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QUEEN'S SPEECH – SYRIA - 14 May 2013

QUEEN'S SPEECH – SYRIA - 14 May 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: It was kind of you, Mr Speaker, to allow a segment of today’s debate to those of us who were concerned about the Opposition’s decision not to choose foreign affairs, defence or, indeed, Europe as the subject of one of the themed days of debate on the Queen’s Speech, so that we could refer to some of those matters. I suppose that I ought to get the words “cost of living” into my speech from time to time, and I shall endeavour to do so, but I hope that if I fail, they will be taken as read.

Although the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and I serve closely together on the Intelligence and Security Committee, we are not best known for agreeing on issues such as the future of the European Union or that of the Trident nuclear deterrent. On one issue, however, we find ourselves in close agreement, and that is the question of whether or not we should arm the rebels in Syria, or become militarily involved in the civil war in other ways.

Alec Shelbrooke: Absolutely not.

Dr Lewis: I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend’s view is quite widely shared on the Back Benches, at least on this side of the House, and, I suspect, on the other side as well.

It is not a matter of wanting to do something less than we might in terms of humanitarian intervention. I certainly supported humanitarian military intervention in Sierra Leone, and I was one of the first to call for military intervention to topple Milošević. I have supported military action in other theatres, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and I even supported such action – albeit with considerable reluctance – in the case of Libya, given Gaddafi’s explicit threat to the citizens of Benghazi. We must, however, consider two aspects when thinking about undertaking military intervention. One is the humanitarian consideration, but the other is the question of who will take over if that military intervention is successful. What concerns me is the possibility that the people who take over will become dominated by a group allied to al-Qaeda who are even worse than the Assad regime – and that is saying something.

My mind goes back to the speech made by Tony Blair as Prime Minister in the run-up to the Iraq war. What did he say that so swayed the House in favour of intervention? He said that his nightmare was the prospect of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. We now know that either there were no weapons of mass destruction, or, if there were chemical or biological weapons, they were not there by the time the allied forces went in.

In this case, however, we know that there are weapons of mass destruction – chemical weapons; a big stockpile of nerve gas – in Syria. What the Foreign Secretary has admitted at the Dispatch Box, repeatedly, is that there are, to use his own estimate, several thousand al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting alongside the Syrian opposition. I have raised the question at least five times since last September, and I have had five answers, none of which has satisfied me on the point. The point is this: how do we prevent that stock of deadly chemical weapons, which in the hands of Assad and his regime poses no threat to the west, from falling into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militants, who would undoubtedly use them against the west, with terribly adverse effects on our cost of living and on our being able to stay alive?

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Carla del Ponte may be right, because it certainly does not make sense for the Assad regime to use chemical weapons – the one thing that would cause the west to intervene and overthrow him. If he did use them, why use them in such small quantities that they could not have a decisive effect? If the intent was to intimidate the opposition, why deny vehemently, as the Assad regime does, that it has used them? It does not make sense.

Alec Shelbrooke: What would be the direct effect on the cost of living in this country if an al-Qaeda-led Government in Syria got together with the Shi’a-led Government in Iran and took a direct look at the democracy in Iraq, which is diametrically opposed to their beliefs?

Dr Lewis: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in his implication that there would have to be a huge uplift in public expenditure on all forms of counter-terrorist techniques, and there would undoubtedly be a deleterious effect on the freedoms of peoples in this country, which would have to be restricted considerably if we found ourselves under attack from deadly chemical weapons in the hands of an extremist group allied to our enemies.

The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) quoted Marx, without attributing the words to him, when he said that the spectre of communism is haunting Europe. I am put in mind of a quotation attributed to Lenin:

“The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

We would have to be out of our minds to assist in the overthrow of one shocking regime and the coming into place instead of a regime that was equally shocking and atrocious but hostile to us and armed with chemical weapons.

Mr Andrew Love: I am sympathetic to much of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but a humanitarian crisis in Syria has to be addressed. Given the difficulties between the Russians, ourselves and the Americans in relation to an international conference, how do we move a political settlement forward?

Dr Lewis: I am extremely grateful for that intervention, as it leads me to my final point. Whenever we talk to our Government spokesmen about this, they say that the answer is a peaceful transition. It is abundantly clear that either there will be something peaceful and no transition, or if there is a transition, it will not be peaceful. If our concern is, above all, to stop the killing, we ought to be working with the Russians not for a transition but for a ceasefire. We ought to aim to freeze the situation, the effect of which would be to stop the killing but not to result in the transfer of the chemical weapons stocks to the hands of an opponent of western civilisation that is even more deadly than the people who currently hold them.

Mr Love indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I am grateful to see the hon. Gentleman nod in some agreement with that. We should be striving for a ceasefire, not for a change of regime, atrocious though that regime happens to be.