As Syria enters western crosshairs, the public is bombarded with professions of high principle. “Make no mistake”, declaims U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, appealing to the Commons on Thursday, insisted that the case for action in Syria cut to the core of what “sort of country” Britain is:
The question before us is this: Is Britain a country that wants to uphold that international taboo against the use of chemical weapons? My argument is that yes, it should be that sort of country.
Consider, then, the words of Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. In 2009, as Israel rained white phosphorus on civilians in Gaza, Kemp mused on The World Tonight:
we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course we have to use aerial weapons like artillery and white phosphorus, and we do use those weapons, even in areas that do have a certain amount of civilian population.
The Colonel might be less philosophical were white phosphorus to land on, say, Bracknell. But his admission exposes only the tip of the iceberg. Israel’s regular massacres are subsidised with American military aid and assisted by UK arms sales; the supply of both continued, for instance, after Israel saturated southern Lebanon with cluster bombs in 2006—an “unprecedented” military action overwhelmingly targeting towns and villages, mining the entire area just before a ceasefire kicked in. In the 1980s, the US, which would lead any operation in Syria, knowingly helped Saddam Hussein launch chemical attacks on Iran. US forces used white phosphorus and Mark 77 firebombs—a modern form of napalm—in Iraq. In Fallujah, American troops trapped fighting-age males in the city—in a chilling echo of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre—before destroying half of it, treating those inside as combatants. Scientists suspect Fallujah’s massive rate of birth defects is linked to depleted uranium munitions used by American troops. Obama’s bombing campaigns continue to terrorize entire populations, execute people based on suspicious “patterns of behaviour”, and declare victims guilty until proven innocent. As Hans Blix notes, western powers resist laws prohibiting “first use” of their nuclear weapons—apparently a “red line” we should be free to cross at will.
When establishment commentators demand sufficient violence to deter and punish “[l]eaders … who wantonly slaughter civilians”, then, adding that
[t]he systems and military or paramilitary units that carry out such crimes are legitimate targets, as are the assets that protect them and the economic entities that support them,
they implicitly label London, Washington and their financial backers “legitimate targets”—a far more extreme conclusion than anything anti-war “extremists” endorse. We debate attacks on Syria rather than Washington only because power sets the limits of discussion.
Without a UN mandate, attacking Syria is plainly illegal: neither facts nor laws support a “humanitarian” exception. Yet few seem unduly bothered. “I am very clear,” said Ed Miliband on Thursday, “that we have got to learn the lessons of Iraq”, one of the “most important” being “respect for the United Nations”. Still, he continued, “there could be circumstances, in the absence of a chapter VII Security Council resolution, for action to be taken”: Government lawyers say so, after all (even if the “vast majority” of governments do not) and we did it in Kosovo (even if in doing so we broke the law). “Respect” and disregard: a curious combination. The Chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, was more straightforward, explaining that,
in effect, [the Attorney-General’s position] means that the UN is now redundant and that the humanitarian doctrine has legs of its own and can be interpreted virtually any way the parties wish
—before voting for Cameron's motion regardless. A prominent editor at the New Statesman dismisses the “old delusion” that the west must respect international law; Britain’s leading left-wing blog joins the “moral” crusade to let powerful states break it as they see fit. “The U.N. Security Council is not the sole custodian of what is legal and appropriate”, explains the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. UN authorisation, an American official tells Foreign Policy, merely “puts the period on the end of the sentence”. Paddy Ashdown would “hate” to see attacks without UN approval—though clearly not that much, since he also thinks the UN would benefit if they went ahead regardless. As in Serbia, as in Iraq, we must destroy the global village in order to save it.
Across the media, our leaders’ motives remain unimpeachable. The Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent calls the trigger-happy Obama a “reluctant warrior” whose benevolent overlordship prevents “terrible things” happening. For the New Statesman, western leaders are “high-minded liberals who go to war intent on preserving civilian life”.
In reality, Washington’s actions in Syria will reflect its broader goal of securing regional dominance. They want, notes analyst Paul Rogers,
a pro-western Syria that would severely constrain Iranian influence in the region and end any notion that a 'Shi’a crescent' could be established—from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. This is akin to the neo-con dream of 2001-03, which believed that regime termination in Iraq would form the western counterpart of a pincer against Iran, complementing Afghanistan’s role to the east.
