This week the Speaker made clear that Parliament would have a vote on a substantive motion before arming the rebels in Syria or otherwise changing policy towards the Syrian conflict. The Foreign Secretary was present when the Speaker confirmed this and did not challenge it. It is agreed that Parliament if it wishes can insist on debating and voting on military engagements undertaken by the UK, as has always been the case in effect.
I think this makes the government coming forward with proposals to intervene militarily in Syria unlikely, all the time Labour remains opposed. It does not mean, however, that any military action that could be undertaken were Labour to change its mind following a Parliamentary vote is necessarily legal under international law.
In the case of Syria we know that Russia would veto any move by the Security Council to approve NATO military intervention. This means that anything we do would lack the legal cover of UN approval. We also know that NATO intervention would not be at the request of the Syrian government or other legal authority in Syria. It would therefore pose all sorts of legal issues about our right to use force and the consequences of using force.
This I suspect means the UK is not even contemplating sending troops in to intervene in the civil war. What would their rules of engagement be? What would the legal advice be concerning who they were allowed to kill and in what circumstances?
The issue of arming the rebels also poses moral and legal issues. This country would take great exception to any outside power sending weapons into our country to arm people who feel they have a grievance or strong disagreement with the government. We would point out that we are a democracy with legal rights for minorities and the ability of them to find redress.
Those who favour sending arms to Syria rightly point out that the Assad regime is murderous towards its own citizens, claiming this gives us the right to arm the citizens against the state. However, as Syrian experts tell us, the rebel forces comprise a wide spectrum of people and institutions. Many of them do not wish to create a liberal democracy where minorities are respected. What if our arming of moderates allowed extremists to grab more complex weaponry? What if the people we are arming committed a massacre inadvertently or deliberately? There would be a moral case against the UK government if arming certain people made the situation worse. There could also possibly be a legal case if weapons supplied got into the wrong hands one way or another.