A year ago last August, the House of Commons refused to approve British military intervention in Syria following the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
This precedent explains why Parliament is likely to be asked shortly to approve UK involvement in military action against Isis militants in Iraq alone, and not in Syria.
But while there are differences between the two situations, the broad questions are the same. Would it be moral? Would it be effective? Would it be legal?
In the debate last year, David Cameron put great weight on the moral case. He said the question before the House was how to respond to one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons, uses which had slaughtered innocent men, women and children in Syria. And in an effective passage he added: “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition. It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.”
Yet Cameron failed to carry the day. David Davis, for instance, asked what was so special about chemical weapons given the appalling suffering caused by conventional weapons. Good question. “Death by dismemberment, burning, being crushed under falling buildings, gangrene or all the other outcomes of the use of conventional weapons is no better than death by nerve gas. These are monstrosities, however they are delivered.” To this reservation was added another – could we unambiguously pin the use of chemical weapons on the Syrian government? It was implausible. As likely another of the warring parties was the culprit. Nor, after the experience of the invasion of Iraq, could we any longer trust intelligence assessments.
This time the moral case is very strong. The videos of beheadings don’t leave any room for doubt. We have seen only a small selection of them on TV news programmes but Isis has released dozens of videos showing how it treats civilians, many of whom have been targeted on the basis of their religion or ethnicity. The United Nations reported that in the 17 days from 5 to 22 June, Isis killed more than a thousand Iraqi civilians and injured a similar number. One American commentator describes Isis as a killing machine. Moreover, there is an obvious sadistic element in its crimes against humanity. Isis is pure evil.
Nonetheless, the moral argument is not sufficient on its own, given that badly designed military action could make matters worse rather than better. After all, in Syria the question would concern air strikes alone unsupported by allied troops on the ground. In Iraq, there is the Iraqi army, but its effectiveness is open to question. That is why air strikes are often described as “degrading” Isis capabilities, which is not the same thing as destroying it. In addition, air strikes – by their very nature – often inflict terrible suffering on the innocent as well as the guilty.
Do air strikes actually work? That is the question. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that after six weeks of American air strikes in Iraq, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged Isis from its hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many key Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines. The newspaper went on to say that although the air strikes appear to have stopped the extremists’ march toward Baghdad, Isis is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi army.
So, while air strikes in Iraq would be morally justified, they might not be effective. And there is the further question: would they be legal? By way of contrast, look first at the Syrian case. Faced with internal threats, states may request assistance from foreign powers. But the government making the request has to be legitimate, which the government of Bashar al-Assad isn’t, depending as it does upon the loyalty of one section of the population only. Nor can one foresee the Syrian leader ever making such a request. In Iraq, on the other hand, the government has democratic credentials and so a call for help would render any British intervention legal.
So how would I vote? In spite of the vile nature of Isis, I would oppose British air strikes. They are not likely to do the job. Nor, even in the best of circumstances, would victory be swift. Barack Obama has said there needs to be a sustained mission against Isis over an unlimited period. And a Pentagon spokesman told the BBC that the fight would take years. No thanks. That is not something for us.