Tuesday's Commons debate on Aleppo, diplomatic urgings for ceasefires and options in the face of Russian and Assad aggression
This week the House of Commons debated Aleppo, and all the conflicting choices, or lack of them ,that are available to concerned western powers who wish to stop the fighting. It is easy to say that something must be done. I know of no one who does not wish to see an end to the bloodshed. But any action requires putting british airmen potentially in harms way, even if they are attempting merely a drop of humanitarian supplies. Such an airman could be shot down by Assad, Russian, rebel or Isis forces. If they were so shot down then what does the uk do? These were some of the issues raised in the debate. The full debate is here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2016-12-13/debates/AUTO-d7b2c795-ffef-490d-9fb0-30f4279af40c/AleppoSyriaInternationalAction Best speech of the day was by the former chancellor George Osborne:
"I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on speaking with such passion and compassion for the citizens of Aleppo, and on bringing to bear his experience as one of the country’s outstanding International Development Secretaries. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate; it is good to see my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary here to respond to it.
What we have heard already moves us to tears: the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo; the reports today of residents being shot on sight; and the barbarous assault by the Syrian army, Iranian militias and Russian airpower that the Morning Star, as we have heard, describes as a “liberation”. Let me offer my support and gratitude to the incredibly brave people who are risking their lives as doctors and White Helmet workers in that war zone. I support everything that has been said about what we need to do to get aid into Aleppo, or to provide some kind of ceasefire so that civilians can get out of Aleppo.
The whole concept of an emergency debate suggests that this tragedy has somehow come upon us out of the blue and that there is an almost natural aspect to it, but that is not the case. The Syrian civil war has been waged since 2011, so this is something that we could have foreseen and done somethingabout. We are deceiving ourselves in this Parliament if we believe that we have no responsibility for what has happened in Syria. The tragedy in Aleppo did not come out of a vacuum; it was created by a vacuum—a vacuum of western leadership, including American and British leadership. I take responsibility, as someone who sat on the National Security Council throughout those years, and Parliament should also take its responsibility because of what it prevented being done.
There were multiple opportunities to intervene. In 2012, David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, devised a plan for a much more aggressive intervention in Syria, providing lethal support to what was then clearly a moderate opposition in the Free Syrian Army. That approach was rejected. Britain provided support for flak jackets, medical kits and so forth, but it was clear throughout 2012 and 2013 that there was not a parliamentary majority in this House for providing lethal support to that opposition so that they could shoot down helicopters and aircraft, and fire back with sophisticated weaponry.
In 2013, of course, this House of Commons took a decision not to back a Government motion to authorise airstrikes when Assad used chemical weapons, breaking a 100-year-old taboo—we established it in the west and it survived the second world war—that you do not use chemical weapons, as well as crossing a red line that the President of the United States had established.
On the narrow point, in August 2013, we were responding to the use of chemical weapons and providing airstrikes as a demonstration that the use of those weapons was completely unacceptable and that a red line had been crossed—and, indeed, that the west had established that red line. Of course, once this House of Commons took its decision, I believe it did have an impact on American politics. We cannot have it both ways—we cannot debate issues such as Syria and then think that our decisions have no impact on the rest of the world. I think that that did cause a delay in the American Administration’s actions and did cause Congress to get cold feet.
This is where I want to begin to draw my remarks to a close, because I know many Members want to speak. The last time I spoke from the Back Benches was in 2003, from the Opposition Benches, when we were debating intervention in Iraq. We all know the price of intervention. My political generation knows the price of intervention: the incredibly brave servicemen and women who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of civilians who died in those conflicts; the cost to taxpayers in this country; the chaos that inevitably follows when there is intervention in a country; and, of course, the division in our society, our families and our communities.
I believe, however, that we have come to a point where it is impossible to intervene anywhere—we lack the political will, as the west, to intervene. I nevertheless have some hope for what might come out from this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is that we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening. We did not intervene in Syria, and tens of thousands of people have been killed as a result while millions of refugees have been sent from their homes across the world. We have allowed a terrorist state to emerge in the form of ISIS, which we are now trying to defeat. Key allies such as Lebanon and Jordan are destabilised, and the refugee crisis has transformed the politics of Europe, allowing fascism to rise in eastern Europe and creating extremist parties in western Europe. For the first time since Henry Kissinger kicked it out of the middle east in the 1970s, Russia is back as the decisive player in that region. That is the price of not intervening.
Let us have our debate, and let us do everything that we can to help the civilians of Aleppo. Let us hope that the new American Administration and the new Secretary of State work with the Russians to get the ceasefire, but let us be clear now that if we do not shape the world, we will be shaped by it.
I will finish on the words of one columnist who put it well: