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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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Although the context and circumstances are wildly dissimilar, the best reference point is perhaps the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium. The motive may have been AL's murder, but it was equally and perhaps predominantly to demonstrate the impotence of the British authorities.

In Syria there is no military objective to killing a load of random civilians. Yet the civil war has been so far fought with implicit British encouragement - ie "if enough of you die then maybe we might intervene" - and our bluff has been horribly called.

The proxy war is over. Either we concede that we are really only spectators or else we have to intervene.

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