As reported in the Wall Street Journal:
“Two and a half years ago, Britain sent troops to Libya to stop a massacre. Parliament emphatically endorsed the United Nations-backed military intervention and its aim of protecting Libyan citizens from Moammar Gadhafi’s troops.
Perhaps that is why some were shocked when, last Thursday, Parliament ruled out any military role for Britain in Syria. Just like Libya in 2011, Syria is plagued by civil war and led by an embattled, evil dictator who is prepared to slaughter his own people to keep power. How could MPs produce two totally different answers to the same question?
In fact, the similarities between Libya and Syria are only skin-deep. With Libya, there was a clear moral case for intervention. Gadhafi’s forces were closing in on the last rebel-held areas, a humanitarian catastrophe was on the cards, and it was clear that military action could stop this from happening. In Syria, such military action would almost certainly make things worse.
The Syrian regime is undoubtedly evil, but we have known this for years. Parliament was asked to support military action against President Assad not simply because his regime is despotic, but because evidence emerged that it has killed hundreds of Syrian civilians with nerve gas.
The use of chemical weapons is a truly horrendous crime, but it is only one on a long list of horrendous crimes conducted by both sides in Syria’s civil war.
Assad’s forces have shelled, bombed and shot their opponents with impunity. The U.N. puts the death toll at more than 100,000. Civilians have been gunned down by snipers, burned to death by napalm, dismembered by bombs and crushed in falling buildings. These are no less unpleasant than getting caught in a gas attack. Many of us were left asking last week why, after sitting on the sidelines of this war for more than two years, the British government was suddenly in a rush to launch cruise missiles.
What’s more, the recent reports of chemical-weapon attacks raise more questions than they answer. Both the British and American governments say only Assad could have carried out the gas attacks, but the evidence is not clear-cut. Even the U.K. government’s own Joint Intelligence Committee admits it cannot understand why Assad would use chemical weapons when he knows this could force the West to intervene on the rebels’ side.
This also raises questions about how much Assad knew about the gas attacks. American spies have reportedly intercepted phone calls in which a furious Syrian military commander demanded to know why army units had deployed chemical weapons. This could suggest the attacks were ordered by rogue or panicking officers, without Assad’s knowledge or permission. It might suggest they took everyone in the Syrian army by surprise.
The gas attacks may even have been the work of the Syrian rebels. President Obama previously identified the use of chemical weapons as a red line for the U.S., and with Assad gradually gaining the upper hand, the rebels have a clear motive for trying to drag America into the conflict. There have been some credible reports, one from a U.N. representative in Syria, that Assad’s opponents have some access to sarin and are not afraid to use it. Without better intelligence about what is really happening on the ground, Britain risks being tricked into battle.
In last week’s parliamentary debate, David Cameron’s government said Assad should be “punished” for his crimes. It is far from clear what this would achieve. First, Syria boasts a powerful military, and could respond to any punitive air strikes. Second, even the precision-guided missiles that British forces would have used against Syria are not always as accurate as advertised. In previous wars, a significant number misfired or missed their target. By attempting to punish Assad, we would almost inevitably have caused more civilian deaths.
What is more, any military intervention would have consequences far beyond Syria’s borders. Vladimir Putin has supplied Assad’s regime with anti-aircraft missiles. If we attacked Syrian military targets, Russia would respond in kind. Whatever British cruise missiles destroyed in Syria, Mr. Putin would replace twice over. Punitive attacks could easily push peace further out of reach.
It is always uncomfortable to see your own prime minister defeated in the House of Commons. However, while the government’s motive was clear—to prevent the deaths of more innocent civilians—its strategy was not.
I am not an anti-interventionist, but I am not an automatic interventionist either. When military action is on the table, it must be clear what that action is designed to achieve. In the case of humanitarian intervention, the cornerstone must be to protect civilians. It is hard to see how this could be accomplished in Syria by adding cruise-missile strikes to an already volatile situation.
However desperate the circumstances might appear, it is never right to rush into war armed with plenty of missiles but only half of the facts, least of all when there are so many “known unknowns” on top of the “unknown unknowns.” Parliament was right last week to stop the government in its tracks.”