Before I come to the substance of my statement, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Sergeant Matt Tonroe from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who was killed by an improvised explosive device on 29 March. Sergeant Tonroe was embedded with US forces on a counter-Daesh operation. He served his country with great distinction, and it is clear he was a gifted and intelligent instructor who was respected by everyone he served with. Sergeant Tonroe fought to protect British values, our freedoms and to keep this country safe.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the actions that we have taken, together with our American and French allies, to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capabilities and to deter their future use.
On Saturday 7 April, up to 75 people, including young children, were killed in a horrific attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties. All indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack. UK medical and scientific experts have analysed open-source reports, images and video footage from the incident and concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic chemical. That is corroborated by first-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers, while the World Health Organisation received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian health facilities on Saturday night with
“signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.
Based on our assessment, we do not think that those reports could be falsified on that scale. Furthermore, the Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from the area, and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians.
The images of this suffering are utterly haunting: innocent families seeking shelter in underground bunkers found dead with foam in their mouths, burns to their eyes and their bodies surrounded by a chlorine-like odour, and children gasping for life as chemicals choked their lungs. The fact that such an atrocity can take place in our world today is a stain on our humanity, and we are clear about who is responsible.
A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates that the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack. Open-source accounts state that barrel bombs were used to deliver the chemicals. Barrel bombs are usually delivered by helicopters. Multiple open-source reports and intelligence indicate that regime helicopters operated over Douma on the evening of 7 April, shortly before reports emerged in social media of a chemical attack, and that Syrian military officials co-ordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine weapons. No other group could have carried out this attack. The opposition do not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs. Daesh does not even have a presence in Douma.
The reports of this attack are consistent with previous regime attacks. Those include the attack on 21 August 2013, where over 800 people were killed and thousands more injured in a chemical attack also in Ghouta; 14 further smaller-scale chemical attacks reported prior to that summer; three further chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015, which the independent UN Security Council-mandated investigation attributed to the regime; and the attack at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April last year, where the Syrian regime used sarin against its people, killing around 100, with a further 500 casualties.
Based on the regime’s persistent pattern of behaviour and the cumulative analysis of specific incidents, we judged it highly likely that the Syrian regime had continued to use chemical weapons on at least four occasions since the attack in Khan Shaykhun and we judged that it would have continued to do so, so we needed to intervene rapidly to alleviate further indiscriminate humanitarian suffering. We have explored every possible diplomatic channel to do so, but our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted.
Following the sarin attack in eastern Damascus back in August 2013, the Syrian regime committed to dismantle its chemical weapons programme, and Russia promised to ensure that Syria did that, overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. At the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition cited that diplomatic agreement as a
“precedent that this process can work”,
but this process did not work. It did not eradicate the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime, with the OPCW finding only last month that Syria’s declaration of its former chemical weapons programme is incomplete. And, as I have already set out, it did not stop the Syrian regime carrying out the most abhorrent atrocities using these weapons.
Furthermore, on each occasion when we have seen every sign of chemical weapons being used, Russia has blocked any attempt to hold the perpetrators to account at the UN Security Council, with six such vetoes since the start of 2017. Just last week, Russia blocked a UN resolution that would have established an independent investigation able to determine responsibility for this latest attack. Regrettably, we had no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own is not going to work. The Leader of the Opposition has said that he can
“only countenance involvement in Syria if there is UN authority behind it”.
The House should be clear that that would mean a Russian veto on our foreign policy.
When the Cabinet met on Thursday, we considered the advice of the Attorney General. Based on this advice, we agreed that it was not just morally right but legally right to take military action, together with our closest allies, to alleviate further humanitarian suffering. This was not about intervening in a civil war and it was not about regime change: it was about a limited, targeted and effective strike that sought to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.
We have published the legal basis for this action. It required three conditions to be met. First, there must be convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief. Secondly, it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. Thirdly, the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering, and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim.
These are the same three criteria used as the legal justification for the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. Our intervention in 1991 with the US and France, and in 1992 with the US, to create safe havens and enforce the no-fly zones in Iraq following the Gulf war were also justified on the basis of humanitarian intervention. So Governments of all colours have long considered that military action on an exceptional basis—where necessary and proportionate, and as a last resort to avert an overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe—is permissible under international law.
I have set out why we are convinced by the evidence and why there was no practicable alternative. Let me set out how this military response was also proportionate. This was a limited, targeted and effective strike that would significantly degrade Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, and with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
As a result, the co-ordinated actions of the US, UK and France were successfully and specifically targeted at three sites. Contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition said at the weekend, these were not “empty buildings”. The first was the Barzeh branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in northern Damascus. This was a centre for the research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological programme. It was hit by 57 American TLAMs and 19 American JASSMs. The second site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons bunkers, 15 miles west of the city of Homs, which contained both a chemical weapons equipment and storage facility and an important command post. These were successfully hit by seven French SCALP cruise missiles.
The third site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage site and former missile base, which is now a military facility. This was assessed to be a location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment, whose destruction would degrade Syria’s ability to deliver sarin in the future. This was hit by nine US TLAMs, five naval and two SCALP cruise missiles from France and eight Storm Shadow missiles launched by our four RAF Tornado GR4s. Very careful scientific analysis was used to determine where best to target these missiles to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks to the surrounding area. The facility that we targeted is located some distance from any known population centres, reducing yet further any such risk of civilian casualties.
While targeted and limited, these strikes by the US, UK and France were significantly larger than the US action a year ago after the attack at Khan Shaykhun, and specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons. We also minimised the chances of wider escalation through our carefully targeted approach, and the House will note that Russia has not reported any losses of personnel or equipment as a result of the strikes. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to all the British servicemen and women, and their American and French allies, who successfully carried out this mission with such courage and professionalism.
Let me deal specifically with three important questions. First, why did we not wait for the investigation from the OPCW? UNSC-mandated inspectors have investigated previous attacks and, on four occasions, decided that the regime was indeed responsible. We are confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible for this attack and that its persistent pattern of behaviour meant that it was highly likely to continue using chemical weapons. Furthermore, there were clearly attempts to block any proper investigation, as we saw with the Russian veto at the UN earlier in the week.
And let me set this out in detail: we support strongly the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission that is currently in Damascus, but that mission is only able to make an assessment of whether chemical weapons were used. Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment—and it is currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians—it cannot attribute responsibility. This is because Russia vetoed, in November 2017, an extension of the joint investigatory mechanism set up to do this, and last week, in the wake of the Douma attack, it again vetoed a new UNSC resolution to re-establish such a mechanism. Even if we had the OPCW’s findings and a mechanism to attribute, for as long as Russia continued to veto the UN Security Council would still not be able to act. So we cannot wait to alleviate further humanitarian suffering caused by chemical weapons attacks.
Secondly, were we not just following orders from America? Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used, for we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised—within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.
So we have not done this because President Trump asked us to; we have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do. And we are not alone. There is broad-based international support for the action we have taken. NATO has issued a statement setting out its support, as have the Gulf Co-operation Council and a number of countries in the region. Over the weekend I have spoken to a range of world leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Gentiloni, Prime Minister Trudeau, Prime Minister Turnbull and European Union Council President Donald Tusk. All have expressed their support for the actions that Britain, France and America have taken.
Thirdly, why did we not recall Parliament? The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations. This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before. And it was a decision that required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament. We have always been clear that the Government have the right to act quickly in the national interest. I am absolutely clear, Mr Speaker, that it is Parliament’s responsibility to hold me to account for such decisions, and Parliament will do so. But it is my responsibility as Prime Minster to make these decisions—and I will make them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
As I have been clear, this military action was not about intervening in the civil war in Syria or about regime change, but we are determined to do our utmost to help resolve the conflict in Syria. That means concluding the fight against Daesh, which still holds pockets of territory in Syria. It means working to enable humanitarian access and continuing our efforts at the forefront of global response, where the UK has already committed almost £2.5 billion—our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.
Next week, we will attend the second Brussels conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, which will focus on humanitarian support, bolstering the UN-led political process in Geneva and ensuring continued international support to refugees and host countries, driving forward the legacy of our own London conference held in 2016. And it means supporting international efforts to reinvigorate the process to deliver a political solution, for this is the best long-term hope for the Syrian people. The UK will do all of these things. But as I have also been clear, that is not what these military strikes were about.
