What Labour has right and what it has wrong on Syria

29th August, 2013 11:15 am

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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  • Ste

    If the US and France want to spoil for a rumble, let them have their war. what the UK should do in the meantime is limit itself to humanitarian support – after all, neither the US nor France will be that bothered about whether the Syrian people are left alive, they just want an excuse to get Assad out.

    I would also hope that we will not be supporting the rebels unless we can show that they have not had anything to do with any chemical attacks anywhere in Syria – there have been reports indicating they have been involved, and to support them would be as bad politically and ethically as supporting the Mujahideen was in Afghanistan.

  • Duncan Hall

    “An international response” might well be legitimate, but that is a milion miles from saying that bombing Damascus (or whatever is proposed) is legitimate. The collective punishment of cleaners, security guards and those unfortunate enough to be underneath stray bombs – not to mention those killed in the increased chaos that will follow – would simply be compounding one crime (the use of chemical weapons) with another. The duty of the international community should be ending the civil war; criminal investigations and convictions should come afterwards.

    • anthonypainter

      How do you propose ending the civil war?

      • rekrab

        “How do you propose ending the civil war?”
        Well, I doubt Duncan holds the answers to that question?

        But it is a very, very important question. Do we try and bring Assad and the rebel leader to the table? and what could be a compromise to end war? two states?

        On a wider debate, certain weapons, chemicals weapons are banned by the UN but it does raise the question of weapons of mass destruction generally. It seems a bit strange to ban some WMD’s while stockpiling others like Nuclear weapons? should the world be holding a debate about ending and banning all WMD’s including nuclear. Somewhere in this quagmire of a mess there may well be a positive path to open, will the world leaders take the chance?

        • RogerMcC

          There is ‘no rebel leader’ – just a loose and ill-coordinated collection of rebel groups ranging from actual AQ affiliates, through more conventional Saudi-backed Islamists, Kurdish separatists, secular Syrian nationalists, those Druze, Christian and Shi’ite factions who do not support the regime and even perhaps a few genuine democrats and leftists.

          If they are united at all it is by hatred of Assad and thus if he can be toppled by elements in his own regime who realise that they can’t win they can potentially be divided and a new alignment of forces arise that might be strong enough to restore order and stability.

      • Duncan Hall

        I don’t claim to have the answers for how to end a bloody and complex civil war – I merely would stress that this should be the overwhelming focus of all diplomatic efforts at this time. The current debate has the potential, instead, to prolong it as it makes it harder to imagine a peace plan that has the support of all key international players, including Russia and Iran, as well as the US, Turkey, Israel, etc. Whatever the solution to the civil war might be, acting in a way that will increase divisions rather than seek to reduce them cannot be wise.
        As for my “certainty” I’m not sure what you’re referring to? That innocent people will be killed by US/UK/French bombing? Surely that’s hardly up for debate? That it will increase the chaos of the situation? Okay, that’s an opinion, but I don’t think an especially radical one.

        • anthonypainter

          I just thought that when you said that . “The duty of the international community should be ending the civil war” you might have some clue as to how. It is only a ‘duty’ if you have some agency. Just perpetually asking nicely isn’t a strategy. To say, it’s ‘Syria’s problem though we condemn it is’ a strategy. Not one that I think is satisfactory but at least it’s more honest than saying ‘diplomacy will be enough’ when it clearly isn’t and hasn’t been. The least we can do is be honest about the risks of our chosen strategies. You seem to want to duck the hard reality – your chosen course of action will mean 10,000s if not 100,000s more deaths. I’d recommend Danny Finkelstein and Matthew Taylor on this yesterday.

          • rekrab

            Rather than throwing a straight stone Anthony, why not try a boomerang? are you convinced military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq has led to peace?

            One question, do you support a military strike against Syria?

          • anthonypainter

            No, I think the Iraq war was a disaster. And had a knock-on effect on Afghanistan. But what is being proposed here is not a replay of that.

