Syria – My Position
In view of growing debate about a change of UK and EU policy towards the civil war in Syria I thought it would be helpful to my constituents and others to bring together in one place my various Parliamentary speeches and questions on this issue. As you will see I have been raising the situation in Syria and pressing for stronger action by the international community for some considerable time. I am now seriously concerned at suggestions of lifting the EU arms embargo and arming elements of the opposition. It would in my opinion, in the absence of a negotiated peace or an agreed UN Security Council position, be preferable for NATO to impose a no fly zone to prevent the Assad regime bombing its civilian population . However without support from the USA and Turkey that option is not possible at present and there is now likely to be a continuation of a brutal civil war between a regime heavily armed by Iran and Russia and a divided but increasingly well armed opposition which includes extremist and jihadist groups with terrible atrocities committed on both sides.
6 Feb 2012 : Column 34
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome and endorse the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about taking action through the European Union, through the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council and with the Friends of Syria group, but one organisation that he did not mention was NATO. Is it not time to have a discussion in the North Atlantic Council— including Turkey—about having some kind of no-fly zone, comparable with what was put in place to save the Kurds 11 years ago, over the northern part of Syria?
Mr Hague: I do not think that it is. I say so, first, because if NATO began planning for different eventualities in Syria, that would weaken rather than unite the international coalition. A no-fly zone would also require authorisation from the UN Security Council, and clearly that would not be obtained at the moment. In addition, although there are reports of Syrian aircraft being involved in the latest events, this is not the prime means of repression, so although a no-fly zone is an easy thing to call for, there is a danger that it would give the illusion of security when the prime means of repression of the civilian population is by tanks and troops on the ground.
17 Apr 2012 : Column 158
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Syrian military have shelled refugees in Turkey. What is our Government’s attitude to that? If the Turkish Government take justified military action in response, will we support them?
Mr Hague: We deplore that outrageous behaviour, along with the killing of 10,000 and more people throughout this conflict so far in Syria. We have expressed our strong solidarity to Turkey over that. I am not going to get into discussing hypotheses about military action by Turkey; I do not believe that that is being seriously contemplated at the moment, although, of course, continual violation of the border would be an immense provocation to Turkey. But we absolutely deplore that particular violation.
4 July 2012 : Column 986 Extract of speech in debate on Turkey
The Turkish Government have shown great restraint so far in the face of terrible unwarranted military action by Syrian Government forces, including the shelling of refugees in Turkey and the shooting down of aircraft. Such actions are totally unacceptable and have rightly been condemned. Turkey would be justified in taking much stronger action than it has taken so far. The fact that it has not done so reflects its wish not to be drawn militarily into what might be a civil war in Syria, but the time will come when Turkey has to intervene. If the number of refugees continues to rise and the conflict within Syria spills over and presents security problems for Turkey, then Turkey might deem it necessary to act, in which case it will have to be shown solidarity and support by the international community. I hope that will occur not through a unilateral action but through discussion within NATO and the North Atlantic Council. If necessary, and if the Assad regime continues to behave provocatively and outrageously, we should be prepared to invoke article 5 of NATO’s charter to support Turkey and offer it our solidarity if it feels it wants that international umbrella of legitimacy and support in taking action to defend itself.
3 Sep 2012 : Column 60
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Twenty years ago, the Foreign Secretary was a member of a Government who initiated no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq without explicit UN Security Council resolutions. Is it not time, even if President Obama is not interested, that this country, France, Turkey and other European NATO countries seriously considered what we can do to stop this growing humanitarian and political disaster?
Mr Hague: Clearly, we are doing a great deal, as I have set out, to address what the hon. Gentleman rightly describes as a growing humanitarian disaster. I have been careful not to rule out any option. He is putting forward a particular option, but I have to say that such an option would be practicable only with the full support of the United States of America. It is not something to advocate in the way that he did of, “Whatever President Obama thinks”; the air defences of Syria are an entirely different matter from those of Iraq 20 years ago. It is very important to bear that in mind when advocating that particular option.
20 Nov 2012 : Column 456
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is welcome that the British Government followed France in recognising the Syrian national coalition, but merely saying that it is the sole legitimate representative does not make it so. What action is being taken to deal with the problem that has already arisen in Aleppo, where groups have rejected the coalition’s leadership, and to secure international recognition for it as well as its effectiveness in Syria?
Mr Hague: I think that there will be further international recognition for the coalition—I think that, for example, other EU countries will recognise it, in stages—and that growing international recognition will in turn lead to an increase in practical support. I have announced several areas in which we would increase our own practical support and channel it through the coalition, and if other countries do the same, that will steadily add to their credibility inside and outside Syria. Obviously we cannot control or dictate the reactions of all groups in Syria, but from all that we understand, the coalition has received a warm welcome from many people there. I do not think that we shall see a better attempt to create an umbrella opposition group, and I think that we should therefore get behind this one.
4 Dec 2012 : Column 719
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): The humanitarian situation in Syria is dire. We have provided £53.5 million of assistance so far and are urging others to increase donations to the UN appeal.
Mike Gapes: Forty thousand dead, 2.5 million internally displaced, 200,000 refugees and, yesterday, more people killed in Syria by the Ba’athist regime than were killed in the whole of the Gaza conflict. President Obama has talked about “serious consequences” if Assad uses chemical weapons. Why are there no serious consequences already from the international community about what is going on in Syria, and what does President Obama mean by “serious consequences”?
Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is familiar with the policy we have pursued towards Syria. There is no military solution in Syria; we are seeking a peaceful, political and diplomatic solution. We continue to do that, while recognising the new national coalition of the opposition, giving it increased but non-lethal assistance and delivering humanitarian aid on the scale I have described. I want to reiterate what President Obama has said—that any use of chemical or biological weapons would be even more abhorrent than anything we have seen so far. We have made it clear that this would draw a serious response from the international community. We have made that very clear to representatives of the Syrian regime and have said that we would seek to hold them responsible for such actions.
13 Dec 2012 : Column 144WH Extracts of my speech on Arms Export Controls
I also want to talk about what is about to happen with the European Union arms embargo on Syria. A decision has been taken, apparently at the instigation or with the support of the UK Government, to change the review of the continuation of that arms embargo from three months to one month. It is on the record that in the Syrian conflict or civil war, the Syrian Government are using cluster munitions and, just yesterday, Scud missiles—they presumably got them from Russia, perhaps in the dim and distant past or perhaps more recently. We know that the Iranians are arming the Syrian regime, and that the Governments of Qatar and Turkey have been giving military assistance to the Syrian opposition forces, or at least to elements of them. There is a question about which elements are being well armed, but it is clear that some more extreme jihadist groups, including the one that has just been designated as a terrorist al-Qaeda affiliate by the United States Government, are well armed and involved in the conflict.
Following the decision taken by NATO to supply, authorise and support the deployment of the Patriot anti-missile system in Turkey—presumably to stop stray fire over the border from Syria—is a decision imminent to modify, change or lift the European Union arms embargo on exporting arms to Syria to allow the arming of elements within the Syrian opposition. That raises some important questions of principle, and there are international parallels. We can go back to what happened in the Bosnian civil war, but at that point, it was the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina that was requesting weaponry. Elements in the US, under the Clinton presidency, wished to lift the embargo, but the British Government at that time—Douglas Hurd was the then Foreign Secretary—were vehemently against such action, and the embargo continued.
There is of course the issue of what happened in Kosovo. Other issues also come to mind that set historical precedents. Today, it appears that the Syrian regime is being armed by the Iranians and the Russians. No UN Security Council position is being applied to stop that arming. There may be UN resolutions, but they are weak and ineffective because Russia and China refuse to allow a stronger resolution. At the same time, it is reported clearly in the press that not only the Qataris and the Turks are supporting some of the Syrian opposition, but the French and perhaps the Americans.
Given that discussions have been taking place recently, what is the British Government’s position on the future of arms control and exports and supply of weaponry to elements within Syria? I will not accept just a bland phrase that says, “There is an international embargo through the EU, so we are not supplying.” There is a live debate on this matter. There was a meeting in Qatar recently of some of the key players in the process, including top military, defence and intelligence advisers. We in this Parliament should be informed, and we should be able to discuss and debate the matter. There may be a strong case to be made. I am one of those who have been advocating support for humanitarian intervention. There may well be a case for supporting those elements in Syria, but it should not be done by subterfuge or in an underhand way, or without full public debate and political accountability.
It is also clear that whatever happens in Syria will have knock-on consequences for its neighbours. This country supplies armaments to many of those neighbours, and we are in a partnership with, and allied to, some of them. We have excellent relations with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. We have excellent relations with Jordan, which, like Turkey, is harbouring many refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria. At this moment, there are 240,000 refugees who have had to flee the country and go into neighbouring states, and there are more than 2 million internally displaced people. An estimated 40,000 people in the region—no one is sure of the exact number—have lost their lives in this conflict, mainly, but not entirely, killed by the brutality of the Assad Ba’athist fascist regime.
Twenty one years ago, when the current Foreign Secretary was a member of the Cabinet, we brought in a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds fleeing into the mountains in the winter. This winter in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people will be fleeing into the mountains, which can get very cold. Many, many people will die because the international humanitarian support will either not get through or will be insufficient.
We are involved in this conflict because of our partnerships, our neighbours and our support for our allies. We also know that things could drag on for months or years, or could come to a very speedy conclusion. We need clarity from the Government about what our position is, what we are doing, and what discussions are going on with our French and American allies and partners, with Turkey and with the Arab states in the region. Furthermore, if a generalised Sunni-Shi’a conflict is going to come out of what is going on in Syria and potentially in Lebanon, which could perhaps spill over into Iraq, we need to think through very carefully the actions we might be taking over the coming weeks and months. That goes beyond the representations and the report that the Chairman introduced, but when we take a decision to supply arms, or not to supply arms, there are long-term political consequences.
17 Dec 2012 : Column 573
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Is there still an EU arms embargo? It has been reported that France is already supplying equipment to some opposition groups, and at the same time this country is providing non-lethal equipment. What exactly is going to happen? What kind of equipment will we be providing? Given that Qatar and Turkey are already arming the more extreme jihadist groups, is this an argument for rebalancing within the Syrian national coalition?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has made a number of important points. On the first part of his question, I have seen no evidence that any European Union powers have broken the arms embargo. We certainly would not do that; it would be wrong and illegal. I think it is worth looking at the embargo and asking how we can best work with the parts of the Syrian opposition that want a proper transition to a free and democratic Syria. The hon. Gentleman made that point in his own question.
10 Jan 2013 : Column 492
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The United States has said that there is a red line if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, but when the Foreign Secretary meets the Secretary of State designate, Senator John Kerry, as I think he will shortly, will he impress on the US that red lines should relate not just to chemical weapon use, but to the other crimes being carried out by the Assad regime?
Mr Hague: Yes. Our horror at the prospect of the use of chemical weapons should in no way mitigate or minimise our horror at the brutality across the board of the Assad regime. The United States has so far adopted very similar policies to the ones I set out to the House and is also engaged in the humanitarian relief and the provision of similar types of equipment to the Syrian Opposition. Of course I will discuss this in great detail with Senator Kerry over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, it was quite right that the United States—and we joined them in this—sent a particularly strong message to the regime about the use of chemical weapons. It may be that the communication of such a strong message helped to inhibit the use for now of such weapons, so it is right that we send a particularly powerful message on that.
14 Jan 2013 : Column 589
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Last week the Foreign Secretary made it clear that consideration is being given in the European Union possibly to lifting the arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. If that were to happen, what kind of equipment would we be supplying and what guarantee do we have that it would not get into the hands of radical, al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups?
Dr Murrison: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Foreign Secretary, in Marrakesh at the end of last year, recognised Syrian opposition groups. The United Kingdom would like greater flexibility in the embargo on Syria, so that at some point in the future, possibly, we can supply the opposition groups that we are comfortable with with the means to deal with the situation; but there are no plans to do so at the moment and we will keep the matter under review.
4 Mar 2013 : Column 678
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister clarify what forms of non-lethal force multipliers will be given to help an already well-armed opposition which is being supplied by some Arab countries, and which has captured many arms supplied by Russia and Iran to the Assad Ba’athist-fascist regime?
Mr Swire: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was tempted to list them during his interview on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday, but resisted doing so. As a former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Gentleman will understand that the proper place for the Foreign Secretary to list them and state policy is right here in the House. He will be doing just that later this week.
6 Mar 2013 : Column 973
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Is it not the case that it would be more secure, and more in our interests, to introduce a no-fly zone than to arm the opposition? We can keep control of the equipment in a no-fly zone, but we cannot do that if we hand it over to jihadist groups. Is it not also the case that the United States Administration and some neighbouring countries, including Turkey, are against the introduction of a no-fly zone, which means that we are unable to introduce one?
Mr Hague: Let me make it clear that I have not announced the arming of the opposition. This is different; it is about increasing the assistance that we give the opposition in the form of non-lethal equipment. The hon. Gentleman is putting the case for an external military intervention, rather than a move to any policy of support for the sending of lethal equipment to Syria. There is a respectable case for that, but as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), it would require the willingness of a large part of the international community, almost certainly including the United States, so that we were not making a false promise of safety to people. Syria continues to have strong air defences with very modern equipment, and the implementation of a no-fly zone would be a very large military undertaking. It is important for those who advocate it to bear that in mind.