British military intervention in Syria will solve nothing

12 Oct 2015
Since the summer there has been a steady drumbeat in Westminster as David Cameron prepares for military intervention in Syria. First we heard about British pilots embedded with allied forces, then there was the use of drones. Now we hear that 50 Labour MPs are willing to vote for military action.

It is of course wrapped up as part of a humanitarian effort. The trouble is that parliament has been here before. All recent British military interventions in the region have had a humanitarian aspect. But nobody now argues that they were successful overall. And it is entirely disingenuous to argue for military action alongside a diplomatic and humanitarian action, as if they are inextricably linked. The British public and many Tory MPs remain deeply sceptical about military action.

British military intervention in Syria will solve nothing. Nobody knows whether the proposed “safe havens” would actually work. Notably they did not prevent thousands of Bosnian Muslims being slaughtered in Srebrenica. And Putin coming in on the side of Assad makes the situation even more fraught and the proposed military action even more dubious. As Nick Witney has pointed out: “The year-long US air campaign against Islamic State (Isis) in Syria is now widely acknowledged to have had remarkably little impact – beyond strengthening that organisation’s narrative of oppression by ‘crusaders’, and therefore its recruiting appeal. The idea that a few additional British bombs will make any difference is absurd.”

So the question is why so many MPs are apparently prepared to vote for military action. Obviously the horrific scenes of brutality and suffering we have seen on our screens, together with the Syrian refugee crisis, have given rise to that siren call “something must be done”. But that “something” is not necessarily British military action. On the question of refugees, it is far more important to get other EU powers to match our spending on the Syrian refugee camps and play our full part (including taking our quota) in resettling refugees who have made it to western Europe. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

But we also need redoubled activity on the diplomatic front. The regional powers, including Iran, must be made to step up to their responsibilities in both genuinely opposing Isis and playing their part in negotiating a sustainable peace. Some have paid lip service, but that is no longer enough. And we must cut the flows of arms and money going to Isis.

If some MPs are intent on military action, surely their first step should be to pressure Cameron to obtain some kind of UN resolution? If he tries and fails that is one thing. But it is surprising that so many MPs, of whatever party, are happy to contemplate a further British military adventure without even an attempt to obtain such a mandate. Last month Labour party conference debated and agreed to the terms on which it would support UK military action in Syria. Those terms included authorisation from the United Nations. Cameron has yet to make a military case for bombing. MPs of all parties will be well advised to hear what he actually has to say before committing themselves to yet another ill-fated military intervention in the Middle East.

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