As I have set out, the military action we have taken this weekend was specifically focused on degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their future use. In order to achieve this, there must also be a wider diplomatic effort, including the full range of political and economic levers, to strengthen the global norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, which have stood for nearly a century. So we will continue to work with our international partners on tough economic action against those involved with the production or dissemination of chemical weapons.
I welcome the conclusions of today’s European Foreign Affairs Council, attended by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, which confirmed that the Council is willing to consider further restrictive measures on those involved in the development and use of chemical weapons in Syria. We will continue to push for the re-establishment of an international investigative mechanism that can attribute responsibility for chemical weapons use in Syria. We will advance with our French allies the new International Partnership against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons, which will meet in the coming weeks. We will continue to strengthen the international coalition we have built since the attack on Salisbury.
Last Thursday’s report from the OPCW has confirmed our findings that it was indeed a Novichok in Salisbury. I have placed a copy of that report’s executive summary in the House of Commons Library. While of a much lower order of magnitude, the use of a nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury is part of a pattern of disregard for the global norms that prohibit the use of chemical weapons. So while the action was taken to alleviate humanitarian suffering in Syria by degrading the regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring its use of these weapons, it will also send a clear message to anyone who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity. We cannot go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalised.
I am deeply conscious of the gravity of these decisions. They affect all Members of this House and me personally. I understand the questions that, rightly, will be asked about British military action, particularly in such a complex region, but I am clear that the way we protect our national interest is to stand up for the global rules and standards that keep us safe. That is what we have done and what we will continue to do. I commend this statement to the House.
I want to start by thanking the Prime Minister for our phone conversation in advance of the bombing raids on Friday night and for the advance copy of her statement today. I also join her in paying tribute to Sergeant Matt Tonroe, the SAS sniper from Manchester who was killed on 28 March with US forces in northern Syria, and Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar from Texas, who was killed in the same attack.
I welcome the fact that all British military personnel involved have returned home safely from this mission. The attack in Douma was an horrific attack on civilians using chemical weapons—part of a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
This statement serves as a reminder that the Prime Minister is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the US President. We clearly need a war powers Act in this country to transform a now broken convention into a legal obligation. Her predecessor came to this House to seek authority for military action in Libya, and in Syria in 2015, and the House had a vote on Iraq in 2003. There is no more serious issue than the life-and-death matters of military action. It is right that Parliament has the power to support or stop the Government taking planned military action. The BBC reports that the Prime Minister argued for the bombing to be brought forward to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Will she today confirm or deny those reports?
I believe the action was legally questionable. On Saturday—[Interruption.]
Order. I urge Members to calm down. In my experience, some Members who shout from a sedentary position also entertain the fanciful idea that they might be called to ask a question. I wish to disabuse them of that idea. The Prime Minister was heard in an atmosphere of respectful quiet. That will happen for the Leader of the Opposition as well: no ifs, no buts, no sneers, no exceptions. That is the position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I believe that the action was legally questionable, and on Saturday, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said as much, reiterating that all countries must act in line with the United Nations charter, which states that action must be in self-defence or be authorised by the United Nations Security Council. The Prime Minister has assured us that the Attorney General had given clear legal advice approving the action. I hope the Prime Minister will now publish this advice in full today.
The summary note references the disputed humanitarian intervention doctrine, but even against this, the Government fail their own tests. The overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe due to the civil war in Syria is absolutely indisputable, but the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that these strikes would have no bearing on the civil war. The Prime Minister has reiterated that today by saying that this is not what these military strikes were about.
Does, for example, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi airfields or its positions in Yemen, especially given its use of banned cluster bombs and white phosphorus? Three United Nations agencies said in January that Yemen was the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, so will the Prime Minister today commit to ending support to the Saudi bombing campaign and arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
On the mission itself, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of bombing related military facilities, where the regime is assessed as storing chemical weapons? What about the impact on local people of chemicals being released into the local environment? News footage shows both journalists and local people in the rubble without any protective clothing. Why does the Prime Minister believe that these missile strikes will deter future chemical attacks?
As the Prime Minister will be aware, there were US strikes in 2017 in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun, for which the UN OPCW team held the Assad regime to be responsible. In relation to the air strikes against the Barzeh and Him Shinsar facilities, the Prime Minister will be aware that the OPCW carried out inspections on both those facilities in 2017 and concluded that
“the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations”
under the chemical weapons convention. Can the Prime Minister advise the House whether she believes that the OPCW was wrong in that assessment, or does she have separate intelligence that the nature of those activities has changed within the last five months? In the light of the Chilcot inquiry, does she agree with a key recommendation about the importance of strengthening the checks and assessments on intelligence information when it is used to make the case for Government policies? Given that neither the UN nor the OPCW has yet investigated the Douma attack, it is clear that diplomatic and non-military means have not been fully exhausted.
While much suspicion rightly points to the Assad Government, chemical weapons have been used by other groups in the conflict—for example, Jaish al-Islam, which was reported to have used gas in Aleppo in 2016, among other groups. It is now vital that the OPCW inspectors, who arrived in Damascus on Saturday, are allowed to do their work and publish their report on their findings, and report to the United Nations Security Council. They must be allowed to complete their inspections without hindrance, and I hope the UK will put all diplomatic pressure on Russia and Syria, and other influential states, to ensure that they are able to access the site in Douma.
There is a bigger question. More than 400,000 Syrians are estimated to have died in the Syrian conflict—the vast majority as a result of conventional weapons, as the Prime Minister indicated—and the UN estimates that 13.5 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and that there are more than 5 million refugees. It is more important than ever that we take concrete steps to halt and finally end the suffering. Acting through the UN, she should now take a diplomatic lead to negotiate a pause in this abhorrent conflict. This means engaging with all parties involved, including Iran, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US, to ensure an immediate ceasefire.
We have the grotesque spectacle of a wider geopolitical battle being waged by proxy, with the Syrian people being used as pawns by all sides. Our first priority must be the safety and security of the Syrian people, which is best served by de-escalating this conflict so that aid can get in. Will the Prime Minister now embark, therefore, as I hope she will, on a renewed diplomatic effort to try to bring an end to this conflict, as she indicated she would in the latter part of her statement? She stated that diplomatic processes did not work. This is not exactly true. The initiative negotiated by John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov led to the destruction of 600 tonnes of chemical weapons, overseen by the OPCW. No one disputes that such diplomatic processes are difficult and imperfect, but that should not stop us continuing diplomatic efforts.
The refugee crisis places a responsibility on all countries. Hundreds of unaccompanied children remain in Europe, but the UK has yet to take in even the small numbers it was committed to through the Dubs amendment. I hope that today the Government will increase their commitment to take additional Syrian refugees. Will the Prime Minister make that commitment today?
I will start by responding to the Leader of the Opposition’s comments on the Syrian conflict more generally. I think that everybody in the House recognises the nature of the conflict and the impact it has had on the Syrian people, including on the millions of people displaced either within Syria or to countries in the surrounding region. As I said in my statement, the UK, having given almost £2.5 billion, is now the second biggest bilateral donor for Syrian refugees in the region. We have been clear that we believe we can help more people by giving aid in the region, and we have been able to support hundreds of thousands of children in the region through the aid we have given to them. We will continue to provide that support, and we continue to be grateful for all that is being done, particularly by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, to support refugees in the region. It is a significant task for those countries, and we are supporting them in their effort.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me to launch a new diplomatic effort. As I said in my statement, we will indeed be continuing the work in relation to the wider issue of the conflict in Syria. As I said, that means continuing and concluding the fight against Daesh; it means our humanitarian work, as I have said, and continuing to press for humanitarian access; and it means supporting the international efforts to reinvigorate the process to deliver a long-term political solution in Syria. It is necessary for all parties, however, to be willing to come together to discuss and develop that long-term solution.
I come now to the strikes at the weekend and the issue of chemical weapons. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the legal basis. We have published the legal basis for our action, and I have been very clear—I went through the arguments in my statement—that this is about the alleviation of humanitarian suffering. That is a legal basis that has been used by Governments of all colours. As I said, it was used in 1991 and 1992. It was also used by the Labour Government to justify intervention in Kosovo as part of the NATO intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to other areas of conflict in the world. Let me say to him that what sets this apart particularly is the use of chemical weapons. This is about alleviating the suffering that would come from the use of such weapons, but I believe it is also important, and in this country’s interest and the interests of other countries around the world, for us to re-establish the international norm that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited. We cannot allow a situation to develop in which countries and people think that their use has been allowed to become normalised. That is important for us all.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and about its investigation in Douma. As I said in my statement, the problem is that the investigation is being stopped. The regime and the Russians are preventing the OPCW from investigating. Moreover, again, the regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure that they are not taking out of the region samples that could be tested elsewhere, and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the possibility of chemical weapons being used by other groups. As I pointed out in my statement, it is understood that these chemical weapons were delivered by barrel bombs, which are normally dropped from helicopters. There is the evidence that I cited in relation to regime helicopter activity in Douma on the date in question, and it is not the case that the groups to which the right hon. Gentleman referred have access to the helicopters and barrel bombs that would be able to deliver such a chemical weapons attack.
