I am certain that Rehman was expressing his deeply held beliefs, but he should have been with me on my recent trip to Washington. On that week-long visit, spent mostly with Senators and Congressman on the Hill, I met nothing but relief that Britain’s Parliament had rescued both the UK and the US from a potentially destabilising, dangerous and embarrassing entanglement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Many knew that I had played a part in that decision, but this was not courtesy speaking, it was national and political interest.
One of the Republican Congressmen that I met put it rather sharply: “The old cliches don’t work any more. If you stick to authoritarian policies at home and aggression abroad, you won’t make it through the Primaries. Look at Liz Cheney.” Dick Cheney’s eldest daughter had just bailed out of a Senate primary race the previous week.
So we may have lost influence in the White House (although I doubt it), but we certainly lost nothing on the Hill. Indeed we may have gained a little respect for independent judgement.
As for the suggestion that we are being displaced as America’s ally by France, it is an idea that would be greeted with ribald laughter even by the most bellicose of Old Republicans.
Similarly, we should not pay too much uncritical attention to the public views of Saudi Arabia and its allies, unless we want to get seduced into the global civil war being waged between various elements of Sunni and Shia Islam. Neither would I accept that we should be influenced by prospective sales of Typhoon warplanes and other weapon systems. I have a constituency interest in the international sales of Hawk aircraft, but even I would not wage war in order to promote arms sales.
The proper assessment of our policy should not be based on the noises from the diplomatic circuit, from those disappointed that we had refused to use our reputation to legitimise another military misadventure, but on the hard facts. Those facts should be judged against three criteria: the safety of the Syrian people, the stability of the Middle East, and our direct national interest. And the reference point should not be the ideal of a perfect outcome, in which we end the war and deliver Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East, but on whether raining missiles on a few hundred poorly assessed targets would have made it better than it is now.
The situation is undoubtedly bad now, but it could have been much worse. Firstly, in attacking with a few hundred missiles we would undoubtedly have killed hundreds of conscripts and civilians. I doubt we would have killed one general or member of the Assad circle.
Secondly, we would have led the Iranians and Hezbollah to send more fighters into Syria in support of Assad.
Thirdly, we would have encouraged the Russians and Chinese to increase weapons supplies to Assad, no doubt to replace several times over everything our missiles had destroyed.
Fourthly, all these actions would have increased rather than decreased regional instability. It is possible that the spreading instability would have sucked the West further into the conflagration, possibly massively so. At the time of the debate some spoke of risking a Third World War. I think that that was probably an exaggeration, but I would not like to take the chance that it was not.
As it is, we are seeing reduction of Assad’s chemical stockpile, albeit at an agonisingly slow pace. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) claims that the June 30th “hard deadline” is still entirely feasible, but we have no way of knowing for sure. Nevertheless the process is under way, which it would not have been if we had attacked.
Similarly, Rehman makes much of the Iranian nuclear negotiation, and France’s role in toughening up the Geneva deal. He ignores the simple fact that there would be no deal at all had the attack gone ahead. No Iranian government would have been able to negotiate with the West under such circumstances.
The most hideous calculus of all, however, is the continuing misery that is happening in Syria. The exponents of Western military action have never laid out any remotely plausible explanation as to how an attack would have reduced the deaths that continue to blight the Syrian people. The truth of course is that it would have fed the fire, escalated the conflict even further, and increased the death rate.
That there have been setbacks in the peace negotiations is entirely unsurprising. Every single negotiation to end an ongoing war has had them, and they often last years. I recommend anybody interested in this to read the history of the Korean and Vietnam wars if they want to understand the flavour and dynamics of these sorts of negotiations. If anything, the Syrian war will be worse because it is a sectarian civil war, the very nastiest sort of conflict.
The lesson to be learned from these histories is that the conflicts end when (all) the warring parties learn that they have no prospect of further gains from military action. That means not just the parties on the ground, but also their external sponsors. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have been sponsoring some pretty nasty Islamist groups within Syria. Far from succumbing to their diplomatic pressures on us, we should be putting enormous pressure on them to exercise their power in the region to bring some of their clients into line. Otherwise there will be no chance of bringing the Assad regime to a negotiated end, and the only conclusion then will be a protracted fight to the death. That will almost certainly mean a genocidal conclusion that will dwarf even the hideous Yugoslavian pogroms.
So, far from supporting our Middle Eastern “allies”, we should be pressuring both sides’ sponsors – Iranian, Russian, Chinese, Saudi, Qatari and the rest – to force a negotiated outcome with more than just words.
The current situation is hideous, but it would have been much more hideous if Parliament had done what the government wanted,
Many of the thirty Tory MPs who voted against the Syrian attack, and the many others who abstained, previously voted for the Libyan intervention, so they were not little Englander pacifists. They made a difficult, conscience driven, carefully calculated decision, and I know for a fact that there were many in the government lobby who would have preferred to be with them. So the victory in the vote understated the victory in the debate.
History will judge that Parliament made absolutely the right decision last year, and in doing so saved many lives. The people of every single Western power have already reached that conclusion, and the principal real disagreement comes from the governments – like Saudi Arabia – who have a history of supporting extremist Islamist movements with little regard for the long term international consequences. Their displeasure is no reason at all to lose our national moral compass.