What denotes a country’s international standing? It’s economic, military or foreign policy? It’s record on human rights or humanitarian assistance? It’s democratic procedures, or former empire or scientific influence? Ask ten people and you will get ten different answers. Yet international standing in the past few days has been construed by some politicians and press as being the willingness to join the USA in military action. The Sun’s ridiculous front page yesterday of the ‘death notice’ of our special relationship with the USA summed up this opinion, as if Britain’s greatness has depended all along on agreeing with our American cousins.
The truth is that Great Britain’s international standing rose last week. A democratically elected parliament voted not to sanction airstrikes on Syria. Reporters on the ground in the Middle East described the astonishment of local people, not that the vote was ‘no’, but that we had a live, public debate in which men and women from all walks of life and of different political persuasions were able to freely take part. The powerful witness of democracy in action should not be underestimated. In a whipped party political system where speeches on the floor of the House usually have no bearing on the result obtained, integrity trumped loyalty for those who could not accede to force. For the foreign secretary it was a salient moment: in his biography of William Wilberforce, William Hague had said when remarking on Wilberforce’s oratorical ability and persuasiveness that “the subsequent rise of disciplined political parties would ultimately render [these abilities] almost worthless”. The vote last week showed that debate, reason and persuasion on the floor of the House has not been neutered.
Public anger at the use of chemical weapons is now being added to by the disrespect that certain politicians and press are showing towards both the democratic process and our country. “Britain’s head is held low” they wail. “We have been humiliated” they cry, “We’re now just an embarrassed spectator”.
What absolute rubbish! I am proud. Proud that we will not be involved in military strikes, sugared with ‘clinical’, ‘small’, ‘controlled’ in the full knowledge that the bitter reality would involve the killing of more innocent people and the release of chemicals into the atmosphere that could spread for hundreds of kilometres. Untold numbers of civilians who have bravely chosen to remain in their homes would be affected. A study published in December 2012 showed that the bombing of Iraq’s chemical weapons plants in 1991 released the nerve agent sarin (suspected in the Damascus attacks) which reached military encampments 600km away. That Syria has chemical weapons in the first place is due to its decision to remain outside the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the rest of the UN’s weakness in standing up to China who refused to support sanctions against Syrian’s supplies of nerve gas. What is inexcusable is that we let this situation persist.
Added to the chemical fallout, through military intervention the UK would be getting involved in what has become a complex fog of sectarian conflict: Shia is pitted against Sunni with other countries and religious militia getting embroiled, not only in Syria but also in Iraq and Lebanon. The lesson from Iraq is that it is incredibly naive to think that military force is the answer. The army couldn’t even turn the water on in post-war Iraq without the approval of the religious leaders. The only long-term solution is to enable influential religious leaders to come together to work for peace and reconciliation. There are no quick, easy or clinical solutions however much we might want them. And there is nothing to fear from taking a different stance to the USA. As broadcaster Justin Webb said in his ‘special relationship’ reflections in Notes on them and us, “America is a foreign country…the relationship that develops from this awareness could be so much healthier…we must not confuse ourselves with them.”
That a war crime has been committed is not in question; it is right that the UN weapons inspectors lead on targeting the perpetrators as we still don’t know for sure who was behind the attacks. As signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention and allies of Syria, Russia and Iran should lead on the prosecution. No dictator must live to think that crimes against humanity will go unpunished. Longer term there should be a redoubled effort to ensure all countries sign and ratify the Convention (Israel and Egypt have not yet done both).
Britain’s choice is not strikes or nothing. Our role should remain one of urgent diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Christians in particular have suffered in the Middle East in recent years, and many of them are amongst the refugees. Persecution by Al-Qaeda has meant there are now more Iraqi Christians in Chicago than in Iraq and they have made a point of targeting Christians in Syria. Ethnic cleansing has had little attention but this is what it amounts to, and only a united diplomatic offensive led by the Arab League will bring about any ceasefire and the chance for any sort of resolution. For all those in the enormous refugee camps in neighbouring countries there is much we can do: educational materials, food, medical supplies, sport equipment, sponsoring a family. Having met displaced people before, it is of huge importance for them to know they are remembered. For civilians still in Syria, giving people the means to protect themselves has to be our priority. Antidotes to chemical weapons, gas masks, soap, advice on what to do are all cheap and effective. If there is anything we should be dropping on Syria right now, it should be medical parcels.
It is precisely because we voted against ‘clinical strikes’ in Syria that we can hold our heads high on the international stage. I want an international standing that is based on reality and reason, not impulse and rage. I want to be able to say: you were hungry so we sent you food; you were thirsty and we arranged water supplies; you had lost all your possessions so we donated clothing; you were sick so we paid for medical supplies; you were strangers but we recognised that you were victims of power-seeking agendas and our hearts were moved by your plight. As the grand-daughter of a British Army General I am proud of our military history and our willingness to go to the aid of the oppressed. I know there are times when we have a clear strategy that force needs to be used, but this was not such a time, and our country is stronger for it.
Donations for medical aid to Syrians can be made via: