HC Deb 05 December 1983 vol 50 cc19-27 3.31 pm
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in the Lebanon.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

On 3 December antiaircraft guns and missiles were fired at United States reconnaissance aircraft over the Lebanon. Early on 4 December United States aircraft bombed Syrian military targets in Lebanon. Two United States aircraft were shot down. Syrian losses have been reported as two dead and 10 seriously wounded. Last night eight United States marines were killed by shell fire. United States naval vessels then opened fire in response.

We are in close contact with other contributors to the multinational force. We share the objective of helping the Lebanese Government restore stability and create conditions in which the Lebanese people can themselves sort out their differences free from outside interference.

All the parties welcome the role of the British contingent, which has the vital task of guarding the meetings of the Ceasefire Commission. The safety of our men is kept under constant review.

It is vital that all parties in the Lebanon show restraint and work together to make further progress towards national reconciliation. The cycle of violence must be broken.

Mr. Healey

I think the Minister must be aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the cycle of violence must be broken. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that all justification for the presence of the multinational force in the Lebanon has disappeared now that President Reagan has formed a military axis with the Government of Israel against Syria and the Soviet Union in the middle east and intervened on a massive scale in the internal conflict in the Lebanon, while refusing a reasonable request from President Gemayel for help in revising his unequal agreement with Israel which he regards as an obstacle to the type of settlement which the hon. Gentleman said he favours?

Will the Government therefore remove the British troops forthwith from a position in which they are serving no useful purpose and are at increasing risk? Will the Minister seek the agreement of the French and Italian Governments to withdraw their forces, since the new United States middle east policy—its third this year—is totally inconsistent with the policy which the Prime Minister and other European leaders adopted at the summit conference in Venice not long ago?

Mr. Rifkind

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the multinational force is there for peacekeeping purposes. The United States Government have said that the incidents during the past couple of days have been in self-defence under the terms of the mandate agreed when American forces went to the Lebanon.

The right hon. Gentleman has called for the withdrawal of United Kingdom forces. I remind him that all sections of the community in Lebanon not only welcomed the arrival of the British contingent but continue to emphasise that it forms a desirable component of the peacekeeping force. Not only do all the communities in the Lebanon welcome the continuing presence of the British force, but so do all the Governments in the region.

Mr. Healey

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Israeli Defence Minister, while visiting Washington to make the agreement with the American Government to which I referred, said that they had been discussing joint military action against the Syrians? In the light of that statement, how can the hon. Gentleman believe the American claim that there has been no collusion between the United States and Israel on this matter?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no details of the discussions that may have taken place earlier this week between the Israelis and the United States. The House is concerned about the developments during the past 48 hours. On Saturday, the Americans found their forces under attack. They have emphasised that their response was in self-defence in accordance with the mandate between themselves and the Lebanese Government.

Mr. Healey


Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that it would be more appropriate if I asked the right hon. Member to respond at the end of questions on the statement.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that on this occasion the concern about the situation of British forces is not limited to one side of the House? Whatever role they are or are not fulfilling —I am not referring to the conduct of our men, who are doing a splendid job—no one reading the newspapers could call it peacekeeping. In those circumstances, would it be better to have second thoughts about the role of the peacekeeping force? What is the present position of the Italians? The latest news is that they have announced that they are withdrawing their forces at the conclusion of the Geneva talks, irrespective of the outcome.

Mr. Rifkind

We all share my hon. Friend's anxiety, and the primary concern of the British Government is the security and well-being of the British force. It is only if and when we come to the conclusion that British troops cannot perform a useful role that the question of their withdrawal will become relevant. I have emphasised that all the communities in the Lebanon believe that they continue to play an important role.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is in Athens at the moment with the Foreign Ministers of two of the other countries that are involved, and he will have an opportunity to discuss with them their contributions to the peacekeeping force. On Thursday there will be a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the NATO countries, and there will be an opportunity to discuss this matter on a slightly wider front.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the Government take steps at the earliest possible opportunity to dissociate this country from the insanity and inhumanity of American actions in the Lebanon?

