Unless we are all prepared to do something about it, history may be set to repeat itself, but this time with far more devastating consequences. Foreign Secretary, William Hague and the Prime Minister, David Cameron are pushing for early missile and air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. Well informed reports point to a military build-up in preparation of such an attack, including from British bases on Cyprus, in advance of Parliament being recalled. There appears to be a full intention, once again, to by-pass the United Nations and the UN Security Council by Messrs Cameron and Hague, just as was the case over Iraq with such disastrous results.
The more nuanced and sensible remarks attributed to Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, have subsequently been eclipsed by Ed Miliband who has reportedly offered qualified support to the Prime Minister’s likely venture. The Labour leader is now in the dangerous position of being set to repeat the actions of Tony Blair by following an agenda being set largely in Washington, and not following the lead of the United Nations. Ed Miliband’s road to Damascus is domestically fraught with danger too – for most voters are not happy that Britain risks being sucked into a Middle East war, and do not agree with the planned attacks on Syria. As for a Labour Party that has still not recovered from the schism provoked by the Iraq war, this could be a seminal moment.
Let us be clear; UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon has been consistent in his tough minded approach to Syria. The UN had despatched weapons inspectors before the alleged chemical weapons attacks had taken place. Now some in Washington, London and Paris seem to be saying that because the UN inspectors cannot apportion blame, their findings are less relevant. These same voices were loudly – and rightly – urging that the Assad regime allow them in.
Unsurprisingly the most enthusiastic backer for this potentially bloody folly is Tony Blair, who led us into the war in Iraq without the support of the United Nations, on the basis of an “extensive, detailed and authoritative” dossier alleging Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In addition to widespread opposition in the country and in Parliament and despite the three attempts made by some of us as then members of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee to force him to ascertain the legality of his war against Iraq, Blair knew best. There is a difference however between then and now. Then Tony Blair claimed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction with which it was threatening its neighbours and that could even reach those same British bases in Cyprus, when of course as we know, it possessed no such thing. Today we do know that Syria has chemical weapons because either the Syrian regime or possibly even Syrian rebels have just used them to deadly affect. What they are not doing – at the moment at least, is threatening to use them against any of their neighbours.
The United Nations has managed to gain the unanimous support of all members of the UN Security Council for its team of inspectors to access the sites affected by those weapons. It also managed to get the permission of the authorities in Damascus to allow them in. As we know the UN weapons inspectors have now managed to gain that access, so it is vital that we learn of their findings. Only then is it possible to take stock. Taking stock surely means working much more closely with the Russians and Iranians in order to try and diffuse the Syrian time-bomb, and not to prime it.
As the UN Secretary General has argued, only a political and diplomatic solution will solve the raging civil war in Syria, and by extension halt its spread beyond into the Middle East. The threatened use of force by the United States, Britain and France is not only likely to be illegal under international law, it is highly questionable as to what it is likely to achieve inside Syria itself. Unlike Iraq, Syria has some advance anti aircraft defences, supplied recently by the Russians and very possibly manned by them as well. This means that there could be Russian as well as Syrian casualties in any Western missile or air strikes. But there could also be American, British and French casualties.
Then there are the very obvious and glaring double standards. In recent days the Egyptian military have launched bloody reprisals against supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered in Mosques. Their action hasn’t persuaded the United States to stop supplying the Egyptian military with hardware. And once again, with predictable appalling judgement, Tony Blair suggested that the military coup that had overthrown a democratically elected Government wasn’t a bad thing.
The harrowing pictures and reports of people dying in their beds in Damascus, poisoned by chemicals are not only deeply disturbing but naturally prompt the call for ‘something to be done’. That ‘something’ has to be aimed at ensuring that it does not happen again. But what is being proposed and what will be debated on Thursday may just end up doing the opposite.
In order for Tony Blair to get the green light for a war on Iraq, he was obliged to give Parliament the right to vote on it. On Thursday there will be a chance to vote on David Cameron’s plans to strike Syria. Labour MPs who were duped into believing that Iraq had WMD will hopefully not be so malleable this time. For there are other questions, which deserve answers; Why is Britain seemingly always at the forefront of military action in the Middle East? Why do British politicians somehow believe that they can act unilaterally without the United Nations, yet demand that the UN falls in line with Britain when it suits them? What is the purpose of any military attacks on Syria and what are they intended to achieve? What of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian likely response?
In short, what is the end game?