to await the findings of the UN investigators before taking any decision (though they will only tell us whether chemical weapons were used, not who was responsible).
Second, is there broad international support for action?
In the case of Iraq, the democracies and the Arab world were divided. There is a much greater consensus that something must be done about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
Some constituents have said they would only support action if it has been authorised by the UN. I agree that we should seek such authorisation, but if Russia exercises its veto that wouldn’t, in my view, invalidate any intervention. Broad support among democratic nations and in the Arab world is very important; the views of countries that don’t share our belief in democracy and human rights are much less important.
Third, is there a legal basis for intervention?
The Prime Minister also published the Government’s view of the legal position today. Again, a full copy is at the end of this post but the key quote is:
“The UK is seeking a resolution of the UN Security Council...If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons...Such a legal basis is available...provided three conditions are met:
1. There is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief.
2. It must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved.
3. The proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (ie the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
All three conditions would clearly be met in this case”.
Fourth, are we clear about what we are trying to achieve?
I would not support military intervention designed to take sides in Syria’s civil war and/or achieve regime change (some of the people fighting against the regime are just as bad as Assad himself). Subject to the answers to the other questions, I may be prepared to support intervention to deter the further use of chemical weapons.
Fifth, can we be sure that we will not get dragged in to a long-standing conflict?
What kind of military action are we proposing? Cruise missile strikes? Air strikes? Troops on the ground? Have we thought through how the Assad regime will respond to what we do? What are the dangers of the conflict escalating?
And finally, if we do take action, can we be sure that it will make things better not worse?
This is undoubtedly the hardest question to answer. Nevertheless, if we don’t do something, we can be confident that the regime will continue – and probably escalate – its use of chemical weapons.
You can rest assured that between now and the crucial vote I will continue to wrestle with these difficult questions.
Letter from the Chairman of the JIC
Following the widespread open source reports of chemical weapons (CW) use in the suburbs of Damascus in the early hours of 21 August 2013, the JIC met on 25 August to agree an assessment. At a subsequent meeting on 27 August we met again to review our level of confidence in the assessment relating to the regime’s responsibility for the attack. The JIC’s conclusions were agreed by all Committee members. The final paper informed the National Security Council meeting on 28 August, at which I provided further background and a summary of the most recent reporting, analysis and challenge. The paper’s key judgements, based on the information and intelligence available to us as of 25 August, are attached.
It is important to put these JIC judgements in context. We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012. This judgement was made with the highest possible level of certainty following an exhaustive review by the Joint Intelligence Organisation of intelligence reports plus diplomatic and open sources. We think that there have been other attacks although we do not have the same degree of confidence in the evidence. A clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established.
Unlike previous attacks, the degree of open source reporting of CW use on 21 August has been considerable. As a result, there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto (including, we judge, at least 350 fatalities) took place.
It is being claimed, including by the regime, that the attacks were either faked or undertaken by the Syrian Armed Opposition. We have tested this assertion using a wide range of intelligence and open sources, and invited HMG and outside experts to help us establish whether such a thing is possible. There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.
We also have a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the Opposition from strategic parts of Damascus. Some of this intelligence is highly sensitive but you have had access to it all.
Against that background, the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August. The JIC had high confidence in all of its assessments except in relation to the regime’s precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time – though intelligence may increase our confidence in the future.
There has been the closest possible cooperation with the Agencies in producing the JIC’s assessment. We have also worked in concert with the US intelligence community and agree with the conclusions they have reached.
JIC assessment of 27 August on Reported Chemical Weapons use in Damascus
A chemical attack occurred in Damascus on the morning of 21 August, resulting in at least 350 fatalities. It is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale. The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.
Extensive video footage attributed to the attack in eastern Damascus (which we assess would be very difficult to falsify) is consistent with the use of a nerve agent, such as sarin, and is not consistent with the use of blister or riot control agents.
There is no obvious political or military trigger for regime use of CW on an apparently larger scale now, particularly given the current presence in Syria of the UN investigation team. Permission to authorise CW has probably been delegated by President Asad to senior regime commanders, such as [*], but any deliberate change in the scale and nature of use would require his authorisation.
There is no credible evidence that any opposition group has used CW. A number continue to seek a CW capability, but none currently has the capability to conduct a CW attack on this scale.
Russia claims to have a ‘good degree of confidence’ that the attack was an ‘opposition provocation’ but has announced that they support an investigation into the incident. We expect them to maintain this line. The Syrian regime has now announced that it will allow access to the sites by UN inspectors.
There is no immediate time limit over which environmental or physiological samples would have degraded beyond usefulness. However, the longer it takes inspectors to gain access to the affected sites, the more difficult it will be to establish the chain of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
Chemical weapon use by Syrian regime - UK Government legal position
1. This note sets out the UK Government’s position regarding the legality of military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Damascus on 21 August 2013.
2. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, the legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.
3. The UK is seeking a resolution of the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations which would condemn the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian authorities; demand that the Syrian authorities strictly observe their obligations under international law and previous Security Council resolutions, including ceasing all use of chemical weapons; and authorise member states, among other things, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Syria from the use of chemical weapons and prevent any future use of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons; and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.
4. If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:
(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).
5. All three conditions would clearly be met in this case:
(i) The Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million. The large-scale use of chemical weapons by the regime in a heavily populated area on 21 August 2013 is a war crime and perhaps the most egregious single incident of the conflict. Given the Syrian regime’s pattern of use of chemical weapons over several months, it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again. It is also likely to continue frustrating the efforts of the United Nations to establish exactly what has happened. Renewed attacks using chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cause further suffering and loss of civilian lives, and would lead to displacement of the civilian population on a large scale and in hostile conditions.
(ii) Previous attempts by the UK and its international partners to secure a resolution of this conflict, end its associated humanitarian suffering and prevent the use of
chemical weapons through meaningful action by the Security Council have been blocked over the last two years. If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
(iii) In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable. Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.
UPDATE: In the event, tonight's vote did turn out to be decisive. The House declined to support the Government's motion, despite it being worded to address public concern about a rush to war, and the Prime Minister rightly said that he would respect this decision and the UK would not take part in any military action.