I am glad the Prime Minister listened to Parliament when we said we wanted a debate and vote before any change of policy towards Syria. As I expected he has kept his promise.
It is now Parliament’s task to rise to the occasion. Parliament needs to bring its experience and knowledge to bear on the difficult moral, political and military issues before us.
It seems the debate and the possible change of policy has emerged from the President’s difficulty over his red lines statement. Mr Obama promised or threatened action if Assad started to use chemical weapons against his people. Earlier uses of chemical weapons were ignored. The latest, owing to its scale and media prominence, has become the possible cause of a missile attack on Syria. The President’s threat did not work, so now he has to decide what to do about it. Is there any reason to suppose a limited missile strike will mend the ways of the Syrian government?
The debate is framed in narrow terms by the western governments. In their terms we still need to satisfy ourselves that this latest chemical weapon atrocity occurred at the hands of the regime and not someone else. We need to satisfy ourselves that it would be legal under international law to unleash conventional weapons in retaliation for chemical weapon use. We need to ensure that if our cruise missiles are used against the stocks of chemical weapons or the production facilities that the Assad regime has, their deployment will not trigger the release of large quantities of dangerous chemicals. We need to ask how much damage has to be done to the Assad regime to ensure he does not use chemical weapons again. We also would be wise to ask if all this can be done without harming Syrians who are not part of the regime and its military capabilities. We need to think about the reasons for Chinese and Russian opposition to any such action, and to consider what they might do if the west ignores their advice not to intervene.
I think we should also ask wider questions. I find the continued use of bombs and shells from military planes, tanks and artillery pieces against a civilian population and urban settlements shocking and morally repugnant, as I find the use of chemical weapons morally repugnant. Can we really say it is just the use of chemical weapons that needs special responses? Why do we ignore the one, and act against the other? Will our intervention make some difference to the longevity of the Syrian regime or can we agree with the government briefing that the intention is not to affect the balance between the Syrian government and the rebels? Why is regime change ruled out as an aim, when western governments have such a poor view of the Syrian regime? Why has the UK government changed its mind from its previous suggestions that arming the rebels was necessary to speed the end of the regime?
Many of us are appalled by the violence and chaos in Syria. We would dearly love to see peace restored. We do not see an easy way for the west to bring this about. We do see how partial military interventions might make things worse. In the end these civil wars have to be resolved by the participants agreeeing to sort out their differences by negotiation rather than by fighting.