Syria makes the Commons grow up

The threat of military escalation prompts that parliamentary rarity – a straight answer to a straight question

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Something strange happened in the House of Commons last week. Ed Miliband asked important questions, to which no one was sure what the answer would be, and David Cameron answered them, carefully and respectfully. While our elected representatives listened. It was how Parliament should be.

Miliband quoted the Prime Minister from the previous week, when he lifted the embargo on supplying arms to the rebels in Syria: "If we help to tip the balance in that way, there is a greater chance of political transition succeeding." Miliband asked: "Given that Russia seems ready to supply more weapons to Syria, does he think it is in any sense realistic for a strategy of tipping the balance to work?"

A serious question! About the substance of foreign policy. On which the opposition opened up a difference with the Government. None of those happens very often. Cameron didn't actually answer the question at his first attempt. He said that the existing policy of giving the rebel forces technical assistance, training, advice and assistance "does help to tip the balance" against President Assad.

But when Miliband pressed him, Cameron said: "The point about lifting the arms embargo, which applied originally to both the regime and the official Syrian opposition, is to send a very clear message about our intentions and our views to President Assad." Ah, yes, the politics of the Very Clear Message. This is often far from clear: it could be an alternative to war, or it could be preparing the way for it, and the difference between the two is important.

From Cameron's answer, it sounds as if the decision of the British and the French to lift the embargo was intended to put pressure on Assad, and on his ally Vladimir Putin, rather than to get involved in a local arms race. Cameron and Francois Hollande would have had an idea of Barack Obama's thinking, so they could also have been acting as the motorbike outriders for the President's decision on Thursday to provide "direct military support" to the Supreme Military Council in Syria.

That too, though, was the politics of the Very Clear Message. Obama does not really want to supply large quantities of arms to the unknown forces nominally commanded by General Salim Idris, who himself says that half his troops are Islamist militias. Obama wants to send a message to Russia and Iran, Assad's main backers.

That was what Bill Clinton did after weeks of aerial bombardment in the Kosovo conflict in 1999. As the screens of the world filled with pictures of Kosovan refugees fleeing over the border from Slobodan Milosevic, Clinton finally and reluctantly decided to deploy ground troops. Within hours, and under pressure from the Russians, Milosevic folded. We never found out whether Clinton would have gone ahead with the deployment, but the message worked.

Since then, things have changed. After 9/11, American foreign policy was less about messages and more about actual intervention. But after Iraq it changed again, and Obama's policy has been to pull back. When the Libyans rose against Gaddafi, it was Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Cameron in the UK who led the Nato response, imposing a no-fly zone. Obama supported this limited intervention, but from the back of the crowd.

That is why I suspect that Obama's will to intervene in Syria, even by proxy, is limited. He has been trapped by his own rhetoric of the "red line". Once it became impossible to pretend that Assad might not have used chemical weapons, Obama's credibility required him to take the US response up a notch. But it is still about messages rather than heavy artillery.

There isn't the public support, in America or any Nato country, for deploying troops in Syria. As in Kosovo 14 years ago, ground troops are the sticking point. After Afghanistan and Iraq, they are simply politically impossible.

Even so, arming the rebels in Syria is an important step, and I cannot fault Miliband for his question. Cameron's enthusiasm for intervention in Libya, Mali and now Syria is hard to read. Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, worked for Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia and was marked by the reluctance of the last Tory government to intervene there. And Cameron himself, although he wavered over Iraq before voting for the invasion, can sound remarkably Blairite at times, and while I might use that as a term of approval, I can see that many others might not. Surprisingly, perhaps, it is Conservative MPs rather than Liberal Democrats on the Government side who have been most alarmed by the Prime Minister's bellicosity, and most eager to seek clarification.

For once, they got it, right in the cockpit of democracy, at Prime Minister's Questons, so often derided. Miliband asked what the safeguards were that weapons, if they ever were supplied, would be "only for the protection of civilians". Cameron didn't answer again – which allowed us to draw our own conclusions – but he did point out that the Russians had long been arming the regime, and called it "naive" to think that it would make much difference what the British and French did. And he said that the House of Commons would have a say if a decision to supply arms to the rebels were made.

What a shame that Miliband then moved on to "the living standards crisis", a way of observing that the economy is not growing much, and PMQs descended into its usual point-scoring. For a moment, though, we saw a better side of the House of Commons.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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