30 August 2013

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


The parliamentary debate on Syria and subsequent rejection of a motion urging an international response to the chemical weapons attack illustrated the extent to which the Western debate on Syria is haunted by the experience of Iraq. The UK government did not make a sufficiently convincing case for military intervention in the eyes of MPs, and the wider public who are far more sceptical about intelligence and legal advice than they were back in 2003. 

The situation in Syria 2013 is very different from Iraq 2003. The humanitarian case is more compelling in a country where massacres are escalating, whereas in Iraq the worst massacres had taken place more than a decade previously, when Saddam Hussein was allied with the West (though sanctions were causing a different type of humanitarian disaster by 2003). But the credibility of Western military intervention, especially one to be justified by a mixture of humanitarian needs and non-proliferation worries, has been badly damaged. This was acknowledged by MPs across the house during the debate; once or twice speakers even made the Freudian slip of referring to 'Saddam' instead of 'Assad'.

Making the case

David Cameron began his statement by trying to distance and differentiate his casus belli from the one presented in 2003. He tried to contrast his approach with that of Tony Blair's case for intervening in Iraq, saying there was a clear legal basis (which Blair also said), independent intelligence (ditto), and a plan to go to the UN (ditto again). Crucially, Cameron said the proposed intervention would specifically be to deter chemical weapons use, insisting it was not about changing the regime or siding with the rebels. This concept set the terms of the subsequent debate. Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, focused mainly on the legal and diplomatic process for proving chemical weapons use as a condition for military action to punish and deter it.

But the notion that such military strikes could be separated from Britain's wider policy on regime change in Syria is fundamentally wrong. Since the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Britain and France have issued multiple warnings to Assad. They were the first European powers to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the representatives of the Syrian people, and the UK describes the leader of the coalition as Syria's prime minister. They've also been the main European advocates of arming the opposition, and have historical baggage as the two main colonial powers in the Middle East in the past two centuries.

But the UK government did not have answers for the question of what would happen the day after the strikes if they did not have the desired deterrent effect (there have already been four credible reports of Israeli airstrikes on Syria), but instead prompted an escalation by the Syrian regime against the Western-backed opposition. The rhetoric, caricaturing the complex problem into a black and white binary of 'action' (air strikes), with all other options generalized into 'standing by and doing nothing', suggests there would be a push for further intervention under such a scenario. 

And one of the important lessons from Iraq is the need for a defined endgame that takes different scenarios into account. This was one of the main things missing from the argument.

Other options

It is essential now for both opponents and supporters of air strikes to work together on other options for diplomatic and economic action, especially after the UN weapons inspectors report their findings. There needs to be a focus on building a wide international coalition to condemn chemical weapons use, on which there is already strong international consensus, and to put pressure on Russia and Iran to change their ally's behaviour. Russia needs to understand that if the diplomatic route cannot prove effective, the arguments of those in the West who want military intervention will again be strengthened.

Suggestions that the vote against intervention marks a new era of isolationism, even parochialism, for a cash-strapped UK are overblown, as is the idea that this is a profound blow to the relationship with the US, although it will evidently cause strain between Cameron and Obama. The UK intervened in Libya just two years ago, and took part in the French-led intervention in Mali this year. Many of the worries about intervening in Syria are very specific to Syria, reflecting fears about the risks of regime change at the heart of the Middle East, the presence of Al Qaeda, and the direct comparisons that keep being made, fairly and unfairly, to Iraq.