Syria, Erdogan, Cameron, the nature of democracy and the UN security council

by George Hatjoullis

UN Security Council

UN Security Council (Photo credit: riacale)

Some weeks ago I wrote a blog about Erdogan and the nature of democracy. The thrust of the argument was that there is more to democratic process than coming to power via a ballot box. Democracy is not dictatorship of the majority. The elected government has a duty to all citizens and not just those that elected it to power. It has a duty to listen to all citizens even whilst in power. Erdogan’s failure to heed this simple tenet caused quite a stir in Turkey. Perhaps he might cast an eye over to the UK to see how the democratic process should work.

From the moment that William Hague declared the Assad regime was guilty of the gas attack on its people the UK population was united in scepticism. Why would Assad cross the thin red line drawn by the West? Surely only the rebels gained by such an action? Where was the hard (or any) evidence? After Iraq and WMD no one was going to accept the word of a UK government in cahoots with an US administration about such a matter. Let the UN have a closer look first was the universal view. The universality of this response is not entirely an exaggeration. Following the matter closely via twitter and online comments to newspaper articles, I came across this view again and again.

There were deeper concerns. No one doubts the gas attack took place. No one doubts that the Assad regime is autocratic and has oppressed its people. No one doubts that some of those rebelling just want more say in the running of their country and less oppression. However, many in the UK suspect that some of those rebelling have a different agenda and one that is not wholly sympathetic to the West. There is barely concealed concern that the UK would be aiding the enemy by acting against Assad. After a long drawn out ‘war on terror’ and the consequent loss of civil liberties in the UK, not to mention many lives, the population have become well-informed of the nature of this war and the protagonists. An instinct to withdraw to defendable borders is apparent.

The most alarming aspect of the Syria situation from the point of view of the UK people is that it is rapidly looking like a proxy war between major powers on behalf of smaller countries, reversing the normal pattern. This is dangerous. The West seems to be acting on behalf of the Sunni Saudi Arabians and Gulf state monarchies, whilst Russia is acting for the Shia Iranians. The West have a nice business going on exchanging oil for arms and other sophisticated goods with the oil-rich Sunnis (money just intermediates). The Russian motive is less obvious, but the Russian commitment is no less clear. The potential proxy war by great powers is very alarming.

The UK population made clear in every way possible its opposition to military action in Syria, in the absence of hard evidence that Assad perpetrated a gas attack. Many are opposed even if such evidence is found. The British capacity for overseas military adventure, finally, has been exhausted. The message was received loud and clear by parliament and communicated by the democratic process to the government. The government was not given parliamentary approval, in principle, to undertake military action. The prime minister David Cameron, could have proceeded using the Royal Prerogative. Remarkably he chose not to do so and gave an undertaking not to do so. This is democracy in action.

David Cameron has been dammed for being weak. How so? Heeding the overwhelming view of the British people in such a matter is not weak but democratic. If the enemy was at the gate and he failed to attack he would be weak. The enemy is nowhere near any British gate. In my view, Cameron was wrong to propose military action in the absence of evidence but quite right to bow to the will of parliament. It showed strength not weakness. It showed respect for democratic process and in the process strengthened British democracy. He should be congratulated not condemned.

The failure to use the Royal Prerogative is a fundamental change in British politics and has wide-ranging implications. The UK sits as a permanent member of the UN security council (along with France, China, USA and Russia). This is now an anachronism and Cameron’s action or lack of it may ring forth some changes in this area. It is not widely grasped that it is in order to defend this status as a permanent security council member that the UK gets involved in many military adventures. Given the changing balance of power in the world and the diminishing military might of the UK, perhaps this status should be reviewed. Cameron may have set off the motion to review without intention.

The British parliament may yet authorise military action in Syria if evidence of use of chemical weapons is found by the UN. However, such action will be within the guidelines laid down by the UN and in keeping with the UK status as a permanent member of the security council. This is as it should be. If the UK population are still against action despite overwhelming evidence then they should realise they are asking for the UK UN status to be reviewed.