Tough debate on Syria

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Parliament has been recalled today specifically to debate and to vote on possible British military intervention in Syria.

It is highly unusual for Parliament to be recalled, a position which reflects the magnitude of the decision.

The House of Commons was recalled from its Easter Recess earlier this year following the death of Margaret Thatcher.

It was also recalled from its Summer Recess two years ago to discuss the riots that had happened in Tottenham, Manchester and elsewhere across the UK.

The recall that the present event most resembles, however, is that which occurred in 2002, where Parliament debated possible military strikes in Iraq and the issue of Saddam Hussein.

That was before my time as MP, but I know from speaking with Parliamentary colleagues that the issue and debate on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction had a profound impact upon them.

Voting to send British troops to war, or otherwise, is a huge issue, probably the biggest that MPs have to consider. Thursday will be no different in the importance of the decision made.

This time, the House of Commons will debate and decide what the response to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria should be.

People will have seen the horrific images on television and newspapers of children and other innocent people killed by neurotoxic gas.

The United States is stating that there is clear evidence that the Syrian Government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, is responsible for using chemical weapons against its own people. This is disputed by the Syrian Government itself and others in the international community.

Everybody will be outraged and morally disgusted at the chemical attack on innocent people.

What the international response should be, and whether that response should be military intervention by Western powers, is much more difficult to answer. How does the international community make good a horrendous situation?

How on earth do we and other countries make clear that the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians can never, under any circumstances, be allowed to happen?

Does this automatically have to mean deployment of British military force?

How do we ensure that any intervention is limited and does not drag out into a protracted and bloody dispute for many, many years?

I’m writing this on Tuesday afternoon, an hour or so after David Cameron, quite rightly, asked for Parliament to be recalled. The British Government has not yet made the case or made clear the evidence as to why Britain may be using its armed forces in Syria.

At the time of writing, I have not had sight of the motion put forward by the Government. In fact, it’s not a question of making clear – it’s a question of not providing any evidence at all at the present time.

That is not in itself a criticism of the present Government: the present situation is extremely fast-moving and it is right that Parliament sees the evidence and makes a decision. But while listening to the debate these are the sort of questions that need to be answered clearly and decisively by the Prime Minister during the debate.

What are the purposes of any military strike involving Britain and British forces?

Is it regime change, designed to oust President Assad and his regime from power? Is it to choose sides and to back a particular faction in a deeply-embittered and violent civil war?

Before the Parliamentary recess in July there was talk of arming the Syrian rebels with British military equipment in order to bring down the regime.

This is something I would be opposed to for a number of reasons: it is difficult to identify who the rebels are and whether they are sympathetic to Britain and the West.

Is any military attack to pre-empt any further chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian people?

If it is, which seems to be the only possible explanation for military action, how robust is the intelligence regarding the location and ownership of the chemical weapons and how can military force remove the chemical weapons operability without compromising further civilian life?

These are the questions I want answering in the debate. This is an important decision that Parliament is being asked to make – the deployment of British forces is the biggest that MPs are asked to make. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary need to be listened to by the House of Commons with respect but also with scrutiny.