Saturday 14 April 2018

UK Engages in Expensive Gesture Politics in Syria

Damage to the Syrian Scientific Research Center after it was attacked by U.S., British and French military strikes to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Barzeh, near Damascus (credit NBC News).

In the early hours of Saturday the US, France and UK military forces launched a missile attack on targets in Syria, as a response to the alleged chemical weapons attack by Syrian forces last week. The Pentagon says three targets were hit by more than a hundred missiles. The facilities hit were used in the production of chemical weapons according to the Pentagon and has reduced Syria’s capability to produce these weapons. Missiles were launched from aircraft and ships.

At the time of writing information is short on the extent of the damage on the ground and whether there have been any civilian casualties resulting from the strikes. It is hard to believe there were none, from what we have seen in the past when cruise missiles are used in urban areas, like Saturday’s attack. If the reports coming out of the US, France and UK are correct and these sites did indeed hold chemical weapons, then there is surely a risk of chemicals being released into the atmosphere?

For the UK’s part, official reports say that four Tornado war planes took part in the attack, launching cruise missiles while airborne, probably from outside of Syrian airspace. It costs millions of pounds to use one these missiles, so the raid will have run into approaching half a billion pounds to the UK taxpayer, when we have been told for the last eight years that the country is skint, and can’t afford decent public services. How many nurses and police officers could that pay for? Quite few, I think.

The UK prime minister, Theresa May, took the decision to authorise the attack while Parliament is still on Easter recess. MPs return on Monday when Parliament reopens, and an emergency debate will be held, in retrospect. Constitutionally, it is not entirely clear that May is allowed to take military action, without the approval of Parliament.

This is because the British constitution in general is not clear, it is not written down in any one document, like the US constitution, but rather has evolved over time and has many different feeds into what is constitutional. May will claim that she doesn’t need Parliament’s approval, and in some ways she is right. Declaring war was always a subject that attracted the Royal Prerogative, like other foreign policy issues.

But the British constitution is in many cases based on conventions. In 2003, Tony Blair to his credit, allowed a debate and vote on the UK getting involved in the invasion of Iraq, although he didn’t have to constitutionally. I think he wanted the extra cover this would provide him with, because the action was controversial in the country at large. David Cameron followed suit when he was prime minister and wanted to bomb Syria. Cameron unlike Blair lost the vote in Parliament.

What this did was to establish a convention, that when acts of war are being authorised, Parliament should have a say, and take the final decision. So, from this point of view, May’s actions are unconstitutional. This illustrates why we need a proper written down constitution, rather than the mixed bag of a one that the UK currently has.  

The attack appears to have been careful to avoid Russian military casualties, and Russia was given advance warning of the operation. The scale is also fairly limited, but is being justified as a deterrent to Syria’s president Assad using chemical weapons again. I find this unconvincing. The US bombed Syria a year ago with the same reasoning, but appear to have not deterred this latest use of chemical weapons, if they were used, which is still not fully established.

So, the assumption is that this is just an expensive gesture type of politics, which has no further justification or aims. A deadly but futile gesture. I hope MPs put the prime minister on the spot on Monday, because I can’t see what this action was meant to meaningfully achieve?  

1 comment:

  1. Spot on!
    Constitutionally, regardless of whether she had the right to make this decision without Parliament, we should remember that May is head of an ILLEGAL government.
    Sadly, altho' the Green Party's 2016 Spring Conference OVERWHELMINGLY passed my Emergency Motion, calling on our leadership to launch a campaign calling for by-elections in ALL GE2015 Tory fraud seats, they did...NOTHING!
    Had we followed Iceland's lead (on how to deal with a corrupt PM), we wouldn't still have this ILLEGAL government, which has just acted illegally again!