CLASH OF COMMENTS: Was Theresa May justified in ordering strikes on Syria?

Image: US Air Force

YES- James Hare

Let me preface this article by saying that I am no particular fan of Theresa May. Regular readers of the Comment section (if there are indeed any, I have my doubts) will be aware of my role as Nouse’s preeminent Centrist Dad. Indeed, I even went to a Halloween party as a Centrist Dad last year, which admittedly wasn’t a tall order to arrange the outfit for and may have been largely due to getting home from work at 9pm and having to hotfoot it across York without having the chance to get changed before. But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that my view on this topic is not coloured by political affiliation, but by something beyond that. Put simply, I believe intervention in Syria is our moral duty.

Bashar al-Assad is a brutal murderer, and as such, I welcome the day he is made to answer for his crimes by the International Criminal Court, like so many ruthless war criminals before him.  Under his command, the Syrian government has perpetrated war crimes against its own civilians on multiple occasions, with the chemical attack in Douma just the very tip of a disgracefully large iceberg. Any military action undertaken against such a regime should be celebrated purely for the fact that it weakens the ability of that state to harm innocent citizens.

Even putting aside my personal moralising, international law is very clear about what should happen to states and regimes which commit crimes against humanity. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework isn’t just there to make the international community feel warm and fuzzy about the notion of protecting people from despots. It’s there as a call to action, a reminder that what the international community allowed to happen in Rwanda should never happen again. It is a reminder that the over 8000 dead at Srebrenica are not forgotten, and that the international community no longer eats with war criminals while they slaughter the innocents, like latter day King Herods. Ultimately, it’s a reminder that each and every one of us has a duty, nay a responsibility, to stop those who seek to strip people the world over of their lives.

Walking by on the other side of the road in this kind of situation should never be an option, and by committing to R2P the UK has recognised that. But endorsing a principle is not enough – words must meet action. Therefore in the case of Syria it is only right that the UK stands up for the protection of human rights and takes action against Assad’s barbarous regime.

There are of course concerns about the effect of engagement in the Syrian conflict. Already it has created a huge refugee crisis, which the states of Europe have by and large shamefully failed to deal with, bar a few honourable examples. This is an area where the UK should do more as part of its duty to be a good international citizen. Equally, the cost of reconstructing Syria is going to be high and is a cost that those states engaging in military action now should be prepared to bear, with the lessons of Iraq still there and plain to see. But these are problems that ultimately are less important than protecting human rights and the lives of the innocent. Theresa May was right – and I never thought I’d type those words.

NO- Ed Smith

The short and simple answer to this highly complex question is no. The question of whether she was righteous in committing Britain to airstrikes against the Assad regime is not the correct decision as it commits the UK to yet another war, in a region that has seen active British engagement since, what feels like, the crusades.

The argument in favour of for the airstrikes relies on the basis of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is a contested subject in the field of conflict management, security and stability, with academics’ and scholars’ arguments boiling down to the classic historical argument that ‘the imposition of R2P is dependent on each contextual basis’. Essentially: ‘it’s more complicated than that’.

The imposition of the R2P paradigm on the Syria debate, is quite frankly tardy. Even though May is legally and morally justified in her decision last month to bypass Parliament and invoke air strikes, she is fundamentally undermined by numerous criticisms.

Firstly, her decision comes almost four years after the first account of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime in Syria, in which Assad has continuously broken international conventions and treaties that have urged him to destroy his armoury of chemical weapons. This decision then seems to follow the conservative choice of catch up, reactionary policies; not the preventative action that is too often required, but largely never implemented within the field of conflict resolution.

Secondly, and to a significant degree, it is clear that this decision will probably fail and follow the pattern similar airstrikes that preceded interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, this inevitable failure in state stabilisation is correctly interpreted by many to be another attempt at trying to deconstruct R2P as an international policy. This is a clear and coherent argument to make, especially considering the current destabilised state of Iraq and returning Taliban aggression in Afghanistan.

Following on from this, R2P can often further undermine itself even if the contextual basis for the decision is both legitimate and legal. De Waal articulates this through the case of Darfur, which has ultimately led to two pseudo-states, and completely disregarded local and regional politics.

Before concluding, I must restate that I in no way support Assad, and am not a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, as so many of those supporting action against Assad have labelled critics. The regime Assad has sustained and his reaction to the revolts in 2011, that came as a part of the Arab Spring, are completely abhorrent. However, I believe that Theresa May is using the plight of millions of Syrians and the most recent chemical weapons attack as a reckless attempt to nudge the world to another ‘Great Power’ war, which was what the R2P principle was established to prevent.

Thus, if Theresa May truly cares about the people she is now protecting with £12m bombs, why has she continuously voted against and denied access to those fleeing conflict not only in Syria, but in Eritrea or Myanmar? It is another case of hollow words from a robot Prime Minister.

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