Syria and an Ethical Foreign Policy

by: Alex Sobel MP on 14.04.18 | In: General
by: Alex Sobel MP on: 14.04.18 in: General

The decision to commit British Forces to, and the potential consequences of, military action in terms of civilian deaths and escalation of the Syrian conflict weigh heavily when considering what is best.

The situation isn’t about starting a war. There has been War in Syria for seven years and foreign powers, including the UK, have been involved in this multi-sided civil war particularly in terms of air strikes against the forces of Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist Jihadist Forces.

Evidence on Chemical Weapons

The use of Chemical Weapons is not new. On July 23, 2012 the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi confirmed for the first time that Syria has chemical weapons. In 2013 there were a number of allegations of Chemical attacks by Syrian Forces. The UN went on to investigate and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivered a report into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This concluded that chemical weapons were used on August 21 2013 on a “relatively large scale” and that the victims included civilians. The Russian government put forward a plan agreed by the UN Security Council for the OPCW to inspect and destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

In 2014 all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Regime were removed by the OPCW and this should have concluded the Syrian Regimes ownership and usage of Chemical Weapons.

On March 6, 2015 the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria’s civil war and threatening action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if chemical arms were used again.

The OPCW fact-finding team claimed with “the utmost confidence” that the Islamic State used sulfur mustard in an attack on August 21, 2015 in Marea, in northern Syria.

The OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism issued a report finding that the Syrian regime was responsible for a third attack using chlorine gas in Idlib province on March 16, 2015 after the Syrian Government had claimed to have given up all their chemical weapons.

In 2017 Chemical weapons were used in an attack that killed dozens of people in Syria’s northern Idlib province on April 4th. Initial reports suggest the attack used sarin gas, a nerve agent. The attack is believed to have been perpetrated by the Syrian government, due to the type of aircraft in the area at the time. The OPCW announced that it would investigate the reports. Syria denied it was responsible. The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the chemical weapons attack in Idlib.  On April 6, The United States used Tomahawk cruise missiles to target an air base in Syria. The US believed the Assad regime to have conducted the April 4 chemical weapons attack from that base. The OPCW said there was “incontrovertible” evidence that the April 4 attacks used sarin or a sarin-like substance.

The evidence gathered and presented by the OPCW shows that the Syrian Government after admitting it had a stockpile of Chemical Weapons and having agreed to destroy them all, in fact kept back or continued to manufacture and then use chemical weapons on a number of occasions. Russia’s intervention and their contribution to keeping Assad within international law has failed on its own terms.

The Cook Doctrine

When making decisions on military action, I am guided by Robin Cook and his approach to having an ethical foreign policy. Cook’s speech opposing Military action in Iraq on the 18th March 2003 is possibly the greatest speech made this Century. We could do with his guidance now but his words of that day are still with us.

Many of the points he made that day are as prescient then as now.

The threshold for war should always be high.’

This still stands and Theresa May has failed to set out a case to Parliament or the country before committing military action against the Syrian government as opposed to IS, Al-Nusra Front or other Islamist Jihadist groups.

‘I welcome the strong personal commitment that the prime minister has given to middle east peace, but Britain’s positive role in the middle east does not redress the strong sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world at what it sees as one rule for the allies of the US and another rule for the rest.

Nor is our credibility helped by the appearance that our partners in Washington are less interested in disarmament than they are in regime change in Iraq.’

This could equally apply to Syria today

From the start of the present crisis, I have insisted, as Leader of the House, on the right of this place to vote on whether Britain should go to war.’

The vote that day set the precedent that Parliament should have a vote prior to new military action.

However, some points are different.

‘It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.’

The UN Security Council resolution of 6th March 2015 still stands and it is clear that if further chemical weapons attacks occur, then action up to and including military action can be taken.

‘For four years as Foreign Secretary I was partly responsible for the western strategy of containment.’

Saddam Hussein was contained as there was a no-fly zone in operation, the Kurds were operating semi-independently and there was no war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was undoubtedly a brutal dictator but operating in a peacetime environment. Assad is not contained, there is no restriction on Syrian Military jets in place and the chemical attacks show Assad is not contained in anyway.

‘Why is it necessary to resort to war this week, while Saddam’s ambition to complete his weapons programme is blocked by the presence of UN inspectors?’

Assad has clearly been hiding Chemical Weapons from OPCW inspectors and has made use of them after claiming their disposal.

Reaction to Theresa May’s action and what next

The crux of the matter is the question of how we stop chemical weapons attacks and stockpiles particularly by the Syrian regime but also by IS or other groups.

In the longer term, the question is how can we find a political solution to the complex civil war in Syria?

Any proposal for military action on the Syrian regime as a lesson or response to chemical weapons attacks which doesn’t put an end to the regime’s ability to produce or use its current stockpile of Chemical Weapons is outside the scope of the UN Resolution and does nothing to stop future chemical weapons attacks. Theresa May hasn’t shown that this strike does anything to put chemical weapons beyond use; action without a plan is gesture politics.

The lack of a credible plan is compounded by the lack of a Parliamentary debate (and similar in Congress and National Assembly) followed by a vote. Theresa’s May’s actions are now hers and not Parliament’s. There is no show of political support, which is a necessary pre-cursor to military action in a modern democracy. The mandate given in 2015 has only been used against Islamist jihadist groups and not against the Syrian regime. The US have a history of attacking the regime but the UK has none. Jeremy Corbyn from the start has upheld this part of the Cook Doctrine, but ‘an ethical foreign policy does not stop at non-intervention’. It means safeguarding civilians as world citizens and people without a means to defend themselves. And that means upholding international law with international and Parliamentary sanction.

