The events in Syria are distressing. The pictures and reports of an alleged chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians with hundreds of dead and thousands suffering horrifying symptoms is alarming.
The news footage is deeply disturbing and upsetting. It is natural to want to punish whoever did this – to demonstrate that the civilised world will not stand idly by while people are gassed indiscriminately.
But because we are a civilised nation we need to stay calm, step back and establish what really happened. We need a thorough investigation and we need the facts. Not the ones that fit what we want to think or those that suit an agenda. Every right-minded person feels revulsion at this attack but we must address a number of big issues before we can decide on an appropriate response.
First, the current evidence does point to this being a chemical weapons attack. But we do not know this for a fact yet. We have experts on the ground in Syria – UN weapons inspectors are there and are no doubt incredibly keen to establish exactly what occurred. We need to let them do their job – as far as they can. We must make a judgement based on their findings which should be available a few days from now.
Second, if it was a chemical attack we need to be absolutely sure about who was responsible. Was it the Assad regime? Was it an accident? Was it a plot by others to seek a Western response? I am concerned that we might bypass the confirmation and UN Security Council stages and go straight to the military response stage. Over the last few days, publicly at least, we appear to have gone straight from footage of the attack to suggestions of missile strikes on the Assad regime. So the news that the UK is to follow due process and seek a UN Security Council resolution is encouraging. The resolution must be narrowly focussed on issues of chemical weapons rather than a broader mandate that might enable widespread military engagement at this stage.
Third, the British people have absolutely no appetite for being unnecessarily dragged into yet another Middle Eastern conflict – they just don’t want us to get involved. I am with them. As a law-abiding and responsible nation we should fulfil any obligations we have under international conventions covering chemical weapons. But we must contemplate action only once we know the full facts and with the agreement of the UN.
The Iraq war is still fresh in people’s memories. We were told then that Saddam had WMDs – and we believed it. We were wrong. This time we need to be absolutely sure. As far as possible the evidence will need to be presented to Parliament and made public. Then we need to go back to the UN and persuade others – if we have the evidence then this should not be difficult. Whatever we decide to do should be supported by international law and it must be a joint undertaking with many other nations – not just the US and France.
Hard though it may be when we see the footage of the attack, it is the job of governments and leaders to be calm and fully assess all the evidence before seeking a mandate for action which will result in yet more deaths and injuries.
If the Coalition Government is set on action today, then it will need to persuade the British people that it is right; that their evidence is sound and their response proportionate. If in time, as with Iraq, their lack of sound evidence becomes clear; if it becomes apparent that they misled us or did not wait to hear the full facts, then no one will forgive them.
It is right that we debate the evidence and consider what kind of response is required. But I believe it is premature to mandate actions or conduct UK military strikes against Syria before the investigations are complete. I could not lead our country into conflict on the basis of what we know today.
Adam Afriyie is the MP for WindsorTags: chemical weapons, Middle East, Syria, UN Security Council