Mr. Rifkind

Where actions are taken for proper reasons of self-defence we would have no hesitation in giving our support. If British troops were in danger and the need for self-defence required a response, it would be proper for the British forces to take such action.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

I fully understand the American concern for the security of its peacekeeping force, but will the British Government exercise all the influence at their command to prevent the Americans from escalating the conflict with Syria and warn them that if a further escalation takes place we shall have to withdraw our small peacekeeping force?

Mr. Rifkind

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government consider the proper role of the multinational force to be that of peacekeeping and that we would not support the use of British or other forces in the multinational force for other than peacekeeping purposes, in accordance with the original mandate.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

Does the Minister agree that United States neutrality in the middle east was flawed right from the start when it attempted to prop up the Gemayel regime, which was one of the factions in the civil war? Does the Minister further agree that, with the further agreement with Israel and the shelling of the Druze positions by the United States, American neutrality is now a complete travesty?

Mr. Rifkind

The Government's main concern is to ensure peace and the removal of tension from the Lebanon. We believe that the multinational force has been instrumental to a substantial degree in reducing tension in much of the Lebanon. The British contingent in particular is making an important contribution to the safety of the ceasefire mission. We believe that all members of the multinational force should concentrate their activities on that aspect.

Sir Antony Buck (Colchester, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that we are all proud of the way in which our forces are performing, as is shown by the fact that they received nothing but acclaim from all sides? However, does he recognise that both sides of the House are deeply concerned about their safety because those 100 men are in an isolated position? Can he tell us something about the back-up role of our forces in Cyprus?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree that the safety of the British troops is the Government's paramount consideration. Following incidents earlier this year, steps were taken to increase the security of the British contingent. HMS Fearless is stationed off the Lebanese coast and is a useful measure of support for the British contingent.

My hon. and learned Friend referred to Cyprus. Buccaneers are based there, and they could be used to assist the British contingent in the Lebanon if necessary.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the Minister aware that the present turmoil in the Lebanon stems from the aggression of the state of Israel and that the situation has been made worse by American unilateral aggression against Syria? Is there any point in keeping British forces in the Lebanon as a cosmetic cover for an alleged peacekeeping force?

Mr. Rifkind

Most fair-minded people will accept that the causes of the present troubles in the Lebanon are far more complex than the right hon. Gentleman suggests. The British contingent has been welcomed by the various communities in the Lebanon. There is precious little upon which all the factions can agree, but they are unanimous in their view that the British contingent is playing an important and useful role. I am sure that both sides of the House will take that fact into account.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

As the United States Administration appear determined to use their role in the multinational force to drive the Syrians from the Lebanon, what action is the MNF taking to remove the Israelis from the south of the country?

Mr. Rifkind

The Government could not support the use of the MNF to remove the Syrians or anyone else from the Lebanon. Its purpose is to help to keep the peace within the Lebanon. That was its original purpose and can be its only legitimate function.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

Does the Minister accept that the whole purpose of President Gemayel's visit to the United States was to set aside the accord forced on the Lebanese Government? Unless that accord is set aside, the conciliation talks — which the Minister says our troops are protecting — have no chance of success. Rather than launching attacks on the Lebanese people, should not President Reagan stress to the Israeli Prime Minister the need to ease the pressure on the Lebanese President?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman has gone slightly wider than previous comments. The British contingent is involved with the protection of the Ceasefire Commission. The communal talks in Geneva do not come under the responsibility of any part of the MNF. We hope that the talks will make further progress.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of us fear that there are two American forces in the Lebanon—one as a part of the MNF and the other acting in a trigger-happy way on its own? Is my hon. Friend entirely satisfied that the level of consultation between the American and British Governments is sufficiently close?