I think that that is clear, and it was on that basis that the Government decided to act, together with the United States and France. I think it important that this was a joint international effort. The strikes were carefully targeted, and proper analysis was carried out to ensure that they were targeted at sites that were relevant to the chemical weapons capability of the regime. We did this to alleviate further human suffering. We targeted the strikes at the chemical weapons capability of the regime to degrade and deter its willingness to use chemical weapons in future, and I continue to believe that it was the right thing to do.
I fully support the proportionate, targeted action that we have taken against these sites, and I hope that the Government will consider similar action in future if anyone is so foolish as to repeat chemical weapons attacks. We can all debate these matters, but it takes a real Prime Minister to actually face up to the grave responsibility.
As for the question of the parliamentary role, I think that the Prime Minister was not relying on the archaic narrow interpretation of the royal prerogative, which no Government have invoked in this country for more than 50 years. Governments will always come to Parliament for debate, and votes if possible, on any military action. The Prime Minister said that there was a problem of time, but surely once President Trump had announced to the world what he was proposing, a widespread debate was taking place everywhere—including among many Members of Parliament in the media. However, there was no debate in Parliament.
Would the Prime Minister consider establishing, once the immediate issues are over, a cross-party commission of some kind to set out precisely what the role of Parliament is in modern times in the use of military power against another state, and what exceptions, if any, there can be to the usual rule that the Government need parliamentary approval before taking grave actions of this kind?
Let me first thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments about the action that was taken in Syria by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. He referred to the parliamentary position. The decision to act was made on this basis: first of all, obviously, an effort was made in the United Nations Security Council to propose and pass a resolution that would have enabled investigation and enabled accountability for the chemical weapons to be determined. That was vetoed by the Russians, so it was not possible to follow that diplomatic route, but the timing enabled proper planning to take place so that this was a targeted and effective set of strikes, it was done in a timely fashion and it maintained the operational security of our armed forces. Any Prime Minister who commits any of our armed forces into action of this sort must have a care for their safety and security in doing so.
I also refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the written ministerial statement in 2016 on the war powers convention, which concluded:
“After careful consideration, the Government has decided that it will not be codifying the convention in law or by resolution of the House in order to retain the ability of this and future Governments and the armed forces to protect the security and interests of the UK in circumstances that we cannot predict, and to avoid such decisions becoming subject to legal action.
We will continue to ensure that Parliament is kept informed of significant major operations and deployments of the Armed Forces.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 11WS.]
That is what I have done today: I have come to Parliament with a statement on the action that took place. As I said in my statement, Parliament will hold me to account for the decision that has been taken.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the sad demise of Sergeant Matt Tonroe and pass on condolences to his family and friends? May I also thank the Prime Minister for the phone call ahead of the engagement at the weekend, as well as for advance sight of her statement today?
All of us in this House have an absolute revulsion for the use of chemical weapons, and we need to work here and internationally to make sure that we remove the scourge of chemical weapons from the landscape in Syria and elsewhere.
The Government now seem to have accepted that this House needed time to debate Syria, but why have we had to wait for today? When the Prime Minister called a Cabinet meeting last week, she should have recalled Parliament. The Prime Minister leads a minority Government. As was the case with the action against Daesh in 2015, this should only have happened with parliamentary approval. It was perfectly possible for the House to have been recalled in advance of the Saturday morning airstrikes. Why was that not done? And what does this mean for the Prime Minister’s position if there are further chemical attacks in Syria? Will she continue to authorise military action without consulting and without the authorisation of Parliament?
I am glad to hear the Leader of the Opposition support our calls for a war powers Act, because that is the best way to protect us from getting into this situation again. Have the Government learned nothing from the Chilcot review? Once again we have been dragged into military action with little regard for the humanitarian situation on the ground and no long-term strategic plan. The human suffering in Syria knows no bounds: hundreds of thousands dead; millions fleeing for their lives and 400,000 civilians still trapped in appalling conditions, deprived of food, medicine and basic aid; and over 13 million civilians in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Will the Prime Minister revisit the issue of refugees, particularly child refugees? We must do more than we have been doing.
Why was action taken before international weapons inspectors completed their investigation? In February the Prime Minister told me in this House that she was committed to
“finding a political solution for Syria.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2018; Vol. 636, c. 153.]
Why, then, did the UK not support Sweden’s draft UN resolution calling for an international investigation into chemical stockpiles reportedly held by the Syrian regime?
Is the Prime Minister as surprised and concerned as I am at the US President’s language that the situation in Syria was “mission accomplished”? Who does she agree with, the US President or the UN Secretary-General, who like most of us is clear:
“There is no military solution to the crisis. The solution must be political”?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised a number of issues.
I recognise that the issue of refugees, particularly child refugees, has been of concern to Members across this House for some time, and has been raised in this Chamber on a number of occasions. We took the decision that we could help and support more children and more refugees in general—men and women, as well as children —by acting in the region, and, as I have said, we have become the second biggest bilateral donor to the region. But we also took the decision that there were a number of refugees who were particularly vulnerable and who perhaps required particular medical support, and that it was right to bring them to the United Kingdom under our commitment to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which we have been putting in place and continue to put in place. We are operating a number of other schemes to bring refugees—children in particular—here to the United Kingdom, but we continue to ensure that we are supporting the greatest possible number of refugees by acting in region, and that continues to be what we should be doing.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the issue of Parliament. I am sure he would recognise that it is always necessary for the Government to be able to act when decisions need to be taken, but to ensure that if a decision is taken that has not been discussed by Parliament, an opportunity for Parliament to discuss it and ask questions on it should be given at the first opportunity. That is exactly what we have done in this particular circumstance. We have also been as open as possible in terms of publishing the legal basis on which we have taken this decision, making information available to a number of parliamentarians on a Privy Council basis, and trying to ensure that we provide the maximum possible briefing, commensurate with the fact that some of the intelligence on which we are operating cannot be shared with Parliament. We will be as open as possible with this Parliament and, as I have said, I will continue to answer questions from this Parliament on this issue.
Given my right hon. Friend’s narrow target of stopping the Syrians using chemical weapons further and given the need to take swift action, I commend her for taking that action, notwithstanding the fact that others have criticised her for not coming to Parliament. Coming to Parliament is a must, and the Prime Minister has done that today and will do it later on as well. I also want to raise the issue that the Russians and the Syrians are blocking the OPCW from going into the target area, and I understand that a lot of clean-up and change is happening while that block is in place. I therefore have a simple question for my right hon. Friend: given the confusion among some about who is the greatest threat to world peace, does she think it is Russia or America?
I think that people are seeing the actions that Russia has taken in support of the Syrian regime. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, efforts are being made in Syria to ensure that it is not possible for OPCW inspectors to go in to ascertain the truth about what happened in Douma. We took a decision, and we made an assessment, together with our allies. The three parties that took part in the strikes agreed that all the evidence we had seen—from open-source reporting, and from the reporting of non-governmental organisations and the World Health Organisation—suggested that this was a chemical weapons attack. As I have indicated, a number of pieces of information and intelligence showed that it was highly likely that that was undertaken by the Syrian regime.
My right hon. Friend is right that more could have been done by the OPCW if Russia had not vetoed the resolution in the United Nations Security Council, and it would be possible to make greater efforts on the ground now to establish what happened in Douma if Russia and the regime were not blocking the opportunity for the OPCW to go to the site and if efforts were not being made by the regime to ensure that material from the site was not available for analysis. It is quite clear that every effort is being made. As I pointed out in my response to the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, it is perfectly clear that Russia is preventing, stopping and blocking our opportunities to ensure that we can properly hold to account those responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
I also regret the fact that the Prime Minister did not seek the prior approval of Parliament, especially as at least some of her arguments are compelling. Further to a question from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that the Prime Minister did not answer, if the Syrian regime is now foolish enough to use its residual stocks to attack other holdouts, such as Idlib, does the Prime Minister intend to order fresh strikes, or was this, in the words of President Trump, a one-off operation and “mission accomplished”?
