Monday, 9 September 2013

That vote, and why we should stay out of Syria!

For the second time in a decade, the government of Britain seems intent in taking the country into a war nobody, outside  of our political leadership wants. In 2003 it was Iraq, and the regime of Saddam Hussein, this time it's Syria and Bashar Al-Assad.

Both cries for war were, and are, based on evidence about which there is much doubt. The so-called 'dodgy dossier' that helped convince so many that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, has since been exposed as having been largely plagiarised from a number of unattributed sources, and then 'sexed up,' to use Andrew Gilligan's famous phrase, to strengthen its conclusions.

The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the American President, George W. Bush, both seemed to be convinced that a military intervention to remove Saddam Hussein was justified but were unable to get a United Nations resolution, despite a detailed presentation by then US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But many states did not find the US case convincing, and at the very least wanted UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, to complete their task and report fully to the security council. The only permanent members of the security council who had no doubts were the United States and Britain. France believed that Saddam had a weapons programme but felt intervention would be the 'worst possible solution,' according to then Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin. France's position was not one of never going into Iraq, but wanted the inspectors top complete their work and took a 'wait and see' approach.

The Chinese took a position that  was close to France's whilst the Russians, though reluctant to enable intervention, the then President Vladimir Putin, indicated that if Iraq continued in its failure to co-operate with the inspectors, then support for a US-led intervention was possible. There was one country on the security council at the time, from the elected members, that believed Iraq was meeting all its obligations, and indeed supported the lifting of sanctions, and that was Syria which had been led by the current president since 2000.

So as 2013 unfolds, once again war looms in the middle-east, in a situation which divides the permanent members of the security council. Britain and the United States are once again allied, this time with the French, whilst the Russians and Chinese are implacably opposed, as geopolitics takes centre stage.

In March 2011, as an extension of the 'Arab Spring,' a series of demonstrations against the Ba'athist regime of Syria, ruled since 2000 by Bashar Al-Assad, who succeeded his father. These demonstrations were largely peaceful until the army attempted to quell them, and they have since escalated into a full-scale civil war.

For over a year the anti-government rebels fought as a series of disparate groups each with their own agendas, but last November seemingly got together to form a single grouping Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, led by Ahmad Jarba, who reputedly has close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Making up the fighting force for the rebels are large elements of the army who defected in 2011, and operate under the title of the Free Syrian Army. However, attached to the rebel cause is a group known as Jabhat Al-Nasra, which has very close ties to Al-Qaeda, merging with the Iraqi branch in April this year. Al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, which is perhaps something to ponder?

Jabhat Al-Nasra have been responsible for a series of suicide bombings on government targets, and last December were declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, yet remain part of the opposition which Foreign Secretary William Hague was not ruling out arming as recently as July, confident they wouldn't fall into 'extremist hands.'

To complicate matters even further, Hezbollah, an Iranian funded Lebanese terrorist organisation, is supporting the Assad regime, and has participated in numerous suicide attacks, mainly on American and Israeli targets over the years.

So in effect what we have in Syria is two opposing groups with close links to active terrorist organisations, who have killing each other and over 100,000 civilians for two years, yet now the American, British and French governments have concluded that things have reached a point where a 'limited' military intervention is required against the Assad government.

The immediate trigger for this, though the forming of the official opposition group is a more medium term incentive, is an alleged chemical weapons attack on 21st August on a rebel held area of Damascus. Weapons inspectors have recently been there, and are expected to release their findings shortly, although their remit was to find evidence of chemical (WMD) weapon usage, not to apportion blame.

The leaders of the three main countries; United States, Britain and France, seeking to use military force are convinced that it was the Syrian regime that used these weapons, and according to President Barack Obama, crosses a 'red line,' he set a year previously.

The 'casus belli' is that this contravenes the UN's Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, and calls for the destruction of facilities and stockpiles. Syria is not a signatory to the convention, and so acting without an explicit UN resolution must be of doubtful legality.

The United Nations' Security Council, however is at an impasse, as of the five permanent members possessing vetoes, Russia is dead against any military intervention, and the best that could be expected from China is an abstention, but without Russia, no resolution can pass. This is almost a return to the days of the Cold War, when it was fought by proxy.

With little prospect of a UN sanctioned intervention, the Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get authorisation from the House of Commons, and so recalled it from the summer recess on August 29th,  to take military action, or at least that was the original intention, but Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's decision to table his own amendment, and reluctance to write a 'blank cheque' for intervention, forced Mr Cameron to change his motion to one focussing on the humanitarian aspect, but left open the prospect of military intervention if the government felt it was required:

"Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons"

Now it must be noted that the final paragraph reads:

Notes that this motion relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.

But overall the motion does not seem to rule out action without a UN resolution:

Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action

despite the many warm words seemingly in that direction.

During the debate, and following, there has been much dispute about two things, whether or not Ed Miliband said he would support David Cameron in taking action, and as to whether the Labour amendment was sufficiently different to justify its tabling, and dividing the House.

On the first point, this becomes a matter of interpretation, as the meetings between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband were on privy council terms, and the reality is that Mr Miliband's response was sufficiently ambiguous enough that multiple interpretations were possible. It suited Mr Cameron to see it as supportive, and Mr Miliband to allow room for a different approach.

