29 Aug 2013

Syria intervention cannot be compared to Iraq

They say generals always prepare to fight the last war. Politicians too. British MPs may think they’re debating Syria, but their frame of reference is Iraq.

Of course we should learn from past mistakes but the two situations are different, the proposed intervention is different and the aim is different.

Let’s start with the UN weapons inspectors. In Iraq they spent months investigating facilities that might, or might not, produce chemical weapons.

I remember visiting a plant near Baghdad where phosgene was a by-product, and calling the late Dr David Kelly afterwards to ask him to help me make sense of what I had seen.

Everyone knew that Sadaam had used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 but this was 2003, and there was no proof he had retained his stockpile.

Today the US and UK governments will present their evidence that it was the Syrian government that fired chemical weapons at the people of Ghouta.

‘Dodgy dossier’

Because the ‘dodgy dossier’ about Saddam’s weapons was full of half-truths, many people will simply not believe it.

Others will jump on every ‘may’ to say that nothing is conclusive so better to do nothing. Luckily for those of us who would hope to examine it critically, unlike in Iraq, there is plenty of information around on Syria.

For a start, we know the government in Damascus has chemical weapons – it’s not a secret. We know several hundred people were gassed on August 21st – we’ve seen the pictures.

And before anyone starts to talk about ‘unverified images’, I have spent days poring over hundreds of images of children gasping and choking to death, and talking to the people who filmed them. This was not a staged event.

Who did it? There are good sources analysing the weapons used – look at Brown-Moses, and NR Jenzen-Jones, amongst others.

Experts like Hamish de Bretton-Gordon of SecureBio have been examining the footage in great detail.

The rockets appear to be Iranian-made, and the trajectories along which they travelled suggest they were fired from government facilities into rebel-held areas.

No easy answers

Although it is feared that rebels might get their hands on chemical weapons, there is no proof that they have done so, let alone that they can weaponise a chemical agent.

Nothing either the US or British government has said suggests that they are planning to invade Syria as they invaded Iraq.

The argument is that chemical weapons are illegal, and the regime that used them should be punished so they are less likely to do it again, and others (such as Kim Jong Un in North Korea, who also has chemical weapons) should think twice.

You can argue against that – and you can certainly say that the law of unintended consequences makes air strikes unwise – but the parallels with Iraq are limited because the proposed action is different.

Read more: Western capitals poised to intervene on Syria – but how?

Some people will be against intervention, however limited, because they believe every military action taken by the US or Britain is a form of post-imperial bullying justified by lies. Others will be in favour, because they always back a show of American power.

The best piece I’ve read is by George Packer in the New Yorker, who outlines the pros and cons as an argument inside his own head. On the one hand, weakening Bashar al Assad may allow the rise of groups linked to Al Qaeda.

On the other, doing nothing means permitting mass murder with weapons so horrific they were banned after WW1.

It’s an argument I’ve been having with myself too over the last ten days. There are no easy answers, but all thinking people need to make their minds up based on what’s happening in Syria today, not what happened in Iraq a decade ago.

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