Now that the dust has settled a little after last Thursday’s votes on Syria, it is worth reflecting on what took place and why.
The position which Labour took in those votes was both coherent and principled. Central to our view was the Government had re-called Parliament and was asking MPs to support military action according to a timetable which was unreasonable and unnecessary. Even when the Government came forward with a weaker motion it was still Cameron’s intention to have a vote which would “in principle” commit us to military action.
The Prime Minister recalled Parliament so he could demonstrate that he was somehow ‘leading’ the march towards military action. And yet he wished to do this on the basis of evidence which was insubstantial and when he had no clear plan about what military action would entail, what its objectives would be, and what its consequences might be.
On the issue of the evidence of chemical weapons use, last Thursday, the only ‘evidence’ Cameron was able to present to the House was a 1½ page memo from the Joint Intelligence Committee. This memo was devoid of specifics and even spelt the name of Assad incorrectly. This was not the compelling body of evidence which Labour was asking for. At the very least, Members believed that they were being bounced into a commitment to military action and that there was no reason why a decision had to be taken before UN inspectors had reported their findings.
The legality of military action was also far from clear and this was compounded by an absence of any commitment, initially at least, to attempt to engage the UN in any decision on military action. But I think it is true to say that it was the lack of any real thought or indeed the refusal to express any opinions, about what military action would mean and could lead to, was of understandable concern to Labour MPs.
In the debate, Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary during the time of the Iraq War don’t forget, made the telling point that cruise missiles could not target chemical weapons as this would lead to the release of agents into the atmosphere and therefore any strikes would have to focus on Assad’s operational and military command structure. This would inevitably mean that any military strike would be of material assistance to the Syrian rebels. Jack believed that there may be a justification for this, but argued that we ought to be clear that the consequences of assisting the opposition had to be thought through extremely carefully. The opposition of course contains extreme elements, such as al-Qaeda. There was no indication that the Government had given military action the necessary detailed thought.
MPs were also acutely aware that the Syrian civil war could escalate into a broader regional conflict, involving in one way or another Israel, Russia, Iran, Turkey and indeed potentially other states. It is extremely unlikely that military action would simply mean “a shot across Assad’s bows”. If it were, there would be little point to the action.
These were and still are difficult and complex issues. Everyone in the House shares a revulsion at the use of chemical weapons. But we are also acutely aware that a knee-jerk reaction could have made a bad situation even worse. Last Thursday, David Cameron failed to win the argument in favour of armed intervention. Leadership is about winning the arguments, but it also about listening and taking people with you. This of course requires sound judgement. The debate on Syria demonstrated that David Cameron lacks these qualities. Equally, it showed that Ed Miliband doesn’t.
Wayne David is Shadow Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform and MP for Caerphilly