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9 July 2013updated 17 Jan 2024 7:21am

We’re better off helping refugees

By John Baron

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

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