I want to explain why I think military action against Syria would be wrong and why the UK should stay out of it at all costs. I am not a natural peacenik. I believe that foreign intervention can often be justified. I supported the invasion of Iraq. I supported the invasion of Aghanistan and I supported helping the rebels in Libya. So why don’t I support any intervention in Syria, especially now that chemical weapons have now been used?
Let’s first address the issue of chemical weapons. I have never understood the argument that a death at the hands of a chemical weapon is somehow worse than at the hands of any other sort of weapon. A death is a death is a death. All deaths in military conflict are gruesome. David Cameron was rightly outraged that 350 people died in the chemical weapons attack. But wouldn’t he be equally outraged by 350 other deaths, caused by the dropping of conventional bombs? The argument for military action centres around the fact that chemical weapons have been deployed and therefore Barack Obama’s red lines have been crossed. Fair enough, but they were also crossed a year ago. Ah, says the Prime Minister, military action will act as a deterrent to them being used again. You reckon? Is that really the basis for launching missiles on Damascus – missiles which will inevitably then kill yet more innocent civilians?
The question to which I haven’t yet heard an answer is this: What is the end game? All wars or military conflicts need a final goal. In Afghanistan it was to rid the country of the Taliban. In Iraq it was to topple Saddam. In Libya it was to help the local population get rid of Gadaffi. Here the endgame is to stop further chemical weapons attacks. Everyone has made it clear that the Syrians will have to topple Assad themselves. If Obama or Cameron said their aim here was to overthrow Assad then at least there would be a valid argument to be had.
So let’s imagine we rain in a few missiles. What then? There will inevitably be calls from hawks in Washington to go further. There always are. It’s called Mission Creep. So we go further. Assad begins to weaken. What then? Ground troops? No one is seriously suggesting that now, but there will come a point when they do. And what then? I was reminded on Twitter last night of an exchange from The West Wing Series 7 Episode 12 over Kazakhstan between Matt Santos and President Bartlett…
Matt Santos: “What’s your exit strategy?”
President Bartlett: “I don’t have one.”
Do we learn nothing from Iraq and Afghanistan? Seemingly not.
Then we come to the question of legality and the UN. As usual, the UN has been as useful as a rice pudding in resolving the situation in Syria. It wrings its hands but those hands of course are tied by the attitudes of the Russians and the Chinese. Whatever the situation with chemical weapons I don’t see those two countries changing their rigid stance. It is to their shame that they remain allies of a man who is butchering his own people, but it isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. But without UN sanction, it will be argued that any military strike will be illegal. I am not a lawyer and I don’t believe countries should only be able to act with UN approval, but no one can possibly argue a military strike would be in self defence. And surely that is the key issue relating to legality?
We then come to Britain’s own position. Traditionally we have seen ourselves, alongside the Americans, as the policemen of the world, even if we nowadays play the equivalent role of a PCSO. But at a time when our armed forces are being cut to the bone, can we really continue to punch above our weight? I’m not saying we should become an isolationist country. I am proud of the role our soldiers have played in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, but can they really take on yet another foreign role, even one which at the moment might be very limited? Well, if you start a job you’ve got to finish it, even if it takes you down previously unexpected avenues. We got back to mission creep. I don’t for one minute think this involvement would end with a few missiles raining down on Damascus.
I am 95% sure these chemical attacks were instigated by the Assad regime. I am less sure that Assad and the people around him gave the orders. We know that Assad is not necessarily master of his own destiny and that the army has always held the whip hand. It is entirely possible that someone else gave the orders to launch this attack. That does not make it any better, and it doesn’t make the Syrian regime any less accountable, but will we ever get 100% verification that it wasn’t the rebels behind it? Because if not we are back in a WMD situation – where we are told one thing, but at some point later a rather different story emerges. For me WMD was never the only reason to topple Saddam Hussein, but that was then and this is now. If the US wants to make a case for going in and toppling Bashar Al Assad, then they should feel free to make it openly and transparently. They should not use the mask of the use of chemical weapons to hide behind.
Let’s move on to look at the rebels. They are a motley crew and even months on from the start of this civil war we know very little about them. All we seem to know is that they are in part controlled by elements of Al Qaeda. If that doesn’t give us pause for thought, what would? Moderate voices in the Middle East think we have lost our collective marbles by even considering arming the rebels. They’re not wrong. Providing humanitarian aid is one thing. Providing actual weapons is quite another, and we shouldn’t do it.
The consequences of countries like the US, Britain and France involving themselves/ourselves in a civil war in any Middle East country are incalculable. It may be going overboard to say it that makes one think of August 1914, but there are parallels to be drawn if you want to draw them. It’s the law of the unintended consequence. A perfectly reasonable action may be misinterpreted or totally misunderstood, and then BOOM! Does anyone think Iran would just sit by and do nothing? No. Nor do I.
As Professor Stefan Wolf argues at Politics.co.uk
Iraq is experiencing violence at levels similar to the height of its sectarian civil war more than five years ago, Afghanistan remains riddled with violence, and ..Libya resembles anything but a stable, secure and functioning state.
The trajectory of any intervention in Syria would arguably be worse. Assad’s regime and the Alewite community in which it is rooted perceive the current situation as a struggle for survival.
The more desperate the regime would become as a result of military intervention, the more ruthless its response will be.
Apart from the obvious danger of really widespread use of chemical weapons, further regional destabilisation would be on the cards drawing Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and possibly Israel ever deeper into a regional quagmire from which there will be no easy escape and which will be difficult to contain or roll back.
Quite. Do we really want to take that risk?
There is no public appetite in this country or America for intervention in Syria. I think the debate in Parliament will demonstrate that there are splits within our political parties, with some surprising voices being raised in opposition to military intervention. The votes will no doubt be whipped, but on a free vote I think the split in the country would be reflected in Parliament. One poll I saw showed only one in ten Americans believing there is a case for intervention. That in itself is not an argument for non-intervention. Sometimes politicians have to lead public opinion, make their case, and then be held to account for it. This is not one of them.
There is something we can do to make the situation better, and it is to increase the amount of humanitarian aid being provided to the region. More than one million children have been displaced. The camps dotted around the Syrian borders, but mainly in Jordan and Turkey, are huge and growing. They need more of the basic things people need to consume to survive. Those who have visited these camps have some very sorry tales to tell. The least we in the West can do is to ensure they are getting what they need to feed and nourish the people who have been forced out of their homeland.
Contrary to what Burke said, sometimes it is indeed best for ‘good men’ to do nothing. Sometimes you just have to let people get on with it and kill each other, no matter how horrible it might seem at the time. Human nature can be a vicious beast. Our western idea of democracy took hundreds of years to develop, yet somehow we expect Egyptians and Syrians to work it out over a few months. In the end, we can lend a helping hand but they have to get there themselves. But we have to recognise that some never will, and some don’t want to. We can’t impose it on them. Surely that is one lesson from Iraq.
This is the first time I have ever had any doubts about Britain being involved in military action. I find it a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. When I was on Any Questions on Friday, I found myself being the lost meft wing member of the panel on the issue of Syria. The other three thought we had to do something, but seemed unable to express what that something ought to involve. I am sure most of the people I generally agree with politically won’t agree with me. What I think makes very little difference to anyone, but if I remained silent it would be wrong.
I’d be interested in your views.
PS You can donate to the DEC who are coordinating humanitarian aid to the region.