My thoughts on Syria

August 29, 2013 12:57 PM

I know many people feel extremely strongly about the current situation in Syria and the question of what Britain's response should be to the chemical weapon attack which took place there last week.

We are all aware of how difficult the situation is in Syria. No one who has seen the pictures and heard the news reports could be unmoved by the horrendous human suffering taking place. Everyone wants to help; the question is how best to achieve this end.

I think there is essentially no doubt that chemical weapons were indeed used against civilians in Syria on 21st August. I believe this does change the situation, as the use of chemical weapons is a war crime and I understand the desire to ensure those responsible do not feel they can act with impunity. The problem is that there is far less clarity over who exactly was responsible for the crime. This is not a conflict with the good guys on one side fighting the bad guys on the other. To begin with, "the opposition" is not one homogenous entity but rather made up of many factions and sub-groups, at present united against a common enemy but which in the longer term are in many cases as far from each other as they are from the Assad regime.

Atrocities have been committed by both government forces and the opposition, and the apparent infiltration of the opposition by Al-Qaeda further muddies the water. While Bashar al-Assad is clearly a brutal dictator in many ways, there have been certain elements of his rule which have been positive - for example, Syria has been one of the few countries in the Middle East where religious minorities such as Christians have been able to live without persecution. I'm not saying either that I support Assad's regime or that I condemn the rebels, but rather pointing out that the situation is not black and white.

Then of course there is the fact that any action in Syria will inevitably involve, in one way or another, the surrounding region. Indeed, this is already the case, and given the fragility of the various neighbouring states, any change in the balance of power in Syria is likely to have far reaching consequences well beyond its borders (not least in terms of the ongoing Sunni-Shia power struggle across the region). Escalation and widening of the conflict is precisely what we all want to prevent, and I think there is a very real danger that any outside intervention may inflame, rather than suppress, the situation. The responses of Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, amongst others, need to be considered.

From a purely practical perspective, I have strong doubts over how exactly we could intervene militarily in the limited fashion currently being discussed. I do not want to see British boots on the ground in Syria, and I am unsure how any military action on our part could be specific and proportionate - what even would be the specific targets? Striking chemical weapons storage facilities would be incredibly dangerous and taking other action is likely to tip the balance in favour of regime change. Given what we know of the makeup of the rebels, I don't believe arming them would be wise, and we have very little idea of what would replace the Assad regime if it fell.

For these reasons, I have real concerns about any British military intervention in Syria, but particularly if it is done without international agreement. Before any action is taken we need to be incredibly clear about what exactly it is that we're trying to achieve, both in the short and long term, and what we are prepared to do to achieve this. As Nick Clegg said in an email to all Lib Dem members yesterday, any case for international action must be taken to the UN in an effort to achieve as great an international consensus as possible and we must wait until we hear from the weapons inspectors. I am uncomfortable about the UK acting without having given the UN every opportunity to find a diplomatic way forward. We know that Russia and China are unlikely to support any international action, but a unanimous decision by all our other international partners would confer far greater legitimacy than the USA, UK and France acting unilaterally.

Unfortunately there are clearly no easy answers in this situation - whatever we do (and doing nothing is still an action), the suffering in Syria is likely to continue to some extent. The question is how we can best minimise this pain. These are just my thoughts, and as you can see, I am not decided on this issue. I am keen to hear other people's opinions and to feed your thoughts into the decision-making process so please do get in touch if you have views you wish to share.


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