This was a limited, targeted set of strikes by the United Kingdom, the United States and France. The targets were carefully chosen, and the intention was to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and to deter its willingness to use those weapons. Nobody should be in any doubt about our resolve to ensure that we do not see a situation in which the use of chemical weapons is normalised.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the public well understand that when our forces need to act quickly, decisively and safely, in concert with our allies, it must be right to authorise strikes without giving notice? Is it not also clear that if the use of chemical weapons goes completely unchallenged, dictators in other countries will use these awful weapons to suppress opposition?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comment. In fact, the 2016 written ministerial statement from which I quoted earlier was made in my right hon. Friend’s name. It states:
“In observing the convention, we must ensure that the ability of our armed forces to act quickly and decisively, and to maintain the security of their operations, is not compromised.”
It is important that we are able to do that, and I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend.
This was clearly a vile attack by Assad on his own people, and we have a responsibility to consider how to respond while also not escalating global conflict. However, Parliament has considered these kinds of complex issues before. We have voted for and against military action. We have got things right and got things wrong, and so too have the Executive. The Prime Minister and her Cabinet appear today not just to be arguing about the circumstances of last week, but to be rejecting the entire principle of consulting, debating and voting in Parliament in advance of military action. Given the importance of us pioneering democratic values across the world, will she clarify her position on that and say how important she thinks it is for Parliament to decide on issues of war and peace?
It is not a question of the Government rejecting that principle. If I can return again to the written ministerial statement, it observes:
“The Cabinet Manual states, ‘In 2011, the Government acknowledged that a Convention had developed in Parliament that before troops were committed the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter and said that it proposed to observe that Convention except where there was an emergency and such action would not be appropriate.’”
It subsequently goes on to make other references and, as I just said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), states:
“In observing the convention, we must ensure that the ability of our armed forces to act quickly and decisively, and to maintain the security of their operations, is not compromised.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 10WS.]
When the Government take a decision and act without a debate in Parliament, as has happened on this occasion, it is right that I come to Parliament at the first opportunity to explain that decision and to give Members an opportunity to question it, and to hold me and the Government to account.
I can only imagine the burden on the Prime Minister’s shoulders as she took this onerous decision. From the other side, I can say that when such orders are received, they are about the most sobering thing that one can ever get. I congratulate her on taking action that I believe to be not only legitimate, but right and, indeed, urgent. I also congratulate her, her colleagues and our international partners on standing together on this matter. However, will she reinforce the efforts of the Foreign Office? Few have been shouldering the burden as heavily as Karen Pierce at the United Nations, although others in our diplomatic network have done so. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Foreign Office’s role is to promote the aims and interests of our Government and our people whom we are here to represent, not to wait for a veto and the news that Moscow says no?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it must be the UK Government who determine UK foreign policy. We must not hand over our foreign policy to a Russian veto. It is absolutely essential that we determine our foreign policy; the Foreign Office, of course, is a key part of delivering that.
There are many who support the principle of humanitarian protection and what it achieved in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and who recognise what its absence cost in Rwanda and, indeed, Syria. Of course we must uphold the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons but, as someone who supported military action against Daesh in Syria in the vote in December 2015, I say gently to the Prime Minister that she should have come first to the House before committing our forces to action. Therefore, may I ask her to give us an assurance that in the event—heaven forbid—that President Assad chooses to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians once again, she will come to Parliament first, she will share such evidence as she can with us, as she has done today, and she will trust Parliament to decide what is to be done?
I set out in my statement the basis on which we took this decision. I recognise the importance and significance of Parliament and of Parliament being able to make its views known on these issues, but it is also important that the Government are able to act. There will always be circumstances in which it is important for the Government to be able to act and, for the operational security of our armed forces, to be able to do so without a debate having taken place in Parliament. There will be circumstances where that is the case, and the Government have consistently set that out. If those are the circumstances, as I have said, it is right that the Prime Minister comes to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.
In relation to potential future action, as I said in response to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), this was a targeted attack. It was targeted at degrading the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime. We now look, alongside that, to undertake international work through diplomatic and political channels to ensure that we reinforce the international norm of not using chemical weapons. Nobody should be in any doubt about our resolve to ensure that we do not see a situation developing in which the use of chemical weapons is normalised.
If the Leader of the Opposition persists in changing the Labour party’s previous adherence to the rule that international law justifies taking unilateral action in the event of humanitarian necessity, does my right hon. Friend agree that the consequence will be that any tyrant, megalomaniac or other person intent on carrying out genocide, if they have the support of an amoral state on the Security Council will be able to conduct that genocide with total impunity, even if it were within our power to act to prevent it? Does she agree that in those circumstances, far from upholding the international rules-based system, the reality is that it would be dead?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. If we were to say that we are prepared to act only when we have the support of the United Nations—given that, as we have seen in this circumstance, a member of the UN Security Council is willing repeatedly to veto the ability to investigate these issues—any tyrant could determine that they can act and use these weapons with impunity. We must not allow that. The use of these chemical weapons must be stopped.
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the passing of Sergeant Tonroe? His courage and valour is another example of the courage and valour of all our servicemen and women, as was exemplified in Syria at the weekend. I thank the Prime Minister for her call with me prior to the action on Saturday morning and for her statement today. Its cogent and well-argued nature in addressing the challenges of these difficult times stands in stark contrast to today’s contribution made by the Leader of the Opposition in this House. Given that this is limited and targeted action, and that diplomacy was tried and, sadly, was unable to succeed, the Prime Minister is utterly justified in the action that she has taken. She should have the support of every right-thinking Member of the House in upholding international law and defending the national interests of the United Kingdom.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right: we undertook this action because we believed it was the right thing to do and it was in our national interest. I believe it is important that all of us across this House recognise the need to uphold the international rules-based order and do what we can to ensure that we maintain it.
I welcome the calm and measured assessment of the Prime Minister, as I suspect do a considerable number of Opposition Members. She mentioned the year 2011. Bearing in mind what happened in Libya after the House retrospectively approved air action in 2011—namely the toppling of the regime—will she give us an absolute and unequivocal guarantee that the use of airstrikes now, specifically, as she says, to degrade and to deter chemical atrocities, will absolutely not be allowed to lead to the Royal Air Force becoming, in effect, the air arm of the jihadist-led rebel forces in Syria? The two roles are and should be held to be entirely separate.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right—they are separate. This was about the degrading of chemical weapons capability; it was not about regime change and it was not about an intervention in the civil war in Syria. It was about the use of chemical weapons and the prevention of future humanitarian suffering.
There are no easy solutions to the appalling humanitarian crisis and civil war in Syria, but Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons against his own people, in violation of international law, cannot go unanswered. What is the Prime Minister’s assessment of Assad’s chemical weapons capability after these strikes, and what further and urgent humanitarian action is she planning to protect Syrian civilians?
I thank the hon. Lady for her words. We, of course, continue to complete assessments of the action, but the assessment of the strikes that took place in the early hours of Saturday morning is that they were successful and that they will have degraded the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime. But we will continue to ensure that we are encouraging humanitarian access to those people in Syria who require it. Again, attempts have been made, through the United Nations, to encourage that access and so forth. Sometimes those have not been successful, but we will continue to press, because we believe it is important that we can ensure that support is available to those people in Syria who need it.
As a former Secretary of State for International Development, I can say that the harrowing stories I heard from Syrian refugees—men, women and children—will stay with me for the rest of my life. Does the Prime Minister agree that, on their behalf, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to this breach of international law and that there will be times when action is urgent and must be taken? Does she also agree that we cannot also allow countries such as Russia and Syria to simply dictate our foreign policy through barring action?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. As she said, she had the opportunity in her former role to speak to and hear from Syrian refugees about their experiences. Nobody who has seen the pictures or read the descriptions of what happened in Douma can think anything other than that this was an absolutely barbaric act that took place, and that it is right that we act in response to that and to the continued use of chemical weapons, because this was about the continued use of chemical weapons and the potential for those weapons to be used in future.
The sight of children and adults suffering from the effects of chemical weapons cries out to all humanity for a humane response, but planning for war without equally robust planning for peace is anything but humane. Conventional and chemical weapons are indiscriminately horrific. In what way will this weekend’s strikes protect children from future monstrous attacks?
