Parliament has been in recess for Easter so it has been a relatively quiet week for me in the constituency, whilst international events have swept the world from the brink of war over Syria to the brink of war over North Korea.
One of the dangers of writing a column at the beginning of the week for publication in the Forest Journal mid-week, is that occasionally one is overtaken by events. Nevertheless, I feel confident that we will all still be here next week and that things won’t have changed that much, notwithstanding some of the hyperbole in the news headlines suggesting that we at the most dangerous point in international relations since the Cuban missile crisis and that we are approaching the brink of thermo-nuclear Armageddon. I continually remind my constituents and correspondents of General William Slim’s dictum that nothing is ever as bad as it is reported.
Over the bank holiday weekend I’ve managed a bit of gardening and some routine maintenance on my Morris Minor. At no stage have I felt the random urge to go and do something I’ve always wanted to, on the grounds that it may be my last chance before the world ends.
None of this however, should be taken as in any way a denial of the dreadful state that much of the world is in, or as an attempt to trivialise it. North Korea is a ghastly place, much of it a vast prison camp for the half-starved rural population. The slighted evidence of lese-mageste towards the regime will prove fatal to the offenders, their families and any known associates. Profession of Christianity attracts the heaviest of penalties. As Kim Jong-un’s late brother discovered in Thailand recently, the regime’s murderous reach extends well beyond the hermit kingdom’s own borders.
As for Syria, our TV screens tell us all we need to know of the suffering there. I was surprised to hear however, a senior parliamentary colleague in an interview, state that President Assad could have no rational motive in launching a chemical attack at this stage in the war, attracting such international condemnation, when otherwise everything was going his way.
That Assad was indeed responsible, was proved beyond doubt, when he piped-up to insist that the whole incident had been completely faked (despite respected journalist witness accounts, and – even more surprisingly – contradicting the Russian carefully crafted cover story that it was the result of a rebel chemical weapons factory).
To suggest that Assad was without motive, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his regime. The Assads share a great deal in common with the Kim dynasty of North Korea: their purpose is the same; to terrorise their subjects into submission by demonstrating that they will stop at absolutely nothing.
To suggest, as I have, that next week we will still be here and the world won’t have changed very much, is not necessarily a good thing. We should always count our blessings that we can do normal stuff like mow the lawn and wash the car. For so many of our fellow citizens of the world, ordinary every-day life is very different – and we’ve only considered just two of the world’s grizzliest places.
Gassing of Khan Sheikhoun
After the ghastly scenes from the deployment of sarin nerve agent by the Assad regime in rebel held Idlib, and before the USA response with 59 tomahawk cruise missiles, I received a flurry of emails from constituents demanding that ‘something be done’.
I reply by asking my correspondents to give me a clearer idea of what he or she thinks that ‘something’ ought to be.
We already apply sanctions, asset freezes, and we have withdrawn diplomatic relations. Is there really an appetite to get even more involved in another conflict in that deeply troubled region?
I hope so, but I have not yet detected it.
In my response to the emails I pointed out that the key moment of our failure came in August 2013 when Assad previously used chemical weapons, crossing President Obama’s declared ‘red line’. Instead of taking the threatened punitive action, neither the USA nor the UK did so. Indeed, in Parliament we voted down the Government’s request to take action: we chose explicitly to do nothing. Inaction can have dreadful consequences as the children and parents of Khan Sheikhoun have now discovered.
In 2013 Russia, though involved, had not deployed its own forces to any great extent, so our freedom to respond militarily would have been much greater than it is now, when the risk of a clash with Russia is so much greater. Of course I said that two days before President Trump did take the risk of responding militarily, it is far too soon to tell what the consequences will be.
To be fair, I think our biggest misjudgement came much earlier than August 2013. Our failure was at the very outset of the rebellion in 2011, through our refusal to arm the Free Syrian Army. We supported its objectives but we sent it only medical supplies and radios. The consequence was, as a fighting force, it was completely overtaken by the vastly better armed and financed Islamist militias.
Russia’s initial response to the US military action has to be to condemn it as an ‘act of aggression against a sovereign state contrary to international law’.
This doctrine that sovereign states can act with complete impunity within their own borders goes back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the 30 years war in Europe. Russia may still adhere to it, but the rest of the civilised world has moved on: Chapter VII of the UN Charter allows action to be taken in the interests of international peace and security.
The carnage and suffering in Syria has now lasted longer than the Second World War, and with profound and destabilising consequences for Europe. Something has to be done to bring it to an end –but what?