On 7 April, the world was horrified by the news that 75 people, including young children, were killed in a despicable and barbaric chemical weapons attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties. Images clearly show men, women and children lying dead with foam in their mouths. These were not military casualties, these were innocent families who were seeking shelter underground.
In a measured response Britain alongside its allies - the United States and France - launched an air strike against sites linked to the Assad regime’s chemical and biological warfare operations.
For more than seven years, the world has alternated between ignoring Syria, wringing its hands in despair and treating it as a pawn in cynical power play. It has even been caught up in UK parliamentary point scoring. It has been about anything but the people it most affects.
The Prime Minister was right when she told MPs this week in a compelling statement that it is a “stain on humanity” that an air raid could take place that left “children gasping for life as chemicals choked their lungs”. But as the public debate shows us, there is an uncomfortable and undeniable truth: that British foreign policy continues to be haunted by the past.
Those who seek to conflate the airstrike in Syria and the war against Saddam Hussein are wrong to do so. The missiles launched at the weekend had one clear aim: to destroy chemical weapons that have repeatedly been used against civilians by the Assad regime. The war against Saddam Hussein, was embarked on to confront WMDs that turned out not to exist.
A better comparison was offered by Labour MP Barry Sheerman who equated Assad’s actions with those of Hitler during the Blitz. “I was born on the worst weekend of the Blitz and my next-door neighbours’ children were killed that night,” he said. “So when I hear of a tyrant killing children I want action. I have no criticism of the prime minister.”
It is naïve to argue that military intervention should be dependent on the backing of the UN – we know that Russia would veto it in the Security Council, as it has already on multiple occasions. It is dangerously naïve to cast doubt over whether the Assad regime is to blame for the deadly gas attack in Syria – as the Labour front bench seem to suggest. It serves to lend credence to the outlandish Russian claim that the White Helmets, the volunteer search-and-rescue unit in Syria, had been responsible for staging the chemical weapons attack on Douma.
Every decade, the world is tested with a conflict that is so horrific and so inhumane that new thinking and bold leadership are required to address it. The response of politicians to the crisis becomes emblematic of their generation, their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us.
I have been Chairing the APPG Friends of Syria for some years now alongside Labour’s Alison McGovern and as two people from different parties, from different generations and backgrounds, there is a lot we disagree on. But we agree on one thing: there is nothing ethical about standing to one side when civilians are being murdered or maimed. There was no excuse in Bosnia, none in Rwanda and there isn’t now.
I find myself in complete agreement when a Labour MP told his leader during the Commons debate: “Those who would do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground . . . should also be held accountable for once.”