Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sarin in Syria and toxic reactions

So France and Britain have unearthed evidence that the Syrian government has used the nerve agent Sarin against its own people.

That’s a shameful act, and it’s understandable that for the US as well as the French and British governments, it represents a red line they’ve said they won’t let the Assad regime cross. So their accusations, coming on top of the successful British and French move to lift the EU arms embargo on Syria, suggest there’s a head of steam building up to intervene against Assad. At the very least, the governments seem intent on supplying weapons to the rebels.

’s impressive, at first glance at least, is that they’ve gone to the trouble to build up some evidence for their view before acting on it. The problem is they’re ignoring rather a lot of other evidence.

The first is that Western intelligence agencies don’t have a terribly good track record on information about inhumane weapons in the Middle East. We went down that road over Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and it didn’t lead anywhere we’d want to go again.

Qusair. Now recaptured by government forces.
Is this somewhere we really want to get sucked into?
The Iraq experience rather makes my second reason for reticence over renewed Western intervention in the region. All these Arab springs, they’ve had mixed results. Probably the one that has done best was Tunisia, and even there there’s plenty to question, not least the current trial of feminist activists. But whatever Tunisia achieved, it managed without Western involvement. On the other hand, where we have stuck our oar in, things have often gone pretty badly. 

In Libya the results have been at best patchy. And in Iraq, they were disastrous: at huge cost, above all in Iraqi lives, we’ve converted that country into a client state of Iran, the nation the West most loves to hate in that part of the world. Which presumably wasn’t the aim of the exercise.

It looks as though we could end up doing the same thing in Syria, by putting entirely the wrong people in power. Al Qaida elements are increasingly dominating the rebels. Certainly, we’d be supplying arms to the nice guys, but how could we prevent them sliding into the hands of the bad guys

It’s hard to see how anyone can possibly still believe that getting involved in warfare around the Middle East will do the West the slightest good. That our governments still indulge that fallacy can only be a tribute to the power of their faith, or at least its capacity to overwhelm any aptitude 
they may have had for sober policy-making.

The faith in British and French government circles may not move mountains but it can shift arms and involve us in another debacle. Which has already started: the first, and dramatic, consequence of the ending of the EU arms embargo is that Russia has provided Assad with advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Emboldened, the regime has since recaptures Qusair, for a long time a major rebel stronghold. And the conflict now has the potential to become a proxy war between Russia and the West.

That the British government should be that wilfully blind is perhaps understandable: Britain has previous form on blundering into Middle East wars on misleading or even faked evidence. But the French? They had the good sense to stand out against the Iraq disaster. They got that one right, so why are they out there beating the drum with Britain this time? Such a disappointment, that Hollande fellow.

The British electorate is way ahead of its government in the good sense stakes. Polls suggest that three quarters are apparently opposed to our arming the rebels. Sadly, however, I remember the biggest ever demonstration in British history: two million people opposing intervention in Iraq. Blair took us in anyway.

We seem to be standing on a dangerous slope we could slip down to results as toxic as any nerve agent being used in Syria.  That would put us in danger of proving Hegel right: ‘What experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.’

We fail to learn from our errors and condemn ourselves to repeating them. The saddest consequence is that the price will be paid first by the Syrian population, and then by our own.

The sword-waving politicians responsible will merely wipe the blood from their hands, write best-selling memoirs and make a fortune on the speaker circuit.

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