The war drums beat loudly through the House of Commons today as MPs in Westminster debated in preparation for their vote on the government’s hastily redrawn motion. Originally intended as a vote to endorse military intervention in Syria, in response to clear and overwhelming opposition to another war, it was moderated to a condemnation of a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime. Even this flaccid motion faced harsh and sustained criticism from across the House, as Cameron’s case for war crumbled.
The Case for War
The proponents of an attack on Syria, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, today took the novel step of arguing against going to war.
Cameron came to the Commons armed with a one page summary of legal opinion on a military strike on Syria. The one pager states that “the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.”
During his speech, Cameron made great efforts to state that he was not interested in getting involved in another protracted war in the Middle East, but a limited, targeted strike or series of strikes aimed specifically at deterring and disabling the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future.
He stated that although gaining authorisation for war through a UN security resolution was the best approach, this was not the only legal way, stating clearly that he would be willing to proceed even in the likely event of a contrary vote by the Security Council.
He finished with a flourish of rhetoric demanding that people ask themselves whether or not Britain is willing to defend international conventions on the use of chemical weapons, and that if we are too afraid to do something, we may well end up doing nothing….and what then?
The award for ‘Sabre Rattler of the Day’ went to Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex, who made several interventions against sceptical MPs from all sides. At one stage (during the deliberative speech of Tory MP Douglas Carswell) he intervened to condemn the house, asking ‘If we do not trust the Prime Minister to make the decision to go to war, why did we make him Prime Minister?’ and claiming that pausing the executive in the march to war was an unbearable ‘paralysis’. Carswell retorted that if we pause for clarity and evidence ahead of making the decision to go to war, this not paralysis but rather good governance.
The Case against War
The best case against going to war came not from the Labour front bench, but a series of thoughtful speeches from the back benches of all parties, and Green MP Caroline Lucas. Ed Miliband started well, with a request for evidence preceding decisions, not decisions preceding evidence. It was an opportunity for the Labour leadership to clearly demonstrate that the party had learned from Iraq and would not make the same mistake again, in or out of government. Sadly, it all fell down with an intervention from Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert. Miliband’s final position, revealed first during this exchange but reiterated several times thereafter, was that his wish was to take the matter to a vote at the UN – yet he would be willing to support military strikes on Syria whatever the result.
This is no different from the Iraq scenario, worse in fact as the US and UK spent months in preparation with the UN ahead of the Iraq war. This time we could be talking mere days.
The key arguments against war, made across the house were as follows:
- It is still unclear who is responsible for the chemical weapons attack. As the Assad regime is gaining ground in the civil war, with no international intervention, why would he cross a stated red line and invite the very international meddling which he has successfully avoided to date? Would it not make more sense that rebel forces or, dare we even suggest it, external forces seeking legitimacy for intervention, carried out or facilitated this attack? Foreign Policy magazine claims the US intercepted panicked phone calls made within the Syrian regime demanding answers for the chemical attack – this raises questions about ultimate culpability for the incident. Finally, were it not for popular dissent, today’s vote would have sought to authorise military intervention before UN inspectors had even completed their investigation into the attacks – the rush itself has provoked scepticism from across the political spectrum.
- Cameron’s claim that this military intervention can be conveniently compartmentalised and not impact the civil war was described by Labour MP Dai Havard as ‘a nonsense’. Indeed, a significant number of MPs across the house agreed. The very idea that Assad and his allies in Russia, China and Iran would shake their heads, vow never to use chemical weapons again and seek no reprisals is frankly laughable. What if Assad or any other element uses chemical weapons directly after attacks, as a rebuke of interventionist efforts? What if Israel or Iran take the opportunity to launch strikes against each other in the fog of war? What if later evidence is found confirming the rebels launched the attacks and Assad falls only to be replaced by other war criminals? There are simply too many ‘what ifs’ at this stage for any leader to claim this is all some straightforward, low level spat. As Douglas Carswell pointed out quite expertly: a hundred years ago, almost to the day, military intervention was agreed in Serbia in this same vein, and the outcome was World War I.
- There is also the issue of efficacy. David Cameron referred to an outline plan of striking the buildings and persons associated with the chemical attack. This would imply that military installations, government buildings and perhaps even scientists and members of the regime would be targets. How many of these would need to be destroyed to demolish the command and control structure of the Assad regime to deploy devastating chemical or conventional attacks in retaliation? Answer came there none. How would we ensure we didn’t inadvertently release chemical weapons in the process of seeking to destroy them? Answer came there none. How would we ensure we didn’t kill yet more Syrian civilians as ‘collateral damage’ in these air strikes? Answer came there none.
Finally, there is the matter of trust. The Iraq War, and more than a decade of US foreign policy which has ridden roughshod over international law has destroyed the faith of many in the motives of Western government’s foreign military intervention. Those who questioned the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq in the run up and during the early stages of the war were dismissed as conspiracy theorists and likened to appeasers of Hitler. They were told that the intelligence was water tight, and who were they to challenge the experts? They were completely vindicated when the entire case for war was fabricated and sexed up to gain popular support for a political decision made at Bush’s ranch months before the war.
In the last decade and beyond the US government has kidnapped citizens from across the world and held them in Guantanamo Bay and other locations where they have been tortured for information. They have used chemical weapons in the form of Napalm and White Phosphorous in Iraq. They have imprisoned whistle-blower Chelsea Manning who exposed war crimes, while taking no action on those engaging in the crimes. The UK government has been complicit throughout. In all these instances, the US and UK governments issued denial after denial until finally admitting the reality.
For many, the hypocrisy is simply untenable.
Meanwhile the War Games Have Started
Nevertheless, despite the parliamentary pause in the UK, the preparations for an impending attack are underway.
- Syria has evacuated most of its army buildings in Damascus already. Britain has already sent six typhoon fighter jets to Cyprus in advance of strikes.
- Russia, Syria’s key ally, has sent two warships to the Mediterranean in anticipation of war.
- The US has positioned five Destroyer warships in strategic positions across the Mediterranean, with the USS Stout heading East toward Syria.
Despite the US and UK leadership claiming no decision has yet been made, this level of preparation suggests they are positioning such that one is not far away, and subsequent action would be imminent. While all this takes place, a civil war continues to rage in Syria, with Syrian civilians dying in their tens of thousands. It does not feel like this is a country that needs the kind of shock and awe fire power of the Western militaries bearing down on its already battered towns and cities. Over the coming days, we will find out if the UK parliament holds out against a hawkish government, if the US will be willing to go it alone in any event, or if the sabres begin to rattle more quietly and the warships and fighter jets turn back to home base. Either way, Syria will remain burning. For many, this feels like a situation unlikely to find a happy ending any time soon.
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