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Intervention in Syria must be aimed at toppling Assad - or there's no point

Token engagement would be equally damaging to both the west and to Syria. We should consider the costs of leaving the regime in the place.

William Hague arrives in Downing Street on August 28, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Cameron has recalled Parliament in order to have a vote on whether or not the UK should take military action against Syria. I applaud this move; it is one I have long argued for. But the early signs are not encouraging. The suggestion seems to be that we will make a limited response to the use of chemical weapons. In other words, this is not about regime change but about making some sort of tit for tat, "let's show them who's the boss", strike. Such an effort would be completely pointless.

Some argue that we should not be choosing sides in Syria. But we already have. Our leaders decided long ago that they wanted Assad out and have said so on numerous occasions. As a result, we either get involved with the idea of making a real, positive difference in Syria or we stay clear of the whole thing. After the chemical weapons incident of the 21st, sitting on the sidelines seems almost impossible. If we don't respond to chemical weapons being used, we give carte blanche to every tin pot dictator to use them with impunity from here on. But token engagement would be equally damaging to both the west and to Syria. If we're going to take action that we know will cost lives, it needs to be done with the thought in mind that many more lives will be saved in the long-term through our efforts.

I was on Daybreak this morning before Diane Abbott, who has warned that she may resign from the Labour frontbench if Ed Miliband endorses military intervention in Syria. While we fundamentally disagree on the basics, I agree with Diane on one thing: if Britain gets involved in any way militarily we take some level of ownership over the whole thing. We cannot 'kind of' get involved - once we're in, whatever happens in Syria from then on becomes our business in a way that isn't true if we sit on our hands. All of which is fine so long as we aim to make our intervention count.

People have compared the current situation we face with Syria to that we faced over Iraq 10 years ago. While there are many differences between the two scenarios (there is a war going on in Syria that we should be trying to stop, whereas there was no war in Iraq before we invaded), the parallel with Iraq that no one has yet made is the 1991 Gulf War and the failure to depose Saddam. It was about Kuwait, it was said at the time, nothing more. How likely is it that 12 years from now we are going to have to send troops into Syria when the civil war is still raging and the number of people killed or displaced has entered the millions? I think we would be severely regretting not having taken the chance to end the conflict when we had the opportunity to do so.

Tags:Syria