17:07 Tuesday 27th August 2013
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
CHRIS MANN: MPs will return to Parliament this Thursday, as Britain draws up plans for possible military action in Syria. David Cameron cut short his family holiday to get back to Downing Street and co-ordinate Britain’s response to a chemical weapons attack he believes was carried out by the Syrian regime. We can get the latest now from Westminster and our political reporter Ellie Zaniewska.
ELLIE ZANIEWSKA: Well nothing is inevitable of course Chris, but it does see from the way that Government ministers and their American counterparts are talking that some kind of military intervention is increasingly likely. It’s not clear precisely what form that military action might take, and I suppose that’s why the Labour Party and many Conservative backbenchers were putting a lot of pressure on the Government to recall Parliament early so that they can ask all those kinds of questions on our behalf. It is thought the most likely military response would be a one-off or limited air strikes against Syrian military targets. Certainly nobody expects the Government to be talking about putting British boots on the ground. But at this stage all we’ve heard from Downing Street is that Britain’s armed forces are drawing up contingency plans for military action to try to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons. Now the Education Secretary Michael Gove has been talking about this today. He says the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are taking the right approach to this crisis. (TAPE)
MICHAEL GOVE: I think that we need to be calm and resolute in our response. Appropriate preparations need to be taken. The hard diplomatic work that William Hague has done has ensured that we’re in a stronger position to do whatever may be required. (LIVE)
ELLIE ZANIEWSKA: And we are told that any response would be proportionate, that it would be lawful, and that it would be done with the agreement of allies.
CHRIS MANN: Now Ellie, are we sure that the Government aren’t jumping the gun here? Are we absolutely positive, are we sure that it is the Syrian regime that are behind this chemical weapons attack?
ELLIE ZANIEWSKA: The British and American governments do seem confident now that that’s the case, and the language that they’re using on this has hardened noticeably. The latest suspected chemical attack is believed to have killed 300 people. Some reports suggest as many as 1,000 could have died, including many children. And listeners may have seen some of those very disturbing images on the television news. United Nations weapons inspectors are currently in Syria, and are trying to establish whether chemical weapons were used. But they have been limited in the evidence that they’re able to gather. They haven’t been able to get to the most affected sites, and they’ve had to delay visits because of security fears. They also are not going to be trying to establish who is to blame for these attacks. Now the Government here feel that all the problems that UN weapons inspectors have been facing should be seen as further evidence that the Syrian regime was behind the attack. They believe that they are essentially hiding the evidence. The Syrian government has responded to this. They held a press conference this morning denying that they’ve used chemical weapons , and their main ally, Russia, is also sticking by them, insisting that there is no evidence an attack took place, or that the Government there was to blame. President Putin has been saying that any military action which took place without agreement from the United Nations Security Council would be a grave violation of international law. The Foreign Secretary William Hague though has responded to that, saying he believes that it would be possible for the UK and its allies to take military action without unanimous backing from the UN, and the Labour Party agree with him on that one.
CHRIS MANN: Of course there are echoes of pre-Iraq War here, with the demand for evidence that was said to have been found but never was. What do you expect to happen when MPs return to Westminster? Will they back an armed response to this crisis?
ELLIE ZANIEWSKA: I think MPs are united in feeling that this is a situation they just don’t want to be in. They wish it would go away. But they are in it, and they are sharply divided over what is the right thing to do now. Essentially the Government’s position, the position being taken by the United States, is that they feel they can’t stand aside and allow the Syrian regime to use nerve agents on their own people, and that there would be no military response to that. But a lot of MPs I think are deeply worried that any armed response will only serve to escalate the conflict, and it could be a decision that we would come to regret years down the line. So opinion is divided. And Labour’s Douglas Alexander said he wants to know exactly what the aim is of any military action. (TAPE)
DOUGLAS ALEXANDER: The right response is not simply to say something must be done, but to answer the question what can be done to make a horrendous situation better. Labour has never in principle ruled out the use of force, but the Government hasn’t yet explained what its strategic purpose of any military action would be.
ELLIE ZANIEWSKA: And I think instinctively many MPs do want to support the Government when it says military action is necessary, but as you were suggesting, they are pretty burnt by the whole experience of Iraq, and are reluctant to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East. I think though that if David Cameron seriously doubted whether he would win this vote, he may not have chosen to call Parliament back early this week.