We have undertaken a limited and targeted set of strikes, alongside our allies in the United States and France. The purpose of those strikes—as I just indicated in response to a previous question, our assessment is that they were successful—was to degrade the Syrian regime’s capability to use chemical weapons. They were also intended to deter the regime’s willingness to use chemical weapons. It is that degrading of the regime’s capability that we believe will have an impact and will help to alleviate the situation and ensure that we do not see the same humanitarian suffering in future.
My right hon. Friend will agree that the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances, is illegal, contrary to all the laws of war and utterly reprehensible. Will she therefore confirm that the Government will at a later date seek the arraignment at an international court of those who instigate these vile acts, whoever they may be?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the illegality of the use of chemical weapons and the impact of their use. We believe that those who are responsible should be held to account.
The pinpointing and degrading of Assad’s chemical weapons was necessary and appropriate. Intervening to save civilians from future gas attacks was, although not without risks, absolutely the right thing to do. Does the Prime Minister agree that a policy of inaction would also have severe consequences and that those who would turn a blind eye—who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground—should today also be held accountable for once?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and agree with him. Many people focus on the impact of action, but inaction would have given a message that these chemical weapons could continue to be used by the Syrian regime and, indeed, by others, with impunity. We cannot allow that to happen. The use of these weapons must be stopped.
There are no words to describe the appalling nature of the humanitarian disaster that confronts Syria, which is why I commend my right hon. Friend for the strong action that she has taken and the support she is giving to the Syrian people. Will she assure the House that in the face of the abhorrent abuses perpetrated by the Assad regime, hers will continue to be a strong voice in favour of the international rules-based system, and will she show that Britain will not stand idly by when cruel weapons are used to murder innocent children and families?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. We will ensure that our voice is heard. It is absolutely right that it was the right thing to do and was in our national interest, but it is also important that we are standing up for that international rules-based order and continue to do so.
Britain was absolutely right, with France and America, to take this long-overdue action in response to Assad’s proven and repeated use of chemical weapons. Since 2013, his regime and the Kremlin have lied and lied again about the continued development of his chemical weapons programme and their continued use. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that if this does not prove to be a sufficient deterrent, she and our allies will not hesitate to act again? In those circumstances, though, I urge her to come to the House to seek Parliament’s consent first.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to refer to the proven and repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. As I said earlier in response to a number of other questions, nobody should be in any doubt about our resolve to ensure that we alleviate human suffering by dealing with the use of chemical weapons and to ensure that their use is not normalised.
The Prime Minister was indeed heard in respectful silence because her moderate, determined and sensible attitude deserves respect from this House. May I ask her a question on behalf of the persecuted Christians of the middle east who will face further persecution if it is believed that their sponsors in the west are taking sides in the civil war? Will she assure us that, not just in terms of this airstrike, but generally, we are no longer in favour of regime change, that we do not take sides and that we are only on the side of peace? While we Back Benchers can of course not have access to intelligence, she does, and having had that access, can she look me in the eye and say that she is absolutely clear in her own mind that, beyond reasonable doubt, the regime was responsible for this attack?
On the first point, I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns about persecuted Christians in the region. Indeed, we are discussing with the Foreign Office how we can look at this issue of Christians and other religious groups who find themselves persecuted in wherever they might be, including in this region. I can give him the absolute assurance that, from the intelligence that I have seen, from the analysis that I have seen and from the assessments that I have heard, I am in absolutely no doubt that the Syrian regime was responsible for this attack in Douma.
The Prime Minister has said that the legal basis relies on there having been no practicable alternative to the use of force. Further to that, can she confirm exactly when the UK identified Him Shinsar as a chemical weapons storage facility, when it identified the chemical research facility at Barzeh as a chemical weapons research centre, when this information was reported to the OPCW and whether the UK has asked the OPCW to inspect both sites?
We have been very clear that we would like it to be possible for the OPCW to investigate sites in Syria, for there to be proper identification of the chemical weapons and for there to be proper accountability for the use of those chemical weapons.
Well, I say to the hon. Lady that, last Tuesday at the United Nations Security Council, there was going to be a proposal and resolution that would have enabled a proper investigative mechanism to be re-introduced to look at the use of chemical weapons and at what chemical weapons were available in Syria and held by the regime and at their capabilities and to be able to ascertain accountability for those chemical weapons. That draft resolution was vetoed by Russia.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the coming days, weeks and months, the image that we must hold in our minds is of children coughing up their lungs? Does she understand that many of us, from all parts of this House, want an Executive, when they are planning such a limited operation, to act in the full knowledge that if they do not and if they try to lay the matter before the House at great length, we will not only put at risk the operation, but possibly put at risk our airmen and complicate working with our partners?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that, when we think about this issue, we should hold in our minds the horrific suffering of children and others in Douma as a result of the use of these chemical weapons.
The Prime Minister has just said that we should hold in our minds the images of the suffering of those children—the human cost of the consequences of Assad and his Russian backers using chemical weapons against the people and it becoming normalised—but we know that this is not the first time. With that in mind, may I beg the Prime Minister to rethink her approach to those Syrians who have fled to Europe, because they are the same people fleeing this horror? They are the people who needed a safe haven. Forty per cent. of those in the Greek camps are Syrian, a third of whom are children, and there is only one Home Office official to deal with the issue for the entirety of Greece. Do those people not deserve more direct support from us, too?
The Home Office has been looking at this issue very carefully. We have changed the arrangements to ensure that a wider group of children will fall within the remit of our proposals for bringing refugee children into the United Kingdom. There are a number of ways in which we are ensuring that we accommodate, and offer shelter and security to, refugees from Syria, including refugee children. But as I said earlier, we must also recognise the many millions of people from Syria who have been displaced both within and from their country. It is right that we look to ensure that we can provide as much support as possible for them, and that is best done by supporting them in region.
May I offer the Prime Minister my support for the action that was taken at the weekend and for her stance on Parliament? She is absolutely right that Members of Parliament are there to scrutinise the decisions of the Executive, but it is the Prime Minister’s right, with her Government, to make the difficult decision that she made at the end of last week. In her statement, she talks about continuing to work with “international partners on tough economic action against those involved with the production or dissemination of chemical weapons”. May I suggest to her that that should extend to those who are complicit in the use of chemical weapons, those who turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons and those who veto resolutions of the United Nations? I am talking about much tougher sanctions on Russia and Russian citizens.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her contribution and for her specific proposals. We will be looking very carefully at what further levers can be used. I am pleased that the European Union Foreign Affairs Council has today agreed that it is willing to look at what further measures could be taken, and I will certainly take on board and note the specific suggestions made by my right hon. Friend.
It is always good to be able to call a fairly new and young Member, particularly when that Member is celebrating her birthday. I call Paula Sherriff.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
After the appalling scenes we saw in Douma, all of us in this House agree that there is a desperate need to provide humanitarian relief and medical care to the civilians who have fled the city and to those who have remained. What action has the Prime Minister taken to that end?
May I first wish the hon. Lady a very happy birthday?
We will be continuing to work with our international partners to see what more we can do regarding our humanitarian support and to press for humanitarian access. As the hon. Lady and others will know, this has been one of the problems. Time and again, groups of people in Syria have been suffering as a result of the conflict and it has not been possible to get humanitarian access to them. We will continue to press for that access at the international level.
On Sunday’s “The Andrew Marr Show”, the Leader of the Opposition said that
“our exports that go to Saudi Arabia…end up somewhere in very bad hands, in Syria and other places.”
The Leader of the Opposition has rightly called for evidence to support this intervention and for the Government to be satisfied about it. People who demand evidence and then repeat malicious gossip for which there is not only no evidence, but which is contradicted by the non-governmental organisations that are specialists in the area, are guilty of very poor double standards.
On the subject of new, young Members who are early in the parliamentary careers, let us hear from Mr Barry Sheerman.
It is not my birthday, but I was born in London on the worst weekend of the blitz. My next-door neighbour’s family were killed that night, including the two children, so I want action when I hear of a tyrant killing children. I have no criticism of the Prime Minister, but I do have one problem and demur. I have been a passionate pro-American for all the time that I have been in this House, and I have seen America as a beacon of our democratic world. But I was at the United Nations on different business last week when all this happened, and the conversations there were quite chilling. Many of us passionate pro-Americans could not remember a time when we were seriously worried about American leadership and the American President at the same time that we did not trust Putin and his horrible gang. We need a Prime Minister and European leaders to show the way in these troubled times. Does the Prime Minister agree?
