The biggest victim of the campaign of strikes on Syria by the UK, US and France this week is not the already trampled on sovereignty of Syria. Nor is it the structural integrity of chemical labs or airfield runways.
Rather, the biggest victims have been: fact-led journalism and critical media coverage; democratic due process and parliamentary scrutiny; the freedom and quality of debate on military intervention; and the international rules-based order itself.
After Iraq, Libya and this week’s events, I don’t think I’ve ever trusted the British government less. And here are some reasons as to why:
1. Still no clear evidence of CW attack in Douma on 7/4.
The alleged chemical weapons (CW) attack that took place on 7 April in Douma, Syria has not yet been verified or confirmed by independent sources. There were no independent reports on the ground. We still do not have credible evidence of whether a CW attack took place and who could have been responsible. The World Health Organisation has been a much-quoted organisation but it has, itself, merely quoted hospitals that are under rebel control. Those groups are from one side of a multifaceted conflict. In fact, all of the open-source sources quoted to date are partisan and their claims still cannot be verified. Multiple actors, including the Syrian regime, have used chemical weapons in Syria before April 2018.
2. Non-conclusive evidence.
In fact, some of the materials presented as “indications” of regime culpability for the supposed Douma attack do not stand up to scrutiny. Some still images have been shown by a UK state-owned media outlet digital producer to have been manipulated. Meanwhile, the main video ‘evidence’ that purports to show the aftermath of the CW attack does not clearly show CW casualties. Rather, the video shows casualties of what could plausibly be dust inhalation. The Russians, who are obviously partisan in favor of the Assad regime, go as so far as to argue that they have identified key eyewitnesses from the video itself. Their eyewitnesses claim that the video depicts what was the aftermath of a conventional airstrike by the regime – not a CW attack by the regime.
3. No motive.
It’s been pointed out, even by two former UK military generals, that it’s hard to think of a motive that the Syrian regime would have had to employ CW on that date in that place, just as it was winding up its successful (bloody) fight against rebel groups in that part of Syria. In fact, some argue that it’s more likely that those rebel groups staged the CW nature of an actual non-CW regime attack, so as to give the West a pretext to bomb the regime. And there is little-mentioned open source reporting that indicates that the UK has been financially supporting the Army of Islam, one of the jihadi groups fighting the regime in that part of Syria. This should come as no surprise, as the UK has a colorful history of supporting militant Islamism.
4. No OPCW account of Douma incident
The UK’s expedition of the mission also conveniently meant that the strikes took place just a few hours before inspectors from the independent body, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, tasked to investigate the alleged CW attack in Douma were due to arrive in Syria to collect evidence. It’s not yet clear to what extent, if any, the strikes will have had in disrupting the OPCW investigation. But, at a minimum, the clear will to get ahead of the independently-gathered evidence suggests independent scrutiny of the facts was neither desired nor respected.
5. Syria and Russia wanted OPCW inspection
It’s ironic that the West alleges that the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, blocked UN inspections of Douma. This is a barefaced lie saturating Western media. In fact, Syria and Russia also called for OPCW inspections of the Douma attack.
6. The UK acted without Parliamentary authority.
Theresa May’s government broke the contemporary constitutional convention of giving Parliament a vote on the use of force in non-time-critical contexts. In fact, the BBC reports that May pushed its partners into expediting the attack timetable. This could well have been to make the most of parliamentarians being on recess and to outpace political opposition to airstrikes. A parliamentary debate would have raised difficult questions for which May couldn’t provide answers and would have likely ended up with a defeat in Parliament, especially given that polling suggests the public was firmly against airstrikes. In other words, May conspired with the US to disregard UK public opinion and sidestep parliament.
7. No Money?
No doubt one of the parliamentary arguments the government would have faced would have been on the raw economic cost of a UK military operation. The Conservative government have in recent years claimed as an all-in-one policy excuse that there is no ‘magic money tree’ upon which the government can call to fund social welfare as spending cuts have hurt the most vulnerable in Britain. These strikes on Syria, though, show that the government is able to find – and burn – hundreds of thousands of pounds in one night if it wants to. The lost opportunity cost of the attacks is grotesque, given the current domestic crises in health, housing and education.
Britain’s unilateral action against the Syrian regime only further extends the country’s involvedness in the Syria conflict, and will do nothing to minimise the domestic security threat faced from Islamist terror. In fact, the unilateral action is more likely to stoke hatred and radicalism and risk our safety at home. The strikes were clearly not in the UK national security interest.
9. Propaganda war.
The airwaves and wider corporate media have been saturated with potent pro-war, pro-intervention talking points for the last week – even in the so-called liberal media. Certain facts were established as a given, and debate was contained to a quarantined theatre with token critical thought.
Fundamental questions regarding the campaign were, in fact, seldom asked. Instead, softball and abstract critical talking points took their place. For example, rarely did we hear discussion over whether there was actually any credible evidence for the CW attack in Douma. The question of evidence was just an (unevidenced) given. Instead, we heard abstract critical questioning on the broader danger of sparking WW3, usually focussing on the all-consuming evocative political theatre of Donald Trump’s character and Tweeting style.
Certain unproven truths were established and the balance of discourse was in favour of intervention. Instead of hearing macro challenges to the UK’s role as an apparent world policeman, we heard comparably softball micro challenges as to whether there should be a parliamentary vote on intervention.
The complaint corporate media acted as both direct stenographers for the government and as high-end PR men deploying intellectual teargas. This came to a head when, on the morning after the strikes, Theresa May’s live press conference saw no more than trace elements of critical thought from corporate journalists in their questions put to her.
10. Dissenters = with Russia.
Attempts by token dissenters to call for evidence and cool- and hard-headed thinking were even sometimes met with insidious innuendo that their positions incidentally (‽) happened to ‘sound similar’ to Moscow’s account of the contested events. This tactic has been deployed for years and was used effectively this week to implicitly weaken critical dissent.
11. Information war: punch hard and fast.
The propaganda campaign was so successful that it managed to outpace political and media opposition. On the morning after the airstrikes, the Murdoch-owned Times of London newspaper ran with a final knockout punch for critical dissent. The frontpage saw a story accusing British academics of being ‘apologists’ for the Assad regime (read: traitors who side with ‘our’ official enemy). Why? For their asking probing evidence-oriented questions about what really happened in Syria. The message was clear: the existence of serious dissent will not be tolerated, even in obscure parts of academia.
12. Russian messaging weakness.
Meanwhile, the Russians’ informational efforts regarding the Douma attack ended up quite muddled. One minute the Russians claimed the attack didn’t take place; the next they claimed the attack was staged; later, they accused Britain of staging the attacks without providing any titbits of evidence. This made worse the toxic informational atmosphere in which evidence-based critical dissent from the Western line was more easily discreditable and ‘felt weird’ to media consumers.
13. Gesture strikes for distraction.
The strikes were not part of an explicit or implicit strategy to end the bloodshed in Syria. Rather, they were gesture strikes to be seen to put Syria and Russia in their places. But in the case of the UK and the US domestic political contexts, the strikes did succeed to create convenient political theatre to distract from domestic political crises (of weak and embattled premierships in both countries). In the UK, after ordering her illegal campaign, PM May won more composed-looking and stateswoman-like headshots across the corporate press, earning her a more presidential depiction in the media sphere.
14. Strike sites and intelligence.
There is also the bare question as to the military intelligence regarding chemical weapons capabilities in Syria. The US, UK and France say they exacted precision strikes on regime sites that obliterated CW production capabilities. But if they (or one of their allies – e.g. Israel) knew of these sites’ existence beforehand, why did they not inform the OPCW, the UN, or better still the global public? Why did they not use any evidence for a diplomatic- and justice-based approach to preventing the use of CW in Syria?
15. Non-toxic CW sites.
Curiously, at least some imagery from the aftermath of the strikes on alleged chemical weapons production sites shows bystanders on-site in non-protective clothing, suggesting that precautions were not needed against toxic substances, which undermines the notion that these sites were used for chemical weapons production in recent days.
16. CW suppliers and eradicators?
In fact, the UK has itself supplied the brutal Syrian regime, effectively, with chemical weapons capabilities. If the use of these weapons is so horrific, as the UK PM has claimed to justify her unilateral action, then why did the UK help arm Syria with this CW capability in the past? Because, of course, national interests are above humanitarian concerns.
