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Target


Read our latest issue on the systematic bombing of hospitals in Syria.

For print copies please email: editor@syrianotes.org
Our previous issue from Spring 2019 is here.
An archive of earlier issues of Syria Notes is here.
What else are we doing? Read our diary.


Targeting of hospitals resumes in Idlib




Ikhlas Hospital after an airstrike on 6 November 2019. Image from a video report by Macro Media Centre.


7 NOVEMBER 2019

Yesterday, Wednesday 6 November 2019, two hospitals were hit by airstrikes in northwest Syria.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that fixed-wing warplanes believed to be Russian carried out two strikes on al Ikhlas Hospital located southeast of Shnan village in the Jabal al Zaweya area in southern Idlib province, injuring two medical personnel, partially destroying the hospital’s building and severely damaging its equipment. As a result, the hospital went out of service.

The UK-registered charity Hand in Hand for Aid and Development reported that their hospital in the town of Kafranbel, Idlib province, was hit three times at 16:51 local time. The initial attack with air to ground missiles was followed by ground to ground bombardment. According to Hand in Hand, all staff and patients were trapped inside for several hours before contact was restored, and they were freed and brought to safety.

Both hospitals had been attacked previously. Ikhlas Hospital was one of at least a dozen medical facilities bombed by Russian or Syrian regime forces in a wave of attacks in April 2017. Kafranbel Surgical Hospital has been attacked several times over the years. This was the fourth air attack against the hospital this year, according to Hand in Hand, after two separate attacks on 4 July, the first by military helicopters and the second just short of an hour later by air to surface missiles, and one attack on 5 May 2019, where a series of four munitions struck the hospital, three of which were caught on video.

The 5 May attack on Kafranbel surgical hospital was investigated first by Syrian Archive, and then by a team at The New York Times. That New York Times investigation had access to intercepts of radio communications between Russian military pilots and ground controllers, and found evidence that a Russian pilot was responsible for the sequence of four airstrikes against the hospital on 5 May.

The hospital in Kafranbel is on a UN ‘deconfliction’ list of civilian locations, meaning its location is shared with international powers intervening in Syria, including Russia, as a location that should be protected.

On 30 July, after the UN Security Council heard that at least fourteen UN-supported facilities on the list of deconflicted facilities have been damaged or destroyed in northwest Syria since the end of April, ten members of the Security Council called for a UN investigation. This internal United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry is now investigating ‘a series of incidents’ of destruction or damage to facilities on the UN’s deconfliction list and UN-supported facilities in the area.

The three-member board of inquiry is led by Lieutenant General Chikadibia Obiakor of Nigeria and also includes Ms Janet Lim of Singapore and Ms Marta Santos Pais of Portugal. Briefing journalists in September, the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said:

‘Board of Inquiries—and they routinely happen—are internal documents and not for public release. That’s what I can tell you at this point. It’s also important to know that Board of Inquiries are not judicial bodies. They’re not criminal investigations. They make no legal findings and do not consider questions of legal liability or legal responsibility.’

While the Board of Inquiry is not a criminal investigation, and its report not intended for public release, this kind of investigation can lead to public identification of a party responsible for an attack, if the inquiry has access to the necessary evidence.

One precedent to the current inquiry is the 2016 UNHQ Board of Inquiry into the 19 September 2016 attack on a UN-coordinated inter-agency aid convoy in Aleppo province, Syria. While that inquiry remained secret, a summary was published identifying likely perpetrators, but not confirming responsibility:

‘The Board indicated that it had received reports that information existed to the effect that the Syrian Arab Air Force was highly likely to have perpetrated the attack and, furthermore, that the attack had been carried out by three Syrian Mi-17 model helicopters, followed by three unnamed fixed-wing aircraft, with a single Russian aircraft also suspected of being involved. However, the Board did not have access to raw data to support those assertions and, in the absence of such data, it was unable to draw a definitive conclusion. Moreover, the Governments of both the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic denied all allegations of their involvement in the incident.’

As detailed in our Autumn 2019 issue, United States officials briefed journalists and the US Senate Committee on Armed Services that they had evidence implicating the Russian Air Force, but the summary published by the UN indicates that the US government didn’t share that information with the UN inquiry.

Even if the current UN inquiry were to definitively identify perpetrators, however, given that the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction in Syria, and that the Russian and Syrian governments are protected at the Security Council by Russia’s veto power, it will for now be up to individual governments and national justice systems if any consequences are to follow from the identification of perpetrators.





Above: From a Halab Today video showing three of the munitions that struck Kafranbel Surgical Hospital on 5 May 2019. Via Syrian Archive.


From our Case files selection in the Autumn 2019 issue of Syria Notes:

At approximately 17.30 on 5 May 2019, the surgical hospital in Kafranbel, Idlib was bombed. Local sources reported that Russian aircraft carried out the attack. According to Hala Systems, observers in the area reported both Russian fixed-wing aircraft and Syrian regime Su-24 aircraft in the vicinity. One person was reported killed, later rising to two.

