HL Deb 05 December 1983 vol 445 cc890-4

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement now being made in another place.

"On 3rd December anti-aircraft guns and missiles were fired at United States reconnaissance aircraft over Lebanon. Early on 4th 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 MNF. 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 Cease-fire Commission. The safety of our men is kept under constant review.

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

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement. We also sympathise with the United States on the loss of eight marines killed in the shelling outside Beirut. However, does not the noble Baroness agree that the developments of the past 48 hours, where the United States and Syrian forces have clashed in the Lebanon, constitute a significant escalation of the conflict and that that could have far-reaching implications?

We welcome the assurance in the Statement that the Government are in close contact with the other contributors to the multinational force. Can the noble Baroness say whether this included consultations with the United States before its aircraft bombed Syrian military targets? Were we informed of this and, if so, what was the response of Her Majesty's Government? Moreover, will the noble Baroness confirm once again that the treaty governing the presence of British troops in the Lebanon permits their use only in the Beirut area? Will she assure the House that they will not be allowed to become involved in a wider conflict with Syria but rather that they would be withdrawn?

Finally, we support the plea that all parties in the Lebanon should show restraint. Does the noble Baroness agree that this is a further argument for a meeting between the leaders of the United States and Soviet Union? Will the Government use all their endeavours to bring about such a meeting?

Lord Kennet

My Lords, can the Government confirm that the greater part of Lebanon is under the military control of its two neighbours, Syria and Israel? Can they also confirm that Syrian forces are there by invitation of the Lebanese Government as members of an Arab League multinational force, albeit a shadowy one, and that the Israeli forces are there by right of invasion alone, and in defiance of United Nations resolutions?

Can the Government also confirm that the Western multinational force went by invitation to keep peace between the two sides? Now that Israel and the United States, bound together in a new alliance, have both attacked Syrian forces on the ground, what is the continuing purpose of the Western multinational force? Are the Government aware that as long as our little contingent confines itself to guarding the Cease fire Commission it will have the country with it, but if it is allowed to be dragged behind President Reagan in an attempt to expel Syria from the Lebanon it will have the country against it?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for the way they have received this Statement? To answer the first question put by Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos on consultation with the United States, I can confirm that we were informed shortly beforehand, but, as he will understand, each multinational force contributor has the right to self-defence and to decide what measures it deems to be necessary.

It might be helpful if I were to set out once again the conditions for keeping our multinational force in the Lebanon because this answers a question put by both noble Lords. I should make clear that the presence of our contribution to the multinational force helps the Lebanese Government and the army. It reassures the Beirut public and helps to restore stability and to create conditions for reconciliation, which is what we wish to see.

We believe that our forces have been welcomed by all the communities and that they have an important role in guarding cease-fire talks. Further, I think that they demonstrate our commitment to promote peace in the Lebanon which is, of course, important for wider stability in the Middle East. It is something which has been welcomed both by moderate Arabs and by Israel. The fact that the Syrians are appreciative of our policies was made clear to my right honourable friend Mr. Luce on 4th December.

I have, of course, noted the concluding remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and I should like to confirm what I have already indicated today, that we ourselves believe there should be a constructive dialogue with the Soviet Union and that is something we shall be continuing.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, may I pursue the point about consultation a step further in view of its importance, and in order that there may be no doubt about it? Is the noble Baroness saying that Her Majesty's Government were consulted by the United States about the proposed bombing but that the Government did not demur or object to this further escalation in the Lebanon? Is that the position? Is it also the case that the different parties to the MNF can, in fact, go off on adventures of their own without the agreement of the other parties? If so, that is a very serious statement.

Baroness Young

My Lords, the position is as I described it in my original answer to the noble Lord. We were informed by the United States shortly before it took action. But I must reiterate that each contributor has the right to self-defence and to decide what measures are necessary. In fact, in the case of the French retaliation we were not informed in advance. I can perhaps go on to confirm that there could be no possible use of the British forces unless the British Government wish them to be used in some way.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Baroness saying that military aggression of the type involved in the bombing is self-defence in the terms of the understanding between the parties?

