Syria: Questions and Dilemmas for MPs

• To punish or deter?
• Military chiefs warn of dangers ahead
• Western credibility at stake

Is moral outrage, however genuine, a sensible trigger for military strikes?

What is remarkable in this crisis, in part a conflict between principle and pragmatism, is the extreme caution expressed by former military commanders — and almost certainly in private by existing ones.

Their fingers have been burnt by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Alan West, former first sea lord and Labour security minister, warned on Wednesday of the dangers of military action. Politicians, he warned on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, cannot control military events.

(In a significant and intriguing aside, West said he regretted the way British troops were sent into Helmand in 2006 — he could not say so publicly at the time since he was in office).

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his circle, should not get away with impunity, ministers say. But what would be the effect of military strikes?

The Liberal Democrat elder statesman, Sir Menzies Campbell, has warned of “unintended consequences” as well as unexplained objectives.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, spoke on Tuesday of “clear and achievable goals”.

But what would “a slap on the wrist” — West’s phrase — achieve?

Good question.

And whatever the US might fire at Syrian military bases, Britain’s contribution would essentially amount to a show of political support – in the shape of a handful or two Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from a Trafalgar class submarine or long-range “stand off” missiles from a Tornado jet.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg insist it is not a question of “regime change”.

Cameron said on Tuesday: “This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war, or changing our stance in Syria, or going further into that conflict. It’s nothing to do with that. It’s about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”

The ghost of the Iraq invasion is never far away. At the time of writing, US officials were promising to release evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack. It has to be credible and convincing. We will see.

Cameron’s decision on Wednesday to try the UN route again is reminiscent of Tony Blair’s attempts before the invasion of Iraq.

He seems confident that international law- an elastic concept at the best of times — will give him enough room for manoeuvre without a new UN security council resolution.

Patricia Lewis, Research Director, International Security, Chatham House, says: “Syria may not be party to the global Chemical Weapons Convention but it is a member of the long-established 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical weapons in conflict; all countries that are party to these treaties – including Russia and China – have an obligation to enforce their provisions and act in the case of their breach.

“Equally important is the prevention of further chemical attacks. If no effective – not necessarily military – action is taken, then there are likely to be more chemical attacks. The …read more  

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