Last night’s vote on Syria was the gravest since I was elected to Parliament nine months ago. I share the common revulsion at the use of chemical weapons against innocent men, women and children. I recognise that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria is a brutal dictatorship. But we know that wading into conflicts without working through the possible consequences can make matters worse instead of better.
Following the chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus, David Cameron recalled Parliament intent on forcing through a decision to launch missiles into Syria. A civil war has been raging there for nearly two years, with tens of thousands dead and over a million people displaced. Parliament was due to return next Monday in any case, so calling us back the Thursday before looked like an attempt to rush through a decision so missiles could be launched this weekend. There was no evidence anticipating further chemical attacks without urgent military action by the West.
The rush to war was unexplained.
By rushing in, we would fail to give the UN weapons inspectors time to finish the job we’d given them, let alone time to report their findings back to the UN. Cameron was unclear about the evidence identifying those responsible; the targets he would aim for; his military objectives; or the legal basis in international law. He could not tell us how he assessed the risks of escalating the civil war. He did not explain why further alienating Russia, Syria’s main ally, was better than engaging them in dialogue to bring about a political solution on the ground. He was not clear who might ultimately benefit from a missile attack designed to weaken Assad: the pro-democracy forces, or forces linked to Al-Qaeda and international terrorism. Nor could he say how a missile attack would reduce the risk of a further use of chemical weapons – a tyrant made more desperate might resort to deploying them, while bombing a chemical weapons dump could unleash the very poison we wish to prevent.
Labour’s position was not to oppose military action come what may. If action could alleviate the suffering of Syria’s people we would take it. We simply wanted to stop the Government from blundering blindly into a situation that could make things even worse. Ultimately, any military action must save more lives than if it didn’t happen. That case could not be established without giving ourselves the few days needed to work through the issues, and there was no military reason not to let that happen.
David Cameron’s humiliation in the House of Commons last night was the result of his own arrogance. Had he taken the time to make his case properly or supported Ed Miliband’s more measured approach things would have turned out differently. I believe there remains a majority in Parliament in favour of appropriate intervention and that may offer an opportunity for Cameron to work with Ed Miliband once the weapons inspectors have reported. But as of yesterday the Prime Minister had not put in the work to earn the blank cheque for action that he demanded. Nick Clegg’s disastrous, stumbling summing-up speech sealed the Government’s fate. It’s the first time a Prime Minister has been defeated in Parliament on a matter of foreign intervention for over 230 years. This does not mean Britain or Labour have become isolationist, nor does it mean we condone the use of chemical weapons; it simply means we are not prepared to lob bombs into a violent civil war without a reasonable understanding of whether we’re doing more harm than good to people who have already suffered too much.
Steve Reed is the Labour MP for Croydon North