In Defense of the British “No” on Syria

“Disgrace, you are a disgrace,” the Education Secretary shouted at Liberal and Conservative dissenters after the House of Commons voted against the Prime Minister’s resolution to endorse military action against Syria, in retaliation to chemical attacks against rebel-held suburbs in Damascus. The Economist calls the vote “shocking and shaming.” It accuses those who voted against the resolution of abdicating Britain’s responsibility to stand up to tyranny and stand with its ally, thus diminishing the United Kingdom’s global standing.

Picture courtesy of Tech Sgt. H. H. Deffner, © 1992, some rights reserved.
Picture courtesy of Tech Sgt. H. H. Deffner, © 1992, some rights reserved.

The Prime Minister’s defeat has often been attributed to the scarring memories of the Iraq War – whose mission, as presented to Parliament and the wider world, was to destroy weapons of mass destruction. As it turned out, the evidence for the weapons’ existence was fabricated by a rogue source and drummed up by a bellicose American administration. In Thursday’s debate, Mr. Cameron acknowledged that the “the well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by Iraq,” and went to great lengths to make public the intelligence and legal reasoning behind the strike.

The Prime Minister failed to acknowledge and address another lesson from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely, the importance of clear, strategic thinking. General Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military thinker, asserts that “no-one starts a war – or rather no-one in his senses ought to do so – without being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Frank Ledwidge, a former British army intelligence officer and military thinker, attributes Britain’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to the lack of clear ‘end-game’ objectives. Instead of selecting the right strategies, tactics, and equipment to achieve the desired ‘end-games,’ British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were conducted to suit regimental interests and capabilities. In the past week, neither Obama, Kerry, Cameron, nor Clegg managed to formulate clear objectives of a military strike against Assad. Instead, their arguments for war rest on the possible consequences of not taking action. Likewise, the likely plan of the strike seems to be tailored to suit the war-weary American public opinion, rather than any strategic aims. In the face of murky aims and compromised military planning, the House of Commons made an astute call in not endorsing UK military action against the Assad regime.

The chief justification for a military strike against the Assad government is that it has crossed a red line in deploying chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Doing nothing, Obama and Kerry assert, would undermine international laws against the use of chemical weapons and encourage the acquisition and deployment of all types of weapons of mass destruction, thus harming American national interests and the security of its allies.

The argument has two flaws. First, for two and half years, the West has stood by as more than 110,000 people were killed by the Assad government and the rebel forces in their civil war. Every death from armed conflicts is awful and worthy of condemnation, yet it tortures logic to argue that the 1,429 deaths tip the balance in favour of intervention because of Assad’s choice of weapon. Indiscriminate bombing insults human dignity, whether the warheads carry explosives or sarin gas. The recent revelation that the CIA was complicit in Saddam Hussein’s deployment of chemical weapons against Iranian troops in 1988, and the absence of any response from the current administration to it, underline the hypocrisy of Obama’s stance.

Second, the Obama administration does not interpret American national interest as upholding international norms. This is indicated by Obama’s reluctance to cut ties with the Egyptian military after a massacre exceeding Tiananmen in scale. This administration has instead interpreted American interests strictly on a case-by-case basis. Doing nothing in Syria would not undermine the American stance regarding nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, as Obama claimed. The American position on North Korea and Iran does not stem from the principle of non-proliferation itself, but rather from the threats that specific proliferation poses to key American allies (Japan, South Korea, and Israel). Just as American withdrawal from Vietnam was not interpreted as giving up the entirety of East Asia to communism, doing nothing in Syria would not be seen as a sign of capitulation on North Korea and Iran, or the abandonment of its key allies (Israel, Jordan, Turkey, etc.) in the region. Doing nothing against Assad would have no discernable effect on upholding international norms or protecting American allies.

Moreover, military strikes against Syria would not protect civilians either. Putting aside the questions of legality, airstrikes against the Assad government are more likely to harm than protect civilians. In the past week, reports from Syria alleged that the Assad government has been moving military equipment into schools and residential neighbourhoods. Thus, any airstrike that would effectively degrade Assad’s military capabilities would also cause significant civilian deaths. Furthermore, due to the two and a half year delay in intervention, Syrian opposition has splintered into multiple factions, all of which threaten civilian lives. To offer meaningful protection to civilians, the world must send in peacekeepers in the tens of thousands to disarm and separate warring factions, and to prevent sectarian retaliation between the Alawite, Sunni, Christian, and Kurdish communities. As it stands, no Western country has such ambitions.

The House of Common vote is representative of widespread disbelief at the depth of confusion surrounding the objective of an airstrike against the Assad government. It is all fair and well to punish a dictatorial, murderous regime for killing its own people through diplomatic means, but it must not be forgotten that even with the best planning, military campaigns tend to take unpredictable turns. British soldiers wore soft hats and drank coffee at local cafes as they first arrived at Basra, Iraq in 2003. Less than a year later, they dreaded leaving camp even in body armour and helmets. It is naive and irresponsible for Obama to sell military strikes against Syria as a ‘stroll-in-the-park’ intervention, without detailing the potential pitfalls of military action.

Whether the US and the UK should intervene in Syria is a matter of a value judgment. Some may hold the valid view that it is worthwhile to protect Syrian civilians and stabilise Syria despite the enormous cost in terms of money and lives it would entail. However, should the US and UK decide to the intervene in Syria, they should do so with clear, achievable objectives, a detailed strategy to reach the desired end game, and devote adequate resources to the operation. As it stands, Obama and Cameron’s argument for intervention is inconsistent and hollow. The House of Commons should be credited for refusing to be hoodwinked into endorsing a plan for military action with unknown consequences.

One Reply to “In Defense of the British “No” on Syria”

  1. The legacy of Blair getting it so badly wrong on WMD will haunt us for a long time. He really messed up public trust in intervening. I partly agree that the consequences of military action are unpredictable but the prohibition on the use of gas in war was agreed in 1925. Both Obama and Cameron are right when they say a ban without enforcement is useless. Intervention is essential but the form it should take is really not clear in this case. Agreeing to international control of chemical weapons stocks is not exactly a deterrent to future dictators.

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