On Friday 30th August Britain said NO to military intervention in Syria. Many of us may feel proud of a parliament who actually voted to reflect the current mood of the British people, but why have we chosen this isolationist stance? Furthermore, do we not feel some international responsibility to protect any country suffering from a breach of humanitarian law?
In answer to the first question, maybe because you don’t launch a punitive strike until you have cast iron guarantees that chemical weapons have been used? The Telegraph stated, and rightly so, that the first condition for approving military action is that it be legal and legitimate, which means the evidence must be unassailable. Surely this is just political common sense, and especially important now since it turned that back in 2003 Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons; two wrongs don’t make a right after all.
However British-Syrian novelist, Robin Yassin-Kassab, was abhorred by parliament’s decision, saying ‘In a decade we have gone from a situation where they rushed at the gleam of their leader’s mad eye into a criminal war [in Iraq] to not even being able to join a symbolic strike to deter a genocide…It has been going on for two and a half years and they still do nothing. The left have it all wrong. This was not an imperial war.’ We all remember the illegality of the war against Iraq and it has certainly helped shape our decision to not intervene. However, we must realise that we are in a different situation to that of Iraq, and if the UN reports back that chemical weapons were used to kill over 1000 people, it will be the first confirmed incident of this kind of weapon in the 21st century.
We will not know the results of the UN’s investigations for another two weeks and even when the report is published it is unlikely that, if chemical weapons were used, we will know who is culpable. With this in mind, the US’ request for a coalition with the UK to intervene in Syria seemed very hasty. The motion in the Commons on 30th August did make clear that, before any direct action in Syria, there would be a further vote to decide exactly what action should be taken. But the bottom line is this: Britain was asked to join an international coalition led by the US to take action against a flagrant breach of international law and parliament said no.
Britain’s decision has made it more difficult for Obama to act and has no doubt given succour to President Assad’s regime. But now that Britain has chosen non-intervention, we must make sure we do not close our eyes to the thousands of victims suffering under Assad’s dictatorship. It is frustrating to not know how to act in such a scenario, but failure to acknowledge and punish the perpetrator of an atrocious breach of humanitarian law may only encourage more of the same.
Of course we are addressing a specific event here and the real questions we must now ask ourselves will have much wider implications. After all, the reason Britain was put in the position of voting on whether to support US military action was because of the inability of the UN (the organization borne out of the Second World War with the aim of protecting human rights and preventing war and acts of genocide) to come to a consensus on action to be taken by a wider coalition of nations. Is this an acceptable position for the UN to take as a fit-for-purpose force for international good, or is it just another vehicle for global brinkmanship and self-interest among competitive nations? Furthermore, is it an appropriate stance for 21st century Britain to have a cultural obligation towards international intervention, or is it more realistic for us to accept that our days of empire and global influence are in the past and we would be best served by focusing on internal issues? These are difficult questions and ones that can only be adequately addressed with objective pragmatism rather than emotion or political agendas. But as a democratic and western nation and one that will not stand for any such breach of humanitarian law, we must not let the decision taken on 30th August allow us to turn a blind eye to the atrocities that are happening in Syria as well as the rest of the world.