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The Vote on Syria Today Presents Us With a False Dichotomy

The Houses of Parliament at night
The Houses of Parliament at night • Photograph: Victoria Kettlewell

Today’s recall of parliament reveals Cameron and Obama’s deep want for imminent attacks in Syria, in response to the alleged use of chemical attacks by the Assad regime on its citizens in recent times.

However, the debate uses a false dichotomy, presenting the options of military intervention or to sit back and watch as black and white. These are not in fact the only options available to us as a country and there are further choices we can make to act in a moral manner.

Cameron used a speech which he did not intend to use and, as such, his rhetoric seemed forceful, defensive and led by his own briefing. His body behaviour, too, demonstrated a deep desire to come across as in charge of the debate, as his decisions were undermined by his own party members, other members of the house and public opinion. Deafening his ears to criticism that he brought the house back for a pointless debate, Cameron set out his argument for the motion and military intervention, citing the Joint Intelligence Committee’s report that it was ‘highly likely’ that the Assad regime were those responsible for the attack. However, he had to concede that this motion was based on a judgement, not evidence, and therefore that there was no 100% certainty about it. He dodged questions asking how an attack on Syria would actually deter a dictator, who has already showed a lack of shame and worry, from continuing to use chemical weapons. Driven by the legacy of the Iraq War, Cameron refuted any claim that an attack in Syria would be similar, saying there would be no troops on the ground, and no attempt at regime change. As members around the house quizzed him on his statement, Cameron maintained his claim that ‘if nothing is done, we’re more likely to see chemical weapons used’ and, strangely, argued that there was no need to look at evidence throughout.

Cameron’s speech was seen widely as relatively weak and as reluctantly sticking to a brief, with many speculating that there was still a want to launch an attack soon. What was clear from Cameron’s speech, though, was that he was certain that the conclusions of the JIC and the US were enough to launch a unilateral intervention without the approval of the UN Security Council.

Miliband presented a far more heartfelt, solemn and emotional response to the motion as he tabled Labour’s amendment, which included a requirement to hear the results of the UN tests, and that there be compelling evidence for the case. Despite a difficult staff, Miliband commanded a well-thought-out speech, but still presented one side of the dichotomy, refusing the idea that anything other than military intervention is viable, simply stating that we needed to be ‘clear-eyed’ before heading into war. Labour are not ruling out military intervention. Although he demonstrated far greater understanding of the real priority of such an intervention, Miliband failed to take notice of the fact that a diplomatic peace-keeping solution poses far less risks to life than military intervention of any sort. What did ring true though is that Miliband seemed more in touch with the Conservative Party than Cameron was, demonstrating the deep dissatisfaction from Tory MPs with Cameron’s original war intentions.

‘Evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence’ proclaimed Miliband to choruses of support, over some members complaining about the delay in response. Any response should be time-limited, have clear objectives and a legal course and for that the UN should not be seen as simply as an inconvenience, he stated. Yet, Miliband’s speech, despite proving better than Cameron’s, seemed just a bid to follow the appropriate course, and avoid a repeat of the Iraq war. The cynics among us will argue that this is a result of wanting distance from Blair and Iraq or wanting to shine on the good side of the argument, playing to his party’s and the population’s concerns. But a hidden message was made apparent; even if the UN Security Council do not approve military action, the Labour party would be prepared to commit to it anyway.

It comes of no surprise that Nick Clegg did not make a statement, but his party members were particularly vocal, with many sympathetic to Labour’s amendment, or the amendment, not discussed, tabled by Caroline Lucas, detailed below.

George Galloway, ex-Labour, now Respect, and anti-war campaigner, spoke passionately against supporting either side of the war, referencing the video uploaded by the Free Syrian Army of a commander eating a man’s heart, and the war crimes of the Assad regime. He continued by arguing against ordering our army to war, claiming that only 11% of the population agreed with such a decision. Shouting at the house, Galloway seemed to oppose almost anything stated yet seemingly proposing no solutions.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, tapped into perhaps what is being felt by the majority of citizens across the country as she noted that military intervention is not the best way forward for either the Syrian citizens at the centre of the violence, or the citizens of the UK. She noted that the original motion put to the House by the Prime Minister had changed due to the demands of other MPs and the citizens of the country. Lucas also stressed that any military intervention must require any sanctioning by the UN Security Council, even with the Labour amendment, and that this is simply seen as an inconvenience rather than a due course of justice. She declared that the summary of the legal advice granted to MPs was unacceptable and that members should be given more. She stated that she remained to be convinced that any military action would deter rather than escalate the horrors within the country, questioning what we would do if Assad retaliated to our attacks rather than back down. She argued that only a diplomatic solution would address the situation – unfortunately, her own amendment will not be given any time to be discussed today and thus, members of the house are given only black and white options. Members are ‘misguided’ when they state that not intervening with our military, ignoring the case that can be made using diplomacy and humanitarian aid.

What seemed to overarch the debate was the question of ‘Why now?’ as MPs wondered why the use of chemical weapons should cause an escalation of our response, when the deaths of over 100,000 did not. Surely, one death is as equal as another death. Furthermore, there was detailed concern regarding the response of the Syrian regime, and the further implications of any attack by Western nations. Indeed, a BBC correspondent has tweeted images of Israel handing out gas marks as they prepare for the potential of Syria retaliating to an attack by Western nations by using weapons in Israel.

We must now seek the third option of peaceful diplomacy, stop angering the Arab world and reduce our reliance on the Western might. We must also hope that the US do not take the unilateral route they have announced they are considering today.

I wrote to my local MP to detail my concerns around the vote today, the text of which can be read below:

Dear MP,

I am writing to you as a constituent with deep concern regarding the possible military intervention of the UK and other parts of the western world in the Syria crisis and I am hoping that you will listen and take my concerns into account when placing your vote in Parliament this Thursday.

Although I agree that the Syrian crisis is an incredibly appalling situation and that there is a strong case for intervention of some sort, I believe that military intervention is a dangerous path to head down. Learning from the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, we must note that these conflicts have not yet ended, people continue to die each day and deep resentment of the Western world has come about as a result of these confrontations.

Furthermore, with hundreds dying each day in Syria, the case for intervention should be centred around their suffering rather than the might of the West. If we are to bombard the country with bombs and cruise missiles, we must ensure that they are only used against targets which sustain the country’s military capabilities – no citizens should be killed in the process. We must also provide on-the-ground humanitarian aid to victims of the violence on both sides and seek to reunite displaced children in the country and those who have fled – this should be our highest priority.

However, it is also incredibly important that satisfactory evidence is reached to ascertain that the use of chemical weapons was under the instruction of the Assad regime and that a multilateral agreement is reached with the UN or NATO before we commit to any military intervention. In the meantime, we should act to ensure that those injured are given proper treatment and attempt to implement a ceasefire.

My preferred outcome of the debate on Thursday is for the UK and other western nations to act as peacekeepers, working with either side of the conflict to reach a diplomatic situation, allowing for no more bloodshed and, hopefully, a consensual agreement that can lead to a better situation for all those involved. Most importantly, it will allow the absolutely necessary humanitarian aid to be granted and for displaced children and adults to return to their war stricken country and find their loved ones.

Too many have died in this conflict, and the UK should not oversee or be the cause of any further deaths.

I do hope this message reaches you before the vote and that you take my concerns into account.

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