Hugo Rifkind

By all means wring your hands over Syria. Just don’t ask me to trust you

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

They’re getting the rebuttals in early, have you noticed that? You might call them a pre-emptive strikes. Here’s William Hague, speaking to BBC Radio 4 about those chemical attacks in Syria…

‘To believe that anybody else had done it, you would have to believe that the opposition in Syria would use, on a large scale, weapons that we have no evidence that they have, delivered by artillery or air power that they do not possess, killing hundreds of people in areas already under their control.’

Pretty good, that. He must have practised it beforehand. ‘Have’ and ‘possess’ mean the same thing, after all, so you need a bit of preparation there. Better, certainly, than John Kerry, who gave a press conference at the White House and said…

‘Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.’

…which was a bit disingenuous, because nobody really is suggesting that. Rather, some simply wonder why Bashar al-Assad, who presumably doesn’t want to be bombed by the West, did the one thing that renders him guaranteed, more or less, to be so. Which is not to say — please note, lunatics seeking bedfellows, or hawks seeking somebody to be angry with — that I think he didn’t. Remember, I am a journalist. I don’t think anything. I just want to know why other people, who are presumably better informed, do think things. And it’s annoying, and a bit troubling, when they don’t seem to want to tell me. Here’s Kerry, again…

‘We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.’

But they haven’t, not yet. And so, for now, I am expected simply to trust Hague, about the evidence he says he doesn’t have, and Kerry, about the evidence he says he does. And I don’t mean to be difficult here, but I’m not sure that’s good enough.

Trust is the big political issue of our day. This is what all of that NSA and GCHQ spying stuff was about, really; the sheer unsatisfactoriness, in the modern age, of a government saying, ‘Hey! Look! It’s all fine! We’ve checked!’ and expecting that to be the end of the argument. In America, curiously, they seem to have a better grasp than us of the extent to which this simply won’t do. If you can bear one more quote, consider Obama on surveillance, saying:

‘It’s not enough for me as President to have confidence in these programs — the American people need to have confidence as well.’

Which is exactly right, raising only the question of whether he actually meant it. This stuff goes to the heart of what our governments are for; whether they answer to us at every turn, or whether we elect them under the understanding that, for the next four or five years, that’s that. And, in our post-deference age, the latter is a tricky sell.

When governments try to do the former, though, they’re lousy at it. They oversell, they bluster, they reach a conclusion behind closed doors and then they seek to justify it, post-hoc. They understand the need for the appearance of candour, so they create a facsimile of it, and then end up believing in that. That was the Iraq debacle all over, and the suspicion and mistrust of now is the result.

Writing in the Times this week, Tony Blair bemoaned western hand-wringing over Syria, and took the complex mire of the Middle East and sought to paint it all in the simple primary colours of right and wrong. But that isn’t the only route to action. Perhaps we don’t know everything, perhaps we aren’t 100 per cent sure of making things better or worse, but perhaps morality compels us to do something nonetheless. Isn’t that how humans work? Exactly what I don’t want from my government, with conflict on the horizon, is a bombastic pose of rock-solid certainty.

If we must go to war, then for God’s sake let us fret and doubt and wring our hands all the way.

Newsroom hypocrisy

Belatedly, I’ve started watching The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s drama about a US cable news show struggling to maintain its integrity amid proprietorial interference and ratings wars. It’s pretty good and, although the moralising often feels a bit forced, it’s fairly inspirational, too.

Although, look. The idea here is that US TV news has been dumbed down and sexed up. That it fans fake controversies in a quest for difference, and sensationalises everything in order to attract viewers. All fair criticism. But to make a drama about this? A drama designed to slam the way that TV news is too much like a drama? Which essentially spends its time ridiculing the media for suggesting that American politics are like The West Wing? Which is written by the writer of The West Wing? The chutzpah and cynicism of it makes the head spin. It’s like having your cake, eating your cake and selling your cake, too.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • Chris Harker

    “It’s like having your cake, eating your cake and selling your cake, too.” – a bit like when a journalist comments on the way journalists comment on the way journalists are treated.

  • Baron

    Excellent point, Mr. Rifkind, and well made.

    What puzzles even more is why we meddle in it in the first place. It isn’t the times of the gunboat diplomacy, and not only because we’re abit short in this department. We haven’t got the will to sort things out permanently either. Turning to pulp private houses, railways, airports from air is bound to anger any Syrian regardless the side he takes in the dispute.

    More to the point, the conflict is a pure Shia versus Sunni affair, and we have members of both tribes living amongst us. If the boys aren’t careful, we may get a replica of it here.

    • itbeso

      i don’t think we have enough shia – at the moment for it to kick off yet.

