Syria

Your opinion at the start - stage 1/6

In 2013 chemical weapons were used in Syria, but the UK government refused to approve military action to deter their use by the Syrian government. Was it right?

On 29th August 2013 the House of Commons debated possible UK military action to deter the use of chemical weapons by Syria. This Open Up topic is a summary of the arguments made in that debate on Syria. It uses the actual words of MPs where possible, although in places they have had to be shortened. It does not take account of developments since the debate.

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Author - Paul Eustice; reviewer - Perry Walker

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On 29th August 2013 the House of Commons debated possible UK military action to deter the use of chemical weapons by Syria. This Open Up topic is a summary of the arguments made in that debate on Syria. It uses the actual words of MPs where possible, although in places they have had to be shortened. It does not take account of developments since the debate.

On the morning of 21 August 2013, there was a chemical weapons attack on Ghutah, a suburb of Damascus (the capital of Syria). Médecins sans Frontières is an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid. They reported that, in just three hours, three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600 patients with symptoms‘consistent with’ chemical weapons attacks.

At least 350 of those innocent people died. There is video footage showing some shocking images of great suffering. Expert analysts agree that such a wide array of footage could have been made up, especially the scenes involving small children.

In 1925, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Geneva gas protocol banned the use of such weapons. Of the 196 recognised world nations, 165 have formally signed the convention on the use of chemical weapons.

In 2005 world leaders and the UN signed up unanimously to the doctrine of 'responsibility to protect’. ‘Responsibility to protect’ was once called humanitarian intervention.

On the day of the debate, the coalition published the key judgments in a letter from the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The letter states that “there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto…took place on 21 August”.

The government’s motion envisaged the possibility of military action without a UN resolution. In the Attorney-General’s legal advice there are three very important conditions if military action is to be taken in the absence of a chapter VII Security Council resolution:

  1. “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress”.
  2. “it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”.
  3. “the proposed use of force must be…proportionate…and…strictly limited in time”.

In the debate, Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, summarised the common ground in the House of Commons:

  • “This House stands united in its revulsion at the reports of the use of chemical weapons being deployed against innocent men, women and children in Syria.
  • The use of chemical weapons is not just deplorable; it is both immoral and illegal. Since the Geneva protocol of 1925, the use of such weapons has been prohibited.
  • Hon. Members are deeply concerned as to how to protect the international prohibition of their use that has been in place for decades.
  • The suffering and the scale of the slaughter in Syria. In the past two years, more than 100,000 people have been killed and more than 6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Already 2 million refugees have fled Syria, 1 million of whom are children.”

The government’s motion, which could have led to UK military action to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons by Syria, was defeated by 285 votes to 272.