But the real point is, are there any key differences between the two motions? Malcolm Rifkind didn't think so, and neither did a number of Conservatives, but there are a few which are, in my opinion, decisive.

Firstly, although Ed Miliband accepts on a balance of probability that the regime was responsible for the August 21st attack, he wants to see,

the production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons

and that the United nations votes on it following the inspectors report, and

There being a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;

and also

That the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action. 

So the key differences are that the regime is not blamed without clear proof, that the inspectors must report, and that the United nations must vote sanctioning 'limited' military action.

As we are well aware, both motions were defeated, and since then the accusations of politicking have been thrown at Mr Miliband, yet the large vote by the coalition partners against the Labour amendment would seem to allow such accusations against both sides, especially as the Labour amendment was, supposedly, so similar to the coalition motion.

Mr Miliband has also been accused of 'giving succour' to the Syrian President, Mr Assad, and siding with the Russians. However, I have yet to see him making the same accusations against the splendid Sarah Wollaston, former minister Crispin Blunt and former leadership contender David Davis who also voted against action.

After the desperately close vote, just thirteen, which defeated the government motion, Mr Miliband proposed a point of order asking:

There having been no motion passed by this House tonight, will the Prime Minister confirm to the House that, given the will of the House that has been expressed tonight, he will not use the royal prerogative to order the UK to be part of military action before there has been another vote in the House of Commons?

To which Mr Cameron replied:

I can give that assurance. Let me say that the House has not voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion,the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.

Here are the speeches of David Cameron and Ed Miliband so you can make up your own minds on their arguments.

I, along with the majority of the British population, do not believe intervention in Syria would be right or wise, and ironically it is now Mr Cameron who has completely ruled out military action, whereas the Labour amendment, and Mr Miliband's point of order, always left the door open.

Since the vote in the House of Commons, President Obama has announced that Congress would be asked to vote on military action, and President Hollande of France followed suite, although without a vote to follow. The vote in Congress is expected tomorrow the 10th September, and although the Congressional leadership is on board, there are many dissenting voices amongst representatives and senators, which could mean the vote is a close one.

Chemical weapons are an abhorrence, and we've seen their effects over the past century, from World War I mustard gas attacks, the use of Zyklon B in the gas chambers, napalm use during the Vietnam war by the Americans, the use of nerve gas on Kurdish villages by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and allegations of other uses throughout the Middle-East especially.

So why is it imperative to act now, when we didn't in 1988 especially? In 1988, the west was supporting Iraq during what was, arguably, the first gulf war, and so turning a blind eye was deemed politik. But, of course, times change too, and President Obama and David Cameron have deemed such use unacceptable, and against international law, which I don't think many of us would disagree with.

But, in Syria, we have a situation where there aren't any 'good guys,' where accusations of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and the possible use of chemical weapons, have been made against both sides, as well as the involvement, again on both sides, of recognised terrorist organisations, means this is a no win situation. Indeed, many have asked, why it is that it is the west who should intervene, and not the Arab League, or other regional organisations, in what is essentially a local dispute?

The movements of Russian and American ships, the presence of American ally Israel, and the various geopolitical line-ups, lead me to believe that this is a civil war that should be allowed to play itself out. There have been many questions asked as to why Assad's troops would use such weapons, when the war is going in their favour? However, a cursory study would show that over the centuries logical actions, especially during wars, aren't necessarily the way things unfold.

In many ways, the vote has done David Cameron a favour, as it has enabled him to be the voice of humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, and the 100,000s of refugees the war has created, a role he has pursued with gusto, perhaps freed, in his mind, from having to take part in any military action, action that has not, and cannot be defined. 'Limited' has no real meaning in a military context, because once you're involved, you can't 'hit and run,' you stay until you win, or as the United States discovered in Vietnam, lose.

So, hopefully, throughout this article, I have shown why we, the British though really I mean everyone, should steer well clear of involvement in the Syrian conflict. The Labour Party have learned the lessons of Iraq, under a leader who was against it, yet the Americans apparently haven't, and their leader raised his voice against when a member of the Illinois state senate. The Americans say they have clear evidence the regime used chemical weapons, but despite promises, have yet to produce it. There are many arguments of falsification, but I believe there are sufficient reasons to stay out of Syria, outside of humanitarian assistance, without getting involved in those.

Secretary of State John Kerry today said,  'the risk of acting is greater than the risk of not acting,'  but there are occasions when it is better to do nothing, and rush headlong into a war where there will be no winners, and I believe this is one of them.

Finally, and really as an aside, this repercussions for the future could be quite stark. If it develops sensibly, the debate over the ending of the veto could begin, and systems put in place to ensure the United Nations does not become an irrelevance.

However, worryingly, David Cameron did say at the G20 on 6th September that, "Relying on the UN to act over Syria would be tantamount to 'contracting out foreign policy and morality' to a Russian veto," and perhaps the same fate as the League of Nations awaits it unless reform is forthcoming, otherwise we're in for a series of counter-vetoes as each side struggles to maintain an advantage.


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