Source: The Independent
The discredited justifications that preceded the invasion of Iraq still dominate British and American perception of military intervention in Syria. In a similar way in the 1930s, popular revulsion at the lies and exaggerations of First World War propaganda meant that the first accounts of Nazi atrocities were treated with scepticism.
Unsurprisingly, people who feel they were swindled into war 10 years ago by bloodcurdling accounts of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction are dubious about their government’s claim that President Bashar al-Assad’s army used poison gas on a mass scale on 21 August. All the questions that should have been asked in 2003 about Iraq are being asked about Syria: what is the evidence for chemical weapons? How partial are the sources of information? Why should Assad do something so much against his own interests? Would a limited air assault on Syrian military bases deter him from using chemical weapons again, supposing he used them this time, or would it be the first step towards ever-deeper British and American involvement in the war?
All these are reasonable questions and many of them have reasonable answers. Unlike Iraq, it is known that the Syrian army has large supplies of chemical weapons such as sarin and that a mass attack took place. A hundred videos show the dead and dying. Doctors diagnosed the symptoms of gas poisoning. It is highly unlikely that the opposition had enough chemical weapons to simulate a government attack in order to provoke foreign intervention.
Of course, the use of poison gas was always likely to provoke the United States into action, something Damascus has been desperate to avoid for two years. But this does not mean they did not do it. Stupidity and miscalculation have shaped many wars. Recall that General Reginald Dyer believed he could quell Indian nationalists and strengthen British rule in India by ordering his soldiers to open fire at a demonstration in Amritsar in 1919, killing 379 people (other figures suggest 1,000 died). Whose bright idea was it to police a protest march in Derry with British paratroopers in 1972 on what became known as Bloody Sunday?
What is curious about the past week is the extent to which so many, especially the media and the British Government, misjudged the continuing rawness of the wounds inflicted by the Iraq war. I was in Baghdad for much of the conflict but I was always struck on returning to Britain by the lasting sense of outrage over the decision to go to war expressed even by the most conservative and non-political. As with the Munich Agreement in 1938, it has entered a deep layer of British historic memory, perhaps because people feel they were not only misled but lied to by their own government.
The parliamentary vote and opinion polls show that British governments have exhausted whatever capital of public trust they possessed when it comes to military ventures in the Middle East. Intelligence reports confirming that Assad used chemical weapons simply jog memories of past deceptions such as the “dodgy dossier” of 2003. Credibility lost then has never been regained. The government is like the little girl Matilda in Hilaire Belloc’s poem of that name who, having previously called the fire brigade falsely claiming her house was ablaze, burns to death when it does indeed catch fire:
Every time she shouted ‘fire!’
They only answered ‘little liar!’
Given the way the deceptions and failures of the Iraq war still resonate, no wonder David Cameron denies that military intervention in Syria today has anything in common with what happened in 2003. But the two countries are alike in their political make-up, with deep sectarian and ethnic divisions giving political convulsions an extra edge of fear and hate. Both were or are ruled by a single extended family or clan monopolising authority in a police state in which power is exercised through the intelligence and security services. They are tough nuts to crack: “Assad is as coup-proof as Saddam ever was,” says an Iraqi leader, who has spent much of his life trying to get rid of the latter.
In one crucial respect Assad is in a stronger position than Slobodan Milosovic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. These three leaders were internationally isolated, while Assad has powerful and committed foreign allies. Russia is standing firmly by Assad as it reasserts its status as a great power after 20 years of retreats and humiliations that culminated in the Libyan war of 2011. It feels it was double-crossed then into agreeing to humanitarian military intervention by Nato which swiftly became a campaign to overthrow Gaddafi.
Even more committed to the Syrian regime’s survival are Iran and the Shia paramilitary movement Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both are highly conscious that the attempt to overthrow their long-term ally in Damascus is aimed at weakening them, and they are determined to repulse the threat. It makes sense for them to want to fight while Assad is still in power and not wait until he has been displaced by a hostile Sunni regime.