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 gas – sing 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