Syria makes the Commons grow up

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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Critics of Fiona Woolf say she should step down amid accusations of an establishment cover-up  

Fiona Woolf resignation: As soon as she became the story, she had to leave

James Ashton
 

Letters: Electorate should be given choice on drugs policy

Independent Voices
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes