Sir Nicholas Soames’s Question to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, following his Statement on Syria and North Korea.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by paying tribute to the Britons who were killed in tragic circumstances in Stockholm and Jerusalem. Chris Bevington was among four people who died in Sweden when a truck was driven into helpless pedestrians on 7 April. Hannah Bladon was stabbed to death in Jerusalem on Good Friday in a senseless attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.
I wish to update the House on two of the most significant foreign policy events of the last fortnight, namely the situations in Syria and North Korea. These disparate challenges encompass one common theme. In each case, hereditary dictators presiding over cruel tyrannies have challenged the essential rules that underpin our world peace. The United States has responded with strength and resolve, and in accordance with its traditional role as the guarantor of the rules-based system. In both cases, the United States has acted with the full support of the British Government.
Turning first to Syria, at 6.39 am on 4 April there was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province. The House will recall the horrifying aftermath: men, women and children convulsed in agony, some foaming at the mouth, as their bodies were poisoned by nerve gas. Rescue workers tried desperately to decontaminate the casualties. We saw children with oxygen masks clamped to their faces. Even by the standards of a civil war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, this was among the most shocking incidents.
I want to repeat for the benefit of the House exactly what we know about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, because there has been a concerted attempt to obscure the facts. We know beyond doubt that two Sukhoi-22 aircraft took off from Shayrat airfield, where we know chemical weapons are stored. We know that they were overhead at 6.39 am when, according to all eyewitness accounts, the attack took place. We know from shell fragments in the crater that sarin had not only been used, but that it was sarin carrying the specific chemical signature of sarin used by the Assad regime. Given that samples from the victims show conclusively that they had been exposed to sarin gas, there is only one conclusion to be reached: that the Assad regime almost certainly gassed its own people, in breach of international law and the rules of war. That shows the emptiness of the agreement—reached in 2013 and guaranteed by Russia—that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical weapons once and for all, and, I am afraid, exposes the misjudgment of those who regarded that deal as a substitute for resolute action.
The attack on Khan Sheikhoun is already the subject of an international inquiry by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Thanks in large measure to UK diplomacy, the United Nations now has a joint investigative mechanism with a mandate to identify any party responsible for chemical attacks in Syria, and I trust that it will report as soon as possible. The House should bear in mind, however, that UN investigators have already found the Assad regime guilty of using poison gas on three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015.
Some Members have suggested that we arraign Assad before the International Criminal Court. I must say to them that the only way of bringing Syria before the ICC would be through a referral from the Security Council, and we tried that option in 2014, only to be thwarted by the vetoes of Russia and China. Sadly, Russia’s response to the attack on Khan Sheikhoun has been to try to protect Assad yet again. On 12 April, it cast its eighth veto on behalf of Assad in the Security Council, blocking a resolution that would have demanded the regime’s co-operation with the international investigation.
The day after the atrocity I spoke to Secretary of State Tillerson, and it became clear that the United States was considering a military response. In the early hours of 7 April, the US did indeed take action, firing 59 cruise missiles at the military air base from which the gas attack is believed to have been launched. We were given advance notice of the operation, but at no stage did the US Administration ask for our military help; they asked only for political support. Advance warning was given to Russian military personnel, who were co-located with the Syrian air force at the same base, to minimise the risk of casualties.
The Government believe that the US action was a necessary, appropriate and justified response to an awful crime. As many as 20 Syrian military aircraft are believed to have been destroyed, and, as the House will know, Assad’s air force has been bombing civilians day after day for most of the past six years. The destruction of some of those strike aircraft will in itself save some lives, but still more important, I think, is President Trump’s emphatic message that the era during which Assad’s barbarism met with passivity and inaction has finally come to an end. America’s determined response creates an opportunity to break the deadlock and pave the way for a political settlement of Syria’s tragedy, but that will happen only if Russia is prepared to bring Assad to the negotiating table and begin a transition to a new Government who will represent the sole chance of peace in Syria. After the chemical attack and the American strike, the priority was for Secretary Tillerson to convey that message to Russia with the backing of as many countries as possible. The combined weight of the G7, and like-minded countries in the region, unanimously supported the US military action as a “carefully calibrated” response to a “war crime”, and mandated Tillerson to go to Russia and urge the Russians to
“promote a real and genuine political process in Syria”.
I want to stress that we in the UK have no intention of dislodging Russian interests in Syria; on the contrary, we recognise Russia’s long connection with that country and the national interests at stake. But Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad. The unmistakable lesson of six years of bloodshed is that Assad cannot deliver what his people—and the wider world—so desperately need, namely, a peaceful and united Syria. Therefore, I hope I have the support of everyone in this House when I call on the Russians to end their blind support for Assad, stop the gas attacks and the barrel bombs, allow the delivery of aid to those who need it, deliver a real ceasefire and begin the political process that will include a transition away from Assad.
That was the message that Secretary Tillerson conveyed to Putin and to Sergei Lavrov on 12 April. We will do our utmost in the UK to hold accountable anyone found responsible for that gas attack, and we will work with our American counterparts to create the conditions for Russia to work with us and to escape its entanglement with the toxic Assad regime, which poisons Russia’s international reputation just as surely as it poisons its own people.
I turn now to North Korea. Last weekend’s events provided further proof of the threat that that country poses to international peace and security. On Saturday, North Korea paraded an arsenal of ballistic missiles in front of carefully regimented crowds. Only 24 hours later, the regime tested another missile, although this time the launch failed. Last year alone, North Korea tested two nuclear bombs and 24 missiles. I remind Members that all those tests break a series of UN resolutions dating back to 2006, when resolution 1695 was passed unanimously by the Security Council, yet on Monday the Pyongyang regime threatened further missile tests on a
“weekly, monthly and yearly basis”.
The regime is now developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the mainland United States. These weapons have not yet been fully tested, but no one can be complacent about the potential threat they pose.
Yesterday, I spoke to my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and I urged him to use Beijing’s unique influence to restrain North Korea and to allow a peaceful resolution of this crisis. By suspending its coal imports from North Korea, China has given a welcome signal of its willingness to exert pressure on the regime. Later this month, I shall attend a special meeting of the Security Council on North Korea.
All hopes for progress rest on international co-operation —especially between China and the US—and the verifiable disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The crises in Syria and North Korea represent a challenge to the law-based liberal international order in which this country believes. Britain’s role is to stand alongside the United States and our allies as we confront those threats. In that effort, we will not tire. I commend this statement to the House.
Tuesday 18th April 2017
It is obviously right that a diplomatic joint approach in Syria is more important than unilateral action. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore commit to continuing to work closely with our American allies and other partners and friends to bring an end to this barbaric slaughter in Syria?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. That is exactly what we are engaged in doing. I do not pretend to the House that it will be easy. We have been here before; we have seen the whole Kerry-Lavrov rigmarole that went on for months and months. However, this is an opportunity for Russia to recognise that it is supporting a regime that deserves the odium of the entire world. That is costing Russia friends and support around the world, but it now has a chance to go for a different approach and that is what we are collectively urging it to do.