By Richard Mather…
It is bitterly ironic that the UK will not take part in any military action against the Assad regime. For months British Prime Minister David Cameron has led the charge against the Syrian despot while President Obama stayed in the shadows and dithered. But now, following a devastating defeat in the House of Commons, Cameron’s plan to take military action in Syria has been halted.
A total of 285 MPs voted a government motion to join US strikes against the Syrian regime. Not surprisingly, Russia, which is a close ally of the Assad government, welcomed the result. Much of the blame for Cameron’s defeat can be attributed to the Labour Party, which withdrew its support at the last minute. Labour leader Ed Miliband had previously signaled he would support military intervention in Syria but then changed his mind despite assurances from the prime minister. This is embarrassing for Cameron. The last time Labour failed to support Conservative plans for a deployment of the armed forces was the Suez crisis of 1956.
Blame should also be apportioned to the 30 Conservative MPs who defied their leader by voting against military action. Some of the Conservative rebels put forward the argument that the West was better off with Assad than the revolutionaries. Others cited the mistakes of the Iraq War.
And there is also the question of why the US withheld important evidence from the UK government. We now know that the chemical attack in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus killed 1,429 people. We also have American assurances that the rockets came from regime-controlled areas and landed only in opposition-held areas. For some unexplained reason, the US did not share this information with Britain before the crucial vote in the House of Commons.
So Britain, which is usually an erstwhile ally of the Americans, is now out of the picture. Instead, France looks set to play the junior partner in an American-led attack on Syria. France famously opposed the Iraq war but in recent months it has toughened its stance – first against the Islamists insurgents in Mali, then in Libya and now in Syria. In a televised speech, John Kerry referred to France as “our oldest ally.” He made no mention of Britain. How things have changed since 2003.
Yes, Britain is bruised by the Iraq experience. But the failure to unite behind the prime minister at such a crucial time will only embolden rogue regimes to use weapons of mass destruction against their own people and against the citizens of neighboring countries. Britain’s failure to act sends a clear message to Iran and Hezbollah that the use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear or chemical) is permissible.
And if British politicians can’t muster the enthusiasm to help the Arabs, they are less likely to come to the aid of the Jews in the event of an Iranian attack on Israel. Judging by the anti-Israel comments made by some left-wing MPs before and during the Syria debate, I suspect a few British politicians would be quite glad if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.
The defeat in the Commons is not just a political failure, it is a moral failure. Protecting innocent people from brutal oppression should be the “first commandment of a moral politics” (Jonathan Powell, former aide to Tony Blair). British MPs like to talk about human rights (especially when it involves the Palestinians) but when it comes to helping the women and children of Syria, who are genuine victims of violence, the same politicians retreat into isolationism or hide behind the niceties of international law.
I cannot agree with Labour leader Ed Miliband when he says that “’Britain is learning the lessons of our past, including the lessons of Iraq.” This is rhetorical posturing. Learning lessons of the past is an ongoing process. There is no cut-off point when we can finally say we have learnt all the lessons of the past. Besides, politicians are not historians but are paid to respond to events as they happen and construct policies accordingly. Miliband, like so many politicians in Britain, is stuck in the past, obsessed with Iraq and convinced that a UN resolution will fix Syria. But this is reactionary and naïve. It is the kind of thinking that enables Assad, as well as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, to act with impunity. In short, nothing ever gets done.
Judging from the headlines of newspapers across the globe, Britain’s moral failure has shocked the world (and provided succor to Assad). But Cameron insists that Britain can still play its part. “There are a series of things we will continue to do,” he said after the vote. “We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organizations we are members of – whether the EU, or NATO, or the G8 or the G20 – to condemn what’s happened in Syria. It’s important we uphold the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons.”
But without a mandate from the British parliament and with staunch opposition from anti-interventionists in the political establishment, the prime minister’s words are hollow. Britain hasn’t been a major player on the world stage since the Suez crisis, although it has succeeded in punching above its weight thanks to close ties with the US. But despite Cameron’s best efforts, the pretense is over. The UK is a second-rate power that cannot even muster the strength or the enthusiasm to help the victims of a vicious regime that gases its own citizens.