Last Saturday, when the United States, the UK and France launched strikes on three chemical facilities in Syria, the move was met with disapproval in some quarters. The pre-announced spectacle blew up three buildings and took no lives, but some pronounced it a “dangerous escalation”. Some spoke of its “illegality”. All complained about its disregard for the OPCW investigation.
The action, which lasted less than an hour, was an escalation only if everything that preceded it was normal. By this reckoning, Syria has now returned to its status quo of genocide by the Assad regime.
The action was illegal only if by legality we mean approval by the UN Security Council. But the Security Council is not a neutral adjudicating authority like a court. Its decisions are constrained by the interests of its permanent members. To say an action is “legal”, in this case, would be to say: “Vladimir Putin approved”.
What then of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation?
This depends on what answer is being sought. Because the OPCW’s remit does not include apportioning blame. Untrammelled access for the OPCW would have merely proved what was already known: that a chemical attack took place. It would not have resolved the manufactured controversy over who was responsible (manufactured, because there is only one party in Syria with the means, intention and history of deploying chemical weapons by air).
But had the OPCW confirmed Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s responsibility, what consequences should have followed?
Last year, after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack, the UN did respond to the calls for an investigation by creating the UN-OPCW Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) with the authority to identify perpetrators. But once the JIM concluded that al-Assad was responsible for the attack, Russia revoked its authority. And the fact that the UN confirmed the regime’s responsibility for the attack didn’t provoke any calls for accountability from the crowd currently insisting on the sanctity of the legal process.
All calls for “more investigation” sputter into platitudes about a “negotiated settlement” or “UN authorised action” (which, is another way of saying “never”, since Putin is unlikely to grant western powers the authority to act against his interests).
Fetishising a dubious legal process thus becomes a temporising measure that grants the perpetrators of mass crime impunity against the palpable illegality of using chemical weapons. That the case is not made in good faith is obvious from the analogy that often accompanies it.
Should we be trusting the same governments and agencies that lied to us about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)?
Is Syria like Iraq?
Considering the ubiquity of the Iraq analogy, it would seem that the old cliche that generals are always fighting the last war also applies to their critics. Syria is Iraq only if facile juxtapositions replace substantive comparisons. Beyond the fact that both countries have been led by Baathist regimes that brought immense misery upon their people, there is no concrete detail in which Syria and Iraq are similar.
In 2003, Iraq was invaded even though there was no imminent humanitarian catastrophe demanding action; in Syria, the regime has been on a rampage since 2011, yet only on two occasions has it been subjected to limited and rather ineffective military strikes on “humanitarian grounds”.
Where in Iraq, the US and Britain had used false pretexts for action, in Syria real and frequent violations have only twice shaken the west out of inaction. Where in Iraq, the alleged possession of WMDs was deemed sufficient grounds for an invasion, their confirmed use in Syria has only belatedly occasioned a response, largely symbolic, lacking shock or awe.
The analogy also seems ignorant of the knowns and unknowns in the case against Iraq. In 2003, despite intense US pressure, international bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and OPCW declined to endorse the administration’s case against Iraq. In Syria, the regime hasn’t denied its possession of chemical weapons and the UN has confirmed their use on at least 34 occasions.
The ‘deep state’ argument
But what of the claim that a “deep state” is trying to mislead us into war, as it did in Iraq?
In 2002, the CIA resisted administration pressure to provide a defensible rationale for invading Iraq. Then Vice President Dick Cheney had to personally visit the CIA’s headquarters in Langley several times to pressure analysts to produce an assessment favourable to the administration’s case. But, in spite of the bullying, the “deep state” (including the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Energy and the State Department) delivered their combined judgment in a caveat-laden National Intelligence Estimate that would only confirm that if left unchecked, Iraq may develop nuclear weapons in a decade.
The Bush administration recognised the inadequacy of the assessment and, in the end, had to rely on two ad hoc operations based in the Pentagon to produce its own politicised intelligence, outside the recalcitrant channels of the “deep state”. French, German and British intelligence also failed to oblige Bush (leading the UK’s then-PM Tony Blair to produce his own politicised “dodgy” dossier).
In Syria, by contrast, US, British, and French intelligence agencies have been unanimous in delivering confident judgments on the regime’s responsibility for the chemical attack. These judgments have been corroborated by Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), journalistic investigations, witness testimonies, human rights organisations, and, of course, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (which confirmed at least 34 instances of the regime’s use of chemical weapons even before Douma).
The case for Iraq never came close to achieving this kind of consensus.
The Halabja massacre
There is, however, an Iraq analogy that is relevant to Syria: It is not 2003, but 1988, when, during Saddam Hussein’s military campaign in the north, nearly 5,000 civilians were killed in a chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja.
The attack followed the town’s capture by the Iranian army, and Iraq immediately blamed it on Iran as a “false flag” operation. US intelligence, which at the time was allied to the Iraqi regime, amplified the claim. But in an ironic twist, once Hussein fell out of western favour after annexing Kuwait, “anti-imperialists” (including, sadly, the late Edward Said) felt obliged to use the “false flag” theory to absolve Hussein in their misguided attempt to forestall an intervention.
Therein lies the lesson: Facile contrarianism is an intellectual dead end that contributes to moral atrophy and reactionary politics. We live in a time of great danger and, due to its scope and consequences, Syria may become the defining conflict of this century.
We can differ on our views about the best course for achieving peace, but we must not allow our conclusions to determine which facts we acknowledge and which we don’t. Let us certainly not distort or bend the truth to satisfy our preconceptions. In these times of universal deceit, it must become a moral duty for all citizens to confront misuses of language and history.