Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

There There is a very simple reason why it was right for the UK to join our closest allies in launching strikes against the Bashar Al Assad military machine. This is about our collective future. It is about the kind of world we want our children to grow up in. It is about — and exclusively about — whether the world should tolerate the use of chemical weapons and the human suffering they cause.

Anyone looking at the pictures from Eastern Ghouta can see the kind of suffering involved: the foaming at the mouth, the floppy bodies of children, and the particular terror those weapons deliberately inspire. Vile, sick, barbaric though it is to use such weapons — that is not the principal objection. These munitions are not just horrible. They are illegal. It is now centuries since humanity first recoiled against the use of poison in warfare. The French and the Holy Roman Empire were so disgusted by the use of poisoned bullets that they signed a treaty to ban them in 1675.

It is now almost 100 years since the great post-First World War treaty to prohibit use of chemical weapons — and in that period we have seen nation after nation sign up to the global consensus that this particular means of killing is evil and should be banned.

And so the global community simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Syria. In 2013, the Al Assad regime committed to destroying its chemical arsenal, while Russia — the mentor of the regime — guaranteed to oversee the process. Since then, the Al Assad regime and Russia have made a complete mockery of that pledge.

A significant body of information, including intelligence, suggests the Al Assad regime was behind the chemical attack at Douma that killed about 75 people and resulted in hundreds of casualties. Multiple accounts located a regime Mi-18 helicopter in the vicinity at the time. The opposition does not have helicopters and no other actor in the Syrian theatre is thought capable of launching a chemical strike of that scale. The only reasonable conclusion is that the regime has become so hardened and cynical that it is willing to exploit the extra potential of these weapons for removing entrenched urban resistance — in complete defiance of global disapproval and the norms of civilised behaviour.

The Douma atrocity alone would be enough to demand a response. But it is not a one-off. It is part of a pattern of use of chemical weapons by the Al Assad regime. International investigators mandated by the UN Security Council have found the regime responsible for using chemical weapons in four separate attacks since 2014.

Lies and obfuscation

The UK and our allies have done everything in our power to deter the barbaric use of these weapons. The EU has imposed sanctions on key figures linked to chemical weapons use in Syria. We have tried countless resolutions at the UN. But Russia has repeatedly shielded the Al Assad regime from investigation and censure, vetoing six UN Security Council resolutions, including torpedoing the UN-mandated Joint Investigative Mechanism set up to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Instead, Russia has repeated its lies and obfuscation, which we have seen in this country since the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, including the grotesque assertion that the UK is somehow behind the attack in Douma. Last year we had a military response from the US, when about 20 Syrian planes were destroyed at the Shayrat airfield after the chemical massacre of civilians at Khan Sheikhoun. Now the world is forced to act again — not only to protect those who would otherwise fall victim to Al Assad’s monstrosities, but because unless we do so, his regime will continue to weaken what has become an effective global taboo, with humanitarian consequences for many more. If we do nothing, there will be others who will look at the impunity of Al Assad and ask themselves: they got away with it — why shouldn’t I?

Yes of course there are diplomatic considerations — but this is about more than diplomacy. It is about principle. And in its focus on the use of chemical weapons — and the consequences that must flow — this action is limited, and we must be both acutely aware of those limits and clear about them.

These carefully targeted and calibrated strikes are not designed to intervene in the Syrian civil war or effect regime change. The action was carried out to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.

At a time of tension in our relations with Russia, it has been important to stress that this action does not entail some attempt to frustrate Russian strategic objectives in Syria. This does not represent any major escalation of UK or Western involvement in Syria — and we should have the courage to be honest about that.

We are standing up for principle and for civilised values. We may not end the barbarism — but we are telling the world that there is one type of barbarism that is banned and that deserves to be banned.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018