            If there is evidence that the Assad regime launched a serious chemical attack on August 21st, yes I do support a military strike with cruise missiles. It should be targeted at Assad’s war machine. There are many risks associated with this course of action and the strategy should one of aiming to deplete his military capability in a serious fashion – with the objective of containment. I would consider further action short of ground invasion should this be insufficient based on the merits.

          • rekrab

            Thanks for your honesty.

            Some chemical weapons experts believe that such bombings would still release some of those chemicals into communities within a 2k radius.If such stockpiles do exist, they’ve likely been moved several times over the last few years and may have even been placed in Lebanon? of course all speculation which only creates the uncertainty you pointed too.

          • “your chosen course of action will mean 10,000s if not 100,000s more deaths.”

            From where do you draw your certainty, Anthony?

          • anthonypainter

            From what we’ve seen over the last two years.

          • rekrab

            Where is the consistency? only a short time back the Egyptian military carried out a coup, killing over 1,000 people in one day, where was the strong Western voice there?

          • anthonypainter

            If your question is ‘what do I think about Egypt’? Then I think the US and ourselves have made a grave error in not condemning the coup with absolute clarity. And it will get worse.

          • rekrab

            I agree but it does raise the question that we only target certain appalling acts.

            If your making the case that we have to deal with this mess in the middle east now and as you’ve pointed out it does carry several dangerous flash points, then I believe your asking the West to bring forward a wider conflict.I think you did point to a regime change in another post? and my guess is? that if such action was intended Russia and Iran would likely get involved

          • anthonypainter

            I haven’t pointed to regime change at all.

            And yes, as I’ve said repeatedly, there are risks as there are with the status quo. What I can’t understand is why those who want to turn a blind eye or rely on diplomacy alone seem unwilling to acknowledge the same thing. However, I do not believe that Iran and Russia would become directly involved though they may do so indirectly.

          • rekrab

            But if your aim is to destroy as much of Assad’s military as possible, then isn’t that a means to improving the rebels chance of success?

            Rumours are that Russia is spending another naval fleet to Tartus? Iran has over 600 Iranians troops fighting with Assad’s regime. I think we both agree that it’s throught with uncertainties.

            Apparently, two extremist Syrian rebels were arrested in Turkey a few months ago and had in their possession a few litres of Sarin Gas, apparently when questioned by the Turkish police, the rebels said their intent was to make the weapons in Turkey then take them into Syria and explode then in Syria. I’m not sure which one of these two warring factions are the lesser evil?

          • RogerMcC

            Presumably from our knowing that tens of thousands have already died and that as no side seems strong enough to win the civil war it will continue indefinitely?

            But yes some qualifier like ‘probably’ is always required in discussions like this.

            Plus even before the civil war the Assad regime had already killed many thousands of Syrians (including levelling much of the ancient city of Hama in 1982) as well as lavishly funding international terrorist organisations.

          • Duncan Hall

            Well do you think that bombing areas of Syria considered by “the best intelligence” to be chemical weapons-related targets, as a punative measure will hasten the end of the civil war? If the answer is “no” (and I can’t see how it could be otherwise) then you have to ask the question whether it really achieves anything at all. A military option must always surely be the last resort for any sort of decent state – killing people to “send a message” (which is the language being used in Whitehall and the White House) can never be justifiable. Even the most ardent hawk must surely balk at the concept of murder as gesture.
            If the answer is “yes”, then it is presumably because you think it would weaken Assad’s forces sufficiently for a rebel victory – not that you think it will bring people to the negotiating table. What then? There is not a united opposition, supported by the overwhelming majority of Syrians, ready to introduce democracy and pluralism. Rather there are the seeds of an even longer sectarian civil war. As such, I cannot accept your conclusion that “inaction” as you call it will lead to more deaths.

          • anthonypainter

            I just don’t think that accepts responsibility for your choices. Without that acceptance, then your points don’t have credibility.

            As for my assessment, the priority is to weaken Assad so he is less likely to murder his own people as he will know there are consequences. My hope is that would encourage the political process. In the absence of that, containment is the objective as I’ve said elsewhere. This is absolutely not risk free or without consequences as I’ve articulated….

