Decisions about the circumstances in which UK forces should be sent into action are amongst the gravest that any government can take. In a modern democracy, government also has a responsibility to listen and the elected parliament should not be cut out of the process that precedes those decisions being made. That, however, is what has happened this weekend. The Prime Minister could and should have consulted Parliament before involving UK forces in air strikes on Syria, including on their strategic purpose and how she believed the action proposed would achieve that purpose.
The reality we all now face, though, is that the airstrikes have gone ahead and the key issues now are what happens from here, including:
- Diplomatic strategies to guard against escalation both on the ground in Syria and between third parties in the region and beyond.
- The need to redouble international efforts to build a peace plan for Syria. The failure of the international community to end the appalling bloodshed in Syria so far does not alter the need to keep trying.
- An urgent and renewed focus on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people – both those still in the firing line and those who have fled.
In all of this, it is vital to reaffirm an indivisible commitment to international law and internationally-agreed rules governing the behaviour and actions of states, especially in relation to the use of chemical weapons. The current investigation into the Douma attack by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is an important part of that process in relation to Syria.
The ongoing challenges for the international community are to build effective mechanisms to hold to account those who break international law and to uphold the UN’s constitutional responsibility to protect civilians under threat. Nowhere is that more important than in relation to the abhorrent use of chemical weapons, in contravention of international law.
Whatever the immediate results of the US/UK/French airstrikes on Syria, they have not taken away the imperative of addressing those challenges.