      • evad666

        You omit the fact the rest of us are non believers and hence would be legitimate targets anyway.

    • Penny

      This isn’t exactly meddling. It’s reacting to the use of chemical weapons which, on the factual level is against international law and a war crime. In terms of self-interest once a “we’re not going to stop you”, green light has flickered on then we might let a genie out of a bottle that has the potential to one day bite us on the bum. From a military perspective is it wise to restrict some countries to codes of ethics while others can get away with chemical (and possibly worse) weapons? On the moral level we really shouldn’t be signatories to documents like the Responsibility to Protect if we can’t or won’t live up to them.

      Finally, although I do understand the “none of our business” school of thought I think we have to consider our global position. We do – as they say – punch above our weight and have quite a high profile among the nations. It’s like anything else, really, a high-profile enables a significant voice but it also comes with higher expectations in terms of responsibility and decision-making. If we adopt – as a policy – a “none of our business” line when it comes to the less palatable global issues then we may well have to accept a diminished voice.

      • Baron

        But it is meddling, Penny. Our dropping bombs from the air would be akin to a state of war between us and the Syrian regime. In Baron’s view, if a country goes to war it has to do what countries at war have always done – it’s armed forces must destroy the enemy by either killing it or capturing it. Unless you know more than anyone else who reads the papers, the boy (or, for that matter, the messiah over the pond) has no intention to engage the Syrian Armed Forces, merely to destroy abit of the ‘enemy’ infrastructure and, with luck, some of the hardware and personnel fighting on Assad’s side. This, my blogging friend, would do FA to achieve the traditional war aim, the full destruction of the enemy.

        • Penny

          I fully appreciate your points, Baron. But I think it goes a little deeper than this. I wish I could explain in full but I fear I’d end up with a document and not a comment!

          “Meddling” is – in my book at least – attempting to manipulate an outcome and may certainly apply if regime change was the aim – but it isn’t. Nor is tipping the balance of power in favour of Assad or the rebel forces. Clearly, we are going to let them slug it out in their own way. My understanding of a missile strike is that its chief aim is to serve as a warning, not merely to Assad, but to the any other crackpots who would – and I suspect without qualm – follow Assad’s example in using chemical weapons.

          It seems quite pointless – and possibly eventually dangerous to us – to bang on about our treaties, to develop international laws, to sign R2P-type documents and then shrug when the line is crossed. If you act as if you didn’t mean it then you’ll be read as insignificant and weak.

          I married into a ME family (Egypt-Syria) and have lived in the region. It isn’t always the case that our Western logic, mindset and values are a match with theirs. Strong Horse politics is more the way of things and doing nothing sends a message not only to Assad but also to others. As I said, if you do nothing you will be read as insignificant and weak. And that emboldens all manner of behaviours.

          • Tom M

            All very well and good but, why the UK? It strikes me that there are quite a few countries capable of intervening militarily in circumstances like these throughout the world in general and the west in particular.

            I hear regularly that it is only China and the Russians who are blocking the required UN resolution for concerted military action so presumably these other countries are in agreement with the principle of intervention but apparently not the practice. How so?

          • Penny

            I thought I gone some way to explaining that, Tom, in terms of the type of positions we have – permanent membership of the UNSC for example and documents we’ve signed up to. But yes, I accept and understand your point. Clearly, I can’t answer for other nations and won’t attempt to do so.

            We can do nothing – well, there’s no ‘can’ to it: the government’s decision has been made so it’s all academic now – and we can say “where are the other nations?”, but the potential for proliferation of chemical weapons isn’t going to affect us any the less whether we look beyond ourselves or not.

          • Venk Shenoi

            going through your comments – much sense and analysis based on first hand knowledge of the ME mindset. Regrettably most other are one-sided and lacking in linking cause and effect. The real issue is present generation in Britain had it easy, got soft and risk-averse – also holiday travel has not really widened their horizons – don’t recognize the world out there is harsh and no place for softies.

          • Penny

            Thanks. My view isn’t riding high in the popularity charts! But at least the debate here hasn’t descended to football crowd level. Which it has on some other sites!

          • Moa

            Penny, how do you feel about Britain and the US becoming “The Air Force of Al Qaeda” for surely that is precisely what they will be doing.

            Obama has consistently backed the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (which now includes Al Qaeda franchise Al Nusra). His action is clearly in this vein. As his insistence to act whether or not he gets Congressional approval (illegal: only the US Congress can declare war, the President explicitly cannot according to the War Powers act).

            Assad is also a total b@stard for sure. So we have two sides that deserve to be destroyed, but you are arguing for helping Al Qaeda rather than the deeply flawed but secular Baathists? Is that really what you want to argue for?

            Note: I’m usually a hawk. I believe invading Iraq and toppling the Saddam regime was a moral and useful thing to do (now *that* is low in the popularity charts) – and for a great many good more reasons than mere WMD. However, I believe intervening in Syria is a colossal mistake.

            If the Free World believes Iran to be a threat – then justify your position and fight Iran. Don’t strengthen Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood and use them as proxies against Iran.

            Similarly, if the US really believes in the Syrian rebels then perhaps they would give more attention to the Free Syrian Army instead of arming the jihadis (via the Libyan arms caches) – although these days it is very difficult to distinguish the two, as they are fairly well interconnected.

            Similarly, the Free World should not fight wars for Saudi Prince Bandar any longer. They have enough money and should fight their own damned conflicts. After Bandar confessed that Saudi controls jihadis (the Chechen ones at least) to Putin in a threat over Sochi – then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing the bidding of the Saudis (as the US clearly does in its actions, as well as the disgraceful bowing of Obama to the Saudi king etc.).

            Do you know the objectives of the Syrian rebels, Penny? they extend far past Syria. The fight in Syria is just part of the Islamists battle to re-establish the “Caliphate”. Once the Caliphate is established they believe they can fight and defeat the West – mostly by immigration and population growth rate, but also by force of arms when the time comes to it. Now, I may think this is a stupid goal, but we must accept the reality that this is what the expanding pool of global jihadis believe. And because they believe it we must deal with the consequences of that belief. The Caliphate (which will likely be called “The United Arab States”) will not be a friend of anyone who cherishes Enlightenment Culture and values (ya know, trvial things like: equality for women, Free Speech, Freedom of Conscience, individual liberty etc).

            So, Penny, while intervention in conflicts is often prudent and very effective when done early, do you believe that having Britian/NATO and the US act as “Al Qaeda’s Air Force” as they fight to re-establish the Caliphate is a sensible strategic thing to do? I certainly don’t!

          • Penny

            I know all about the things you mention here, Moa – and agree with you on many. How could I not – they’re perfectly true! But all the more reason, surely, to show that the West has a line, which, when stepped beyond, will result in a price being paid?

            The very last thing you want to do – especially in the Arab world – is to show weakness. And by that I don’t mean we chuck our own principles and justice out of a high window but that we simply do what we said we were going to do. Personally, I think Obama should never have mentioned his red line: it’s like foolishly telling your child when on holiday that if he chucks sand at his sister one more time we’ll all have to go home. It’s an action the parent really doesn’t want to take and probably has no intention of taking – but issue too many empty threats to a child and your authority weakens. I know the red line exists – because the use of chemical weapons is against international law, but when Obama said it, it’s possible he issued a challenge.

            Obama’s political position on the ME has, in my view, been the wrong one. The “hearts and minds” stuff simply isn’t going to cut it in a region where strength matters. As I wrote elsewhere in this thread, Assad has murdered and gassed his own people – but he’s an Arab hero for staring down Obama. This is the world-view we’re dealing with and it’s there in AQ, the MB and every smaller jihadi group in town – just as it is in Assad. Many mistakes have been made before the Syrian crisis and during it when we’ve armed god knows who. But we are where we are and we have to follow through because the message isn’t just to Assad but to every crackpot who may just think he’ll now get away with a decent stockpile of chemical weapons. We can’t make international laws and then let the most brutal regimes in the world break them with impunity. That way lies more brutality and greater ambition to use it – quite possibly against us.

            We’ve been told that this proposed attack will be short and sharp, and that it will play no part in tipping the balance of power one way or the other. And, let’s face it, by the time it happens Assad will have covered his military bases – he won’t suffer much by way of strategic losses.

            As I said above, consider what will happen if there is no action taken on this. It won’t only be Assad who understands that the West cannot or will not follow through. and that all its fine laws and principles are but an open door waiting to be pushed. It will be every despotic leader and ideological group with a pair of ears and a working brain – including AQ, the MB, north Korea – and so on.

            I can understand why – instinctively – we really want this chemical weapons attack to be the work of the “rebels” (a mild name for jihadi groups!) because we already know they’re bad news. But it’s because they are, and because they, too, might well behave as Assad has, that they need to see that when the international community sets a boundary, crossing it will exact a price.

          • Baron

            Cui bono, Penny? On the list of those who benefit from the chemical atrocity, Assad cannot but occupy the bottom part. Unless the man’s mad, and so far his behaviour hasn’t even hinted at any mental deficiency, he had nothing to gain deploying the gas. Those who oppose him did. To argue they don’t have the capacity to deliver the shells makes little sense. It’s their backers’ ability that counts.

