Dave’s desires dashed
So then, Parliament has spoken. Maybe Ed Miliband played behind the scenes partisan games, maybe Coalition partners would have voted against the motion no matter what the evidence but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the British Government failed to make a convincing case for taking military action against Syria.
Why did they fail? I think primarily because they didn’t get their ducks lined up. There was and is little or no doubt that a chemical attack on a civilian population took place. No existing evidence apart from strongly circumstantial evidence and balance of probability suggests that the Assad regime was behind the attack. Of course, ‘we all know’ that it was but knowing is not proving and to make a successful legal case you need proof.
America now says that the chemical agent used against the civilian population was Sarin and that it will present the evidence to the UN. Please note that the UN Inspectors have not yet themselves claimed that the nerve agent was Sarin and US Secretary of Defence Kerry says that the US obtained evidence outside of the UN investigation. Be that as it may going to Parliament was premature, indeed smacked somewhat of a headlong rush to be the first democracy to take a vote on the matter of military action. It would have been wiser to establish more facts before seeking Parliamentary approval for such action and have less airing of outraged opinion by Government ministers. British MPs might well be forgiven for exhibiting a healthy air of scepticism, memories of the Iraqi WMD fiasco being still fresh in the Parliamentary collective consciousness. Blair has a lot to answer for and it may yet be that the blood of the innocent will be on his hands but that is another matter.
Would the vote have gone differently if more time and care had been taken? Difficult to say. As various politicians have queued-up to sagely note the House of Commons can sometimes vote in a totally unpredictably way and this was one of those times. British readers need not follow the link, they’ve probably heard and read enough already. Others may find it edifying. Opposition Leader Ed Miliband obviously thought that the Government would win the vote and so whilst supporting the motion felt he could slightly distance himself from it to appease various factions within the Labour party. Possibly that backfired but I think that is not the reason for the Government losing the vote. I personally think that the lack of clear evidence and equally importantly the lack of a clear plan of action was what put paid to Dave’s desires. Most people would agree that ‘something should be done’ but as yet nobody has come up with a credible idea of exactly what should be done. In the meantime the British Government rules out going back to Parliament even if fresh evidence emerges. This has been decided because, according to William Hague ‘Parliament has spoken and you can’t keep going back every week for a fresh vote’. Well actually you could if sufficient new evidence emerged but then that would highlight the fact that you hadn’t done sufficient homework in the first place. The vote also rather conveniently lets the UK Government off the hook as it becomes increasingly apparent that actually nobody has a cohesive plan.
Holy Moley Mr President
Across the Pond the other leader in the Special Relationship has problems of his own. Having for reasons best known to him but presumably in order to look tough previously stated that the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line, now finds himself in a quandary. Assad cautiously tested what would happen if he crossed that line and the answer seemed to him to be ‘not a lot’. He then not so much stepped over the line as took a running jump over it, thumbing his nose at Obama as he did so. Obama got all upset and lost his sense of humour but them remembered that his own military advised doing nothing in Syria, no matter what the circumstances. What to do?
A limited strike, using stand-off weapons and thus avoiding the possibility of any American service personnel returning home in body bags, that’s what to do. Possibly somebody privately whispered the inevitable question, ‘then what?’ Probably that somebody was in the Military who are displaying signs of both caution and fatigue of foreign involvement. Being a canny politician if nothing else, Obama decided that if he was going to commit the US to spending potentially another few trillion dollars and a lengthy involvement in a country where military involvement by a third party was no solution then he’d better spread the blame for the decision. Spurred-on by Dave’s decision to go to Parliament he decided to seek Congressional approval. He might now be regretting that decision. Or perhaps he will feel that he’s been let off the hook if Congress refuses to back him?
Will Congress approve action? Probably but I’m willing to put a few bob on the fact that it won’t be an edifying spectacle. Congress will extract a price for their backing and my guess will be that it will involve Obama’s healthcare reforms. Whatever price they do ask there will be a fair amount of horse-trading involved which possibly is what democracy is all about but all the same smacks of hypocrisy.
In the meantime Obama may be fretting that he looks weak by incurring all these delays. I’m going to quote somebody here who I never thought that I would quote when making a case for restraint, a previous chancellor of Germany, one A Hitler. In a speech on the 4th September 1940, Hitler in a somewhat playful mood said:
In England they’re filled with curiosity and keep asking: “Why doesn’t he come?’ Be calm. He’s coming! He’s coming!
The probability is that America will take some form of military action and a delay may add to the air of anticipation in Damascus, which might be no bad thing as it gives everybody a chance to think again. Certainly some commentators in the Middle East think delay is not a sign of weakness although others also question the wisdom of military action.
Assad’s likely reaction
This depends on how removed from reality he actually is. The reality that he might be removed from is that nobody is talking about ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. Assad now has time to squirrel away military equipment and dig down a few more metres in the Presidential bunker. Neither of these two courses of action would be any good whatsoever if the US Marines were storming the beaches but as nobody is seriously suggesting that they’re going to then I think he’s going to win the first couple of rounds. In the long run in all probability ‘mission creep’ will lead to an invasion. Although I think this is the least preferred option if it’s going to happen then it would be wiser to plan for it and quite possibly creditably threaten it before being forced kicking and screaming into it. The simple fact is that Assad will just not respond to what is intended as a slap on the wrist. Brutal dictators just don’t think like that. The worst case scenario is that Assad takes a Gotterdammerung approach to the whole business. I’ll talk about that in a moment.
