Letter to Vince Cable – UK military action in Syria is not justified

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This letter is in response to Vince’s request for feedback on the Syrian question

Dear Vince Cable,

Thank you for giving we members an opportunity to forward our views to you on the possible military intervention by the UK in Syria.

This is an extremely difficult problem which seems to place us in a lose-lose situation. If we do not intervene we appear to stand by impotently whilst terrible wickedness takes place, including the internationally illegal use of chemical weapons. If we do intervene there is a strong possibility of making a bad situation worse, as has already happened in similar circumstances in Iraq and Libya.

You set out some sensible conditions which should be fulfilled before any decision is taken: namely:

1. The government should share with Parliament what evidence it has that chemical weapons have been used
2. The objectives of any proposed action should be defined and made clear to Parliament
3. Any response should be on a multilateral basis
4. There must be a full and frank debate and vote in the Commons before any action is taken.

You also sate that we Liberal Democrats must be “willing to play our part in upholding international law.” In a sense that settles it. As a letter in today’s Guardian (12th April)) states: Article 2(4) of the UN Charter says: ”All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any sate.”

Russia and Iran are themselves breaking this law, and the Syrian government is breaking an international treaty by using chemical weapons. However, as the well-known cliché states: “Two (or even more) wrongs don’t make a right. It may well be that France, as the former mandated power, has some special responsibility for Syria: the UK does not.

But we should not just cower behind this legalism. Rather we should take into account the unhappy history of pervious interventions in the Middle East, the repeated evidence that assurances that “surgical” intervention on precise targets always turn out to be false and produce what we sanitise as “collateral” damage. Do we really believe that raining more missiles on the poor people of Syria will actually improve their lot?

Most seriously, do we really want to ally ourselves with the intemperate threats and possible actions of the most capricious, unpredictable, possibly even unbalanced, US president in history?

Rather I believe that we should vote against any proposed military action, and instead put forward constructive practical alternatives such as those recommended in yesterday’s Guardian leader, namely :

• Give substantially more humanitarian aid for the Syrians seeking refuge in the region
• Take more refugees, especially children, into the UK.

Finally, we must redouble our efforts for a diplomatic solution. I am no expert but it seems to me that a considerable part of the Putin government’s motivation is to re-assert Russia’s status as a world power. In a sense we have brought this problem on ourselves by triumphalist insensitivity since the collapse of the USSR, not least inviting former satellite states to join NATO (the former enemy) and the EU (some would say prematurely). We have rubbed Russia’s nose in its perceived humiliation and the Syrian people are paying the price.

Never forget that Russia paid for the defeat of Nazism with 25 000 000 deaths, compared with the UK’s 450 700. We should pull out all the diplomatic stops necessary to repair this damage to our former and invaluable ally.

* Peter Wrigley is a former candidate in both Westminster and European elections and is currently president of Batley and Spen liberal Democrats

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36 Comments

  • I enormously object to the idea, presented here, that somehow allowing the people of Eastern Europe to freely choose to join NATO and/or the EU is the cause of the problem; as though we should say to Estonia “No, you can’t do that, because keeping autocrats in the Kremlin happy is more important than you being able to choose your own future.” We can argue about the correct way to respond to the Russian government’s predicaments in the 1990s was, but we should not predicate it on denying the people of those countries the same right we’d give to any other state – to freely choose which international organisations it wishes to join, or leave, on the basis of the wish of the people of those countries.

  • Tim, I totally agree with your comment. (Peter – you were making some good points in your article up to making that strange claim).

  • Julian Tisi 13th Apr '18 - 2:19pm

    Vince Cable has set out some very reasonable conditions, which you set out here. If these conditions are met, I believe we have a moral duty to play our part in any multi-lateral action agreed.

