August 30, 2013
Last night, the Commons debated and was asked to vote on a motion, pasted below in full, concerning Syria.
At the beginning of the week, it had appeared that the Commons would be asked whether or not to condone military action in Syria by the UK, something I would not have supported the government on. I suggested this would be the case to constituents who wrote to me on Wednesday or earlier.
However political developments on Wednesday evening, widely reported in the media, changed things. It was clear that a motion explicitly condoning UK military action in Syria was unlikely to be able to command a majority in parliament.
As a result, a different motion was put forward (below), a motion that took into account the serious concerns that I and other parliamentary colleagues had expressed about British military involvement in Syria and removed a number of controversial elements. The motion included, absolutely crucially, the assurance that there would be a second vote in parliament before any military action was taken and an emphasis on securing consensus through the UN.
The only remaining controversial element of what became a relatively uncontroversial motion was the opening statement on the ‘use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime’. I am a member of parliament’s Intelligence & Security Committee and had been advised that the intelligence supporting that position was pretty robust. Having obtained 90% of the concessions I had been looking for, therefore, I was beginning to take the view that the government’s new motion could be supported.
I then discussed the vote with the whips. I made absolutely clear that while I would be willing to support the motion that had put been forward, I would not support the government in a second vote condoning air strikes. I was told it was highly unlikely the matter would go to a second vote.
It therefore came as a shock that the government was unable to command a majority on the motion put to the Commons last night given the number of concessions that had been made. I do have serious concerns about the implications of what has happened, particularly in terms of Britain’s international standing and place in the world.
I touched upon those concerns in an article I posted on my website earlier this week. http://markfieldmp.com/news-a-articles/the-complexity-of-locating-britains-national-interest-in-the-middle-east/
Nevertheless, for those who are not aware, I have always had serious reservations about Britain’s deepening involvement in the Syrian crisis, as I have advised constituents who have written to me this week.
The Middle East is a staggeringly complex place. To view the region through Western eyes is to quickly find oneself dragged into a dense nest of historical animosities and religio-ethnic tensions that defies our understanding. Add to the mix the pernicious influence of money and meddling outsiders, and the breathtaking violence we have seen in Syria, and you have the perfect foreign policy challenge. In this sense, I have had enormous sympathy for the Prime Minister in trying to find the best way forward following the deployment of chemical weapons in Syria.
From the outset, however, I had been incredibly sceptical about British involvement in Syria. I made that scepticism public, notably in a piece I wrote for the Daily Telegraph which set out the reasons why I believed the UK should not get embroiled in the situation. It was written at the time when we were considering arming the rebels so focuses on that particular debate.
At that juncture my colleague, Andrew Bridgen, gathered signatures (mine among them) for an approach to the Prime Minister, calling upon him to guarantee parliament a vote before any British involvement in arming the rebels.
Turning to the events of the last seven days, I was deeply fearful that the consensus that had appeared to develop over the weekend around the notion of a quick, surgical strike against the Assad regime, risked the worst of all worlds. I maintain that a quick rap over the knuckles for the Syrian dictator is highly unlikely to dislodge him or bring hostilities to a more rapid conclusion. It would simply draw in the West as an additional player in a complex bun fight of interests underway, without any clear goal or exit strategy.
Tony Blair weighed into the debate earlier this week, imploring British action. We should be reminded that he views all conflict in the Middle East through the prism of his passionately-held view that we are the midst of a clash of civilisations that can be won only if clear moral standards are set out and adhered to. He is one of many people mistakenly trying to distil what is happening in Syria into a battle of good and evil, right and wrong, tolerable and intolerable. The truth is, as I suggest in the Telegraph article, the complexity of the situation defies such neat categorisation.
As pictures of body bags are beamed to us, it had seemed crass to put the British national interest front and centre in this debate. But it is what I felt David Cameron had to do. There was no convincing route available to him that could stem the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding or any clear benefit to the UK of involving ourselves further in this bloody quagmire.
Regardless, there are no winners from this sorry episode – apart from, perhaps, the authority of parliament.
That this House:
• Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians;
• Recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;
• Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;
• Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
• Notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity, and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
• Notes the wide international support for such a response, including the statement from the United Nations Security Council, to “overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible”;
• Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action;
• Therefore welcomes the work of the United Nations investigating team currently in Damascus, and whilst noting that the team’s mandate is to confirm whether chemical weapons were used and not to apportion blame, agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission;
• Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place; and
• notes that this Resolution 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.