This attack took place on the same day as the earlier airstrikes on Kaferzita Cave Hospital, Hama, and on Nabad Al-Hayat Hospital, near Hass, Idlib. According to UOSSM, Kafranbel Hospital also had its location coordinates shared with military actors through the UN deconfliction mechanism to prevent accidental targeting.

The Syrian Archive produced an extensive report analysing videos and photographs of this attack, showing that the hospital was hit four times during the attack. Amnesty International included this attack in their 17 May 2019 report covering several airstrikes on hospitals in Syria. Physicians for Human Rights have also published a case study on Kafranbel Hospital.

According to Physicians for Human Rights, the history of Kafranbel Hospital goes back to July 2012, when a group of local activists established a medical point and pharmacy. In June 2013, it was turned into a hospital under the name of Orient Hospital. In November 2016, the British NGO Hand in Hand for Aid and Development took control of the hospital.

Physicians for Human Rights has verified several attacks on the facility from June 2014 on. The earliest was a Syrian regime airstrike on 29 June 2014, which killed a newborn baby, a doctor, and an anesthesia technician, and caused major damage to the hospital. The hospital was attacked twice more that year, with the last 2014 attack killing fifteen people. The hospital was attacked four times in 2015, twice in 2017.

Funds raised by Hand in Hand allowed an underground facility to be built, after which the hospital was bombed again in February 2018.

After the 5 May attack, the hospital was attacked again on 4 July 2019.

Hand in Hand for Aid and Development, the UK NGO that supports Kafranbel Surgical Hospital, provided Syria Notes with more background.

The building is an underground facility that HIHFAD funded through UK public donations, with the aim of allowing safe and uninterruped service even under heavy airstrikes. That was put to the test in February 2018 when the hospital was hit by four targeted airstrikes. The airstrikes destroyed the hospital above ground, but the underground hospital survived intact and ensured no staff member or patient was injured in the attack.

In the 5 May 2019 attack, the hospital suffered at least six direct hits from 17.25 local time, according to the NGO, killing two patients and inflicting significant damage on the hospital.

On 4 July 2019, the hospital was again targeted; the second major attack in eight weeks, despite the hospital being registered through the UN deconfliction mechanism. The hospital sustained not one but two offensives on 4 July: the first by military helicopters at 14:52, and the second just short of an hour later at 15:40 by air to surface missiles. The attacks were directed at the entrance to the hospital, and all services had to be suspended.

Syria Notes’ Diary

6 NOVEMBER 2019

We in the Syria Notes team have been away from our desks more often than usual in these Autumn months, going to events, listening, learning, discussing, and distributing copies of our most recent issue on the targeting of hospitals in Syria. Too much has happened in these few weeks and months to be contained in one entry, but here is a first instalment.

To begin, some events in Parliament.

Syria Notes began life as a publication for the All-Party Parliamentary Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria, a group bringing together members of both UK Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons and House of Lords, with the declared purpose of building a greater understanding in Parliament of the conflict in Syria, and allowing parliamentarians to discuss the diplomatic, humanitarian and military options for UK policy. That APPG is no longer active, and Syria Notes is now an independent journal, but we still see it as a key mission to inform Parliament on human rights issues in Syria.

More than that, we want to give parliamentarians opportunity to read the thoughts of Syrians who support and work for human rights and democracy, and so we welcome opportunities to engage with MPs—members of the House of Commons—and Peers—members of the House of Lords.

An election has now been called, and all those described below as MPs—Members of Parliament—are no longer MPs. Most are candidates in the election.


The power to go to war

On 9 September one of our team attended an event organised by the Conservative Middle East Council. The event took place in one of the committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster, the building that contains both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Committee rooms are primarily for the use of parliamentary committees, but when otherwise available are also booked by individual parliamentarians for events such as APPG meetings, or such as this CMEC discussion, which was on the role of Parliament in authorising the use of military force by the UK Government.

The presentation was by Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, hosted by Charlotte Leslie, Director of the Conservative Middle East Council. The topic is highly relevant to the UK Government’s policy on Syria. The vote by the House of Commons in August 2019 rejecting the possibility of a UK military response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to kill some 1,400 people or more in the suburbs of Damascus was a key moment in the Syrian crisis, and was central to Sir Bernard’s discussion of the issue.

Answering a question, Sir Bernard talked about his memory of the moment when the Government lost that vote in the House of Commons in 2013, and watching David Cameron, then Prime Minister, respond to the defeat:

‘I sat there thinking, the Government’s main foreign policy issue has been blown out of the water by this vote—how can the Government carry on? And he just got up and said, don’t worry, I get it. And that was the end of that. I was staggered.’

