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
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.