Thursday 12 April 2018

Syria: what not to do

Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has invited we members to give him our views  on military action against the government of Syria before (it is hoped) Parliament debates the issue.

Here is my response:

Dear Vince Cable,

Thank you for giving we members an opportunity to forward our views to you on the possible military intervention by the UK in Syria.

This is an extremely difficult problem which seems to place us in a lose-lose situation.  If we do not intervene we appear to stand by impotently  whilst terrible wickedness takes place, including the internationally illegal use of chemical weapons. If we do intervene there is a strong possibility of making a bad situation worse, as has already happened in similar circumstances in Iraq and Libya.

You set out some sensible conditions which should be fulfilled before any decision is taken: namely:

  • 1.       The government should share with Parliament what evidence it has that chemical weapons have been used.
  • 2.       The objectives of any proposed action should be defined and made clear to Parliament
  • 3.       Any response should be on a multilateral basis
  • 4.       There must be a full and frank debate and vote in the Commons before any action is taken.

You also sate that we Liberal Democrats must be “willing to play our part in upholding international law.” 

  In a sense that settles it.  As a letter in today’s Guardian (12th April)) states: Article 2(4) of the UN Charter says: ”All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence  of any sate.”

Russia and Iran are themselves breaking this law, and the Syrian government is breaking an international treaty by using chemical weapons.    However, as the well-known clichĂ© states: “Two (or even more) wrongs don’t make a right. It may well be that France, as the former mandated power, has some special responsibility which justifies its intervention in Syria: the UK does not.

But we should not just cower behind  this legalism.  Rather we should take into account the unhappy history of previous interventions  in the Middle East, the repeated evidence that assurances that “surgical” intervention on precise targets always turn out to be false and produce what we sanitise as “collateral” damage .  Do we really believe that raining more missiles on the poor people of Syria will actually improve their lot?

Most seriously, do we really want to ally ourselves with the intemperate  threats and possible actions of the most capricious, unpredictable, possibly even unbalanced, US president in history? 

Rather I believe that we should vote against any proposed military action, and instead put forward constructive practical alternatives such as those recommended in yesterday’s Guardian leader, namely :

·         Give substantially more humanitarian aid  for the Syrians seeking refuge in the region
·         Take  more refugees, especially children, into the UK.
Finally, we must redouble our efforts for a diplomatic solution.   

I am no expert but it seems to me that a considerable part of the Putin government’s  motivation is to re-assert Russia’s status as  a world power.  In a sense we have brought this problem on ourselves  by triumphalist insensitivity since the collapse of the USSR, not least inviting former satellite states to join NATO (the former enemy) and  the EU (some would say prematurely).   

We have rubbed Russia’s nose in its perceived humiliation and the Syrian people are paying the price.
Never forget that Russia paid for the defeat of Nazism with 25 000 000 deaths, compared with the UK’s 450 700.  We should pull out all the diplomatic stops necessary to repair this damage to our former and invaluable ally.

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