Following last week's meeting of the UN Security Council which in effect gave a green light for chemical attacks in Syria, the Assad regime now has a second green light – this time from Britain.
Yesterday's parliamentary debate ended in a dramatic defeat for the government which means that Britain will not be taking part in any American-led military action. The vote also raises questions about what position Britain will adopt in future discussions of Syria at the Security Council.
Reacting to his defeat in the House of Commons, prime minister David Cameron told MPs:
"I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons ...
"It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly."
A jubilant editorial in today's Guardian praises Ed Miliband, the Labour opposition leader, for his stand and hails the result as a classic example of "the legislature holding the executive to account".
Arab journalist Hassan Hassan, on the other hand, sees it as a case of democracy saving a dictator.
Debate about Syria in Britain – among politicians and the public – has been framed by the experience with Iraq 10 years ago. Having been deceived by prime minister Tony Blair in 2003, MPs were bending over backwards not to fall into a similar trap with Cameron and Syria. But in their eagerness to avoid that they have now fallen into the hands of Bashar al-Assad.
The result of Blair's trickery is that the level of proof required for military intervention is not merely high (as it should be) but unrealistically high. In this, Cameron has got himself neatly off the hook by saying that he defers to the will of parliament and the British people, even though he disagrees with it. But the decision may yet come back to haunt Labour leader Miliband and his supporters.
If Obama launches airstrikes and they turn into a disaster or fail to deter Assad, Miliband can claim vindication. On the other hand, if Assad feels empowered to commit more chemical atrocities then fingers will start pointing at Miliband.
Obviously, things would be a lot easier if we had a "smoking gun" in connection with last week's chemical attacks. We don't have one at present and we may never get one. There are hopes that the UN inspectors will identify the chemicals used, and they may also identify the weaponry used to deliver them. That would be helpful but it would still not be a smoking gun – and the inspectors' mandate specifically excludes establishing who is to blame.
Realistically, though, there are only two possible suspects – the regime or the rebel fighters. If one of these can be eliminated the smoking gun argument becomes much less relevant.
That, basically, is what the British government's Joint Intelligence Committee did in its report issued yesterday. It stated very clearly that the rebels could not have been responsible:
"It is being claimed, including by the regime, that the attacks were either faked or undertaken by the Syrian Armed Opposition. We have tested this assertion using a wide range of intelligence and open sources, and invited HMG and outside experts to help us establish whether such a thing is possible.
"There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW (chemical weapons) by the opposition. The [committee] has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility."
"There is no credible evidence that any opposition group has used CW. A number continue to seek a CW capability, but none currently has the capability to conduct a CW attack on this scale."
If this is true, the committee's view that "it is highly likely" the regime was responsible for last week's attacks looks like an understatement.
As far as the regime's responsibility is concerned, the reason given for the committee's caution – the only reason – was that it had failed to establish "the regime's precise motivation for carrying out an attack of this scale at this time". Even so, the report says there is "a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the opposition from strategic parts of Damascus".
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Friday, 30 August 2013