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Intervention in Syria - speech in House of Lords debate

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith's speech in the Lords 'take note' debate

My Lords, When the Noble Lady repeated the Prime Minister’s statement last week she made a commitment that, should there be a vote in the House of Commons on extending military air strikes to Syria, there would be an opportunity for debate in Your Lordships House.

So can I thank her – as is clear from the number of speakers today, this is welcomed across the House.  As I said last week, I hope that the Government will seek to make use of the expertise in here, beyond and outside this debate.

Can I initially share some thoughts about our colleagues in the other place – of all parties – who will be voting tonight.

Occasionally, I’ve envied those who, at the outset of any debate or consideration of serious important issues, have absolute confidence and certainty about their decision. For most of us it isn’t like that. Unless we are experts in a particular field we want to hear the arguments, analyse information, take advice, give thoughtful consideration and examine our consciences, before reaching a judgement. Many MPs with the same information, will come to different conclusions.

Across the House of Commons, there are those who continue to have doubts but that does not make them weak on ISIL/Daesh or security issues.  And those that are convinced should not be attacked for supporting action they believe will be part of a process to attack ISIL and better protect UK citizens.  For many, it will be a marginal decision in weighing up the considerations.

So we must support MPs who we entrust to make such decisions and condemn those who abuse, intimidate and threaten them. And also, all party leaders are entitled to seek to persuade their MPs of their views through information and argument.  Reported comments that those who vote differently are “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” or have “no place to hide” are offensive, wrong and of no help in allowing considered decision making. 

My Lords, we are not debating whether or not to engage with Allied forces to attack ISIL militarily.  We are rightly already doing so.  The proposal from the Prime Minister is about extending that military force into Syria.  In some ways it is a relatively marginal increase.

And today the Prime Minister has to provide the information and arguments to convince, not just MPs but the country as a whole, that the extension of airstrikes against military targets will be effective, and that it is part of a wider strategy. A strategy that comprehensively addresses not just military aspects but post airstrikes, the humanitarian and diplomatic issues and the reconstruction of post conflict Syria.

I am grateful for the briefing on intelligence and military issues I had on Privy Council terms, which has helped my understanding.

But no briefing is needed to understand the vile evil of ISIL. They are murderous fanatics, despised and condemned across the world. Not just for the incomprehensible attacks on Paris, but also the murders of British holiday makers in Tunisia; the beheading of British citizens; the bombing of a Russian airline; the mass murder of women too old to be sold as sex slaves; or the murder of gay men by throwing them off buildings. The list goes on. And we know that the threat here at home is real and ‘severe’.

For all these reasons there can be no doubt that action against such evil is necessary, and justified.

My Lords, as I said last week, we are not an isolationist party. We recognise wider international obligations and responsibilities. I cited both military and humanitarian examples of intervention by UK forces that had helped to secure peace and stability. It is why we are part of the Allied forces in Syria and Iraq already – part of a campaign that shows solidarity with those who also recognise the threat of ISIL and playing our part militarily, diplomatically and on the humanitarian issues.

The UN Security Council resolution 2249, unanimously passed on 20th November, calls on member states to use all  ‘necessary measures’ to prevent and supress terrorist acts specifically by ISIL/Daesh; and to deny them safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter is clear about the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence until the Security Council has taken necessary measures to maintain international peace and security.

We clearly should be part of that coalition, seeking to weaken ISIL and to be a credible and authoritative voice in the Vienna talks to bring some peace and stability to Syria and the region. But on the specific motion before the House of Commons tonight that we are discussing here, there remain issues to be addressed in judging the effectiveness of the new action proposed.

The Government will need to provide further reassurance regarding:

  • whether additional airstrikes is the best way to achieve our common objectives;
  • on the difference and impact the extension of our military involvement in Syria will have;
  • how it contributes to the wider strategic aims including the Vienna Peace process;
  • the wider comprehensive strategy, including the humanitarian implications and support;
  • engagement with moderate Islamic communities – and working with them here in the UK to combat and prevent home grown violent radicalisation;
  • and all of us will want guarantees that every conceivable action will be taken to avoid innocent civilians becoming causalities or being killed.  


It would be helpful to Your Lordships House if the Noble Lord, Earl Howe when replying tonight could set out the military assessment of the difference our extended involvement will bring given our current level of engagement and the amount of bombing that has already taken place in both Iraq and Syria.

Only so much – however valuable – can be achieved by airstrikes alone.  There has been extensive debate already about the potential moderate ground forces, post- air strikes, and what action they will be able to take. 

A number of MPs and experts have questioned the reliability of the 70,000 estimate provided by the Prime Minister. And the ability of those ground forces to mobilise in the way deemed necessary, given that there aren’t any military command structures, weaponry and communications that would be needed to co-ordinate land and air assaults.

Can the Noble Lord when responding say more about this, including when the use of ground forces would be needed and how this would be co-ordinated?

And also what consideration has been given to diplomatic initiatives to build up a larger coalition of regional ground troops?

My Lords, there is significant and encouraging developments in the Vienna peace talks which we welcome and support. But we seem to be a long way from developing more than a process, as important and crucial as that is.  The statement from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) last month set early time scales for objectives to be met. Further meetings will soon evaluate progress and this must be the key diplomatic priority – indeed, without it the strategic case fails. 

Can the Noble Lords reassure the House of the government’s confidence in this process and the advances that are being made?

I know that the Government understands that both in the short term and in the longer term future of Syria, there are serious concerns about Assad.  The Noble Lady was very clear last week about there being no role for Assad in a post conflict Syria, but it remains uncertain how that can be achieved.

The future of Syria, and the ability of Syrian refuges to return to their homeland to be part of the reconstruction is dependent not just on removing ISIL, but also Assad.  Is the Government confident that the military action and objectives is adequately strategically linked and coordinated to the diplomatic efforts?

Obviously, to seriously combat ISIL we need to end or significantly limit their finances and funding.  It is extraordinary that government estimates that they are funding their activities by around of 1.5 million dollars each day from oil revenue, as well as other sources.  Is this part of the Vienna talks and what immediate political and diplomatic efforts are being employed now?

Although we do not vote tonight, we will bring consideration and thoughtfulness to this issue.  We are fortunate in having a number of Noble Lords with considerable experience – in diplomacy, in the military, in security, in aid and humanitarian work, in government and parliament.  Their experiences may not lead them all to the same judgement at this time. But I urge the Government make use of that expertise.

I thank the Government, in the statement to the Commons today, for its commitment to provide quarterly progress reports – but I just want to confirm that this House in included?  And should there be significant developments, would additional statements be provided? 

Finally, My Lords, whatever the outcome of tonight’s vote in the Commons, we entirely concur with the final paragraph of the Government motion, that we offer our wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s armed forces.

- Ends -

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 2nd December 2015

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