    Quite simply, the use of chemical weapons is barbaric and we cannot allow their use to go unchallenged, else they will be used again. I agree with Tim Oliver above that you appear to be making excuses for Russia – their undoubted sacrifice in WW2 and – rather less agreeably – their reaction to their former allies freely choosing to join the EU and/or NATO. Russia has no excuse for their defence of Assad and we have every right – subject to Vince Cable’s very reasonable conditions – to take action to help prevent further atrocities.

  • David Evans 13th Apr '18 - 2:20pm

    I think there is a total misunderstanding of Russia/the Soviet Union as our ally in WW2. Remember the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 where USSR and Germany agreed to carve up much of Eastern Europe, beginning with Poland, half each and then Russia taking over the Baltic states.

    The USSR only came on our side when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Then we became allies, but only ever as “My enemy’s enemy is my friend (for now).”

  • Andrew Daer 13th Apr '18 - 2:30pm

    There are a lot of ‘message’ issues here. We want to reassure the Syrian people that when immoral tyrants break the law, we will stand up for the victims. We want to tell Assad that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed – and hope any future tyrants will remember. We want to make sure that we are not on a slippery slope – to a world in which thousands could be killed by a single bomb containing nerve agents much more potent than chlorine. We want to tell the Russians that we are getting quite annoyed about they way they have muscled in on Syria, as a way of extending Russian influence. We are also a bit worried about what Iran is up to.
    The trouble is that whereas, just maybe, an intervention in 2013 could have changed the outcome of the civil war in Syria, it’s too late for that now, and none of the ‘messages’ we would like to send would reach their targets. The Syrian people will wonder why it’s OK for them to be blown to bits by bombs in their thousands, year after year, but not poisoned (because that’s ‘not cricket’), the Russians aren’t going back into their hutch any time soon, and wiping the smile of Assad’s face will take a lot more than just putting some craters in a few airfields, and knocking out some factories.
    On top of this we know that on the ground in the Middle East are a host of competing interests and factions, some of which are our enemies’ enemies, but not necessarily our friends. Sadly, the official opposition leader in this country has been the one to most poignantly describe the situation. He says he doesn’t like war, and wishes it would just go away. That may be the sort of ‘nice but dim’ utterance we expect from Corbyn, but can anyone really come up with anything better?

  • David Becket 13th Apr '18 - 2:49pm

    Another condition should be that we stop all arms sales to the middle east with immediate effect, we are pouring arms into this unstable area. It should stop, even at the risk of the loss of a few UK jobs.

  • John Marriott 13th Apr '18 - 2:54pm

    The people I also feel sorry for are the ordinary citizens of the former Soviet Union, but certainly not those of the nomenklatura and its descendants, who still appear to be in charge. The former have had a pretty poor deal over the generations from both the left and now the right.

    As I said on another thread, there is some mileage in allowing Assad to win. After all, he and his like in the Arab world are partly our creation following the redrawing of the Middle East after WW1 notably by Britain and France in order to secure supplies of crude oil, whose importance was increasing as the world’s economy developed during the 20th century.

    Any major military action runs a massive risk of possibly wider, even nuclear retaliation. Geopolitical consideration appears to be getting beyond the pay grade of many of our western leaders, including especially the occupants of the White House, the Elysée Palace and No 10. However, the guy in the Kremlin, whether he is working alone or having his strings pulled by forces we know little about, does appear to have a game plan and is using western technology and openness to his advantage. Why don’t we EVER learn from our mistakes?

  • It ought to be enough to just say NO without any distractions/red herrings.

  • David Raw 13th Apr ’18 – 2:57pm…..It ought to be enough to just say NO without any distractions/red herrings…..

    Of course but, sadly that won’t happen. After all, we still want to be inthe ‘big boy’s gang’ even though, so far, being a gang member has brought us nothing but grief, at home and abroad.

