Statement on the Douma Chemical Attack
The tragedy of the civil war in Syria cannot be fully comprehended, I believe, by those of us who witness it from a distance. Even so, the numbers killed give some impression of the scale of human suffering. More than 400,000 are estimated to have died. Over 6 million people have been displaced internally and over 5 million have sought refuge internationally.
Even before the chemical weapons attack on Douma, where it is estimated up to 75 people were killed, there was considerable disquiet here in the UK about the extent to which our government had engaged in the response to the humanitarian crisis this war has generated. Millions of refugees seek protection from Assad’s murderous regime, and yet here in the UK we have accepted just 11,000 desperate, displaced people. At the very least, we now need to see a more comprehensive approach from Theresa May’s government, a strategy which focuses not just on the need for an effective ceasefire but which also outlines how the UK is going to extend its efforts relating to humanitarian aid and the accommodation of refugees.
It is important, however, that any UK strategy should be placed in the context of a clear understanding of the culpability of Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. Although it is clear that the Syrian leader is in a powerful position in relation to the civil war, albeit only with the support of his allies, this does not mean that the international community should not respond to the ‘red line’ crossed with Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons. If international conventions mean anything, then they have to be defended. The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention both ban the use of chemical weapons.
It is in this regard that I support the UK Government’s involvement in last weekend’s intervention. The use of military force to disable key aspects of Syria’s chemical weapons capability was proportionate and legal. Intervention on humanitarian grounds, in an attempt to prevent further chemical weapons attacks, is rightly deemed acceptable, especially in the context of Russia’s constant deployment of its veto at the United Nations. Twelve times now Russia has effectively thwarted the attempts made by the international community, via the UN Security Council, to investigate the chemical weapon attacks and to impose sanctions against the Syrian government.
For many, the use of military force is on principle unacceptable. Some have deployed the conventional wisdom that the answer to bombing is never more bombing. But this simple and superficially attractive line of reasoning ignores the reality of what is happening in Syria and the very carefully orchestrated nature of last weekend’s response by the coalition of UK, US and French forces. The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is killing innocent civilians and in the most appalling way possible, and I believe very strongly that a strategy which focuses entirely on targeting the Syrian capability for manufacturing these dreadful and illegal weapons is the right thing to do.
The call for peace talks and for a UN mandated response to the situation in Syria would be reasonable if it was viable. Unfortunately, however, this is a strategy rendered meaningless by Russia’s misuse of its powers at international level. I see therefore the constant demand for deployment of this alternative strategy as a ‘do nothing’ response and on those grounds find it totally unacceptable.
Let me finish by making one thing clear. If Assad continues to use chemical weapons to attack and kill his own people, then the coalition should consider seriously further engagement to destroy his capability in this regard. It must do so, however, in the context of a strategy which focuses on the need for an effective ceasefire and a more meaningful engagement in the humanitarian effort required to deal with the consequences of this dreadful civil war.