It's time to cast off the 'Iraq war' mindset

George Bush and the neocons have a lot to answer for. Their scheming over Iraq a decade ago has cost us dear and its long shadow still looms over foreign policy decisions – nowhere more so than on Syria where the Great Deception of 2002-2003 is making rational debate increasingly difficult.

Yesterday brought a deluge of war hysteria, some of it in the mainstream media, much in the social media (mainly anti-war hysteria, and much of it ill-informed – talk of an invasion, troops going in, a lack of exit strategies and of course the "false flag" theories that have become so popular).

This is not surprising, given the enormity of what Bush did. It's good that people are sceptical now and are asking questions about policy in Syria – it's a pity more people didn't do that over Iraq. The problem, though, is that the dreadful example of Iraq obscures the real picture regarding Syria. Syria is viewed as Iraq 2.0, and so the issue of chemical weapons in Syria is inevitably seen as a pretext for war and little else.

It is only by casting off this "Iraq mindset" that we can begin to grasp the realities of Syria and what to do about it.

There are three key differences between Iraq in 2002-2003 and Syria now:

1. Syria has chemical weapons, and the regime has said so itself.

2. President Obama has been palpably reluctant to get involved, directly and militarily, in Syria. American public opinion is strongly against it and there is no significant war lobby in Washington as there was when the neocons held sway. 

3. The US does not particularly want Assad to be overthrown at the moment because it's too worried about what might follow.

Taking these points into account, it ought to be obvious that Obama is not contemplating a replay of the invasion of Iraq.

The current issue is actually very simple: what to do if someone uses chemical weapons. As I have argued in several previous blog posts, it's important to separate this as far as possible from the broader conflict in Syria and its politics. Chemical weapons are not just a matter of concern in Syria; they are a matter of concern for the whole world, since the world has banned their use.

This poses an invidious moral dilemma. One approach is to say that offenders must be held accountable – otherwise the ban on chemical weapons will become pointless. At the same time, though, holding the Syrian regime accountable is unlikely to be achieved without loss of life.

The alternative is to take no action. That avoids further immediate casualties but in the longer run also leads to a loss of life, probably on a larger scale, by giving a green light to further attacks in Syria and by helping to normalise the use of chemical weapons more generally.

The US, Britain and a number of other countries are now openly pursuing the first option. To do that effectively they will have to set aside any ideas of trying to "fix" Syria and focus instead on a single goal: sending a message the regime that use of chemical weapons will have serious consequences now and in the future.

So far, that seems to be what the Americans and the British have in mind: a series of air strikes against military targets (and especially any associated with chemical weapons) lasting no more than a few days. But how heavy it would need to be is difficult to judge: too light and the regime would shrug it off as a slap on the wrist; too heavy and the message about chemical weapons could be lost in the general mayhem of the ongoing conflict.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 27 August 2013