A strike against Syria seems increasingly likely, forces are being positioned and public statements made. Parliament has been recalled a few days early to debate the UK response but this seems like a formality as it would seem decisions have already been made without our representatives having a say.
Morality and sensible foreign policy in the national interest (the job of Government) are not happy bedfellows and should not be allowed to mix. This is not a question of conscience, it is about the national interest, killing people with British weapons and standing up to that reality.
There is nothing wrong with the principle of intervention but we must ask searching questions and think very hard before doing so, unfortunately, there seems little evidence of this happening.
Although the motion has yet to be tabled I thought I would suggest a handful of questions our MP’s might like to ask on Thursday.
ONE – Are we sure it was Assad?
Do we really absolutely positively 100% know that it was Assad’s forces that launched the recent chemical weapon attack?
A decade ago the House of Commons was asked to go to war on what at the time was claimed to be cast iron proof of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons when in fact the dodgy dossier was just that, dodgy, remember it?
If we have intelligence, are we sure that intelligence is from reputable sources and we are not being played by relying on second or third hand intelligence that has been altered, embellished and generally made to fit the prevailing narrative.
If we are certain they were government forces do we really absolutely positively 100% know that they were operating under a formal chain of command with orders from the top? It might be a small distinction but it is an important one because what we have seen in Syria is the general breakdown of formal Army structures and the rise of informal local militias, strengthened with Iranian and Hezbollah personnel.
We should ask ourselves why would Assad deploy chemical weapons at this scale for no tactical or operational gain but with an obvious strategic risk, it is hard to understand the decision to deploy them now when the implications were obvious and benefits minimal.
I know the red line has been declared and walked over before so the theory that an emboldened Assad really did think he would get away with it might hold some water but even with this we should think very carefully about the distinction between what we know for certain and what we think we know.
TWO – What are we hoping to achieve?
What would military action hope to achieve?
It is fine saying that sending hundreds of cruise missiles is to protect civilians but do we honestly think that in attacking Assad’s forces and installations we are going to protect civilians?
Is it a punishment beating for deploying chemical weapons or an intervention on one side of a brutal sectarian conflict because the two might have different effects but whatever happens a strike against Assad would benefit who exactly, the anti-Assad forces, the very same people we really don’t want to get access to Assad’s chemical stockpile.
Do we think that punitive actions will have any real impact on Assad now we have given him ample time to disperse, prepare, surround himself with human shields and generally get ready?
If Assad has shown one quality it is resilience so even a large strike might not have as much material impacts as imagined. In fact, in threatening action against his chemical weapons facilities do we think he hasn’t already dispersed them anyway?
Both sides have shown a propensity for war crimes against civilians so kicking the arse of one side is unlikely to achieve much in the way of reducing civilian deaths.
There is no articulation of ‘ends’ , no definition of the national interest except some vague argument about allowing bad men to do bad things.
Syria has evolved into a straightforward sectarian Shia v Sunni conflict and the most worrying aspect of the UK’s strategy is the complete lack of it.
If the coming strikes have the limited objective of demonstrating to the worlds various unsavoury leaders that the use of chemical weapons against civilians shall not be tolerated, allowed to be normalised and will be punished, who exactly are we punishing?
The argument that if we walk on by when someone else decides to use chemical weapons we endangering our own security has some merit but that is forgetting we own even more destructive weapons as one Saddam Hussein was reminded about in 2003, which proved an effective deterrent to them being used against UK and US forces.
THREE – Are we prepared for what comes next?
What are we going to do when a surgical strike against government forces goes off course, suffers a malfunction or plain hits the wrong target? Our intelligence might be good but it is not infallible and equipment can fail. Are we really prepared for a cruise missile going off piste and into a hospital?
How do we plan on having any credibility at the United Nations when asking for support over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands when action without the UN now seems inevitable?
Can we claim any sort of moral component as justification whilst we stand by and let North Korea kill its own people in industrial quantities, turn a blind eye to Bahrain’s dodgy human rights record and if you care to look there are numerous examples of not intervening to prevent innocents being killed by the tens of thousands?
What will Assad’s reaction be, what if he doubles down and starts launching against our allies in the region?
This might draw us into a wider conflict in a country that has precisely ZERO strategic interest for the UK.
Russia, relations with Russia are bad enough and at a strategic level, they have the potential to be a better ally and trading partner than any in the Middle East, our long term goal should be improving relations with Russia, not poking her in the eye. That is not to say we should bend over for Russia but we need to pick our fights carefully.
In a video statement a few days ago five commanders in the opposition Supreme Military Command confirmed they were disbanding the group and fighting alone or with anyone who would fight Assad, the statement was read in front of the black flag of the Jahbat Al Nusra, a group with ties to Al Qaida.
This means that the opposition is fragmenting and any hope of an emergent moderate being dominant is now shattered; it is Assad/Russia/Iran against Al Qaida/Qatar/Saudi Arabia.
In weakening Assad we are strengthening Al Qaida and avoiding the simple position of allowing a conflict to bleed Iran dry, thus diverting its attention from other more important areas.