Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Chemical weapon attacks in Eastern Ghouta are a hideous phase in the Syrian civil war. In less than three years of conflict, 100,000 people are dead with 2 million refugees displaced. The nation-state of Syria is dissolving, destabilised by a vortex of virulent violence. The British government’s motion wanted to guide an international reaction to this travesty.
The case for military intervention is that the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons must be maintained, and so a firm response – in humanitarian defence – must come. The Syrian violence is spilling beyond its borders, threatening the relative peace of its neighbours.
The problem is whether the proposed action, “limited” military strikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities, will achieve this aim. This is not without precedent: Operation Desert Fox, a 1998 bombing campaign in Iraq, somewhat degraded Saddam Hussein’s capabilities. Sometimes, the wrong targets are hit, as when President Clinton ordered the destruction of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, believing it produced weapons for al-Qaeda. Even with correct targets, the probability of killing innocent people is high – it is ahistorical to assert otherwise. Limited strikes can have limitless consequences.
President Obama did not spray a ‘red line’ over chemical weapons use: it is the subject of international treaties, and necessitates a serious response. Effective demilitarisation cannot be achieved through Tomahawk missiles alone, but through the work of the OPCW and signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria is not a signatory; international pressure should strongly encourage its signing. Prior to military intervention, the objectives, their achievability and likely outcomes should be delineated.
The government’s motion should have been supported, as it did not prescribe missile strikes: “this may, if necessary, require military action”. A second vote would be necessary for such action. The similarities between the motion and the Labour amendment are striking, rendering the latter redundant. It is inescapable that Cameron sought unity but Miliband delivered division.
The thoughtless trope that the Syria debate represented “Parliament at its best” is oft-repeated. Debates inside and outside the Commons were rather poor. This is particularly true of anti-intervention advocates: beneath one sewer of pseudo-scepticism and conflation, gargles another sewer of ad hominem attacks and outright lies.
The phrases “armchair general” and “go fight it yourself” – blood relations of “chicken-hawk”, for my American readers – have been resuscitated. In a liberal democracy, a person can advocate any public policy they wish, without conditions of active participation or expertise. It is not said that only doctors and nurses can decide the NHS’s future; someone thinking a street needs cleaning does not need to grab a broom. These phrases also ignore the fact that Britain has a volunteer army.
Assad’s culpability for the attacks has been subjected to scrupulous scrutiny, despite the Joint Intelligence Committee concluding “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility”. Strong evidence must back these strong alternate claims. There is a small contingent of forces fighting in Syria affiliated to al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front and other members of the Mujahideen, but they are not the Free Syrian Army – the main rebels. Britain has not “armed” Assad’s regime with chemical weapons: export licenses to Syria were granted for chemicals sometimes used in sarin’s production, but these are not precursor chemicals and the exports were never made.
Shoddy arguments squat on the interventionist side too: this vote does not make Parliament “isolationist”, as in 2011, Parliament overwhelmingly granted support to the establishment of a no-fly zone in Libya.
This is a finely-balanced debate, and I am jealous of the certainty of others. This is not about “hawks” or “doves”, but a grave calculation.