          • RogerMcC

            The Americans seem to believe that Assad himself can be deposed and a more amenable figure replace him from within the regime itself.

            This would then split the opposition and allow a new alliance of forces to defeat both any Assad loyalists and the most intransingent Islamist rebels.

            And as the White House, State Department and Pentagon are not now staffed by clueless Neocons it is reasonable to assume that if they intervene at all it is because they think this is an achievable policy objective.

            One should also note that the French who were the dominant colonial power in Syria and Lebanon also seem to believe that intervention can produce an end to the civil war that doesn’t involve either the break-up of Syria or it becoming a Jihadist state.

    • KonradBaxter

      “The duty of the international community should be ending the civil war; ”

      Why do ‘we’ have this ‘duty’?

    • RogerMcC

      Cleaners and security guards are a very odd choice of words to represent typical innocent Syrians – particularly given that office cleaning is not a high priority in a war zone and that to be a ‘security guard’ in Syria now is presumably to be a member of one of the pro- and anti-government militias that are causing so much of the mayhem

      Presumably you are alluding to the ‘what about the cleaners on the Death Star?’ conversation in Clerks which seems more than a little tasteless in this context…..

      And in any case I always thought ‘what about the cleaners and everyone else on Alderaan?’ was an unanswerable response to that line.

      • Duncan Hall

        I wasn’t referring to Clerks (whatever that is) I was referring to most of the victims of the “Shock and Awe” bombardment in Baghdad, who were people working nights in official buildings (such as cleaners and security guards).

        • RogerMcC

          Clerks is a well known and very funny Indie movie from the nineties directed by Kevin Smith which does indeed feature a lengthy conversation between two stoners about the morality of killing all those contractors who just happened to be working on the Death Star when Luke Skywalker and his friends blew it up.


          And if you really think the only people at work in an Iraqi government building at night during a war were innocent office cleaners and ‘security guards’ (a term which even you must surely accept means something rather different in a brutal police state….) then you would indeed have been better off watching Clerks than all those Michael Moore movies.

  • Monkey_Bach

    To date nobody knows what chemical agent (if any) has been used or by what means it was delivered. Although we may never know definitively who launched such an attack traces of such weapons can provide significant clues to point the finger. For example if physical evidence exists forensic methods should be able to determine whether any agent deployed was laboratory made or “home” made, shall we say, and whether it was released on the ground or by ballistic means,from a missile, bomb, or shell – which could indicate guilt since, as far as I know, neither the Syrian rebels, Al-Qaeda, or any similar force have the kind of tank, cannon, aircraft, or medium range missile to use such a means.

    The weapons inspector will report this weekend.



    • anthonypainter

      Yes, all good reasons to hold off in the very short term.

      • David Battley

        The report scope was reported on R4 this morning to not cover exploring who deployed the weapons, if indeed they were: at best this will be an inconclusive step, therefore.

  • I agree with you about not making UN Security Council authorisation the be-all and end-all. That’d be a conservative approach to international law that would put national sovereignty and the might of the “great powers” first, and give no real legal value to the duty of the international community to do something about atrocities like the repeated use of chemical weapons.

    But that doesn’t mean insisting on a “UN moment” is wrong. I think it must be legal for states to act multilaterally – if the UN flunks its “responsibility to protect” in a situation like this. I’m not saying we must wait for an actual veto, but I think tabling a resolution is an important step.

    Once it’s publicly clear that a draft resolution is doomed because of a threatened veto, then it seems to me it must be lawful for a broad coalition of states to act in accordance with what they wanted authorised.

    This approach has the merit not only of complying as far as possible with established UN norms: it also puts pressure on Russia and China to “out” themselves as against action, rather than just conveniently being bypassed.

  • RogerMcC

    Zeroing in on the lack of strategy is absolutely correct.

    Intervention is clearly required but we now know from bitter and repeated experience that doing ‘something’ without proper planning (and a clear understanding of what is in fact possible to achieve in failed states that may actually be broken beyond any real hope of salvation) can indeed turn out worse than doing nothing at all

    But this to me brings out the essentially shallow and narcissistic nature of our current political class who seem to me largely incapable of thinking beyond the current news cycle and micro-calculations of personal and party advantage.

