A Line in the Sand
I do not, and could not, claim knowledge of Syria; still less the politics of Syria or the military situation in Syria. I know only that my Government has carried out military operations in Syria: in my name, and in yours. All I can do is ask why these operations are being carried out, and expect that Parliament will, sooner or later, require Government to account for its actions.
Following on British military activities in Afghanistan, Iraq and in Libya we are all entitled to be both cautious and even sceptical of slick, authoritatively presented and promoted explanations of such military operations by Governments, whether delivered as confident intelligence reports, or military master plans for swift and decisive action. We have lived to regret most of them. Most recently we took action in Libya against a corrupt and tyrannical regime (which, as a general call to arms would require us to overthrow a great deal more of the world than any power or powers could ever contemplate); and the result was to turn Libya into a failed state, spread disorder and terrorism beyond its borders to its neighbours (British tourists died in Tunisia in consequence of the Libyan state’s collapse), and even into sub-Saharan Africa. I wrote about Libya in Bella Caledonia: ‘The Formation of British Foreign Policy’ (24th February, 2015); ’ Deserting Libya: the rhetoric of British Foreign Policy’ (28th September, 2015); ‘State Failure: the Conservative Government, Westminster and Britain’ (14th September, 2016): and I have no reason to amend my opinion of that ill-judged Government action then, even now and in longer retrospect.
We have now attacked Syria, but have contrived obliquely to criticise Russia (the country that the West has long acknowledged is best placed to ensure the Assad regime does not use chemical weapons). For Britain this conflation of responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria is complicated by the fact that Britain has already implied or insinuated Russia’s involvement in an attack with a chemical weapon in Salisbury against two Russian citizens, that injured a British police officer, and endangered innocent civilians. I am in no position to comment on ‘proof’, but if the British Government believes the UK was attacked in this way with illegal chemical weapons by Russia in the streets of our towns, I certainly understand the determination to take firm action. While the wording of official Government statements is a little Delphic, the direction of responsibility is made clear. The Government has emphasised the parallels with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in a London hotel with polonium-210 in 2006. A thorough investigation of that event led to an official UK report that concluded there was Russian state involvement. Given these circumstances, albeit the investigation of Salisbury is at an earlier stage, if there is good evidence – as the Government claims – then firm action must be taken. I am therefore puzzled that, given the strength of the Government’s conviction in its case against Russia, the action it has taken has been quite so limited: after all, this is effectively a chemical weapons attack on the public streets of Britain in 2018.
What Britain has done is expel 23 members of the Russian embassy from Britain, identified by our intelligence services as “spies”. The Russian embassy remains open. The Ambassador remains in post. We expelled four “spies” in 2007, after the Litvinenko affair. Now it is 23; is that proportionate to the scale of the incidents perpetrated in Britain, using illegal chemical weapons? Given two separate incidents in public places in Britain, in which we have identified the same state perpetrator, I am a little surprised at our generous diplomatic indulgence of serial offending of this kind. Indeed, it rather raises the question; after Litvinenko, why have we allowed 19 more Russian “spies” (after all they have been identified by our Intelligence Services, so presumably are monitored, and known) to arrive and set-up in Britain in the intervening years? At the same time, I do not understand why Britain has allowed so many Russian oligarchs, and a tidal wave of Russian money, apparently unregulated or restricted, to find a home and establish a firm base in London. I am sceptical that we really understand precisely who is pulling whose strings. Quite tellingly, too many Russians seem to come to untimely ends in London. None of this resonates as the product of firm and decisive Government action in response to the Litvinenko episode, still less a chemical weapons attack, by a foreign power, on the streets of Britain, which has endangered the British public. Unless, of course, all is not quite what it seems in the government’s case, or its purpose. I merely ask the question.
In the case of Syria, we rush to the opposite extreme. Notably, in her statement on the airstrikes, the Prime Minister drew the two (Syria and Salisbury) together: “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world.” In the UK we expel a few diplomats; in Syria we drop bombs or fire missiles; the distinction is stark, but reconciling the proportionality of either is more challenging. The reports of a chemical attack in Doumo (which few British people, even insiders could easily find on a map) and acting on them, before the world’s official chemical weapons investigators (OPCW) have had an opportunity to attempt to access the site of the attack, or the British Parliament to be recalled has been a choice swiftly made; we have already carried out airstrikes, dependent solely on 3rd party reports of the events, in a war zone; in a country where there are five or more different combatants, invariably ruthless, always dangerous, masters of propaganda in the digital age, and each with very different, changing, typically impenetrable objectives and purposes, and shifting alliances or allegiances; and meanwhile, we have very uncertain, and limited access on the ground, to verifiable facts.
The OPCW made the following statement on its website (10th April, 2018):
“Since the first reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, Syrian Arab Republic, were issued, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been gathering information from all available sources and analysing it. At the same time, OPCW’s Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, has considered the deployment of a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team to Douma to establish facts surrounding these allegations. Today, the OPCW Technical Secretariat has requested the Syrian Arab Republic to make the necessary arrangements for such a deployment. This has coincided with a request from the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation to investigate the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma. The team is preparing to deploy to Syria shortly.”
The PM informs us that regime change in Syria is not the intention, but beyond the airstrikes – atoms in the diplomatic void – there appears to be no plan.
I do not know what all of this means. Do you? More important, does the British Government?
[I have titled this article ‘A Line in the Sand’: the Title of James Barr’s brilliant book of that name (2011), that describes the early history of British and French Great Power politics that shaped and distorted the politics of the Middle East between the Great War and WWII, with the establishment of Iraq (under Britain’s sphere of influence), and Syria (under France’s sphere of influence). I recommend that for the general reader who wishes to understand how we arrived here; start there.]