The question that the House of Commons will, rightly, demand an answer to when it is given a chance to debate the government’s putative strike against Syrian forces is simply this: what do we do if the Russians carry out their threat to attack British ships, submarines or bases?
We would like to assume that the cabinet received adequate answers to these questions, if they pressed the prime minister for answers. In any event, the circumstances of the moment require that such action carries the support of the bulk of the British people and their parliamentary representatives. Polling and the indications from many MPs suggest that that such broad support will only be forthcoming when a convincing case is made and this key question is answered to the satisfaction of the commons as a whole. That is how it should be. Convincing the cabinet alone is not good enough.
Now cabinet minister have indeed given Theresa May support to join any French and US military action. Yet this backing came at the end of a day when Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump both seemed to be backpedalling on their previous enthusiasm for swift strikes in Syria. Mr Macron says he has the evidence that chemical weapons were used in Douma, but that is hardly the most controversial point at issue. Mr Trump is issuing contradictory tweets.
If the pace of the march towards military action does indeed slow, there will be much that can be considered. Whatever their intelligence reports or diplomatic briefings may suggest, Western leaders will be aware that they cannot know with confidence what thoughts and calculations run through the mind of Vladimir Putin, a proud and tactically astute leader.
While it is right for the West to send a clear message that it is unacceptable for a regime to unleash chemical weapons on its own people, so too is it right to consider the consequences of their next move.
The retaliation for a strike by American, French, British and Saudi air forces might take an asymmetric form. It may not be possible, for instance, to rule out a further, defiant, strike using chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces against his enemies – or rather innocent civilians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If so, then what would America, France and Britain do?
Then again, can we rule out the possibility that Russia might attack the NHS’s computer systems, as North Korea did with devastating effect before, or sabotage some other piece of vital cyber infrastructure? Can we be confident of defending ourselves against such an attack? This might be accomplished with varying degrees of “deniability”, though few would be in any doubt as to who was behind it, and why it had happened.
Might President Putin, alternatively, appropriate Western economic and financial assets in Russia, not caring too much about the consequences for the Moscow stock market or the value of the rouble? Might he authorise the use of targeted strikes on military or non-military British interests? Or would he redouble the aid that he, the Iranians and the Turks variously give to their allies in their proxy wars against American allies in Yemen, Kurdistan and Iraq?
At any rate, the risks are high, and as each possible level of escalation is reached, the risks become more extreme. We are engaged in a sophisticated game of chicken, with the threats and ultimatums and red lines tangling together to create a series of trip wires to war.
It is regrettable that the British, French and Americans have not first pursued non-military methods to pressurise the Russians, in turn, to instruct their puppets in Damascus to stop gassing their own people – which is, after all, the aim of Western efforts. We could, for example, wreck the Fifa World Cup, and even follow the suggestion of Stephen Kinnock to stage a new tournament next year in a more suitable venue. There are further diplomatic and cultural links that could be cut.
There is also much further scope for economic sanctions and Western disinvestment in Russia (which would also have the advantage of disabling technology transfer). Unlike in the days of the USSR and the era of “socialism in one country”, Russia is connected to the capitalist world now, and its actions have immediate economic and financial consequences for its leaders, its oligarchs, its companies and its people.
It is perfectly fair to point out that figures as reckless and callous as Mr Putin and Mr Assad are unlikely to be swayed by the withdrawal of ambassadors, the cancellation of rock concerts or the abandonment of some international football matches. These are men who are content to see great historic cities reduced to piles of rubble and their people killed, exiled or rendered homeless – provided that they can declare “victory” over the opponents, and exercise power over what amounts to a graveyard of a nation. Life for them is cheap, and they have not been intimidated by any of the sanctions placed upon them by the international community. Nor, indeed, were they stopped for long by President Trump’s air strike last year.
We therefore face a problem that is worth full consideration before we launch strikes: the military action that would be required to make Syria, Russia and Iran to think again will be of such a scale as to render some form of retaliation a distinct possibility. Non-military measures ought to be taken first. Mr Putin and Mr Assad might exercise some caution if the pressure is intense enough. It is, at the least, worth a try.
All of these factors and the risks to British national security and service personnel are the proper concern of parliament. Unlike the Second World War, this is not an existential threat to the UK. Bombing a Syrian airfield is matter of choice. Unlike the circumstances of, for instance, a rapid response to some nuclear strike, there is also the time and opportunity for the House of Commons to consider and approve, with conditions, suitable rules of engagement in Syria. It is time to pause, to think and to persuade the country that we will do the right thing, and how. We cannot afford to get this intervention wrong.
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