Tuesday, April 08, 2014 

Scottish independence and "the forces of darkness".

The Better Together campaign against Scottish independence hasn't had a great time of it recently. Ever since the Graun quoted an unnamed minister apparently due to be involved in the negotiations should there be a yes vote as saying a currency union would be possible in exchange for Scotland continuing to host nuclear weapons at Faslane it's seemed more on the backfoot than usual. They must know "Project Fear" isn't working, but as yet they still haven't come up with an alternative. Last week instead saw a step-up in the complaints about online nationalists supposedly abusing their opponents, the internet equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

Lord Robertson wasn't speaking on behalf of Better Together at his Brookings Institution speech, although that won't stop everyone, myself included, from linking his ridiculous scaremongering to the No campaign's overall message.  As a paragon of the substrata of the political and military establishment seemingly unable to address any matter without seeing it through a prism of what's good for NATO is good for the world, he naturally thinks the United Kingdom breaking up would be the second great victory for dictators and annexers of the year. What's more, it will encourage all the other separatists in Europe, could undermine peace in Northern Ireland and also prepare the ground for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. To call it unhinged doesn't quite do it justice; the idea Scottish independence "could ... impact on the stability of the world" is only slightly less absurd than suggesting Colonel Gaddafi could rise from his grave and come back to power in Libya.

It doesn't even begin to make the slightest sense.  You could understand it more if Scotland were, as some would like, not intending to rejoin NATO or the European Union immediately, except that's precisely what the SNP is proposing.  Despite some on the no side comparing the SNP to the UKIPs, the differences couldn't be more stark: the SNP if anything wants to play more of a role in the EU than the UK currently does, and also favours immigration.  They might be similar in the way both insist that any problems with becoming independent/leaving the EU will be overcome as soon as the decision has been made, and in the personality cult surrounding their respective leaders, but that's about as far as it goes.

Robertson's argument is all the more mystifying for coming at the precise moment when such pleading to think about the consequences for everyone else appears to have lost the impact it once had.  Nigel Farage's man love for Putin is revealing for a supposed libertarian, and his claim that the EU has blood on its hands over Ukraine the most specious nonsense, yet one of his most telling blows against Clegg in the second debate was his attack on the deputy prime minister for being "hell-bent" on bombing Syria.  As exemplified by the coalition not crowing about what should be one of its crowning achievements, having now reached the point where 0.7% of gross national income is spent on international aid, going out of our way to "help" other nations is not currently in fashion.  While there's a world of difference between going beyond the bare minimum in helping developing countries and bombing those said countries, or at least there should be, the fact is the political class is no longer trusted when it comes to either.

This poses a problem when so much of the establishment still earnestly believes in interventionism.  We've just had the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, from which the notion of the responsibility to protect emerged, despite how peacekeepers were on the ground both there and in Serbia at the time of Srebrencia.  The same human rights organisations opposed to the Iraq war were practically cheerleading for an attack on Syria last year, with those of my generation who were in favour of removing Saddam Hussein now ensconced in positions of power in both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.  Despite the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there isn't the slightest indication that any lessons have been learned from the mistakes, hardly surprising when the Western media en masse celebrated Afghans "defying" the Taliban to vote last weekend, as though that was their main reason for casting their ballots, nor have any reflected on whether those interventions might just have influenced Russia's annexing of Crimea.  Instead we have Tony Blair (who we shouldn't be calling a war criminal apparently) once again given the time and space to say we will regret not acting on Syria, as though that isn't precisely what we've been covertly doing now for over 2 years.

Much as I loathe the moaning about the metropolitan elite, much of which ironically comes from those who are, err, a part of the metropolitan elite, they've started to have a point when it comes to foreign policy.  If we're to believe Seymour Hersh's latest report for the London Review of Books, the real reason Obama pulled back at the last minute from attacking Syria is it was discovered the sarin supposedly used by Assad's forces in Ghouta didn't match with the batches in Syrian government possession, and was instead part of a false flag attempt to force just such an attack by the Turkish government.  As incredible as that seems, there is evidence of other Turkish skulduggery in Syria, notably the conversation posted on YouTube, prompting the site's shortlived ban in the country, and which seemed to be between government figures discussing staging an attack the Turks could then use to justify intervening more widely themselves.  If the international community can come so close to being so spectacularly fooled, not to mention shown up over Crimea,  it takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to then lecture ordinary Scots on what they should consider before they cast their vote come the referendum.

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Monday, March 17, 2014 

Interventionists: the biters bit?

The more you consider recent Western foreign policy, the more it doesn't make even the slightest sense.  Or rather, it doesn't so long as you consider it from the viewpoint that within reason, we try and encourage the spread of freedom and human rights, a notion that has become fashionable over the past couple of decades.  One of the favourite arguments of interventionists when it came to Libya in response to critics saying why now and why not somewhere else was just because we can't act everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't take action when we can.

Our intervention against Gaddafi seems to gain ever more significance at the same time as the questions about why Libya increase with time.  How, when we have failed to intervene in Syria despite three years of brutal, horrific civil war, did we end up backing the Libyan rebels in the space of three weeks?  The stated reasoning, that Gaddafi was threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi seemingly carried enough cachet for both Russia and China to abstain on UNSC resolution 1973 and so allow what turned into NATO effectively acting as the air support for various militias.  Those militias duly summarily executed Gaddafi after NATO "protected" his fleeing convoy from the air, with the country remaining in utter turmoil a couple of years on, although it seems we don't much care any more.

The obvious answer is because we could.  Libya's military apparatus was in a far worse state than Syria's; we had significant business interests in the country whereas China and Russia had relatively few; Gaddafi had little in the way of actual support, relying on a hardcore of supporters backed up with hired mercenaries; and the military themselves it seems felt it was doable.  Despite seeming a success though, even if what actually happened went far beyond what UNSCR 1973 authorised, it also exposed a number of problems.  First, the Americans were not pleased at what they saw as having to do the heavy lifting when it had been the UK and France who had pushed for action with the most vigour.  Fatally for the Syrians perhaps, second is both Russia and China felt fooled by what NATO decided the resolution authorised, despite it calling for a ceasefire and negotiations.  While Russia would always have been more inclined to oppose action in Syria considering her long term ties with the Assad family, it emboldened opposition to any repeat.

My opinion remains that had we really wanted to intervene against Assad, we would have done.  By any measure there was a far stronger case for doing so as the civil war began in earnest, as compared to Libya when the action was meant to prevent a massacre, the Assad regime had already carried out mass killings.  It would have been far more difficult to be sure, and there has never been anything approaching a serious plan set out for how such an intervention would begin, but that has never stopped us in the past.  Indeed, as we came so close to doing something, although it was explained precisely what, there must have been contingencies in place.  The decision instead seems to have been made to do just enough not to invite the accusation of indifference while at the same time keeping up a false level of rhetoric: sort of arming the sort of moderates, and not a lot more.  Our real attitude was summed up by how the government had to be all but humiliated into allowing a tiny number of Syrian refugees into the country, the impossible aim of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands being far more important to the Tories than relieving incredible human suffering.

