The World Today
6 February 2014 , Volume 70, Number 1

The former Foreign Office Minister looks at the ramifications of Parliament’s decision not to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons


Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 2010-13


Illustration: Belle Mellor


The outcome of the vote in the House of Commons on August 29, 2013, was a surprise, it is fair to say.

Barely a week after an attack by chemical weapons on Syrian civilians in a Damascus suburb, blame for which intelligence suggested with a ‘high degree of certainty’ lay squarely at the door of the Assad regime, David Cameron put a motion to the House. It urged a strong humanitarian response which ‘may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons’.

The motion was multi-layered, urging among other things UN Security Council action, but providing for a further Commons vote if direct military action was to be supported.

As a clear expression of the British Government’s view of an appalling crime, and with some safety features against precipitate action incorporated, it was anticipated that the Government would win the vote, with more work to be done if it was to be acted upon.

Nonetheless the motion, and Labour’s amendment to it, was voted down, a reverse that the Commons library reported as the first since 1782 when Lord North lost a motion to continue fighting the fledgling United States.

I believe the vote has implications, both for Britain’s standing among allies and regional partners, and for the unwritten British constitution, because it expands the current convention on foreign policy relationships between the executive and legislature to an as yet unknown and, crucially, uncertain extent.

What went wrong for the Government? Recalled to the Foreign Office from holiday the day before the vote, I began to telephone colleagues as they made their way to Westminster.

Although the motion to be debated was softened in the 24 hours before being tabled, most of those I spoke to were highly sceptical of the motion. In no particular order, they expressed: a fear that there was a ‘slippery slope’ which would end up with greater involvement than the firing of missiles from a distance; a reluctance to become involved in a ‘civil war’; a concern that there was no guarantee that the action suggested (a targeted strike by the US and two allies) would achieve its object of diminishing the risk of use of chemical weapons, or help to end the conflict; a growing unease about who we were trying to help in Syria, as Assad’s false but deceptive narrative that the conflict was solely him against the jihadists was gaining ground; and a worrying lack of confidence in the intelligence reporting, as to whether Assad was in fact responsible for the chemical attack, a clear manifestation of the heavy shadow of Iraq, and the sense of MPs at that time not being given the wholly truthful picture of that they were being asked to vote on.

The timing did not help. The consequence of MPs being away, and US suggestions that military action was likely within days, forced the hand of a Prime Minister pledged to recall Parliament if significant events developed. He was right to do so in order to fulfil his pledge, and he deserved rather more support for having done so. But it left little time to convince colleagues of the enormity of the action of the regime, and of what the stakes were if no action resulted, which might just have helped to hold the line on the vote, and thus give a wider freedom of action to the UK Government, and the White House, in consequence.

The immediate results were that the Prime Minister ruled out British military involvement, and President Obama seemingly took his cue from the Westminster vote to put a hold on any military response by suggesting that Congress too would be consulted. It seems to me and American friends that the result of such consultation might have led to a similar outcome – perhaps even more constitutionally damaging for a US president than a British prime minister.

And then, of course, the Russian masterstroke – the suggestion of the removal of chemical weapons without a shot being fired, immediately accepted by Syria, leaving Putin in undisputed control of the situation and further adding to a growing reputation of US foreign policy in the area as indecisive and lacking in direction.

What has been the impact in the region of this series of events on the reputations of Britain and America?

The first word should belong to the representatives of the Syrian opposition who are not jihadists, who have made clear commitments to human rights and a future pluralistic Syria, and been supported by more than 100 states and international organizations, and which Britain has been working with via a special envoy for more than two years. They were devastated at the lack of an immediate military reprisal, and at the chain of events that followed.

For months I have participated in meetings where, while thanking the UK for staunch diplomatic support and understanding why we could not supply weaponry ourselves, the opposition have made clear their desperate need for people brutally attacked by the regime to defend themselves and for something to change a situation on the ground where a regime could be refreshed from Russia, with active military involvement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah.

Now, they made clear to me, they saw an opportunity to achieve this through a response to a regime that had over-reached itself with the chemical attack, knowing that the only thing that Assad feared was evidence of a determination that sooner or later his relentless killing of civilians and opponents would be challenged by a stronger force. Unless that happened, there would be little to encourage the negotiated end to the conflict being urged through the Geneva process, and the killing by conventional means, far outstripping any deaths or injury from chemical attack, would continue to have free licence.

I believe such fears to have been well-founded. While respecting our democratic institutions, they have been hurt by the US and British decisions, and puzzled why stopping the conflict and its horrendous humanitarian impact has not been at the top of our agendas.

From my observations and contacts throughout the wider region, including international conferences in Bahrain and the Emirates at the end of the year, it is fair to say that the consequences for the reputation of America and Britain have been mixed. It is true that Gulf friends and allies, already unhappy at American and British attitudes to events in Egypt – though I think our positions there may have been misunderstood – have seen the decision not to pursue a military agenda as another piece of a jigsaw suggesting a US backing away from the region, and, feeling the heat from Iraq and Afghanistan, a weariness of leadership.

The seeming absence of US leadership is reported most critically here and Washington is taking the bulk of this criticism.

One Foreign Minister challenged Tony Blinken, the Deputy US National Security Adviser, rather acidly: ‘Why does America always think it knows best?’

