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A solution for Syria

06 September 2013

THE defeat of the Commons motion to approve the principle of military action against Syria was an extraordinary moment in this country's political history. The phrase "a triumph of parliamentary democracy" inevitably means the defeat of the executive, and this is generally a messy business. So it proved last week. The people of Syria might have expected a degree of seriousness, and we have some sympathy with Michael Gove and his annoyance at Labour cheerfulness after the vote. It was the right outcome, but it was achieved, at least in part, for the wrong motives.

To deal first with the least impressive reason for the Government's 13-vote defeat (we pass over the two ministers who were out of earshot of the division bell), the accusation that Labour was playing party politics has traction. As Tony Blair showed, the use of military force is not an exclusively right-wing position; yet the Labour whips were busy to ensure that no one supported the government motion.

Second, it was inevitable that domestic politics played a part, since this was a vote about British forces, or, at least, munitions. But a country's reputation should not be a consideration in an action of this magnitude. On this score, it was alarming to hear Senator John McCain speaking in support of President Obama: "The credibility of this country among friends and adversaries alike would be shredded, and the impact would last not only for this presidency but for future presidencies as well."

It was more understandable that MPs should baulk at the lack of irrefutable evidence that President Assad's forces had carried out the chemical attacks. After the Iraq dossier fiasco, a government assertion of culpability was never going to be enough. If this were the only reason, however, the way ought to be open to another debate when, as seems likely, the evidence becomes clearer. The Labour Party's requirement that a "significant change" would be needed for it to acquiesce to a second vote needs explanation.

The Just War criteria include a consideration of the likelihood of success. If an action meets all the other just-war criteria but would fail, it should not be tried. This remains the likely outcome of missile strikes against Syrian military targets. But allowing chemical attacks to continue is not an option, either. What is lacking is a set of Just Peace criteria, which would encourage governments to commit more resources to peaceful resolution.

The best reason for declining to use military force would have been to prefer a better, more peaceful course of action. This should involve presenting evidence to President Assad's Russian and Chinese supporters, and negotiating a solution that not only stops the bloodshed, but secures Syria's future. The problem with a military option is that it seems so much easier than this, and is therefore so much more dangerous.

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