17. Humanitarian Hypocrisy.
The UK and US have a track record of using sorts of chemical weapons themselves in combat, not only historically (think Agent Orange in Vietnam) but recently (think of depleted uranium in Iraq). The argument that these nations are actually led by a ‘humanitarian’ (!) concern regarding chemical weapons is the weakest part of their justification for unilateral action.
18. Humanitarian catastrophe… in Yemen.
In fact, the world’s greatest current humanitarian catastrophe is in Yemen, the UN says. And it is UK and US arms that are being used to kill thousands of civilians in Yemen. These weapons have been dropped on Yemen by its theocratic neighbour, Saudi Arabia, a regime that is provided with ideological and diplomatic cover by the UK and US. The argument that the UK and US care about dead children is patently absurd.
19. Shooting civilians in the back.
In fact, to further evidence the UK and US’ total hypocrisy on the issue of civilian deaths, one need look no further than those images of the Israel–Gaza border this last fortnight. We saw a journalist slain by Israeli snipers and Palestinians shot dead in the back by the UK and US ally. The Western governments did not call for any intervention, nor did they do more than squeak about Israel’s apparent violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
20. Syria bloodbath ‘intervention’.
The Syrian bloodbath is a multi-proxy war theatre led by cynical geopolitical national interests. The UK and US’ involvement to date has never been driven by an actual responsibility to protect or concern for civilian life. The US has thousands of troops in Syria, and the UK has also been at least indirectly involved in helping rebel groups fight the Syrian regime. As a framework for analysing this week’s events, one can say that, in terms of geopolitical interests, there is, very broadly: the US, France, UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia on one side; and Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah on the other.
21. Saudi pressure.
It just so happens that Prince MBS of Saudi Arabia visited the UK and the US and FR in the last several weeks, no doubt pressuring for strikes on Syria, where Saudi’s arch-rival, Iran, is getting a foothold as the conflict in Syria enters a new stage.
22. Trump’s explainable U-turn.
Just in the last fortnight Trump had announced an intended pullout of US troops from Syria. And then came this about-turn in which he reneged on his entire history of anti-Syria-intervention rhetoric and hastily struck Syria without congressional approval. In fact, the U-turn, and its timing, are not beyond rational explanation. Only in the last fortnight, since the drawdown announcement, the Israeli administration called out concern over the drawdown plans and pressured Washington for a rethink. Inside the White House, staunch Israel-supporter John Bolton happened to become National Security Advisor.
23. Israeli pressure.
Israel is not disinterested in its neighbour, Syria, or uninvolved in its so-called civil war. The Israeli administration sees the Iran–Hezbollah alliance as an ‘axis of evil’. Like Saudi, Israel surely exerted pressure on the US to strike the Syrian regime. Further than that, intelligence provided by Israel assisted US strikes on Syria on Friday night. As is the case with the Saudi headchoppers, the Israeli administration is also concerned with Iranian influence in Syria as the conflict morphs there.
24. Response? Retaliation?
What the UK and US and France did was neither a ‘response’ nor a ‘retaliation’, as it has so often been referred to in this week’s media coverage. The UK, the US and France were not targeted in Douma in April. Their unilateral action was not a retaliation to a military challenge against them. And it wasn’t even a ‘response’ to an independently verified event.
25. The strikes were illegal.
Finally, international law is clear. The UN Charter allows for the use of such force in two cases: in self-defence or when agreed upon by the Security Council. Neither case applied here. The whole ‘bombing Syria to save Syrians’ argument put forward by the United States, France and Britain doesn’t stand up in international law. The unilateral action was a breach of international law and no less of a bandit act than the alleged CW attack it was supposedly ‘responding’ to.
26. International norms‽
The UK has frequently repeated the notion of ‘international norms’ being trampled upon by the Syrian regime’s alleged use of CW in Douma on 7 April. If proven, such a use of CW by the regime would, indeed, be a war crime and a crime against humanity. However, evidence is yet to be provided. But, ironically, the #SyriaStrikes themselves, in breach of the UN Charter and in flagrant violation of international law, were the real corrupters and weakeners of international norms this week.