1. A debate is about to begin in the House of Commons over the possibility of military action against the Syrian regime.
MPs have been recalled early from their summer break by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to debate the issue. Up until last night it looked like the debate could be a vital vote whether to launch an attack against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but successive u-turns by both parties now make this a debate, rather than a decisive vote that will result in immediate military action.
2. This morning the government has published three documents relating to Syria, in an attempt to win over support for action.
The first is a summary “letter” (studiously avoiding the word “dossier”, which is linked with Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier” legitimising the Iraq War), which notes that at least 14 attacks have been launched by the Assad regime using chemical weapons since 2012.
The second is a document outlining the government’s stated legal position for potentially launching an offensive against the Syrian regime, if it comes to that.
It notes that a UN Security Council resolution will be sought initially, but that if it fails there would be a legal basis to go it without UN approval anyway.
If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, provided three conditions are met:
(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community
as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;
(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and
(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose)
All three conditions would clearly be met in this case.
6. MPs will be debating two motions: one tabled by the Conservative government, one by the Labour opposition.
The two sides disagree over how to proceed against Syria. The government appears to be committed to action with or without UN backing; Labour has said it will vote against that, the AP report. Therefore it has tabled its own opposition motion, with more nuanced language.
7. This is the key part of the Conservative-tabled motion:
[This House] agrees 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 savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;
Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
Notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity – and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
8. And this is the Labour-tabled motion:
[This House] supports steps to provide humanitarian protection to the people of Syria but will only support military action involving UK forces if and when the following conditions have been met that:
1. the UN weapons inspectors, upon the conclusion of their mission in the Eastern Ghutah, are given the necessary opportunity to make a report to the Security Council on the evidence and their findings, and confirmation by them that chemical weapons have been used in Syria;
2. compelling evidence is produced that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons;
3. the UN Security Council has considered and voted on this matter in the light of the reports of the weapons inspectors and the evidence submitted;
4. there is a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;
5. such action must have regard to the potential consequences in the region, and must therefore be legal, proportionate, time-limited and have precise and achievable objectives designed to deter the future use of prohibited chemical weapons in Syria; and
6. the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action, and that any such vote should relate solely to efforts to deter the use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any wider action in Syria.
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