The ambiguities inherent in a moral foreign policy became all too clear over Syria.
Syria, the once-mighty military hard man of the Middle East, erupted into civil war in 2011. Syria was Russia’s only ally left in the region after the overthrow of many of the dictatorships by popular uprisings, known as the Arab Spring. China also supported Syria. Quite rightly, whilst the West condemned the brutal regime of Bashar Al Assad, they did not intervene.
All that changed in 2013 when reports surfaced of Assad’s forces using chemical weapons on the rebels. Great Britain, citing a moral breach of international law in using chemical weapons on civilians, led the call to attack Assad, dragging along a more reluctant US. No UN resolution was possible as it would have been vetoed by Russia.
The moral foreign policy hawks, led by Cameron, had overreached themselves. Sending in the bombers to attack an isolated dictator like Gaddafi was one thing, intervening in an all-out civil war against the ally of Russia and China was quite another. Everyone knew the intervention in Iraq had, at best, been based on mistaken intelligence information, at worst, fraud. Iraq was a crusade without an end game and, however sweet the victory in toppling Saddam Hussein, it had become bitter as an ungrateful Iraqi population turned on each other and tragically, occasionally also on the foreign troops that had freed them from their dictator, but were occupying their country uninvited.
Intervention in Syria appeared remarkably similar but the stakes were probably higher given the intense fighting already on the ground and the unpredictable reaction of China and Russia.
Cameron asked Parliament for support to attack Assad. Parliament baulked and said no. The humiliation for Cameron was profound. He had jumped on the moral bandwagon that had inspired Blair and had worked out wonderfully in Libya. He had forgotten the cardinal rule – a moral foreign policy only works against weak enemies. Where strong enemies are involved, morality becomes a very dangerous game.
For Britain, intervention in Syria or anywhere else was now off the table. The problem was that the UK became so reticent, that it faded into the background of foreign affairs.
A critical situation arose again in Iraq in 2014 when a group calling itself IS or the “Islamic State” based on a perverted form of Islam, captured huge swathes of Iraqi territory including major centres like Mosul and Tikrit. As the Iraqi army melted away, the situation was not only humanitarian but military. A new Iraqi government was formed and appealed for help. Cameron, now humbled on the world stage, scrupulously consulted Parliament first and won his mandate for airstrikes in Iraq. He was careful not to seek permission to attack the enemy bases in Syria, fearing a repeat of the debacle the year before.
This was correct. We were invited by the sovereign state of Iraq to intervene. Parliament agreed.
The government of Syria made no such request. To intervene in Syria against IS without an invitation from the Syrian government would be more complex. Without a UN resolution, Britain would have to argue that it was acting on grounds of self-defence. As with the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, Britain and the United States toppled the Taliban government of Afghanistan as it was harbouring Al Qaeda intent on destroying the West. To intervene in Syria would be justifiable as IS were targeting the West and killing Western hostages. It was more open to ambiguity and, given the debacle over Syria in 2013, sensible to restrict our military intervention to where it is unequivocal– Iraq.
The situation was transformed during 2015. In June, a gunman massacred 38 tourists on the beach at Sousse, Tunisia – 30 of them were British. On 31 October 2015 a Russian airliner was destroyed by a bomb killing all 224 on board. Russia had already decided to intervene following a formal request from the Syrian Government. They were keen to bolster the Assad regime. The downing of the plane was retaliation for the intervention. Most decisively, on Friday 13 November, 130 civilians were slaughtered in a series of attacks in Paris. Immediately, the UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution calling on all members states “to take all necessary measures…to eradicate the safe have they (“IS”) have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.” The target was no longer Assad, but brutal terrorists. With Russia already intervening, China was comfortable to condemn terrorism. With the repeated deadly attacks, the Western world was entitled to defend itself. No longer a matter of moral foreign policy; intervention in Syria was now a matter of self-defence.
Cameron was able to bring the prospect of military intervention in Syria back to the Commons. The new Labour Party leadership under the left-wing hardliner, Jeremy Corbyn, remained unconvinced, but plenty within his party welcomed the offer of a free vote and voted for intervention. Ground troops were specifically excluded, the Commons was being asked to approve airstrikes. There were impassioned speeches on both sides. With a unanimous UN resolutions, there was now no debate about legitimacy; those opposing airstrikes were concerned about their effectiveness. Britain was entitled to defend itself. Britain was entitled to act to enforce UN resolutions. Whether the exclusion of ground troops will prove to be wishful thinking remains to be seen.
Ultimately, a nation always has the right to act as it sees fit. In 1982, had the UN resolved that Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands would stand, Great Britain would have retained its ultimate right to act as it saw fit.
Whilst we have been blurring the lines of international intervention with noble notions of morality, it has hindered our nerve and clouded our judgement on issues which hitherto would have been dealt with swiftly and decisively.