Syria - Dangerous to Lift EU Arms Embargo

 Here is my speech yesterday Tuesday 21 May 2013  in the debate on the future of the European Union Arms Embargo on Syria

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee on his contribution. I agree with everything he said, with one exception. I do not support the lifting of the EU arms embargo, and it is very important that we recognise that Britain and France are outliers in the European Union. Many other countries have been resisting moves by the UK and French Governments over recent months and there will be a decisive split in the European Union on this issue if the Government persist in the approach that they are taking. Perhaps that is what the coalition Government want, or perhaps it is what part of the coalition Government want, but it is not in our long-term interests or in the interests of future European co-operation on this issue.

I have enormous sympathy for the Minister. He is a good man and he has been put up today to defend an extremely difficult position. He has to justify a very bad policy. It is a bad policy, because the prospect of our Government providing sophisticated weaponry at some point in the future, which is the intention and which is what this is all about and has been about incrementally over the past few weeks, means that surface-to-air missiles could be used to shoot down civilian aircraft in the region—missiles which might ultimately be found to have been supplied by the UK and France to elements in the Syrian opposition, and which might then have been sold, captured or handed over by people who defected from one faction to another.

If we are going to put sophisticated weaponry into the region to deal with the brutality of the Assad regime, that sophisticated weaponry should be in the hands of people, first, who are trained to use it, and secondly, who will operate according to the laws of war and who are ultimately controlled by NATO powers—either through Turkey, our NATO ally, or through the UK, the French and the United States working collectively to bring in a no-fly zone.

Two years ago, because of the threat to Benghazi, the coalition Government said that we needed to intervene with a no-fly zone. I supported them, as did most Members in the House. Now we have seen the deaths of tens of thousands or perhaps 100,000 people in Syria already and all the other consequences—the millions of displaced people and the refugees—yet we are not prepared to act. We are, of course, waiting for Obama, and Obama is not coming. He is not prepared to move. I asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday what his understanding was of the position of the US Government with regard to arming the opposition or a no-fly zone, and I got no answer.

The real tragedy in this situation is that countries that could make a difference to end the conflict relatively quickly are sitting back, while other countries, particularly the Qataris, and Hezbollah supported by Iran, are fuelling the process—and Russia, because it wants to keep the Tartus naval base, is prepared to do almost anything to back the Assad regime. I am not holding my breath for success at the forthcoming conference. Either there will be no agreement on who will participate, or agreement will not be reached unless it is a Dayton-style process and everybody is put in a room and kept there, with international forces putting pressure on them until an agreement is reached.

The prospect is that we will perhaps start arming elements in the opposition, but the conflict will continue for a very long time, with the sponsors of the Assad  regime continuing to provide more and more weaponry. Russia will strengthen the air defences and the whole outcome will be a disaster. We need to be trying not to give arms to the Syrian opposition, and instead to be battering on the doors of the White House and the Kremlin and doing far more to get the countries that really can make a difference to stop the process before it is too late.


Earlier in the debate I had intervened and challenged Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt on the government approach as follows:

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): If we are concerned about the civilian deaths from air attacks by the regime, would it not be better to do something about stopping the regime using aircraft and helicopters to attack civilian areas, rather than give sophisticated weaponry to people who might then hand it on to others to use against us in the future?

Alistair Burt: I repeat again, at the risk of riling the House, that we are not discussing whether the UK is providing weaponry. That point has been well made. The question of air cover has been discussed before. As the House knows, the Syrian air defences are not weak, and up till now no one has considered there to be a practical way of dealing with them, but part of what I will say is about all options being open. Lifting the arms embargo will increase the flexibility available to those who might need to protect civilians, or supply those who are protecting them, in the future. It offers that necessary flexibility, but no such decision has been taken.

On the previous day Monday 20 May 2013 I had raised US policy towards Syria with Foreign Secretary William Hague. Here is my question and his response :

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary said that he was in constant contact with US Secretary of State John Kerry. As a result of those constant contacts, is he in any position to ascertain exactly the US Administration’s position? Why have they failed to act on President Obama’s so-called red line? Does the US support arming of the rebels or will it consider a no-fly zone?

Mr Hague: There is no mystery about the position of the United States. In public as well as in private, the US is driving the initiative put together with Russia on 8 May to have the Geneva conference. Secretary Kerry is therefore working very hard on the diplomatic side of all this work. The US is very sympathetic to any means of putting greater pressure on the regime ahead of the conference, including the European Union matters I have been talking about, while fully recognising that it is for EU states to decide on that. It is the view in America, as it is our view, that it is important for the facts on chemical weapons to be established in the eyes of the world. We have sent our evidence to the UN team, and particularly after what happened in the last decade it is important for our claims about the existence or misuse of weapons to be established, preferably by the United Nations.


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