Sir Bernard said that he felt the Government was giving up responsibility to the House of Commons when it shouldn’t have done so. When five years later in 2018, Theresa May, David Cameron’s successor as Prime Minister, faced the question of how to respond to another chemical weapons massacre by the Assad regime, she ordered a military strike without first consulting Parliament. ‘And I rang her up,’ Sir Bernard said, ‘and I said you’ve done the right thing, because you’ve exercised your responsibility, and if Parliament doesn’t like it they can deal with it afterwards.’

The House of Commons had in the meantime approved UK Government military action against ISIS in Syria, with a vote in December 2015. As well as extensive air attacks against ISIS and a couple against the Assad regime, the presence of UK special forces in Syria has also been widely reported, though the UK Government has a policy of not openly discussing the actions of its special forces.

Read Sir Bernard Jenkin’s remarks here.

The CMEC event took place the same evening that the UK Government was to ‘prorogue’ Parliament, to close Parliament. This controversial move by Boris Johnson’s government would later be overturned by the Supreme Court. Leaving the CMEC meeting via the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster, we met Anna Turley MP along with Peter Kyle MP. She was lamenting the Government’s move to interrupt the work of Parliament. Anna Turley takes a strong interest in Syria, and was one of the MPs who took part an APPG Friends of Syria meeting with the regime defector and whistleblower ‘Caesar’ back in 2017. Looking through the latest issue of Syria Notes, she talked of how distressing she finds it to follow Syria news on social media.


International development and the Labour Party

On 10 September, the Syria Notes team was invited to a reception in the Palace of Westminster to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Labour Campaign for International Development.

Speakers there to mark LCID’s first decade included former Labour Party leader Gordon Brown, Labour’s Shadow International Development team Dan Carden MP and Preet Kaur Gill MP, the Chair of the Commons International Development Committee Stephen Twigg MP, former co-chair of the APPG Friends of Syria Alison McGovern MP, LCID Vice-President and former Secretary of State for International Development Hilary Benn MP, and LCID Vice-Presidents Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP and Stephen Doughty MP. A key theme for many of the speakers was the need to work cross-party to preserve the UK Government’s commitments on international development.

As well as the Syria Notes editors, representatives of the Syrian Legal Development Programme and the Syrian British Council were also there. The presence of members of Syrian civil society stimulated several of the speakers to mention Syria in their speeches.

LCID has taken a stance on Syria policy which is sometimes in contrast to the current Labour Party leadership, calling on Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to take a clearer stand against the Assad regime, and calling on Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott to disassociate herself from David Miller, a political sociology professor accused of being pro Assad.

David Taylor is founder and current vice-chair of Labour Campaign for International Development. He gave his views on the Labour Party and Syria at a conference held by Syrian civil society organisations at Amnesty International UK in July. In a discussion on legal accountability and Syria, David Taylor said:

‘We’re sorry that we’re not with you in this fight as a party. We think about the great tradition in the Labour Party of being on the side of oppressed people. It was a Labour government that granted India independence, and set off on the path to decolonisation. It was Labour activists who were standing up against apartheid.

‘And it’s just been—and actually I will talk at length about the current regime, but I volunteered with Ed Miliband’s campaign, and I have to say I was appalled by the 2013 vote. I was appalled that people cheered it in the chamber when it happened. It came from, I’m afraid—I do think that Ed Miliband is a good person, I think that some of the people around him are—but there was a cynicism, there was a playing to the gallery of the Labour membership, to try and appeal to them.

‘And actually, because of Iraq, which I marched against, because of Iraq there has been a sort of shift, a pandering, amongst the Labour party, amongst Labour politicians, to the sort of Stop the War base of the party, when we should have been taking it on and calling them out on the inconsistencies in their views. And unfortunately that has grown and grown and grown, and it’s led to the current party.’


For Sama screenings, and taking action on hospital bombings

Also on 10 September, we went to the British Film Institute preview screening of the documentary For Sama, directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, and showing Waad’s life in Aleppo city from the demonstrations of 2011 to the siege of 2016, through her romance and marriage with Dr Hamza al-Kateab, the birth of their daughter Sama, and their time surviving together under bombing in one of Aleppo’s hospitals.

We had interviewed Waad and Hamza for our Autumn 2019 issue on the targeting of hospitals. The BFI preview was the first of several screenings where the film makers gave us the opportunity to distribute copies of Syria Notes to their audiences. One of our team was also able to join Q&A panels at three of the screenings over the following weeks, in Newcastle, London, and Brighton. The emotion of the film is overwhelming on first viewing. Its horror is not lessened on re-watching, and its storytelling craft shines through.

As the targeting of hospitals is continuing in northwest Syria, audience members at several screenings raised the question of what can be done now. We hope that some insight on this may be found in our articles on investigating hospital attacks and on how the UK and its allies can track the air forces responsible, on identifying military officers with command responsibility, and on what a red line on hospital attacks might mean in practice.

