Hilary Benn: There are no easy choices on Syria - but MPs must make the call

Protesters during a demonstration against military intervention in Syria in Parliament Square, London.
Protesters during a demonstration against military intervention in Syria in Parliament Square, London.
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THERE will not be any victors in the war in Syria; there are only victims – the 400,000 or so whose lives have been lost and the many others whose lives have been changed by the injuries they have suffered.

More than half the population have been forced to flee their homes, which have been destroyed, and large parts of the country have been laid waste. We all, without any equivocation, support the upholding of the convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons, but I genuinely believe that if military action is to be taken in these circumstances, it must be Parliament’s decision, not the Cabinet’s.

If we do not get Parliament’s support, I do not think we will win the support of the public and give our decisions the greatest force they could have.

Why does that matter? First, ever since the vote on Iraq in 2003, Parliament has been 
asked to approve the commitment of UK forces to action: in Libya in 2011, Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015.

That gives me the opportunity gently to point out that, two and a bit years after we took that decision, following the combined effort, on the ground by the Iraqi forces and the Kurds in the main, with the support of a number of countries from the air, more than three million people have been liberated from the cruel rule of Daesh, which committed genocide and war crimes.

Parliament rejected both motions on Syria in 2013, although in the retelling of that story MPs need to remember that either of those resolutions, had they been carried, could have resulted in military action against Assad for the use of chemical weapons.

If it was right to seek Parliament’s approval then, in respect of exactly the same country and exactly the same issue – the use of chemical weapons on innocent Syrian civilians – it was right to have done so last week, for exactly the same reasons.

The second reason I argue that Parliament should have taken the decision is that military action is never without risk, particularly in this case given the number of states that have become directly involved in the Syrian conflict.

I freely confess that the temperament of the current occupant of the White House, who shows little if any understanding of the responsibilities he holds as the President of the United States, made me worry last week about the consequences of what he might do.

I also freely admit that those worries have been considerably assuaged since by the targeted nature of the strikes and the great care taken to ensure that there was no collateral damage, physical or diplomatic, while seeking to damage Syria’s chemical weapons capacity.

By definition, there are no easy choices and no certainty in the response to this conflict. There is also no shortage of advice on what we should not be doing. Earlier, in Parliament Square, we saw the placards that appear from time to time, bearing the words “Don’t Bomb Syria”.

I say from time to time because their appearance is somewhat erratic. I have never seen those placards, or reports of their appearance, outside the Russian embassy – or, indeed, the Syrian embassy while it was still open prior to 2014 – although Russia and, in particular, Syria have been bombing Syrian civilians for years. Selective silence in the face of brutality is neither principled nor a policy.

Then there is the issue of humanitarian protection. If we accept the argument that no action to protect civilians can ever be undertaken unless it has been authorised by the United Nations Security Council, we will have accepted that the use of a veto by any one of the five permanent members will prevent the taking of any unilateral action to protect human beings in need.

I want the United Nations to work, and I want the Security Council to do its job, but the question is whether the Security Council’s decisions – or the lack of them – can always be the end of the matter.

We must also acknowledge that we live in a world in which fake news is becoming ever more common. We used to call it lies. It is lies, but for a purpose; it is about sapping morale, undermining understanding and preventing people from acting.

I make this argument because the truth is that we have been here before, and we will be here again unless we can build a better system for stopping conflict before we get to this point. Let us be honest: in relation to this conflict, the chances are that President Assad is going to win, although what he will do with his country — which he, more than anyone else, has been responsible for destroying — I have no idea whatever.

In conclusion, I simply say that we can debate particular action at particular times and we hope it will have a beneficial effect, but the truth of this tragedy is that we can, and we must as a world, do much better.

Hilary Benn is the Labour MP for Leeds Central. A former Shadow Foreign Secretary, he spoke in the Syria debate in Parliament – this is an edited version.