I think that the hon. Gentleman has seen from the fact that the United Kingdom and France came together with the United States in this action that there is leadership being shown in Europe on this matter. We will continue to work with France, as I said, on the international grouping that it has put together on the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons. It is clear that Europe has taken a stance on this and has shown the way on the importance of the international rules-based order.
Had the Prime Minister first sought our consent, with what detail might she have persuaded us without fundamentally compromising our intelligence-gathering capability?
My right hon. Friend has put his finger on a particular aspect of this issue. It is not possible to bring all the intelligence through to this House; it is not possible to make all that intelligence public. Sometimes, actually, more information can be made available after the event than in advance of the event, because we do need to maintain the operational security of our armed forces.
Among those of us who have been trying to follow President Trump’s tweets over the past week, I cannot be the only person who has found it extremely difficult to keep track of whether he was for military action or against military action, so I wonder whether the Prime Minister can tell us at what point the President instructed her that military action would be taken.
The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is this: at no point at all. I took this decision, because I believed it was the right thing to do and it was in our national interest. It is a decision that should, I believe, be supported by anybody who recognises that we need to re-establish the international norms in relation to the use, and the prohibition of the use, of chemical weapons.
The Prime Minister deserves the support that she is getting from across the House for the action she has taken, just as it has had support from democracies not just in Europe but all around the world. Is not the problem for those who are advocating any and every type of action except military action that the action by the Assad regime was part of a repeated pattern of barbaric use of chemical weapons and that therefore, if she and our allies had not taken military action, we would have sent the message that using chemical weapons was no big deal, thus encouraging their further use on innocent civilians around the world?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was important, I believe, that we took action because what we saw in Douma was part of a repeated pattern of behaviour by the Syrian regime. It was precisely to degrade its capability and to prevent further humanitarian suffering that we took this action.
I accept that the Prime Minister had no real easy options in making this consideration, but given that members of the Security Council are now acting outwith the norms that she says she has acted to defend—ultimately, if the veto is dead for Moscow, it is dead for London—how exactly does she plan to restore order and reform the Security Council?
We will continue to operate through the United Nations Security Council and continue to make the arguments for ensuring that every country recognises the importance of ensuring that we maintain the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. As I said earlier, the strikes that took place were about degrading the Syrian regime’s capability, but I believe they should have given a message to others as well that we will not accept the use of chemical weapons with impunity.
May I begin by congratulating the Prime Minister on her leadership and on her sheer guts to take a decisive decision over the weekend to deal with Assad and his friends? In the event of a retaliatory cyber-attack from Russia on our NHS or any other vital part of our infrastructure, would she then, working with our NATO allies, consider invoking article 5?
My hon. Friend raises the issue of potential cyber-attacks. We have done a great deal as a Government to reinforce our capability to identify and deal with any potential cyber-attacks. The establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre has been a very important development from the United Kingdom’s point of view, enabling us to deal with the issue of cyber-attacks. We always remain on the alert for any such attacks, and we continue to enhance our capability to deal with them.
The Prime Minister referred to the actions of previous Governments. May I remind her and my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) that it was a Labour Government, with Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, that carried out airstrikes in Iraq under Operation Desert Fox in 1998 without a UN resolution, that it was a Labour Government that restored President Kabbah in Sierra Leone without a UN resolution, that it was a Labour Government that stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo without a UN resolution, and that there is a long-standing and noble tradition on these Benches of supporting humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; decisions have been taken by Governments of all colours to take action where it was believed to be in the national interest and important in order to prevent humanitarian suffering. As he said, there has been a long-standing and proud tradition in the Labour party of being willing to step up to the plate and take those decisions when it is necessary to do so.
Such decisions are always difficult, and Prime Ministers must retain the leeway to commit armed forces in extremis, but I hope the Prime Minister will understand that many are concerned, given our track record of errors in previous interventions and in Syria, that Government should be properly scrutinised before committing troops. Given the possibility of future interventions in Syria, under what circumstances does the Prime Minister think it right to come to this place and consult before committing armed forces?
I absolutely understand the concern that my hon. Friend and other Members of the House have in relation to the role of Parliament, particularly given the experience, and I know that he has in the past and continues to be concerned about that issue. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), we are not saying that no debate should take place in Parliament; we are saying simply that there needs to be a recognition of the fact that there will be occasions when it is important to act in a timeline and with consideration of the operational security of our armed forces, which means it is not possible to have that debate in advance of a decision being taken.
One of the last discussions I had with our murdered former colleague Jo Cox was on the need to protect civilians in Syria. We cannot fire and forget, but neither can we simply debate and talk and forget. What is the Prime Minister’s comprehensive political, diplomatic and humanitarian strategy—not just one-off military actions—to protect civilians in Syria? Does she agree that councils around the country, including Vale of Glamorgan Council in my constituency, need to do much more to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees under the resettlement programme, which they are currently not doing?
Certainly. There are two areas in which we will undertake this diplomatic and political process. The first is in relation to the use of chemical weapons, following up within a number of international forums on the military action that has taken place. As I said, there have already been comments coming out of the European Foreign Affairs Council and the Gulf Co-operation Council, and we will be discussing with a number of leaders around the world how we can re-establish the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. That is one strand of activity we will undertake.
The other strand is the full support we will continue to give to the United Nations process in trying to find a solution to what is happening in Syria. We support the work that Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy, is doing in that area. We hope that the Geneva process can be reignited and that we see the parties coming together around the table to find a genuine solution; that means not just all the parties in Syria but actually the backers of the parties in Syria being willing to do that.
The Leader of the Opposition has argued that the airstrikes were illegal, but is it not true that the only illegal act that has taken place in this situation was the war crime—and it was a war crime—of using chemical weapons to murder families and children? Was the Prime Minister not entirely right to authorise these airstrikes to defend the principles of the chemical weapons convention and, in so doing, to uphold international law?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. What is illegal is the use of chemical weapons, and it is entirely right that we have acted.
I have not heard much clarity on this, so will the Prime Minister tell us whether she is planning to use Executive powers again with regard to military action in Syria—in breach of the commonly understood parliamentary protocol that would have given the House a say in a matter of war? There is clear opposition from British people to airstrikes, and I think the public are right to be sceptical, so will the Prime Minister also explain how Friday night’s airstrikes have improved the safety and security of Syrian people practically, when we are aware that the bombing and violence are continuing unabated throughout the region?
I have responded to a number of questions in relation to Parliament. In the second part of the hon. Lady’s question, she asks about what impact this will have. The strikes that took place were about degrading the chemical weapons capability of the Syrian regime. As I have said in answer to other questions, the assessment we have made is that the strikes were successful. We obviously continue to build that picture, but that is our assessment of the strikes that have taken place. It is by degrading its chemical weapons capability that we can have an impact and ensure that we are reducing the likelihood of the humanitarian suffering in the future.
The conflict in Syria has had the most serious impact on other nations in the region, not least countries friendly to the UK such as Jordan, which has done so much to accommodate refugees from the fighting. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that our regional allies have been kept fully informed about the action we took last weekend, and that they will be similarly informed should any future action be necessary?
I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He specifically mentions Jordan. In fact, I spoke to His Majesty the King of Jordan on Saturday about this and about the support that the United Kingdom continues to give to Jordan, which is important. There are a large number of refugees in Jordan, and it is absolutely right that we continue to support that country in providing for those refugees and in other ways.
The policy paper on the UK Government’s legal position says:
“The UK is permitted under international law, on an exceptional basis, to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering.”
It does not, however, cite any authority for that proposition: it does not quote the UN charter, and it does not refer to any Security Council resolution nor any international treaty of any kind. Will the Prime Minister tell us why that proposition is unvouched for in the policy paper?
I say to the hon. and learned Lady that the basis on which we undertook this action is one that has been accepted by Governments previously and one under which previous action has been taken. I believe that it continues to be the right basis for ensuring that we can act to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and I would have thought the alleviation of humanitarian suffering was something that should gain support from across the whole House.
It is an historic reality that, of the many hundreds of occasions on which this country has gone to war or committed troops, only four have been voted on in this House prior to taking place, the most notable being when Tony Blair illegally committed our troops to war in 2003—not a great precedent. Does the Prime Minister not agree that she has the secret intelligence, she has the legal advice and she has the military advice to take that most awful and terrible of decisions—to commit our troops to war—and that by coming here and looking for political top cover, rather than empowering Parliament, she is actually emasculating it?