Which brings us to the Crimea and the truly laughable sanctions that have been imposed today after the weekend's phony referendum in the province.  For all the talk of illegality and standing in solidarity with the Ukraine, what it's amounted to is freezing the assets of a whole 32 people.  Taking the likes of Bill Hague at their word that more will follow if Russia continues to destabilise Ukraine or goes further and attempts to repeat the Crimean action in the east of the country, it still makes a mockery of how our leaders have puffed themselves up in ever greater flights of rhetorical fancy.  True enough, the media more than anyone else have tried to turn this into Cold War 2.0, but it doesn't excuse the nonsense we've heard or at times, the hypocrisy, even if the real hypocrites reside in Moscow.

It might be this is the best approach: Russia is isolated, China abstaining on the vote at the UN at the weekend, and the economy looks likely to continue to suffer.  The threat of far more stringent sanctions could well deter Putin from any repeat in the restive east, and the last thing we need at this point is an overreaction that would threaten the (slight) Eurozone recovery.  It does however stick in the craw: far from this being an example of what happens when we are weak, it's rather a perfect example of what happens when you abuse the sound in principle but unworkable in practice notion of responsibility to protect.  The west has spent the 2000s intervening wherever it feels like, most egregiously in Iraq, but has also had no qualms about violating national sovereignty across the entire globe under the pretext of rubbing out terrorists wherever they're to be found.  The US/UK actively encouraged Israel to decimate the south of Lebanon in 2006, and now have the temerity to complain when Russia stages an all but entirely bloodless annexation of a highly sympathetic area of a neighbouring state.  We also aren't averse to staging pointless referendums when it has come to both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands: in the case of the 2002 plebiscite in the former, 98.48% rejected the notion of sharing sovereignty with Spain, an absurdly high percentage that obviously didn't come close to reflecting real opinion.

One suspects that in a genuinely free vote not held under such intimidation and where the status quo had been offered an an option, the result would have been far closer.  A poll last month suggested only 41% wanted union with Russia, but whether the number of respondents from Crimea was statistically significant enough to make that an accurate barometer of opinion is open to question.  When it comes down to it, we're right to impose sanctions, and right to denounce what is a flagrant breach of international law by an aggressor state made to look foolish by the people of a nation who want to take their own path.  Our politicians though would do well not to make promises they cannot keep, while they should also take a long look at themselves and think about whether the positions they have taken over the past few years have encouraged others to also see the treaties of the 20th century as there to be broken without consequences.  Our own interventionists however tend to see no such shades of grey.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014 

Exaggeration and British jihadis in Syria.

Much excitement, and it has to be described as excitement at how one of our very own has succeeded in blowing himself sky high (literally, in the whole "martyrdom operation" means instant entry to paradise belief of jihadists) in Syria, going where others have previously feared to tread.  It's difficult to know exactly whether it is the intelligence agencies that are so concerned at the potential for those who have gone to Syria to fight, the majority of whom it has to be presumed have gone to join up with the jihadis, to then come back here and plot attacks, or whether it's the media exaggerating those fears in line with how Michael Adebolajo had gone to Kenya looking to join al-Shabaab before returning here.

Whichever it is, and considering how proactive Theresa May has been in removing British citizenship from those of dual nationality who've travelled to Syria the former is just as plausible, it seems a little strange that much of the coverage has been on how those who do go out are likely to be further radicalised.  The obvious historical parallel most have reached for is the Spanish civil war, which I don't think is exactly analogous for the reason that whatever Syria is, it's not a fight about ideology.  The very reason those who joined the International Brigades went to fight was they saw the war as being about putting a halt to the march of fascism across Europe.  Although not universal, many of those who went to fight in Spain returned disullisoned, most notably George Orwell.

It's difficult not to think many will experience the same in Syria, especially as the infighting among the rebel groups has intensified.  Moreover, to have made the decision to travel to Syria in the first place suggests almost all will have been what we'd describe as radical in the first place.  Again, as most seem to be ending up with either al-Nusra or ISIS, the two most hardline jihadist groups rather than with the more "moderate" FSA battalions is indicative of that.  One fact that mitigates against the potential for those who have specifically gone to Syria to fight the Assad government to return and plot is that this is the first time in a decade that a British citizen has carried out a suicide attack in a foreign country.  There have been no such examples of a Brit going to Iraq and becoming a suicide bomber, or in Afghanistan or Pakistan for that matter.  Indeed, there is only one disputed case of someone linked with a group other than al-Shabaab or al-Qaida central returning and carrying out an attack, that of Bilal Abdullah, who had at the least a tenuous connection with the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq.

The reason for this is obvious: ISIS and other groups, including the Taliban, are far more focused on their own internal conflicts than on attacking the West, unlike al-Qaida central.  ISI did notoriously carry out an attack in Jordan, and it resulted in a backlash.  Those who are more inclined towards the belief that the whole world is a battlefield understandably gravitate towards the likes of al-Qaida, or the increasingly ambitious al-Shabaab.  This isn't a universal rule, as we know that the ringleader of the 7/7 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, travelled to Pakistan with the intention of training and fighting either there or in Afghanistan, only for his plans to change.

Without wanting to say the threat is being completely overblown, you can't help but feel the only reason the the head of counter-terrorism at the CPS is saying those who do travel will be charged on their return is precisely because they are Muslims, and likely to have fought alongside those we consider to be terrorists.  Fighting for a cause you believe in is despite Sue Hemming's reading of the 2006 Terrorism Act not illegal, nor should it be.  Some of those who have gone out to Syria have done so with the very best of intentions; the majority perhaps not so much.  They don't however deserve to be stripped of their citizenship without recourse, nor treated as criminals or terrorists universally.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014 

Syria, the abyss, and the least worst option.

To call Syria a humanitarian disaster doesn't even begin to do justice to the abyss the country has fallen into over the past three years. Millions displaced internally, 2 million more having fled, most to neighbouring states, estimates of over 100,000 killed; the Arab spring outside of Tunisia has long since become an apparently endless Arab winter. Any hopes that the Geneva II talks would lead to some slight opening, even just the lifting of the government siege on a couple of areas that have been blockaded for months were finally dashed with the face to face negotiations ending without agreement.  The deputy to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has since announced his resignation.

The great majority of the blame for having reached this point has to be placed on the regime of Bashar Assad. Having seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, those calling for reform, not initially the fall of the government, were shot down almost from the outset. The brutality of the military and security state is not in doubt, nor the continuing indiscriminate assaults on areas that have been taken by the rebels. The chemical attack on Ghouta, despite questions which still remain, was but a piece with the use of conventional weapons. The same goes for the report on the execution of prisoners compiled from the evidence provided by a defector. There are concerns over how the defector was interviewed, the fact it was funded by Qatar, which has long supported the rebels and is unworried over how hundreds are literally being worked to death building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, and how the authors didn't see the full cache of photographs the defector smuggled out, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if thousands had been tortured and then executed.

