No halfway house for Hague and Cameron

Britain, it appears, is on the brink of entering another war. A ‘red line’ has been crossed. Chemical weapons have been deployed in Syria and, this time, the evidence that it has come from President Assad’s dictatorial regime has swayed the majority of the international community. The time for Western intervention in Syria has arrived, but, after 100,000 deaths, the questions are “Why now?” and “What exact action should we take?”

The conflict in Syria has been raging for almost 2 and a half years – it began during the protests of the Arab Spring in 2011. Each time, the British media reported on the violent actions of the Syrian President, backed by the Syrian Army, and, each time, these actions were denounced by the British government.  In October 2011, the first UN response to the conflict occurred: strict sanctions were recommended if protestors continued to be targeted by Assad’s forces but these sanctions were vetoed by Russia and China. The killings continued. In June 2012, the UN Action Group on Syria put together a plan for the overthrow of Assad but stipulated that some of his administration should remain in any future government. Russia and China rejected the condition that Assad must step down. The death toll rose further. It was around this time that Obama under pressure from humanitarian activists across the western world, declared a ‘red line’ which, if crossed, would prompt “decisive action” from the west. This ‘red line’ was the use of chemical weapons, or W.M.D.’s to put it in 2003 terms. And so, despite the 100,000 dead men, women and children that came before it, it appears it is the reported 355 deaths in a suburb of Damascus last week that will most likely cause Britain to enter the conflict.

This previous lack of action will not go un-noticed, and it is for this reason that there can be no halfway house now for David Cameron and William Hague. Since the conflict began, no-fly zones have been contemplated and a repeat of Libya mooted. Assad’s regime however is a much stronger military power than Gadaffi’s – thanks in no small part to Russian backing – and a no-fly zone would be almost impossible to implement without us being dragged into all out warfare. Hague’s assertion this week that diplomacy had failed was telling; ‘humanitarian intervention’ would be within international law but with sanctions having failed up until now, foreign intervention is unlikely to persuade Assad to accede to them. The most likely action, it seems, is a punitive strike from the western forces designed to deter Assad from using chemical weapons any more. But even if the deterrent works, the killings will continue in a different form and Syria will move ever further away from the ideals of free speech and democracy that the Arab Spring was meant to bring. If ‘humanitarian intervention’ was the answer, it should have happened at the start of the conflict, before the death toll mounted. At this stage, the ousting of Assad should be the main target, the removal of the man responsible for the oppression of democracy in his country. A tyrannical dictator who has used chemical weapons on his own people. A leader not unlike Saddam Hussein. And it is Saddam and the Iraq war that is to blame for Britain’s inactivity in Syria up until now.

The echoes of the Iraq war ring loudly in the ears of anyone discussing military intervention. Earlier this week, Jack Straw – Foreign Secretary at the time – declared the conflict had “raised the bar of scepticism about whether military action is justified”. However, its place in the history books as a failed exercise in regime change and stability must not cloud the decision making process today. For every Iraq, there is a Kosovo; for every Afghanistan, a Libya. Military intervention in civil wars, although frowned upon isn’t always fruitless. What is certain is that the British government must learn from its past actions to inform its future ones.

If we are to learn, where, then, is the Chilcot report?  The many delays, at the behest of the British establishment, into the publication of the truth about the Iraq War has done little to assuage fears that there is a want and need to hide the mistakes and falsehoods that occurred in the run-up to the invasion. The insistence on key extracts from it not being published, reinforces the opinion that those in charge do not want the truth to come out. And yet, these are the very same people who will be coming together on Thursday, to debate Britain’s next steps, deciding how to intervene in another Middle Eastern state without a proper understanding of what has come before.