            But even assuming Assad is guilty, what will a limited action of the sort planned by the Americans achieve? More destruction, more lives lost, children’s too, more refugees. Not even the Pentagon believe the rebels would gain sufficiently to topple the regime. Also, the few dozens of Tomahawks doesn’t sound as a deterrent big enough to frighten either Assad and his troops and supporters or anyone else.

            The Russians are beefing up their naval assets in the Med. What if they decide to have a go? What if the Hezbollah lobbed few rockets into Israel drawing it into the conflict? Do we need another world war?

            Look, as Baron said before, he’s in favour of an action, but one that’s decisive, and a part of a plan what to do next after Assad’s gone.

          • Penny


            It would seem on the face of things that Assad had nothing to gain. But that’s if you look at it through Western eyes and with a view that Assad’s primary and only concern is the West. It’s a perfectly natural view to take – but you’re overlooking Strong Horse politics and the regional issues along with the jostle for hegemony.

            Where this belief of Assad worrying about the West falls down – in my view at least – is that his forces have been maiming and murdering for over two years now and the death toll is over 100,000. He’s not been worried about the West thus far! He doesn’t need intelligence services to figure out that the West isn’t up for a war. We say it time and again in our media, on the internet and via political speeches. Today – as you probably know – Assad’s forces dropped an incendiary bomb on a school playground. No one knows what the agent was although napalm has been mentioned. Given the impending American action does that sound like the action of a man worried by the West?

            I really can’t see the Russians getting in on the action. They’ve given no indication that they’ll act – at least, not beyond utterances about monkeys with hand grenades and popping their people on planes out of the country. And if anyone else was worried about Russia – Milliband for example – I’m sure it would have been mentioned.

            The aim of the game isn’t anything more than sending Assad a warning – which, by default becomes a warning to any crackpot in the region thinking of building himself a nice little chemical stockpile. And I don’t see that we’ve any choice if we’re not to make a mockery of international law. What message does it send out to those who would harm us that, yes, we have all these worthy laws but are too nervous to act when they are broken by the Arab world.

            But it’s all academic now – we’re out of the frame and the USA is acting with French support.

        • Venk Shenoi

          the objective is to increase the price of his brutality on Assad. If he carries on – need to ratchet it up. Yes he may strike back – as we would be his enemy – ultimately those that are able, have the resources, and are willing will act – those that have lost the will will find excuses for inaction.

          • Baron

            How could a few dozen missiles increase the ‘price of brutality’, Venk. You really think it will be Assad, his family, the cronies around him that will suffer? Wake up, it will be the hoi polloi that will get hit.

          • Penny

            I very much doubt America is aiming at civilian areas, Baron! I’d imagine they’ll go for strategic military targets. Of course they can’t be absolutely sure that there will be no civilian casualties but I think they’ll do what they can to minimise the risk. They don’t want the censure of the world. Not after Iraq.

          • chan chan

            Like every Muslim country, strategic military/government buildings ARE in residential areas in Syria, and Assad is no doubt as we write moving equipment/missile batteries directly into blocks of flats, orphanages, hospitals and schools. He has plenty of time to get himself organised, as Obama has just told Assad “we are not going to attack you before September 10th.”

          • Penny

            Yes – you are probably quite right. He certainly now has time to use Hamas-style tactics.

      • Augustus

        A very sensible post. But Assad has proved that he’s able to treat his citizens mercilessly. What would be the regional effects of the West’s ‘punishment’ action? And where does Russia ultimately stand if the stakes get higher? And remember, next to Russia Assad holds the largest stockpile of chemical weapons. Then there’s the question of Assad being supported militarily by Iran and Hezbollah. All this should be subject to realpolitik, not only moral and ethical grounds.

        • Penny

          Augustus – I don’t know. Without wishing to sound like G W Bush, there are many unknown unknowns! All I can say is that for all we hear of “plans” and “exit strategies” and similar, the fact is that no conflict I know of has been able to fit itself to a “perfect outcomes” model. The variables involved are too many and diverse.

          All I can say is that there appears to be absolutely no “good” option – the same as in the conflict itself, there is no “good” side. But if no action is taken does that change the risks to our own national interests? If not today then in the future? If chemical weapons are just shrugged off will they just politely go away – or at least, not in our way? My opinion is no. If the genie is allowed out of the bottle then we’ll likely have to face up to him at some point and perhaps in a worse scenario than exists today.

          • Augustus

            Let’s think of some more possible scenarios. Assad could launch a chemical attack on Israel. In which case his family, and his whole army, would be wiped off the map. Or Turkey and Jordan could get involved. It’s also very possible that an early cessation of the present civil war will lead to a second civil war between al-Qaida and the rest of Syria. And this second war could bring together a new national unity between all those Syrians who want to have nothing to do with Al-Qaida. And It could then be a very long time before Syria gets back to being a normal country again. But America would then be able to bomb al-Qaida units with drones thus helping those anti-AQ forces. I suppose Obama could then rightfully claim a new title besides Commander-in-Chief: How does President Drone sound?

          • Penny

            President Drone doesn’t sound a bad fit, Augustus!

            I’ve certainly thought about regional consequences – and so has Assad: hence his threats which amount to a defence shield, really. “Hit me and I’ll hit a non-involved country”. But would he actually do it? Would Israel strike back? They didn’t when Saddam winged missiles their way. Whatever the case there is very little doubt that the USA will have already conducted talks with regional players and, as we’ve not heard much from them, they may think the risk worth taking if it prevents proliferation in the region.

            Looking at the Strong Horse politics: if Assad did this then perhaps we have to look at his motives and in doing so, consider them in context of the region. There is a Sunni-Shi’ite battle going on and there’s also a jostle for hegemony with Iran a contendor for the ultimate Strong horse position. And of course, Syria is Iran’s actor.

            It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – in a region where SH, honour and hatred of the West are the order of the day – that when Obama mentioned his red line, he inadvertently threw a challenge in SH terms. Assad may have calculated (correctly) that the West did not have a mind to get overly-involved in this civil war. 100,000 already dead and no sign of Western attack. But how would Assad look to his regional peers if he stuck two virtual fingers up to Obama – the leader of the free world? Especially when Mubarak et al went so quietly. He would appear pretty strong! The risks of retaliation on any meaningful scale would be – and we now know are going to be – relatively short and weatherable. It also tells others in the region that he has and will use chemical weapons. It’s a theory that may sound rather odd, but in SH politics, a feasible one.

            I would still say, though, that it has to be met with consequences to stem the temptation in others to match his actions.

          • Penny

            I would also add that this awful bombing of a school playground – which involved some type of chemical – also seems a somewhat defiant act. And this time we do know it’s Assad’s forces. It’s the timing of all this chemical and incendiary stuff that is thought-provoking. To say nothing of the target: children. What an absolute multi-headed monster this family has been and is.

          • Penny

            I’ve just heard that Jeremy Bowen has spoken of how Assad may now be viewed as a hero in the Arab world for staring down Obama, so my theory – while not having fully-formed wings – does at least fly a little!

          • Augustus

            Everybody knows that people throughout the Muslim world are very adept at sensing weakness and dithering. And that is certainly what Obama is and does. He’s that typical type of person always looking for any excuse that will prevent him from taking the bull by the horns. If he’s not careful the puny strike he intends to eventually deliver could actually strengthen the Syrian despot. Because, if not even the mighty West can make any difference to the Syrian war Assad could indeed become the subject of hero worship, and the rebellion would then probably evaporate.

          • Penny

            In that region of the world I think he’s been a disaster from the Cairo speech onwards, Augustus. Perhaps he took as his model the far-eastern brand of Islam that he experienced as a child and believed he could “spread the word” – who knows! But I agree – the dithering, the very obvious reluctance to do anything about anything in the ME is being witnessed and taken on board by more than Assad. And we’ve not got much by way of clued-up politicians here in the UK, either. Or people who don’t think that only tolerance and waxing lyrical about their culture is the way forward. Indulgent parenting isn’t going to work.

          • Augustus

            Yes, you can’t be tired of wars, look for an excuse to back down, and at the same time pretend to understand your superpower special role in the world. But one has to have some sympathy with the man, seeing his coalition unravel before the eyes of the world before the offender was even punished.

          • Penny

            I’d have sympathy if I didn’t think he’d made it worse for the rest of us.

      • greggf

        “It’s reacting to the use of chemical weapons which, on the factual level is against international law and a war crime.”

        Yes penny…
        What if the roles were reversed and Al Qa’eda were using them with Assad losing the civil war?

        • Penny

          I’m afraid I don’t get your point. Can you elaborate?

          • greggf

            Your posts are based on Assad being the transgressor with chemical weapons.
            What if it were Al Qa’eda or one of their associates?

          • Penny

            I’m still genuinely at a loss as to what you are asking. Do you mean would a chemical attack still be against international law and a war crime? If that is your point then the answer is yes on both counts. If that’s not what you’re asking then I really will need more to go on.

