Bob Stewart's view on Syria

My view is that we should not take military action of any form against Syria - if it is possible to avoid it!   But to say a blanket ‘no military action’ would have been wrong as all options should remain on the table.  


I also think it is high time that Arab League and the Arab World more generally took more responsibility for policing itself.  After all we have trained and armed most of their professional uniformed services!  All they seem to do is expect us to act and then carp when things go wrong.    


Since 2001 we have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya with good intentions but our efforts on behalf of people who live there have either gone wrong or simply not been appreciated.  As an ex-soldier who has been committed into almost impossible situations myself I am reluctant in the extreme to send our armed forces into action unless there is a very good reason.


We need to ascertain as far as possible what happened when chemical weapons were used and who was responsible.  Personally I want to see what the UN Chemical Weapons Inspectors say happened.  However, having completed the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons Course myself, when I was an Army officer, I know that their report may not give us all the answers we seek.  For instance NBC agents (like Sarin) are normally non-persistent (they disappear) and most certainly they will be lucky to identify exactly who deployed them.  Nonetheless I suspect they will report back that the evidence supports the fact that chemical weapons were used and killed a lot of people.


But the point is that a United Nations report on what happened carries huge international currency. Personally I am pretty sure that President Assad's forces were the guilty party because rebel forces would simply not have the know-how or capability to use chemical weapons.  Only a professional army would have such ability and certainly Assad's forces are professional.


So I wanted to wait until a UN Report before we decide on anything because, in my view, that gives any action we might have taken greater legitimacy.  Having been a UN Commander myself I fully realise the problems the organisation faces but nonetheless I remain a supporter of it.  


As I have previously mentioned my mind was not totally closed to some form of military action  as I believe fundamentally that we sometimes have a Christian or moral duty to help human beings who are less fortunate than ourselves even when it may not be a vital national interest. That is how I felt when I commanded the British in Bosnia and my views on that remain unchanged.  Right now public opinion may not want us to take any form of military action but, in my experience, it could change rapidly if huge numbers of civilians were subsequently killed because of our inaction.  


This happened in Bosnia after July 1995 when over 7,000 boys and men were massacred at Srebrenica.  At the time I was the Chief of Policy in NATO's Military Headquarters and had left Bosnia some 2 years beforehand.  


But I personally had organised the digging of a mass grave for over 100 men, women and children in March 1993 and I remember being terribly bitter about the fact that the UK was simply sitting on its hands and saying we should not get further involved.  I can tell you that was not what my soldiers were saying as they picked up the broken bodies of children!  I say this to demonstrate that sometimes I believe we should be a force for good - where and when we can.  It might, just might, apply in Syria in the near future.


Syria is a very difficult problem and I hope you will see that I have thought long and hard about it.  I am very much against the deployment of British ground forces into Syria.  But I suppose I might have seen us being part of a no-fly zone force or using a Tomahawk cruise missile or an air launched missile if it was felt that to do so might save a great many lives.  I don't like it and would much prefer our involvement to remain humanitarian aid.  But the spectre of international inaction and then lots of dead innocents still haunts me from Bosnia.


Life is not simple and neither I nor any other MP wants to take any military action at all.  Yesterday we were debating our disgust at what had happened in the best forum of British public opinion, the House of Commons, today.  As things stand I cannot subscribe to the view that we can simply not even consider what to do or just turn our backs on such incredible wickedness.    


At a personal level I once had to take a ghastly decision; whether to kill a man pointing a rifle at the head of a woman to save the woman and her baby.  I took that decision and the woman with her baby lived.  Since then there is scarcely a day that I do not think of what happened and wish it had not but life is about choices.  I wonder if that personal experience has some relevance to the international situation today.  Whatever we do about Syria my yardstick will be; could it save lives or might it make the situation worse?  Of course when such a decision is made we will not know but nonetheless that will be what guides me personally as your MP.


Regardless of how the media is portraying the debate and vote last night it was most certainly not a debate to sanction British military action.  It pointed out that what President Assad had done was a war crime and that the principle of humanitarian intervention itself sanctioned international intervention.  Furthermore it noted that the Arab League itself had called for action.  Particularly it called for the United Nations to provide legitimacy for any possible actions.  It suggested that we await the report of the UN investigating team before any further actions were taken.  However I would like to point out exactly what the resolution said about possible military action:


“The United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing (meaning the chemical inspectors report) and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken, and notes that before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place” (my underlining).


I voted for that motion because it specifically stated that any British military action would have to be debated (and voted on) in the House of Commons. Now we have decided to sit on our hands and David Cameron is hamstrung.  I feel we, the British Parliament have sent out a dreadful signal – we don’t care about what happens to innocents in Syria.  We do not even have a motion condemning the dreadful Assad’s regime.  Just think how lucky we are compared with fellow human beings who happen to be born Syrian!’



To be perfectly straight I do not know whether I would have voted to take some form of limited military action if it had been requested.  I would have decided that at the time but clearly we will not now have that option.