Syria: Why those who think UK vote against action appeases Assad are wrong

Last night Defence Secretary Philip Hammond – fresh from seeing parliament refuse to grant the government a mandate to attack Syria – noted, with some frustration, that “Common sense must tell us that the Assad regime is going to be a little less uncomfortable tonight as a result of this decision in parliament“. This is a theme that has been repeated elsewhere

According to this perspective blocking military action will give succour to Assad and potentially emboldens those that would use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) or commit crimes against humanity.

This seems to me to be a very partial reading of the outcome of last night’s vote. On twitter I have indicated that I think there are 4 points those arguing that a failure to authorise strikes on Syria are failing to acknowledge:

The Shadow of Iraq looms large here but reservations about handing leaders power to determine military policy without democratic checks goes at least as far back as the Tonkin Gulf.

Iraq seems to have taught Cameron very little – as a consequence of Blair’s handling of the preparation for that conflict, the UK government suffers a serious credibility gap when it comes to a) intelligence and b) legal advice. While it is not possible – or desirable – for governments to make full intelligence assessments public, the current Joint Intelligence report on chemical weapons attacks in Syria is seriously lacking in detail and relies on balance of probability. Cameron has seen the importance of releasing legal advice (although somewhat late in the day). This legal advice notes a need for ‘convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community’ which would seem to be a clear argument for waiting for a report from the inspectors.

There is no doubt that chemical weapons taboo should be upheld – using these weapons is a clear violation of a number of international laws for some very good reasons. But: what would the goals of military action be and how would these be achieved? The UK Government motion “relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives”. So military action could not be punitive. Anyway, punitive military action is problematic because it a) prejudges guilt and b) effectively acts as a attempt – however indirect – at regime change. If not punitive, how could military action deter chemical weapons use? The next option is destruction of key nodes in the regime’s political military infrastructure. To be honest, I doubt this would have much effect. The Assad regime will have taken measures to mitigate the effects of such military action and will thus know that all it needs to do is ride out some largely symbolic attacks. The final option is sustained engagement to degrade the capacity of the Assad regime to wage war against the Syrian population. This could be done partly from the air as in Kosovo, but would also be likely to involve some sort of Special Forces role – if only as support for air targeting. But this begins to look like an open ended engagement – and one that will entail collateral (civilian) casualties, be resisted by the regime, potentially embolden radical rebel factions, has the potential to draw in Hezbollah and Iran, irritate Russia and China and – most importantly – look like foreign aggression. I would say that the UK parliament is justified in worrying about this possibility.

There are several very important legal mechanisms to prevent and punish crimes against humanity: notably the International Criminal Court. The problem is that they are largely sidelined in discussions like these. And if they are sidelined, then abusers of human rights are emboldened. This is the dirty secret of those castigating the UK parliament – that in promoting military responses they, themselves, are allowing rights abusers to sleep easy in the knowledge that no-one is pursing the legal options. While the US is fixated on military strikes Assad knows he is likely to never appear before the ICC. Perhaps we should be talking about how military action might involve the identification and extraction of indicted criminals to face trial. That, actually, might make Assad uncomfortable tonight. But it would also involve a whole different discussion about making the existing legal architecture for punishing crimes against humanity more robust – a discussion the US has traditionally been very reticent to get involved in.

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