IN his first major speech as a backbencher since the Iraq crisis, George Osborne, the former Chancellor, offered this perspective on the slaughter in Syria as he criticised the West’s lack of leadership.
WHAT we have heard moves us to tears: the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in Aleppo; the reports of residents being shot on sight; and the barbarous assault by the Syrian army, Iranian militias and Russian airpower.
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 the need 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 something about. 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 for providing lethal support to that opposition.
In 2013, of course, the 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.
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.
The last time I spoke from the backbenches 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.
George Osborne is the former Chancellor and a Conservative MP.