HC Deb 06 February 1984 vol 53 cc603-7 3.32 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will consider the immediate withdrawal of UK forces from Lebanon.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

Fighting broke out on 2 February in Beirut between the Lebanese armed forces and the Shia Militia Amal. The fighting escalated on 3 and 4 February and continues today. Heavy Lebanese casualties have been reported.

The Lebanese Government resigned on 5 February but continues as a caretaker Administration. President Gemayel has begun consultations on the formation of a new Government and has issued an appeal to all parties in Lebanon to resume reconciliation talks.

The British contingent of the multinational force has not been the target of any deliberate attacks. Stray rounds have landed in or near the contingent's base. The contingent has suffered one minor casualty.

We are today consulting our partners in the multinational force and will keep the situation under close review. We wish to see an early end to the violence and bloodshed, an effective ceasefire, and more vigorous efforts by the Government of Lebanon and all the parties to settle their differences by negotiation. Against the background I have described, we must judge with other partners whether the MNF can still help in this process. We do not intend to withdraw our contingent precipitately.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend will be aware that our right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said in Riyadh on 11 January this year that the purposes of the multinational force was to help to extend the authority of the legitimate Government in the Lebanon. As there is now no such Government, as as it is most unlikely that there can be any such Government until such time as the May accord with Israel has been dumped, will my hon. Friend signify to our allies in the most effective way possible that there is no present purpose in our presence there?

Mr. Luce

On the last point there has been a great deal of discussion within and among the parties about the accord of 17 May. As my hon. Friend knows, the principal purpose of the accord was to provide for the withdrawal of Israeli forces, which is one of the major and important factors which we support if there is to be success in reconciliation in the Lebanon, let alone other foreign forces.

If alternatives that are just as good or better are put forward as a compromise plan which allows for the Lebanon to be independent and sovereign, but at the same time caters for the security of Israel on the northern borders, we do not think it right for us or any other party to stand in the way.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Is not the time long past for diplomatic gobbledegook on the Lebanon? According to the 1 o'clock news, there is now a complete collapse of law and order and the Lebanese army has disintegrated into its various Moslem and Christian components. Will the Minister now ask President Reagan to fulfil his mid-December undertaking to withdraw American forces from the Lebanon in the event of a collapse of law and order in Beirut? Will the Minister encourage the President in that by immediately withdrawing British forces? Does he agree that when even the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia describes the American presence in Beirut as "shameful", as he did on Friday, the continued presence of British and American forces can only do immense damage to British and Western interests in the middle east as well as representing a totally unjustified risk to the lives of British soldiers who now have no conceivable role to play there?

Mr. Luce

Before answering the right hon. Gentleman's main question, it is important to reinforce what we have always said. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees, we have nothing but admiration for the work of those 100 men in the past few months in their two main tasks—to guard the ceasefire commission at the request of all parties and to patrol the main streets of Beirut.

We in no way underestimate the gravity of the events of the past few days. In conjunction with our partners in the multinational force, we are very carefully assessing and weighing the implications of what is happening in the Lebanon. The judgment that we have to make—it is a very difficult balance to strike — is whether, if the multinational force remains there, there is still a prospect of reconciliation among the parties and of the Lebanon being able to proceed towards independence, full sovereignty and stability, which is what we all want. That is one of the main criteria that we have to take into account. The safety of the men involved is, of course, a very important factor at all times.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have a very important half Supply day for the Ulster Unionists today. As there are still two more statements and two applications for debates under Standing Order No. 10, we should not spend too long on the present important matter.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Minister confirm yet again that the British troops are in the Lebanon for the purpose of supporting President Gemayel in the almost impossible task of restoring national unity and reconciliation, and for no other purpose? Does the Minister agree that the United States is making the task even more difficult by refusing to countenance changes in the peace treaty arrangements between Israel and the Lebanon which President Gemayel himself is seeking?

Mr. Luce

I must make it absolutely plain to the right hon. Gentleman that we are not there to take sides with one faction against another. That is not our objective. If we adopted that stance it would not be possible even to start to fulfil our objective. The objective is singularly important. It is to see what we can do in the greater Beirut area to assist the process of reconciliation and thus, indirectly, the prospect of greater stability in the Lebanon. It is against that background that we have to make a very careful assessment of whether we are making a constructive contribution.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

My hon. Friend said that we were there to assist the process of reconciliation. What process is being served, in which direction is that process going, and for what possible purpose are our troops now being exposed to danger?

Mr. Luce

I am sure that on reflection my hon. Friend, if he were in a position of responsibility, would agree that it would not be right to take a rapid and panic decision in the light of the serious events—there is no doubt that the events of the past few days are very serious—and then, without consultation with the MNF or anything else, say that we should immediately withdraw because those events had taken place. We must judge calmly and rationally whether we continue to think that we can make a constructive contribution.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the Minister make it clear that we are not awaiting the permission of the United States to remove our soldiers from the dangerous and absurd position of purporting to sustain the authority of the Lebanese Government?

Mr. Luce

It is for us to take our own decision; we have our own responsibilities. However, it is right and important that the MNF partners should seek to act collectively if they possibly can, and that is our objective, because in that way we can bring most influence to bear.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)

Has my hon. Friend received any indication from President Assad about whether he has plans to withdraw the Syrian forces from the Lebanon?

