Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dilemmas over Syria

Over last few days, I've received several ever , most of them identical, pressing me to do something about the tragedy we've witnessed unfolding in Aleppo - almost as if we MPs have not been appalled by what we have ourselves witnessed over the last few years. For me to share a view, we need to cast our gaze backwards to get some grasp of background. And let this look back be over the three years I've had some personal involvement, rather than the thousand years that a student of Middle East history might want to look at. Let me start in summer 2013.

In August 2013, the then Prime Minister recalled MPs to Parliament in the summer recess. Like many others, I was expecting David Cameron to seek Parliamentary approval to attack the forces of Syrian President, Bashar-al-Assad, following strong evidence he had used poison gas on the civilian population of Syria. I left Montgomeryshire for London on the Monday of that week expecting to vote against my Government for the first time. There seemed little doubt that Bashar-al-Assad was an evil butcher, did not see how bombing Damascus would improve the position. Several other Conservative MPs must have made similar intentions clear to the party whips. When the Govt motion was eventually tabled, it condemned Assad, referred to the use of military force, but crucially included a requirement that there would have to be another vote of MPs to approve military action. It was a recognition that MPs were not ready to become involved in war in Syria. I was content to support that motion. But quite shockingly to me the motion was voted down. I thought it a terrible decision. When David Cameron stood up in the Chamber immediately after the vote was announced to say "He got it" - what the House had decided. There would be no action against Assad- end of discussion. I just sat in my seat feeling stunned. President Obama was also taken aback and after a telephone call to the Prime Minister also made clear he had no intention of launching a military strike without the UK. In effect, we walked away, telling Assad, Russia and Iran to do their worst. And they did their worst. Recent days in Aleppo may well have been (in my view) a consequence of the 2013 decision. I can be no more definite, because nothing is as it seems or predictable in the Middle East.

Over the last week there has been nothing that MPs could do, except say how shocked and appalled they were by the brutal slaughter, often of innocents, taking place in Aleppo. And we have been shocked. We have had calls for the UK to go in with food drops for besieged and starving people. But the reality is that the food parcel planes would have to go in low and slow, needing Russian/Syrian Govt permission to avoid them being shot down. Permission would have been refused.

The Syrian Civil War has probably been the worst displacement of people since World War Two. I'm not remotely well informed enough to know what would have been the right action for the UK to have taken in 2013 - or to take now. Not sure that anyone knows. But we did not properly discuss it. Bearing in mind the angst that I and many of my colleagues have experienced since that vote in Sept 2013, when Parliament walked away, allowing a brutal dictator to use poison gas on innocent people to get away with it, it's a bit much to receive a pile of emails informing me of the horrors of Aleppo as if it's new to me! It's wonderful news that a ceasefire has brought the slaughter of innocents to a sort of end today, however temporary is wonderful news. Let us pray it holds. It's not the end of this story though.

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