1 September 2013

Jane Kinninmont

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


Parliament's rejection of British military participation in airstrikes on Syria reflected broader public opinion on the risks of entering another war in the Middle East, as well as scepticism among politicians over the strategy, goals and endgame of the proposed attack. David Cameron made the options sound very simple: join the US in limited airstrikes to punish and deter the use of internationally prohibited chemical weapons, or ignore this responsibility and allow the Syrian regime to use them again. Yet the choices on Syria have never been simple.

MPs who opposed the motion feared Western intervention could backfire, with no guarantee that limited airstrikes would change the behaviour of a regime that is already embattled and fighting for its survival; that it could even make the situation worse, costing more lives and add to international divisions and provoke a response from Syria's allies Russia and Iran. It could also mean deeper involvement in Syria's civil war. All are serious concerns.

But severe problems remain. News of the rejection has resonated in the Middle East, where many members of the public are staunchly opposed to intervention by the old colonial powers, Britain and France, and by a US that they often see as a new kind of empire. Unfortunately it has also been welcomed by the Syrian government, who hope it is a sign of the Western alliance against them cracking.

UK politicians need to avoid being distracted by either blame or gloating over the political blow that has been dealt to Cameron. Now that joining the US-led airstrikes has been ruled out, they should focus instead on what Britain can do in the diplomatic arena, using its political and trading influence. The aims should include building international condemnation of the government's use of chemical weapons in Syria, assuming that this is what the UN weapons inspectors conclude; demonstrating to Syria's key ally, Russia, that it will lose influence and business in other areas if it continues supplying weapons to such an internationally isolated regime; and pushing all the parties intervening in Syria, including Iran and the Gulf states, to come to the much-delayed 'Geneva II' peace talks.

Again, none of this is simple. The UN route has been agonisingly slow, which is one of the reasons that Cameron and others thought that leading their own military intervention would be more effective, and called for it even before the weapons inspectors had reported. But the divisions within the UN Security Council reflect divisions in the real world. While Cameron presented Britain as a force for good in the world, with a national interest in upholding international law and policing the use of weapons of mass destruction, this is not how others see it. Many governments, especially in developing countries and former colonies, believe it is an excuse for regime change. After all, Britain has called for regime change in Syria before, it funds the Syrian opposition, and has stretched the meaning of previous UN resolutions to justify regime changes in Iraq and Libya. There is going to be huge cynicism, difficulty and frustration along the diplomatic route, but would-be international statesmen need to try harder to make it work.

Chances are that Britain may again find itself debating a military intervention some months or even years from now. Almost all analysts expect that the conflict in Syria will last for years to come. No one expects that Obama's suggestion of a 'limited narrow act' – short-lived, targeted missile strikes – will end the civil war. Members of the Syrian opposition, who are divided over whether to back such an attack, have said the regime is moving political prisoners into military sites to use them as human shields. They are worried that the regime, which wouldn’t be fatally wounded by airstrikes, will retaliate by killing more of its own people. Internationally, the Syrian regime will capitalise on the idea that it is a victim of Western aggression to win support not only from Russia, but from China and other countries.

Parliament's vote has not necessarily ruled out the principle of a future intervention in Syria. MPs were asked to vote on a very limited and specific type of intervention to deter chemical weapons. Cameron brought the motion to parliament even though his own party had already pushed back against his desire to arm the Syrian opposition earlier in the year, and appears to be personally driven to do something on Syria. The risks the fighting in Syria escalating mean there are a range of possibilities that could see Britain drawn in at a later stage, whether as part of a humanitarian intervention, or a future response if the Syrian regime became involved in international retaliation against US interests in other countries. 

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback