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.]

Comments (8)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    If the UK government and allies just bombed the Syrian equivalent of Porton Down, is that what you would do if you wanted to preserve systematic evidence of a directed chemical weapons programme? Or possibly destroy a lack of evidence?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porton_Down

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Sleeping Dog,

      I think you make a good point here.

      We are faced with a range of differing accounts of which, as John S Warren has illustrated, makes it very difficult for citizens such as ourselves to get some understanding of a coherent and plausible story to enable us to decide if the actions being taken by the UK forces – ‘in our name’ – are justified.

      We are presented with accounts via the mainstream media which are perceived by increasing numbers of us to be biased and, therefore an insult to us. These accounts have been adjusted when aspects have been shown to be untrue. For example a couple of days ago on the Kaye Adams Programme, the former Conservative Minister, Mrs Edwina Currie, was on to defend the Government’s position. She issued the same line of argument we had heard from a string of Tory MPs and ‘experts’ over the weekend. Ms Adams then introduced a Professor of Conflict Studies who demonstrated that much of the argument was wrong. Ms Currie, without blinking, simply changed the argument – we had a ‘new’ truth, an ‘alternative fact’.

      The chemical plant was bombed, we were told, to stop it producing chemical weapons. This harmonises with the ‘humanitarian’ argument being advanced by Mrs May. So, if we accept that the UK, US and France are the ‘good guys’ and always tell the truth then it is plausible. But, if you accept Mr Warren’s argument – as I do – that the tales are so confusing, we simply do not know if the UK’s case is valid. Your suggestion that the attack could be to destroy the evidence which would undermine the UK’s case is one which is as valid in the muddy circumstances.

      1. John S Warren says:

        Mr Macdonald,

        For what it may be worth, I do not believe the British Government would bomb Syria to hide evidence. I do surmise, however that this whole issue is much more about Russia than Syria. This seems to me to explain why the PM quite deliberately chose to merge the chemical attacks in Douma and Salisbury together in her statement. It was also a barely suppressed undercurrent of the Conservative case being made in the debate in the House of Commons; this military action was about ‘sending a signal’, and if we ask – to whom was it sent – it is the British Government that has conflated the reply: Russian and Syria; but, I suspect more the former. This brings me back to “proportionality”; because it seems to me that from the perspective of British national interest, and the difference in moral authority you have when you have actually been attacked; then I struggle to understand the disparity in proportionality between the British Government response to Salisbury over Douma, or the Executive’s explanation of its own case.

        I agree with your point highlighting the extraordinary statements by Edwina Currie (a Conservative Government apologist) on BBC Radio Scotland. Currie made a clear and categorical claim that the evidence in Douma was certain, absolute, and beyond any doubt whatsoever; indeed she was contemptuously dismissive of any questioning of the issue at all; but following Professor Moorcroft’s forensic deconstruction – indeed demolition of her case – by someone who was experienced, knew the Middle East and Syria first hand, and had clear expertise and background: Currie immediately, unblinkingly turned her case ‘on a sixpence’ to “the balance of probability”, and then went on, as if ‘nothing had changed’ and the merit of her case was unaffected. It was notable that she was quickly thereafter excluded (or at least disappeared) from further participation in the radio debate: but this kind of crude propaganda activity is precisely what destroys the credibility of Governments, political parties, politics, and the media. In times of peril we require, we must demand much better standards of participation than that.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          Mr Warren,

          We are in agreement.

          With regard to Mrs Currie, I was taken aback when I heard that she was one of the speakers on the programme. She has been in this roll on at least one previous occasion in the last year and, I cannot figure out why. She did not represent a Scottish constituency. She is not Scottish. She does not live in Scotland.

          In addition to Mr Mundell, there are a further 12 Conservative MPs in Scotland. Why was this programme unable to have one of them or even one of the 30+ MSPs?

          Although Mr Mundell was interviewed this morning on GMS, there have been very few interviews of Scottish Conservative politicians on BBC Scotland, but there have been many reports based on Conservative press releases based on FoI requests.

          As you have identified, the drift of the various stories – such as the recent report from the FBI and others of Russian hacking of our personal IT – is simply anti-Russian. Simply by asserting that various things have been done by the Russians also seems to connote that they must be true, because these people are, well ….. Russians. It is as if we are back in Kipling’s Great Game or ‘The Game of Shadows’. But, now we have vast quantities of Russian cash being laundered in London and Russian robber barons funding the Tories.

          And, as for President Trump, did Russia influence the electorate sufficiently to bring about his election. Is he in favour of a rapprochemont with Russia or strongly antagonistic? We await the next tweet.

          I am genuinely puzzled, so, since I do not understand, and, I am sure I am not alone, I think we must condemn Mrs May’s military adventure.

      2. Jo says:

        “We simply do not know if the UK’s case is valid.”

        Which is why we have processes to carry out independent investigations to establish facts and gather evidence. Processes which the UK, US and France aren’t keen to recognise. I think that tells you all you need to know.

        If you add to this their arrogance in believing they have the right to ignore the UN and to dictate to everyone else without being subject to international law themselves then it becomes even clearer how dangerous they are.

      3. SleepingDog says:

        @Alasdair Macdonald, @John S Warren, my question was not intended to focus on a specific conspiracy, but rather a general questioning of the apparent irrationality of Western foreign and military policy and operations. You have both given good examples, analysis and questions here. When (as Adam Curtis says) government narratives no longer make sense, what is going on?

        Perhaps this is an attempt to achieve stability through destabilisation, steadying the ship on a sea of blood; the projection of principle over an ethical void.

        The UK establishment (itself a weighted word conveying stability) perhaps creates an illusion of structure and form, that nevertheless shifts under the eye, lacks the skeleton of a written constitution, the roots of legitimacy, the stable biometrics needed for a criminal conviction. Like the Greek wave-ruler Proteus, its shape-shifting defeats the grasp of all but the most determined interlocutor.

        And the source of its power? Divine right, a party-elected dictator assuming the royal mantle and heaven-granted orb (the world is yours); and gods play favourites.

  2. Jo says:

    Thank you Mr Warren.

  3. Dumbo says:

    Cut through the media crap. Qatar still want a gas pipeline through Syria which they want to use to supply Europe and take away the domination of gazprom, Russia’s gas company. Saudi Arabia want Qatar to get their pipeline, so both countries fund the lovely terrorists and the USA who trained them at the start. Regime change is formally offnthe agenda in open debate, but is still the key objective, or a puppet leader to replace Assad. Private contractors like the perfect White Helmets should be kicked out of Syria s for their blatant Red Flag provocations such as the fake chemical attack recently presented to the world. In fact such groups should be tried for war crimes. Anyone who thinks Assad is insane enough to use chemical weapons on his own people and bring the weight of the world crashing onto him, needs to think again. He is winning the war. It’d the last thing he would ever do. The so called rebels are the ones who have been using chemical weapons with impunity as the west want to blame Assad no matter what these terrorists do. Big bully America along with their ABSOLUTIST friends in Qatar and Saudi Arabia must get their way so regime change will never be off the agenda, informally.

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