The use of Security Council members to block UN and OPCW investigators having a wider mandate (as happened last week at the Security Council) on chemical weapons investigations in Syria is unacceptable. Without proper answers to what happened, what was used and where the weapons originated a solution cannot be found.

This creates an impasse. OPCW investigators are in Douma and if they find that chemical weapons were used and credible intelligence shows the source and manufacturing capacity of these weapons then the Syrian Government must put these facilities out of commission and steps must be taken to protect this civilian population.

The most urgent foreign policy aim must be the establishment of a No-Fly Zone right across Syria which would protect both civilians from chemical attacks and also the Kurdish population from Turkish airstrikes which are happening on a daily basis in Afrin. I hope that the UK can turn its mind to this aim in the UN Security Council and is certainly one of the things I will be calling for the Government to do.

Decisions about military action are never easy. We cannot wash our hands of our responsibility to the citizens of Syria, or our humanitarian obligations to ensure that chemical weapons use is punished to the extent that they are never used again. Cook’s legacy is not one of inaction, but of understanding how to approach questions of action. It will be in taking this ethical and long-term approach that we will do the best for the people of Syria, and it will be this I will be holding Theresa May to account for.


  • The remit of the OPCW inspectors does not include the assignment of responsibility for any use of chemical weapons it finds. Russia blocked a resolution that would have created such a remit. So, any evidence the inspectors found, would effectively be kicked into the proverbial long grass. Cook’s doctrine such as it is therefore comes into effect: is there a humanitarian case for intervention ? Cook believed there was in Kosovo (and a number of cases) and it is hard to imagine that he would take a different position in respect of the threat to the civilian population of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Just because we are very limited in what we can do in Syria does not mean that we should do nothing. Finally, it should be noted that the British Government has not justified its action with reference to the chemical weapons’ convention in respect of its enforcement, but to protect the Syrian people from being further subjected to the use of such weapons. Should parliament have been convened to give the action additional authority ? Ideally yes, but there are occasions when the executive branch of Goverment has to be afforded the discretion to take action in urgent cases, particularly when such actions are part of a joint effort.

  • The truth is that May had to agree to the strikes as a quid pro quo for the support of Macron and Trump over the Salisbury incident.

    It would be better if May and Johnson and anyone else that supports the strikes (or at least doesn’t oppose them) simply comes out and says that.

    In my mind, invoking Robin Cook on Iraq is pointless. Syria is very different. It’s a weird proxy war between political Islamic variants of Saudi Arabia and Iran, with allies of each weighing in on their chosen side. The UK and US always back Saudi Arabia; so our government prefers the rebels to Assad. It’s a tough choice between two different strains of near fascist Islamism. The rebels are very close to IS but Assad is ruthless.

    I support neither. The realist in me says that since Assad will win anyway then better not to prolong the war by backing his opponents. Deal with Assad once he stops killing Syrians.

    However was I in parliament, the obvious question to ask the prime minister seems to be: “why does using chemical weapons on UK soil warrant only the expulsion of diplomats as a response, while using them in Syria warrants air strikes?” The obvious answer is that we don’t want a war with Russia, but we’re happy to kill some more Syrian civilians if our allies want that.

    Corbyn’s healthy scepticism and reflex anti-war stance has proved to be correct so far. The real reason the prime minister refused to debate this in parliament first was that she cannot stand to have Corbyn be right again.

  • The situation in Syria is so unbelievably complicated even Robin Cook would find it hard to make a case for any faction or side. We need to revert to his key maxim ie Is it right? Will it help and the war and the misery?

    The answer is a resounding No. I do not understand why killing people with barrel bombs or similar is somehow less morally repugnant than gassing them. Its the same argument about Hiroshima, ie 150k people killed by nuclear weapons is worse than 250k burned to death in Tokyo firestorms. Dead is dead.

    Sending in the RAF to drop a few more bombs does not help; it simply makes us part of the problem. It’s taking the easy way out; we cannot influence the outcome in Syria. What we can do is manage the humanitarian issues arising from it; we’re willing to drop bombs but we’re not willing to accept more refugees or pay for education etc. That needs to change.

    And just as an aside; Corbyn objects to any intervention on principle. That’s not moral leadership, that’s simply being stubborn. Fine if you’re an MP – not when you’re leading a party that would like to win an election at some point in the next 20 years.

  • I agree with Tim Mitchell.

    The time has passed now for military intervention – Russia has moved in and no-one is ready to take on Russia. British Govt policy now amounts to “If you use Chemical weapons we will bomb you, otherwise we will not get involved.”
    also “said sanctions would be used in the event of further aggression.” (against civilians).

    That is useful as far as it goes, but sanctions wont work and these measures will not prevent the looming massacre of millions of civilians in Idlib province who now have nowhere to go.

    The Syrian army is taking control of all the roads out of Idlib. Turkey has closed the border. The Russians are massing ships in the Mediterranean.

    We and other countries who have the capacity should do the humanitarian thing and agree to take 100,000 refugees into each country, from Idlib where 3 million civilians are trapped. They can be vetted to not be fighters for the terrorist groups. Then a safe exit corridor can be set up through Turkey to get the people out of there to safety.

    It is “not a good time” for us, but when it is a matter of saving hundreds of thousands of lives we should put aside our own inconveniences and step up.

    A million children need to be saved.

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