Mr. Rifkind

It is appropriate that the MNF is answerable to the national Governments who sent it there, in with full consultation with the Lebanese Government. The British Government are in consultation with the American Government, but it is important to remember that in operational matters the situation in the Lebanon moves quickly from hour to hour, as well as from clay to day.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

In the current difficult position, will the Minister assure us that if the Government finally contemplate withdrawal of the British contingent —which many of us fear they will have to do—they will not do so without having the fullest consultation with our Community partners, the French and Italians?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is correct to emphasise that unilateral action would be harmful to the interests that hon. Members wish to protect. There will be a continuing opportunity for the closest discussions, not only with the Americans, but with the Italians and the French.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that, while it is always desirable to march in step with the Americans, British troops are in the Lebanon to help the Lebanese and no one else?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The British troops have two specific functions — to help protect the Ceasefire Commission and to take part in reconnaissance in Greater Beirut. Those are the specific functions allocated to them, and it is right and proper that they should concentrate on them.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the Minister ask the Foreign Secretary to make it clear to the United States that taking sides and then seeking revenge in the complex Lebanese situation, and establishing a strategic arrangement with Israel and stockpiling material in Israel, are recipes for disaster, not only for Syria and the Lebanon but, in the long-term, for America and Israel as well?

Mr. Rifkind

I have no doubt that for any member of the MNF to take sides or to seek revenge would be a gross and serious mistake. I must emphasise that the United States Government have stated categorically that their action during the weekends was in self-defence, arising from attacks on their forces.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who have wholeheartedly supported the United States in Europe, and are close friends of the alliance with America look with horror at the American bombing in the Lebanon? Can my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Foreign Office urge upon the American State Department that it must give up the Israeli alliance—which is disastrous for Israel, the Middle East and the world — and try, by sensible diplomacy, to detach Syria from the Russian influence?

Mr. Rifkind

We naturally share the concern about any loss of life as a result of actions by any of the parties in the dispute. I agree that the best way to make progress in an issue as difficult, complex and tense as that in the Middle East is by diplomatic means, not by military action.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I wish to ask a straightforward question of fact. At what point in time did British Ministers first learn of the American air strike? Was it before, or after, the event?

Mr. Rifkind

The United Kingdom was informed shortly before the initial intervention by the United States.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)

I agree that insufficient tribute has been paid to the achievements of the British troops guarding the Ceasefire Commission. Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are genuine concerns on both sides of the House about their present and future safety? Will he tell us more about their specific functions. What proportion of the 100 troops are guarding the Ceasefire Commission, and what proportion are doing other things?

Mr. Rifkind

As I said earlier, the British contingent has two main functions—the protection of the Ceasefire Commission and reconnaissance in Greater Beirut. I cannot give specific figures, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives information about the numbers involved in each of the tasks.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Does the Minister accept that the cycle of violence will not be broken if retaliation is constantly followed by counter-retaliation, and if peace-keeping is used as an excuse for playing an active and enthusiastic role in the hostilities? Will the Government now try to bring some collective European influence to bear on the United States to counter the obviously dangerous influence of Israel?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that a policy of retaliation followed by counter-retaliation would be negative and harmful to the prospects in the Lebanon. We have specifically encouraged all parties in the Lebanon to eschew violence as a means of solving the problem and to concentrate on diplomatic means gradually to achieve a greater degree of consensus among the various communities which would lead to the withdrawal of foreign forces.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is there not a sickening inevitability about American policy in the Middle East in the run-up to yet another American presidential election? Is my hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members fear that the British contingent in the Lebanon is being used to add a cloak of respectability to American policy, which many of us regard as dangerous and stupid? Will my hon. Friend note the strong views expressed by Conservatives as well as Opposition Members?

