What’s the plan Ed? 5 questions from a reluctant hawk

Ed Miliband has, so far, handled the debate over action on Syria well. He had already clearly set out his criteria for Labour support following his meeting with the Prime Minister, and when this criteria wasn’t met, he stuck to his guns rather than being washed away by the gung-ho sentiment of some of his peers. Now parliament is faced with two votes – either Labour’s amendment passes (and Ed Miliband suddenly finds himself calling the shots on UK foreign policy) or the government’s motion passes, which is a far preferable motion to that which was being talked up yesterday (i.e. launching an attack before UN weapons investigators have completed their work).

Regardless of how the parliamentary arithmetic works out today, Ed Miliband has steered a path towards a more thoughtful and consensual position than that advocated by those who would shoot missiles first and ask evidential question later.

That said, today’s vote is merely the first hurdle for Miliband. And some very pressing questions remain.

What if the evidence isn’t clear or is disputed?

If there is clear evidence that the Syrian government have used chemical weapons against civilians, and the government have developed a clear and practical means of reducing the risk of further attacks, Ed Miliband and Labour must back military strikes. I’m not one of those who (entirely credibly) believes in avoiding war at all costs – evidence of chemical weapon attacks is a red line for me, and I think it is for Ed Miliband too.

But what if the evidence is inconclusive? What if the government and the British intelligence community argue that chemical weapons were used by Assad’s forces but the UN says it’s unclear? Who has the final word? Who is Miliband’s arbiter? Which also begs the question…<

Why are you bothering with the UN Security Council?

The vast majority of LabourList readers think we need UN approval for any attack, but I’m afraid I disagree. We know that Russia won’t vote to attack their allies in Syria, and the Chinese government are rarely keen to sanction attacks on other nations for humanitarian grounds incase such logic rebounds on them one day. So why bother having a debate and a vote at the UN Security Council that we’ll lose? Presumably Miliband doesn’t believe that the oppressive sub-democratic regimes of Russia and China should be allowed to determine our foreign policy. Labour’s motion focuses on international law, rather than outright support from the security council – therefore…

What do you mean by “legal”?

In simpler times I used to rail against Iraq as an “illegal” war, and I was probably right. But do you know what? I now acknowledge that’s not entirely relevant, because international law is largely an uncodified farce that relies more on the whims of national leaders than it does on a set of rules or laws.For example:

  • Does Miliband believe that for action to be legal it must be sanctioned by the UN Security Council? If so, dictatorial Russia and China define our response (see above) which seems crazy.
  • Does Miliband believe that because Syria hasn’t signed international treaties on chemical weapons use it would be illegal to attack them over it? If so then that is crazy too.

The word “legal” might be pleasing for an academic debate, but it also creates a bar that may be too hard to cross for any military action. Period.

What’s the plan?

There’s a tendency for everyone to treat Syria like it’s Iraq Mark II (with everyone back on the same old sides of the debate), but in reality Syria isn’t like Iraq at all. If it bears comparison to any international action – and maybe it doesn’t – then it’s Bosnia, not Iraq. But everyone has a Tony Blair monkey on their shoulder meaning Iraq is the prism for debate de jour.

So let’s talk about Iraq. There was a rush to war, it was poorly planned and executed and soon became a broader conflict with no exit strategy. Now let’s talk about Bosnia – for which there was a clearer plan, set objectives and broad support.

Which is Syria? Well it depends on what the plan is. Ed Miliband has called for precision in military aims. But what does that look like? A no fly zone? Targeted bombing of chemical weapons linked targets identified by intelligence sources? Hardware? Intelligence gathering? Even – perhaps – troops on the ground?

Essentially this boils down to – what does success look like?

If these questions can’t be answered then intervention may do more harm than good. If they can be answered, and evidence can be provided that Assad has used chemical weapons against civilians (which, incidentally, I believe it will) then Labour will have little option but to support action.

This may seem like a lot of questions to answer, but when it comes to weighty matters of war and peace, a responsible decision maker really shouldn’t see this as too many bars to cross before committing British servicemen and women to a combat zone.

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