Charlotte Leslie MP: Syria – Clarity and Credibility were of the essence, not speed!
There were several reasons why I wanted to be at the vote on Syria on Thursday – but in the midst of Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert, you realise just what it is to be literally cut off by miles of wilderness from the outside world. Usually it doesn’t really matter. This time it did.
This mattered not only because of the obvious humanitarian and global security significance that the issue of chemical weapons in Syria presents; the issue is personal for two reasons.
The first takes me back to my first visit to the United States in the summer of 2001. I had just finished university and was touring the USA on a college scholarship. My Birthday treat on August 11th was to go to the top of the twin towers. Exactly a month later, there I was in Chicago, watching live as a plane crashed into the second Tower, knowing that the nice lady who had served me coffee at the canteen on the top floor, with whom I’d had a laugh about my British accent, was probably dying at that very moment.
My brush with 9/11 was infinitely more remote than that of thousands whose lives were blasted apart by that horror, but it shook my world, as well as the wider world around me. Had I not gone to America that summer, I would probably not be in politics today.
I made three calls from that Chicago sofa as soon as I could get signal: The first to my mum to tell her I was ok; the second to my airline, to get out as soon as possible; and the third was to my University College, Balliol, to cancel the Masters in Classics I was supposed to be embarking upon when I got back.
At that moment, I realised the world was, quite literally, blowing up – and to indulge myself in an academic ivory tower to produce an unremarkable thesis on some ancient writers while history was dramatically unfolding in front of my eyes seemed simply irresponsible. With the arrogance of youth, I felt I had to get involved. The next day, my decision was bolstered by my concern at the gun-ho simplicity of the American headlines; ‘good vs. evil’, ‘God on our side’ stuff. It did not bode well. I saw media and politics as the best way to make a difference, thought media was more effective and landed back at Heathrow a week later with no plan except a determination to break into the media world, which I proceeded to try to do from my Dad’s PC.
A few years later, when Blair was making the 45-minute claims about weapons of mass destruction and we were poised to embark upon a disastrous war, I was not making a difference to the political world – I was working at the BBC finding contestants for the quiz-show “The Weakest Link”. It was in helpless despair at our country’s imminent invasion of Iraq that I decided that my media plan had not worked, and that it might have to be politics after all.
The second reason is what I saw and heard on a visit with the Conservative Middle East Council to Syria in late February 2011, just before Syria’s brutal Arab Spring began. We were escorted with military precision by blacked out Government cars, which seared through the Damascus streets with siren-shrieking motorbike outriders, shielding us from anything which may have given a negative image of the regime.
What the Regime couldn’t hide from us, however, were the looks of fear in the eyes of the people as the black Government cars approached, and the look of hatred in their eyes from the back-windscreen as the car speeded past. They could not stop an MP colleague and myself confronting the Syrian Prime Minister and the Vice President on their human-rights record, including locking up teenage bloggers, in what now seems a surreal moment as tempers escalated and the UK Ambassador stepped in to support our concerns. It could have been a moment to be proud of, but a few words were so futile in the face of a seemingly unstoppable machine.
Neither can I forget the choked words of a Syrian student, with whom we were talking in the sanctuary of the British Council in Damascus. “This is my bubble of Oxygen” he said, eyes darting around in fear, “the only place where I can think and speak freely”. I often wonder where he is now, and what became of those boys on mopeds who rushed to pose for photographs on a road winding up a steep hill just outside the city, with Damascus glinting in the background.
That is my personal context, and just part of the reason why I wanted to get back. But crucially, what should we do about the situation in Syria, and what, on Thursday 29th August, should Parliament have done?
I inevitably see the Syria issue in the context of my personal experience of 9/11 and the Iraq war and in the minds of many in the country, in parliament, and across the world, the shadow of Iraq is an inescapable factor. We cannot ignore this reality, any more than we should let the past be the dictator of the future – we must accept it and learn from it.
The response to 9/11, and the invasion of Iraq under an incorrect pretext cost the West, (the USA and the UK in particular), dearly in goodwill and credibility across the Middle East. In the context of the Iraq War, if any action taken by the West is to gain support and acceptance from others, ensuring the decision has maximum credibility is more important that it would have been had the Iraq War never happened.
Therefore I do not think that it would have been sensible for the USA and the UK, on the basis of their own home-grown evidence, to have led Military Action in Syria. Post- Iraq, any action needed credibility. It was absolutely necessary to wait for the report from the UN Weapons Inspectors, and to form a conclusion – with as many nations as possible, and agree the appropriate collective response. If we were going to bomb to uphold international law, there could be no room left for questions from any quarter that the West was acting within international law.
Perception matters. It is essential that individuals and other countries perceive us to have acted in the knowledge of a credible, neutral UN evidence base. Perception is all the more important with many parts of the Middle East in conflagration and the rest a tinder-box. We must take all precautions to lessen the perception of the West’s actions acting as recruitment red-rag for Islamic extremists.