But the US has failed to win a dominant position for pro-western groups amid Syria’s disunited rebel factions, and instead confronts the “growing power of extreme Islamist paramilitaries”. Some “realists” therefore suggest Obama fuel the civil war deliberately, adjusting the flow of weapons to prevent either side winning. But Washington is equally unprepared to let Syria fragment, leaving large areas under jihadist control. The “chemical-weapons controversy”, then, “might provide a means to hasten Assad’s end and avert this outcome.”
The US media take official claims about the chemical attacks at face value; but the available evidence is shaky at best. It is clear an attack took place; less clear who perpetrated it. The Syrian regime has little obvious incentive to cross Obama’s “red line” and provoke retaliation. The Office of the Director for National Intelligence lacks “proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use”, while those “panicked calls” from a Syrian commander to the field only cast doubt on the regime’s complicity. Many question whether such attacks merit a response if the wider Syrian bloodbath does not.
Military options range from pointless to “extremely dangerous”, and are generally both. A 2012 paper in the Journal of Peace Research found “that military interventions [in civil wars] in favor of the rebel faction … tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40%”. This supports an “academic consensus” that outside involvement makes civil wars longer, more bloody, and more difficult to resolve peaceably. The “worst results typically involve multiple external actors with conflicting objectives”—as in Syria.
Obama proposes “limited”, punitive attacks that would “send a message” but not target chemical weapons or “change the balance of forces”. Yet this could raise the opposition’s hopes, only to dash them in the absence of further support. Even the architect of the Syrian war plan calls such punitive attacks “the dumbest of all actions”: they would not punish Assad’s resilient regime enough to deter him; pick off chemical weapons sites and he would disperse what remained among his troops. “The best historical parallels”, the Washington Post finds, talking to several former US officials, are “rife with unintended consequences and feature no success stories”. Former Navy planner Christopher Harmer calls such an attack “worse than doing nothing”, since it could rally support for Assad against an external aggressor. If atrocities continued or were stepped up, Washington could preserve “credibility” only by escalating its attacks—a staggeringly dangerous and probably futile course. Former US official Aaron David Miller is surely (if uncharacteristically) correct that, rather than “produce some clear winner in the end”,
Syria is much more likely to morph into a decentralized polity where Alawites, Kurds, and Sunnis continue to struggle with each other and with al Qaeda-type extremists in semi-autonomous and dysfunctional enclaves for years to come. … Getting rid of Assad by no means guarantees stability, the end of civil war, or a victory for the pro-Western opposition.
Meanwhile, unilateral action will close off the diplomatic track with Syrian allies Russia, China and Iran, and impede humanitarian cooperation.
The House of Commons’ veto on British involvement is therefore welcome. Throughout Thursday’s debate, MPs congratulated themselves on asserting independence from the executive—“Parliament,” cheered one, “is waking up”. Yet, even if Cameron deigned to put this question to a vote, Parliament has no formal authority on matters of war and peace: consulting it is a convention the Tories promised, and have neglected, to make binding. Instead, as representative of the crown, the Prime Minister can wage war at his discretion. As one Tory MP puts it, a “constitutional quirk has handed 10 Downing Street the power of a mediaeval monarch”. This is a rotten, archaic system, devoid of democratic legitimacy.
Nor does empowering Parliament mean empowering the public: if it did, why should the Commons vote have been so close—decided by 13 Members—when public opposition was so clear? MPs were doubtless influenced by public opinion, but certainly did not represent it. “Parliament, so often sneered at,” concludes the Guardian, “did its job when it mattered”. But it also mattered in the case of Libya, when a united political class simply overrode substantial public opposition. When Tory rebel Sarah Wollaston demands an “opportunity” for people “to have a say through their MP”, then, she promotes an ideological fiction: that Parliament grants us a meaningful role in decision-making.
In a democracy, the public—not the monarch or an “elective dictatorship”—decides when and whether to authorize war. We should demand nothing less.
Tim Holmes is a writer and activist. He lives in mid-Wales