Julian Lewis was a Shadow Defence Minister between 2002 and 2010 and is MP for New Forest East
Asked about arming the Syrian opposition this week, David Cameron reminded the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions of his record of “making sure that Parliament is recalled to discuss important issues”. This is the closest he has come to promising a vote on the matter, but he would be wise to make it explicit.
Intervention in this dreadful civil war would be fraught with danger. Consider four facts:
First, there is a stock of deadly nerve gas, believed to be sarin, under Assad’s control – where it poses little danger to the West.
Secondly, it is our overriding priority to keep mass-destruction weapons (like sarin nerve gas) out of Al-Qaeda’s hands.
Thirdly, according to the Foreign Secretary, Al-Qaeda have several thousand jihadis fighting alongside the opposition to Assad.
Finally, if Assad falls, his WMD arsenal will be seized by the opposition forces.
At home the political context is equally complicated for those favouring the supply of arms. The Labour Party is rightly reluctant to support British interference in this snakepit. Those Liberal Democrats outside the government are likely to oppose it too; and many Conservative backbenchers are seriously alarmed at the British and French narratives tiptoeing towards involvement.
A vote to arm the Syrian opposition would struggle to pass in Parliament. Yet that is no excuse for arming the rebels behind Parliament’s back. As someone who usually supports military intervention against dictatorships, I have watched, with growing anxiety, naive and premature Western joy at the fall of secular dictators in the Middle East and their replacement by fundamentalist regimes committed to Islamism.
Despite the ‘Arab Spring’ terminology, there is no parallel between the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Prague experiment of 1968 – let alone the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is against our interests to assist the side on which Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are fighting. Our position of demanding a ‘peaceful transition’ is a contradiction in terms: the only prospect of a peaceful outcome is to work with others to impose a ceasefire. Any insistence on transition – i.e. handing over Syria to the opposition – is certain to be bloody.
We are asked to believe that arming the ‘moderate’ rebels will reduce the prospect of the extremist rebels coming out on top. What sort of weapons could we supply which would yield such a desirable result? How would we deliver them? How would the recipients be trained to operate them? And how could we influence the outcome without directly involving our Service personnel? The ‘no-fly zone’ in Libya soon revealed itself to be an all-out aerial offensive by the West in close co-ordination with the rebel forces there.
As someone who deplored our failure to arm the Bosnian Muslims when they were being massacred, I respect David Cameron’s wish not to stand idly by while something just as horrible happens in Syria. Yet, in the case of Bosnia, there were no terrorist enemies fighting on the side of the people we ought to have helped. Nor were there nerve gas stockpiles which our enemies might seize. And, when the situation was finally resolved, it needed direct military intervention on the ground.
There is no appetite at all for British military intervention in Syria. Parliament is not being obtuse by reflecting public opposition to a dangerous policy. We must put aside West Wing fantasies about toppling dictators and recognise the existence of evil forces on both sides of this atrocious conflict. To assist our enemies to obtain sarin nerve gas would be suicidal. To bypass Parliament by refusing a vote would be intolerable. To do so during the Recess would be unforgiveable.
Let us hope David Cameron is getting the message.