Samuel Lawes: A deep feeling pervades that all this is only ceremonial

Comment: The drift towards war in Syria is nobody’s policy

Comment: The drift towards war in Syria is nobody’s policy

By Samuel Lawes

The press has interpreted David Cameron's Commons defeat on Syria as a collapse in his support, a disaster for our 'special relationship' and a guarantee that there will be no British military action in Syria. They couldn't be more wrong.

Obama – who pundits have accused for months of being reluctant to act – has finally got to do something. The red line he set out has been crossed. In a surprise move, he has decided to wait and seek Congressional approval when it reconvenes. (The press, incidentally, have focused on the wrong aspect of this as well; the long delay is the surprise, not the following of Britain's lead.)

France's Hollande, meanwhile – who at first alacritously announced le vote brittanique ne change rien – has now put a French attack on standby until Obama decides what France will decide to do.

The effect of the shock veto of Britain's legislature over its executive has already had deeply significant global ramifications. The US-led strike on Syria has thus far not happened. This is, we can assume, because Obama decided (or was obliged) to follow the UK's lead and be seen to ‘do things democratically'.

But it has also focused the debate and created a window of opportunity for evidence to be brought forward, scrutinised and challenged. UN scientists are busily analysing evidence. The US, Britain and France have all produced estimates of the fatalities caused by – they assert – Assad's chemical weapon attack. But these, notably the US estimate, vary wildly. Efforts by each country should by now be being made to find out why. Well, one hopes.

Yet a deep feeling pervades that all this is only ceremonial – that the invisible hand of war is at work, pulling strings and loading missiles onto warships. Parliament felt this, the British public feel it and you can be sure that many in the Muslim world feel it.

And the likelihood is that they're right.

Two things have become clear. One is that military intervention would be deeply unpopular both in Britain and abroad. It would also – as I argued in an earlier article – stand a strong chance of making things worse. The other thing is that intervention is not what the US or Cameron had been mulling. They have argued for a limited ‘punishment' strike to deter Assad from further chemical weapons strikes. This is still the stated position of both leaders.

The trouble is, out here in the Middle East, any strike at all would be widely seen as the former, not the latter. The situation is highly volatile. Public opinion in neither the UK nor the US favours war. So it may be that parliament's vote will be enough to stop the drums of war.

But more likely is an American strike in the coming weeks. If this happens, the ramifications cannot be foreseen; many in the US want to see a strategic intervention, not just punitive strikes. Russia has moved warships into the Mediterranean and Syria is murmuring about a counter-strike. British bases would be a possible target. Any such strike would demand a British response.

This could be a unique historical moment in which war is democratically averted – political realists could have to rewrite their doctrines. But an attack without Britain is more likely. That invisible hand is an insistent one.

And if such an attack goes ahead, the consequences are utterly unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic. If people think that the risk of Britain being sucked into a wider conflict has disappeared, they are gravely mistaken.

Samuel Lawes is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul. You can read his blog here.

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