Where are we now on Syria? It seems clear that the US will attack with ship launched cruise missiles, with French support, within a few days. They say that this is necessary to punish the Syrian regime for the use of chemical weapons which killed 1,429 people including 426 children.
There is great doubt about the usefulness of such an attack in the US as in the UK, across public opinion and amongst many military experts. Until the chemical weapon attack on August 21 President Obama had steadily refused to intervene in Syria. We are told that the previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the former Defence Secretary wanted to intervene in support of the opposition but Obama refused to become involved though he did call for an end to the regime. Similarly Cameron and former President Sarkozy were pressing for more help for the opposition though that voice went quiet as it became clear that Al Qaida linked forces were playing an increasing role amongst opposition fighters.
The uprising in Syria began two and half years ago as part of the Arab spring and was peaceful and initially united elements of all communities calling for freedom and democracy. But the regime is notoriously brutal and the opposition took up arms in response to their oppression, and was increasingly supported by Al Qaida type elements. The conflict has also become part of the growing Sunni/Shia tensions in the region with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and probably Iraqi militias supporting the regime, and the West, the dictatorships of the Gulf and Turkey opposing. The division between the two sides in Syria has become increasingly sectarian with the Alawites (a branch of Shia), secularists and Christians supporting the regime and the opposition being overwhelmingly Sunni.
As time has gone on the divisions and the ramifications across the region have become more complicated and the suffering of the people more terrible. 100,000 people have died and that means very many more have been severely injured and 2 million have become refugees with the numbers ever-growing. The very large number of refugees flowing into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are causing growing tension in neighbouring countries.
This was the situation until the end of August when pictures of the chemical attack in Damascus became available. Obama said, a year ago, the use of chemical weapons would be a red line and therefore this time he felt he had to act. The chemical attack took place on Wednesday, 21 August. According to Gideon Rachman in the FT, Obama spoke to Cameron on Saturday, August 24 and discussed the possibility of cruise missile strikes the following weekend. Cameron therefore recalled parliament hoping for cross party support; but there were rumblings of dissent across the parties and then Ban Ki-Moon , the Secretary-General of the United Nations said the inspectors needed 4 more days. Military strategists asked what the cruise missile attacks would achieve. Obama and Cameron promised that the attacks would be limited in time, there would be no boots on the ground or continuing involvement in the war; we were assured that the only objective was to punish the use of chemical weapons. But the question was then asked, what would be done if there were further uses of chemical weapon? Many were not convinced that the regime had used the chemicals since they were making significant advances and UN inspectors were already in the country. And constantly, the question was asked, why could we not wait for the inspectors to report? The UK Parliament was simply not convinced that the proposed attack makes sense. On top of this all remembered the false intelligence over WMD in Iraq and the refusal to allow Blix to complete his inspection.
In my view the proposal for a cruise missile attack is ill thought through and it is wrong for the UK to follow the US into every mistaken action. Those who say this will endanger “the special relationship” need to explain what is the value of the relationship if the UK role is simply to be an unquestioning poodle. George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has said since the House of Commons vote, that “there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world” I would very much welcome such a debate and believe that Britain could play a much more productive role if we join with other middle ranking powers to uphold international law rather than remain obsessed with pleasing the US.
In Syria the death, destruction and suffering is unbearable and no end to the suffering is in sight. The conflict is further destabilising the region and lining up powers on either side of the divide. A few cruise missiles will weaken the regime’s military capability but will not end the war. The right way forward is to take seriously the work of Ambassador Brahimi, the UN Special Representative, and to try to bring the Russians and the West together, to stop both sides supplying arms and organise a political process to end the fighting. This will not be easy but there were already negotiations taking place for such a conference in Geneva. The use of chemical weapons could have been used to give more urgency to these efforts.
The election of the new reforming president in Iran provides a real chance for negotiations with Iran on nuclear non-proliferation. An attack on Syria will endanger that possibility. It would also be possible to indict those responsible for the use of chemical weapons for war crimes and warn them that they would be brought to the international court and that this prospect would haunt them for the rest of their lives. There is no simple answer in Syria. The people are suffering terribly and flinging cruise missiles at the country will solve nothing and instead deepen divisions and widen instability in the region.
I am proud of the House of Commons for keeping us out of this folly but we now need an earnest effort to find a sensible way forward with our focus firmly placed on the interests of the people of Syria.
Well, well, consulting parliaments is catching on. It is remarkable to recall that Cameron recalled the UK Parliament last Thursday because Obama wanted to bomb by the end of last week. Then the UK Parliament said no, just as the people said no, for a whole variety of reasons but all sensible people are agreed that simply flinging some cruise missiles into Syria will solve absolutely nothing. And now Obama has said he wants to bomb, he has the authority to do so but his military have told him there is no time constraint, and he wants the backing of Congress. Many informed observers consider it unlikely that he will get it.
The big opportunity here is to force them all to think more seriously about the people of Syria and hope to halt the provision of arms to both sides in the Civil War and bring the fighting to an end. Let us hope that this is the outcome of this extraordinarily ill-considered proposal…