The rebels shouldn't however get a free pass as they so often do, both from the media and human rights organisations.  A case in point was the release last week of a report from Human Rights Watch, outlining the systematic destruction of 7 different areas in Damascus and Hama.  As with so much else in Syria, the demolition is undoubtedly a war crime.  Similar destruction has also been inflicted however in areas where the opposition has captured territory, most notably Aleppo, which was first taken by the rebels in a move civilians there criticised at the time.  Just as the evidence for the report was collected from satellite images, similar evidence of the destruction elsewhere where either responsibility is not as clear cut or where the blame is likely to lie with the opposition is also easily available, but clearly not of interest to HRW, which along with Amnesty was all but demanding military action after the Ghouta attack.

Part of the problem was inadvertently highlighted by the Washington Post, which mentioned in passing that the Syrian opposition groups in Geneva had been "aided by a posse of nearly a dozen mostly British media advisers".  Something few will have realised is that the group conducting the talks in Geneva with the Assad government continues to haemorrhage the little support it has in the country itself.  Juan Cole suggests the Syrian National Coalition, connected with but not in control of the Free Syrian Army, is strongest in only a third of the territory in the hands of the opposition in the north.  One suspects even that is optimistic considering the evacuation of Salim Idriss, who fled the country after the newly formed Islamic Front overran the area where he had supposedly been helming the FSA from.

The coming together of the Islamic Front brings into sharp focus just how fragmented and sectarian the fight against Assad has become.  Some of the groups which make up the Islamic Front were those described as moderate, which while not directly aligned with the FSA did fight alongside them and were meant to share their broader aims.  While there are reports the Islamic Front and the FSA have reconciled, the IF's charter makes clear its ultimate goal is a caliphate and Sharia law, not democracy.  Indeed, late last year we cut off even the non-lethal aid we had been supplying to the FSA due to the Islamic Front's emergence.  Had we started to supply weapons as some commentators had long been demanding, it seems certain they would have fallen into the IF's hands had they not already.

To get an informed impression of the current state of the civil war, you have to know that yesterday the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, finally condemned outright the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, effectively stripping it of its affiliation with al-Qaida central.  While the Islamic State of Iraq (previously al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura Council, etc) has never been under the true control of either Osama bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, not even during the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq which ISI did so much to foment was the group ostracised by those they were meant to ultimately answer to.  Confusing things further, Jahbat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which has also pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, was first set-up with the approval of ISI before the group decided it itself had to get involved in Syria.  The fitna between the groups was sparked by the murder of Hussein al-Suleiman, a doctor and fighter with the IF by ISIL after he had gone to the group in an effort to resolve a dispute.  With the alliances on the ground taken into account, even if unofficial, this essentially means that the British government is indirectly supporting al-Qaida, which is fighting a group that shares al-Qaida's ideology but which is too extreme for al-Qaida to affiliate with.  Did you get that? Hardly anyone does.

And yet, despite all this, we still have a few who while not putting forward what an intervention would entail, suggest that we will regret not doing so or will have to at some point in the future, when the same regrets will come to the fore.  To be fair to Hopi, he admits the current position of not doing a lot while pretending to care but still being involved enough to not be a neutral player might be the best policy, while bitterly denouncing the fact that we aren't admitting that we either don't really care or that the impasse suits us fine.  Sunny, though, really like him as I do, doesn't so much as outline what we should do that might make things better, while suggesting that we will probably have to fight on two fronts.  Do we then deal with ISIL first and then take on Assad, or do we attack the regime first then assault ISIL and then either come to an arrangement with Nusra and friends or fight them too?  Or perhaps we should take them all on at once?  Who knows?

What is more apparent that ever is that a conflict that started out simple has become intractable from the wider antagonisms playing out across the region, something to be expected when it long ago turned from being about the people against the government into being the Gulf kleptocracies against Iran, Sunni against Shia, jihadist against Islamist against moderate.  It's destabilising the nation states around it, inciting hatreds thousands of miles away, and there seems little we can do other than try and knock heads together around a table.  Truth be told, while the security services worry, and despite how close it seemed we were to taking part in a military strike on Syria, the amount we care can be summed up by the number of refugees the coalition said they'll allow in.  Hundreds, over the 1,500 that made their way here already.  The promise of getting immigration down to the hundreds of thousands is far more important, you see.  Doing nothing is an option, and is almost certainly the least worst option.  Trying to justify or humanise such a position is far harder.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014 

It's all multiculturalism's fault. Again.

Horror of horrors!  Britain becoming more multicultural is leading to a "growing reluctance" to troops being deployed on the ground in areas which some of the population either called home or has connections with, says the Ministry of Defence, via the Graun.  It's yet another example of the fallout following the failure of the Commons to go along with the plan to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons in Syria, and also yet another example of ministers and the wider government failing to point the finger of blame at themselves.

While it's no doubt true that "war weariness" played its part in MPs opting to vote against the motions of both the coalition and Labour which looked set to lead to yet another strike on a Middle Eastern country, the main reason why the vote went against the government was because it didn't even begin to make the damn case for an attack on Syria.  All that was presented was shaky intelligence which pointed towards chemical weapons having been used, along with the argument that such an act could not be allowed to go unpunished, despite the fact that previous chemical weapons attacks on a far worse scale had been.  It wasn't explained how launching a few hundred cruise missiles at Syria would prevent further such attacks, or how doing so would prevent us from getting sucked even further into a civil war we have nothing to gain and much to lose from getting involved in.  Public opinion was firmly against, and MPs for once represented their constituents in rejecting it, at that point.  Whether David Cameron was right to then rule out any action whatsoever is another question entirely.

Rather than take a look at whether the case for war was as strong as they believe it was, almost everything else has been held responsible.  Only the latest is multiculturalism, with Alistair Burt having previously said the decision had left a "constitutional mess", as it seemed MPs could now declare themselves against something that was previously the prerogative of the executive, without it being considered a vote of no confidence.  Originally it was all Ed Miliband's fault, while now there's also much wailing and gnashing of teeth over how we might not be able to be a "full spectrum" partner to the Americans unless we join them in every such conflict and ensure our army has the very latest devices of mass death at its disposal.

All this ignores that if you put a case forward that's considered convincing by a majority of the public, have the support of most of the media and also know that you have can rely on most of your party and the opposition, wars which are opposed by a large, vocal minority can still be fought, as Iraq proved and would still be the case today.  Our participation in the NATO action in Libya went ahead as well after all.  If instead you try to bounce the country into a conflict because an especially barbarous crime is carried out in a country in which 100,000 have already died without such action being considered previously, mainly due to how the American president foolishly set a "red line" which he didn't expect to breached, then you should no longer be surprised that MPs won't just march through the yes lobby no questions asked.  That still the government seems to be ignoring what ought to be staring it in the face is far more concerning than any of the calamities our supposed sudden aversion towards war has thrown up.

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Monday, September 16, 2013 

The slightest of silver linings.

