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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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