CHRIS MANN: Ellie Zaniewska reporting there from Westminster. Well Peterborough’s MP Stewart Jackson earlier Tweeted his support for the recall of Parliament.
I am supporting Graham Allen MP’s EDM calling for a debate and vote in the Commons on any British intervention in Syrian Civil War
— Stewart Jackson MP (@SJacksonMP) August 26, 2013
He also said he remains against UK arming of conflict parties, and would vote against it. He explained what he feels a short time ago. (TAPE)
STEWART JACKSON: Yes I’ve been calling for the recall of Parliament, and a proper debate and vote on the substantive issue of military involvement in the Syrian civil war for a number of weeks, as have a number of my colleagues. I think it’s the right thing to do, and I congratulate the Prime Minister on listening to backbench voices, and people in the media, who’ve said that we cannot enter into any form of military intervention, however slight, without the active agreement of the House of Commons and Parliament.
CHRIS MANN: Is it really so important, a foreign story if you like, to recall the British Parliament?
STEWART JACKSON: I think it is, because I think in the collective consciousness, that the two words Iraq War stand out. People feel that Parliament was at the very least misled, and some people may even say lied to. And I think people want to understand the Government’s policy. They want to listen to the arguments, and they want to have the opportunity as Members of Parliament, representing the sovereign body of the British people, the House of Commons, they want to have the opportunity to vote on whether we should be further involved in what is a great human tragedy, but is in fairness not something that impacts on our national security on an everyday basis.
CHRIS MANN: But this has been a civil war which has been rumbling on for almost a year actually, and there are many other conflicts like it around the world. What makes this one stand out for you that it really needs British MPs recalled?
STEWART JACKSON: Well I think there’s an argument to say that the red line that was outlined by President Obama some months ago, that the Assad regime would cross if it used chemical or biological weapons on its own people, in the prosecution of what is in effectively a civil war, and has as you say been going now for over eighteen months, that was a line that cannot be crossed, that the international community does have a duty and a responsibility to try and avert this tragedy, or any further bloodshed. How we do that is the issue. I believe that we have to exhaust every single effort before military options. We need to work with the Chinese and the Russians, so that they can exercise their influence on the Assad regime. And we need peace talks and we need a cease fire before we get into the realm of military intervention. Certainly the idea of British troops or even American troops on Syrian soil is a complete anathema, and I don’t think that the Prime Minister will be recommending that in his comments on Thursday.
CHRIS MANN: As you will have seen, there are always those with itchy fingers on the trigger that want to fire rockets yesterday, and get involved in the conflict that way. Where do you stand on that?
STEWART JACKSON: Well there are plenty of politicians that want to write the cheques that our servicemen have to cash. And we’ve seen the overstretch of our armed forces to a certain extent in Iraq and Afghanistan. We don’t have the capability now to fight on a second front in Syria. We have very big problems in the Middle East, in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Syria, in Iraq. I don’t think any military intervention directly would do anything other than exacerbate this problem. I think we need to work for a peaceful solution. But I’ll be listening to the arguments, weighing the evidence, and voting accordingly on Thursday, once I’ve heard what the Prime Minister has to say. I think it’s good of him and it’s statesmanlike of him to have recalled Parliament. Let’s listen to the arguments and I’ll make my mind up.
CHRIS MANN: But Stewart if the Commons votes against a military strike against Syria, and the Prime Minister’s urging them the other way, where does that leave Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg for that matter, and the Coalition?
STEWART JACKSON: Well I will look to see what the motion says. I think clearly it’s quite obvious that my sense in Peterborough and across the country is people are against a military involvement. They are of course horrified by this appalling tragedy, but that’s not the same as wanting to commit our own troops and armed forces and resources into a civil war in the middle of Syria. But if the House of Commons votes against military action, then the Prime Minister is duty bound and responsible enough to take that on board, and that won’t happen. And therefore we will have to pursue other avenues to try and do what we can, what little we can, from the UK, to bring an end to this appalling awful tragedy. (LIVE)
CHRIS MANN: Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, talking to me a little earlier on.