Reports of a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians have once again raised the question of whether Britain should intervene militarily against the Assad régime, this time in possible conjunction with the United States and France . The case for intervention has some support, particularly from those who warn that the use of chemical weapons ‘crosses a line’.
Yet, many of the points pertinent to the 2013 decision, when Parliament, in very similar circumstances of a chemical weapons attack, was asked to vote on punitive air strikes against President Assad that same summer, remain so today. The Government under David Cameron lost the vote for many reasons, but chief amongst them was the sense amongst many MPs that we were joining a gadarene rush to action before our policy had been properly thought through. The intelligence surrounding the attack at the time of the vote was patchy, and it was not obvious how military action would improve the situation.
Whilst it seems likely the Syrian régime was responsible for the attack, this is not yet certain – there have been periods when both sides have blamed the other for such attacks. It is also unclear whether military action would have any practical or chastising effect – the damage caused to the Syrian airbase by the American attack in April 2017 was apparently quickly repaired, with aircraft using the runway just a few hours later, and chemical weapons continue to be used in Syria.
Given that the lesson from this may be that a longer, more widespread and sustained bombing campaign may be required, there remains the strong possibility of escalation. The Syrian leader now enjoys direct on-the-ground Russian support, and the prospect of Russian personnel or materiel being destroyed by Western military action is more likely than in 2013. We should be mindful of the remarks by Russian officials that they may shoot down missiles and may also target their source.
Our past interventions have had a tendency of dragging us ever deeper in. Attempting to prevent future chemical attacks is one thing, but the Prime Minister and Presidents Trump and Macron have not ruled out attempting to topple President Assad wholesale. This seems unlikely, given the strong Russian and Iranian support for his régime, but if achieved his overthrow could usher in still more violence in Syria.
Recent history would suggest extremist groups, which covet ‘ungoverned space’, would flock to fill the vacuum – our intervention in Libya being a case in point. The implications for security, both in the Middle East and at home, could be serious. If pursued, such a policy would also underestimate the extent to which this vicious civil war is also a proxy war reflecting wider regional tensions. Very few moderates now remain in Syria.
For all of these reasons, Western governments must consider their next moves carefully. In Britain, a Parliamentary vote should be held before any military action. Prime Ministers naturally have the latitude to take decisions on whether to employ force, but in this case there is no reason why MPs should not be able to express their view, if necessary when Parliament returns on Monday. The 2013 vote may have been an embarrassment for David Cameron, but it was the right decision, as confirmed by President Obama’s subsequent decision not to use force.
The UK’s recent experience of interventions suggests lessons need to be heeded: poorly informed policy-making, a failure properly to understand events on the ground (in part resulting from underfunding of the FCO), has meant that we continue to struggle with our responses to the ‘Arab Spring’ and its aftermath. At best, reforms backed by Western governments have petered out; in other cases, as in Egypt, the status quo ante of a military strongman has simply been restored. Libya, following the British and French-led international intervention in 2011 to remove Colonel Qadhafi, remains in turmoil.
The same confusion, writ large, applies to Syria. At the outset, Western Governments wanted to arm the rebels not realising that in the shadows lurked a greater danger, including Daesh which tore rapidly through Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014. Fortunately the British Government did not go ahead with its policy, as the arms it wanted to supply would have fallen into the hands of the extremists – although it did take a long backbench campaign in Parliament throughout 2013 to ensure this was the case.
Meanwhile, as we mark 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, and having seen first-hand the carnage caused by the Troubles, we should never give up in going the extra diplomatic mile. It has been painfully obvious from the earliest stages of the Syrian conflict that, if there was to be a solution at all, only a diplomatic solution would form the basis of a lasting settlement. These options have not been fully explored.
Both the Russians and the West have made mistakes. The Russians should not continually veto the investigations of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Syria, just as Western governments were wrong to exclude both the Russians and the Iranians from the rounds of Geneva peace talks in the earlier phases of the conflict.
Governments across the world should also remember that Syria, as much as anything else, represents an humanitarian tragedy. The UK can be proud of its record at supporting relief efforts for Syrian refugees, spending more than £2.46 billion since 2012 – considerably more than comparable European countries, and second only to the United States. The international community should follow our lead and help ensure proper funding for humanitarian measures – it was no coincidence that the exodus from the refugee camps coincided with the cutting of the food coupon.
The time has come to reflect, and to heed the lessons.