In this week’s Kev’s column I cover my thoughts on the latest developments in relation to the situation in Syria:
I normally try and change the subject of my column each week, but the recall of parliament and the widespread public debate mean that there is one issue that has dominated the headlines.
As I stated last week the use of chemical weapons is not an act of war, but an act of murder. International efforts, starting in the 1920’s, have sought to outlaw their production and use, with only a handful of states refusing to respect this. One of which was Syria.
There is sadly only one threat that will get President Assad’s attention and that is the potential for a use of force that might damage his regime. I have no doubt that the UN weapons inspectors now working in Syria would not have been given access to the crucial sites if the requests for permission to do so were not backed up by the potential for military action.
Whilst, as stated last week, I support in principle a limited use of force in response to a chemical weapons strike, timing is everything. Hence I would have opposed any House of Commons resolution today (Thursday 29th August) that gave permission for UK involvement in immediate military action.
For me the biggest question about the military action suggested this week was: What is the sudden rush? Is there evidence Assad is preparing an imminent chemical attack? Is there a realistic chance of a Syrian attack on our sovereign bases in Cyprus, Turkey or Israel if we do not act now?
The threat of force in Syria is likely to be more effective than to actually use it. Had a strike gone ahead before the weekend the UN inspectors would have had to leave early, giving Assad’s allies the get out of being able to claim that as the work had not been finished he cannot be held to blame. It is vital MPs, as well as world opinion, have their report available to consider before a vote.
The UN route must also be exhausted before any military action is considered. Russia and China will probably veto any Security Council resolution that follows the inspectors’ report. Yet it is important they have actually done this, not it just been assumed they would. The Security Council debate will also indicate how far Russia is prepared to go in terms of their opposition. If their response would go beyond angry words or statements, then a military option could not possibly be considered.
Syria needs to immediately commit to two outcomes. 1. To pledge that all chemical weapons will be put beyond use. 2. That the UN will be able to independently inspect that this has happened. The making of these commitments does not avoid liability in terms of a future prosecution in the International Criminal Court for war crimes. They would prevent an air strike, not justice. I suspect strongly these commitments will not be made, but a rejection of doing so would speak volumes about Syria’s future plans.
Any military plan must be clear that its objective is not to provide air support to the opposition forces or prepare the path for a wider western intervention, but strictly limited to damaging the capacity to launch a further chemical attack or produce such weapons. This may include a limited element of punishing their use on civilians such as destroying the dictator’s palace. No troops on the ground. No arms for the opposition. No targeting of wider government infrastructure.
In a Twitter debate I was asked by one Labour member if I could imagine myself not following the “party whip” on an issue like this. In response, I pointed out that the route from my home to the local Conservative Office takes me past Torquay’s War Memorial. In taking any decision as the bay’s MP that could add a name to that memorial I would want to be clear that I made the decision I genuinely thought was the right one, not just followed a party line.
In response to this comment another labour member lazily tried to argue this showed I would just “follow party lines and ignore my constituents”, most residents will instantly realise that a reference to the War Memorial means exactly the opposite. In essence it would have to be a decision I could justify to myself when I looked in the mirror, as well as to my constituents more widely.
I have attended funerals of troops killed fighting in Afghanistan and it brings home that each death is a family’s loss, not a military statistic. Sending our troops to war is the ultimate decision any parliament or MP can make, not least because of the international reaction it may provoke. Syria’s Civil War is murderous and we cannot just walk on by whilst it sucks the wider middle-east into conflict. Yet we cannot just charge in, any military action must clearly be seen as the only option that remains in terms of dealing with the chemical threat. Timing is everything.