Much (including by yours truly) was written in the aftermath of the coalition losing the vote that would have led, supposedly, to a second vote on whether the UK should join potential military action in Syria.  This understandably focused on why it was that a government with a more than healthy majority by historical standards could manage to lose a motion on foreign policy, something that had the anoraks digging in their books to find the last example of, and what it meant for the main three parties.

Almost three weeks on, and with a deal having been reached between the US and Russia over Syria documenting and then handing over their chemical weapon stocks for destruction, the vote has become even more significant.  In their rush to get on board with what looked to be imminent US military strikes, the deadly duo of Cameron and Hague recalled parliament without so much as having the basics of a case for war.  True, they just about managed to get the joint intelligence committee and attorney general on their side, even if the reports from both were fairly pitiful, but as for why we had to intervene now and whether we could avoid being drawn into a protracted civil war, answers came there none.  Fingers of blame were pointed at Ed Miliband for his supposed preference for party politics over the "national interest", when the real reason the vote was lost was the prime minister's failure to convince his own backbenchers.

Thanks then to the miserable failure of Cameron, Hague and Clegg, you can make a reasonable case that another Middle Eastern adventure was avoided.  Without Cameron immediately granting a vote, apparently confident he would win it, there wouldn't have been the demands on Obama to consult Congress.  Obama, unlike Cameron, realised reasonably quickly that he was unlikely to win a vote, and unprepared to either ignore Congress or suffer the humiliation of such a loss, he and John Kerry sought out a Plan B.  Whether Obama ever truly wanted to get involved militarily in Syria is open to question; he had to be persuaded to act in Libya.  It would though have been an even bigger loss of face to not do something having seen his "red line" breached.  By focusing on chemical weapons rather than the removal of Assad or an increase in help for the rebels, there was always the possibility of a compromise, and that seems to have just about been reached.

As for whether or not Cameron will be thanked by the president is far more difficult to ascertain.  On the surface, it looks like a good deal if all goes as agreed.  Assad loses the weapons that sort of deterred Israel from interfering too heavily in the country, and which also struck a certain amount of fear into the rebels; it doesn't stop the US from increasing aid to the rebels, and there are reports that the long promised weapons have started to arrive; and the US avoids "owning" another sectarian conflict, having successfully engineered one that continues to rage in Iraq.  It could even lead to a break in the impasse over the Iran nuclear programme, if a splash in a certain liberal newspaper is to be believed.

Not everything looks quite so rosy, though.  Should the deal either fall through or Syria attempt to prevaricate, the US has all but boxed itself in to some sort of military action.  All the same problems with an attack on Syria as there were when it looked imminent will still apply.  Moreover, regardless of how it came about, backing down after it looked as though they were only days away from strikes will be seen as weakness at home.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the US public were against intervention, or indeed that the Republicans had just as much of a role as anyone else in making a vote seem unwinnable, we're already seeing the usual suspects whining, having believed they were going to get another notch on their "countries attacked" bedpost.  That it was done with the loathed Russians and while the even more despised Putin lurked in the shadows, having last week dared to suggest the US is anything but an "exceptional" nation, won't have improved their mood.

It feels especially incongruous when the UN inspection team has confirmed definitively that sarin was used in the attack on Ghouta in Damascus on the 21st of August.  Their report doesn't say it in as many words, but the inference is clear that the attack was carried out by the military, rather than the rebels.  This doesn't of course mean that the use of chemical weapons was ordered by Assad himself, or that the attack wasn't a "mistake", with those who prepared it getting the mixture wrong, although obviously the president is ultimately responsible.  It does though bring further into focus just how foolish the mad rush towards intervention was; why could the US, French and UK not wait until the inspectors had carried out their work?  The conflict in Syria has been so coloured with lies and propaganda from both sides that relatively unbiased evidence was crucial.  Like it or not, our own intelligence agencies simply aren't trusted any more, and for good reason.  It's difficult to believe that had any vote on action been delayed until now that a majority still wouldn't have been found, misgivings about another intervention in an Arab country or not.

In truth, it's a fitting sort of end to our entire policy on Syria.  From the very beginning William Hague and the coalition have been either unclear or deliberately misleading in what they've been trying to achieve, recognising the rebels, supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, all while refusing to put pressure on them to attend negotiations which the regime was prepared to enter into.  We say we want a diplomatic solution, yet we make no effort whatsoever to get one.  Instead, we allowed or tacitly supported the arming of the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, then acted surprised when they went to Salafists and other Islamists.  Now we seem to be hoping the "moderate" rebels will fight the likes of al-Nusra and the ISIS, and are training some to do so.  We cry crocodile tears about children and refugees, while seemingly not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.  The best that can be said is that thanks to the US-Russia agreement, things are unlikely to get any worse for the moment.  They won't however get any better.  Hague and Cameron have however succeeded in making themselves look like idiots, as well as the most unreliable of allies.  The very slightest of silver linings.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013 

A funny kind of isolationism.

Of those sympathetic towards liberal interventionism, Timothy Garton Ash is usually among the most eloquent and sound in his reasoning, and hardly ever resorts to the glib, emotional arguments of others.  He doesn't do so in his latest piece either, but he does rather misrepresent Democrat and Republican objections to intervention in Syria:

"Isolationism" is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

First off, I don't think the fear of decline has entered into the debate at all, or rather if it has, it's been used by those pushing for intervention as what could happen if they don't act.  Second, while some such as Rand Paul are classical isolationists in modern libertarian clothing, it's hardly the case that the majority of legislators are leaning in that direction.  It has to be remembered that over the past few years America has sent its drones into Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan; has intervened in Libya; withdrew from Iraq; and is in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan, although will most certainly retain a long-term presence in the country.  Obama and the Pentagon have done most of this with barely a murmur of disquiet from either the Senate or the House of Representatives, with the likes of John McCain and other hawks pushing for the military to go further in some instances.

Indeed, Obama has only stepped back in this instance because he faced a humiliation worse than the doing a deal with the Russians: losing the vote.  And again, this wouldn't be down to creeping isolationism or "withdrawalism" as much as the fact that the Obama administration has made a dreadful case for intervention, off the back of a red line that it's clear the president wished he had never drew.  To say it once again, this was never about chemical weapons; it was about politics.  Luckily, the Russians seem to have found a way to get him somewhat off the hook.  As Ash recounts, the real interest for the US is for the war to continue, hence why the rebels have never been put under any pressure to come to the negotiating table.  Letting the jihadis and US-trained rebels fight it out far away from any real strategic US interests makes sense, at least for now. What happens in the years to come we can worry about then.

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Monday, September 09, 2013 

The PPE approach.

From the inestimable Flying Rodent:
 

And we'll finish with a minor point - our politicians are so keen to cast their own actions as vitally important and historic that it's difficult to avoid concluding that they're victims of narcissism.

