POLITICS

'Britain Should Be One Of The World's Policemen, The Consequences Of Non-Intervention In Syria Are Now Clear'

27/02/2014 08:48 GMT | Updated 27/02/2014 08:59 GMT

'This picture taken on Jan. 31, 2014, and released by the UNRWA, shows residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, queuing to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria. (AP Photo/UNRWA)

Six months ago the British parliament derailed Western moves towards a military intervention against the Syrian regime, by voting no. The decision, a surprise defeat for David Cameron, had a far-reaching impact on the civil-war as well as the perception of the UK's willingness to use force.

Alistair Burt was a Foreign Office minister at the time and deeply involved in the UK's engagement with the conflict. Speaking to The Huffington Post UK half a year on from the Commons vote, the now backbench Conservative MP appears saddened by the whole affair. "We now know what non-intervention looks like," he says.

"The killing has gone on arguably at an accelerated rate and the regime felt stronger rather than weaker," he says of the consequences of the West not taking action. "The war has been extended." At least 140,000 people are believed to have died in the three-year long conflict.

At the time those who opposed the proposed intervention argued that it could inflame the region as well as drag Britain into another costly and protracted war.

"My argument now, six months later, is fine. So what? What’s been the consequences? Point me out how this has helped the Syrian people," he says. "If you are a Syrian under bombardment for the last six months what would you think of it? What disappointed me in reaction to the Commons debate is how few people made any mention of the Syrian people at all."

Britain's decision to pull back from the brink of intervention had a serious impact on the morale of the anti-Assad forces, Burt concedes.

"It devastated the Free Syrian Army and the opposition coalition. I think they felt a red line meant a red line and they were deeply disappointed that an opportunity was not taken to demonstrate to the regime that there were physical consequences should it commit atrocities. I think the damage to morale was significant," he says.

In the wake of the Commons vote a deal was struck between the West, Russia and the Assad regime on the decommissioning of Syria's chemical weapons. However Burt says the agreement, while not wrong in itself, led the opposition forces to believe the West was giving "license" to the regime to continue its war. It was "a deal on chemical weapons that suits the regime and allows them to go on killing".

"The way in which it was done enabled the regime to carry on its conventional killing," he says. "There were consequences for people on the ground. Point me out how this has helped the Syrian people."

He adds: "It looked like a distraction, it looked like a diplomatic victory for Russia."

SEE ALSO: Bogus Chemical Weapons Deal Underscores Obama's Failures in Syria

Burt is well liked and his ejection from government in the October reshuffle came as something of a surprise. Despite his clear views he is at pains not to appear too dismissive of the anti-interventionist sentiment in parliament and the country. But his mild manner conceals a striking liberal interventionist world view - one that went out of fashion in Britain after Tony Blair's Iraq adventure.

"I hear the phrase 'we’re not the worlds policeman any more'," he says. "Well actually we are. We are one of the world’s policemen. We have the fourth biggest defence budget in the world, what’s the point of that? The point of that is we ought to be able to assist in situations where the peace is being threatened to try and help no matter how difficult. A decision not to intervene and not to be involved is a decision."

"I know it’s wearying, we are weary of this, of the Middle East, so is everyone else. The problem is we are dealing with people who aren’t and they will fulfill their agendas no matter what. Unless we are engaged the risk is things will get worse."

He adds: "The argument has become that intervention is bad. Well it wasn’t bad in Bosnia, it wasn't in the no-fly zone in Northern Iraq. Not all interventions are bad, some are right."

Alistair Burt attends discussions foreign ministers of European and Gulf Arab countries in June, 2013, as Arab states led calls to boost weapons supplies for rebels fighting Bashar Assad's regime.

Burt, who has just returned from a trip to the Gulf, sees the conflict as stuck in a depressing stalemate. It is a war on three fronts between the Assad regime, the moderate opposition and extremists. And the former minister is depressed at how Western media appears to have bought into Assad's "narrative" of the war as one of the regime verses extremists.

"All the evidence tells us that there is in an inflated number of jihadis. They are joined by those who want to oppose Assad, have no great ideological commitment to the extremists, but because they believe the extremists are better funded and resourced they want to join them," he says.

