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This rush to war over Syria: have we learnt no lessons from Iraq & Libya?

Cameron has announced today that the government is indeed planning to take military action against Syria, the Commons is being recalled for Thursday, and no doubt bombing raids will then start straight away over the weekend.

This precipitate haste over such a critical matter which may well have dangerous and long-lasting consequences reflects the same drumbeat of war that seemed to make inevitable the West’s attacks on Iraq and Libya. Yet there are strong and solid grounds why this abrupt rush to war should be resisted.

First, the 20 UN inspectors now allowed into Syria have not had enough time to find conclusive proof of chemical weapon use, as the US State Department has admitted. Nor has it been proven beyond doubt that, even if chemical agents such as sarin were indeed used, the 18 or so shells were fired by the Syrian military rather than the rebels. The position is further complicated by the fact that the inspectors have been warned that their safety cannot be assured, so they have now withdrawn.

Second, the deployment of a gas attack against a largely civilian population is unquestionably a heinous crime from which the world recoils, as it did from the discovery that it had been used by Saddam in 1988 to destroy Halabja in the Kurdish area of Iraq killing 5,000 people. It has also been widely seen by all the Western allies – US, UK and France – as a red line that has been crossed which justifies fetching down draconian consequences on the perpetrators (whoever they may be).

But having said that, death by gas in the bestial nature of war is no different from death by bullets or bombs – they all kill. So given that around 100,000 persons had already been killed in the two years of this Syrian civil war, why wasn’t action – if that is the right response – taken much earlier. It seems a curious argument that a psychopathic dictator can kill 100,000 persons by conventional munitions with impunity, but not 1,000 persons with gas.

Third, would bombing, or any other lethal action, be sanctioned in this situation by international law? Would such action require sanction by the UN Security Council, which both Russia and China would almost certainly reject?

It still rankles with the Russians that they were duped by the relatively innocent-sounding resolution which the West pushed through the Security Council over Libya – which targeted action on the protection of civilian populations – was then blatantly used by the West for regime change.

Fourth, starting a war, as everyone knows, is easy, but exiting from it is quite another matter. It has taken 9 years to exit from Iraq and 12 years from Afghanistan, in both cases unsuccessfully. Syria is not another Libya since its military forces are far stronger and it has the crucial continuing support from Russia and covertly from Iran.

The West can no doubt inflict substantial damage on the Ba’ath regime and its infrastructure, but it would be foolhardy to pretend that it has the power to force Assad out. It could indeed have the opposite effect – revealing the declining power of the West and its impotence in removing even the grossest and most ruthless of tyrants.


  1. James Martin says:

    “It seems a curious argument that a psychopathic dictator can kill 100,000 persons by conventional munitions with impunity, but not 1,000 persons with gas.”

    It also seems curious that western politicians, particularly many on the left, fail to understand Syrian politics. Syria is in fact long been a multi-party state where a number of communist and socialist parties are part of the ruling coalition.

    This is not to ignore the political problems that exist and led to the uprising against the government, but it would be completely mistaken to compare Assad to Saddam Hussain, or even Gadaffi, in terms of the power structures within the respective countries at the times of imperialist intervention. For example, while like Cuba there exists a single union cordinating body, strikes against employers (and by default in the semi-nationalised economy, the government) have in the past regularly occured and without trade unionists being imprisoned or shot.

    And yet it was the economic direction of Assad that was the immediate spark for the initial uprising, as he (rather ironically for the western imperialist powers) started to liberalise the economy and dismantle the planned system and subsidies for things like wages and food.

    But whatever the initial scope of the rebellion, it long ago became the centre not for revolution but for a clerical-fascist counter-revolution, and it is that reactionary (and religiously sectarian) mess that Cameron, Clegg and Milliband are now lining up to support by force or arms.

    As to the specifics of the chemical attacks nothing has been proved one way or another, except to say that why would the Syrian government release chemical weapons in its own capital to coincide with the arrival of UN weapons inspectors? When at the same time they are winning the civil war by conventional means. Why? It makes no sense, unless you understand that just like ‘WMD’ in Iraq a decade ago this is a provocation by others (who are far closer to home), smoke and mirrors, and the Assad forces are not relevent one way or another in it except to act as the current patsy for the western powers permenant war in the region where at one place or time they will oppose Al Qaeda fascists, and at another (like now in Syria) they will support them.

  2. David Melvin says:

    Miliband at last has a firm policy. Labour could support a government motion for an air strike on Syria. Nothing has been learnt from the Blair years. The Labour leadership support the Con-Dem’s austerity, if they are now back to warmongering is the Labour Party any more than a job creation scheme for the Shadow Cabinet?

  3. Rob the cripple says:

    Nothing at all surprises me anymore, God god I now know how much of a good Politician Harold Wilson was.

    sadly the Tory Lite and the Tories will again use force and kill more then Assad could ever hope to do.

  4. James Martin says:

    Yes, good point Rob. Despite huge US pressures Wilson resisted allowing us to be dragged into the Vietnam war on the wrong side. Milliband is showing that he will resist nothing.

    Also relevant to note is that 49 years ago this month saw the US manufacture the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ where North Vietnam allegedly attacked the US navy. Of course no such attack took place, but the result was that the House of Representatives passed legislation by 416 votes to 0 that would lead directly to hundreds of thousands of civilians being killed by B52 carpet bombing of towns and cities across the north of the country, and into Cambodia.

    The latter led to Pol Pot – it remains to be seen what this latest ‘incident’ in Syria that is being used to justify western intervention will lead to…

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