Without wanting to completely disagree, I'd argue that politicians constantly invoke yesterday's battles because it's one of the few things they do know about.  We get all the references to appeasement and the comparisons of today's dictators to Hitler not just because WW2 is the gold standard for the "good war", but due to how the PPE graduates who reign over us seem to imagine that such talk is impressive.  It doesn't matter how outrageous the allusions are when you examine them, with John Kerry daring to make a connection between Hitler, who was responsible for the deaths of millions, Saddam Hussein, who presided over the deaths of (probably) hundreds of thousands and gassed around 5,000 Kurds (with either US support or acquiescence) and Assad, who may have given the orders for the use of chemical weapons that killed either hundreds or in the region of 1,000, it's that you create the image in people's heads that the only way to deal with such leaders is force.

By the same token, to draw back or think again is to be pitifully weak, to set a precedent that every enemy or potential enemy will never forget.  To do nothing is to be Neville Chamberlain, to allow the destruction of a country far away of which we know little.  That this doesn't make even the slightest logical sense, especially when you set the "red line" yourself is rarely brought up in response because on the international stage we must always walk tall.  It's why David Cameron had to respond to a Russian minister referring to the UK as a small country with a Love Actually-esque riff instead of just dismissing it as unworthy of response.  As a letter writer in the Graun noted, the irony of claiming to have defeated fascism while in the nation that did the most to destroy the Nazi war machine couldn't have said more about the ridiculous way our politicians continue to puff themselves up.

It wouldn't be so bad if humanitarianism genuinely was at least one motivation behind the proposed US strike.  I was against intervention in Libya, but I always recognised that the desire to protect Benghazi was real.  With Syria, as Shuggy alludes to, what we're getting is pro-war moralism.  If you're against or undecided, dead children will be shoved under your nose.  I can remember during the Lebanon war the Evening Standard openly claiming that children were being used as shields; this time round, when we know for a fact that the rebels have used children as fighters, and when children's bodies are placed together for maximum effect (and I have no objection to that, but it should at least be recognised that's what's being done) we're meant to regard the use of chemical weapons as a unique evil that cannot be tolerated.  We could ask the average Vietnamese what he or she thinks about the United States suddenly discovering the inhumanity of the use of unconventional weapons, but they'd probably be too busy laughing.

In reality, this long stopped being about the plight of the average Syrian, and it's not about chemical weapons either.  In descending order, it's about Obama having to do something because of his dumb red line, about attempting to undermine Iran and about ensuring the civil war continues.  As Juan Cole writes, the concern is that Assad could fall too quickly rather than too late, with the jihadists amongst the opposition the beneficiaries.  Seeing as even some of those we consider not to be aligned with the ISI or al-Nusra want a caliphate, it's little wonder they apparently wish to repeat the Awakening experience of Iraq.  Far from wanting an end to the violence, we seem to be hoping the conflict gets bloodier.

Such is the low we've reached that this speech by Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, is described as being the case for intervention without moralising or confusion.  In her second paragraph she brings Iran and Hezbollah into it, and already you don't need to read any further.  While the overriding reason for public opposition to a strike is war-weariness, whether here or in the US, it also has to be the case that many are fed up with being taken for fools.  You don't have to so much as followed the conflict in Syria to know that Hezbollah intervened only after the conflict had been turned sectarian by the Qatari and Saudi funded rebels, in turn supported and funded by our good selves.  You don't need to be even slightly astute to see much of the coverage, including in the broadsheets and on the BBC, to be hopelessly biased or heavily influenced by the most base propaganda.  And when you've been lied to on such a scale as we were over Iraq and WMD, it takes a lot to convince that we should get involved in a conflict where it looks as those both sides are equally caked in blood.  The Russian/Syrian offer of being putting chemical weapons under international control offers very slight hope, but only that.  Our leaders might be able to spin war, but spinning a climb down after all this?  It would be the most abject display of weakness.  We can't have that.

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Monday, September 02, 2013 

Syria: the coalition is officially butthurt.

The coalition is exhibiting all the symptoms of what the internet has come to define as "butthurt".  Either unwilling or unable to bring itself to admit that the failure of the Syria vote was all down to them, whether due to the piss poor case they made, the apparent failure to detect massive opposition within their own parties or just plain old fashioned messing up, they've instead decided to pin all the blame on Ed Miliband.  Doncha know, if it hadn't been for the "cynical partisanship" of the Labour leader then Cameron and Hague could now be getting their war on.  According to George Osborne, Red Ed now looks even less like a future prime minister, and Osborne ought to know, considering he's about as likely to follow on from Dave as I'm to be next Pope.

It's fairly pointless looking to opinion polls now, as the results show the public to be as hopelessly confused as usual on who's come out of it well, meaning that they either don't know or don't care, but even before the vote there looked to be a fairly massive majority against any strike on Syria.  Taking this into account, it seems just a little bit silly to be presenting Miliband as the one who put a stop to our taking part in an intervention, as, err, that could just increase his popularity.  The whole partisan argument doesn't even stand up to the slightest scrutiny in any case: the motions were all but identical for goodness sake, just that Labour's asked for more time.  If the coalition had read the situation properly, they could have switched to the Labour motion and still gotten their war.  As it was, both were defeated.

The problem for Cameron and Hague, but Hague especially, is this shows that apart from the keyboard warriors online and the bomb flingers of Fleet Street, his approach to Syria is incredibly unpopular.  If there was widespread opposition to arming the rebels, as there was, why did either think that inconclusive reports of the use of chemical weapons, horrific images from the scene or not, would change people's minds so drastically?  Their policy hasn't made any sense for months, and it's actually got even more ridiculous as time has gone by.  As Simon Jenkins writes, you don't punish a country's government for using chemical weapons by killing more innocent people on the ground, as such an intervention inevitably would.  You either don't get involved at all and push for a diplomatic solution, or you plan an assault that will make a genuine difference.

Which is precisely why John Kerry's sermon last Friday was so incongruous.  There he was making this great moral case for how the world couldn't ignore a crime against humanity, when there isn't the slightest evidence that what's actually being proposed would prevent another such use of gas.  If he was personally persuasive, the intelligence released alongside his speech was almost identical to that produced by our own spooks, and raised just as many questions as it answered.  He also gave the game away when he brought Iran and Hezbollah into it, those other actors in Syria who were mentioned while Saudi Arabia and Qatar were ignored.  If Hezbollah did want chemical weapons, they most surely could have got them by now, while the JIC briefing last week said rebel groups did want to get their hands on them.  Personally, I'm far more concerned about what al-Qaida and its friends could do with Sarin or VX than I am Hezbollah, but then al-Qaida only kills anyone it feels like while Hezbollah, err, defends Lebanon against Israel.  Israel, meanwhile, continues to neither confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons, while it most likely has chemical/biological weapons programmes too.

One conclusion to be reached is that rather than wanting to bring the civil war to an end, we actually want it to continue.  Israel, we are told, remains ambivalent, not surprisingly considering the lack of trouble Assad has caused the country, in spite of the continuing occupation of the Golan Heights.  It doesn't like his support for Hezbollah, but he's probably preferable to either the instability of what would come after, or indeed the Islamist regime that would be the most likely outcome.  We ourselves might follow Saudi policy in the region, but we don't particularly want the jihadis to have another potential safe haven, even if it means a dilution of Iranian power.  The conflict might have led to around 2 million people fleeing, but for now they mostly haven't tried to reach our shores, instead going to either Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.  And as long as they're fighting each other, they're less concerned about targeting the West.

