by Lee Butcher
In a sudden about turn Britain may well be heading into its second small Middle Eastern war since the Arab spring. It would appear that the use of chemical weapons is beyond the pale, a means of purveying death clearly far worse than the many others inflicted upon the Syrian people in the past two years.
What occurred in that attack in a Damascus suburb was an atrocity, indeed, perhaps even a crime against humanity? Our urge to help is a positive one, but it is an urge that needs to be controlled by sober analysis.
As in all cases of conflict and human rights violation the devil is in the detail. On Thursday the Government will have to detail to parliament what it feels we and our allies can do for the Syrians, and what our planning is for the ramifications of any actions that result. If that case cannot be made convincingly the breaks should be firmly applied to any march to war.
A number of reservations should be foremost in the mind of the parliamentarians. Firstly, what is the scale of our involvement? An Iraq style invasion is almost certainly out of the question, but will any involvement be limited to chemical weapons caches, or will it take the form of Libya and be a wide ranging operation against Syria’s air force, armour and artillery and will it include targeting communications and logistics infrastructure? If the latter than we can perhaps call it an enforcement measure against a certain form of warfare we disagree with, if it is the former the aim is clearly regime change.
That latter aim presents a number of problems, all of them already highlighted. If Assad goes who takes over? What contacts with and what confidence do we have in the rebels? In order to avenge one atrocity (the results of which no amount of military action can now remedy), and presumably in order to stop likewise happening again, we must consider any potential, and unintended, consequences.
Should the balance of power be tilted in favour of the rebels the international community needs to become concerned about those groups who remained largely in support of Assad, most notably the minority Alawite group. If by stopping one group being massacred we enable another group to be targeted the overall humanitarian impact will be neutral (that is to say, just as horrific as the present).
If the rebels do secure the upper hand we need, now, to be focusing on what happens next. History is replete with examples of groups united only in their opposition to a threat, should that unity fragment and the various contingent groups seek to secure their own interests a new form of conflict could emerge, one even more chaotic than and just as bloody as the one we are now witnessing.
On Thursday the prime minister will have to be open and honest with parliament about the assessments that have been made, and what contingency plans are in place for the various scenarios our involvement could create. Parliament must press for these details, long gone are the days when it was appropriate to take it on trust in the hope that the military, intelligence services and the Cabinet have key knowledge that we cannot know.
Parliamentarians must not be brow beaten by the press or the government into accepting the case for war if they feel the government have not sufficiently made a convincing case on the day; the assumption that we can do nothing but good needs to be avoided, and for the good of the Syrian people we need to tread lightly.
Lee Butcher works for a Labour MP, and he is a postgraduate history student at Birkbeck, University of London. All views presented are his own