I have drafted a number of responses to enquiries about what is happening in Syria which have then overtaken by events, so this is a comment on where we are now in what remains a fast changing situation.
There should be no ambiguity about where responsibility lies for this bloody conflict, now in its seventh year. Bashar Al-Assad has declared war on his own people, slaughtering them in their hundreds of thousands with both conventional and chemical weapons, and triggering a refugee crisis of apocalyptic proportions. That he has been able to conduct the war at scale this way is in large part down to the Russian state’s backing. The use of chemical weapons, whilst far from the only atrocity in this war, is clearly illegal.
All of us who want to see an end to these conflicts want to know that there will be a rules-based system in international law, applied with consistency. This means not tolerating the use of banned chemical weapons, but also upholding the UN charter prohibition on force without either the consent of the country involved, Security Council authorisation or in self-defence. Our national interest extends to this, too- none of us are better protected by a UN and an international legal framework which is routinely marginalised. Unfortunately, not for the first time, these laudable objectives are in conflict and are undermined too by the persistent use of the veto-in this case by Russia- which has closed down many of the preferred options, such as no-fly zones to protect civilians. Given the presence or involvement of some 12 countries in Syria from the US and Russia to Israel and Iran, there is also now, in consequence, the very real risk of escalation.
So are there any options which are consistent with international law and which avoid making a terrible situation worse?
I wish I could say with confidence that I knew the answer. When Parliament considered action in Syria in 2013, I voted against, fearing that it would potentially intensify and extend an already dreadful civil war- one we now know was only in its infancy. Recent precedents, some of which I had initially supported (Afghanistan, Libya) and some I didn’t (Iraq) were all far from encouraging, although our action in Kosovo and Sierra Leone was clearly the right thing to do. In retrospect, what has been largely a policy of Western non-intervention didn’t relieve Syria’s agony -The war has dragged on at the cost of hundreds and thousands of lives. What we can’t say for certain is what course the war would have taken if a stronger response had been made in 2013. It may have been that such a signal would have stopped Assad from using chemical weapons again, or prevented the vacuum opening up into which around a dozen countries are now involved. It may have had little effect, or drawn the Western powers further in, repeating the disaster of Iraq. It is always far easier to see the advantages of the path not chosen. Certainly such limited interventions as have taken place before- including last year’s cruise missile attack in response to the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun didn’t stop the horrors in Douma last week. And no-one was then or is now advocating action on a bigger scale- involving regime change or occupation, leaving all the consequences of a brutal conventional war unaffected.
The allied bombing campaign may or may not have degraded some of the Syrian regime’s capacity to deploy chemical weapons, but efforts were clearly made to avoid escalation. This leaves open further questions. Will there be further such attacks, and what will Britain do in such circumstances? If not, was this more of a symbolic action rather than one which has a significant effect upon the nature of the war? Above all, what happens next, since what we know for certain is that this is not ‘Mission Accomplished’ so far as ending the suffering of the Syrian people is concerned.
The question now is, what else can be done to try and bring about the end we all want to see without more bombing with all its risks of escalation, retaliation or extension.
Firstly, I am clear that Parliament can and should have a say before British forces are committed to action in all but exceptional circumstances. In this case it is hard to reconcile the Prime Minister’s expressed wish to maintain an ‘element of uncertainty’ about our intentions with Donald Trump’s Twitter announcements several days prior to the raids!
Second, we cannot on the one hand deplore the crimes against the Syrian people and fail to be generous in offering safe haven to our share of refugees. Quite rightly Britain has been a generous provider of overseas aid, but we need to do more to shoulder a fair share of the responsibility for the people displaced by the war.
Third, we can and must increase the cost to Assad and Russia of prosecuting the war- the point I made when speaking in the Prime Minister’s statement last tuesday. That means tougher sanctions, and restrictions on the banking system. But it is surprising and worrying that, within days of military action in Syria, it seems as though Donald Trump is climbing down from a tougher sanctions regime. If President Assad and his backers believe the lives of the Syrian people to be cheap we can make the cost higher, and increase the pressure towards a diplomatic solution, humanitarian relief and the reconstruction of the country.
Closer to home, John McDonnell has demanded that the government bring forward key measures for tackling Assad’s assets hidden within the UK It is disappointing that the Chancellor does not seem aware of the value of Syrian assets in the UK and that he has not accelerated the introduction of the full public register of the real owners of UK property, as we have called for. According to international reports, the UK is recouping far less from individuals linked to the Syrian regime in corrupt assets than other countries and any delay in implementing the overseas property register, weakens the ability of our authorities to act.
I hope this is helpful.
Karen Buck MP