    The expletive-strewn response to Labour’s intervention by some government spokesman in The Times captures this all too well: one can see not the slightest glimmer of concern for the actual Syrians being slaughtered but only childish fury that David Cameron has been made to look weak and ineffective and undisguised contempt for Miliband for doing something that potentially damages his relations with the American Democrats and French Socialists.

    These people are tacticians not strategists.

    • anthonypainter

      I couldn’t agree more on tacticians v strategists point.

  • rwendland

    Correction on an (important) point of detail.

    The Geneva Protocol of 1925 did not in fact ban the use of chemical weapons in internal conflicts as in Syria, only international conflicts – “between themselves [the state parties]”.

    This interpretation was reaffirmed in 1969 United Nations General Assembly resolution 2603 (XXIV), which asserted that the Geneva Protocol was a generally recognised rule of international law, by using the phrase “use in international armed conflicts”. Syria agreed the protocol in 17 December 1968, a little before this UNGA resolution.

    The interpretation that this ban extends to internal conflicts is more recent than that, possibly in the 1990s. In 2005 the ICRC stated that customary international humanitarian law includes a ban on the use of chemical weapons in internal as well as international conflicts, but I don’t fully understand the background to that interpretation.

    There is a VERTIC brief titled “Syria: international law and the use of chemical weapons” that discusses this.

    I unaware of any international court confirming this newer interpretation, but very likely they would. But this is not from the 1925 Geneva Protocol wording.

    • anthonypainter

      Yes, these interpretations vary over time. Hence my caution re ‘responsibility to protect’.

      It was in the 1990s that the interpretation widened. But widen it did.

      • rwendland

        I see that the summary govt legal advice recently published makes no mention of the 1925 Geneva Protocol, probably due to reasoning similar to my points above. It uses the phrase “breach of the customary international law prohibition” – I’d like to understand if that is based on a precedent ruling in an international court, or just a consensus of international lawyers as yet untested by a court. The published govt legal advice does not address this.

        But your sentence in the article above “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” is clearly wrong in detail. You are right that the legal basis is ‘responsibility to protect’ rather than the Geneva Gas Protocol – in fact the govt legal advice says this explicitly:

        “However [instead of chemical weapon international law], the legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.”

        • anthonypainter

          Here is the UN Human Rights Commission report into Syria which states the applicability of the 1925 Protocol.


          Cameron also referenced it in his parliamentary statement.

          And Syria itself has acknowledged its responsibilities in writing with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.


          So your ‘clearly wrong’ statement may be clearly wrong….

          • rwendland

            Thanks for those links. I have to dash out now for the evening, so annoyingly miss the rest of the debate. I’ll read that Human Rights Council report tomorrow – sorry. The letter to the OPCW just says Syria will abide by the Geneva Protocol – but that’s no help in the legal argument, as it does not apply to internal conflicts per discussion above.

          • anthonypainter

            I’m sorry but no such international/domestic distinction was made at all. It’s clear:

            “[The Syrian Foreign Minister’ stated that the Syrian Arab Republic would not use chemical weapons – if any – under any circumstances. He added that the Syrian Government reaffirms its compliance with its legal obligations under the conventions and [Geneva] protocols it ratified.”

            But I think there’s a more nuanced point that’s being missed. The humanitarian case is linked to the fact that chemical weapons have been used. It is not a general charge- it is specific and linked. The reason it is specific is because of the special status that chemical weapons have in international law- as a result of the Geneva Protocal (amongst other things and developing norms).

            I just don’t think your critique sticks though it is useful background.

  • Mike Homfray

    Both the Syrian regime and any likely opposition are going to be very far from any democratic ideal.
    It seems once again we are back on the regime change bandwagon, which I am against because of the lack of consistency – Israel used chemical weaponry against the Palestinians and I wouldn’t believe a single word that Israel, whose existence is the major problem in the region in any case, say with regard to their so-called ‘intelligence’.
    The Americans and the French will go in anyway. We should stay out. Nothing to do with us,.

