I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.
For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East.
However, I worry that we have learnt the wrong lessons from Iraq. For me, the current situation feels very different. My own anger during the build up to the Iraq War stemmed from the sense that the decision to invade had already been made by the neo-conservatives in the USA. As was shown subsequently, they wanted the attack and conjured an excuse. It was war-mongering for ideological and electoral purposes. Tony Blair and his Labour cabinet enabled the Republican imperialism, labelling us dissenters as naïve appeasers.
That is not what is going on today. While the British Prime Minister and the American President have argued for the use of force, neither appears to be so set on war that they will forgo an attempt to build a diplomatic consensus. We have not been subjected to months of shrill rhetoric designed to incept the idea that war is inevitable.
And crucially, the imminent use of weapons of mass destruction is not a hypothetical possibility, as it was in Iraq.1 The Assad regime has just deployed them against its own people.
I started blogging in 2005 as a way of channelling my frustration at the shoddy arguments that took us to war in Iraq. It was an alternative to writing angry posts on the BBC News Have Your Say pages, and the e-mails I would write to newspapers and columnists. I recall writing to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (who opposed the Iraq invasion), pointing out that the purpose of our demonstrations was not so much to prevent that war, but to raise the political cost of further invasions in the same vein. “We may not have stopped the war in Iraq”, I wrote, “but maybe we have stopped the war in Syria?”
“I hope so, Robert” replied Yasmin. But we both meant preventing further expansion of the Bush/Cheney neo-con project, not a barrier to action when the WMD have already been deployed.
My deep unease that the British and the USA may, because of their own recent political history, let a chemical weapons attack go unanswered is not necessarily a reason for war. Of the many articles on the issue I’ve read in the past few days, Patrick Cockburn’s column for the Independent stays freshest in my mind. He points out that Syria is a mesh of tensions – there is not one civil war, but many. Ethnic and sectarian tensions pull at the population, at different angles to the ‘government vs rebels’ fight we see reported on our televisions.
The international situation is very different to 2003, too. Although Iran has a new, moderate President, that country continues to support Syria (obviously, Saddam had no such backup). The frighteningly authoritarian Russian government has a strategic interest in Syria too. Israel showed restraint in 1991 when Saddam Hussein ordered scud missiles to be fired at Tel Aviv. But having seen the excessive Israeli response to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, one doubts that the current Israeli government will show any kind of restraint, should WMD be fired at Israel from Syria.
What happens if Israel retaliates against a Syrian attack? World War Three?
1. Yes, I know Saddam used chemicals against the Kurds. But that fact was distinct from, and (frankly) carried less political weight than, Tony Blair’s infamous ’45 minutes’ claim regarding the the threat to British interests.