What Labour has right and what it has wrong on Syria

Anthony Painter

The war drums are beating. In a matter of days, America, Britain and France have moved from the position of appalled onlookers on events in Syria to seeking participation. Both the US and France are ready and willing to intervene. In a very complex situation, there are no definitive options. Uncertainty is being systematically replaced with moral zeal. It takes some guts to press the brake pedal in this environment. Given the magnitude of the decision, it is reasonable to do so.

So Labour’s insistence that UN weapon’s inspectors are left to do their work and their findings are considered is a perfectly sensible position. It will be a few days and there needs to be engagement with this particular UN process. Otherwise, what exactly is it for?

But there the clarity ends. The major problem with Labour’s amendment to be tabled in the parliamentary debate on intervention in Syria is it then goes down a completely erroneous path. While it stops short of insisting on a UN Security Council Resolution before any intervention, for all intents and purposes it ends up there. The problem arises in section three:

“The UN Security Council having considered and voted on this matter in the light of the reports of the weapons inspectors and the evidence submitted”

If you are not going to be bound by any decision of the UN Security Council then why insist on a vote? So essentially, this gives Russia and China a veto. The legal support for any action is that Syria is in its violation of provisions regarding the use of chemical weapons in the Geneva Protocol of 1925 to which it is a signatory. It is entirely legitimate for there to be an international response to this – in part to safeguard international law.

It may be desirable to have UN Security Council backing but it is by no means necessary for an action to be legitimate. A use of chemical weapons is a clear breach of international law. Once there is sufficient evidence that a chemical attack has taken place and Assad is responsible – on the balance of probabilities – then there is no need for any further mandate. It is then a decision about what action is possible, desirable, and will be effective. And continued diplomacy will be necessary alongside any action. A political solution is ultimately the only real solution – yet Assad currently has a minimal incentive to negotiate as he is under little international pressure.

Beyond Assad’s contravention of chemical weapons provisions in international law, there is the much-quoted  ‘responsibility to protect’. It is worth holding this in some regard. However, it is an evolving doctrine. It is more difficult to use ‘responsibility to protect’ for action without a Security Council resolution given its evolving nature.

So Labour’s ‘go slow’ is reasonable – for a short period of time. But the amendment tabled today then takes it in a direction where it is difficult to see how it will be in a position to back any military action against Assad short of an unlikely change of heart of both China and Russia. If that is indeed the position then Labour should have the courage to argue why action is not necessary, possible or desirable rather than erecting a convoluted decision-making structure that really only leads towards a single conclusion. That it is preferable politically and legally to have a clear UN mandate is not an argument against action per se. And there are legal grey areas – to insist on absolute clarity is to sanction non-intervention. This in itself would undermine international law on the use of chemical weapons- there has to be sanction for a law to be effective.

A ‘stand-off’ military intervention contains many risks and uncertainties. Every choice does – and non-action is a choice. However, if the intelligence does show that Assad’s regime has used chemical weapons then targeting his war machine is a legitimate response. Yes, there is a risk of escalation though it would be foolhardy for Assad to draw Israel or Turkey into the war. One thing that is often forgotten is that, for all its moral compromises and costs, Saddam Hussein was effectively contained before 2003. We just didn’t know it because he was unwilling to show his weakness. Containing Assad, unsatisfactory though that may be, may be the right strategy given the enormous costs and risks of a full-scale intervention and the consequences of stand back that we are already seeing.

These are all legitimate options that need to be articulated openly and honestly. It is necessary for not only Labour but the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats too to state what their strategy is. The same goes for President Obama. A series of tactical responses are wholly unsatisfactory. The question for all leaders, domestically and beyond, is what is the action you propose, what strategy is associated with this action and what are the realistic outcomes that you are aiming for with an assessment of risk?

We are nowhere near that. Acting to ‘do something’ is foolhardy. Yet, so is doing nothing because you can’t or won’t decide. The worry is that the deafening silence on all sides is because the strategy has not really been thought through. Nick Clegg’s interview on the Today programme this morning when he was completely incapable of articulating what any next steps might constitute underlines this lack of strategy.

However, whilst Labour’s sensible insistence of robust evidence and respect for UN weapon’s inspectors is justified, it appears to have tied its own hands too tightly. It is likely to find itself in a situation where it has to explain why – perhaps in just a few days’ time. 

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