LibLink…Paddy Ashdown: After the Syria vote, Britain must not sleepwalk into isolationism

Paddy Ashdown has been writing about the implications of the Syria vote for the Guardian’s Comment is Free site. First, he pretty much repeats what he said on Friday:

There are strange paradoxes here. It is possible to be both proud of a parliament that said no to the executive on a matter like military action. But sad; even – dare I say it – a little ashamed at the decision it took.

Of course there are reasons for this. The leftover poisons of the Iraq war; the toxic effect of public distrust in our politics. Mishandling by the government. President Obama’s unwise attempt to rush to action. ALabour opposition that used its parliamentary duty to ask questions as an excuse to avoid making decisions. These are reasons why we are where we are. But they are not excuses.

He said we need to think about our standing in the world and ridiculed UKIP’s position of opposing intervention while also opposing cuts to the defence budget:

 Maybe I am just a hoary old voice from the past. Maybe last Thursday is the start of a new Britain, as the Tory isolationist right, Labour’s pacifist left and some further-flung voices claim. If it is to be so, then let it be so because we have chosen it. Not sleepwalked into it.

There are big questions here. Why then would we need the world’s fourth most expensive defence forces? As parliament debated, a Ukip poster van cruised outside with the slogan “Keep out of Syria! Oppose Defence cuts!” Do they really not see the connection?

He asked what Labour would do now, what choices would Ed Miliband make?

Having placed in question its proud tradition of internationalism in pursuit of a mix of genuine concern and political opportunism, will it now join the crowd rushing for the exit, or help lead the way back to saner ground? Labour’s answer to this question is of profound importance, not just to them, but to the whole future of progressive politics in our country. Criticise the government as one may, we now know the convictions of David Cameronand Nick Clegg – the latter driven by a passionate internationalism. We cannot say the same for Ed Miliband.

You can read the whole article here.

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  • On the issue of Syria we do need to hear both sides of the argument internally. It is also important, however, that we are clear why public opinion rejected Paddy’s proposed approach on Syria. On a different occasion in a different zone the arguments might play out differently as they did in Bosnia. The basic problem was that people did not believe what various agencies were saying about the use of sarin. This was in a large part because of the 45 minute dossier before the Iraq War which turned out to be false.

    Ashdown actually warned against rushing into military action. The Mail reported

    “Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown yesterday warned against rushing to military action on Syria. But Lord Ashdown, who remains close to Mr Clegg, acknowledged that the UN would be ‘greatly diminished’ if the world failed to respond to Assad’s ‘terrible breach’ of international law.”

    None the less he seemed to just accept that Assad was responsible without considering the issue of whether the SRA used sarin too.

    It turned out, however, to be far from clear who launched the sarin attack. Carla del Ponte was reported on the BBC to be saying that there was evidence that Syrian rebels used sarin

    A news article (now unavailable) showing sarin being used by rebels. It showed a large calor gas like cannister being fired from a mortar.

    (WND appear to be a right wing ‘political’ news agency)

    We should at least attempt to investigate what is happening in this video before we move on this. It seems that the SRA may be using sarin but that is not to say that they were responsible for the attack that the US are objecting to.

    As Lib Dems we need to have clarity in our logic in this issue. There is a huge danger for us in resting the case for action on the sarin attacks. This will be a huge own goal if it turns out that the SRA was doing them.

    Although I disagree with intervention, the case, if there was one, should have been made on the basis that Russia was arming Assad. The reason for the move to isolation is lack of trust in the intelligence services. Those making statements of certainty regarding sarin need to think about whether these statements increase or decrease that trust.

    Ed Joyce

  • Little Jackie Paper 1st Sep '13 - 11:18pm

    I don’t understand this at all. Why exactly does an entirely sensible wish not to intervene in Syria somehow equate to a wider isolationism? The UK is a member of the alphabet soup of UN, EU, OECD, NATO, WTO and so on. We even provided the King of Bosnia! We have protected international aid (albeit unwisely) during a fiscal consolidation like no other. British soldiers are around the world, for good or for bad. Am I supposed to believe that the lack of a UK presence in a potential US intervention somehow equates per se to isolationism. Did the UK go isolationist over Vietnam?

    There is no reason at all at present for the UK to be involved in Syria and I salute Parliament for taking the eminently sensible decision that it did. The UK has no business in this matter and if others wish to wade in there is no reason to follow. And this is before we get to the small matter of whether the evidence is actually compelling.

    The gap between the interventionists who want military action in Syria and the public at large has grown to a gaping extent. Maybe some have a misplaced fear that history will repeat itself post-Iraq. This, of course, does not adequately explain how less than two years ago the same Parliament seemed able to reconcile events in Iraq with action in Libya. Instead of painting people with entirely reasonable reservations about this particular intervention as on the path to xenophobia, perhaps some engagement with their concerns might not hurt. Is it really so unreasonable to think that intervention in a complex civil war might do more harm than good? Is it really so unreasonable to think that this is a regional matter rather than a global one?

    My own sense is that the public at large see that, ‘internationalism,’ is not the same thing as, ‘intervention in every single flashpoint.’ That, rather than any isolationist tendency is what to my mind lies behind concerns over Syria. But given the gap that has grown, the debate has become unhealthily polarised. The personal shots that everyone seems to be spitting at Ed M are misplaced – he really isn’t that much of a force. At times the argument has skated treacherously close to asking, ‘how dare anyone disagree.’ It is not good enough as an argument for anything, never mind war. If this was a New Labour government, this party would be hopping mad over the prospect of intervention.

    What do we want, ‘internationalism,’ to mean. If the public at large aren’t keen on a vision of internationalism on terms that would have meant intervention in Syria on the terms presented last week I for one would agree. The hectoring and, frankly, self-indulgent lectures that have been handed out in the past few days don’t seem to me to be a particularly attractive advert for, ‘internationalism.’ But please don’t tell me that my views on Syria make me an isolationist – I am quite capable of holding more than one thought in my head simultaneously.

  • Many European countries have a policy of internationalism as they routinely participate in UN approved peace-keeping missions. They don’t however have a policy of interventionism as they do not take part in military intervention actions.

    There is absolutely no reason the UK can’t also be internationalist but not interventionist if if chooses. It is not as if the UN has a shortage of UN missions or potential missions.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 1:35am

    My impression is that Paddy’s suggestion is that apparent withdrawal from active support for the Chemical Weapons Convention seems >>consistent with<< a wider isolationism. "Consistent with" is very different to "equates to".

    There seem to be strands of isolationism in some of our attitudes to Europe for example, and to immigration. We appear to prefer small, isolated decision-making processes that our politicians can more easily dominate, rather than larger, community-scale ones that might provide the country with extra value but make our politicians' lives harder.

    Labour's internationalism might be simply represented by the slogan "Workers of the world unite". Our reluctance over Syria suggests an unwillingness to unite with others to help alleviate suffering in Syria. On one side there is the suffering that comes from the effects of bullets and gas, for example. and from being displaced. On the other side there is the suffering that comes from trading freedom for security under a brutal regime.

    Withdrawal may be another symptom of our growing isolationism, or it could be a sign or a more mature approach to foreign affairs, or perhaps a bit of both. Maybe we are just stumble-learning how not to be a colonial power.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Sep '13 - 4:44am

    Paddy is losing a lot of love for continuing to accuse most of the country and the Liberal Democrat membership of being isolationist.

    I have not heard a good moral or legal argument as to why we should bomb Syria. The punishment for breaking international laws is not to be bombed by the United States and especially not without permission from the UN Security Council. I also don’t see how chemical weapons are worse than conventional or nuclear weapons.

    Even if I accept someone else’s moral and legal arguments, there is the question of pragmatism, in other words: “will the plan achieve the stated objectives?”, I think it is more likely to escalate than deter, so for me it fails on a moral, legal and pragmatic basis.