            My posts are based on Assad because the balance of probability points to him, based on – for example – the fact that five targets were struck simultaneously and via systems the rebels are said not to have but Assad does. Assad’s forces have today struck a school playground and some form of incendiary bomb is thought to be involved. No one yet knows what has been released but napalm has been mentioned. The Assad dynasty has been and still is evil and ruthless. Neither side in the conflict is, in my mind, “good”.

            I know there’s room for doubt but I don’t think we’ – the public – are ever going to get 100% proof. We can’t access the intelligence information that the various governments involved have seen – for obvious reasons. The real pity is that we’ve lost faith and trust in our politicians.

          • greggf

            You’re not actually addressing my question Penny.
            Your posts seem to say Assad is more guilty than Al Qa’eda would be, whom I notice you never mention……!

          • Penny

            Greggf – I’m trying to address your question but I genuinely do not know what it is! I’ve said this twice now.

            Your first comment to me was ambiguous; your second seemed to be asking why my posts were of Assad as aggressor – and I replied directly to that question. I also said that no side is the “good” side in this conflict. Your comment “what if it was AQ?” is also ambiguous. It could mean so many things!.. As could this current comment ” you seem to say Assad is more guilty than AQ” – but guilty of what – it’s a wide, wide field of vile behaviour on both sides and you’re going to have to narrow it down.

            I’ve not mentioned AQ because the subject is the proposed strike on Assad.

          • Penny

            Incidentally, greggf – why are you focusing on AQ and not, say, Hezbollah? The latter is fighting for Assad and both are the actors of Iran. Hezbollah have also managed to insert themselves into Lebanese government.

          • greggf
          • Penny

            It’s not a question greggf – it’s a statement and I can perfectly understand it, too. After the 9/11 attack it’s almost vomit-inducing to find our governments are acting in some way that supports AQ. You’ve got no quibbles from me on this. I’m as bewildered and troubled as the next person as to our strategy of arming what appears to be any old group including one that has attacked the West in such a horrendous and inhuman way. I felt the same about Libya.

            But it’s not all rosy if Assad wins this, either, and the fact that we have some enemies in common doesn’t mean he’s our friend. The Assad dynasty is vile: look up the current leader’s father, Hafez. Syria – under Assad – is also Iran’s proxy and we know how the people fare under shari’a there. We also know that some of them hold to the theory that their messiah – the Mahdi – is soon to return but first comes global chaos, after which the world will be (willingly or unwillingly) Islamic. They say they’re not seeking nuclear capabilities for aggressive reasons but we clearly don’t believe that – if we did we’d not impose sanctions as we have. So, if Assad wins would he be our friend or foe? Bearing in mind we appear to be giving support to those who are currently fighting him.

            The terrorists here – AQ affiliates and so on – are a danger and their behaviour is similarly vile. I really can’t imagine that if they win, they’d be our friends either because their aim is, in essence, no different. Without going into the whole Sunni-Shi’ite thing and the actors involved, perhaps it boils down to which one we think poses the (currently) more equipped and organised danger to us.

            I don’t know, greggf. There’s a writer – Michael J Totten who wisely said (even of so-called experts) “If you think you know the middle east – you don’t”. We think we can plot the course of these things but the region is more complex than we imagine.

            But look – the question we’ve been mulling over in the West is whether or not we let Assad get away with using chemical weapons. My position on this is pretty much been exhausted on this thread!

          • greggf

            Fair enough Penny, I take your points.
            Perhaps Assad will turnout to be a Franco analogue!

          • Penny

            Never have the words “pile of poo” and “between a rock and a hard place” been more apt. There’s no “good choice” in any of this. But it’s not going to go away anytime soon.

      • erzengle

        TNT and all other explosives, bar nuclear, are chemical weapons. One type is used to send shrapnel flying in all directions, along with rubble and anything else in the blast zone. The other attacks the respiratory or the central nervous system; both are deadly: both are chemical weapons.

        • Penny

          Nerve agents also cause convulsions. Chemical weapons such as Sarin are not directed at modern armies – because armies are equipped with the necessary protection.Civilians, on the other hand, have no protection, less chance of escape and very little warning. As they are directed at civilians they are – quite clearly – not a means of warfare but a weapon of terror. That is the strategic intention behind using them.

          • erzengle

            Explosive agents tear off ones limbs, shatter ones internal organs and that is before we get started on depleted uranium shells and white phosphorous. Napalm, another chemical weapon, used by the Americans in Vietnam sticks to ones skin and removes it down to the bone, and the damage done by agent orange is ongoing.

            The point I am making is the west is very fond of selective outrage and of mounting the pulpit to read the lesson on what is and is not allowed. However, it all my eye to the guy prone and shattered on a heap of burning rubble with his arms and legs blown off and dying by inches because of this concept, humanitarian bombing aid, which is the proposed solution for setting things right.