It would certainly explain why we favour only minimally striking Assad for the use of CW, when we went after Iraq not having the first idea how the war there would pan out.  It would also mean that despite all the rhetoric of how something must be done and the use of the most emotional language, we really couldn't care less about the Syrians themselves, something I've felt has been the case from the very beginning.

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Friday, August 30, 2013 

What the Syria vote does and doesn't signify.

Amid all the attempts to try and explain exactly what last night's government defeat on Syria means, there are two fairly fundamental reasons for why they lost, neither of which has much to do with Cameron's standing with his party or Miliband's change of tack 48 hours ago.

First, the government completely failed to make the case for intervention.  The evidence was inconclusive, the legal advice an utter joke, and no one advocating joining the US in striking Syria even began to explain how launching hundreds of cruise missiles at "military" targets was meant to either stop chemical weapons being used again, or improve the humanitarian situation in the country.

Second, the rush to make a decision to meet an arbitrary timetable was a huge mistake.  In the course of a week the government tried to bump the country into another military adventure without explaining why immediate action was so important, or couldn't be delayed until after the UN inspectors had delivered their report.  They wouldn't have apportioned blame, but it would have established beyond any doubt that chemical weapons had been used.  If there was any true echo of Iraq, it was in trying to force matters when waiting slightly longer may well have turned up the cliched "smoking gun".  The arguments a decade ago were so rehearsed that it became more and more difficult to say something new that could change minds; in this instance plenty of people had yet to come to a proper reasoned decision, and so erred on the side of caution.

Only then should we come to how party politics had an impact.  Looking down the list of Tory MPs who voted against the prime minister, there are some who are seasoned veterans of trooping through the no lobby, but fewer than you might imagine.  Cameron and the whips ought to have known from the numbers who were opposed to arming the rebels and were demanding a vote then that there was more than the potential for trouble and they seem to have ignored it, imagining that they would back the prime minister when his authority was on the line.  They also seem to have dismissed the level of press opposition, as well as the few opinion polls conducted that suggested little appetite for another conflict.  Whether you put this down to the Tories being on a high after signs of economic recovery and Labour's troubles during the recess or just ignoring what ought to have staring them in the face, for a party meant to be in tune with public opinion via Lynton Crosby, this is a remarkable failure.

Those on the coalition frontbench really ought to be looking at themselves then before lashing out at everyone else for their supposed perfidy.  It comes to something when it's Jack Straw acting as the voice of (almost) reason, pointing out that this wasn't about the country become isolationist, rather it was the abject failure of the case made by the government.  If it hadn't been in such a mad rush, another week might well have sufficed and the result could have been different. Nor did it help when even before the vote had taken place, words being put in people's mouths or not, Philip Hammond was agreeing that Labour's amendment gave succour to Assad, while others were yet again bringing the "national interest" and "national security" into play.  If the no vote really was as significant as some are making out, I and many others would be delighted. Having blindly followed the US into two disastrous wars of choice, as well as persuaded a hesitant Obama into intervening in Libya, making clear that we will no longer act as backup without exhausting all other options first would be a extremely welcome development.

Nor is this quite the triumph for Ed Miliband that some are trying to portray it as.  As others have detected, this wasn't so much educated, strong leadership as it was a whole lot of luck and Cameron/Clegg snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Miliband didn't know what he wanted and his confused speech yesterday said as much; he was playing for time, hoping that doing so would stop a significant number of his own backbenchers from rebelling.  The disaster for Cameron is that if he and his whips had read the situation properly, they could have swallowed their pride and gone with the Labour amendment, which was almost identical to their own motion except it asked for the government to wait until the UN inspectors had given their report.  Cameron and Hague would still have gotten their war.  As it is, Cameron can hardly now go on portraying Miliband as weak when he's suffered such a humiliation himself.

Most important of all though is that last night's vote firmly established that parliament has to be consulted before military action can be taken.  When it came to Libya, MPs voted after the intervention had begun, making it all but unthinkable that they would then ask for the bombers to be brought back.  Barring extreme cases, the royal prerogative has clearly had its day.  Likewise, one of the minor reasons for why last night's vote failed is that with the exception of a few especially egregious Labour MPs, the exact same people who thought Iraq was such a splendid idea were those most vociferous in urging action in SyriaMichael Gove shouldn't be calling others a disgrace, he ought to be reflecting on why it is we are now so resistant to intelligence briefings and the advice of government lawyers.  Not all of the blame can be put on Blair when so many others went along with it; the being misled themselves line simply won't wash.

Finally, the only message this sends to Assad is that Britain won't be joining in an attack.  If the US and France as planned want to make either a pointless gesture to prevent Obama being embarrassed over the breaching of his red line, or alternatively fully intervene on the side of the rebels, then bully for them.  All it signifies is that we won't be rushed into another potentially foolhardy conflict, nothing more.  Those who invoke the image of gassed or burned children as demanding action seem to have no such concerns as to our intervening on the side of rebels who use child soldiers or murder them in cold blood on video, nor are many of them similarly outraged when other states bombard heavily populated areas with no concern for human lifeAs Simon Jenkins writes, not intervening now takes more political courage than doing so, so skewed has the Westminster bubble become.

P.S. It's nice to see that last night has at the very least provided us with a new African euphemism: 


It is understood that Greening and Simmonds were in a room near the Commons chamber, discussing the situation in Rwanda, when the vote was called.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013 

The government's case for war: a collection of words.

Among all the classic bad reviews of books and films, one I've always been especially partial to is Ian Hislop's pithy dismissal of Edwina Currie's first attempt at a bonkbuster, titled A Parliamentary Affair.  His verdict? "It's not a novel, it's a collection of words."  As Kermode and Mayo would (almost) say, put it on the cover.

In the same sense, Dominic Grieve's reasoning on why an attack on Syria would be legal (PDF) is also a collection of words.  It most certainly isn't the kind of case you'd pay thousands of pounds for were you to ask Suue, Grabbit and Runne to do the same, as not even they would be so brazen as to claim such nonsense was the best they could do.  Grieve's argument is effectively that even if the attack on Ghouta hadn't happened, intervention would still be legal as the level of suffering in Syria is so high, something "generally accepted by the international community as a whole".  As Tom Freeman says, this is gibberish.  This isn't a legal document, it's a political one that also tries to make a moral case, and it fails on that score just as badly.

First off, it's abundantly clear that there are alternatives to the use of force if lives are to be saved.  We could push for the revival of the proposed Geneva talks and an immediate ceasefire.  It should be remembered it isn't the Assad government blocking those talks, it's the rebels.  The talks might fail, but it's most certainly an alternative that would save lives in the short term. Second, all Grieve refers to is the work or lack of it done at the UN, without mentioning how we've recognised the rebels as the de facto representatives of the Syrian people and have been training the Free Syrian Army in Jordan.  Lastly, nor it is clear whatsoever that the proposed use of force will "be strictly limited in time and scope".  The proposed UN resolution calls for all necessary measures to protect civilians, the same wording used by NATO to support regime change in Libya, and as a result has almost no chance whatsoever of being passed, Russia and China having made clear they're not going to fall for the same trick twice.