    So what should we do instead? I think we should help the refugees and work with the United Nations to achieve a diplomatic solution. We also need to strengthen the UN so in future it can break up civil wars.

  • Ian Hurdley 2nd Sep '13 - 7:48am

    What the British public and those MPs who voted against intervention (a lovely euphemism) were asking for was proof. Proof that there had indeed been use of chemical weapons; if so, proof of which side in the civil war had used them; and finally, proof – or at least a very high degree of probability – that we would not make things worse for the Syrian people, the region, and indeed the world.
    John Kerry says that the US now has proof that sarin was used, but does not identify the culprit, so the case for attacking Syrian government forces or military installations is still not made out. In these circumstances, Paddy, this is not a slide into isolationism, but sheer common sense.

  • Ian, in fact the US provided it’s evidence – or at least a four page summary – on Friday. See White House website. A little too late for the UK Parliament.

    Having said that, I think Paddy is overreacting absurdly. One UKIP van does not make an entire nation isolationist, and less than a tenth of our MPs voted against both motion and amendment, both of which were interventionist (though, unfortunately for our party, the government presented a sloppily drafted motion, and failed to make a good case. Whereas Labour, rightly in my view, were more cautious, and had better drafting). Tribalism (on both sides) didn’t help, but you can’t blame an Opposition for opposing. The Government’s tribalism on a vital matter of national foreign policy is more worrying… That is point our elder statesmen should be addressing, instead of making over-emotional appeals about UKIP (which merely gives them greater credibility) and misrepresenting the official Opposition.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '13 - 10:01am

    There is some really first rate thinking and writing here, this morning. I don’t think that those making the accusation of a Little Englander retreat into isolation could stand their ground in debate and questioning by the likes of those commenting above.

    The deep worry is that no one in the media – by which I mean no one interviewing the high profile advocates of this line are challenging them to any degree – and the Channels continue to go to the same old people. Labour’s effort to walk the tight rope means that they cannot make the case, either.

    Little Jackie Paper wrote it as it appears to be the case, “At times the argument has skated treacherously close to asking, ‘how dare anyone disagree.’

    Richard also hits a nail on the head: “Maybe we are just stumble-learning how not to be a colonial power.”

    The BBC’s film montage last night was embarrassing. A Reithian BBC would see its role as trying to reduce the amount of stumbling and increase the amount of learning taking place.

  • Liberal Neil 2nd Sep '13 - 10:16am

    One of my big worries about how this debate has panned out is the way that Ashdown (for whom I have a lot of respect generally), Falkner and others seem unable to understand the very legitimate concerns of the majority on this issue.

    Their line appears to be a combination of ‘trust us, we know best’ and ‘if you’re against UK military intervention you must be in favour of the Assad regime’.

    This is a hugely simplistic approach to a hugely complex issue.

    My own view is that there is a very strong case for international intervention on humanitarian grounds but that there is a very weak case for it to be led by the US or the UK.

    The other nonsense argument being put forward is that we should support the US because of the ‘special relationship’. Well if the special relationship on works if we tag along with everything the US decides to do, it’s not that special, is it? If it survived Vietnam and the Falklands it will survive this difference of approach.

  • @Liberal Neil
    “This is a hugely simplistic approach to a hugely complex issue.”

    Quite. It’s not just a simplistic approach but a failing of logic that would be marked down on GCSE paper. Accusing everyone that disagrees with this particular course of action, whether on the evidence, the legality or the effectiveness of the strikes, as being an isolationist is nonsensical. It is based on the fundamental premise that ‘I am absolutely right’ and therefore anyone that disagrees with me must have another motive, such as isolationism.

    The correlation between those using fallacious reasoning and those supporting the strikes on the conditions put before the Commons is no coincidence. The fact that so very few in favour of the strikes are capable of engaging in trying to understand people’s objections just highlights the fundamental weakness of their arguments. Bear in mind that those who were close to Blair in the run-up to Iraq spoke of his absolute conviction he was right. I see similarities in Ashdown’s behaviour here. I believe this is generally what people are referring to when they compare Syria to Iraq, They are not talking specifically about the evidence about WMD or the arguments surrounding legality, but they are referring to the absolute certainty in the minds of those who would see us take this course of action and their inability to be influenced by anybody else’s reasoned input. This was very much demonstrated by the behaviour of Cameron on the vote – why didn’t he instruct his party to vote for the amendment? – because of an incredible arrogance about being right and not having to modify his position, even very slightly, to accommodate quite reasonable concerns.

  • @Joe Otten
    “you can blame the government for not supporting the opposition in opposing”

    They weren’t opposing, just amending slightly to take into account legitimate concerns. You have previously stated that the amendment and the motion were effectively the same thing. You can’t have it both ways – you can’t claim the opposition were opposing a motion with an amendment that was the same as the motion.

  • Tony Harwood 2nd Sep '13 - 11:02am

    Ironically, Thursday’s Syria vote has certainly done far more to promote the concept of Parliamentary democracy around the world than our usual default positions in the Middle East of unquestioning support of US / Israeli policy and liberal application of tomahawk missiles and depleted uranium munitions.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '13 - 11:57am

    Neil, it is also interesting that the military commentators with the most recent experiences of command, Lords West and Dannatt, as opposed to the politicos some of whom you list, are against intervention. I can’t believe, therefore, that presently serving senior military advisers are not also raising similar concerns and urging extreme caution. If I and others are to be labelled isolationists, are they not by the same standards of debate adventurists?

  • “How would Paddy conduct his campaign to punish Bashar al-Assad and his generals, deter them or prevent them from genocide in future and at the same time spare innocent Syrians? I think we should be told.”

    That question, which I have not seen answered, goes to the heart of the matter – not only in practical terms, but in legal and political terms as well.

  • David Blake 2nd Sep '13 - 12:23pm
  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 1:14pm
  • I know we keep being told that it is not the UN inspector’s remit to try to identify who used chemical weapons. Given that this is the absolute crux of the issue for many of us does anyone know why it isn’t within their remit? Seems very odd to me.

    I think we all now accept that chemical weapons were used but we seem to be back to being totally reliant on US intelligence experts for “proof” of who used them, the same experts, I might add, that repeatedly assured us that Saddam had WMDs.

    As far as I am aware the US has not followed Putin’s request to show the proof for Assad’s involvement with the UN. Why not? To those of us of a sceptical nature this really doesn’t add. Some people are content to just accept politician’s assurances but I am not one of them.

  • Can someone explain to me from the pro-intervention LD side who are continually criticising Miliband

    i. Is the legal position tenable?

    ii. Why not wait for the UN to make its position known

    ii. What is the extent and intended impact of the military strike?

    Also, how confident are you that the LD will support a 3 line whip to support an attack seeing 23/56 didn’t vote last week?

    Is the reason there will be no second vote not based on Labour but rather on the fact the Government can’t carry its own parties (neither for that fact can Labour but that is irrelevant when the Government has a 60+ majority)?

  • John Roffey

    and the leadership of said party -does that make you feel proud/good as well., seeing all we have heard from the LD since last week has been Clegg and Ashdown and I cannot say they have been giving the same message?

  • Disillusioned 2nd Sep '13 - 3:52pm

    Paddy Ashdown would have us write a blank cheque in support of Obama. How disappointing that the first whiff of power appears to have turned Clegg and Ashdown into Tony Blair.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 3:55pm

    It is sad to see so many LibDems preferring to congratulate themselves on avoiding a red line of war rather than suggesting realistic ways to prevent Assad from continuing to cross the red line of chemical warfare. And to see so many preferring to repeat questions that have been answered, rather than help find realistic solutions.

    1. The Attorney-General says the military option is legal. There are plenty of people on LDV who have argued that the Responsibility to Protect would make military action legal.

    2. Significant sections even of the Labour party agree that there is compelling evidence that the Syrian regime murdered over a thousand people in a chemical attack. Jim Murphy told the Murnaghan programme: “It wasn’t that I was in any doubt that the Assad regime was responsible – I don’t believe that rebels gassed their own people.”

    3. Almost every statement on the matter from Obama, Cameron, and others has been to the effect that the strike will be short and sharp, limited to a mixture of appropriate punishment and deterrence of future repetitions.

    The Syrian regime’s response seems to rely primarily on fear – keep us in power because we’re worse than the alternative – don’t attack us because we’ll attack you back. Somewhat characteristic of brutal dictatorships. Sad to see so many LibDems buy into their argument.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 4:08pm

    worse -> better

  • Syria – A Personal assessment – 2 Sep 2013.
    1. What constitutes a War Crime, or Crime Against Humanity? It is my view that the reaction of the Assad regime to the initial uprising, some 2 years ago, very rapidly moved to the use of disproportionate force, when the early protesters were almost invariably unarmed. As a consequence, there was a rapid escalation, not only in the numbers of protesters across a large part of the country, but in small arms use by militia-style groups to protect the districts in which they lived. From early on, the Syrian government forces, sometimes with mercenaries, began indiscriminately – in terms of the collateral, terrorising, killing & maiming of unarmed civilians – to use artillery, armoured vehicles & tanks, in an attempt to crush the spreading opposition; since then even bombing & strafing by aircraft. This would seem to be the point, when the Crime Against Humanity “Red Line” was crossed. We are now, in every sense, too late!
    2. The opponents of the Assad regime, within Syria, are now too diverse in their aims to form any coherent political, let alone military unity. They are militarily unlikely now to overthrow Assad. Indeed, some elements are actually in conflict among themselves. This is compounded by the over-arching religious component, the Sunni-Shia strife [with all its shades] & the broader Islamic Jihadist/terrorist elements.
    3. The appalling decline, into what amounts to the virtual destruction of the Syrian state – its towns & cities, civic infra-structure, government, social fabric, are now in anarchic ruins & confusion, which could take decades to re-build, even if military action ceased today.
    4. Across the region there are now well over a million refugees, living in desperate conditions & still more are fleeing daily. Not only is this intolerable for the individuals & families, but it is placing an impossibly large burden on those receiving countries. What future can the children look forward to?
    5. Against all this, it is impossible for me to contemplate raising the destructive bar any further, by outside military intervention. There is no sophisticated weaponry that will not incur, either or both: collateral physical damage, &/or the desire to retaliate across a wider arena by those opposed to Western ideology. Who knows what boundaries those might be?

  • Joseph Bourke 2nd Sep '13 - 4:26pm

    I think Liberal Neil has summarised the issue well, “My own view is that there is a very strong case for international intervention on humanitarian grounds but that there is a very weak case for it to be led by the US or the UK.

    Last year, Paddy Ashdown was saying much the same thing Syria shows the lessons of Libya unlearnt in arguing that megaphone diplomacy has failed. The West must let Turkey lead a relief operation.

    “The slaughter of the innocents in Syria is, of course, horrific, barbaric, shocking, terrifying medieval, bestial — choose your own adjective; they’ve all been used — some many times over. In our attempts to camouflage impotence we are now devaluing hyperbole.

    But it is not sufficient. With the West’s moral force in tatters after the blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan and military budgets so shrunk that we can no longer enforce our global morality at the point of a bayonet, we have to learn to be not just concerned, but canny too if we are to get our way.

    I thought we had learnt that lesson in Libya. But Syria suggests that we have not.

    He continues:

    …we in the West should have learnt from Libya that to get things done means creating coalitions beyond the cosy circle of the Atlantic club.

    Instead, we seem, sadly and stupidly, to have reverted to type in Syria. Instead of quietly standing back and letting the Arabs and the regional powers lead the call for action, Western leaders, from Hillary Clinton to the newly arrived President Hollande, just could not resist donning the armour of moral outrage and leading the charge.

    Instead of making it harder for Russia to say “no”, they have made it easier — and overlooked the central role that Turkey could have played as a regional leader in putting together a coalition for action that the West could have found it easy to back and the Russians much more difficult to oppose.

    He concludes:

    A single mighty event that can bring a sudden end to tyranny, as in Bosnia, is now beyond us in Syria. But starting a process driven by the region, not the West, that will take us there over time is not.

    The truth is that nowadays Western good intentions and deep concern are not sufficient. We have to learn to be canny too. And we haven’t been. The cowering innocents in Houla have been left to pay the price for a UN deadlock that, played differently, arguably might not have had to happen.”

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 4:49pm

    Ok, Joseph Bourke, ideally so, but I wonder whether it is that easy? Would the Arab league would be a better leader?

    Turkey has a border with Syria that Syria is unlikely to respect in the event of Turkey leading. Although I accept that Turkey believes it is safe on this score, it may still lead to some reluctance to be too prominent.

    But doesn’t Erdogan have his own issues about despotism.
    Still, I suppose tear gas is better than sarin.

  • @Richard Dean,

    I tend to think that the onus is rather on those proposing action to specify it and to explain what effects it will have. For a start, what does a punishment attack, which minimizes civillian casualties, is not about regime change or taking sides in the wider civil war actually look like? Do we bomb Assad’s holiday home when we know he is not going to be there?

    If you want to take sides and help the rebels fight for regime change in Syria then that is a different argument entirely and pardoxically one that might make more sense to support than just forcing Assad into his air-raid shelter for two nights.

  • @Richard Dean
    “It is sad to see so many LibDems preferring to congratulate themselves on avoiding a red line of war rather than suggesting realistic ways to prevent Assad from continuing to cross the red line of chemical warfare. ”

    I have yet to see a decent case for limited strikes preventing future chemical weapon use. That is one reason why I would question the wisdom of any action at this point.

    If you directly bomb chemical weapons you tend to release them as we found out in 1991.
    If you use strikes at a level that are so punitive as to advance the rebel cause Assad may decide he has nothing to lose and authorises widespread usage. The converse is also true if the strike is not punitive enough then why carry it out?
    Chemical weapons can be delivered through artillery, rocket, aerosol (typically a crop duster type affair), introduction into water supply etc etc. Therefore the ideas I have heard mooted of a no fly zone would not help, if indeed it could be established.

    As for a non military option, unless Russia can be brought on board I see none at the moment.

  • Joseph Bourke 2nd Sep '13 - 5:21pm

    Richard Dean,

    there is no good argument that has yet been made for the UK intervening in either of a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia across Syria and the wider middle east; a regional contest for hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia; or a clash between the USA and Russia for regional influence.

    Our role as a permanent member of the security council is to facilitate the enforcement of UN resolutions as and when they may be made. In the absence of UN authorised action we are limited to a support role for regional initiatives in whatever form they may take e.g. Arab league initiated humaniatarian corridors/no fly zones along the Turkish/Jordanian borders or Russian peacekeeping troops entering the country at the invitation of the Assad regime to maintain a ceasefire while political negotiations are undertaken.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 5:25pm

    Closed minds, eh?
    Closed minds don’t topple dictators, win wars, protect anyone, or even win elections

  • Richard Dean

    The legal basis of ftp lies with the UNSC not individual Governments so proceeding is fraught with risk. If the UNSC is not involved then what is to prevent other Governments using this as an excuse to attack other countries.

    What about Iran attacking Israel as a rtp the Palestinians in Gaza etc – would that be okay, or is it only reserved for the West to do?

    There was also legal opinion for the Iraq War which was contested, just because the AG says something doesn’t mean he is right.

    The short, sharp strike will achieve what exactly? You make a supposition based on your assumptions that everything is based on fear – perhaps it is also fear of what would replace Assad?

    As far as I can tell Labour have not changed their position, that has been the Coalition – Labour are undoubtably split but they are probably anti-intervention without clear evidence and an UNSC resolution (still trying to rehabilitate themselves after Iraq is causing them pains with some old Blairites still there). The LD are the same but the leadership is at odds with the foot soldiers. Do you think Labour will really sideline the UN again after the opprobrium thrown at them after Iraq .

    If we come down to it though, it is all about rule of law. Assad, if he did it, committed a war crime and should be brought in front of the ICC where evidence should be submitted against him. If you want something else to happen to him then explain what that is?

  • David Allen 2nd Sep '13 - 5:55pm

    Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this issue, the political consequences for the Lib Dems are not good. In 2003-2005, the Lib Dems established a distinctive position, and a courageous position, on an issue of war and peace. Whilst we didn’t do it to win votes, it did win us votes. Standing out against the hawks and the hotheads was our Big Idea, our USP if you will. Unless you count AV, or the rather transient Cleggmania of the early 2010 election campaign, it was the last time we really had a Big Idea to put before the electorate.

    Before Syria, we may have retained a certain amount of residual credit for Charles Kennedy’s principled stance on Iraq. We have now lost all such credit. Clegg simply didn’t have anything useful to contribute to the debate. Miliband had some good lines and some poorer lines, Cameron had some good lines and some poorer ones, and even Ashdown (though I don’t agree with him) had something to say. But not Clegg.

    Admittedly our leadership didn’t completely plumb the depths. We didn’t win the wooden spoon for petty partisan piffle. That, I think, was shared between Gove for his outburst, and Hague for his comment that the reason why he had ruled out reintroducing a motion for a military response was that it couldn’t happen until Labour were “less partisan”.

    In other words, “I am going to take my ball home, blame the Opposition for not playing fair, and abandon my responsibility for governing the country”. We first met Hague in politics, I recall, when he was a16-year-old. He seems much younger than that now.

  • Joseph Bourke 2nd Sep '13 - 5:56pm

    Richard Dean,

    the UK does not have the military capacity to unilaterally topple dicatators with large standing armies equipped with heavy weapons and sophisticated air defences. We can only participate as part of a larger, more powerful alliance in such circumstances. The UN was founded specifically to avoid the settlement of international disputes by going to war.

    The Syrian civil war cannot be resolved by the UK/FRANCE/USA or the UN. The West and/or the UN can only provide humaniataian aid, although such aid could include areas within Syria protected by US/Nato patriot missiles and drones stationed along Syria’s boders. The areas within Syria would be under the military control of Syrian rebel forces on the ground

    Putin has offered to put Russian peacekeeping troops in the Golan heights along the border with Israel. Were he willing to deploy Russian peaxcekeepers to secure a ceasefire line betwwen the Assad regime and rebel forces, then political negotiations might have a chance of getting underay, even if Al quaeda Islamic radicals did not parrticipate in the ceasefire.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 6:09pm

    Ok, let’s think of John Roffey’s suggestion. The richest Syrians probably hope the whole problem will just disappear by any means including chemical, as was evident from the interviews Jeremy Bowen did of a couple of girls out shopping in the centre in Damascus. But the majority of the Syrian people have other choices. Some of their choices are

    1. to continue to live in servitude
    2. to be gassed or otherwise murdered by Assad if they object
    3. to live in a refugee camp
    4. to join rebel forces
    5. to work secretly to undermine the regime in other ways
    6. to welcome an incoming liberating force
    7. …?

    Which of these would LibDems say was consistent with the principles of liberal democracy?

    Would the Syrian Chemical Corps really gas their own people in the event they were near losing their war? Everyone in that corps will know that they’re on a database somewhere in the Syrian archives. They’d be hunted as war criminals. Their best tactic might be to safeguard or destroy the chemicals rather than use them.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '13 - 6:17pm

    Richard – you legitimately ask for ways forward, and it is also a gloss on Joe’s contribution above:

    This situation is all about patrons and clients, as indeed was the situation leading up to the outbreak of WWI which the great powers got utterly wrong because they didn’t communicate clearly and they didn’t want to give an inch to those most desperate.

    The Assad regime is in many ways a mafia gang that runs a state rather than a neighbourhood. It could do this with relative impunity until recently because they are clients of Russia who arm and resource their racket in return for, among other things, access to a Mediterranean port and a ‘say’ in Middle Eastern affairs.

    Given security of what they get under this regime (access influence and status etc) from another democratic regime, Russia would drop Assad overnight, as there is a political cost to it from supporting Assad in the present circumstances. (It won’t be actually looking forward to chairing the G20, will it?)

    But secure access to the Med etc cannot be guaranteed to Russia if it allows the Assad regime to go under principally because Iran also has an interest in access to the Med and in replacing the Assad regime with one run by Islamic fundamentalists. Iran wants to be patron of a new client running Syria. Iran has therefore facilitated, armed and trafficked a large number of jihadists into the mix.

    It is Russia that is saying, ‘better the devil we know’, not us. It is Iran which is fighting Assad by proxy.

    The pressure is intensified by the increasing vulnerability or sense of vulnerability of Israel in a number of the possible outcomes from this situation. Then add in nuclear and other WMDs, short distances and the presence of extremists for whom cataclysm would be as good a result as any – a super twin towers event.

    The lessons from the origins of the WWI is that you have to appreciate the needs of the patrons if you are to persuade them to withdraw their support for the status quo.

    Russia needs access to the Med, status as a ‘power’ in the world, and Mr Putin will tell you what else if you ask him. Perhaps Putin and Russia have to be allowed to be the principal peace maker – heralding once again, ‘Russia the Great Power’.

    Iran has a new President. He could be a reforming influence. What does he need to increase his power over the clerics? He will need 90% of whatever he wants.

    Finally, if Russia were to withdraw their support for Assad and Iran were to stop supporting the jihadists in Syria, there would still need to be a clearing up exercise and that has to be done by blue helmets on the ground (and with Arab league involvement?). Though it pains me this includes a helicopter lift for Assad and his crew to a quiet secure beach for them to spend their unfrozens ill-gotten gains.

    The UN, the ‘Peace Makers’, Arab Leaguers and ‘Sweepers’, must be left to do the democracy building.

    [What is clear is that Brits, Franks and Yanks must stand well back. Real Politik defines them as an obstacle to a better outcome.]

    Now Richard, and others, do your worst to that 😉

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 6:19pm

    @Joseph Bourke

    The Putin solution may seem attractive, but if Putin’s forces protect parts of Syria against Assad, isn’t that the same as being an invasion force? Why would they be “peacekeepers” whereas a Western force doing the same thing would be “aggressors”? Does it solve the problem of being a refugee?

    I suppose it would be in Russia’s interest to be seen as a liberator, particularly if the area they liberated included their military base at Tartus?

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 6:35pm

    @Bill le Breton

    Well the solution seems simple, then. Provide Russia with a UN-backed guarantee on a naval base in the Med. Develop a joint US/Russian or UN force to fight Al-Quaeda in a new Syria, backed by the Arab League. Counter the Iranian pressure by doing as much as possible to make the new Syria free, led by its own people, and wealthy, with wealth shared far more than now amongst the general population. And use this as a way of changing Iran.

    Is it feasible? Will it solve the problem? In the short-term? In the long-term? I read somewhere that Assad has a couple of million thugs at his command, are there enough sunny beaches for them all, and isn’t thuggery what they actually like, rather than beaches? Is China relevant? How long will it take? What are the obstacles to be overcome?

  • @ Richard Dean
    I do not thnk being hunted as war criminals will deter those with the power to release chemical weapons if they felt they had no options. There are over 100,000 dead. if theylose the retribution is unlikely to bethekind we see ina western courtroom. Look at the summary execution of Gaddafi, or the behaviour of those in Iraq even as Saddam stood on the gallows. I think for those at the top of the Assad regime to lose is to die…

  • Richard Dean

    To get what you want you will need to provide military support on the ground to back-up a local leader.

    You would also have to deal with the, apparently most military capable, rebels from Al-Nusrah.

    Also, the Syrian people have democracy and all the joy in the world to look forward to – remind me the West’s reaction to the overthrow of a democratic Government in Egypt by the army?

    The whole thing is a mess and the only thing that will come from half-baked intervention is the status quo at best and at worst…..

    This is a regime with powerful patrons who are active players in the Great Game – welcome to the reality of the 21st century. Power is passing from western democracies to immature democracies and dictatorships.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 7:02pm

    @Steve Way
    Would speed and Bill le Breton’s beaches and bacardis solve it? Or a leaflet drop? Internet announcement? Statement by the rebels. Other options?

  • @Richard Dean
    At this point I think the West has no viable options that will be effective. Iran or Russia may help, but the rhetoric between Iran and the US will probably count that one out and Russia US/UK relations are not exactly smooth at present are they?

    We can all keep scratching around for a solution that may not even exist, however, throwing a few cruise missiles over as a “slapped wrist” whilst looking for one appears to me to be among the worst options currently available.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 7:28pm

    I wonder if the present Russian position will result in them losing their Tarsus base and access to the Med in the long term? Sooner or later Syria will be free, and a free people is unlikely to look kindly on a country that supported their oppressor.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 7:33pm

    @Steve Way
    Are you recommending that we simply give up?
    I hope this is not a LibDem habit – think wishfully for a bit, then give up at the first sign of a problem?

  • Richard Dean

    Do you think Syria will ever really be free?

    Free like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt? Free if they are clients of the US but woe betide they try to put someone else in Government. Iran was relatively free in the 50s – what happened there?

    When the death squads were killing in South America – was there any protection of their populations.

    Before we start talking about ‘free’ we need to look at ourselves, especially our American cousins

  • @Richard Dean
    Absolutely not, just that we do not push the fire button and then find that a better solution is then no longer available. Once we start to join in the killing (and that is what we will do there are no surgical strikes at the business end) the options for us to be part of a brokered solution are minimal.

    And we also need to be realistic and accept that whichever way this ends up there will be people with innocent blood on their hands involved in any solution. Assad may have used weapons we find abhorrent but the rebels are not a bunch of idealistic freedom fighters. Having seen the results of conventional weapons I can verify that those killed by them are just as dead, and their lives should not be valued less.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 8:08pm

    @bcrombie. We cannot help Syrians in the wish to be free because we think Saudis are not free? That seems a very peculiar argument.

    @Steve Way. Rebels fight. George Orwell did it in the Spanish Civil War. Here is a Syrian “who left his village near Dara’a after seeing his son and nephew shot dead in front of him”:

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '13 - 8:09pm

    The lesson from Iraq re the old regime is, alas, a beach for the leadership 100, but the rest must not be alienated and are needed. As you Richard say you can’t send them all to the beach, but if you don’t incorporate them they go guerrilla and also then there is nobody left who knows how the country runs in detail.

    The big block on all this is the system that produces vanity among Western leaders that they must orchestrate a solution.

    The ‘leave’ in cricket is a shot.

  • Richard Dean

    How do we make the Syrians free then – and if they decide to become a client of Iran will we be happy with that?

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Sep '13 - 8:18pm

    Well, the French have seemingly shot down one of the arguements on here.

    “What proof is there that Assad gassed his own people last week”

    “The report and a video, drafted by French intelligence services, purports to show that forces loyal to Assad were responsible for the chemical attack that came from east and west Damascus and targeted rebel-held zones on 21 August”

  • A Social Liberal

    Like the word ‘purports’ – seen the video have you and the report?

    I love the way that the prosecutors in this case only show release evidence saying ‘we have seen and we conclude’. Is that proof.

    If it is so clear then release it to the people because at the moment none of the populations want to get involved. If there was clearcut evidence then it might help convince the populaces.

    Can a Government realistically go to war there is a large number against it – I think the only country where we see a majority for is Israel?

    There seems very little effort to convince us – at least for Iraq Powell showed some fake/misinterpreted stuff

    I am open-minded but very sceptical of anything that comes from Western Intelligence agencies – how can this convince me?

  • @Richard Dean
    I think you are clearly determined to misrepresent what is said. Whatever the cases highlighted by the BBC there is compelling evidence for atrocities on both (all) sides of this conflict. For every hero you find there likely will be a villain.

    Assad’s forces probably used Chemical weapons (although Ashdown was stating on the radio the other day he felt it likely to have been a rogue commander rather than a clearly ordered government strike). Assad clearly has the better equipment and the better trained forces. He also has a history of brutality to his own people. However, the rebels are not all George Orwell’s, some of them don’t just fight, they murder. Some openly support those that have attacked the UK and continue to attempt to do so. Overly simplistic views of this conflict will not help end it sooner.

    I doubt George would have forced a child to take part in beheadings..

    We need to find the best route forwards to safeguard as many Syrian civilians as possible, in a lawful manner. Cameron’s ill judged attempt to push a timetable for action ahead of the UN process backfired. Whether true or not it gave the appearance of us dancing to the US tune when tying to solve a problem in a region they are none too popular in.

    There may never be justice for that man’s Son and Nephew or the many thousands like them on all sides. That is the nature of conflict and always has been. Worse than that the killers, but more likely those that sent the killers, could end up in positions of authority in a post conflict deal. We can try to insist on Assad going on trial, but that may never happen. If that is the price required for peace it should be for the Syrian people to weigh up whether it is a price worth paying. After all I lost a number of friends and colleagues to the PIRA in the 80’s and there are former senior members in Government in Northern Ireland.

    The most pressing issue for us remains what is the best course of action to avoid further civilian bloodshed, whatever weapons are used. If I thought that was military intervention I would support it, those that do have yet to make a compelling case.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Sep '13 - 8:52pm

    @Steve Way
    We cannot do anything about over 1000 civilians gassed by Assad, because the other side is bad too (though nothing like on the same scale)? Another very peculiar argument.

  • Richard Dean

    But what are we planning to do?

    If there is no regime change does it materially change anything, and what do we do if it does it again? You say you want a ‘free’ Syria but who do you think will replace Assad, and do you think it will end the war? This has nothing to do with Syria, it all about the Great Game – essentially Iran vs Saudi Arabia but with the nuclear powers sticking their noses in, and religion complicating it.

    In that case the fact the other side is bad does make a difference.

    If you can provide enough evidence that it was Assad, that we could thrown in some cruise missiles and he will suddenly start behaving then great (although he should also be aware that the ICC awaits) then great.

    Unfortunately there isn’t the evidence yet and it is very optimistic that cruise missiles will make a material difference

    As to 1000 victims, I have seen so many random numbers on this I admire the precision but doubt the accuracy. France said more than 200, Cameron said 300 and Kerry 1400. What is the number – how good are the sources if they don’t know the difference between 200 and 1400!

  • @Richard Dean
    Again you deliberately misrepresent what is said. I have been clear that we should be trying to find an effective solution. By the way, Atrocities are not judged on scale by those who suffer them, only by outsiders. The family torn to pieces takes no comfort from being affected by a “small” atrocity.

    I personally would still have all options on the table, Cameron blew that. But I would not attack at this point, or at any point until a clear objective is available that has a tangible and positive outcome.

  • @jedibeeftrix
    “Trouble is, someone needs to take the hard decisions, and that has always been something the international community has confidence we will do.”

    What hard decisions did we make during:
    A) the Rwanda massacres,
    B) the ongoing and vast Congo conflict ,
    C) Bosnia prior to Madeline Albright embarrassing the US into action,
    D) the Vietnam War?

    Face it, if the US – not us – had announced last week it was not getting involved in Syria, we would not be having this discussion at all.

  • I do feel we should be making some hard decisions. Perhaps one, as Shirley Williams has espoused, would be to offer Iran a chance to take a prominent role. The US would hate it, but they have the ear of Assad and could be a broker. They also have come out openly against the use of chemical weapons which, considering their experience in the Iran / Iraq conflict is understandable.

    Of course back then the US were supporting a certain Saddam as he waged war regularly using Chemical Weapons…

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Sep '13 - 11:50pm


    You talk about US/UK intelligence services, but it isn’t those services saying they have satallite imagary is it? No doubt since it has been declassified in order for it to be disseminated we will see it and you and your refutenik friends will turn in to imagary experts and say it proves nothing.

  • David Allen 3rd Sep '13 - 12:27am

    There are two sides to the debate here. One side says it’s all very simple, the West must go in all guns blazing and impose a colonialist form of order, and anything else is cowardice and moral irresponsibility toward the Syrian victims of Assad. The other side tends to say that it is all very complex. Something must be done, but not the crazy simplistic gung-ho response that Cameron, Clegg and Ashdown were calling for. That something might be appealing to Iran to intervene, or appealing to the Russians to intervene, or appealing to Turkey or the Arab League to take the lead, or taking the issue to the Security Council, or taking it to the General Assembly, or with Jonathan Fryer, seeking to set up a Geneva Conference to negotiate a settlement on the basis of the Responsibility to Protect.

    The way I have summarised things above makes it sound as if the “complex” side is almost as ridiculous as the “simple” side. It’s a great long laundry list of alternative possibilities, many of them depending on somebody else being more helpful than one might reasonably expect, a boggling range of possible options suitable for endless debate. If I wanted to deliver a bogus rhetorical knockout blow to the “complex” side, I would boldly state that it’s all a great big slavering mountain of dither, an excuse for chickening out and doing nothing.

    But I don’t want to do that. On the contrary, I would prefer to comment that the advocates of simplicity are failing to live with the complexity of the real world. Further, the reason why there are so many options on the “complex” side is not because people who love talk love to debate them endlessly. It is just that if the West adopts a slowly-slowly diplomatic approach, which is what it should do, then it will only find out gradually which of the many possibilities is actually one which is going to work.

    Diplomatic pressure starts with the West making it quite clear that as a last resort, military action is on the table. However, it is only what we shall do if all else fails, because of its manifold disadvantages. It is there to add to the pressure. Then – We should be talking to Russia, Turkey, Iran, the UN, and anybody else who we can cajole, threaten, bribe, or otherwise persuade to help create a peaceful resolution. Almost certainly, that means a Syria that stays in Russia’s camp but which stops murdering its own people.

    That is not, actually, a complex idea. It’s the third way, a way between starting WW3 and appeasing a tyrant, that we simply need to find.

  • @David Allen: The fact that so many possible courses of action have been suggested is a sign that we have not, as yet, run out of options. The onus on the war-at-all-costs battalion is to explain why those options should not at least be given a chance before resorting to armed assault.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Sep '13 - 1:11am

    Richard Dean

    But the majority of the Syrian people have other choices. Some of their choices are

    1. to continue to live in servitude
    2. to be gassed or otherwise murdered by Assad if they object
    3. to live in a refugee camp
    4. to join rebel forces
    5. to work secretly to undermine the regime in other ways
    6. to welcome an incoming liberating force
    7. …?

    7. To be murdered by the opponents of the Assad regime, on the grounds that if you are an Alawite, Shia, Christian, liberal Sunni etc, you are a heretic who deserves death.


  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Sep '13 - 1:18am

    Bill le Breton

    But secure access to the Med etc cannot be guaranteed to Russia if it allows the Assad regime to go under principally because Iran also has an interest in access to the Med and in replacing the Assad regime with one run by Islamic fundamentalists

    Er, no. Iran is Shia, and the Shias are backing Assad. Iran funds Hizbollah, and Hizbollah militants are joining with Assad’s forces to defend Shia shrines. See here for more.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '13 - 1:25am

    Matthew Huntbach

    That sounds like someone swallowed the Assad propaganda scare stories hook, line, and sinker.

  • David Allen

    Good post

    I would support a military action if we could guarantee the outcome and had support of the people.

    A Social Liberal

    Well where is this satellite imagery then, in fact where is any of the evidence? If the evidence is there then we have to look to the ‘sentence’ – and this is where it can get really complicated. Can you in some simple words explain what you would do militarily and what the situation in the days following this intervention.

    Also, what is the legal position without the discussion at the UNSC – remember the right to protect lies with the UN and not individual states. I thought the AG opinion was quite flimsy in this regard

    Refutenik – not necessarily, sceptical – yes

    And you were the person on here the other day defending the use of white phosphorus and other incendiaries in civilian areas……..

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 8:07am

    What would be my response to the Syrian governments inhumanity?

    *Take away the Syrian militarys capability in the following areas :-
    a)Delivery of chemical weaponry
    b)Command and control
    c)Heavy artillery and armour.

    Personally I would also set up safe areas for Syrias civilians on both sides which would necessitate no fly zones.

    As for the jibe about WP and incendaries. I do not advocate their use in civilian areas, I merely point out that if a nations military in a war situation commits the war crime of deliberately setting up its defences in amongst civilians (in other words not clearing the civilians from the fighting area) then under the Geneva Conventions the opposing forces can attack the defenders using all means.

    Personally, I would rather other nations armed forces took the same stance as the British Army in the Falklands, they ignored the forces placed in amongst the civilian population in Port Stanley. But I will not condemn any forces who in the face of war crimes as detailed above use all means at their disposal. Change the law and I will happily begin to condemn those attacks.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '13 - 8:12am

    Thank you Matthew. The divide between Iran and Al Qaeda is not as clear as all that:

    But even so, does it change my logic that if the Western powers really want to help this situation they have to provide an incentive for Russia especially, and a means of assisting moderating forces in Iran.

    News overnight that Obama may be upping the military action to provide a significant degrading of the Assad regime’s military capability (not just its capability re chemical weapons) is even more likely to create a vacuum in which Al Qaeda and Hez (proxy for Iran) are able to achieve a shared objective: Islamic supremacy and domination.

    A chosen battle ground for the defeat or submission of the ‘enemies of God’, included among whom are the US, the UK and Israel, is Syria.

    We still have not heard from the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs team what their near and longer term ‘policy’ is other than the very short term one of ‘limited military action’ to deter Assad’s use of chemical weapons. A policy it would seem which is now NOT going to be offered by the US.

    I wish Kishwer hadn’t decided against engaging here on LDV with our genuine concerns about Liberal Democrat strategy and I invite her to return, I beseech her in fact – given her experience and her position within the Parliamentary Party.

    Until our spokespeople do so, then, Little Jack Paper’s point above is unanswered: “At times the argument has skated treacherously close to asking, ‘how dare anyone disagree.”

    Well, now the President of the Unitied States disagrees and wants to go further. Will the leadership shuffle to his side? And at what point would it say, ‘No that’s too far?’

  • @ A Social Liberal
    The French report does not address the key issue relevant to us as Liberal Democrats which is are the SRA using chemical weapons. Carla del Ponte (good evidence) says they are and we have a video purportedly of this (of questionable origins). There is, however, no enthusiasm for checking who is on the video. It would be very revealing if it turned out purely to be Assad propaganda and the people involved were Assad supporters. There is, however, no enthusiasm to address or even deny the claims that the SRA used chemical weapons. Even are own ‘Social Liberal’ does not address this. Superficially it appears that both sides are using chemical weapons.

    My interest in this is not in international affairs. It is the sheer insult to my logical facilities that has caused me to post. I have never posted on international issues before. In my view this is an Asch moment and as Lib Dems we have a responsibility to question this.

    I am broadly against intervention but cannot understand why we as a party have chosen to pick on the issue of gas when we could look very foolish if, as seems likely, it turns out that the SRA used gas too. How will we be trusted in the future if it turns out that there were videos of the SRA launching chemical attacks and we ignored them ?

  • Let me lay my cards out clearly. I am against military intervention, because I’m a Quaker and a pacifist.
    However, let’s look at the reality here.
    1. The USA has proof that chemicals were used in Syria, but no-one has concrete proof that it was the regime that used it. The parallel with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction is clear and the electorate is absolutely correct to be skeptical of any such claims. It is most certainly in Al Qaeda’s interests to have the world believe it is the Assad regime using chemical weapons.
    2. A military response will kill thousands of innocent men, women and children (‘Collateral damage’). Where is the punishment for the Assad regime in that?
    3. The defeat of Assad will lead to another fundamentalist regime in the Middle East. This is not to say I have any brief for the dreadful Assad regime. One bad regime will simply be replaced by a different bad regime.
    4. The track record of intervention is not good, especially in the Middle East. Who can sensibly argue that Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya are better following intervention?
    5. The world has not even tried some of the non-military options, like a total ban on arms shipments, freezing of the regimes external bank accounts.
    6. At the end of the day, the civil war in Syria will be resolved by talking between the parties, not by military action.

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 8:36am


    could you link the report to me as I have been unable to find it on the net.

    Many thanks

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '13 - 8:45am

    If the news from the US is correct, Mission Creep has begun. Will Clegg condemn it and disassociate us from it?

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 8:54am

    Mick FT

    2) I’m sorry but I do not accept that thousands of civilians will die at the hands of any military intervention. Take a look at the report by Human Rights Watch on deaths by Allied actions – at the most less than 600. I am not suggesting that this is acceptable, but putting such figures up is similarly not so.

    5) Whilst Russia and Iran are supporting Syria with their arms supply, the point is moot. Similarly with the freezing of assets.

    6) Quite right, but it will only be military action or the threat of it that will bring the Syrian government to the table.

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 8:55am

    I apologise.

    In point two I forgot to mention the conflict alluded to – in this case Kosovo.

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 8:56am


    Care to expand on the post?

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '13 - 8:57am

    Who can sensibly argue that Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya are better following intervention?

    It’s perfectly possible that they are. We only have one reality. We can only speculate whether things would have been better or worse if reality had been different. We cannot know.

  • daft ha'p'orth 3rd Sep '13 - 9:10am

    @A Social Liberal
    If you mean the French report, it is on the French govt website – and many thanks to them for sharing it:
    It essentially lists substances held by the regime, delivery methods available to the regime, observations of recent testing and recent events. Their discussion of the August event concurs with everybody else’s view that sarin was used and suggest that it also coincided with reported military movements on the part of the regime.

    Whilst a useful document it is not perfect. Some of the points made could do with a little more support. For example the following phrase is dumped into a separate paragraph of the last page in a slightly incongruous manner, where it really needs a little expansion ‘au demeurant, il est clair, à l’étude des points d’application de l’attaque, que nul autre que le régime ne pouvait s’en prendre ainsi à des positions stratégiques pour l’opposition.’ On the scale of internet argument that’s a little like ‘Yeah, it’s photoshopped, I can tell from the pixels’.

    As regards the rebels it simply says that they don’t believe that the opposition has the ability to lead an operation of that scale, that they wouldn’t be able to store or handle chemical agents, particularly not on the scale of the August attack. @Ed Joyce is correct – it dismisses the issue of whether the opposition have used such weapons in a single paragraph (‘they wouldn’t know how’).

  • @A Social Liberal
    “Take away the Syrian militarys capability in the following areas :-
    a)Delivery of chemical weaponry
    b)Command and control
    c)Heavy artillery and armour.”

    I believe there are significant problems with achieving a) and c):

    a) Chemical Weapons are some of the easiest to deliver and delivery can be through equipment not strictly military in nature. For example introduction into the water system, or aerosol dispersal from either ground level or via any air asset. Most larger mortar’s, any artillery and or course rocket systems. They can even be used as a secondary to any IED (in the same way radioactive substances can create a dirty bomb). Therefore to eliminate or degrade the delivery systems is probably not a viable goal for a limited attack.

    c)Syria has significant armed forces. Any attack to reduce their armour / artillery capability would have to be on the lines of the protracted air campaign prior to the Gulf War in 1991. This would be complicated by the fact that the air defence systems employed in theatre are vastly more capable than in Iraq.

    Command and control is an option. However, with the notice that has been given any competent regime (and Assad maybe a monster but he is not a fool), will have dispersed the functionality and provided local commanders with autonomy to act should communications be lost. As Paddy was raising the possibility of the attack being the result of a “rogue” element then this may be entirely counterproductive. It remains however the best of the military options…

  • A Social Liberal

    Okay that is clear on what you would want to see happen.

    This will need UNSC support (right to protect lies within the remit of the UNSC as well not individual countries) which I doubt it will get from Russia – the so-called ‘unreasonable veto’ – and then we would be into legal opinions before the army will act. We are also at risk at beng accused of ‘mission creep’ and régime change

    In order to get that action the Government needs to go to the HoC and get the support, which isn’t definitely there and public opinion is still against. It would be an interesting vote as it would really see where the parties are.

    Would you support the Government going back for this vote based on the evidence so far produced (more than last Thursday) and after UN deliberation – it is only the Tories saying no vote is possible?

    In the case of defeat would you support Cameron using the prerogative to attack?

    I have read the French document and it is like the others, based on assumptions and circumstantial evidence but light on verifiable fact. It may build up a body of evidence that in itself may be supportable, but will it be supported by Russia/China or the HoC or the pouplace?

    It would really help if there was more concrete information. Who fired from where using what rockets and which agents? How many died and where – who verified the casualties? Who gave the order? Let this be shared and we can judge.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '13 - 10:05am

    Mission creep is developing through the change of mission, from the Obama/Cameron/Hollande concept of a short sharp shock punishment for the use of chemical weapons, to the John McCain concept of upgrading rebel capabilities and degrading regime capabilities. One option apparently is to attempt to destroy Syria’s Scud missiles.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '13 - 10:43am

    Social Liberal, as I understand it, Nick Clegg’s stance (repeated in his recent letter to members published following the Parliamentary votes here on Sunday ) is to quote him, “My own views are well known: that there is a humanitarian case for the UK to be prepared to participate in multi-lateral, legal, targeted military action in Syria, aimed at deterring the use of chemical weapons.”

    Although he accepts the ‘will of Parliament’, the sentence above is an expression of his position leading up to and in the debate on Thursday.

    The key words in the position are ‘targeted’ and aimed at ‘deterring the use of chemical weapons’ by which supporters of this policy believed this meant strikes against chemical weapon capability. Supporters of this line also denied that their policy would lead to mission creep beyond those ‘limited’ aims.

    Last night (our time) Senator McCabe spoke with the US President and afterwards spoke to the public, but also rang former vice chief of staff of the US Army, General Jack Kean, if we are to believe him, who was about to give an interview to the BBC. Podcast of interview here

    The General reports the President as having indicated to Senator McCabe that the proposed action will not now be limited to deterring the regime’s use of chemical weapons and being punitive but will now aim at degrading the regime’s systems and military capability generally (fixed assets and where possible mobile assets), and ‘upgrading’ the capacity of the opposition with the strategic aim of tipping the balance towards them.

    This is the creation of a vacuum with the hope that it will be the good guys in the opposition who will fill the void.

    If this is the case this is a considerable change to the strategy of our ‘closest’ ally. Is our leadership in support of that shift? Is it moving from its stated position during last Thursday’s debate. If it is not and if the President voices this position publicaly, will the leadership distance itself from that position?

    This all comes as no surprise to many of us here who believed that ‘limited’ objectives were impossible but have argued that the great danger is mission creep and the escalation of this horrific situation into a regional war – with the destruction of yet more decent lives resulting from such incautious action.

    That is what sleepwalking is really all about.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '13 - 10:48am

    For McCabe, see McCain – sorry, it’s the cricketer in me, Bodyline Series.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '13 - 12:28pm

    I wonder if the John McCain concept – upgrading rebel capabilities and degrading regime capabilities – might seem more worthwhile to US voters, and so have a greater chance of being accepted by the people and their representatives? Removing Scud missiles might seem like a better idea than a slap on the wrist.