A word in your ear Mr President.
In the meantime, in the spirit of trying to mend bridges before smart weapons fired by dumb politicians blow them to smithereens, might I offer some suggestions President Assad about the content of your upcoming speeches? The ‘Mother of all battles’ has already been done and although it undeniably does have a certain ring about it is a bit passé, not to mention slightly embarrassing if your troops don’t share your views on committing suicide. I’m afraid that I’m going to turn yet again to that previous German Chancellor who, when all said and done, was a brilliant speaker. Just change a couple of words Bashar old boy.
It is a wonderful thing to see our nation at war, in its fully disciplined state. This is exactly what we are now experiencing at this time, as Mr Churchill is demonstrating to us the aerial night attacks which he has concocted. He is not doing this because these air raids might be particularly effective, but because his Air Force cannot fly over German territory in daylight. Whereas German aviators and German planes fly over English soil daily, there is hardly a single Englishman who comes across the North Sea in daytime.
They therefore come during the night — and as you know, release their bombs indiscriminately and without any plan on to residential areas, farmhouses and villages. Wherever they see a sign of light, a bomb is dropped on it. For three months past, I have not ordered any answer to be given, thinking that they would stop this nonsensical behaviour. Mr Churchill has taken this to be a sign of our weakness. You will understand that we shall now give a reply, night for night, and with increasing force.
Chilling, isn’t it? OK, now here are a couple of suggestions Mr President. Substitute Obama for the word Churchill, American aviators for British and Syrian territory for German territory. Personally I would leave in the bit about German, or rather in your case Syrian, planes flying over somebody else’s territory with impunity because even if it isn’t true it’s great for morale. To the rest of my readers if somebody says to you that history doesn’t repeat itself you can tell them ‘bollocks’. If you’re in a more polite and expansive mood you can say that events never exactly repeat themselves but near enough that we ought to be able to draw some lessons from it. Sadly, that rarely appears to be the case. At least Churchill had a plan and yes it did involve regime change and no he never ruled out boots on the ground or anything else come to that.
If you can’t win the civil war and don’t fancy an Alawite enclave Mr President but would rather take the Hitlerite path to regime, indeed country, destruction I guarantee you that the following will work. Lob a few Sarin shells onto Tel Aviv .
Your old enemy nay nemesis, might or might not have their own weapons of mass destruction but in point of fact they won’t need them even if they were inclined to use them. Sorry to rain on your parade but I don’t think that they would be inclined to use them. I do promise you that there will be no hand-wringing vacillation, no ruling-out of boots on the ground or indeed ruling out of anything else. The response will be truly Churchillian. You will go out in a blaze. Whether it’s a blaze of glory depends on your perspective of course but please don’t spoil it by hiding in a cellar or a drain pipe.The one thing that you can say with certainty is that your country would not be occupied by Israel. Well perhaps just a tiny bit for a Druze safe haven from whatever regime follows yours. No, your country will be well and truly flattened and then they’ll leave whoever is left standing to it. And don’t think that you can subcontract the job to your chums, Hezbollah. We all know where they got the Sarin from.An attack on Israel won’t suit anybody else, not Israel, not Iran, not Russia, not China, not the West and last but not least not your own people but if it suits you, well as a brutal dictator just go for it. Preferably just go of course but I think we all realise that that is not on your bucket list.
Flawed as it is, unpredictable as it is perhaps the various forms of democracy have given us a breathing space. Even the French are going to vote on it and just maybe they’ll be influenced by the British vote and possible Congressional reluctance. Certainly President Hollande needs to something to boost his ratings and by appearing both tough AND democratic he can’t go wrong. It is both foolish and dangerous for any democratic leader to think that dictators have the same thought processes as themselves. Should something concrete be done about the Assad regime’s chemical attack on its own people? Yes of course but it doesn’t have to be right now. We can’t undo what has happened all we can hope to do is somehow prevent more of the same. Retribution can wait but you can’t bring back the dead. There are those who say, in my opinion correctly, that the Allies could have done more to prevent the mass murder of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War. That may or may not be the case but it is important to remember that at the time unrestricted war was raging with the avowed intent of defeating Nazism. Not a few stand-off airstrikes to slap Hitler’s wrist for invading and enslaving/massacring most of East and West Europe but unrestricted war. To Messrs Obama and Cameron I would say moral outrage is all very well but are you prepared to wage unrestricted war? To draw another lesson from WW2, after the fall of Hitler’s regime the country was occupied for fifty-odd years. Initially some if not most of those Germans who ran the country under Allied supervision were Nazis but they were gradually weeded-out. In the meantime West Germany at least was helped back onto its feet. Today we would call that nation building and if you’re not prepared to commit to it with all that it entails then keep your noses out of other peoples business and your military out of their country. Confine yourselves to making outraged speeches and remember that if you insist on taking the moral high ground then you can’t pick your fights. What about the starving, brutalised people of Zimbabwe and North Korea? Why no air strikes there?
Today in Germany a ninety-two year old former SS member is going on trial for war crimes. He is being put on trial by Germans and in his case retribution has waited a long time. One way or another Assad will not have that long to wait but how many of his fellow countrymen and women will be left alive to see justice being done?