Syria – Where will it go from here?


Why I disagree with those urging imminent UK military intervention.

I’ve discovered that a driving holiday in rural central France with intermittent internet access is not the best way to hear that Parliament has been imminently recalled, or the best place from which to act on the information. Result? The logistics of getting back in time have beaten me and I’ll still be on the road back to the UK when Parliament meets tomorrow.

As my name won’t be recorded by Hansard in tomorrow’s vote, it seems doubly important to set down my thoughts on the course of action which the Prime Minister is asking Parliament to endorse. I do so still not having seen the motion that David Cameron intends to put to the Commons tomorrow. With well under than 24 hours to go, it seems crazy that so many of us are still in the dark about precisely what is being proposed and what we are being asked to vote on. But that is where we are.

I’ve visited refugee camps in both Jordan and Turkey in the last year. I’ve heard directly from people who have lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones in the conflict. I regularly talk with friends in the UK who still have families in Syria – or to others who stayed to work there longer than most of us would have done. I have been left in no doubt by any of them about the brutality of the Assad regime or about their fear for the future of loved ones still inside Syria, whichever side “wins” in the conflict. Thousands upon thousands of civilians have already been killed. Nearly a quarter of the population have lost their homes. That’s the equivalent of over 15 million people being displaced here in the UK.

And now chemical weapons have been used to slaughter entire communities too.

If that happened in our country, would we not want the international community to protect us? Of course we would. Ordinary people in Syria deserve no less. But if the international community has a “responsibility to protect” – as the United Nations has resolved it does –  then we have an equal responsibility to identify the ways we honestly believe  will stand most chance of achieving this in reality. Yelling “something must be done” out of understandable moral outrage is not enough. 

And that is where I part company with those urging UK involvement in an imminent military strike against Syria. Understandably trying to distance what it is proposed today from the disaster of Iraq, the Prime Minister has said action must be “legal and specific.” He says it should be designed to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, rather than overthrow it entirely. Not regime change but “behaviour change” – deterring the Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons. 

But it is not that simple. As Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord, has said:

“You can do a surgical strike but you need to be clear what is your whole campaign plan, where do you go from there?”

And that’s exactly the point. How would Assad respond?

Would he sue for peace? Maybe, but unlikely on past form. 

Would he back off from further use of chemical weapons but otherwise continue the bombing and slaughter of his own people? Maybe, but if so does our “responsibility to protect” only go as far as protection from chemical attack? Are we saying that if it’s anything else, the Syrian people on your own? That was always the inherent mixed message in President Obama’s insistence that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line”.

A third possibility is that Assad would work out that the damage from an international military strike could be sufficient to swing the conflict militarily in favour of the rebels.  If that was his calculation, what would he do faced with little to lose? How about internationalising the conflict from the other side? In Lebanon? In Turkey? In Jordan? In Israel? How about Hezbollah’s wider international reach? 

So what is the UK’s campaign plan for these or other “what if” scenarios? If we don’t know, it may be that our strategy to protect innocent people in Syria and elsewhere could be based on no more than a wing and a prayer. When so much is at stake, that is just not enough.

Of course, things would probably have never got to this stage if Assad’s own international protectors – especially Russia and China – had been prepared to accept the need for real change in Syria much earlier. It is to their eternal shame that they did not do so. But the reality is, shameful or not, what Russia and China do or don’t do remains pivotal today. If we want to end to the slaughter, rather than punish the principal perpetrators while the slaughter carries on, we cannot duck the question of engaging Russia,  China and yes, probably Iran too. 

That is why David Cameron is right to take the issue to the UN, but it’s also why we should be focusing all our efforts on genuinely trying to secure agreement on a way forward there. That’s not the same as the US and it’s allies going through the motions to show that all other options other than military intervention have been exhausted.

What I am suggesting – a negotiated peace – would be  be messy, distasteful and it may stand no more chance of success now than it did six months ago. It really should not have to be like this. But it may just be a better route to protecting Syria’s civilians in the long term than UK military strikes now, however understandable the desire to kick back at a dictator as brutal as Bashar Al-Assad. The international community needs a comprehensive peace plan, not a knee-jerk moral reaction, to end the bloodshed in Syria and protect the people there. 

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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