We don’t know yet whether there will be a US-led military strike on Syria, when it might be, or exactly what form it will take. But we do now know that Britain will not be part of any such attack following the defeat in Parliament yesterday of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Government by the Labour opposition, as well as many MPs from his own Conservative Party. Tellingly, the Government motion that was voted down only called for considering action if UN inspectors find evidence that Assad was responsible.
What this means is that Britain’s lawmakers were not expressing skepticism about Assad’s culpability. Their message, no doubt received loud and clear by the dictator in Damascus, was that at least one major western democracy has no interest in deterring further use of weapons of mass destruction by his regime. As Cameron said during the debate:
“I think we can be as certain as possible that a regime that has used chemical weapons on 14 occasions and is most likely responsible for this large-scale attack, will conclude, if nothing is done, that it can use these weapons again and again on a larger scale and with impunity.”
Yesterday’s vote leaves me embarrassed about the country of my birth, ashamed of the Labour Party of which I was a member for over ten years and sad that one of the world’s great democracies seems to have abandoned the field of justice and moral authority.
Many people for whom I have a lot of admiration have queried why the use of chemical weapons should be “a red line” for the west, when tens of thousands of people have been killed since the civil war in Syria began. I respectfully disagree with their premise. There’s a reason why chemical and biological weapons are uniquely classified – and prohibited – under international law. They can have no other use but to kill, and on a massive scale. Conventional bombing does, of course, claim many lives, but it can be, and usually is, targeted. There is always “collateral damage” (a horrible phrase), but that is not the same as using a weapon, the only purpose of which is to kill huge numbers of people indiscriminately.
Assad is of course following in the footsteps of another Arab tyrant, Saddam Hussein. The British historian Andrew Roberts’s recent article comparing the two quoted the celebrated war correspondent Richard Beeston, who entered Halabja in 1988 after Saddam’s attempted genocide of Iraq’s Kurds by poison gas:
“Like figures unearthed in Pompeii, the victims of Halabja were killed so quickly that their corpses remained in suspended animation. There was a plump baby whose face, frozen in a scream, stuck out from under the protective arm of a man, away from the open door of a house that he never reached.”
Let’s not shy away from calling evil by its name. By using such weapons, Assad, like Saddam, has reached a higher level of depravity.
By chance, on the same day that news broke of events in Syria, I read of a United Nations commission hearing evidence from defectors from North Korea. The report detailed some of the inhuman crimes perpetrated by that regime. It’s worth quoting this paragraph in full:
“Speaking softly, she took a deep breath when describing in detail how a mother was forced to kill her own baby.
‘It was the first time I had seen a newborn baby and I felt happy. But suddenly there were footsteps and a security guard came in and told the mother to turn the baby upside down into a bowl of water,’ she said.
‘The mother begged the guard to spare her, but he kept beating her. So the mother, her hands shaking, put the baby face down in the water. The crying stopped and a bubble rose up as it died. A grandmother who had delivered the baby quietly took it out.'”
This is unimaginable cruelty. This is evil.
Jalal Talabani’s chilling description of Saddam’s Iraq as “a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it” actually fits North Korea even better. A country where the general population is subjected to near-starvation and the toxic whims of the small elite of psychopaths under supreme ruler Kim Jong Un. But it is also a nuclear power, and if anyone doubts the importance of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, remember this: There’s a reason why the regime in Pyongyang, despite its atrocities, is not vulnerable to foreign military intervention. The protection offered by a nuclear umbrella is absolute.
But just because it is impossible to intervene everywhere, that should never be an excuse not to act when it is both justified and possible. Syria (thanks to Israel lest we forget), does not have a nuclear bomb.
Let’s be clear, this is not about assisting the anti-regime rebels in Syria. That is a separate discussion. (No one can be sure that a rebel victory would be an improvement for the lives of ordinary Syrians, or for the security of the region. Here in Israel, experts are divided as to whether or not the fall of Assad would be the best thing for our security. It would rob Iran of its only real Arab ally and weaken, possibly terminally, Hezbollah. But it could also bring to power radical Sunni Islamists, less concerned than Assad has been with keeping the border with Israel quiet.)
This is about the democratic world powers letting Assad know, in uncompromising terms, that unconscionable acts of barbarity have consequences; that there are nations whose values simply cannot allow such acts to go unpunished. And this message is not just to Assad. It is also for the cynical and morally bankrupt governments of China and Russia, whose status as permanent members of the UN Security Council allows them to veto any attempts to bring the weight of that institution to bear on the Syrian President.
I for one am hugely proud that Israel has now treated some 150 injured Syrians in its hospitals since the fighting began; even while we can be sure that no enemy Arab country would do the same for us. It says something about our moral compass, and our appreciation of the value of every human life. By the same token, we cannot oppose a military response to the abomination that took place last week, even as we risk a possible retaliatory attack on Israel by Syria or Iran’s Hezbollah proxy.
There is evil in the world. Much of it – too much of it – cannot be easily obstructed or adequately punished. But where the free world can act, it should. Britain has, shamefully, opted to absent itself from this responsibility. The US and other allies may yet make the same, cowardly, decision. Or they can choose to teach the thugs and war criminals ruling Syria that their days of evil with impunity are over.