"The jihadis there have been encouraged to a degree by the way Assad has handled the affair. He made clear from the outset that his narrative was him against extremist terrorists. This is not about Assad winning otherwise the extremists take over.

"The disaster will be if the opposition continues to get squeezed, the people who bravely opposed Assad in the first place will simply be eliminated, and when it is a fight between Assad and the jihadis then he will try and put together some kind of coalition that does that job. It’s very worrying and very dispiriting."

He adds: "I am disappointed that the media and the impression in the West has bought the narrative to a greater degree than it should."

Part of the solution, Burt argues forcefully, is that the moderate opposition need to be supplied with more heavy weapons to combat military, in particular Assad's airforce.

"The truth is there is no chance of the UK being able to supply weapons because our parliamentary system will not allow it," Burt concedes. "But we should look benignly if people sought to get export licences for things that would stop the slaughter from the air."

"Is the regime more comfortable with the situation than they might have been in August had there been an attack upon them to deter them from using chemical weapons again? I think probably they are more comfortable with the situation. I think that is the truth," he says.

"How do you redress the balance to make the regime fear that something will happen to them because at the moment they don’t."

"Those of us who would like to see more physical help being given to the Free Syrian Army do so not because we want to see an extension of the war, but because the fighting is more likely to come to an end if the negotiating position between the parties is a bit more balanced."

David Cameron concedes defeat in the Commons on 30 August 2013. The loss and his decision not to push for another vote came as a surprise to many and ultimately derailed Western intervention.

On 30 August last year, MPs voted 285-272 to block Britain joining any US-led attack on the Assad regime. The result "surprised" Burt given the motion had been "softened" to try and win Labour support and that there would also need to be a second vote before any action was taken.

In the event, after a day of shifting positions and internal-Labour debate, Ed Miliband decided to oppose intervention. He was joined by 30 Tory MPs and nine Lib Dems.

"I knew it was always going to be difficult," Burt says of the vote. "There was no complacency. We had very little time to do it. That was the problem. The timetable was forced upon us by events."

Of Miliband's decision to oppose the government, Burt says his "understanding" was there seemed to be a deal. "If there had been agreement it should have been stuck to and it would have seen us through," he says.

One of the more messy aspects of the extraordinary date was the embarrassment of development secretary Justine Greening and Foreign Office minister Mark Simmonds missing the vote - despite being in the building at the time.

But Burt declines to point fingers at how the vote was managed. "I’m not one of these people who believes it was grossly mishandled. I know there are some who do. I don’t think so. I think we dealt with the timing we had," he says.

Parliament's decision to deny Cameon to authorisation to take military action potentially has a longer reach than the immediate conflict in Syria. Burt also worries that the August Commons vote sent a dangerous signal to both friend and foe.

MPs have no legal right to stop the prime minister from using military force, the power resides with him. However Blair's decision to grant a vote on the Iraq War set the convention that the Commons would be asked to approve 'boots on the ground' deployments. Burt says in future MPs could demand the right to block any deployment of force, undermining the ability of the government to deliver on its promises or threats.

He says: "I think the prime minister in these circumstances deserves support.

"What the vote did was it created greater uncertainty about how Britain would be able to support allies. But at the same time actually take a little bit of unpredictability away from the prime minister, who if he seeks to threaten someone the response will be, 'well you say that prime minster, but is the House of Commons going to agree?’.

"People who are potentially acting wrongly against us or our allies might feel a little extra comfort because they might believe the British parliament is not going to take the risk, to not have the stomach for it."

Six months on from that vote peers are due to debate the ongoing civil war today in the House of Lords. However Burt worries that following the August vote that debating is all the British parliament wants to do. Having exerted its authority over the government, British interventionists have to largely sit on the sidelines.

"The truth is there is no chance of the UK being able to supply weapons because our parliamentary system will not allow it. I think the US has spoken before of trying to provde more physical support. This is a matter for the US and it ill becomes a MP in the UK who can’t deliver ourselves to ask the Americans to do more."

Burt sighs: "We have a mess all round."