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Parliament got Syria right in 2013 – it deserves to vote again

As I’ve said before, but it needs saying again because these people never stop — the let’s-bomb-Syria brigade has never quite gotten over the horror of being rebuffed by Parliament in 2013. And this week, what with the latest reported use of chemical weapons by Assad in Syria, they’ve got their tails up again. We don’t need Parliamentary approval for military action, they say, and Parliament got it wrong last time so go go go!

George Osborne’s Evening Standard is adamant. So are Tom Tugendhat MP and Nick Boles MP. So is Johnny Mercer, who says that voting against military action is a ‘vanity vote’, which is itself a vain statement.

Their line of argument is all too familiar. Britain must be responsible for this newest atrocity, apparently, because Parliament didn’t agree to Cameron’s proposal for military action, which meant America got cold feet. So now those hideous images of people struggling to breathe should be a source of parliamentary and national shame. It’s our fault. And it’s Russia’s, of course, because they have brainwashed everybody into thinking that our politicians lie and talk rubbish about foreign policy.


Let’s put aside the (I think perfectly understandable) doubts that Assad actually ordered this latest strike. Let’s say that he is indeed a monster — because he almost certainly is  — who is regularly gassing innocents for psychopathic kicks, or because he wants to show the world he doesn’t care, even if that means inviting a military reaction. Surely then, he should be stopped. But how? What would we hope to achieve for Syria?

The reasons to doubt the wisdom of intervention are not just about past errors of Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan, though they do help form a good counter argument. It’s about the future. What do we want to do about Assad, ultimately? Topple him or just gesture against him to make it clear chemical weapons are a no-no? Who do we think might succeed Assad? Lovely Democrats? Or terrorists? We still shouldn’t automatically discount the possibility of the former. But the Syria hawks should think a bit harder about the very real possibility of the latter, and what that might mean for the suffering people they care about so much.

Westminster’s interventionists don’t like Putin, and fair enough. He too is almost certainly monster. Russia surely has committed lots of atrocities in the Middle East and is waging some sort of information war; its objectives are not just about killing terrorists. But does that mean British MPs should now encourage Donald Trump to rattle his country’s enormous sabre — as President Macron is doing?

When you talk to British politicians who regret the failure to attack Syria in 2013, and who now find themselves against their better instincts cheering on Donald Trump as he threatens to hit Assad (again), you sometimes get the impression of genuine remorse. But why? Even if there ever was a chance of an Arab Spring-like uprising of democrats against Assad, that window appeared shut by 2013.

Cameron and Osborne’s proposal for war back then was hurriedly presented, unclear in purpose. Parliament understandably said ‘slow down, we’re not quite sure’. That was not a failure of democracy. On the contrary, it was Parliament doing what it should — counter-balancing an over-eager executive that was in such a tearing hurry to act that it hadn’t quite thought things through. As the drums for war bang louder this week, we could do with more of that caution.

The problem perhaps is that our more centrist politicians, Labour and Tory, have found life difficult at home in recent years, so now they go looking for things to make them feel heroic abroad. Except they don’t go; others have to fight, not them. That’s what makes the public really angry. And Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for Parliament to have a vote on any military action in Syria, becomes more popular.


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