Published on September 3, 2013

Syria has used chemical weapons and you’re proposing a national debate?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

berlinThe debate about what to do about Syria has become polarised in terms of to intervene or not. These are not the only options, but to take any other form of decisive action will require a very different conversation between politicians and citizens. 

Godwin’s Law says, “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” During a recent Radio 4 Today Programme debate about military intervention in Syria we hit a similar point, with one contributor arguing for military intervention comparing those against to Neville Chamberlain. The discussion was going nowhere.

The debate about ‘what to do about Syria’ has taken on a very predictable shape. It’s one we saw in the run-up to military action in Kosovo in 1998, Iraq in 2003 and will see again. It’s a debate of two sides: side one, appalling acts have been carried-out and we have a moral responsibility to act vs side two, military action will only make matters worse and should not go ahead (variations of this say, or only with an unachievable Security Council resolution).

The Onion, the online satirical magazine, sums up the absurdity of this debate in an article ‘written’ by Bashar Al-Assad. Here the futility of either option is laid bare. To stand back and do nothing risks leaving the international community toothless and fails the civilians suffering under the Syrian regime. On the other hand, intervening can only make the situation worse.

Casting the debate in these terms presents the only options as being those which damage international law and make the world a riskier place in the long term.

Intervening without legal authorisation provides cover for any other nation to do the same at any point in the future. And in a multipolar world where there are many nations capable of intervening, at least regionally if not globally, this prospect makes me feel very insecure. However, doing nothing to uphold international law leads down a path to a world of similar insecurity, a world where tyrants feel able to act with impunity.

Casting the debate in terms of two equally unattractive options is unhelpful. There are other actions we can take: diverting the money we’d spend on military intervention to support the large influx of refugees to Jordan and Turkey; working tirelessly and openly for a coherent international response, agreed through the UN; or do everything possible to bring those accused of authorising and carrying-out the chemical attack to face trial at the International Criminal Court, for example.

However, recasting the debate to include options beyond military action, particularly those that would enable us to follow a strategy of upholding international law, would require us to act coherently and to a common objective over a long period of time. This in turn would require a completely different national and political debate about the role and place of the UK in a multi-polar world.

A recent report from the UK Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee called for deliberative public engagement in areas of the UK’s national strategy, including foreign policy. The debate about our role in the Syrian crisis, including the parliamentary vote which saw fewer than 13 votes difference between the two sides, has laid bare the lack of national consensus about our role in complex crises such as these.

There will be some who will say that it is absurd (or worse) to propose public engagement about our long term foreign policy strategy at a time when people are dying from a chemical weapons attack. They will say that I am hiding behind international law, appeasing dictators who commit crimes against humanity.

However, were the rebels to use chemical weapons in the future, would we agree that Russia has the right to bomb their strategic positions in response? I really don’t think so – and playing out this counter argument lays bare the legal and moral emptiness of the arguments of those calling for unilateral military action. It also highlights how vacuous the current debate is.

We need to find a different way to build a clearer picture of what productive actions the UK can take in situations such as these. A picture that recognises our obligations as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, but also the historical texture of our role in the regions where this sort of crisis is likely to emerge again, and therefore are most likely to feel that we must do something.

My conclusion is that the Prime Minister and Parliament should be reaching out to UK citizens to engage them in a meaningful and deeply deliberative conversation where all options about our role in the world are on the table. If they don’t then we will be in the same position within five years, debating two equally unappetising options about whether to intervene or not in a conflict that seems far from home (that’s a prediction I’m happy to be held to). And we will have done nothing to tighten the net of international law that will help ensure the security of the next generation.

Picture Credit: Berlin Holocaust Memorial by Stephen Kosloff

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