Should there be an independent inquiry into the cost of doing nothing in Syria? That’s what MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee think in any case, as they publish a report today that looks at the consequences of parliament’s decision not to intervene in the conflict in 2013. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has already told MPs on that committee that an independent inquiry isn’t possible, but their report argues that ‘the government needs to understand the role the UK’s inaction has had and learn the lessons from it for the future’.
If a short inquiry and report can achieve this, the committee offers a grim preview of what such an inquiry might find, pointing to the 400,000 deaths and the mass exodus of 11 million Syrian people from their homes. It also reports the ‘confusion and concern’ caused by the differing responses to the use of chemical weapons and conventional weapons which nevertheless caused mass civilian deaths and casualties.
Highlighting the cost of inaction is an important step in changing the way intervention is generally debated in Westminster. One of the many dispiriting aspects of that 2013 debate was the way MPs continually referred to Bashar al-Assad as ‘Saddam’, so haunted were they by the intervention in Iraq. It meant that the debate didn’t look so much at the question of intervention vs inaction as it focused on the mistakes of interventions past. If MPs are more aware that doing nothing isn’t really as simple as it sounds, then future debates may be a little more considered.
That said, it doesn’t follow that there needs to be an independent inquiry into the decision. In fact, it is odd that Parliament is always so keen to farm these matters outside its walls. Select Committees could be the perfect forum for such investigations, if they had the right powers. The ability to subpoena witnesses, including ministers who have left government and indeed parliament long before the consequences of their decisions become clear, would beef them up, and greater resources in terms of staff would cost more – but still far less than the price of setting up a standalone independent inquiry.
Politicians might argue that it would be better to ‘take the politics out’ of such matters, but this firstly ignores the fact that politics is the business of getting things done for the people who elected you (rather than the petty partisanship that they are really referring to), and secondly fails to take into account the non-partisan culture of these committees already. Indeed, ‘taking the politics out’ is generally a smart way of dressing up politicians’ reluctance to take responsibility for something, which is arguably one of the factors behind the chronic chaos in Syria.