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Thoughts on Syrian conflict

Tuesday, 03 September 2013 I envy those who are certain about the outcomes from the Syrian situation. I listened to Paddy Ashdown explain that failure to back a limited strike against Syrian military targets now would inevitably and certainly lead to further widespread use of chemical weapons worldwide.

I also listened to the former British ambassador to Syria, the former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt and the head of the international Red Cross who all questioned the wisdom of an immediate attack on the Assad regime. I listened to my colleagues at the Parliamentary party meeting who with much emotion and argument expressed their various views. I listened to and questioned many constituents and read every email sent to me on the subject-mostly opposed to or fearful of planned intervention. I listened hard during the parliamentary debate to the case made by the Prime Minister and the views of MPs in all parties. I read all available news sources - from all over the world.

Unlike Paddy I didn't arrive at certainty but I was fairly sure that beginning an attack without letting UN weapons' inspectors report, not trying even to use the UN system and relying solely on American intelligence reports was very like what we had mistakenly done in Iraq. I was also pretty confident that that was exactly what Parliament had originally been recalled to do- that is until leaders started canvassing their backbenchers and changed the script.

The motion before us on Thursday (see below) had been watered down so that it did not call for the immediate military action that presumably had been pencilled in for the weekend. Instead we were asked to vote on the mere possibility of military action after the UN process had run its course. Voting for military action itself would take place at a later date.

Most MPs in an uncertain world would not rule out military action altogether but many MPs saw the long, wordy, cobbled together motion as code or proxy for a vote in favour of the planned military action.

Many, having been brought back to Parliament on a false pretext were not prepared to take the government motion on the face value. I read it carefully but was unhappy with the impression it gave of leaving only one option open to the UN- to either back a military strike or not.

It seemed to me that if we are serious about pressing the UN to address the obscene use of chemical weapons by Syria ,then we cannot in advance tell it how precisely it punishes a violation of international law. That applies even if we are sceptical about whether it will act at all. (It could for example instead order the supervised destruction of chemical weapon stockpiles as it did in Saddam Hussein's Iraq)

For that reason I could not back the government motion even though I didn't disagree with every bit of it -particularly the call for evidence to be presented and UN action.

There were though many MPs who told me they were very unlikely to vote for a military strike against Syria by the UK but voted with the government on this first vote because they were in favour of referring the issue in the first instance to the UN.They knew ,or thought they knew, it was the following week's vote that would really count.

The UN so far as chemical weapons are concerned is supposed to be the world's policeman. However, we all know that when policemen occasionally don't ,won't or can't do their job, others sometimes feel obliged to act. You can't ever rule that out and people have to decide for themselves whether they have such a situation on their hands.

Before you act though and take the law into your own hands with all the risks that involves you have to be convinced that you can achieve a genuinely good outcome.

As a stand-in for the world's policeman the USA has not always been impartially fair or effective. In backing the USA in that role, the UK must be reasonably sure that the USA is going to be both fair and effective. None of this is certain and all of this needs to be weighed promptly but most carefully -not be bounced into.

The simplifiers like Paddy will say yes but it is messy, could get complicated, may exacerbate hostility in Islamic nations, anti-Western sentiment, refugee problems, regional conflagration etc BUT the bottom line is no strike now = further use of and proliferation of chemical weapons.

That and its consequences are certainly worth considering seriously.

However, the unpunished use of Napalm or Agent Orange by the USA in the 70s - the use of cluster bombs in the 80s (also unpunished) did not led to the worldwide roll out that Paddy's argument would lead us to believe was utterly inevitable. Hussein used chemical weapons unpunished against the Kurds and the Iranians but then did not use them in the Gulf War to fend off defeat.

The USA indeed developed chemical cluster weapons themselves in the 60s and are in the process of destroying them.

Unpunished use of fiendish weapons in the face of world wide abhorrence can makes repetition more probable. It's something that must be taken very, very seriously. It does not though make worldwide proliferation inevitable. Worldwide condemnation and exposure has its impact too.

There are no knock down arguments here either for or against that get us out of the painful, anguished process of examining responsibly, truthfully the pluses and minuses of action, listening to all the expertise available. That's what all MPs should now be doing. That's what the government should be doing.

Sadly due to the shambolic way in which this issue came before parliament events may by pass us rather than be shaped by us, I think.