I think the position that the Government have taken on these matters, as set out in 2016, is absolutely clear: we must retain the right to be able to commit our armed forces where it is necessary and right to do so in a timely fashion, without having a debate in Parliament. However, we recognise the significance and importance of Parliament, and if it is the case that a decision is taken without that prior consideration by Parliament, the Prime Minister should come at the first possible opportunity to the House, which is what I have done.
I am glad that we are finally debating this situation in Syria, but the Prime Minister could and should have recalled Parliament to discuss and vote on this issue last week.
The heartbreaking and sickening images of these chemical attacks leave us in no doubt why so many Syrians have felt forced to take their children and flee their homes and their country. In the same circumstances, which of us would not do the same? But with deeper engagement comes greater responsibility, so does the Prime Minister recognise the jarring contrast between the humanitarian arguments she makes for this military action and her Government’s inhumane and inadequate approach to Syrian refugees, which has left vulnerable children stranded and alone?
We have been providing significant support to Syrian refugees since the start of this conflict—it is the biggest single humanitarian intervention that this country has made. We have been providing water, food and medical consultations for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Syrian refugees, and we continue to do so. I believe it is right that we continue to recognise the need of those people and that we continue to provide for it.
I sincerely thank my right hon. Friend for making sure Britain stands up against these chemical weapons attacks. Did she see the investigation in The Times on Saturday, which shows that a number of senior academics across universities, including Sheffield and Edinburgh, are disseminating extremist Assad propaganda? The Times describes it as
“an insult to the victims of a depraved regime and a stain on the reputation of the institutions which host its authors.”
Will she act to stop this extremism in our universities?
I have to confess to my right hon. Friend that I had not seen that particular report, and I will, of course, look at it. There are a number of values that underpin our society; of course, academic freedom is one of them. However, I will certainly look at the instances he has referred me to.
I regret that there was not a parliamentary debate and vote on this military intervention. However, standing by and letting President Assad use chemical weapons against his own people would have been the wrong thing to do. To prevent the further deterioration of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Syria, and has been for the last seven years, will the Prime Minister support President Macron’s initiative to push for humanitarian corridors to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people?
We will be pressing for humanitarian access. The exact form in which that humanitarian access might occur, of course, might vary, but we will continue to press with our international allies for humanitarian access.
I am very grateful for the Prime Minister’s robust action over the weekend. Given that this action has been legal, precise and timely, would she agree that those who seek to play politics around this issue by raising spurious legal questions do a great disservice to their office and a grave disservice to the innocent civilians in Syria who have faced the horror of chemical attack?
I agree with my hon. Friend. From the contributions that have already been made, it is clear that, across the House, there is support for action being taken against the use of chemical weapons and in support of those who have been suffering so abominably from the action of the Syrian regime.
The military action that took place was both correct and proportional in response to the horrific spectacle of women and children being gassed in their own homes in Douma. The military action is, though, only part of the strategy, so could the Prime Minister expand a little further on what will take place in the next few weeks in terms of the broader strategy, including the suggestion from the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) about economic sanctions against those who support the Assad regime?
There are a variety of ways in which we will be pursuing further action on the international stage. We will be looking at various economic levers, as I have said, and I take on board the comments that have been made in the House about the importance of doing that. We recognise that it was not just a case of the strikes taking place on Saturday morning and that we need to follow up with international action. We will look at the economic levers that we can use. As I have referenced, the Foreign Affairs Council in Europe has already been looking at the willingness to take further action. I have discussed that with a number of European Union leaders as well.
The Prime Minister has today made a compelling case for limited military action against the use of chemical warfare in Syria, but the wider diplomatic and political initiatives to bring about the end of these ghastly conflicts in Syria and to achieve a lasting peaceful solution seem no closer to success today than they were five years ago. What does my right hon. Friend believe is possible in trying to refocus all the parties involved on achieving that desperately difficult goal?
My hon. Friend is right that it has been difficult over the years that this conflict has taken place to bring the parties around the table. It is important not only that the opposition parties in Syria are willing to come around the table, which they are, but that the regime is, and Russia needs to play its part in ensuring that the regime is willing to come forward and to sit down and discuss the future of Syria.
We all know that the Syrian civil war will end only through diplomatic means, which is why this evening’s Stop the War demonstration should be taking place outside the Russian embassy and not outside this Parliament. The truth is that, had the UN Security Council fulfilled its obligations, we would not be facing the scenario that the Prime Minister described this afternoon. However, can I ask her to look again, with the same degree of urgency and same scale of response that she has provided in the last week, at the humanitarian crisis? This country has taken only 11,000 refugees. Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, are bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis. We have a responsibility to protect Syrian civilians, whether they are in Syria, in surrounding countries or making their way to this country, and we have not stepped up to the mark, not nearly enough.
As I said before, we are of course providing support in the region to those refugees. We have done so on the basis that we believe it is important. We want to see a resolution to the Syrian conflict, such that people will be able to return home in the future. That support in region is more likely to enable that to happen. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right when he says that Russia must bear its responsibility for what is happening in Syria and for the continuation of this conflict.
Order. I am keen to accommodate the level of interest in the House. This is an extremely important occasion, and in my experience the Prime Minister never complains about having to answer questions—or at least she never does to me anyway. I am very grateful for that, and I appreciate that, but it would be helpful if colleagues could be succinct. I know that that quality will be magnificently exhibited now by Anna Soubry.
Don’t hold your breath, Mr Speaker.
The Prime Minister was absolutely right in ordering the airstrikes this weekend. Does she agree that the Leader of the Opposition, however, was completely wrong—wrong in his failure to blame Assad for the chemical attacks on his own people and wrong when he said that this country has not been playing its part in assisting refugees? We are the second biggest donor in the world. Broxtowe has taken four—soon to be five—families, and we are very proud of that. For a borough of our size, that is a serious achievement, and we hope to take more. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is now imperative that countries across the world play their part in providing humanitarian relief for those who have had to flee from Assad’s regime?
I can deal with most things, but it is quite difficult dealing with lawyers.
My right hon. Friend asks about other countries playing their part in providing humanitarian support and support for refugees. She is absolutely right. I hope, at the conference due to take place in Brussels towards the end of this month, that countries will step up so we can ensure that support is available.
In the Prime Minister’s statement, she said:
“We are confident in our own assessment that the Syrian regime was highly likely responsible”.
Surely the burden of proof should be beyond reasonable doubt, as opposed to being “highly likely”? In addition, I would be interested to know who “we” are, given that Parliament was not consulted.
The Government made their assessments. Those were not just the view of the UK Government; they were shared by our allies and on that basis we acted.
I support my right hon. Friend’s decisive action this weekend. Were we waiting for war crimes prosecutions to take place, we would still be waiting for prosecutions dating back to the events she described that took place in 2013. I urge her to collect evidence relating to war crimes, but if this position arises again may I urge her to act as she did this weekend?
We will always act in the national interest and there should be no doubt about our resolve in ensuring that we return to the international norm of the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
From Prime Minister Trudeau in Canada to Prime Minister Abe in Japan, and from European leaders to leaders in Australia and New Zealand, the leaders of international bodies around the world stand shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. Friend, France and the United States of America in taking this action. Will she assure me that she will not listen to the increasingly small and isolated number of voices who insist that the Russian regime has a veto on our international actions? Will she instead listen to the numerous voices around the world who support the action she took at the weekend?
I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance.
Inaction and indecision has its cost. So far in Syria it has been met by the children of Syria, the parents who have lost their homes, the people who have lost their lives and the families who have been displaced. The Prime Minister is, of course, right to take action when there is an emergency—she has that prerogative right. Nearly always, however, it is better to come to the House of Commons first. In the end, the most pernicious role in Syria has been played by Russia: it has systematically refused to allow people to investigate where war crimes have been committed, and it has advanced its own territorial ambitions. Is it not right that we must ensure that it pays the price in the end?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Nobody should be in any doubt about the role that Russia has played. Russia could play a role to ensure we find a diplomatic and political solution to what is happening in Syria. It has been unwilling to do so and it has supported a regime that has illegally used chemical weapons to kill and injure its own civilians, including young children.
Many of the ghastly chemical attacks my right hon. Friend announced this afternoon would be classed as war crimes, so she was absolutely right to take the action she has taken. In contrast, what would have been the consequence for future tyrants if the Leader of the Opposition had failed to take military action?
The fact is that without action the message would have been sent that it was okay for this regime, and any other regime that chose to do so, to use chemical weapons. It is very important that we re-establish the fact that chemical weapons use is illegal and that the international community will not stand by and see them used.