    We, as a party, voted ‘NO’ to taking action against a ruler who had used poison gas against civilians. We voted ‘YES’ to bombing Assad and then ‘YES’ to bombing his enemies; if that doesn’t show that the ME is far too complicated for ‘macho posturing’ then nothing will…

  • 1. We had these sort of voices during the Cuba Crisis, if they had been followed there could have been a catastrophe.
    2. I marched against the Iraq War. The circumstances here are different. It is a major power conflict being played out on a third party territory. We need to be strong, more importantly seen to ber strong, to contain the situation.

  • @ Theakes “We had these sort of voices during the Cuba Crisis, if they had been followed there could have been a catastrophe.”

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not implying that it’s possible to compare JFK with Trump are you ?

  • “It may well be that France, as the former mandated power, has some special responsibility for Syria”. Hahahahahah
    After the French Army defeated locals in 1919 and took Damascus, with the French general strutting over the tomb of Salahdin to pronounce , “Salahdin: We have returned!” they set about butchering the peoples, starting with liquidating the political parties who had dared petition the Versailles talks that they could manage their own affairs, portioned off southern vilayet of Syria to the British, set up sectarian zones,cut off more chunks of Syria (Hatay, expanded Lebanon) and set up an autocratic state controlled by the army- Syria’s only legacy from France.
    Syrians spent the 20 odd years from 1919- 1940 of French “‘protectorate” trying to get rid of the French. There is no affinity for France!
    But the French political establishment even today believe they are entitled to have a say on Syria as colonial masters and are very resentful how ungrateful Syria, unlike Lebanon, doesn’t acknowledge how the French tried to civilise them!

  • Though I agree wholeheartedly with Peter Wrigley that we should vote against any proposed military action on Syria, and give sanctuary to those fleeing the Syrian Civil war- but recognise that many may like to return to Syria once peace returns- even if under Assad. No, not all Syrians – dare I say it – think that damp Blighty and its ways are the best thing ever! Some just don’t want to be killed or abducted in a war zone.

  • In the Middle East there are no rules of war. There never has been. In that part of the world all means are used to destroy any adversary even if in modern times signatures are attached to international treaties. The rebels also use these kinds of weapons. The notion of rules of war is something from western culture. Rules or not war is a very brutal thing. The strike will undoubtedly have civilian causalities punished because the west did not prevail in Syria.
    The Americans heavily bombed Laos. The bomb craters can still be seen from the air. and the casings from the cluster bombs is used as fencing along the roads. I never had one Laotian tell me the Americans bombed us for our own good.

  • Andrew McCaig 14th Apr '18 - 6:52am

    Well, there we are, without even waiting to let the independent inspectors establish that a chemical weapons attack actually took place, we rush into war..
    I ask again: why would Assad launch a chemical weapons attack at the point of victory in E Ghouta?? It is implausible.
    Trump treats politics and diplomacy like the Wild West, and Theresa May is doing the same. I just pray that there is no retaliation and no more attacks.

  • Andrew McCaig 14th Apr '18 - 7:12am

    On Peter’s last paragraph, it is not a case of excusing Russian attitudes, but trying to understand them. While i, as a child, was told that Soviet tanks were always about to roll across W Germany, the people running Russia today were told that NATO was an aggressive alliance. Hence we should understand that what we see as defensive moves in E Europe like anti missile systems can be seen very differently in Moscow, and not just by some handful of demagogues.
    Russians are a very proud people and if we inflict Russian casualties retaliation is a strong possibility. Putin did show restraint when the Turks shot down a Russian plane and it feels a little strange to be hoping that he may show more restraint than our foolish leaders in this situation..

  • William Fowler 14th Apr '18 - 8:14am

    Can individuals do such terrible things that they are considered non-human? If so, a body like the UN could designate such people as non-human and they would lose all rights and their name, nationality etc. I am thinking of a way to deal with people like Hitler before they get on a killing roll and cause mass carnage. Terrible thing to do to someone but on the other hand could save millions of lives.

  • Well Mrs. May I have just listened to your statement from Downing Street and can say the UK didn’t seem to bothered by Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during his war with Iran.

  • John Marriott 14th Apr '18 - 10:30am

    Well, they’re off then. So, what does Vince do now? It would appear that none of the three western nations consulted their legislative assemblies before taking action. Mind you, that’s clearly not something that Russia’s President needs to worry about!

  • For the life of me I cannot see why Parliament has to be consulted first. However I appreciate that VC’s approach may not be unhelpful electorally in 3 weeks time. That is important for the party, even if I do not agree with it.
    One gets the impression from some quarters that if Russian missiles are on their way to this country Parliament has to have a say!!!!!

  • At times of immediate crisis why do we have to go to Parliament.

  • Steve Trevethan 14th Apr '18 - 12:28pm

    Were the pictures of the actually or allegedly gassed children supplied by people opposed to Mr Assad?
    Are they likely to be objective?
    Are they connected to the people who got children to cut the heads off prisoners?
    https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2564492/harrowing-isis-video-shows-children-as-young-as-10-beheading-and-shooting-kurdish-prisoners-in-syria/
    Might they be willing to abuse children for their own advantage?

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Apr '18 - 1:17pm

    Please stop us from intervening in Syria Vince. What right do we have to do so? I think we would all agree that Russia was wrong so in what way would us bombing people be OK? Humanitarian support seems to be the only justifiable way to get involved.
    In addition to the question of morality/ legality there are also the practical arguments that such escalation could result in open conflict with Russia, wouldn’t provide a clean solution to a very complex problem and would result in even more conflict for those Syrians desperate to lead a normal and peaceful life.

  • theakes 14th Apr ’18 – 11:38am…At times of immediate crisis why do we have to go to Parliament….

    What immediate crisis? The alleged attack was a week ago and independent experts were about to visit and report on the truth of the incident…If a week, why not two?

  • Richard Underhill 14th Apr '18 - 4:23pm

    ” I think we would all agree that” I agree, but please do not use this awful cliché. What you say gives away your a mode of thinking. Any Questions? from BBC Radio 4 has Caroline Lucas MP and Chris Patten (now a peer) debating Europe with passion from both. Because of the missile attacks on Syria Any Answers? was replaced with a listener debate. Regrettably several fell into a political trap of thinking they knew what happened in 1939 about a parliamentary vote.
    Neville Chamberlain (Con) was politically skilful in advancing the case for appeasement, but his judgement erred in believing he could trust Hitler, who openly and satirically despised him. Working for a different Prime Minister, (D.L-G) Winston Churchill had been minister of munitions, and, after 1918, minister for war, which meant army and RAF. Always an anti-communist WSC was distrusted by Stalin, who ignored Churchill’s warning that the Nazis would invade the USSR, in flagrant breach of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The Anglo-French ultimatum to Berlin was, rightly, perceived as a bluff and ignored, except, sadly, by Poland. Under the terms of the treaty Poland was bound to come to our aid if the UK was attacked, which they did. In the Battle of Britain Polish pilots with combat experience fought for us alongside recently recruited and scantily trained British pilots. Totally untrained, brave, female pilots delivered aircraft from the factories to the RAF squadrons. The Fourth Republic of France declined to launch mines into the Rhine lest Germany should also attack them. Songs about ‘Hanging out the washing on the Siegfried line’ showed uninformed bravado. Germany’s defences were scanty because they intended to attack.

  • Robert Irwin 14th Apr '18 - 4:39pm

    I wrote to Sir Vince making broadly the same points.

    However I think the final two paragraphs over-generous. Firstly, without the American help in liberating Western Europe in WW2 I believe that GB would have become a Soviet client state by the 1960s, and remember that Stalin murdered more people than Hitler did. Secondly, modern Russia is run by kleptocrat gangsters with little regard for human rights and the rule of law. They are expansionist, interfere in our democracy, carry out assassinations on our streets and they should be firmly stood up to.

  • My letter to Vince would be a reminder that some things don’t change in the middle east with a copy of Gladstone’s 1876 pamphlet “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.” https://attackingthedevil.co.uk/related/bulgarian_horrors.php

    “Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves… clear out from the province they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps on heaps of dead; to the violated purity alike of matron, of maiden, and of child; to the civilization which has been affronted and shamed; to the laws of God or, if you like, of Allah; to the moral sense of mankind at large. There is not a criminal in an European gaol, there is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands, whose indignation would not rise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done, which has too late been examined, but which remains unavenged; which has left behind all the foul and all the fierce passions that produced it, and which may again spring up, in another murderous harvest, from the soil soaked and reeking with blood, and in the air tainted with every imaginable deed of crime and shame. That such things should be done once, is a damning disgrace to the portion of our race which did them; that a door should be left open for their ever-so-barely possible repetition would spread that shame over the whole.”

  • Peter Farrell-Vinay 15th Apr '18 - 1:16am

    Peter Wrigley’s letter is more structured handwaving. It fails to define the problem, propose any solution or define any worthwhile end state. It is an excellent example of why we are not trusted by the British people to face facts or think straight.

  • Peter
    A lot of British people are wary of any further intervention in the Middle East. It certainly didn’t make the streets of Britain safer.

  • To be honest to me it isn’t a case of whether or not it’s justified. I just wished our political representatives stopped trying to project an image of global power and allowed Britain to become more like Belgium or Norway or something. No one asks what those kinds of sensible countries intend to do every time there’s a flare up in the ME and that’s how I want Britain to be. More concerned with domestic issues and taking a back seat in these destructive attempts at geo-politics. It would cost less, be safer and put more on emphasis on domestic policies. The electorate have never really supported the last 20 years of militarised interference and quite rightly so.

  • Andrew Melmoth 15th Apr '18 - 12:26pm

    As our real power and influence declines through Brexit the keener our establishment will be to project an image of global power through military means.

  • Andrew.
    Most of these escapades happened while in the EU and being in it doesn’t appear to dampen the enthusiasm of the French leadership either. This stuff will actually carry on until we start taking action at the ballot box, making it politically toxic and stop giving support to hawks. The problem started in the first gulf war under John Major, an enthusiastic advocate of the EU and then got consolidated under Tony Blair, who gave being PM a kind of presidential gloss. It’s become part of the political narrative that Britain has to respond like a reborn superpower and that our political representatives need to be seen doing big things.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Apr '18 - 2:29pm

    I agree that two wrongs don’t make a right. However, in my view using chemical weapons is a red line and only a proportionate response will allow the perpetrators think again. Unlike the nuclear deterrent, a military response might just hinder further use. With the UN impotent with the veto, someone must do something. We don’t know anyone was hurt during these targeted raids and I hope they weren’t. An absolute value of not using the military at all apart from self defence is just not credible.

  • Vince Cable’s pathetic justification for his support of the UK bombing of Syria only serves to highlight the sickening hypocrisy of our attitude towards military conflict in the middle east.

    It’s seems that we only need the slightest excuse to attack the Russian-backed Syrian regime, but under no circumstances must we voice the slightest criticism of the UK/US-backed Saudi destruction of Yemen.

    I don’t know whether or not Assad used chemical weapons in Douma (Donald Trump says yes, Robert Fisk says no – take your pick) but I do know that children are being ripped apart by conventional bombs on a daily basis in both Syria and Yemen and we are actively selling weapons and providing military advisors to a Saudi government that
    (according to most international charities) has turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian disaster facing the world today.

    The simple reality is that we can do very little to stop the civil war in Syria (a few bombs aren’t going to make the slightest difference to Assad and Putin), but we can have a significant impact on what is happening in Yemen by withdrawing our support for the barbaric Saudi regime.

    Of course, that’s never going to happen. The Saudi’s have oil and they spend a significant amount of that revenue in the UK – and no British Government is going to allow integrity to interfere with business – and if more children have to die so be it if it means jobs for British workers and higher profits for Theresa and friends.

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