Mr. Luce

We have repeatedly said that it is an essential precondition of any progress in the Lebanon that all foreign forces should withdraw. That presupposes, obviously, the Israelis and the Syrians. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I, when I paid a visit to Syria, made that point forcefully to the Syrians. There is as yet no indication that they are prepared to withdraw. We think that there is no prospect of peaceful resolution in that country unless all foreign forces withdraw.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in these tragic circumstances the first requirement is that the Americans should get the hell out of it because they have exacerbated the situation by taking sides—the hon. Gentleman made the point that we should not be doing that—in the factional fighting in Lebanon?

Mr. Luce

As I said, we are today in close touch with all our MNF partners. We are consulting closely about the present situation in the Lebanon, which is evolving rapidly.

Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Does my hon. Friend agree that in recent months we have argued that the MNF should stay in the Lebanon, for to withdraw it might lead to the fall of the Lebanese Government? Now that the Lebanese Government have fallen, is my hon. Friend arguing that the continuing presence of the MNF might lead to the emergence of a new Lebanese Government?

Mr. Luce

I do not recall that at any time we have linked our withdrawal or presence to a specific Government in the Lebanon. That has never, in my recollection, been the case, but clearly a serious factor which we must consider—I am sure that the House will be weighing this up carefully as one of the factors which we must consider—is what would be the effect of a precipitate withdrawal of the MNF at present. Would it, or would it not, help the situation in the Lebanon?

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

The Minister will be aware that fewer than 200 yards now separate the American forces in Beirut from the National Salvation Front militia. Does he accept that the only way in which there will not be an outbreak of direct fighting between those forces is if the Americans put pressure on President Gemayel to accept the point that the National Salvation Front has been making namely that there must be a Government who involve all parties and are not dominated by one single party, if peace is to be restored in the Lebanon?

Mr. Luce

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there will be no prospect of peace for the strife-torn country of the Lebanon unless there is reconciliation between the communities within the Lebanon, let alone the role of foreign forces, and it is absolutely essential and urgent that the parties should get together, reconcile their differences and allow conditions to be created for the withdrawal of all foreign forces.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the locus standi of the British forces in the Lebanon? If the Lebanese Parliament was time-expired before it approved Gemayel's presidency and Gemayel has not been elected by any electorate there, and as his writ clearly does not run in the country so that he is not de facto, and he appears not to be de jure either, by whose authority are British armed forces present in that country?

Mr. Luce

There is a caretaker Government, the members of which include the Moslems who resigned. It is being assessed whether a fresh Administration can be formed. We can work only on the facts as they are. There is a constitution, there have been elections and there was a Parliament which was originally elected, and through that system the president is elected. If we are to play a role in the Lebanon, there does not seem to be any other basis on which we can operate and consider the events.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has the Minister not evaded the legitimate question put by the hon. Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, by saying that he should go away and reflect? In what way can 100 men confined to barracks help any method of reconciliation?

Mr. Luce

I do not want to leave the House with the impression that the British Government are not reflecting. We are reflecting and considering these matters extremely seriously. As I have said, we are today in touch with the MNF partners. We attach the highest priority to those consultations. We regard the events of the past few days as extremely grave and against that background we have to make a judgment on whether we can play a constructive role. In our view it is not right and not sensible to panic in the light of the events of the past weekend and pull out in a precipitate manner without rational assessment.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I hope that my hon. Friend will not be tempted into feeling that there is a call this afternoon for retreat from our position in the Lebanon. We have a place in the Lebanon—a symbolic position to the Lebanese people and to the Government. The fact that we do not take sides is our symbol of impartiality. I hope that my hon. Friend will not heed the strident calls for retreat at this time.

Mr. Luce

My hon. Friend's remarks are important and significant and have been borne out on the tours which I and my right hon. and learned Friend have undertaken in the middle east. Great credit has been paid to our soldiers who have carried out Britain's role over the past year in the Lebanon. That is because they are trusted by all the parties. There is a view held among many countries in the middle east that Britain has had a constructive role to play. Many countries are pleased that we have done it.

Mr. Healey

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that when he talks about his 15 months of reflection it sounds rather like higher narcissism. Nothing has emerged from this reflection whatever except the genial features of the Foreign Secretary and his fellow Ministers. Of course it is the case that if the multinational force is to play a role it must act collectively, but is not the failure of the force due to the fact that the United States Administration have acted unilaterally in the military sense by intervening massively and continually on one side in the internal conflict, and in the diplomatic sense by refusing to use its presence to persuade President Gemayel to revise his regime to give a fairer share of power to the great Moslem majority in the Lebanon, and by refusing to use any influence to persuade President Gemayel to revise the Israeli-Lebanese accord, which is now rejected by every section of non-Maronite opinion in the Lebanon? In that situation, has the time not come when we should tell the Americans that we propose to do what we and our European colleagues think is best in our and Western interests?

Mr. Luce

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must take the decision ourselves and do whatever we think is best in terms of British interests. We could have had an easy option at any time during the past several months since we first had a force in the Lebanon, which was a year ago. We could have decided when we were asked to make a contribution merely to turn our backs and not to do so. There have been many arguments in favour of doing just that. However, it was suggested to us that Britain could play a constructive role in that part of the world and we decided to respond. That was the basis of our decision. I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman by saying that we are taking extremely seriously the nature of the developments in the Lebanon and consulting closely with our MNF partners.

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