Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons

29th August 2013

Speaking in the debate in Parliament, Brooks Newmark tells MPs that we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to go unchallenged and failing to act gives a green light to the Assad regime to go on slaughtering and gassing its people.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for whom I have huge respect. I want to begin by agreeing with the Foreign Secretary that this is a moment for democratic nations to live up to their values. The use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s regime is a moral outrage that cannot go unchallenged. I will therefore be supporting today’s motion.

Less than 24 hours ago, I was on the Syrian border, where I have spent the past few days meeting Syrian opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army—the FSA. The brigade commanders and fighters I met were from all backgrounds. Many were doctors, teachers, farmers and engineers; they represented a broad cross-section of Syrian society, including Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and, yes, Alawites as well. I also had the opportunity to meet General Idris, the head of the FSA, and President Jarba, the head of the Syrian Opposition Council. As colleagues will know, I also met President Assad several times over the five-year period between 2006 and 2011. So I come to this debate fairly well informed on Syria and its people.

The use of chemical weapons in war is particularly abhorrent, as we saw in 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, and again last week when the Assad regime inflicted a chemical weapons attack on Ghutah, a suburb of Damascus. According to Médecins sans Frontières, that attack resulted in at least 3,600 casualties. In 1925, in the aftermath of the first world war, the Geneva gas protocol was passed to ban the use of such weapons.

A year ago, a red line on the use of chemical weapons was drawn by the Assad regime, but since then, it has been testing the elasticity of that red line with the repeated small-scale use of such weapons, according to witness statements, video evidence and physiological samples that have been tested here at Porton Down as well as in the US and elsewhere. In fact, last week’s chemical weapons attack was possibly the 14th such attack by the Assad regime on its own people. It was only the fact that it was on such a large scale and took place in the capital itself that led us in the west to decide that enough was enough.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech based on his knowledge of the situation on the ground. What assessment has he made of the size of the chemical weapons arsenal, and of which country might have helped Syria to establish it in the first place?

Mr Newmark: That is a very good question, and I suspect that I know my hon. Friend’s direction of travel in asking it. There is no evidence, at least that I am aware of, that the Russians or the Iranians helped Syria to develop that arsenal, although I would not be surprised if they had done so.

Peter Hitchens wrote recently, in support of the Assad regime, that the Syrian Government were not lying and that it made “more sense” for the opposition to poison and kill more than 1,000 of their own people. If that is the case, however absurd, why, if they had nothing to hide, did the Syrian Government and their chief sponsor on the Security Council, Russia, block the United Nations chemical weapons inspectors from going to the site when they were only 15 minutes away? Instead, they continued to bombard the area and to degrade the evidence as much as possible. I find it astounding how this kind of double-think has become common currency among many of those who oppose the war. That includes some Opposition Members who have been retweeting articles along those lines from the Voice of Russia. Frankly, I would rather believe our Government and our intelligence agencies than Russia and President Assad.

That chemical weapons have been used in Syria is in no doubt. The question is whether the regime itself delivered them. My understanding is that the intelligence drawn from eye-witness statements, video footage and electronic intercepts is extremely compelling. This raises another question: do we have any confidence in our intelligence agencies at all? My answer is yes. Just because Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were economical with the truth about the intelligence that they used to get us into Iraq—through what has become known as the “dodgy dossier”—that should not taint our view of the current evidence that the intelligence services have been collecting on this matter. That evidence puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of Bashar al-Assad and his brother, Maher.

Bob Stewart: I was an officer trained in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, and one of the things that I learned on my course was that only a professional army could manage and use chemical weapons. There is no doubt in my mind that the rebels would not have the capacity or the ability to use such weapons. I am sure that when the report comes back from the United Nations inspectors, it will not be able to identify who threw them or used them but it will perhaps be able to say that they were used. In my mind, however, there is no doubt that only a professional army—and not the rebels—could use chemical weapons.

Mr Newmark: I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his thoughtful intervention.

Those opposing military action say that, notwithstanding the increasing evidence that Assad used chemical weapons, we should let the UN inspectors do their work first. To them I say this: of course, but we should remember that the inspectors’ remit is not to apportion blame for this atrocity; it is merely to confirm that chemical weapons were in fact used. Does any Member in the House doubt that such weapons were used? Of course not. Those opposing military action say that we need a UN resolution to back any action, but we will never get such a resolution while Russia, the Assad regime’s key supporter, remains a member of the Security Council. In fact, Russia has blocked every single move to condemn the Assad regime since this conflict began.

Dr Huppert: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Newmark: No, I am afraid I cannot.

The result is that the UN is failing to live up to its mandate to protect. We therefore need to find a coalition of the willing. Why? Because we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to go unchallenged. As President Jarba said to me earlier this week, western silence and inaction are killing his people. If we do not support today’s motion, and if we do nothing, it will give a green light to the Assad regime to go on slaughtering and gassing its people with impunity. For that reason, I support the motion.

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