    • anthonypainter

      Regime change and the spread of the ‘democratic ideal’ – this is precisely what I haven’t argued.

      • KonradBaxter

        But it is the inevitable result of what you propose above

        “…a military strike with cruise missiles… targeted at Assad’s war machine…the strategy should one of aiming to deplete his military capability in a serious fashion – with the objective of containment. I would consider further action short of ground invasion should this be insufficient based on the merits.”

        You want to cripple his war machine so that the rebels can win. This is regime change.

      • Mike Homfray

        But the problem is that this would be the inevitable outcome, given that the rebels are largely supporters of Al Queda. It is a problem that secular democrats in the Arab world are not well organised whereas the Islamist groups have been organised undercover for many years

        • RogerMcC

          Where do you get ‘the rebels are largely supporters of Al Queda’?

          No informed sources – not even intelligent opponents of intervention like Juan Cole – other than those who clearly support Assad are making such definitive statements.

          Indeed the main problem with the Syrian opposition appears to be precisely that it is an inchoate and largely ineffective mess in which no single element is predominant and capable of prosecuting the civil war effectively.

          Now it can be argued (and is by Cole for instance as well as by some US neocons and paleocons) that arming ‘the rebels’ would include arming AQ affiliates and other Islamists who could in a worst case scenario take power.

          But this is then an argument for direct military intervention rather than for fighting a war through unreliable proxies.

        • RogerMcC

          And here is an interview with an actual Syrian leftist Joseph Daher, a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current:

          The problem with some of the Western left, especially the Stalinists, is that they have been analysing the Syrian revolutionary process from a geo-political perspective, ignoring completely the socio-economic and political dynamism on the ground in Syria. Many of them also consider Iran, Russia, or Syria to be anti-imperialist states struggling against the USA, which is wrong on every aspect. Our choice should not be to choose between on one
          side the USA and Saudi Arabia and on the other side Iran and Russia, our choice is revolutionary masses struggling for their emancipation.

          The background to this is the assessment that the democratic and social revolution against Assad, through local coordinating committees, continues.

          We have to understand more generally the crucial role
          played by the popular committees and organisations in the continuation of the revolutionary process, they are the ultimate actors that allow the popular movement to resist. This is not to undermine the role played by the armed resistance, but even they are dependent on the popular movement to continue the battle, otherwise without it we would not stand a chance.

          In this respect the role of the Islamists has been challenged,
          The Syrian revolutionary masses have increasingly opposed the authoritarian and reactionary policies of these groups. In the city of Raqqa, which has been liberated from the forces
          of the regime since March 2013, many popular demonstrations occurred against the authoritarian actions of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS in the
          city. Similar demonstrations took place with masses challenging this kind of behavior in Aleppo and other cities.

          From http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/syria-and-the-left-different-assesments/ which also gives some opposing views.

          Clearly there are democratic and secularist forces in Syria which are confronting Jabhat al Nusra (an Islamist faction which is affiliated to AQ).

          What is not clear is just what the real balance of forces within the opposition is – which is an argument for caution but not for inaction.

  • RogerMcC

    I’d recommend this interview with Gilbert Achcar who argues that the Assad regime is resorting to chemical weapons precisely because the civil war has turned against them.

    He also contends that US policy is not in fact to overthrow the Ba’athist state but to depose Assad personally and impose a Yemen solution where more ‘moderate’ elements of the regime remain in control.


    Thus this is not in any sense a replay of Iraq and lessons have indeed been learned.

    Nobody really imagines that Syria can become a democracy – only that the balance of forces might be changed sufficiently for the civil war to actually end so that the literal disintegration of the Syrian state might be halted and in the long run fewer people might die.

  • Duncan Hall

    It’s a moral duty.

    • KonradBaxter

      Morals are subjective.

  • RAnjeh

    Quite right. Ed should pick up the phone, go to Downing Street and talk to Cameron. A mistake as been made and intervention is necessary.


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