It seems this is a week in which the Government have sought to lead the Commonwealth, but have nearly deported its citizens; to defend the international rules-based system by ignoring the United Nations; and to reclaim parliamentary sovereignty by not using it. Will the Prime Minister advise the House on where that all fits in with the plan for a global Britain?
We have not ignored the United Nations. We have tried to work through the United Nations, but Russia has vetoed action in the United Nations. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that this country should effectively give Russia a veto over our foreign policy, then I have to say to him that I absolutely disagree. The United Kingdom Government will determine the United Kingdom’s foreign policy—nobody else.
Russia is waging a propaganda war and it is involved in the cover-up. It is reporting that the attack was staged and it has, over many months, systematically and strategically used social media to undermine western engagement and intervention in Syria. While it is right to hold the Government to account, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Leader of the Opposition is at risk of becoming a voice for our country’s enemies?
It is important that everybody across this House is in no doubt about the way in which Russia has supported the Syrian regime and the way in which Russia has acted. That has meant it has been much harder to do what the Leader of the Opposition and others have looked for, which is to bring an end to the conflict in Syria. Russia is playing a negative role. It could play a positive role. We should be in no doubt about the actions Russia has taken and the role it is playing.
When David Cameron came to the House in 2011 following the start of our intervention in Libya, it was for a full debate on an amendable motion. He got that approval by 557 votes to 13. I offer no prizes for guessing who was in the 13, Mr Speaker. Will the Prime Minister follow the precedent set by David Cameron and tomorrow allow the House a vote on an amendable motion, not just a general debate?
The right hon. Gentleman quotes the former Prime Minister. The former Prime Minister also said to the House of Commons in 2014:
“it is important to reserve the right that if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, you could act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards.”—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1265.]
The Prime Minister was absolutely right in the actions she took and the way she took them. She was also right, in her statement, to continue to press for the re-establishment of the international investigative mechanism. Does she believe that that mechanism and that ambition will be thwarted unless Russia gives up its veto on the Security Council and the OPCW is allowed to continue its investigations unhindered in Syria?
I want the OPCW to be able to continue its investigations unhindered, but my hon. Friend puts his finger on it: unless the Russians are willing, within the Security Council, to put aside the position they have taken previously and accept it is important that we re-establish the international rules-based order, we allow the investigations to take place and we hold the Syrian regime accountable for its actions.
This debate is heavily coloured by the vote that took place in this House in 2013 against the use of military action, after the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons at that time. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many times the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people since we took that vote and since Russia promised to oversee the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme?
I made reference in my statement to a number of occasions on which the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, as evidenced and accepted by the United Nations. This is exactly the problem. The Syrian regime said it would get rid of its chemical weapons and the Russians said that they would guarantee that that would happen. It did not happen. Chemical weapons have been used on a number of occasions since.
I support the decision that the Prime Minister took both to authorise action that degraded chemical weapons capability and to send a very clear message about its unacceptability. I have listened carefully to the Leader of the Opposition and looked at what he has done in this House when opposing military action, whether it was authorised by the UN or, indeed, asked for by the Government of Iraq to deal with Daesh. I know that the Prime Minister took this decision with great care and attention, as a Prime Minister must do, but a Prime Minister who is never willing to use military action is not fit to hold that office.
There is no harder decision for a Prime Minister to take than to commit British armed forces to action. It is a grave responsibility, but sadly there are occasions when it is necessary to take that decision—and yes, be held accountable for it. But the idea that we would never commit our armed forces to action is completely unacceptable. We have to accept that there are occasions when it is right for our armed forces to be sent out there into action on our behalf, and that is what we have done.
The international community has a responsibility to protect civilians caught up in conflict, so would the Prime Minister explain how she and the international community intend to hold Assad and his allies fully to account in the interests of preventing further atrocities?
The first step we have taken in the interests of preventing further atrocities is to take action to degrade the chemical weapons capability of the regime. We also want to follow this up with diplomatic and political pressure on the issue of using chemical weapons. We believe that this is not just about degrading the chemical weapons capability of the regime; I hope that it has sent a message to others as well that the international community is resolved in not being willing to see the use of chemical weapons being normalised.
The Leader of the Opposition suggested that Britain acted only because it was instructed to by the US. I find that hugely disrespectful to the British Government, the British armed forces and our allies in France. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that the Government can take action rapidly when it is needed and that it is vital to send a message to Putin and Assad that we are ready to use such powers?
Let nobody be in any doubt: we did not act under instruction from anybody. We acted in the national interest.
So far today the Prime Minister has ducked out of questions about Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world—Yemen—and she has not answered why she did not wait until the outcome of the OPCW inspections. She has not explained why a parliamentary recall would jeopardise the action that President Trump had already tweeted about. She has not answered about providing further humanitarian assistance and additional support for refugees, and yet she talks about parliamentary scrutiny. How is a statement after the event parliamentary scrutiny when she will not answer any hard questions?
The hon. Gentleman talks about me not answering questions on refugees, but I have done so, or on the OPCW, but I have done so. I have answered many questions and I have to say that I will be answering many more on this particular issue.
The UK and the men and women of our armed forces should be enormously proud of being part of a triumvirate that over the weekend delivered necessary, proportionate and humane military effect, and the Prime Minister should be proud of her leadership. Would the Prime Minister agree that Russia, in addition to its disgracefully deployed veto at the UN Security Council, has another veto that it is able to exercise—by virtue of shifting its military assets around Syria?
My hon. Friend is right that we should look very carefully at the role that Russia is playing in Syria. Russia has the capability of acting in a different way by ensuring that the parties can sit down together, resolve this issue and find a political solution. It has not been willing to do so thus far, but we will make every effort to ensure that all parties are willing to do that and to ensure that we can find a political solution.
If the targeted buildings were not empty, what assessment does the Prime Minister have of the casualties?
We have no evidence of casualties so far. If there are reports of casualties, those will be properly investigated. Of course, that is in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Syrian regime and its Russian backers. The planning was done very carefully to ensure that we minimised the possibility of casualties.
Will my right hon. Friend put to bed the less than constructive comments we are getting from some Members of the Opposition—that Friday’s action was taken as a knee-jerk reaction to President Trump? Rather, can she give assurances that action was taken in the national interest to give a clear message that using chemical weapons anywhere, whether in Syria or Salisbury, is simply unacceptable, and that we cannot turn our backs on action like this?
I am very happy to repeat to my hon. Friend that this action was taken and we believed that it was the right thing to do. It was in our national interest. It was not under the instruction of anybody else. We determined that it was right for the United Kingdom to be part of this action in order to degrade a chemical weapons capability that could have been used to inflict further humanitarian suffering.
If not regime change, what is the endgame?
The step we want to see is the parties coming together around the table to agree a political solution to the future of Syria. There is a key role; we have been pressing for that. We have been supporting the Geneva process. We continue to support Staffan de Mistura and the work that he is doing. It is up to not just the Syrian regime but its backers to ensure that they are willing to see that discussion take place and a proper solution for Syria being resolved in the interests of all its people.
Leadership takes great courage. My right hon. Friend has shown it in spades and I commend her, as do most in the House today. I am sure she would agree that I would be failing if I did not mention the money spent on our armed forces in difficult times such as this. I ask her, please, to consider spending more money on our defences so that we are ready if, God forbid, they are needed more in the future.
I recognise the interest that my hon. Friend has shown in this topic and the way in which he has championed the armed forces in relation to the financial settlements. Prior to Easter, I was able to announce that some extra money was being made available to the Ministry of Defence, and we have in hand the modernising defence programme, in which we are looking to ensure—he referred to our capabilities—that we have the capabilities necessary to deal with the variety of threats that we face. The capabilities for our security will be of a variety of sorts, not all of which will lie in the Ministry of Defence.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), after this House voted against strikes in 2013 the Government and the Opposition accepted Russia’s assurances that it would oversee the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapon capability. Yet over the past five years, Russia has used its veto no fewer than five times at the Security Council. Five of those vetoes were specifically on motions that could have hampered the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Does she believe, like me, that we were wrong to accept Russia’s commitment, and can she tell the House about what her next steps will be at the UN Security Council?
Obviously, I was one of those who voted in favour of action being taken when the vote was taken in this House in 2013. A guarantee from Russia was accepted, and it has been proved that that was wrong because it did not deliver on that, and the Syrian regime has not delivered on its commitment. It is important that we take the issue of the use of chemical weapons into the United Nations. I spoke to the United Nations Secretary-General about further steps that can be taken over the weekend.