Syria: the case for and against intervention

Labour MP Mike Gapes and Conservative MP John Baron put both sides of the argument.

Mike Gapes: We are already involved

There have never been easy or risk-free options in Syria. Now, because of the failure of the “international community” to act earlier, all options are bad ones. Even before the gassing of thousands of people in oppositionheld districts of Damascus on 21 August, the conflict had left 100,000 dead, four million driven from their homes and over a million refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

 
Because of Russian and Chinese opposition, the United Nations Security Council consistently failed to support the peaceful democratic aspirations of the originally largely secular Syrian opposition when it was brutally attacked in 2011 and 2012 by the Assad regime. The UN should have approved no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors back then to stop Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on civilians.
 
But the Obama administration was not interested. Despite the shelling of refugee camps and the shooting down of its aircraft by Assad’s regime, Turkey – a Nato ally – also held back, while also hosting and arming the opposition Free Syrian Army.
 
Humanitarian intervention as envisioned at the 2005 UN General Assembly is never going to happen while Putin is in the Kremlin. Russia, for reasons including arms exports and its strategic interest in the Tartus naval base, is not going to abandon its friendly relationship with the Syrian regime.
 
The use of internationally banned chemical weapons of mass destruction by the Assad regime cannot be allowed to pass without the most robust international response. First, to deter their future use in Syria or elsewhere. Second, to secure, remove and destroy the chemical weapon stockpiles to prevent them getting into the hands of either Assad’s terrorist ally Hezbollah or al-Qaedalinked jihadist elements in the opposition.
 
Following the large-scale use of chemical weapons in opposition areas, the Obama administration’s “red line” has now been crossed and the US must, belatedly, show leadership. Last year, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said there was “no military solution in Syria; we are seeking a peaceful, political and diplomatic solution”. I agree but intervention is now necessary. The use of chemical weapons must be stopped.
 
This does not mean British or western boots on the ground. Nor should we be taking sides in a complicated civil war by providing sophisticated lethal weaponry to elements of the divided Syrian opposition.
 
Twenty-two years ago, John Major’s government initiated no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq without explicit UN Security Council resolutions. Labour, under Tony Blair, intervened in Kosovo in 1999 without a UN resolution.
 
Whether we like it or not, the UK is already intimately involved in this conflict because of our partnerships with Syria’s neighbours such as Jordan, Turkey and Israel, our role in the European Union and Nato and, above all, our permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Neo-isolationism is no option for Labour, or our country.
 
Mike Gapes is the Labour MP for Ilford South and a member of the Commons foreign affairs select committee
 

John Baron: We’re better off helping refugees 

 
The images that followed the alleged chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces reminded us yet again that atrocities have been committed by both sides in this vicious civil war. Some factions on the rebel side have links to jihadist and al-Qaeda elements. There are no easy answers. But the danger is that we risk making a bad situation very much worse.
 
Syria is a proxy war being fought at several levels: Sunni v Shia; Iran v Saudi Arabia; the west v Russia and China. Western intervention, particularly without UN approval, risks extending the conflict well beyond Syria’s borders. Yet the US, France and Britain are once again gearing up for military intervention, having initially wanted to arm the rebels. We should be wary of knee-jerk reactions. Our foreign policy decisions should be based on hard evidence.
 
There has been no shortage of claims and counterclaims by both sides about the use of chemical weapons. Nothing has ever been verified. UN weapons inspectors should have visited all the potential sites on both sides. We need a balanced approach – people still remember the western response when Syria’s then ally Saddam Hussein gassed his own people.
 
Meanwhile, parliament has made its position clear. MPs from both sides of the House secured assurances from the government that no lethal support would be provided to the rebels without the consent of the Commons. The debate I secured in July confirmed the position through a vote.
 
This is where verification is of paramount importance. Many in parliament are understandably sceptical. After all, we were encouraged to believe Saddam had WMDs and that we would be in and out of Helmand without firing a shot. Assurances from Washington, London and Paris ring less true than they once did. We need the calm assessment of the UN weapons inspectors.
 
Furthermore, the risk of armed intervention without a UN resolution needs to be properly assessed. International law is subjective – there are very few clear guidelines. Many believe the best we have by way of credibility is the UN. To intervene without the due resolution suggests the law of the jungle has once again taken hold. It becomes increasingly difficult to condemn similar actions by those less friendly to the west. Verification might yet persuade the Russians and Chinese to change their stance.
 
Arming the rebels would be foolish because it would increase the violence and it would be impossible to stop the weapons falling into the wrong hands. The US decision to do so in June is already unravelling. The implication of missile strikes likewise needs to be fully considered. The more we intervene, the more responsible we become for events on the ground and the higher the risk of extending the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. Indeed, the risk of this conflict escalating is far greater than with our interventions in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
 
Instead, we should be doing much more to support the refugee camps – which remain desperately short of basic amenities – and going the extra mile diplomatically, such as agreeing to include Iran in any peace talks.
 
John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee
A Syrian opposition fighter holds a rocket propelled grenade while his comrades take cover from an attack by regime forces. Photo: Getty
ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories