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Response to the Prime Minister’s statement on Syria

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith responds on the floor of the Lords to David Cameron's statement

My Lords – I am grateful to the Noble Lady for repeating the Prime Minister’s statement; and also welcome the publication of the Prime Minister’s response to Foreign Affairs Committee. Both are of necessity, detailed and cover a range of issues which all members of Your Lordships House will wish to consider and reflect on. 

The first duty of any government is the safety, the security and the wellbeing of its citizens.

My party does not take an isolationist or non-interventionist position, and we have never been reluctant to use force when it has been deemed necessary. 

I understand and appreciate how difficult it is when making such judgements to ensure that decisions are right and fair and actions justified.

Our interventions as a Labour Government in 1999 to protect Muslim Kosovo Albanians from genocide by Milosevic and in Macedonia in 2001 were central and crucial to the protection of citizens and supporting peace. 

We used military action in Sierra Leone to bring order and stability and we still have British citizens there playing a central role in building and maintaining that stability. And we have provided military support in times of humanitarian crisis – for example fighting Ebola across West Africa.

My Lords – Your Lordships House, Parliament as a whole and indeed the general public are convinced of the evil and brutality of ISIL.  They are very aware and well informed of the atrocities.  Paris brought it so close to home that not only are ISIL willing and apparently rejoicing in causing death, terror and mayhem but that they have the capacity to do so. 

And if anyone has any doubts that such attacks will continue you only have to look at the videos and messages posted on line – as recently as last night – they are chilling, frightening and must increase our determination to protect our citizens.

Our efforts must focus on a comprehensive strategy to tackle not just the actions of ISIL but also the environment which encourages such views to develop.  And we have to support the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK who themselves challenge and reject such violent interpretation of their religion and culture.

That is why any strategy to defeat ISIL has to be so much more than military action alone.

My Lords, as we know the UK is already engaged militarily, providing intelligence and logistical support to our allies, who are flying missions over Syria.  We are directly involved in targeted military bombing in Iraq. And we must judge any proposed extension of UK involvement by the wider support it can gain, by the contribution that it would make to the chances of success, and by the additional capacity it would create. 

Any proposals brought forward must also be judged against how it contributes to the future transition towards peace and stability, and the protection and security of our citizens in the UK. But there are also broader issues. There is not just a war to be won – there is also a peace to be won.

The issues raised by the Foreign Affairs committee are focused on the issue of extending military operations, and identified seven challenges to the Government that should be addressed before the Prime Minister should ask House of Commons to consider this. 

When the Report was published a month ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee was not convinced that the Government would be able to provide convincing answers to the points raised. Of course, we will all want to consider the Prime Minister’s answers and the Committee’s response.

The conflict in the region is not straightforward.  Indeed, it is complex. The civil war in Syria hasn’t just meant the physical collapse of a country, it’s also meant the absolute collapse of society. The skills and the commitment to peace of those who have been forced to leave their homeland and become refuges will be needed to build the future.

So when the extension of air strikes on strategic targets to Syria is considered it must be as part of a political, diplomatic, humanitarian and economic strategy. 

We will seek reassurances that the Government fully understands and will be engaged in and committed to working closely with countries in the region to work towards the reconstruction and peace process.  The Vienna talks are vital.  Whatever the difficulties, that framework and bringing together so many countries provides some movement toward political and diplomatic progress. 


I have just a few questions for the Noble Lady that I hope she can address…

Can she say what assessment has been made of any direct threat to British citizens from ISIL?

Can the NL be clear about the additional capacity British participation would bring militarily, given the support that is already being provided?

Has any assessment been made of the impact of UK involvement in terms of the success of the objectives of military engagement?

Can she confirm whether the Service Chiefs of Staff been able to participate directly in the decision making process by providing expert strategic advice?

My Lords, she will understand the concerns about any possible unintended consequences of increased military action, particularly regarding civilian casualties.  Can she also say something about the impact of military action in Iraq, and civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of UK actions?

The Government’s response says that ‘a political solution to the Syria conflict is finally a realistic prospect’ following the establishment of International Syria Support Group and the Vienna talks. This is going to be a difficult process. The statement rightly states that this issue must not be reduced to a choice between Assad and ISIL. But can she say something more about the longer terms future of Assad and how the British Government can achieve its objectives, given the atrocities that he and his government have been responsible for?

Finally, can she say something further about the legal basis for military action following the UNSC meeting on 20th November?

My Lords – today’s statement will obviously be considered carefully over the coming days before the Prime Minister brings any motion before Parliament. These are not issues on which Your Lordships House has a vote, but I do hope that given the experience and wisdom here – in the military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian areas, that we will have an opportunity for an early debate. Can I urge that the Prime Minister consults with those in this House whose expertise will be of great value?

- Ends -

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

Published 26th November 2015

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