Sunday, 8 September 2013

Syria: déja vu and unanswered questions

Would a few more like this help?
Talk about déjà vu: half the world is apparently squabbling over What To Do about Syria and the brutal civil war that has already killed thousands, created millions of refugees and apparently seen civilians attacked with chemical weapons.

Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of dead there have been forgotten, as the US, with the UK yapping supportively at its heels, leads the countries saying that the only thing that can be done is to, err, bomb some more people.

And at the same time, you could be forgiven for wondering if the Cold War hasn’t returned, with an increased tension between Russia and the US, and the sense that Syria could become a proxy conflict between the two.

There’s something rather odd about chemical (and biological) weapons, as though they’re somehow so much worse than, say, just good old-fashioned carpet-bombing of people or dropping incendiary bombs or napalm on them.

Perhaps it’s all a matter of who and where and when.

After all, it was the UK that used firebombs on German cities in WWII, while the only nation on Earth to have used weapons of mass destruction, against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, rather got off with that one too.

History written by the victors, eh?

Last week, US president Barack Obama declared that: “To uphold the ban on chemical weapons use, international response is required”.

Perhaps – but that it’s a very limited mind that regards the only possible response as one involving lobbing a few missiles in the general direction of a country.

And why isn’t such an approach also applied to all nations that possess nuclear weapons, and not just those that wish to become new members of the nuclear club?

Which raises another question: how effective have attempts by the nuclear club to maintain its exclusivity been? Pretty lousy, given the increase in numbers, from the ‘let’s-not-say-anything-about-it’ approach to Israel, to the apparent impotence in the face of North Korea’s intermittent tantrums.

Good old Pandora and her box.

But back to Syria.

Russian president Vladimir Putin manages to be correct for once, in observing that, as yet, we have no evidence of who used chemical weapons (if they were used).

“Evidence” is the crucial word here – and whatever politicians may say, the public seems, in general, not to have forgotten Iraq and the ‘evidence’ that was claimed as an excuse for the invasion and war.

Among the stories doing the rounds, in apparently fairly reputable form, include the following things, which should at least be considered:

• The ‘intelligence’ that the US is receiving is second hand, from Mossad;

• The Saudis are backing and arming the rebels in general and, specifically, the fundamentalist Islamic rebels, who have links to al-Qaeda. There is at least some anecdotal evidence that the Saudis have provided them with chemical weapons.

A video here appears to show a man claiming to be a rebel talking about using chemical weapons.

• In May, Carla Del Ponte, a leading member of a UN commission of inquiry, told Swiss TV that it appeared that rebels had been using Sarin, a nerve gas. There was an absence of politicians at the time calling for the rebels to be bombed, which could be taken to cast doubts now on their claims to humanitarian concerns.

Where does that selection of points leave us?

It appears that those leading the calls for military action – irrespective of any UN findings – are quite happy to ignore the questions of whether rebels have themselves used chemical weapons.

It seems that there is an unholy combination of Israel and Saudi Arabia wanting to be rid of Assad. Why?

In the case of Israel, Assad’s regime has supported supported Hezbollah and its attacks on Israel for years.

However, one wonders what Israel thinks might replace him – if the Saudis get their way, one assumes it’ll be another Islamist regime, which is pretty much the answer to any question of why the Saudis are supporting the rebels – or some of them.

Indeed, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post, the Syrian regime is, together with Hezbollah and Iran, contemplating a response to any attack on Syria from outside.

Would that simply present Israel with an excuse to target Tehran?

It’s difficult to believe that under any circumstances, the US would be contemplating any action in the area that would be diametrically opposed to what the Israeli leadership wants, never mind if Israel is providing Washington with most of its intelligence from the area.

Lessons from history should show us what happens when a popular revolution is taken over by Islamists, having used non-Islamist regime opponents to achieve their initial aim: Iran, anyone?

Yet some in the West seemed to get wet with excitement when the Arab Spring got underway, without actually considering whether it might not be better to wait a while before celebrating the victory of democracy across the region.

What’s happening in Egypt is just one example of how things are hardly ‘going to plan’. Add that to continued problems in job-done Iraq (never mind the tenuous nature of everything in Afghanistan) and you have a simple indicator of the complexity of the issues, and the massive limits of military intervention.

But a few thoughts on the here and now.

Is the West apparently backing the rebels less because it’s backing their cause and more because it’s backing what Israel and Saudi Arabia want?

In the case of the latter, the UK, for instance, remains a ‘friend’, irrespective of the lack of any democracy, women’s rights etc in that state, and of the continuing support for and funding of global jihad by its powerful clerical elite.

Could oil be involved, perchance? Otherwise, what on earth are we doing supporting those who promote Islamic extremism? Wasn’t it one of the lies/excuses for the Iraq war that Saddam was supporting Islamic terrorism?

In the case of Israel, one wonders if the reasoning is related to attempts at peace talks with regard the Palestinian people. Has the US discussed getting rid of or support for getting rid of Assad as being, in some way, related to continuation of those peace talks or even in exchange for something meaningful from those peace talks?

These are just speculations, of course. But that’s what we’re left with at present, since politicians seem intent on ignoring their electorates when it comes to anything like even outlining reasons for any proposed action, the aims of any such action and its actual chances of improving the situation.

To repeat: not a single word has been uttered about how any form of military involvement would solve the crisis or move mattes to a state where resolution might be more likely to be found.

As former UK foreign secretary Douglas Hurd has said, he cannot see what a spot of bombing would achieve in terms of alleviating the suffering of civilians, and any military intervention could make things worse for precisely those people.

But we have comments from politicians that we (a ‘coalition of the willing’, presumably) might not even ‘take sides’ between the regime and the rebels. So what would that mean – becoming a third party in a civil war?

Is the unspoken phrase here ‘regime change’? Because that’s got a history of rip-roaring success.

And while we’re on that subject, it would be nice not to have Tony Blair opening his mouth every time any such matter arises. He and his warmongering prayer buddy, George W Bush, should be in The Hague, and with them, the mantras of illegal intervention and regime change.

David Cameron, feeling slighted by Parliament (and for once, Ed Miliband seems to have played a blinder – and understood the mood of the country) is now resorting to infantile whinges about ‘contracting out’ Britain's foreign policy if we allow the UN to make decisions.

It’s a comment with a nasty echo of Washington’s long-term efforts to belittle and sideline the UN, which has many faults, but is still the best option for gaining widespread global support for any action, military or otherwise, in any situation.

And that, of course, is without pointing out the otherwise obvious delight that Cameron and his predecessors have for some 30 years taken in ‘contracting out’ just about everything else in this county for the sake of private profit.

What is happening in Syria is horrific and Assad is no ‘nice guy’. But diving in militarily, all guns blazing, so to speak, can ultimately benefit only arms manufacturers and some groups that are dubious, to put it mildly.

Before absolutely anything else, as Putin said, we must wait for the UN to report.

In the longer term, we need a meaningful two-state solution to the Middle East’s continuing sore: the treatment of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel.

Perhaps that situation is too far gone, but perhaps it could, if resolved fairly and equitably, remove at least one continuing motivation for Islamist extremism, and help to usher in improved security in the region as a whole – including for Israel.

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