Tragedy in Syria - the price of inaction

Four years ago the House of Commons voted against the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to take limited military action against President Assad in response to his use of chemical weapons against his own people in Syria.

I supported military action and I was appalled by the vote.  I felt that we had sent the wrong signal to a brutal dictator about his use of illegal and cruel weapons of mass destruction, and I believed that we had let down our most important ally, the United States.

I wrote: “We cannot keep ruling out any kind of military intervention while watching Assad’s grip tighten and the jihadis gain strength.  How else will he be brought back to the negotiating table?” (see here)

Four years on, Assad’s position is even stronger.  There were other consequences of the failure to act.  Russia walked into the space vacated by the West.  In theory both Russia and the West have common cause in fighting ISIL and confronting the jihadi threat.  But whereas the West also opposes Assad’s genocide and wishes to see him go, Russia is arming him.

It is often said that this is not our conflict.  I understand that concern.  It follows interventions in the Middle East that many people feel were, variously, unjustified, excessively costly, counterproductive or even immoral.  Western leaders can hardly be unaware of the war weariness of their own electorates.

President Trump sensed this mood and criticised his predecessor during the US election.  Indeed, only a few days before the chemical weapons attack, his Secretary of State suggested that the US no longer wished to see Assad go.

Despite this, Assad’s use of chemical weapons clearly changed the White House’s view.  A targeted strike against the airbase from which the chemical weapons were launched was a necessary and proportionate response which minimised civilian casualties.

I still believe that the West needs to go further.  Chemical weapons are abhorrent, but Assad’s airforce is the principal cause of Syrian deaths.  Various options have been suggested, for instance no-fly zones or safe havens.  All are now seriously complicated by Russia’s involvement.  But they should be on the table.

In six years, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in this conflict and millions have been made refugees.  The UK provides massive humanitarian aid, and we are fighting ISIL in Iraq, yet Assad goes unchecked.  How much longer will we stand by and watch this human tragedy unfold?


To see Nick's article for the Telegraph on Syria from August 2013:

Nick HerbertMiddle East