Thankfully, that's also been picked up by Labour.  Ed Miliband seems to have changed his mind on supporting the coalition mainly due to how he would have inspired a major rebellion in doing so, potentially losing at least one frontbencher, but as Martin Kettle writes, it's that he's done so rather than the reasoning behind it which is important.  When it comes down to it, the real differences between the Labour amendment and the coalition one are relatively slight, and it's more likely than not that Labour will end up supporting a strike.  What the Labour amendment does explicitly state however is that such an intervention must be time-limited, and limited also to responding to the use of chemical weapons, so not precipitating wider action.  If passed, this would hopefully ensure we don't have another Libya-style conflict, although I wouldn't hold my breath, such were the deceptions carried out last time round.

Obviously, if Miliband and Labour had any real backbone, they would oppose intervention outright.  If the party was truly against the arming of the "moderate" rebels, then going beyond that and "sending a message" that the use of chemical weapons is beyond the pale when there is absolutely no indication that doing so would work and could instead spark wider intervention in the future ought to be a no brainer.  When Cameron says this wouldn't be about taking sides, he's talking bilge that should embarrass even him.  We clearly chose our side a long while ago, and it's the side of the Saudis, as it always is.

For as much as the coalition doesn't want to reprise Iraq, the language used by both Clegg and Cameron is almost exactly that of Blair circa 2002-03. If anything, the attack on Miliband for daring to suggest maybe we shouldn't rush to bomb yet another Arab state is fiercer than that made on Jacques Chirac back then.  The lies are also the same, with claims that the whole of Europe supports action when it does not, nor does the Arab League support an attack despite condemning Assad for the Ghouta massacre.

And then we have the joint intelligence committee, once again bending over backwards to help the government on distinctly inconclusive evidence. Their report amounts to err, we've watched the videos on YouTube and Assad must have done it. The Americans by contrast admit that they've lost track of where the chemical weapons are, and so can't be certain that they haven't fallen into rebel hands. It's still almost certain that the attack was the work of the Syrian military, but we don't know who ordered or authorised it, and if we're to believe the JIC, this is the 15th such use. Why then wouldn't the Syrian military just go back to using them in limited quantities again, apparently safe in the knowledge that's permissible? The JIC isn't even certain this is the worst atrocity of the conflict, for pity's sake.

The case presented by the government therefore makes absolutely no sense.  An attack won't target the weapons themselves, not least because we don't know where they are, but because of the potential to kill thousands ourselves through doing so.  It won't be a deterrent, as there's nothing to stop the Syrian military from returning to lower scale use.  The strikes being talked of won't have a major effect on the regime, as it's already survived far worse over the past two and a half years, and so won't improve the humanitarian situation in the country by so much as a fraction.  What it will do is establish once and for all our support for one side in a civil war that is already out of control.  Rather than push for a negotiated settlement, we want to indulge in a worse than pointless gesture, seemingly just to back up a president who made a stupid promise that the use of chemical weapons was a red line.  At least Tony Blair genuinely believed in what he was doing, however horrendously wrong he was; the coalition fits the poodle description far more accurately than he ever did.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013 

What we needs another war!

Of the many great moments in Peter Jackson's splatter satirising opus Braindead, only one has any real significance in connection with the march to war against Syria, but thankfully it's a damn good one.  Oblivious to the fact that Lionel has just about managed to patch up his quickly zombifying mother to welcome the local head of the women's welfare league, the conversation turns to the lethargy and inaction of young people.  "What we needs another war!", declares the husband, banging the table.

Our politicians and most commentators wouldn't for the most part be so unsubtle.  After all, we are still nominally fighting a war as it stands, although Afghanistan is just about as forgotten as it's ever been.  The same line of thinking is most certainly there, though.  While we thankfully aren't as quick to look towards "military solutions" as our cousins across the Atlantic, where certain congressmen have seen fewer foreign nations they wouldn't bomb than those they would, it's about as far from being the last resort as ever.  If we do involve ourselves in action against Syria, it will be the fourth major conflict we've been involved in since 9/11, or alternatively, if you prefer to go back to 97 and the ascent to power of a certain Tony Blair, the sixth (Sierra Leone, Kosovo).  Whichever timescale you chose, the threat to this country from outside powers during and up to now has remained almost exactly the same, namely miniscule.

The allusion almost everyone is making, understandably, is to Iraq.  Iraq it has to be remembered was not disastrous for either the Americans or ourselves in terms of military defeat; our losses were fewer than those we've suffered in Afghanistan, while public opinion in the US turned against the war more because of the lack of progress rather than the numbers killed and injured, which were low compared to those of Vietnam.  The disaster was meant to be that we failed to plan for what happened after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and that the justification for the war, weapons of mass destruction, had in fact long been destroyed.

Except, as was demonstrated in Libya, we have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.  We hadn't forgotten the mistake of trying to occupy Iraq and govern it, even in the short term, so we didn't.  Instead, we let the various rebel factions get on with it themselves, the result being the stand off between militas that's continuing now.  The lesson that seems most obvious from Iraq, that of not hitching ourselves to the military adventurism of the United States when we don't have to, was seemingly turned on its head by Cameron and friends being more belligerent against Gaddafi than Obama was.  With Syria, despite again our representatives having seemed more gung-ho over the past two years than the Obama adminstration, we now once again seem to be determined to act as both lawyer and bombing understudy of Team America (you may add your own fuck yeahs).

Going to the United Nations at this point, despite both the US and ourselves having argued repeatedly over the past few days that we don't need a security council resolution for bombing Syria to be lawful, just reminds fatefully of both Iraq and Libya.  The likes of Jack Straw and Blair himself continue to maintain that any chance of a second resolution explicitly authorising action against Iraq back in 2003 was scuppered by Jacques Chirac saying he would veto one in any circumstances; in fact he said he would veto one at that precise time.  It was enough for Blair to argue that the UN route had run its course.  Now we again have the UN itself asking for more time for inspectors to do their work, while we've taken a resolution to the council this time knowing for a fact that the Russians will veto it.  And also again, we have those claiming that the inevitable stalemate will condemn the UN to the status of its predecessor.

To suggest that this is once more a mess of our making, having so thoroughly abused UNSC 1973, seems to be to make yourself even more unpopular.  That resolution, despite calling for negotiations between the two sides and upholding an arms embargo, authorised all necessary means to protect civilians, just as the proposed resolution today does the same.  Our politicians are asking us to trust them this is going to be just a one-off response to the "moral obscenity" of large scale use of chemical weapons, while at the same time preparing the ground for exactly the same sort of campaign as was waged in Libya.  To call it duplicitous doesn't even begin to do it justice.

Most remarkable of all is that whereas you expect those who were in favour of the Iraq war to support this latest foreign excursion, and to also make the exact same arguments now as they did then, those who ought to know better are joining them.  Alan Johnson writes an especially pompous open letter to Owen Jones in which he concludes that a one-off strike aimed at certain targets would re-establish deterrence and make Assad think before using chemical weapons again.  Well, perhaps it might; alternatively, if we're being honest about it truly being a one-off, then why wouldn't he use them again once the heat is off?  Are we then going to do this all over again?  Are we certain an attack will have a deterrent effect when the sites likely to be hit have been so widely disseminated, and when Russia is more than happy to replace any destroyed weapon systems?  Is it of no consequence that countless wars have metastasised after what were meant to be limited interventions?  And still no one seems to want to explain why this particular crime against humanity is so much worse than all the others that have been committed in Syria by both sides.

The one key difference this time is that unlike in the cases of both Iraq and Libya, neither the public nor the press are fully on side.  Ed Miliband is currently tying himself up in knots over whether to support the government, apparently determined to live up to the accusation of being weak rather than just oppose the whole wretched process, but seems likely to end up urging his party to vote in favour of tomorrow's motion.  Marx's now cliched aphorism was that history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.  In his day, governments didn't have to listen to their people.  In the modern age, it seems to be the people who learn while politicians and their cliques refuse to take lessons from anyone or anything.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013 

Achieving nothing but doing something.

History tells us that dictators do stupid things.  Hitler, ignoring what happened to Napoleon's army, started his campaign against the Soviet Union too late in the year to possibly complete the capture of Moscow, let alone territory beyond the capital.  Stalin, meanwhile, refused to accept the innumerable warnings from his spies within Germany that an invasion was coming, or indeed the evidence of the massing of forces, such was his lack of preparedness for an early breaking of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.  More recently, Saddam Hussein imagined that the support from the US for his regime during the war against Iran would continue even if he annexed Kuwait, a view it has to be said was encouraged by the US ambassador at the time.  It was nonetheless a huge miscalculation, although Hussein couldn't possibly have imagined he would become the bogeyman of the next decade as a result.

The key question today is, was Bashar al-Assad really so idiotic as to launch a poison gas attack on a suburb of Damascus just as UN chemical weapons inspectors had arrived in the capital?  It certainly seems so, but something just feels wrong.  No one has yet adequately explained why Syrian forces only seem to target civilians with chemical weapons, rather than the actual rebels they're fighting against.  Juan Cole's reasoning behind the attack seems the most realistic: that the army thought it was a risk worth taking and which could then be blamed on the rebels themselves afterwards.  


One thing that doesn't seem to be up for discussion is whether the very top of the Syrian government authorised the attack, or whether the army within Damascus is relatively autonomous.  If this wasn't an Assad endorsed decision, and despite everything I still think that's the second likeliest explanation behind the army acting of its own accord, then the other possibility worth considering is whether the army has been infiltrated by rebels looking to frame the regime.  Outlandish yes, but it seems more plausible than rebels having captured some chemical munitions then attempting to do the same.  The rebels have about the same amount of respect for human life as the government does, after all: remember the attacks on government buildings then blamed by the rebels on the regime attacking itself, until it turned out it was them after all, or indeed the disastrous siege of Aleppo, still continuing.

Unless either the US or ourselves have bona fide evidence from on the ground, it still can't definitively be said that this was the work of government forces.  The evidence undoubtedly points that way, but we can't be certain.  Nonetheless, if this was the work of the rebels aimed at crossing Obama's fabled "red line" and triggering full scale intervention, they seem at the moment likely to be let down again.  


As from the beginning of the conflict, we want to be seen to be doing something, but that something seems designed not to change anything.  First we said we wanted negotiations between the two sides at the same time as we acquiesced in the arming of Islamists by Qatar and Saudi Arabia; then we said we wanted negotiations but only after we'd armed the "moderates" to the point at which Assad was forced to the table.  As for now, we still supposedly want talks at Geneva to take place, but we can't allow the use of chemical weapons without responding militarily.  Except, rather than attempt to destroy the stockpiles of chemical weapons, it seems it will just be purely conventional military targets struck by cruise missiles if we do indeed take action.  Naturally, this will be perfectly legal under international law, despite not having UN backing.

What then will such strikes achieve?  There isn't a suggestion they will substantially change the situation on the ground, seeing as two years of brutal civil war have resulted only in stalemate.  If it's meant as a warning to the regime not to use such weapons again, do we truly believe only a limited intervention will do so?  If it doesn't, will our response ratchet up further?  Do we have any intelligence on how Iran and Hezbollah will respond?  Both they and the Syrians themselves have allowed Israeli incursions to go unanswered, but will they maintain the same posture this time?  Are we certain of the targets, and the debilitating affect attacking them will have on the regime?  Are we sure this won't further affect civilians, stuck between three belligerent sides that apparently care little for them?

Moreover, what does it say about our wider interests and policy in the region?  Why is it a "moral obscenity" and a "crime against humanity" when hundreds or thousands are killed using one specific weapon, but only a cause for concern when hundreds or thousands are killed using more conventional ones?  What is so uniquely terrible about the use of chemical weapons in this instance, and not been uniquely terrible when they have been used both by the US and our other allies in the past?  Have we forgotten that we were supporting Saddam when he gassed the Kurds?  Why do the deaths of these civilians rank more highly than those of the tens of thousands who have died in the civil war in Syria so far?  Do we really believe that striking back in this instance will discourage other governments in the future from using such weapons?  Or is this really all about the fact that Obama put himself in a hole last year when he declared that their use would result in intervention?

That really does seem to be the overriding reason, and the whole face-off is reminiscent of the farce in December 1998 when Iraq was bombed for supposedly not co-operating with the UN weapon inspectors.  The other echo is of 2003, when we demanded that the inspectors be allowed in only to then shift the goalposts once the request was allowed, something that happened again this weekend.

What's angered me most from the beginning over our stance on Syria and continues to do so now is the fundamental lack of honesty.  We pretend to care about the country's civilians, but clearly we don't.  If we did, we wouldn't be contemplating air strikes or giving even more weapons to the rebels, we'd be demanding that both sides attend peace talks, as there simply isn't a military solution, or rather there is, but not one that doesn't involve the almost total destruction of the country's infrastructure and thousands more deaths.  The war became a sectarian conflict precisely because of the intervention of the Saudis and Qataris funnelling money to the jihadists who fomented one in Iraq, autocracies we remain on such good terms with.  Rather than try and stop this from continuing, our response was to train and fund "moderates", not just to fight Assad but to also potentially fight the jihadis once Assad fell.  Instead, they're fighting now.  We're now dressing the apparent coming military action up not as any sort of intervention, however limited, but as a response to the use of chemical weapons.  It won't achieve anything, but we can't admit we don't want to take the risk of another full scale war in the Middle East, plus it'll make us look like big, strong men of action, and we'll get to use some of our shiny weapons, justifying their cost.  We must do something, but it can't be too little or too much.  Not doing anything simply isn't an option.

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