Intervention in Syria must be credible, says Bristol MP
Bristol North-West MP Charlotte Leslie visited Syrian in 2011. Here she argues why the West needs to clarify the situation before taking action.
THERE were several reasons why I wanted to be at the vote on Syria last Thursday – but I was in the midst of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert, cut off by miles of wilderness from the outside world. Usually it does not really matter. This time it did.
Two years ago, I was on a visit with the Conservative Middle East Council to Syria. It was in late February 2011, just before Syria's brutal Arab Spring erupted. We were escorted with military precision by blacked-out Government cars, which seared through the Damascus streets with siren-shrieking motorbike outriders, shielding us from anything which could give a negative image of the Assad regime.
What the regime could not hide from us, however, were the looks of fear in the eyes of the people as the black Government cars approached, and the look of hatred in their eyes as we sped past.
Nobody could not stop a colleague and myself confronting the Syrian prime minister and the vice president on their human-rights record in what now seems a surreal moment as tempers escalated and the UK ambassador stepped in robustly to support our concerns.
It could have been a moment to be proud of – but a few words were so pathetically futile in the face of a seemingly-unstoppable machine.
Neither can I forget the choked words of a Syrian student in the sanctuary of the British Council in Damascus. "This is my bubble of oxygen," he said, eyes darting in fear, "the only place where I can think and speak freely."
I often wonder where he is now, and what became of those boys on bikes who rushed to pose for photographs on a road winding up a steep hill just outside the city, with Damascus glinting in the background.
As for me, and in the mind of many in the country, in Parliament, and across the world, the shadow of the Iraq war is an inescapable factor in considering Syria. We cannot ignore this reality, any more than we should let the past dictate the future – we must accept it and learn from it.
Iraq cost the USA and the UK dearly in goodwill and credibility. So ensuring any military decision has maximum credibility is vital. It would not have been sensible for the USA and the UK, on their own evidence alone, to have led military action into Syria. It was necessary to wait for the report from the United Nations weapons inspectors, and to agree an appropriate response with as many nations as possible.
Perception matters. It is all the more important with many parts of the Middle East in conflagration and the rest a tinderbox.
We must take every precaution to lessen perception of the West's actions acting as recruitment red rag for Islamic extremists. The state of Egypt is perilous – and we should not forget Egypt's own humanitarian and political issues and their regional impact. The impact on Lebanon, the reaction of Israel, Russia and Iran, and the chain reaction of events in an already-sore and disrupted Middle East are critical.
So it is hard to see how speed and sudden action are of the essence. No, credibility is of the essence. If, as claimed, the Assad regime has been using chemical weapons for months, the difference of a day or two is insignificant.
It would be worth taking the time needed to assemble allies, to clarify the purpose and end game, and explain this publicly.
Credibility demands clarity. But Barack Obama has not publicly made clear exactly what he wants to do, why it must be done, how it can be achieved, and what he thinks the costs might be.
What is his aim? To topple the regime? How? How will success be measured? Does toppling the regime include helping set up a new governing structure for Syria? Is there a time and resource limit on this aim?
Alternatively, does he simply want to remove their military capability or chemical weapons? How can this be done without releasing the chemical toxins?
Or perhaps he only wants to demonstrate that breaking international law has consequences. If so, is military intervention really the only or best way to do it? What is the plan if these consequences escalate? Or is his priority purely humanitarian?
There are so many unanswered questions. Then costs and benefits must be assessed.
How many civilian lives lost to Western conventional weapons in upholding international law are a reasonable cost to pay for lives lost from illegal chemical weapons?
What will the wider impact of deaths from Western military action in the rest of the region be on Russia, China and Iran, and indeed at home? And so on.
No one doubts the horrors of illegal chemical weapons, and that the terrible cruelty and homicide in Syria must stop.
But if we want to intervene with credibility and clarity, it must be done not as an emotional reaction but with rational clarity of purpose.
The vote of Parliament now prompts questions. What constitutes direct and indirect action? Would the use of British sovereign soil, such as Cyprus, for action by other national forces be direct action? What of any casualties involved in a retaliation on that soil?
If a case could be presented with clarity and had the backing of a coalition of nations – especially those in the region – I could be persuadable to some form of military action to help prevent humanitarian atrocities and the spread of dangerous Islamic extremism, and to uphold international law. But this has not happened.
As I write, Obama has backtracked and decided that instant action is not necessary and that perhaps speed was not of the essence after all.
It does not give the impression that someone with a clear aim is in control. While speed may now not be of the essence, there is little reassurance that credibility and clarity are.
The debate shows that often you can only get to the right answer if you ask the right questions. The tragedy of Parliament on Thursday was that the right questions were not asked, so neither vote could have given a satisfactory answer. Once again the West has handled this badly.
We may have had a debate – but I fear that this is far from over.