On 8 October, For Sama came to Parliament with a screening in Portcullis House, the building next to the Palace of Westminster which houses the offices of over two hundred MPs. The number attending the screening was significantly lower than that, but did include Damian Collins MP, who hosted the event, Chair of the Commons International Development Committee Stephen Twigg MP, whose committee recently reported on attacks against aid workers, and Alison McGovern MP and Andrew Mitchell MP, both former co-chairs of the APPG Friends of Syria.

During the Q&A at the end of the Parliament screening, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts talked about their hope for the film to have a practical effect.

Waad al-Kateab said: ‘We know that the impact of being in front of people like you, and the tools that you have, the power that you have, this is much, much more than any other audience can have. It’s not just a film for me, it’s my life. But it’s not about what happened three years ago—it’s about what is happening right now in these days. Because I’m not just speaking about accountability and justice—we are speaking about something very urgent, about what’s happening right now by the same Assad regime and Russian forces.’

The film makers have begun an advocacy campaign around the film, called Action for Sama. Their campaign website says, ‘The Action For Sama Impact Campaign will focus on increasing awareness of the continued targeting of healthcare facilities in Syria and build pressure for this to end.’

On the current UN inquiry into attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets in the Idlib area, Edward Watts said: ‘There is a very simple thing that we in the West can do, which is we can help provide the tracking data that the Coalition has in and around this area, to that board of inquiry. The last time there was a board of inquiry in 2016, when the Russians attacked a UN convoy going to Aleppo, we didn’t provide that data.’

Andrew Mitchell MP agreed, saying, ‘What Britain can do I think is really what you said, which is to try and make sure that evidence is kept,’ adding that ‘The Government is supposed to be keeping—the Foreign Office was asked to do this by the National Security Council in 2012—is supposed to be keeping evidence of civilian infractions, breaches of human rights, war crimes and so on.’

‘I think the Russian convoy [attack] is a very good example,’ Andrew Mitchell continued, ‘We do know the squadrons and the plane type and the people who were there because of the electronic communications, the ability to track that, we can tell where the people are and who they are, and it may be possible to hold them to account.’

‘If we got the data with which we could say, very specifically, here is the hospital which was bombed, and here is the Russian jet,’ Edward Watts replied.

Andrew Mitchell said, ‘I think that is what we should try to do, and I believe it is possible. And I think already there is culpability attached to unit commanders of the Syrian and Russian army.’




Syrian civil society round table at the Foreign Office

On 11 September, the Syria Notes team took part in a Syrian civil society round table discussion at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with Minister for the Middle East and North Africa Dr Andrew Murrison and a number of Foreign Office officials.

With the large numbers of people forcibly displaced inside and outside Syria, primarily by the Assad regime’s strategy of targeting the civilian population, an increased number of Syrian civil society organisations now have members based in the UK. Meeting with them gives UK Government officials an opportunity to argue the virtues of current UK policy towards Syria while listening to the concerns of Syrians in exile.

In this, and in a further civil society round table discussion in October, as the meeting was hosted by the Foreign Office, the emphasis was on UK diplomatic policy, on accountability and sanctions, and in the October meeting on UK diplomatic responses to the current Turkish invasion along a section of Syria’s northeastern border, attacking the anti-ISIS Coalition’s local partners the Syrian Democratic Forces. Officials from the Department For International Development joined in the October meeting to talk about the UK’s aid effort. Notable by their absence were any representatives of the third part of UK policy towards Syria, the military.

The Syria Notes editors welcomed the chance to share our issue on the targeting of hospitals in Syria. Discussion included topics covered in our issue: the current UN investigation into hospital attacks; the question of whether the UK and allies will share aircraft tracking data with UN investigators; the possibility of sanctioning Russian officers with command responsibility; and the question of whether to extend the UK’s red line on chemical attacks to other attacks on civilians such as barrel bomb attacks or attacks targeting hospitals.

On these topics, and on topics raised by other Syrian civil society organisations present, this was not a forum where any development or change of policy could be expected to take place, but was instead an opportunity for an exchange of views, and there were probably no surprises in the views expressed.

The UK Government has in general resisted calls to publish aircraft tracking data, something that has been raised by Members of Parliament from several parties in written questions to ministers, and Foreign Office officials have pushed back against any suggestion that they might hold significant information which they are not sharing with investigators. At the same time, it’s not clear that the Foreign Office has a full picture from the Ministry of Defence of what is possible in this area.

In our recent issue we published details of how NATO AWACS aircraft and other Coalition aircraft ‘track and share the locations of Russian and Syrian aircraft from the time that they take off to the time they land,’ according to Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute. Websites of NATO, the Royal Air Force, and the United States Air Force provide more details. The US Air Force’s website shows the UK presence at the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where the anti-ISIS Coalition coordinates tracking of aircraft across Syria and the region. Reporting by The New York Times and NBC News confirms that NATO and the Coalition track Russian and Assad regime aircraft as part of their joint deconfliction effort.