    Part of the degradation is perhaps already delivered, since Syrian troops are using up time and resources moving to defensive positions that they would not have otherwise have taken – a move that presumably also worsens the refugee situation.

    Part of the deterrence may also have been delivered, since another chemical attack by the Assad regime would presumably tip the balance against them in UK and other law-making institutions. Or is this wishful thinking? And would the Assad regime recognize this?

    The Civil War is a result of the political incompetence and paranoia of the Assad regime in responding to largely peaceful demonstrations in Syrian cities and towns two years ago. Should we expect the regime to have developed any new competence? Their wild statements about the possibility of a regional war may be just that – paranoid and flawed.

    Maybe this is, after all, the time to move towards an aim of regime change? Could it be an opportunity for all of the countries that border Syria to get together and make a joint effort towards that goal? And should we welcome and support such local-led action?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Sep '13 - 1:03pm

    Richard Dean

    Matthew Huntbach

    That sounds like someone swallowed the Assad propaganda scare stories hook, line, and sinker.

    Do you think this is all Assad propaganda?

    If half the Muslim population of any western country were forced to flee in fear of their lives, what would be the reaction in the Muslim world? So why is there so much indifference when it’s the other way round?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Sep '13 - 1:15pm

    Richard Dean

    The Civil War is a result of the political incompetence and paranoia of the Assad regime in responding to largely peaceful demonstrations in Syrian cities and towns two years ago.

    Yes. I agree. But so far the UNIVERSAL pattern across the middle east since it happened in Iran is that every uprising against a cruel regime has resulted in the liberals who might have been prominent at the start getting squeezed out, and religious extremists taking over.

    If what you would like to happen in Syria had happened in Iraq, once Saddam was deposed, a new tolerant and democratic regime would soon have arisen. Those of us who opposed intervention in Iraq would have been shown up as fools, defenders of a cruel dictator, isolationists who would not take responsibility. Tony Blair would have been feted as a hero, and we would have slunk off in shame.

    It didn’t happen like that, did it? But back then there was far more reason to think it would. That is why I have always defended Blair against attacks made on him over Iraq. I think he genuinely thought it would all turn out well. I myself was in two minds, supportive of the idea that overthrowing what was probably the world’s cruelest dictator would turn out well, and contemptuous of Trots and Trot fellow-travellers as most LibDems were over this who opposed him. As it happened, my mind was changed by what I heard in opposition to intervention coming from Christian leaders, warning of just what came to be. Although, yes, I am a Catholic, this is the only case where I can truly say I changed my mind on a political issue because of what the Pope said.

  • @ A Social Liberal

    The following video shows an alleged chemical attack

    The source is questionable (Assad ?) but surely we should be trying to
    show that these are Assad’s soldiers or are we not sure ?

    If this is a chemical weapons attack it really does not seem that big a technical challenge. How can the French credibly say that the rebels would not be capable. I have an awful feeling that at some point we as a party are going to look very stupid if we appear to have believed the French intelligence services who may be biased. I don’t say that this means that we should not be involved, although I don’t support it. I just resent this brutal assault on common logic.

    We need to be clear whether we are really saying that there is no likelihood that the SRA are capable of this. If people are representing these views on behalf of our party please make them credible. Remember we have to argue this case on the doorstep and we just look credulous if we repeat this line of argument

  • Richard Dean 3rd Sep '13 - 1:36pm

    BBC News says there are now 7 million refuges from this civil war, 2 million have left Syria and 5 million have been displaced inside Syria. That is 1/3 of the population. If a similar thing happened in the UK, the democratic government would have been toppled and a political solution would have been found long, long ago.

    The problem is the incompetence of the Syrian regime, and the solution to this dire crisis is to replace it. Sooner or later, either most of the 14 million un-displaced Syrians will conclude they have remove Assad, or the neighbouring countries will, or both. It won’t get better if no-one does anything about it.

    Our best bet seems increasingly like assisting the Syrian population and the neighbours to get rid of Assad. Which would mean assisting them to fight the short regional war that Assad fears. Ironically, it will have been the Assad regime’s incompetence and fear that will have caused that war.

  • daft ha'p'orth 3rd Sep '13 - 2:28pm

    @Ed Joyce
    I think what the French intelligence probably mean actually does make sense. They suggest that:
    * the rebels don’t have a great deal of coordination,
    * the rebels don’t have a lot of infrastructural support,
    * they don’t have much training

    Without training you probably could fire a weapon or set off a canister of something, of course – weapons wouldn’t be much use if you needed a PhD to make them go bang – but what you couldn’t do is service old gear or build anything new. Sarin apparently isn’t too tough to make given that Aum Shinrikyo managed it, but then they weren’t operating in a war zone, which must complicate things further. Sarin degrades over a fairly short period of time and needs redistillation, so you couldn’t keep it for very long either. In the search for factual background it would be interesting to know how pure the sarin used was.

    Anyhow, the French make a reasonable case that it is not likely that the rebels have been planning or executing sophisticated or large-scale chemical attacks, and less likely that they are responsible for the Damascus attacks. The Guardian says they’ve been told the chemical was dispersed by rocket in the case of the Ghouta attacks, so in the case of the French document (which discusses rebel capabilities only in the context of the Damascus event, although helpfully it discusses Assad’s priors…) the statements made by the French and media point to the regime as the likelier culprit for these attacks, and all other things being equal, assuming that the sources used are trustworthy throughout, that seems a reasonable point of view.

    Doesn’t mean that the opposition wouldn’t opportunistically use anything that they captured, or that somebody else gave them. Doesn’t mean they haven’t, even. Doesn’t mean the timing of these attacks is not optimal for groups opposed to the regime, of which there are more than one. Doesn’t mean that all other things are equal and that sources are trustworthy. So overall the situation remains clear as mud. It would be useful if the French document had greater breadth, for that reason, because where you have or suspect the presence of untrustworthy narration you have to start looking for solutions that do not depend on the narrators’ credibility.

    I do agree with Richard Dean that ‘if a similar thing happened in the UK, the democratic government would have been toppled and a political solution would have been found’, but am not personally convinced in this instance that working with the Syrian population requires, or benefits from, the US (maybe the UK) and France taking on the responsibility of regime change. If that process were to happen the UK shouldn’t ‘own’ it, any more than Saudi Arabia or the USA should in the hypothesized circumstances take responsibility for putting in place a new system of government in Westminster.

  • daft ha'p'orth 3rd Sep '13 - 2:44pm

    And apologies for double-posting, but for anybody who is looking for the French PDF, they have moved the report to

  • A Social Liberal 3rd Sep '13 - 6:54pm


    Not only is the source questionable the supposed delivery system is laughable. As a rocket (which it purports to be) I would think that it would start tumbling as soon as the propellant is ignited. As for the ‘rocket launching device’, it is just an old howitzer which in no way is anything to do with launching missiles.

    Even as a glorified rifle grenade it fails. The fins would have very little purchase given that the big bulbous bit at the front would displace the air.

    I am by no means an expert in the area, but I was around missiles throughout my military career – SS11, TOW, SNEB and Hellfire. The most charitable I can be is that this might fly in the same way as those launched depth charges did in WW2, and about as far. It would fly better if the bulbous bit was detatched from fusilage and fired from a device similar to the howitzers of the Peninsular war.

    Finally, do you honestly think that this kind of thing could hold enough sarin to kill over a thousand? That kind of death rate would need several scud or SS21 type missiles if disseminated that way.

  • I think the answer from ATF sums up the problem with the debate. There is an avoidance of the key question – did the SRA launch any chemical attacks at any point during the civil war. At no point have I or anyone else stated that this was used to launch the major attack last month, but we are still not sure if the SRA are using chemical weapons as Carla del Ponte intimated.

    We are going to look foolish if it turns out that the SRA use chemical weapons.

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