Thursday, November 26, 2015

NByNW Diary: Beware of Simplicity in the Syria Debate

Thursday 26th November
This is a rather serious entry. It is also rather long, so for ease it is in sections. The first concerns the events of the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament on Syria this morning. The second analyses the strategy. The third looks at where this leaves us.

1. The Prime Minister’s Statement
One of the reasons for my lack of levity, is that there doesn’t seem to be much to mock. Today, in many ways, saw the Commons at its best. Normally when the Prime Minister is before the House there is the braying and roaring and besuited hooliganism that makes this diarist, as well as countless others, despair. Not so today.
Today, the Prime Minister made his statement on strategy in Syria, as he builds up for a vote to extend our airstrikes against ISIS from their current mission in Iraq. He spoke eloquently and carefully. There was no bombast, but a frank assessment of the matter at hand and of our ability to deal with it. He proposes that we join the coalition currently bombing ISIS military targets (arms depots, training facilities, oil plants, oil convoys etc.), but has confirmed that no western ground forces will go in (because that doesn’t seem to have gone well in the past). He hopes that a grand coalition can be born out of the myriad forces in conflict in Syria. As for legality, the advice is never published, but the recent UN Resolution 2249 authorises “all necessary measures” to defeat ISIS.
In response, Jeremy Corbyn asked seven pertinent questions. The Prime Minister answered them in a yes/no style, with further elaboration on each point. Angus Robertson of the SNP took a stronger stance against the proposed strikes, but argued his case and reiterated key concerns. He said the SNP will not, at present, vote to support airstrikes.
The session was filled with wisdom and concern, and for a few hours in the morning the frequent cynicism that I feel towards our democratic institution faded.

2. Where are the Flaws in the Strategy?
There can be no doubt, as all of the aforementioned leaders said, that the threat is real and that the suffering is too terrible to ignore. That creates the sense that something must be done but, as Yes Minister fans know, this leads to the danger of politician’s logic:
1. Something must be done.
      2. This is something.
      3. Therefore, I must do it.
Mr Corbyn and Mr Roberston are very right to be cautious, and they raise key issues. Even if these airstrikes are to be meticulously targeted on ISIS’ considerable military organisation, they would at best leave a vacuum in a politically turbulent area. It is not clear what ground forces would be able to secure a military victory, and no ideological consensus there to provide fertile soil for a victory of hearts and minds.
Nevertheless, Mr Cameron is equally right to follow his conscience and make his case. If something must be done, then to do nothing is such a horrific abnegation of responsibility that it should leave us with yet more shame on top of that we have accrued so far this century.
There is likely to be a vote soon – possibly next week – and it seems probable that the airstrikes will be authorised. Mr Cameron still has questions to answer about the long-term strategy, but those who are asking the questions must also seek for alternative answers. It is not enough to find the holes in this road. You have to fill them. Given the immense complexity of this situation, it will require people on all sides to work together.

3. Where Does This Leave Us?
In recent weeks, I have read opinions that describe the proposed intervention as simply us “wanting to play with the big boys”. This seems to be very far from the truth when thousands are being slaughtered in Syria and Iraq, and the threat travels overseas into museums, bars, music venues and more. It is worth saying again, the threat is real – not just to us, but to millions of others. If you care about the migrants who have fled across seas and continents, then you must equally care about those left behind.
We are wary. We are understandably wary. As a country, we are racked with guilt and anger over our obvious and dreadful errors in recent decades. Of course we do not want to repeat them. To his credit, Mr Cameron cites that recent history – even his own mistakes in Libya – and claims to be a student of them. Let us hope that he truly is.
However, many fear that this is just another instance of us sticking our oars into troubled waters only to make them more troubled still. Perhaps so. That is why this kind of scrutiny and debate must be celebrated and not scorned. We can never be certain about anything. All we can do is respectfully listen to all sides and humbly seek as much information as we can.
But, beware of misinformation. Beware of catchy memes. Beware of “facts” that get retweeted a thousand times.
For instance, on today’s Daily Politics, Lindsey German of Stop The War claimed that ISIS was being given arms by Saudi Arabia. It seems to chime with our fears and reservations of the Saudis. It is immensely plausible, and is within a 140 character limit. However, Next to her was Malcolm Chalmers, Director of the respected think tank on such things, the Royal United Services Institute. He had heard of no such evidence, nor could she actually provide it.
None of this grave situation is simple. Therefore, above all, beware simplicity.

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