Mr. Rifkind

I am aware of the strong concern on both sides of the House about the physical safety and role of the British contingent in the MNF. I emphasise that the United States and other countries in the MNF must have as their sole objective the restoration and preservation of peace in the Lebanon. Anything that is conducive to the achievement of that objective should have the support of the whole House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As the House knows, private notice questions are an extension of Question Time, but I sense the mood of the House that this is a matter of considerable interest and importance. Therefore, I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising to ask questions, but I ask them to have regard to the business that is to follow.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not a fact that both sides of the House are deeply worried about the situation, and will the Minister reflect that in his answers? Is it not clear to the whole world that the role of the Americans in the Lebanon is interventionist and intimidatory, and that the presence of Gemayel and Shamir in Washington makes many of us think that an attack on Syria by the Americans is now imminent? Is there not a danger of bringing the other major power into this situation? Is it not clear that that is what we are all frightened of?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is justified in saying that there is real concern and worry on both sides of the House—and, indeed, throughout the middle east and the world—about what is happening in the Lebanon. It is a tense and difficult situation. Not only the British Government but all the parties involved in the Lebanon must take into account, in considering any action or responses, whether their actions are likely to increase or reduce tension. We should all seek to concentrate our activities and initiatives on aspects of policy that will reduce rather than increase tension in the area.

Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Will my hon. Friend reassure those of us who are worried about the presence of British troops in the Lebanon that the criticisms voiced by some leading Lebanese politicians about the American retaliatory action will not be extended and get worse and thus undermine the whole credibility of the multinational force?

Mr. Rifkind

I agree with my hon. Friend that the presence of the multinational force in the Lebanon can arise only in the context where the Lebanese Government themselves want it to continue to play an important role in peacekeeping in their country. It is very much in accordance with the wishes of the Lebanese Government and the various communities in the Lebanon that the United Kingdom is at present involved in that country. Clearly, if their wishes were to change significantly that would have a profound effect on the utility of any United Kingdom contribution.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

If the British Government were informed before the American attack took place, were we asked for our views, did we object, and did a conversation take place between the Foreign Secretary and his American counterpart?

Mr. Rifkind

The information was received by the United Kingdom on the Military network very shortly before the action commenced.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Does it remain our diplomatic objective to bring about the removal of all foreign forces from the Lebanon? If so, how can there be any talk of abrogating the 17 May agreement?

Mr. Rifkind

It remains our objective to have all foreign troops removed from the Lebanon, and we are willing to give continuing support to any measures that may play a part in contributing to the achievement of that objective.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

May we take it from the answers that the Minister gave to my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) that we were informed only a few minutes—by the sound of it—before the attack took place, and that the Americans once again treated their principal ally with contempt and failed to consult us in any way? As our men were bound to be militarily at greater risk from any further American escalation, is it not outrageous that the Americans did not consult us and allow enough time for us to express our view?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman's question is fundamentally absurd, because the various forces in the multinational force have an inherent right of self-defence, and that right is specifically mentioned in the mandate. When the forces of any member state in the multinational force exercise that right, it is an operational matter. The situation in the Lebanon changes from day to day and from hour to hour. If the American forces are used for proper means of self-defence, that is an operational matter which it is for the American forces and authorities themselves to determine.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My hon. Friend makes a lot of the statements of the United States Government and their purported motives. May we deal instead with the realities? Can my hon. Friend tell the House how we can detach ourselves from the mistaken and dangerous policies of the United States, the anti-Arab policies of the United States, in the region, without at the same time endangering the fabric of the NATO Alliance?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend should appreciate that Her Majesty's Government will support American policy when it is in accordance with our own views about the proper way of resolving international problems. [Interruption.] We share the United States' desire for peace in the middle east. The particular manner in which that should be advanced has to be considered on its merits in each case. We shall take into account British interests in the British perspective and if that coincides with the American perspective we shall give that policy our full support. If it does not coincide, we shall not support it.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Further to the Minister's last answer, do the Government share the phobia of the United States Government that the Syrians are the agents of the Soviet Union in the Lebanon? Or, notwithstanding the presence of Soviet advisers and arms in Syria, do we take the view that Syria is performing a policy in the Lebanon to suit its own national interests? If it is the latter, and if we want to distance ourselves from the United States, is it not better that we intimate, albeit in harmony with our European colleagues, that it is our intention to withdraw our support from the international peacekeeping force?

Mr. Rifkind

There is no doubt that the Syrian Government receive an enormous amount of material and logistic support from the Soviet Union. I assume that the Syrian Government will apply their interpretation of Syrian interests in pursuit of their policies, as would most Governments. My answer to the hon. Gentleman's final question is that I have said before that the presence of the British contingent is welcomed by all sections of the community in the Lebanon. It is welcomed by the Syrian Government and by other Governments in the region, and anyone who is interested in genuine peacekeeping in the Lebanon has to take that into account.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my hon. Friend accept that even those of us who had considerable sympathy with the Americans when they found that an unarmed reconnaissance plane was being fired on feel that, nevertheless, the action that was taken marks an escalation, and that there must inevitably be greater pessimism that the peacekeeping force will not be able to keep the peace? Does he further accept that an early and immediate decision may therefore have to be made to pull out our contingent? Can my hon. Friend assure us that if that happens, sooner rather than later, that decision will be speedily made?

Mr. Rifkind

We would not welcome any escalation of tension in the Lebanon. We are in constant contact with the other member Governments in the multinational force. If it were ever believed that the British contingent in the multinational force could no longer perform the role for which it was sent to the Lebanon, our withdrawal would of course become a prime objective of British policy.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

As it is likely that the escalation will carry on in the Lebanon, what will the British Government's reaction he if our troops suffer loss of life similar to that of the Americans in the past four days?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the heavy loss of life that the Americans have suffered, not just in the past four days but in the past few weeks. Clearly we are all anxious to ensure that the security of the small British contingent is of a kind to guarantee their physical safety, in so far as that is possible.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

The Minister has mentioned American self-defence four times. Will he tell us how he can describe the actions of the United States air force, its bombings and its raids, as self-defence? Does he not accept, after this series of questions, that hon. Members on both sides of the House do not see the American action as self-defence?

Mr. Rifkind

The United States Government have emphasised clearly and unequivocally that their action over the weekend was—[Interruption.] It is not my job to explain—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister is attempting to reply.

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Gentleman is asking me about the explanation that the Americans have given —[Interruption.] I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to answer in my own way if he wants me to outline the explanation that the Americans gave of why they reacted as they did at the weekend. The American Government's view is that it was self-defence following the attacks on their aircraft.

The precise details of what took place over the weekend are matters that the American Government themselves have taken into account. When we are considering the proper means to ensure the defence of our troops, we shall take into account those actions that are thought to be necessary to ensure their physical safety. The American Government have taken into account the factors which they believe are essential for the security of their men. It is for them to explain and justify to the world whether that is a proper course of action.

Mr. Healey

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the view that the United States has embarked on a catastrophic course in the Lebanon is now held unanimously? Not one right hon. or hon. Member has expressed a different view in the last half hour. That view is widely held in Europe, by a large body in Israel, and even in the United States. In the light of the United States' failure once again to consult its major ally and to give Britain any opportunity to express a political view on military action which was bound to have a direct consequence on the safety of British troops in the Lebanon, the Minister's defence of the American action is profoundly repugnant to hon. Members on both sides and all too reminiscent of the Government's initial reaction to the invasion of Grenada. Will the Government now abandon their doormat diplomacy, stand up for British interests and protect British lives?

Mr. Rifkind

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has got that off his chest. Any self-respecting Government, when taking into account the needs to protect the physical safety and well-being of their troops, will apply the criterion that a measure of self-defence is necessary. That is exactly the approach that this Government will apply and we should not expect any other Government to apply a different criterion.