            It is all humbug and Hypocrisy. The coalition has been champing at the bit to get at Syria for the last two years and just as Mr. President is coming under scrutiny over the Snowden affaire Assad obliges him by crossing the red line and moving the narrative on. What an Obliging fellow Assad is to be sure. And as for terror weapons, check out daisy cutters and bunker busters.

          • Penny

            I don’t disagree with your thoughts on these weapons. Or with what you say about hypocrisies: there is selectivity in what we must “do something” about and some “outrages” are magnified while others diminished – sometimes depending on what the career politicians alight on as the right-on cause du jour. I get all these arguments. That said, in more recent times military objectives do attempt to minimise casualties so is Vietnam actually relevant here? And are you suggesting that we should now lift the ban on chemical weapons and allow them as a legitimate part of warfare?

            Why do you think the coalition has been chomping at the bit to get at Syria? I disagree – but as I don’t know why you think this I can’t really respond.

          • erzengle

            Well, the reason I think the way I do is because this it the third attempt in less than a year to get a no fly zone or at least a punitive strike, which comes to the same thing. Perhaps you remember Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb at the UN with his red line? Do not be taken in by rhetoric about surgical strikes; it is a sop for popular consumption. How will you verify it. You will just have to take their word for it and that is all the evidence you will ever see. Their will be no pictures of the carnage in the western press, no picture of dead children to wring your heart, just boys own diagrams of smart bombs and sleek flying machines.

            If the strike does go ahead, what do you think the missiles targets will be? In Iraq and Libya the no fly zone was a cover to destroy, not people: they are simply collateral damage to the west, but vital infrastructure, bridges, water purification plants, power stations, communications, roads and even Hospitals according to John Pilger. This will leave the county in chaos as it did in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan and who suffers most then?

            How many children have died in Iraq from the use of depleted uranium shells, lack of clean water and electricity and who gives a damn? Who is telling their story now that the show has moved on to Syria? These humanitarians will turn Syria into another basket case. But do not take my word for it, go to John Pilger’s web site. He was writing about the neo-cons plan as it was unfolding. He predicted this turn of event several years ago.

            After Syria comes Iran, who will obligingly provide us with a humanitarian outrage when it is needed to justify cold blooded murder in the name of humanity. They decimated Afghanistan followed by Iraq, Libya and now Syria and you ask me why I think the way I do?

            Do you not see a pattern emerging? What do three of these countries have in common that makes us take such an interest in their moral well being when we don’t give a damn what the Saudis do, or the Egyptians for that matter. They have just had a military coupe and overturned a democratically elected government; where is the outrage over the thousands butchered on the streets? It is brushed aside and passed over because we did not like the people the Egyptians elected and are glad to be rid of them.
            Dead people only matter when they provide us with the impetus to do what has been an ongoing seizure of the oil rich countries for over a decade now: one after another. Morality has nothing to do with it; it never has.

          • Penny

            With respect, Enzengle, there’s not much by way of substance here. And as a non-fan (to put it mildly) of John Pilger I doubt his website will hold much sway for me.

            There is a verb called after him, coined by Auberon Waugh following one of Pilger’s documentaries in which he was accused of faking the identity of a young Thai girl apparently sold into slavery by her parents in order to strengthen his conclusions – to which he pleaded “duped”. Anyhow, the verb – “to pilger” is to: present information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion using emotive language to make a false political point; treating a subject emotionally with generous disregard for inconvenient detail; or making a pompous judgement on wrong premises” The verb made it into the Oxford Dictionary of New Words in 1991, but was removed in 1994 following Pilger’s protests.

            Pilger scoffs at the notion of impartiality saying “Impartiality and objectivity now mean the establishment point of view…” Not suprisingly, then, one of his “historical advisors” was Ilan Pappe, who isn’t keen on scholarship or facts and has said “Indeed, the struggle is about ideology, not about facts” Not, in my view, an ideal way to learn about the issues at hand! If all you’re going to see is what you want to see – and from your own ideological perspective – then you’ll find it. But what you then present may be full of omissions and misleading.

            The ME is incredibly complex. The journalism we have on the region skates over a tip of an iceberg – and I understand that. What depth can a journalist with an article to write or a minute slot on TV convey to the public? Quite often the issues are certainly there but a) not fully presented as they occur and b) not in time. Thus we, the public, not knowing the time scale or being kept informed are given the impression that an action we propose – and Iran is an example of this – is sudden or rushed, impulsive or not thought through. Add onto this lack of knowledge (who does know everything about everything – we rely on media) and you have a public not on board and/or cynical because they – understandably – think we’ve jumped the gun. The ghost of Iraq will be hard to lay.