On sanctioning Russian individuals with command responsibility for the targeting of hospitals and other crimes, there is a disparity between the lack of sanctions against these individuals and the comprehensive sanctioning of Syrian regime officers for their part in war crimes and crimes against humanity. One possible explanation is expected resistance on the part of some other European governments, as up to now UK sanctions have been coordinated with the EU. As UK Government policy is to leave the EU, the Government argues that it can revisit this after it leaves.

A number of Members of Parliament, notably Chris Bryant MP, have argued that the Government is failing to use powers it already has to impose unilateral sanctions against individual human rights abusers under the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. Under that act, an appropriate Minister may make sanctions regulations to ‘provide accountability for or be a deterrent to gross violations of human rights,’ which specifically concerns torture carried out by a person acting in an official capacity, as in the case of the 2009 killing of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. But also, a Minister can impose sanctions for the purpose of promoting compliance with international humanitarian law, or with international human rights law, or to promote respect for human rights, all of which would seem to allow sanctions for the targeting of hospitals.


The UK’s red line on chemical weapons

Other issues that came up in these civil society round table discussions were forced displacement and also forced returns of refugees, something that has happened to Syrian refugees seeking refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and most recently Turkey.

As well as the direct impact on civilians of the current Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, concerns were raised over whether the Assad regime would be allowed to advance in Idlib as part of whatever agreement was reached between the Russian and Turkish presidents Putin and Erdogan over the Turkish advance in the northeast.

The UK’s red line on chemical weapons use was raised by officials in relation to fears over Idlib. Since 2017, the UK Government has reestablished its threat to use force in retaliation for any chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. Following a lethal chemical attack by the Assad regime on 7 April 2019, the UK’s Royal Air Force, along with French and US forces, carried out coordinated strikes against Assad regime military targets.

The 7 April 2018 chemical attack had come towards the end of a months-long final Assad regime and Russian assault on the opposition-held Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. A residential building in the town of Douma was attacked with chemical weapons dropped by the Syrian regime’s air force, according to witnesses, killing 43 people. At the time of the 7 April 2018 attack there were conflicting reports of whether nerve agent or chlorine was used. Two gas cylinders dropped on the building matched chlorine cylinders dropped by the Assad regime helicopters in earlier attacks elsewhere in Syria. An OPCW investigation reported in March 2019 that ‘the toxic chemical was likely molecular chlorine.’

The legal justification given by the UK Government for its military response in 2018 was based on arguing that by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their further use, following the chemical weapons attack in Douma on 7 April 2018, it was alleviating the extreme humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people.

The target struck by the RAF however had no effect on the Assad regime’s capacity to carry out chlorine attacks using helicopters. According to the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the Syrian military facility targeted was a former missile base where the regime was assessed to keep chemical weapon precursors stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. In other words this was not a storage facility for chlorine, which is not banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention as it has legitimate civilian uses.

The only sure way to prevent the kind of chlorine attack carried out by the Assad regime in Douma is to deny the Assad regime the means of delivery—in this case the Assad regime’s fleet of helicopters. These are the same helicopters used by the Assad regime to carry out barrel bomb attacks on hospitals and other civilian targets. These helicopters were left untouched in the UK’s response to the Douma chemical attack, and the Assad regime has continued to use them in attacks on civilians in Idlib.

The Assad regime has also been recently accused of using chemical weapons against fighters in Idlib. In September the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US had concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine shells in a non-fatal rocket artillery attack against opposition forces in Idlib on 19 May 2019. According to analyst Tobias Schneider, the munitions alleged to have been used are ‘commonly associated with a Syrian government formation called the 4th Armored Division—under command of Bashar's brother Maher Al-Assad.’ There has been no military response to this attack by the UK or its allies.

Assad achieved his aim in the 7 April 2018 attack of forcing opposition fighters in Douma to surrender, and of forcing the displacement of the civilian population. And Assad kept his helicopters and artillery, kept the means to deliver chemical as well as conventional weapons. And as we have seen, he has kept on using them.

So a question must be asked: Can the UK’s 2018 response now be considered to have failed? That is, failed in its declared aim to deter further use of chemical weapons, and failed to provide any protection to civilians?

—To be continued—

The power to go to war

Image: David Cameron responds to losing the August 2013 vote on military action in Syria. 
See the full debate at Parliamentlive.tv or read the record of the debate in Hansard.

On 9 September 2019, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, spoke at an event organised by the Conservative Middle East Council. Sir Bernard talked on a recent report by his committee, The Role of Parliament in the UK Constitution: Authorising the Use of Military Force, a topic with particular relevance for UK policy on Syria.

