Syria – from horror to farce

Bashar al-Assad can relax now, at least for a while. What should have been a clear international response to one of the most dreadful crimes imaginable – the mass slaughter of civilians with poison gas – has descended into confusion and even farce.

The British parliament meets today – urgently recalled from its summer siesta – for a debate about Syria that won't actually decide anything, because the prime minister has been out-manouevred.

Prime minister Cameron had come under pressure from his own Conservative MPs to recall parliament if military action was contemplated before normal parliamentary business resumes next week. After a brief hesitation, Cameron agreed to that and signalled, by implication, that military action was imminent.

His problem now is that if he seeks approval for such action he may well lose the vote. His coalition government (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) has a majority of 77 but several dozen Conservative members (estimates range from 30 to 70) seem unlikely to support him.

On the opposition side, Labour leader Ed Miliband says his party will not support action unless certain conditions are met. He is demanding to see (1) the results of UN weapons inspections, (2) compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and (3) clear legal advice that any strike is within international law.

What this means in practice is that there will have to be a second debate on Syria, at some unspecified time in the future, before Britain can become involved in any military action.

In terms of British politics, though, the real issue here is not Syria but the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Tony Blair's con trick over non-existent weapons. The British public are resentful of having been hoodwinked then and the result now is extreme scepticism about any form of military intervention. While scepticism is usually healthy, some of this is so extreme as to be perverse. I have met people who simply refuse to believe the Assad regime has chemical weapons, even though the regime itself has said it does.

Further alarm bells rang this week when the co-architect of the Iraq catastrophe, Blair himself, wrote an article for The Times telling everyone to stop wringing their hands and get on with sorting out Assad.

Similar scepticism can be found among MPs, too. They have to listen to their constituents if they want to be re-elected and they don't want to be perceived as gullible fools. Having been fooled by one British prime minister over Iraq, they are determined not to be fooled by another prime minister over Syria. The most likely result of this is that they will end up being fooled by Bashar al-Assad instead, but we shall see in due course.

The key demands set by the Labour opposition leader all reflect the "Iraq war mindset" – avoiding a repeat of the mistakes made in 2003 (which is important) but less concerned with determining the most effective course of action over Syria now. He ought to be demanding absolute clarity about the goal, scope and nature of any intervention but so far that doesn't seem to be a major priority.

These developments in Britain will probably force President Obama to put his plans on hold. He doesn't want the US to act unilaterally in Syria and although he has other allies, acting without Britain at his side is almost inconceivable. Britain's absence would be exploited politically by his critics.

Britain also made moves at the UN yesterday with a draft resolution for the Security Council. As expected, it didn't get very far and if it does eventually come to a vote, Russia – as Syria's staunchest ally – will block it. This is certainly a futile exercise, but not entirely pointless.

Writing in the Guardian, Martin Kettle sees it as "another concession to an approach based on greater legitimacy":

"It was probably doomed because of Russia's cold war mentality veto. A similar fate probably awaits the [weapons] inspection report. But a veto should not mean that no action can be taken once the process has been given a proper chance. If Vladimir Putin gets to decide what is or is not legal, then international law is an ass. But trying everything to make the system work is the right thing to do."

So, as things now stand, it looks as if nothing much will happen, either in the Security Council or the British parliament, until the UN weapons inspectors issue their report. At present, nobody knows when that will be.

After months of prevarication about allowing the inspectors in, the Syrian regime now seems eager to have them stay as long as possible. Yesterday, it demanded that they inspect three new "chemical attacks" allegedly carried out by rebel fighters. Since the inspectors are not allowed to apportion blame for attacks (at the regime's own insistence) it is unclear what the regime expects this to prove and the main aim is probably to cause more delay and confusion. Waiting for the inspectors is likely to have a similar effect in the Security Council and the British parliament without necessarily bringing matters to a conclusion, especially if the report does little more than identify the chemicals involved in attacks.

Meanwhile, large sections of the media have been busy producing maps that show the likely targets for airstrikes in Syria. Not that they are particularly giving away any secrets, since Assad is perfectly capable of working out the targets himself. But the delay does give him time to prepare.

Reuters reported yesterday that Assad's forces appear to have 
already evacuated "most personnel from army and security command headquarters in central Damascus":

Among the buildings that have been partially evacuated are the General Staff Command Building on Umayyad Square, the nearby airforce command and the security compounds in the Western Kfar Souseh districts, residents of the area and a Free Syrian Army rebel source said ...

Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior military defector, said from an undisclosed location in Syria that based on Free Syrian Army intelligence gatherings, the general staff command had been moved to an alternative compound in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains north of Damascus.

"Various commands are being moved to schools and underground bunkers. But I am not sure it is going to do much good for the regime," Sheikh said.

Another resident who lives at the foothills of Qasioun, the mountain in the middle of the city in which elite praetorian guard units are based, said the boom of artillery, usually heard daily form the 105th battalion of the Republican Guards, had fallen silent on Wednesday.

"They have been lots of army trucks descending from Qasioun. It seems they have evacuated the 105 battalion headquarters," the resident said.

As a result, if airstrikes do eventually go ahead, Obama may have to choose between bombing empty military buildings or new military positions where the risk of civilian casualties will be far higher.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 29 August 2013