Yesterday, the House of Commons hosted an emergency debate on Syria. I wasn’t sure whether to feel good about this or bitter about it. I could feel good in the sense that at least parliament could see that what is happening in Aleppo at present is horrific enough to warrant such a thing; bitter in that the Commons has realised the error it made in 2013 far too late to help the people of that besieged city.
Alison McGovern, the Labour MP, was candid in admitting that she will live with her vote in 2013 for the rest of her life. George Osborne, speaking for the first time in the House since he left the frontbench, had this to say:
“I think 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, of American leadership, British leadership.”
That is very close to being a perfect account of the situation. And it is worth going back to 2013 to see how we ended up here.
August of the year in question. David Cameron has a plan to join the US in a reaction to Bashar Al-Assad using chemical weapons. He thinks he has the numbers in the House to approve this intervention – it turns out he does not. He loses the vote 285-272. As a result, the UK has to tell the US it will not join them in any military intervention in Syria. The US decides as a result not to go for it either.
This emboldens the Syrian regime and its two principle allies, Russia and Iran. Particularly Russia, which may have lasting consequences beyond the Middle East for years to come. A migrant crisis is a result, weakening the EU and even possibly tipping the UK towards Brexit. All because of 13 votes. Which means that if seven MPs had voted the other way that day, things could have been so different.
It is gutting to recall all those who voted against action in Syria that day; Hilary Benn, for instance. I suppose I can let the Labour MPs partly off the hook because they were following the whip, an action put in place by the then Labour leader that he has subsequently bragged about, something he should be ashamed of now. But as tempting as it is to blame Ed Miliband for all the world’s woes, it doesn’t quite stack up. Hilary Benn could have rebelled, as he did years later under Corbyn’s leadership; if those nine Lib Dem MPs had just followed the whip, that would have been enough on its own.
George Osborne is right: the House of Commons needs to take a lot of responsibility for what is happening in Aleppo now. The vote to sit on our hands and watch it happen is one of the most shameful episodes in British foreign policy ever. As Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, said during the debate:
“There is another inescapable reality that I’m afraid members must accept, which is on August 29, 2013, this House voted by thirteen votes not to use force against Assad even after he had poisoned hundreds of his people with sarin nerve gas. We as a House of Commons – we as a country – vacated that space into which Russia stepped, beginning its own bombing campaign on behalf of Assad. Ever since that vote, our ability to influence events in Syria or to protect civilians or compel the delivery of aid has been severely limited. The dictator was left to do his worst, along with his allies Russia and Iran, and the bloodiest tragedy of the 21st century has since unfolded.”
As many of you know, I am usually loathe to agree with Boris Johnson. But everything he said above was exactly correct.