Baroness Young

My Lords, it is not for me to speak for the American Government in this particular matter. It was for the American Government to determine what they felt was right for their self-defence in the circumstances of the case.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that from the point of view of future peace keeping it is essential that the European countries at least should maintain the confidence of both sides? Will the noble Baroness reaffirm that, when the United States and Israel are engaged in hostilities with Syria and the Lebanese Moslems, the position of the United Kingdom is uncommitted to either side?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as I think I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, the British contingent enjoys the confidence of both sides in this particular circumstance. On the question of consultations, I can confirm that there will be a meeting of the MNF Foreign Ministers in Brussels later this week.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, would the noble Baroness agree that there can be no peace in Lebanon until all foreign forces have withdrawn? Will she further agree that there was a pact between the Israeli and Lebanese Governments which called for a withdrawal of Israeli forces, with which the Israeli Government have complied, and that that pact was subject to Syria also withdrawing? Is not Syria's failure to withdraw the cause of the present unhappy situation?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to confirm that we see an urgent need for the full withdrawal of all foreign forces in Lebanon. At the time we welcomed the agreement as a commitment by Israel to the full withdrawal of her forces from Lebanon. Clearly there have been difficulties about the implementation of that. We should not object to alternative arrangements which had the agreement of all parties. We recognise the Israeli concern about security for her northern border. But what we really want to see is the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, in the muddled situation that we have in the Lebanon, are not the true enemies the Druze and the Syrians, and is it not really these people who have to be dealt with and not the Israelis or the Americans? It is these people, with Russia, who we think are our enemies and who are our enemies.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should rather not be drawn down the particular path that the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, has outlined. We believe that the majority of Lebanese share the objectives of President Gemayel to restore Lebanese independence and secure the withdrawal of foreign troops.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, rightly or wrongly the newspapers are full of rumours to the effect that, profiting apparently from the illness of President Assad, the American and Israeli Governments have come to some agreement to use force to compel the evacuation of the Lebanon by the Syrian army. While I have no reason to suppose that these reports are accurate, will the noble Baroness say that, if by any chance they are, the Government will make it clear at once that they are entirely opposed to such a dangerous policy, which could very possibly lead to an armed confrontation between the two super-powers?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should not like to speculate on any view that the press may take now or some time in the future. Any agreements or arrangements between President Reagan and Mr. Shamir are for them. In the answers that I have given to the other questions I think I have made clear what is the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, what we are concerned about now is surely the steps taken by our leading ally to protect its own troops. Is not our interest in that respect that it should succeed in protecting its troops? Will the Government make that point clear to them, and that this is not a carping expedition?

Baroness Young

My Lords, in my answer to the first supplementary question asked on this Statement I made it clear that each contributor to the multinational force—to which the United States is a major contributor—has the right to decide on its own self-defence and what measures it regards as necessary to achieve that end.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can my noble friend possibly help us a little on this? Part of the instability of the present Lebanese Government is created by the 1943 agreement partitioning jobs between Sunni Moslems and Maronite Christians. The numbers in the population have changed very much since then. Can my noble friend confirm, or comment upon, whether any pressure has been put on President Gemayel by ourselves or, above all, by the American Government to make concessions to the Sunni Moslems, who I know feel threatened by the Maronite superiority in the present Lebanese Government?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Onslow will be aware, there have been discussions in Geneva with President Gemayel on the future of Lebanon. We think that the majority of Lebanese share his objective of restoring Lebanon's independence and securing the withdrawal of foreign forces. There are differences between the parties over power sharing and institutional reform, but we believe that these need to be sorted out by the Lebanese themselves without outside interference. It is not for us to be involved in this. There has been some encouraging progress in the Geneva talks. Indeed, President Gemayel is to come here to see us in the near future with the object of discussing the reconvening of the reconciliation talks, which we must all hope will be successful.