This is adding to an uncertainty as to how allies would react to future situations, not least in Iran, and a depressing admiration for the Russians. Putin was losing the Arab world, having got on the wrong side of the Syrian conflict, but ‘at least he stands by his friends in all circumstances’, and his dexterity in the undoubted good of removing chemical weapons, but at his own price, has not been missed.

We have work to do to convince friends on regional security, and the uncertainty card will be played, even if under the surface Gulf leaders know that both sides remain inextricably bound. France will not be slow to make comparisons between its readiness to take muscular action and the UK Parliament’s reluctance. France’s hesitation over Iraq in 2003 is being quickly replaced, so we can expect to sniff more Gauloise in the air than of late, both from diplomats and salesmen.

Elsewhere in the region, my impression is that there has been more relief than condemnation of events, though of course those saying so are not the Syrian civilians being bombed.

If a military strike had not led to further international diplomatic pressure and a quick suing for peace by the regime, then Lebanon might have expected to be in the forefront of reprisals. In Beirut, I suspect our Parliament is seen as having done the right thing. Israel hated the suggestion we did not have stomach for a fight, and the implications for Iran. But the removal of chemical weapons from their doorstep might have been more than could have been achieved by military action.

Egyptians might have been relieved too. Here was a more mature West not responding by intervention, and thus having a chance to rewrite its own narrative, in which Iraq and Afghanistan dominated. Egypt also wants the West to understand the threats from radical Islamists and so applauded the hesitation in taking action which could indirectly have helped jihadists in Syria. The decision would help the Egyptian government recalibrate its relationship with the United States, which it wants, but a strike might have made this more difficult with public opinion.

Back in Westminster, the executive and legislature recognize following the vote that we are in uncharted territory. What exactly can a British Government now do in terms of action abroad without explicit Parliamentary approval?

I do not pretend to be a constitutional expert, and do not write as such, but as a practical politician with experience of executive Government. I believe Governments make foreign policy, and executive decisions as part of it. My understanding is that the use of force by Britain is under Royal Prerogative, and that the Government does not need a Commons vote for that use of force to be legal. But obviously implied is that Governments depend on keeping the confidence of the elected Commons for its very survival and for all its actions. What is key is how the temperature of that confidence is to be taken.

Since Tony Blair held a vote on British troop deployment to Iraq in 2003, Parliament and Government have worked to a convention that if troops are to be deployed, then the Commons will get a vote, although there has never been a vote on Afghanistan. We did have a vote on Libya, but not for the logistical and other support we provided to the French for their actions in Mali.

The vote on Syria was different, however. Firstly it was only a preliminary vote on principle, with the clear promise of a further vote to come and, secondly, there was no suggestion that any ground troops would be deployed. The most likely involvement would be the use of sea-based cruise missiles. Parliament turned this down and the Prime Minister responded immediately to indicate that he accepted the decision.

If there is to be any change to this situation as regards Syria, he must, therefore, return to Parliament for endorsement of a different policy. But how far did this decision go? Did it prevent us giving logistical or intelligence support to our closest ally? And to what other such support that we are already supplying, or considering supplying, should it apply? Was it, as one or two colleagues have implied, unique to this situation, or of wider import?

From the comments of MPs during the length of the Syrian crisis, I believe that MPs also think that Parliament should take the decision whether or not export licences are allowed – should those opposing the Syrian regime attempt to buy weapons from the UK – and not, as at present, trust the Government to exercise its legal discretion in such matters, on which it is accountable to parliament through a well established, and extremely thorough select committee. This is way beyond current convention.

Wrapping up together the decision itself and the constitutional process, I think unwittingly Britain fi nds itself in a mess.

If we are now in the position of having to convince half of Parliament plus one before difficult foreign policy executive action can be taken, not through a taking of voices by the whips, or being merely reliant on the arithmetic of Commons composition, but by vote, then what can Government commit itself to in discussions with allies, or preparation in advance for regional strategic defence? If Iran threatens not shipping lanes and British interests directly, but a smaller Gulf state friendly to the UK which asks for our assistance, do the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary decide, and expect support, or do backbenchers?

And what do our constituents now think of any UK military involvement abroad, beyond the Falklands and Gibraltar? Probably, as President Obama suggested recently, pretty much what the US public thought of being involved with Europe in 1941, when a US government and President took action to support a beleaguered United Kingdom with which the US public might have been unimpressed.

Just occasionally the majority of the public may be wrong, and politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest. Provided they are ultimately accountable to their public through election, or a vote of confi dence, I do not believe the democratic balance is unfairly skewed by the executive retaining power to act solely by consultation and not immediate vote.

The regional impact of these events has yet to play out fully. Alliances depend on certainty, and most of us know that foreign policy disasters often occur when there is uncertainty leading to misjudgment.

The negotiating positions of those whose aims may not be ours are strengthened if they know that those sitting opposite them have an uncertain ally in the background. I suspect that those being actively assisted by Russia, Iran and Hizbollah in Syria have taken more comfort from recent events than Syrians with democratic aims.

Whatever the immediate outcomes for Syria – and I sincerely hope the diplomatic pressure after the chemical deal translates into the political progress that Geneva stands for – sooner or later the British Parliament and Government are going to be confronted with a new test to convention and foreign policy objectives. We would do well to sort out our parameters before that day arrives.