By Eleanor Beever
Prime Minister Theresa May’s authorisation of strikes on Saturday against chemical weapons facilities in Syria run by the Assad regime has triggered sharp divisions across British politics. Especially controversial was her authorisation of strikes after a consultation with only a handful of senior ministers, instead of having sought a vote in Parliament.
On the surface, the political disagreement appears to follow a partisan divide, with Theresa May’s right-wing Conservative party in favour of the strikes, and the left-wing Labour party questioning them. But the reality is more complex, and it tells us much about the British political climate today and how that might affect its future actions in Syria.
Protesters outside British Parliament in London on 16 April, 2018, on the same day when MPs were debating British involvement in the latest ballistic strike on Syria. (Below pictures are of the same protest. Tolga AKMEN / AFP
Gruelling six-hour debate
In a gruelling six-hour debate on Monday discussing the aftermath of the strikes, Prime Minister May rejected the notion that the decision to strike should have been approved by the United Nations. She said that this was tantamount to Russia having a veto over British foreign policy, given its veto power on the UN Security Council. In a second debate on Tuesday, she said that such a vote would compromise the efficacy of the strike.
For the most part, her party have stood firmly behind her in supporting military action. Conservative MP for Windsor Adam Afriyie echoed this sentiment. Speaking to Al Bawaba, he said:
“Assad has shown a pattern of disregard for a one-hundred-year international effort to prevent the use of chemical weapons. When thousands of men, women and children have suffered the appalling effects of these dreadful chemicals, it is absolutely right that the UK and its allies have used the minimum force possible to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability, and deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria and around the world.”
Parliament must have a right
However, a small number of Conservative MPs expressed reservations. The former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, though he later expressed support for the strike, insisted that Parliament must have the right to debate military action.
The Liberal Democrats have expressed dismay over the lack of a Parliamentary vote, although are ready to consider evidence in favour of the strikes themselves. Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told Al Bawaba:
“It seems very likely the strikes inflicted significant damage on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles. However, we don’t yet know whether this will deter their use in the long-run, which is one of the reasons it is important for the British Parliament to be shown evidence and then vote on strikes like this one.”
On the Powers of Parliament
It is within the leftist Labour party that disagreement over Syria has proven most controversial. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has not only opposed the strikes and Parliament’s lack of a vote, but he has since sought to introduce a new War Powers Act that would require a Parliamentary vote on military intervention.
In debate on Tuesday, Corbyn argued that the Prime Minister having unilateral action sets a dangerous precedent, and that “The Executive must be the servant of Parliament – not the other way around." Labour tabled a protest motion as to whether Parliament’s rights had been respected, a motion that Corbyn voted against, but that passed with a majority of 61.
Corbyn has received support from many of his MPs, a number of whom have cited the government’s lack of strategy as a serious concern. Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford, told Al Bawaba:
“Before embarking on military action, we needed assurances that there is a longer term strategy and a goal. It is not clear what that strategy or goal are, so I cannot support action in the absence of any such clarity. Bombing raids should not have happened without the approval of Parliament.
Those responsible for what appears to have been a horrific chemical attack in contravention of international law must be held to account, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will hopefully continue their inspections. As Jeremy Corbyn says, Britain should take a diplomatic lead, and aim to negotiate peace through the UN. A coordinated international approach to establishing a peaceful solution is what is required.”
The Labour party has also released a legal opinion that contradicts that of the Attorney General Jeremy Wright. Wright said that there was a legal case for intervention as the strikes aimed to prevent humanitarian disaster and future use of chemical weapons. But Labour commissioned legal advice from Dapo Akande, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Oxford.
Professor Akande has argued that international law does not permit military action on grounds of humanitarian intervention, and that the strikes did not in practice meet the legal tenets set out by the government to justify them.
Nevertheless, Corbyn is not without a significant number of dissenters. Labour MPs Jess Phillips, Hilary Benn and Wes Streeting were among a significant number of those who said that though there should have been a Parliamentary vote, they supported the strikes. It appears that if there had been a Parliamentary vote, Labour divergence from Corbyn’s position was such that the vote would have passed anyway.
Adding to the friction within Labour is Corbyn’s apparent reluctance to blame Assad for the chemical weapons attacks. Corbyn continues to suggest that the attacks could have been conducted by forces other than President Assad’s, and said that assigning blame should wait until the inspection by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is completed.
However, he has previously avoided condemning Assad in incidents where the UN and Human Rights Watch investigations have concluded that the regime deployed chemical weapons. According to Human Rights Watch, whilst other forces including ISIS have used chemical weapons such as mustard gas, there is conclusive evidence that Assad has been responsible for a majority of the 86 verified chemical weapons attacks in Syria so far.
This divide on the left over whether intervention is ever right and whether Assad is responsible goes further than Parliament. The British left has a strong-tradition of anti-war activism, and Jeremy Corbyn has been one of that tradition’s most enduring voices. Anti-war voices have steadily amplified in Labour ever since the invasion of Iraq, when Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair led Britain into a war that is now widely regarded as an unmitigated disaster.
Iraq was not the only reason behind Corbyn’s surprise victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest, although the spectre of the war is never far from British foreign policy-making. Corbyn’s win galvanized activism around a range of topics on the political left.
However, Syria has produced a rift between left-leaning activists as well, to a degree that neither side can agree on what constitutes reliable evidence. Oz Katerji, a former coordinator for the charity Help Refugees, and an activist and film-maker, has witnessed this growing split. Speaking to Al Bawaba, he said:
“I think that this ideological division tells us that the left is still searching for its soul after Iraq. It shows that the left still hasn’t accepted that interventions can be both life-saving and necessary. We are involved in a disinformation war, and there are elements of the left that have taken not so much the side of the Russian government, but rather the opposite side of whatever the British government is arguing.
This becomes apparent when you present evidence of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry will present fabricated evidence. And those same voices on the far-left that hold the British government to an impossible threshold of evidence will accept Russian testimony without question. People fall back on the idea that Assad represents stability, effectively buying the regime’s argument. They fail to acknowledge the fact that Assad is responsible for the war, and for over 90% of civilian deaths.”
How these divisions across British politics and society will affect the country’s future action on Syria is yet to be seen. For now, it appears that May has a reasonable chance of Parliamentary support should she seek further action in Syria. But if Syria is still at war when government changes hands in the future, a very different spirit may take control of British foreign policy.
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