Dynamics are complex, but the state of Egypt is perilous, and we should not forget Egypt’s own humanitarian and political issues which are likely to escalate, and their regional impact. The impact on Lebanon, the reaction of Israel, Russia, Iran, and the nature of the chain-reaction of events in an already sore and disrupted Middle-East are critical.
In this climate, it is hard to see how ‘speed’ could be of the essence – and sudden action over a weekend in any way necessary. No, credibility is of the essence. If, as many claim, the Assad regime has been using chemical weapons for weeks or months, the difference of a day or two is insignificant. It would be worth taking the time needed (though not ‘dallying’) to assemble allies, to clarify the purpose and the end-game, and to find a way publicly to explain this.
Credibility demands clarity. And here lies another flaw: Obama has not publicly made sufficiently clear what it is that he needs allies for. He has not clarified exactly what he wants to do, why it must be done, how it can be achieved, and what he thinks the costs might be. If Obama explains clearly exactly the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, then ‘how’ it is to be achieved can be discussed.
What is his aim? To topple the regime? Then how? How will success be measured? Does toppling the regime include helping set up a new governing structure for Syria? Is there a time and resource limit on this aim? Or does he simply want to remove or destroy their military capability or chemical weapons? How can this be done without releasing the chemical toxins? Or perhaps he only wants to demonstrate that breaking international law has consequences? If so, is military intervention really the only or best way to do it? What is the plan if these ‘consequences’ escalate?
For all these questions, we must ask ‘Why’? What is his priority? To provide a precedent that international law is not to be messed with, or is it a humanitarian priority?
Once the ‘what’ the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ is established, then costs and benefits can be assessed accordingly. For example, how many civilian lives potentially ended by conventional weapons from the West in its mission to uphold international law may be a reasonable cost to pay for lives lost from illegal chemical weapons? What will be the wider impact of deaths from Western Military Capability in the rest of the region, on Russia, China and Iran, and indeed at home? And so on.
No one doubts the horrors of illegal chemical weapons; that they are wrong; that the regime is brutal and that we must stop the terrible cruelty and homicide in Syria. But if we want to intervene with credibility and clarity on either humanitarian grounds, on in the interests of upholding international law, it must be done not as an emotional knee-jerk reaction to appalling images, but with rational clarity of purpose.
However, none of the answers to the questions above have been clearly articulated to the public by the American President who is leading the charge and asking for support. It appears that once again, America is shooting from the hip. No wonder there is public and political unease. This failure to present a clear public case that demonstrates to an uneasy Western Public, and a tinder-box Middle East, that we are not replicating the mistakes of Iraq may damage the most well-meaning of efforts to prevent horrific illegal homicide in Syria. That is a terrible failure of politics.
This failure, as I understand it from my retrospective look at what happened on Thursday, was played out from the White House to Parliament. There was insufficient clarity of purpose from the USA’s urgent demands that we act ‘tomorrow’, which resulted in a parliamentary debate that also lacked clarity of aim. It seems extremely unwise to limit future options of engagement in such a volatile context – but I am afraid that this is what this debate has done. Neither has the ‘petty-party-politics’ tone that the debate adopted been edifying for parliament. I was disgusted by the political-manoeuvring of Ed Milliband on an issue of such international and humanitarian importance. If he really had the interests of Britain and Syria at heart and not his own votes, he would have behaved like an adult, worked with the Prime Minister to forge a plan for Britain’s response, not change his position at one minute to midnight to try to wrong-foot his opposition.
So from the wrong questions, based on unclear premises, in a course of action wrongly prioritising speed over credibility and clarity, seemingly lacking in a clear vision and purpose, Parliament got contorted in petty party-politics and produced an answer that does not seem to meet the issues at hand, not least in appearing to tie our hands in a regrettable fashion. It also leaves us with questions we need to answer: For example, what exactly constitutes ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ action? Would the use of British Sovereign Soil, e.g. Cyprus, for action by other national forces be ‘direct’ action? What of any casualties involved in a retaliation on that soil? To name but a few.
If a case could be presented that took account of the context in which we operate, had clarity, demonstrated a strategy and had the backing of a coalition of nations, (especially those in the region,) I could be persuadable to some form of military action to help prevent humanitarian atrocities, the spread of dangerous Islamic extremism, and to uphold international law. As I write, Obama has now back-tracked and decided that instant action is not necessary after-all and that perhaps speed was not of the essence. It does not give the impression that a strategic thinker, with a clear sense of purpose, is in control – so while speed may now not be of the essence, there is still little reassurance that credibility and clarity are.
The debate and the unravelling saga shows that often you can only get to the right answer if you ask the right questions, and to ask the right questions often requires clear, strategic thinking and a clear sense of purpose. The tragedy of Parliament on Thursday was that from the White House itself, none of the right questions were asked, so neither vote could have given a satisfactory answer. The West has handled this, once again, badly. We may have had a debate, but I fear that this is far from over.