Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Struggling over Syria

I am really struggling with the question of what to do in Syria.

On one hand, you have an evil and brutal regime who has no problem with gassing its own people. It didn't just get evil after the Arab spring, though. It's Amnesty report from 2007 tells of torture, imprisonment on political grounds and other human rights abuses. There is no doubt that repression has gone off the scale in the last two years, though, from the murder and destruction in Homs to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime last week.

As well as the humanitarian angle, Paddy Ashdown argued in favour of limited intervention to tackle the breach of international law in yesterday's Times (£).
We can either acquiesce and so set the precedent that, even in the face of the most egregious breach, probably since the UN was founded, of that part of international law which protects the rights of citizens, no action will be taken if a great power wishes it so. In that case the UN and all it stands for will be hugely diminished as an effective organisation for the future. Or we can take unilateral action ourselves. In which case the UN will be damaged, too. Tough choice.
My instinct? I would hate it, but on balance I judge the second to be preferable to the first. Action taken with the aim of underpinning international law, even if it in the end doesn’t, is better, it seems to me, than no action with the certain consequence of undermining it. Look at what followed Abyssinia in 1936.
He argues that if one lot get away with using weapons of mass destruction, others might think they can do it too.
 If the international community will not now find the means to make it clear that we will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, like poison gas, for the mass murder of innocent citizens, then the fragile structures of international law that we have painfully erected these last 20 years will be undermined, and the threat of the future use of weapons of mass destruction will be widened.
If those arguments sound compelling, there are some equally persuasive arguments against. The first is that the rebels are not necessarily going to be any better. As Jonathan Fryer, who expresses his view that the momentum towards some kind of intervention seems unstoppable, says:
 Yet still Assad and his thugs continue to try to pound the people into submission. The situation is complicated by the fact that this is not a fight between good and evil, however. Evil the Assad regime certainly is — and has been for over 40 years — but the disparate rebel forces contain some pretty unpleasant characters and radical groups that seek to impose an alien, fundamentalist creed that is alien to the modern Syrian secular society. But things have now reached a stage at which the world cannot just sit by and watch a people and a country be annihilated.
My worry is that by intervening we could actually make things worse, not just for the Syrian people, but across the whole region. Russia and China have shown on many occasions that they are not remotely bothered about human rights, so it's no surprise that they will not sanction any UN action. But surely we need to get broad international agreement to action. It would be foolish, post Iraq, for the US and UK to act unilaterally. We need support for action from the EU and others in the region.

Paddy says that we should continue to work on Russia and China too, but he specifies more what he doesn't want to see than on what action he considers appropriate:
Here what is needed is something proportionate, consistent with international law, closely defined and tightly targeted on the crime. So no to no-fly zones — even if they were militarily possible. And no to arming the rebels too — even if that was wise (which, by the way, neither is). It means something sharp, quick, specific and punishing. And preferably — strongly preferably — legitimised by a UN Security Council Resolution.
I'm not convinced that there's anything we can do that will stabilise the situation in Syria in the long term. In the short term we might actually make it worse, put more innocent lives at risk.

I think it's ok for the military to be asked to come up with options. It's a sensible step in the circumstances.

Nothing, however, should be done without parliamentary approval. That is critical. If that means recalling Parliament, then that must happen. And the opposition must be willing to properly scrutinise, and certainly to do a better job than Iain Duncan Smith's Conservatives did over Iraq in 2003. The problem is that the opposition is no stranger to wars of dodgy legality. If it hadn't been for Iraq, and their history of opportunism over the past 3 years, I'd have said that Douglas Alexander was taking the right line but Iraq did happen and because of their shamelessness over the past 3 years, I can't be sure that they aren't just playing games.

As I write, Sir Menzies Campbell has just gone on the BBC News Channel to say that he's not convinced yet that there is a need for military action. He was clear that Parliament and people should have as full a statement of the legality and objections of any action as possible. In many ways he said what's in my mind. He also said that he didn't like Obama's use of red lines, because it's just inviting people to exceed them to see what you do.

I'm happy with what I'm seeing from Liberal Democrats. It seems cautious, measured and reasonable and I'm certain that Nick will be taking the same line within the Government against a seemingly more pro-action Conservative party. I think it's fair to say that this will be a significant test for the Coalition.

In Ming and Paddy, Nick has advice from two of the most credible statesmen we have. That has to be a good thing. If he is going to sanction military action, though, he's going to have to be very sure that the Government can justify its legality, that it is both clear in its objectives and it's probable that those objectives will be met, and that it will not make the international situation or the situation for the Syrian people worse. And as Ming pointed out, these things can be done with the best of intention but may have consequences that we don't foresee.

That's a hell of a decision, and I'm glad I'm not making it. I would always be cautious about military action even if the justification is clear and it was legal. What if our intervention got rid of Assad and the other lot turned out to be even more brutal and repressive? It's happened before. What if something goes horribly wrong and we kill a whole load of civilians?

To get a bit insular now, this is a time when Nick Clegg and party members need to listen to each other. My Lesson from the Coalition was that the leadership and the membership needed to try and work up a bit more empathy, to do that walk a mile in each other's shoes thing. I have a hell of a lot more confidence in Nick's input into this process than I have in Cameron's but he has to make sure that someone is explaining whatever position he takes to our members. Communications have been a bit slack over the Summer. Now is the time to ensure they are much more effective.

As I'm writing, things have moved on again. It's just been announced that David Cameron has recalled Parliament to discuss and vote on a Government motion. That means that they think they know what they want to do. We need to see that motion and the reasoning behind it as soon as possible.

I wonder if this means that our Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael will be returning early from his trip to Cameroon where he's on a VSO project to provide legal advice to vulnerable people there.

These developments don't do anything to help my feelings of unease. To be fair, I don't think you should ever be relaxed about these matters, but I can't help feeling that we are hurtling towards intervention. I need my Parliament to step up to the plate and have a reasoned, measured, factual debate on Thursday. I don't want to hear, simply, that Assad is vile. Anyone can see that. I need to know what is being proposed, why the Government thinks it would do good now and in the future. All with evidence, please. I want the opposition to scrutinise what is being said constructively and forensically. The debate needs to elucidate whether action is legal and advisable. I know that Liberal Democrat MPs will think very carefully about their own positions.

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