SYRIA AND THE USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS – 29 August 2013
Dr Julian Lewis: As the Prime Minister pointed out, poison gas was extensively used in battle in the First World War. That led to a revulsion that was formulated by the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, which banned the use of poison gases but did not prevent a country from possessing a stockpile so that it could threaten retaliation if attacked by such gases. That protocol had nothing to do with the fact that poison gas was not used in the Second World War – what prevented Hitler from using it was the threat of overwhelming retaliation. Indeed, sarin and tabun were nerve gases that Nazi scientists invented in the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler proposed to use tabun in 1943 but was deterred from doing so by the mistaken belief that the allies had discovered it too, although they had not. Similarly, Churchill thought of using poison gas against the V-weapons in 1944, and decided not to do so on military advice. The gas protocol had nothing to do with it.
Mr Brooks Newmark: If my hon. Friend is talking about Hitler’s use of gas on soldiers he should not forget that Hitler used poison gas on innocent civilians – 6 million Jews to be precise.
Dr Lewis: I am delighted to have the extra minute, especially as that was the next point I was going to make, given that a large proportion of members of my family were among those victims who were gassed. Hitler used poison gas against those innocent victims because he did not give a fig for the gas protocol; he cared about whether or not people could hit back. Those victims could not hit back whereas the allies could, and that is why he did not use gas against them.
I do not want to divert too far into that, but it is important to understand the realities of what makes countries use poison gas and what deters them from using it. In my mind, the questions we must consider resolve themselves into two, rather than the four elegantly put forward by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. My two questions are: first, is it proven beyond reasonable doubt that Assad did it; and secondly, even if Assad or his regime did it, is a military strike sensible?
On the first question, the UN inspectors will not tell us anything about whether or not Assad did it, as I understand it. All they will do is tell us whether or not a sarin gas attack took place, so we cannot look to them to point the finger as to who did it. The Joint Intelligence Committee has been cited and we can all read the summary. That summary is not conclusive and in fact states that the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this, as well it might be. If Assad did it – and perhaps he did – it was the height of irrationality for him to do the one thing that might get the west intervening against him.
Mr Bernard Jenkin: There is a clear motive for Assad to have done this. He has used chemical weapons on five previous occasions, testing the west to see if it was going to respond. He has lost control of Aleppo airport, Homs is still under rebel control and rebels are fighting in the suburbs of Damascus. Assad is getting desperate and that is why he used chemical weapons. There is no question of any circumstantial evidence that points to anyone else.
Dr Lewis: I greatly respect my hon. Friend’s opinions on this and all other related matters, but nevertheless his point would make more sense if Assad were willing to acknowledge that he had been testing the water, rather than vehemently denying that he did it.
Dr Matthew Offord: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: I will not give way as I am still answering the previous question. I think it just as likely that if the regime were responsible in some way, it might have been done by some part of the regime unauthorised by another part.
That leads me to the question of contradictory evidence, because from the leaked reports on the one hand we are getting stories that the attack was ordered by Assad’s brother in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on the leadership, and on the other hand hearing that there is intercept evidence that somebody who was unauthorised was responsible and that there was a telephone conversation in which somebody said, “Why on earth did you do this?” and a panicked reaction to the unauthorised release of poison gas. The point is that it is very far from certain that the evidence stacks up. The Intelligence and Security Committee is cleared to see classified material well up to the level of the material that the JIC and the Prime Minister have seen. I see no reason why those of us who have been cleared for such access should not have it.
I shall now move on to the second question. Let us suppose that Assad did it. Is it then sensible to reply with military action? We have heard the arguments about red lines and the sacrosanct taboo that we must stand up for. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is correct, however, and if the Assad Government did that irrational thing, it shows that they are behaving very irrationally indeed. One thing that bothers me greatly is that it is now being suggested – I say this as someone who is generally supportive of Israel – that Israeli intelligence might be the source of the evidence that the Assad Government did it. If Assad is behaving irrationally and if he is so desperate, what is to prevent him, if he is attacked militarily by us on the perceived basis of intelligence supplied by Israel, from retaliating with a chemical attack against Israel? What will Israel do? It will retaliate in turn. What will America, Iran and Russia do then?
I began my speech by referring to the First World War. Next year, we will commemorate the centenary of the events of August 1914. Those events have a worrying parallel. At that time, a series of actions and reactions drew in, in an escalating fashion, one country after another. Nobody thought that the assassination of an obscure archduke would lead to a world conflagration. As Admiral Lord West has said, this is a powder-keg, and we should not be lobbing weapons into the heart of such combustible material.
[To watch and listen to Julian making this speech, click here and move the cursor to the 1 hour and 8 minute point.]