30 Aug. 2013: The Syria vote in the British parliament
On 29 August parliamentarians in the United Kingdom defeated a government motion that would have opened the way for a military strike against the Syrian regime of President Bashir al‑Assad in response to its use of chemical weapons on civilians. This was the first such defeat on an issue of war and peace in over 150 years. What preliminary conclusions can be made on the international significance of the vote?
The government introduced the motion deploring ‘the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians’ and asserting that ‘a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons’.
The government motion was defeated. The vote was not taken lightly by any parliamentarian, but the outcome was nonetheless a surprise.
Why the House of Commons rejected the government motion
Why was the House of Commons not convinced? Listening to the debate, and reading the parallel debate that took place in the House of Lords, there seem to have been four issues of primary concern.
First, the underlying premise on which the motion was based appeared to be logically flawed. The motion put forward an argument based on a hybrid of different parts of international humanitarian law. For example, the resolution was said to relate ‘solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons’.
The need to alleviate humanitarian suffering would stand alone as an argument, since any deliberate attack on civilians would be illegal—regardless of the choice of weapons. At the same time, the parts of international law that criminalize the use of chemical weapons and that are binding on Syria have no mechanism allowing states to take military action based only on their own determination of the facts.
Second, there was no explanation of the objective of military action and how this would be connected to the nature of the military operations undertaken. While the government stressed that the objective would be deterrence, not punishment, there was no accompanying detail as to which military actions were envisaged, and how they would deter the future use of chemical weapons.
Third, the government failed to provide any indication of its thinking on the aftermath of military action. What, in the view of the government, would be the likely direct and indirect consequences, and what measures would be put in place to deal with them?
Fourth, the timing of the debate caused concerns, with the government failing to explain why it was necessary to have a decision that the use of force was legal in principle at this particular moment—knowing that in only a few days additional information would become available in the form of an interim assessment by a United Nations expert team tasked with analysing the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.
The international implications of the vote
One conclusion that can be drawn from the defeat of the motion in the House of Commons is that there is a need to work continuously to strengthen international law, including enforcement of agreed measures. While international law is violated frequently—and the violations are often egregious—the debate was testimony to the enduring impact of law. Governments feel compelled to make legal arguments and find legal justifications to demonstrate the legitimacy of their actions, and not act only on the basis of power politics.
A second conclusion is the need to assess the instruments available for the conduct of international statecraft. The debate revealed a deep scepticism about the utility of military instruments to achieve positive outcomes, but did not contain much by way of a constructive alternative in what everyone agrees to be a grave and tragic conflict. The premature recourse to military action is, at least in part, a reflection of the failure to develop a wider range of effective measures.
In its motion, the government referred to the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the past two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis. The international solidarity and cooperation that seemed to be developing after the cold war have been lost, despite empirical evidence which indicates that only actions anchored by broad international agreement are sustainable.
A third conclusion, closely linked to the second, is that there is a need for all states to recommit to a search for cooperative security. The principles that were agreed and codified at the end of the cold war are a starting point for that process, but the changed security environment requires wider participation in the cooperative security dialogue.
Dr Ian Anthony is Director of the Arms Control and Non-proliferation Programme.