Both Houses were recalled last Thursday to debate the situation in Syria. On matters of war, the onus rests on the Commons, so the Lords deliberates on a ‘take note’ rather than (as in the Commons) a substantive motion. The focus was naturally on the Commons, even more so given the outcome of the two votes. However, the debate in the Lords was notable, both in the terms of the number of speakers (over seventy) and, more importantly, for the content of their speeches. You can watch the debate here (bear in mind it lasts over seven hours) or read Hansard here.
Although MPs eventually voted down both the Opposition amendment and the Government motion, the debate in the Commons was more finely balanced than in the Lords. When both Houses were recalled in September 2002 to debate Iraq, the tenor of the debate in the Lords was critical of military intervention (more so than in the Commons), but last week the opposition to military action was even more pronounced. Hardly any peers, other than Michael Howard and Paddy Ashdown, supported military strikes. There were some heavyweight contributions from peers who could speak from positions of authority. They included those drawn from the military, such as Admiral Lord West, General Lord Dannatt and General Lord Ramsbotham, as well as those who had served as Heads of the Diplomatic Service (one a former Ambassador to Syria), Secretary General of NATO, UK Ambassador to the UN, and several who had held senior Cabinet office.
Clearly, the debate was influenced by what had happened in Iraq, though the biggest influence of the earlier Iraq debate appeared to be on the Joint Intelligence Committee in terms of how its intelligence assessment was couched. However, the issue of whether the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons was only part of the issue. There was particular concern at the consequences of the use of military action. The use of force, it was argued, may exacerbate the situation and make Russia and China more resistant to assisting in a political solution. Action by the USA, UK and France would also constitute action by Western nations, a fact likely to be exploited by the Assad regime. Above all, fears were expressed that planning had not gone beyond military action. One bombs specific targets. Then what?
The point was made in debate that inaction also has consequences, but I don’t think anyone was arguing for doing nothing. Rather, it was a case of deciding which proactive route to take, be it military or political. No one was unaware of the horrific slaughter taking place. There is a natural tendency to say ‘something must be done’, but the need is to ensure that what one does does not make the situation even worse. The prime aim must be to mobilise a truly international response.