Tuesday 27 August 2013

What should we do about Syria?

The following is the text of a letter which Philip Grant sent jointly to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary on 27 August, and which is produced here as a “guest blog” so that other readers can express their own views, if they wish to do so. As Parliament has been recalled to discuss Syria, Philip also copied it to Barry Gardiner MP, with the message: ‘I hope that, on this issue, you will not repeat the error of judgement you made in 2003 in supporting British military action in Iraq.’
Dear Mr Cameron and Mr Hague,

Why Britain should not take military action over Syria

I am writing to ask you to reconsider the action which several recent public statements and media reports suggest that you are about to commit this country to taking. Like you, I am appalled by the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria, particularly against civilians, but the use by Britain and/or its allies of military action in this conflict will not solve Syria’s problems, and is more likely to make matters in the Middle East worse rather than better.

The current situation in Syria is, like all armed conflicts, terrible for the people caught up in it, but it is a civil war, and does not directly involve, or threaten, the United Kingdom. Like all such conflicts, atrocities have occurred, and have probably been committed by groups on both sides. Civil wars are awful events and take a long time to heal, but they have to be resolved by the people of the countries that they affect. England’s own eight year civil war in the 1640’s was followed by more than ten years of discord and dictatorship, before the return of the monarchy and parliamentary government. The Ottoman Empire did not get involved in our civil war, and there was no reason why it should – it was a long distance away, and our conflict had nothing to do with a country in the eastern Mediterranean. Although there are much better communications in the 21st century than in the 17th, the principle is still the same.

Have our involvement in the Iraq war from 2003, in Afghanistan since 2001 and more recently in the Libyan civil conflict, meant that those countries now enjoy peace, stability and democracy? The honest answer is “No”. Not only that, our own and the US’s military involvement in those countries has seen the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, some as a direct result of high-tech weapons being directed at the “wrong” targets, or even worse, because of deliberate action by over-zealous service personnel. There is no way that our military involvement in the Syrian conflict would not cause more unnecessary deaths.

This country was wrong, and in breach of international law, to attack Iraq without the full approval of the United Nations in 2003. It would be equally wrong to get involved, with allies but again without a clear resolution approved by the UN Security Council, in any military action against the Assad government or any other group in Syria. That approval will not be forthcoming, because of the “checks and balances” built into the UN system. Those “balances” are not a bad thing, because one country engaging in military action against another sovereign country which is not at war with it is something which the international community rightly wishes to avoid, unless there is absolutely no alternative.

I am sure you feel that Britain has to do something, and I agree. It should continue to speak out against any atrocities, and support all efforts to get them properly investigated, so that whoever commits them can be brought before a proper court in due course, either within Syria or at the international court, to be tried for their crimes. It should do everything it can to support humanitarian work to help those affected by the conflict, both refugees in neighbouring countries and, where possible, those displaced and suffering within Syria. It should encourage all sides to cease fighting and try to resolve their differences by discussion and agreement, for the sake of their own fellow Syrians.

What Britain should not do is to use any of its weapons and armed forces, or to support or encourage others to use theirs, to attack any targets within Syria. If we were to go down that road, where would it stop? Assume that the US navy (and our own?) were to fire several hundred cruise missiles at so-called military targets in Syria. Damage would be done, people would be killed, but would that make the various sides in the civil war stop fighting? And if it did not, what action would “the allies” take next? How many more people would die, and how long would we continue to take such action, before this extra destruction ended? 

What damage would also be done to Britain’s relations with other countries around the world, and what further instability and conflict might such action trigger in the Middle East?

Please listen to this common sense advice from an ordinary British citizen and voter, and resist the temptation to take “the military option”.

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