The event was held in one of the committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster, and was on the record. The following transcript includes Sir Bernard’s main remarks and responses to the first couple of questions only. The event was chaired by Charlotte Leslie, CMEC Director.

This is one of several events attended by the Syria Notes team in Autumn 2019. For more, see the main article, Syria Notes’ Diary.


Sir Bernard Jenkin MP:

This is an area in which the relationship between Parliament and Government has been developing. And we set out in our report the very long history of the sovereign exercise of unwritten powers to do things. And the development of the United Kingdom constitution has been a progressive limitation of what the Sovereign can do. And of course these days the sovereign powers, the residuary powers, known as the royal prerogative, are generally exercised by the Sovereign on advice or more obviously by others acting on behalf of the Sovereign, notably the Prime Minister and the Government, the Secretaries of State. And of course when we appoint a new Prime Minister, the Prime Minister receives the seals of office, it has been axiomatic that the Government is taking on responsibility for her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

The discretion to use military force even now is unimpaired by any statutory limitation. There are legal considerations to take into account about the use of military force, the deployment of military forces, but it is intrinsic to holding office as Prime Minister that that responsibility rests solely in the hands of the government of the day.

However there has been a growing expectation that Parliament has a right to be consulted. And particularly since the Second World War, Parliament has taken that view. And it is by no means unique in this, in the time around the Crimean War for example, and Parliament was consulted in the Napoleonic wars. But the idea that Parliament simply looks retrospectively at how things are going, and has no interest in how decisions are made, that is long past, probably because of one or two watersheds—the Suez Crisis shook people’s confidence that Government would always act in the right way.

And it reflected on the deployment of forces to Northern Ireland, although that was more domestic, that was more what we call MACP, Military Aid to a Civil Power. But the deployment of British military forces outside the NATO area was very rare after Suez until the Falklands War. Now there was a big debate about the deployment of military force at the beginning of the Falklands War, but there was no vote. And it was quite usual for military forces to be deployed without a vote.

To deploy armed forces to the Balkans to deal with the crisis there, Parliament was consulted, there was a debate in Parliament, Parliament was actually recalled for the occasion if I recall correctly, but there was no vote. Parliament did not take a decision. And in fact when Tony Blair deployed to Sierra Leone, again there was quite a lot of debate in Parliament, but there was no vote.

The watershed was 2003, because there was a very, very controversial question as to whether the United Kingdom should effectively go to war with Iraq. War was never actually declared. It’s another feature of modern conflict that nobody declares war anymore, we just get into a conflict. But the decision to support the American invasion of Iraq was very controversial, and the Prime Minister of the day perhaps was trying to use Parliament to validate a very, very controversial decision, and of course succeeded in obtaining the consent of Parliament, something which many members of Parliament subsequently lived to regret.

And it’s ironic that this precedent is seen as a watershed changing the nature of the relationship between the Commons and the Government in relation to the exercise of war powers, when it itself provides such a terrible example of how mere validation of military action by Parliament does not necessarily mean that everyone gets a better decision, or a decision with which people are happy about.

But nevertheless, it has created what we describe in the report as a convention, an emerging convention, that Parliament has a right to be consulted before the Government deploys military force into conflicts overseas. That is obviously laced with exceptions. And in the aftermath of the Iraq War, two people in particular were very keen on creating legislation, a statutory framework, which would prescribe what powers the Government had.

So, legislation: If you legislate into an area of royal prerogative, you’re effectively taking away that discretionary power from Government and putting it into a statutory framework, which means it’s much more vulnerable to direct action from the courts, because if military action arising from that didn’t comply with the legislation, that would be very difficult.

But two people in particular, Jack Straw and William Hague, became very committed to this principle, and in the Conservative Manifesto in 2010, it was promised that the Government would implement legislation to limit what the Government could do, to put it in a statutory framework. Funnily enough, that legislation never emerged. I was not at all surprised. I was always opposed to this.

And you’ll find in the report, one of the things we say is, and I quote: ‘Nothing should compromise the ability of governments to use military force when our national or global security is threatened…’ We did say there could be a clearer understanding of what the role of Parliament is in respect of this, to underline the legitimacy of military action, and to engage Parliament and indeed the public in an understanding of why military force is being deployed if it is at all possible.

So there’s been a shift in expectations about the role of Parliament in the use of military force. And we looked at different countries, and different countries have very different settlements. If you look at France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, we have a much more forward defence posture, we are the only three major democratic countries in the world which have the capability of deploying military force which is battle capable away from the home base.

Not even China can really operate away from the home base in the way that we can. That may be changing very rapidly, by the way. Russia certainly can, as she demonstrated in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, but even then I suspect that Russia’s capability is much more limited in terms of its agility compared to the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.

