Thursday, August 29, 2013

Britain holds fire - for now

Today a recalled British Parliament was to decide (or not) to take part in a military strike against Syria in a bid to prevent further use of chemical weapons. 

Until teatime yesterday, after Labour leader Ed Miliband had said his party would not support military intervention until UN inspectors had completed their work, and a significant number of Conservative back-benchers - and some ministers - were of a mind to vote against immediate intervention. The Government then decided today's debate would go ahead, but a further vote before military action would be required after the UN inspectors' report, probably next week.

The UK had pushed for permanent members of the UN Security Council to authorise measures to protect civilians in Syria. Russia refused to agree.

US President Obama said he had concluded that Syrian government troops were responsible for the chemical weapons attack last week, but he had not finally decided what action to take.

The situation is fraught with difficulty. If there is no action, chemical weapons may continue to be used and thousands more may die. If military action is taken, it may start a fire throughout the Middle East. Syrian officials warn the entire Middle East would be set ablaze if Western forces intervene.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned the US not to attack. The Syrian Government has said if it is attacked it will retaliate by attacking Israel.

Syria is believed to have one of the largest chemical weapon arsenals in the world. There is concern it will have no problem in using them against Israel. Demands for gas masks quadrupled in Israel this week.

It is probable there will be no invasion of Syria, but that an attack would come with missiles fired at selected targets from ships outside Syrian waters. It would not be an attempt to depose Syria's President Assad, but to warn that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.

More than 100,000 have already died in Syria in two years of conflict.

No clear evidence has yet been produced that Assad was responsible for last week's gas attack. Britain and the US (and the Arab League) hold him responsible.

Britain is not capable of being the world's peacekeeper, critics say - and what are Syria's Muslim neighbours doing? A YouGov poll this week showed 60 per cent against a missile strike and 25 per cent in favour.

United Nations inspectors say Syria is becoming increasingly radicalised, with only a minority fighting for democracy and a state for all Syrians. Some groups have an openly Islamist agenda. The leader of the al Nusra Front, a prominent opposition group, has declared allegiance to the leader of al Qaeda.

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