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What’s the Fallout for Vetoes, Victims, Villains in Syria?

By GARY KENT 16/4/2018
This handout satellite image taken on April 11 and provided on April 15, 2018 by Distribution Airbus DS, shows the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, before the raids by the United States, Britain and France. Photo: CNES via AFP
This handout satellite image taken on April 11 and provided on April 15, 2018 by Distribution Airbus DS, shows the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) compound in the Barzeh district, north of Damascus, before the raids by the United States, Britain and France. Photo: CNES via AFP

The attack by American, British and French forces on Syrian chemical and military facilities in retaliation for the Assad regime's latest chemical weapons atrocity has again catapulted profound differences on security policy to the heart of British politics and will be fiercely debated in parliament today.

Prime Minister Theresa May ignored the convention of prior parliamentary approval of military action established in 1998 and she and her cabinet alone authorised force while the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn responded that "bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace."

Time will tell whether this limited salvo of missiles, a relatively small gesture and definitely not "mission accomplished" as President Trump unfortunately tweeted, will deter further chemical weapons attacks by Assad. It is far too late to decisively affect the conflict in Syria, the pass having been sold on this some years back.

This debate could significantly limit or permit future UK reactions to atrocities and crimes and is, therefore, of great significance to the Kurds and many other peoples.

Heart-rending images of dead and injured victims once often used to evoke general calls for something to be done. Nowadays they are more often greeted by cries that nothing can or should be done.

Right-wingers often asked what such misery had to do with them and that charity starts at home. They argued that we were spending too much on overseas aid, though Conservative advocacy of the UK as an international development superpower has reduced this view. Some left-wingers now commonly compare the cost of military action to help victims of violence and oppression with domestic imperatives.

Each action should be debated on its merits but the general case for international development and sometimes for military action, which can take several forms, is not merely moral but also in our self-interest.

It can boost the world economy, eliminate the roots of further conflict, increase justice by, for example, encouraging female education and emancipation, and save people from monsters, although that is not always feasible.

News of an atrocity is now also likely to mean a chorus of calls demanding incontrovertible proof. But villains rarely issue press releases and either lie, dissemble or transmit a plethora of fake explanations which are intended to confuse and destabilise.

Another theme of those opposed to any or probably all interventions is that the UN should take the lead. Corbyn argues that "without UN authority it was again a matter of the US and British governments arrogating to themselves an authority to act unilaterally which they do not possess."

This means that Russian, Chinese, American or French vetoes apply to British military policy and could build such high barriers that unilateral or multilateral action is never legitimate. That is a choice for the UK but the debate should include the danger of ignoring pressing humanitarian reasons for unilateral or multilateral action when the UN is unavailable.

Another barrier could be maintaining what I have long argued is the foolish convention of prior parliamentary approval for military action. MPs cannot receive raw intelligence assessments that reveal the trade secrets of intelligence agencies and make it more difficult to secure intelligence again. The better principle is that Ministers make such decisions and are then held to account by MPs and voters.

The chemical weapons attack in Douma was in the wake of an attempted assassination with nerve agents of two Russia citizens in the UK. Russia is involved directly in the first and intimately in the second as the protector of Assad, and one keen to keep and increase its new-found influence in the Middle East, filling the vacuum left by President Obama and now by the vagaries of President Trump.

My assumption, based on trust in American, British and French intelligence, is that Assad used chemical weapons as he lacks the military manpower to rout rebels and chemical attacks do the trick more quickly.

Some argue that the focus on chemical weapons is odd because conventional weapons kill more people, which is true. But the civilisational taboo on the use of chemical weapons is a gain that needs to be preserved and upheld, even without UN Security Council support, if Assad uses such weapons again and in order to deter others from using chemical weapons elsewhere. And that can apply to other incidences of brutality and genocide, if UN action is blocked by an ally of the perpetrator.

Military action should never be a kneejerk reaction but nor should inaction. Blocking the use of force in almost all circumstances could haunt those like the Kurds, who have just marked the 30th anniversary of the genocidal Anfal campaign which involved the widespread use of chemical weapons, and who could one day require further military intervention. Sometimes, something should be done, regardless of vetoes, or villains will prevail over victims. The domestic and international stakes are very high and of far-reaching consequence in this debate.

Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.

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