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MPs have made a terrible mistake

We must deter dictators from wiping out entire neighbourhoods on a whim, says Maajid Nawaz.

Britain is burdened as a nation with collective guilt over Iraq.That was the subtext of yesterday’s debate and votes in parliament on intervention on Syria. But whatever one’s view about the war in 2003 – which I opposed – we must move on. The House of Commons made a terrible error in voting not to allow British action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For how long will Labour have us live under the shadow of their mistake in Iraq while Syrians are gassed to death?

More information about atrocities in Syria will emerge – not least from the UN. There will be opportunities for MPs to reconsider their positions. David Cameron, the prime minister, seems to have given up on the cause. But he should not. That would turn last night’s vote from a mistake into tragedy. Given the stakes, there would be no dishonour in trying to win parliament’s approval at some later date.

Britain has a moral responsibility to act. Military intervention can be very bad. But it can also be a necessity; just ask Muslim Kosovars or Libyans. Syria is a lose-lose scenario for the international community. There are no good choices, but we must still make choices.

For me, the decisive factor in whether or not to strike Syria comes down to the use of chemical weapons. We must deter tinpot dictators from wiping out entire neighbourhoods on a whim. To do otherwise increases the danger for us all.

I do not think MPs should support an open-ended war. Any strike should be carefully planned as a punitive measure alone, with the limited and surgical aim of taking out Mr Assad’s air and missile capability to bomb his own people. Removing Mr Assad’s regime in its entirety leaves no chance for an organic replacement to emerge, and could have disastrous consequences.

This must be done in the right way. Action should be based on credible evidence that use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Assad regime. Steps should also be taken to ensure that intervention does not benefit jihadist groups inside Syria. Securing the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal and preventing it from falling into the hands of these extremist groups must also be a key objective for intervention. And regional allies should be involved throughout.

Anti-interventionists have made a variety of arguments, some stronger than others. Many are open to the same charge they levy against those who wish to take action, that of being self-serving and “colonial”. Their arguments assume that basic moral standards – such as the right not to be gassed – are a “western” luxury.

These opponents of action are often as aloof, uncaring and pragmatic as their claim that the interventionists’ arguments are – they argue on a narrow definition of national self-interest alone in foreign policy. They suffer from the same detached “leave the natives alone as long as they don’t trouble us” mindset that recalls Britain’s relationship with colonial India.

It is, furthermore, too late to oppose “foreign intervention”. Such claims implicitly legitimatise the outside interference that is already occurring – Russia, Iran and Hizbollah on the one side, and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Gulf states on the other.

David Cameron, the prime minister, seems to have given up on the cause. But he should not. That would turn last night’s vote from a mistake into tragedy.

This stance also ignores the voice of the Syrian people. Many anti-interventionists confer on themselves the right to speak on Syria’s behalf. I am unaware of any mainstream Syrian political opposition or rebel group that opposes limited air strikes on Syria – except, that is, for al-Qaeda and its allies.

There are more valid concerns that military strikes could spark a sectarian and regional war, and that intervening could bolster al-Qaeda’s rebel forces fighting against the dictator. Well, both of these are already clear and present dangers – and they are largely due to us doing nothing so far.

Let us not forget that it was mainly the result of our inaction in Bosnia that jihadist “fellow travellers” were able to exploit this vacuum and claim to fight on behalf of oppressed Muslims. When I was 16, I joined the revolutionary Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir – partly, I see in retrospect, the result of British inaction in Bosnia.

In fact, intervening against Mr Assad – while being careful not to tactically aid the more extreme elements among the rebel forces – could well dent the al-Qaeda narrative that there is a Western war against Islam, and would certainly make it harder for the roughly 200 British jihadists in Syria to rally gullible recruits to attack the UK upon their return from this tragic war.

It is not enough to mourn last night’s mistake. MPs need to correct it.

This article was originally published in ‘The Sunday Times’ on 1 September 2013. Click here to read the full article