Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con):

    I am extremely reluctant to endorse military action in Syria. My reluctance does not spring from any doubts about the facts of the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Those who suggest that the atrocity of 21 August was committed by his opponents on their own supporters to provoke intervention by the alliance are allowing their hostility to military action to fuel their imagination in the absence of any concrete evidence. But my right hon. Friends were right to delay any decision until the UN inspectors have reported.

    Nor does my reluctance spring from doubts about the legality of action to deter or prevent the further use of chemical weapons, even without a UN resolution, but I am puzzled why the United States, the United Kingdom and France stepped forward with alacrity to take on this unpopular task. France, from which I have just returned, is the country whose willingness to do so can most easily be explained. The decline in President Hollande’s support was checked only by his successful intervention in Mali, with boots on the ground. More importantly, France has always believed that it has a special involvement in Syria. However, President Hollande, and indeed anyone else who is thinking of serious involvement on the ground in Syria, should read a report of the last time that France was involved in Syria, written by President Hollande’s predecessor, de Gaulle, when he was still a commandant in 1931, describing how it took six years and nearly 10,000 French dead to restore peace in Syria after the first world war. We all do well to remember just how difficult that country is to pacify.

    The involvement of the United States and the United Kingdom is much more puzzling. Obama voted against Iraq. By no stretch of the imagination is he a interventionist cowboy; nor are my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister rabid neo-cons. I can only suspect that one reason is the fear that inaction now that red lines have been crossed would send a message to Iran that it has little to fear if it continued to develop nuclear weapons. That is a legitimate and powerful reason, but it can have difficult consequences.

    My main concern is that, although the Government’s intentions as laid out in the motion are limited, military action will unleash pressures to become further involved. If Assad takes whatever blow we inflict upon him but then goes on and appears to be winning, would we tolerate a war criminal being allowed to win? Would there not be enormous pressures to switch the balance back against him, and would it not be hard to resist pressures to arm the rebels? If we are partly motivated by a concern to send a message to Iran, will it not be seen as difficult to allow Iran’s ally to win?

    Let us suppose that Assad desists from the further use of chemical weapons, to go on committing what might be called conventional atrocities, as he has. Will not our commitment and its legal basis that this is not about chemical weapons but about the duty to protect people lead us to be pressed to take action against that type of atrocity? Indeed, if those atrocities are committed by the other side, or sides, in the war, will we not be pressed to take action about them?

    What keeps me out of the No Lobby tonight is my confidence in the judgment of the Foreign Secretary, with whom I have worked in many roles, subordinate and inferior, and my confidence that he would not use his good judgment unwisely in this matter—nor would the Prime Minister—but what I need to persuade me to join them in the Yes Lobby is the clearest possible assurance that they will resist the forces to go further if we do get involved and say, “So far, but no further.”