            There will be “interests” in the region. But all manner of nations have all manner of interests around the world – that’s how commerce works. It’s not “imperialist”. And the Arab world certainly has overseas commercial interests, too. From my perspective Syria presents problems of containment. It has the potential to spread and the current problems multiplied.

          • erzengle

            I know all this, and I also know about the babies dragged out of incubators to whip up hatred against Iraq. I also know who sold Saddam the armaments, and who covered up the murder of men women and children until it became politically expedient to make a fuss over it in the run up to the Iraq invasion.

            But who has john Pilger ever killed? Whose country has he invaded? And yet he is the devil? He told a lie, or is at least accused of doing so, and there is a verb to prove it. It did not take much to prove his perfidy to you did it? And you, for one, do not believe his defence that he was duped. That is your privilege, and yet he still called the shots before they happened.
            But how many lies have we told? What about weapons of mass destruction; how does that lie sit with you? Has that turned you against the propaganda of the humanitarian war mongers? Was the death of five hundred thousand children during the medieval siege imposed on Iraq after desert storm, and said to be a price worth paying by Madeline Albright, enough to prevent you being a fan? Certainly not, apparently.

            Your thesis seems to be that John Pilger told a lie, therefore he is untrustworthy. But nobody died. However, the lies that kill thousands still have the benefit of the doubt. I think you protest to much, to vehemently and in the wrong place. Iraq is not a ghost; it is a country destroyed by the Olympian impartiality of the west and the BBC.

          • Penny

            Enzengel – it’s not a thesis: which is why I only mentioned one issue connected to Pilger and the one that lead to the verb being coined. I could hardly give you his entire career history and the critiques thereof.

            Look him up on from a research point of view (as opposed to sites that are overtly supportive). Find out what his critics say and their reasons. It’s not because they don’t like his literary style but because he isn’t unbiased or factual. As he, himself said (above), he doesn’t believe in objectivity or impartiality. Which means he sets out with a view and makes the story fit.

            Of course he hasn’t killed anyone, but if you think someone who has no time for objectivity or impartiality produces “truth” then we must agree to disagree.

          • erzengle

            Are you impartial: are any of us? I know what is said about John Pilger. I have called him a few things myself, but I admire his courage. He has put himself in harms way and always stand up for the dispossessed. We will be the poorer when he is gone. I for one will miss the baggy faced old socialist. And yes, let us agree to disagree and part on those terms.

          • Penny

            I try to be Erzengle. I recognise that harm can be done by projecting my beliefs in a way that creates bias. Which is different from having an opinion, of course. A coin has two sides and I try to see them both – but I’ve eventually got to make a decision on one of them! Those in the public eye have a greater responsibility in this respect. I could likely develop OCD in such a position checking and re-checking my facts!

            The dispossessed also matter (it’s part of the work I’ve done) but in my experience they are far better helped but honesty than by the emotive.

            Nice to chat to you.

  • crosscop

    Why are reports like this being ignored?
    If it’s true that the release of the gas was accidental and caused by the rebels then the West is going to war for what?

    • Augustus

      There appeared to be evidence that conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, and that is the major reason why America said they were certain that the attacks were the work of Assad’s regime, and why the military is likely to attack that regime in the next few days. What is unclear (and who really cares?) is where the control lies. Is there some sort of general blessing to use these weapons, or are there explicit orders for each chemical attack?

      • Penny

        Perhaps its the provenance of the report, crosscop. I’ve never heard of mint press. You could likely run yourself ragged looking at this blog and that small website, contrasting and comparing views and “evidence” and end up back at square one with your eyes revolving in an alarming fashion!. But in any case, we weren’t going to war. We were going to play a role in a short-sharp attack.

        In addition to the conversations that Augustus mentioned, it is thought that the scale of the attack had to arise from launchers and weaponry (I’m no military genius so can’t be more explicit) that the rebel forces don’t have. I think I’ve also heard something about satellite evidence.

    • evad666
  • roger

    Perhaps you should have a word with your dad.

  • erzengle

    It is a sad day for Britain when the people and politicians fail to see that blowing people up and burying them under burning rubble is the correct response to punish the heathens for their barbarity. They must be taught a lesson in humanity, and killing them with acceptable and humane chemical weapons like high explosives and TNT, etc, is clearly the way to do this.

  • roger

    Doesn’t your father tell you very much, he is in charge of the confidential intelligence committee after all. He must have told you a lot about Hague, weren’t they in cabinet together.