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
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.