This article was first published in Reaction
As the evidence of the latest atrocity continues to mount in Syria, the UK. Prime Minister, Theresa May, is mulling what part, if any, Britain might play in an overt military intervention. Special Forces and the RAF have been carrying out operations for a while in the area, but this is the first set-piece event of her Premiereship, where a number of countries might make a co-ordinated response as the result of a specific act.
That the Syrian government has an appalling record in the treatment of its own citizens is beyond dispute. That no government or organisation can be allowed to use chemical weapons on its own, or any, people with impunity is beyond question – whether it is in Salisbury, Syria or wherever. The fraught politics and conflicting relationships of the region add to the complexity of the situation, as does the West’s abject failure to develop a coherent response to the events in Syria over a period of years.
So the momentum for action, the “something must be done” chorus, grows. The drumbeat for visible military activity becomes louder. The pressure on the Prime Minister to be a leading partner in a coalition, to look decisive, to be robust, mounts. The contemplation of military activity is a lonely moment for any Prime Minister, and Theresa May is right to be thoughtful and considered over making such a decision.
Britain’s Armed Forces will do whatever is asked of them, and do their best to fulfil the orders of their political masters. The Prime Minister can be confident in their courage and professionalism. But she will be mindful that the unsatisfactory outcomes of Britain’s recent interventions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan came not from any failure by the UK’s Armed Forces but because of political and policy muddles by her three immediate predecessors. Such political and policy muddles need to be avoided in any action the Prime Minister orders in Syria.
With her security and military advisors the Prime Minister will be considering what sort of action is most militarily effective, and that may not be the most visible course of action. Bombing a building or an airfield may satisfy some, but what is needed is action to disrupt and deplete the Syrian governments ability to harm its own people, not what will provide the best pictures for a TV news bulletin.
Tony Blair’s reputation has never recovered from his use of military force and David Cameron struggled to win support for his. Gordon Brown looked ill at ease in most situations as Prime Minister, and never more so than when dealing with the military.
For the current Prime Minister, the decisions she must now make are difficult. There is no sense at all that Theresa May has been looking for her opportunity to be a ‘war leader’ – and that is welcome. The British tend to want their Prime Minister to make such decisions carefully, thoughtfully, with a certain sense of reluctance – but also with firmness.
If British forces are deployed it is to be hoped the Prime Minister will speak directly to the nation, from No 10, to tell us what is happening and why she has made the decisions she has, and to ask us for our support in the decision she has made. If she does this then it seems likely the British people will support her and she will do much to repair the trust Tony Blair fractured. But intervention needs a clear aim.