Other democratic countries have different traditions. At the furthest extreme there is modern Germany which, for very understandable historical reasons, has created very severe constraints on how the Bundestag and the Bundesrat can control deployment of German military forces abroad. They’re beginning to get more flexible, but the minute a German soldier sets foot outside Germany is still a very big deal for Germany culturally. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that Germany wants to create a European military force which has that capability rather than a military force which is visibly controlled by Germany.

There are many complications in this. The basic proposal we come up with is a compromise between legislation and doing nothing, which is that the Government should set down a resolution which would maybe cement something into the Standing Orders of the House, which explains what the expectation should be without being legally bound by it. We are still waiting the Government’s response to this report, but I would expect the Government to be wary about doing this because it doesn’t want to reduce its flexibility. And there are many complications, as I say.

We make very general statements about military force, but we don’t mention special forces. Call me old-fashioned, I don’t think we should discuss what our special forces do. I think we should leave that to the discretion of ministers, and it wouldn’t help Government at all, it wouldn’t help them and it wouldn’t help our role as a peacekeeper in the world if our special forces became more publicly scrutinised.

Having said that, we do think that the Government should be able to use committees of the House to undertake scrutiny on behalf of Parliament. In particular the National Security Committee is not elected by Parliament, it’s selected by the executive to scrutinise the security services on behalf of Parliament, and is in theory tested with some of the most sensitive intelligence information.

Part of the problem that we had for example in 2013, when the Government decided to retaliate against the Syrian government for their use of chemical weapons in Syria, was that the decision, or the quality of the decision, very much depended upon the quality of the intelligence that was being assessed to inform the decision. And of course following the Iraq War, there’s a great deal of cynicism about how intelligence is assessed and then used to make a case. In fact I think the Chilcot Report described a pressure at which point the use of intelligence becomes a propaganda weapon in the hands of the Government, and it was clearly in that case grossly ill used.

So there’s been a breakdown of trust between Parliament and the Government about making the case for foreign interventions, as some people would call them. It was highly unsatisfactory in that debate that Members of Parliament got up and gave their opinion about the quality of intelligence when one thing was absolutely certain, those Members of Parliament cannot possibly have known who was responsible. Some people were saying that Israel had deployed the weapons, some people said that people outside the control of the regime had deployed the weapons. My understanding from my own amateur contacts with people in the intelligence community, at the edge of the intelligence community, is that there was no doubt that the regime itself was responsible for the deployment of those weapons.

But how is that case to be made if the Government cannot share that intelligence? So, if there were approved Members of Parliament such as the National Security Committee who could see the Joint Intelligence Community assessment in meetings, and that they could testify that they are satisfied, that might strengthen the understanding of these issues.

The other thing that arose in our evidence was how scornful particularly former military commanders were of the understanding of MPs of the complexity and subtlety of military tasking, and the complexity of making assessments of choosing targets for an aerial bombardment, or consequences of putting troops into a certain situation.

And we observed that one of the things that has been lost in recent years—the Government has handed over quite a lot of the time of the House of Commons to the Backbench Business Committee—we used to have five regular debates every year on defence issues, and two or three foreign policy debates, and a debate about the civil service, but all these kinds of issues would be aired by people, and the level of understanding would go up as a result of having such a debate. The fact that those debates hardly ever happen now means there are far fewer people in the House of Commons who are directly engaged in these matters, and the level of education is falling. We need to use the committee structure, the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Intelligence and Security Committee, to try and strengthen that.

There is also—having established that scrutiny should lead to better decisions—the question of what are we scrutinising? And the nature of warfare is changing. What we call hybrid warfare, the shadowlands between ordinary interstate military warfare and terrorism, there are some states, Russia for example, or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for example, that basically undertake a form of state-sponsored terrorism. They use people that don’t wear uniforms, or they use military forces which are not properly accountable even to the state authorities, and they use techniques, they use the civilian population, they foment revolt in the civilian population, or they threaten civilians, or they use civilian assets, or they attack civilian infrastructure, as part of the warfare we call hybrid warfare.

And then of course there’s the use of drones, the use of cyber warfare. These are all realms of conflict for which the traditional understanding of warfare is very ill suited. And we need to adapt our scrutiny of what the Government does. I mean the Government apparently has an offensive cyber capability. How do we scrutinise the use of it, when a cyber attack is something you only know about after it’s happened? And what the Government does in response to that, who only knows? But we need mechanisms to scrutinise these rather complicated areas.

Overall, I would just summarise by saying one last thing: That Clausewitz always had in mind a kind of triangle of decision-making. And we have our own version of the Clausewitz triangle in our report, which at the apex it has the Government, which deals with policy and politics, and in a modern democracy Government accountability, and it has recourse to armed force [the second point in the triangle] which is about capability and effectiveness, and there is also at the [third point] of the triangle, there is legitimacy, and the engagement of people sufficient for accountability.

