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We already apply sanctions, asset freezes, and we have withdrawn diplomatic relations.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?