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MPs were right to oppose action in Syria in 2013 and may well be right now

April 14th, 2018

May must come to parliament and make her case

Ed Miliband’s legacy to the world cannot just be measured by his inadvertently handing the Labour leadership to Jeremy Corbyn*. He also played a decisive role in preventing the UK joining proposed action against the Assad regime after Syria used chemical weapons in 2013. The effect of Britain withdrawing from planned operations – and doing so because of opposition in the legislature – was to cause Obama from drawing back from his ‘red line’ on Syrian chemical use, to open the region to Russia, to stabilise Assad in power and to normalise the use of chemical weapons in Syria (and, quite possibly, beyond).

However, for all that, parliament was right to block action then, even if many MPs voted against the government then for the wrong reason. Missiles should not be lobbed off as a gesture, or to virtue signal, or as a response to “do something!”. To take any direct involvement in a war is either to have a lasting impact in it, in which case the country getting involved must bear some responsibility for the outcome of that war, it is has little or no impact, in which case what is the point?

The ostensible reason put forward both for action in 2013, and last year, and now is that people should be held to account for the use of chemical weapons and deterred from their reuse. That’s all very well but for it to mean anything, there have to been hard objectives achievable from the use of the force deployed. I didn’t see any explanation of how action in the past would achieve those ends and I don’t really see any now. Unless that changes, we should steer clear, at least until we’ve aligned objectives, strategy and capability.

The one thing that was never really determined in 2013 when the West planned on punishing Assad, was who it wanted to win the war. There weren’t really any good options and even if there were, the scale of force that would have been necessary to bring it about would have been huge: vastly costly in money and lives. Without the clarity of an answer to that key question, everything else became murky: the West – the US and Britain in particular but also France in Libya – have already launched more than enough military adventures without properly planning what to do when the fighting ends. Best not to repeat that error.

Which brings us to now. Once Again, Assad has almost certainly used chemical weapons, in contravention of international law. It’s an act which should be punished but the question is how? Is it possible to deny him those chemical weapons? If so, what will it take? If not, is it possible to deter him from reusing them? If it is, what action would be necessary to bring home that deterrence, given the scale of death and destruction he’s been prepared to countenance these last seven years in order to remain in power? We have been given no answers and until we get some, we should be wary of giving the government a blank cheque to act, either as a sop to opinion or as something much more serious.

    Which is why parliament should have been recalled already. Unfortunately, the PM seems to have got into one of her defensive moods and rather than make the case and lead the country, she’s preferring to hide away and convince at close quarters. That’s all very well for the cabinet but it does nothing for the country, nor for its representatives. Given that MPs will undoubtedly get a vote one way or another, it would be much better to lead events rather than being dragged along behind them. Apart from the obvious political necessity of a minority government needing the assent of parliament before taking a gravely important step, having to make the case in public before the nation’s representatives might help the government straighten out its thinking.

If Britain can do something useful in Syria, in alliance with France and the US, to help prevent the abomination of chemical weapons being used again against civilians, then it should. Preventing loss of life in a particularly nasty way and upholding international law are both intrinsically good things (other states which might have a mind to develop and use chemical weapons will no doubt be watching to see what happens to Assad and will take the lessons handed out accordingly).

The question is can it do something useful? Assad seems almost certain to emerge at the head of the last force standing in Syria (apart from Russia), meaning that if action is taken against him now, the West will still need to deal with him later. It’s no longer 2013. There are once again no easy and no nice options, including doing nothing or issuing weasel words and setting impossible preconditions.

The simple answer is that I don’t know. But then I’m not paid to know: the government is. May and her senior ministers should know and should say. The public is not particularly hostile to military action – 43% say they are opposed – but a lot, 34%, are unconvinced, according to a YouGov poll published yesterday. Given the experiences of Iraq and Libya, you can understand that caution (Mrs May should note that Tory voters are even more cautious than Labour ones when it comes to getting troops involved – Blairism still has a place in Labour, it seems). Which is why she needs to come to Westminster.

David Herdson

* Obviously, Miliband didn’t achieve that all by himself: the inability of Corbyn’s opponents to inspire support made a difference too. All the same, had Labour retained the system it used in 2010, Corbyn would have fallen well short of 50% in the first round – mainly because of minimal backing among MPs – and there’s a good chance that once Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper’s votes had been redistributed, Andy Burnham would have won.