Friday, 30 August 2013

Syria and the UK

   “Once bitten, twice shy,” just about sums up UK popular opinion on the vexed issue of whether to become involved in the Syrian conflict.  An opinion poll, following the poison gas attack of August 21 in Syria which resulted, as we now know, in well over 1,000 deaths, found that the British public were opposed to the use of British missiles against military sites in Syria by two to one.

The UK government had to bow to the popular mood. 

Members of both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament were in the final week of their summer vacation when they were summoned back home.  The purpose, they were informed, was to debate a Government motion that the UK join the US, France and other states in taking military action against the Assad regime.  If the Government won the debate, military intervention would follow.  Many suspected that the debate was called during the vacation in order to permit concerted action to be launched on the weekend starting August 31.

But the memory of the Iraq débacle in 2003 haunts the British public and their political representatives.  Even before the parliamentarians had assembled, leading figures from all parts of the political spectrum were demanding that no action be taken by the UK before the UN inspectors, currently in Syria examining the evidence of the massive poison gas attack by Assad’s forces, had reported.  Others, fearful of assenting to the illegal action that many believe the Iraq war to have been, insisted that before Britain becomes involved in the Syrian conflict, the matter is placed before the United Nations, and their sanction sought.  A third strand of opinion was adamant that any involvement by the UK must be ratified by a positive vote in Parliament.

UK premier David Cameron gave way.  Members of both Houses of Parliament, some perhaps a trifle resentful at losing the last week of their holidays, assembled on Thursday, August 29 for what was now to be simply a debate condemning the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and endorsing a step-by-step programme that could, subject to a second approving vote in Parliament, lead to the UK involving itself in action along with the US and other states. 

But certainly not by that weekend – and possibly never.  During the debate Conservative MP Edward Leigh said he did not believe the prime minister would ever hold the crucial second vote on Syria “because he knows cannot win it. We were lied to over Iraq. We will not go down that road again."

He was proved devastatingly correct.  In calling the emergency debate the British prime minister was shown to have made a fatal political error of judgment, for the government lost the motion by 13 votes. The vote was historic, for it is the first time that a British government has been blocked from executing a military deployment. It highlights Britain’s deep mistrust of official intelligence and involvement in foreign conflicts. The Iraq war casts a long, deep shadow over the British body politic.

Cameron had hoped to join President Obama in launching a cruise missile strike against the Syrian regime, but that lost vote has put paid to the UK joining the US in any military action at all in Syria, whatever the results of the UN inspectors’ investigation. 

“I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons,” said Cameron after the vote, “but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons.  It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.  I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”

  Prior to the debate, the government had published both its Joint Intelligence Committee Assessment on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and the assessment by the government’s chief legal officer of the legal position on the UK taking military action.

The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee believes that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus on August 21; that it is highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible; and that no opposition group involved in the Syrian conflict has the capability to conduct a chemical weapons attack on that scale.

As regards the UK Government's position on the legality of any intervention, it is that if action in the UN Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, to take exceptional measures including targeted military action in order to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Syria.

The problem with all this, and it arose clearly during the debate in the House of Commons, is the lack of clarity about what the proposed concerted military action was intended to achieve.  Obama has spoken of “a shot across the bows”.  A senior Labour figure ridiculed the remark.  “A shot across the bows” is a warning that inflicts no damage, but the President could not really mean this.  The only point of firing missiles is to hit something. 

A former Conservative defence minister asked whether Britain’s interests would be so much better served by having an “anti-West, anti-Christian, anti-Israel bunch of jihadists running Damascus”?

In the final analysis Cameron lost the motion simply because the case he made for military intervention by the UK was not strong enough.  He concentrated on the vital need for the civilized world to react against the use of chemical weapons.  Did that mean we were telling Assad that killing 100,000 people is OK provided it is done with bullets and rockets?  Would a missile strike prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria again?  And what sort of reprisals, and against whom, would a military intervention provoke?  A missile, or a chemical weapons, attack against Israel? Mass action against Syria’s Christians, as the Archbishop of Canterbury feared during the debate in the House of Lords?  Indeed both these, and other forms of reprisal, might yet follow whatever action Obama decides to take.

President Obama in his rose garden address on 31 August took his cue from Cameron’s mistakes.  While he, too, is seeking the backing of Congress for the action that he intends taking, he is bending over backwards to ensure that he carries the majority in both Houses with him – and, unlike Cameron, he is doing his best to win over public opinion too, on the basis of his vision of what America stands for.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 1 September 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 September 2013:

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