And unless all these three things are engaged, you probably haven’t got a sustainable conflict. The Government and the armed forces might have the capability, but if the people aren’t engaged then it will not be sustained. We saw that in Basra [in Iraq], we saw that for all kinds of reasons, legitimate reasons perhaps, in Helmand [in Afghanistan]. Incidentally we went to Helmand without a vote. We got involved in the longest conflict we’ve been involved in since the Second World War without a vote.

And if you can’t maintain people’s enthusiasm for what your armed forces are doing, then your government will be driven out of that conflict, and that’s largely what we’ve seen to date in Iraq and Afghanistan in the latter parts of those conflicts, and what we’re seeing with President Trump as we speak. So bearing in mind that, the question is how do you maintain this engagement, so you can sustain the activity and the credibility of your deterrence, because in the end defence and security is about deterring aggression before it occurs.

Actually, every time we get our armed forces involved directly in conflict, we should reflect on how our deterrent capabilities have failed. And that depends also on people understanding why we have a deterrent capability both in the conventional and the nuclear sphere. Incidentally I think British people well understand why we have a nuclear deterrence, and that’s why we keep voting for it even though it’s quite an expensive bit of kit. They are much more wary about these foreign adventures, because they can’t see what they’re deterring to get involved in them, and they’re not successful enough to generate confidence in the next one also being successful.

So that’s the dilemma we’re in. Thank you very much.

Charlotte Leslie:

Thank you so much Sir Bernard. I’ll be taking questions from the floor… And I’d like to use my chair’s prerogative to kick off. One of the recommendations your report makes is about parliamentarians and the House of Commons being more aware of situations, so the information, the learning doesn’t necessarily happen at the critical point… How can we enable MPs to take an interest in foreign affairs, when they may not have it at the top of their agenda, and when they all have… very large constituency inboxes with very immediate very domestic local things?

How do we do that? How do we enable MPs to take an interest before we reach a critical point, and before a vote comes to the House?

Sir Bernard Jenkin MP:

Well, as I say, the Government used to hold regular debates, and it used to be an obligation on the Government if there was a big issue arising. Well, when did the Government last hold a day’s debate on Iraq? And the Government says, oh that’s not our job anymore, we’ve given that to the Backbench Business Committee. Well then the Government has itself to blame if very few colleagues have gone to the Library and got a brief and worked out what’s happening in Iraq and are capable of contributing to a debate. Because when you have those debates, there will be a few experts, and other colleagues will go and listen to those experts, and gauge them, and Government will get an opportunity to set out in a proper debate, and it’s an opportunity for whips to say, we need some people to speak in this debate because it’s an important part of Government policy.

Those opportunities to raise that kind of awareness are gone, and I think actually that’s the most important thing. I think the Government needs to take responsibility for making sure the House of Commons is engaged in these decisions long before we get into a a conflict.

Question:

… You briefly mentioned 2013, the Syrian conflict. Actually the second biggest city in Jordan now is the [Zaatari] refugee camp. And it was David Cameron who decided not to go to war, if you remember, with Barack Obama, before taking it to the House of Commons for a vote. Do you think that was a mistake, or was it the right course of action, and do you think it would have changed the course of the Syrian conflict had he gone to war without going to the House of Commons?

Sir Bernard Jenkin MP:

Well, I think it’s a very good question, because in that debate I actually stood up several times and said, look, if you don’t trust the Government to make this decision, you should vote against the Government in a motion of confidence, because it means you don’t trust them to carry out their duty.

But there’s a big change gone on in the relationship between Parliament and Government, and we’re seeing the results of that now. The tenure of the Government’s office used to rest far more obviously on the confidence principle, but that has been blunted by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and by changing public attitudes.

So that when the Government lost that vote—And I went into David Cameron’s office shortly the vote, and I said, well how is it going, and he said I think we are still under the water, and I wish I’d said to him, well then don’t have the vote! For goodness’ sake don’t lose the vote! And the Government lost the vote… And then he stood up, and I sat there thinking, the Government’s main foreign policy issue has been blown out of the water by this vote—how can the Government carry on? And he just got up and said, don’t worry, I get it. And that was the end of that. I was staggered.

It was a very, very big change in the relationship between Parliament and Government. I thought the Government was giving up responsibility to the House of Commons when it shouldn’t have done so. Now when it came to Theresa May [five years later], faced with very similar circumstance, she just went. And I rang her up, and I said you’ve done the right thing, because you’ve exercised your responsibility, and if Parliament doesn’t like it they can deal with it afterwards. And of course they accepted the fait accompli.

That’s why we put into our report these very important words, to repeat them, ‘Nothing should compromise the ability of governments to use military force when our national or global security is threatened,’ and that’s why we shouldn’t have statute. And I think that 2013, the loss of that vote, might also be a watershed, because it affected his authority as Prime Minister,  and I think it reflected very badly on our standing in the world as an agile and forward-looking power. Because I take the view… that unless we have a forward attitude to global security, there are very, very few other friendly countries that are going to do that on our behalf.