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SYRIA: Is UK Parliament Edging Towards Military Escalation?

‘Every religious minority in Syria—there are 23 of them—is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels, whom the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing their utmost to supply with weapons and money over the last two years.’ ~ George Galloway

Hands off

By Tim Hayward

Has President Assad used chemical weapons in Syria? In 2013, UK parliamentarians were not convinced. Asked to vote on military action, our representatives decided against.

Today, the same question arises again, but this time they may not get a chance to debate it.[1] We face the profoundly worrying possibility that this government could commit us to warfare without seeking or getting democratic approval.

So I want to highlight some points made by our representatives in 2013. [2] If they were true then, they could be as true or even truer now.

On 29th August 2013, UK parliament was recalled early from summer recess to vote on authorising military intervention in Syria. It was alleged that Syria had crossed President Obama’s ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. Prime Minister David Cameron came to the House of Commons to seek approval for military action.[3]

Cameron told parliament of a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and he presented a two page summary of it. The first question put to him, by Caroline Lucas, was why the full report was not made available.[4] He replied that the case for action ‘is not based on a specific piece or pieces of intelligence.’ He added, ‘intelligence is part of this picture, but let us not pretend that there is one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem. This is a judgment issue…’

In the JIC Chair’s judgement it was ‘highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.’

Cameron stated that he had ‘consulted the Attorney-General and he has confirmed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity.’ The standard of proof in criminal investigations involves eliminating reasonable doubt, and can be tested with respect to such matters as motive, means and opportunity. MPs were minded to test it because they thought they were being expected to take a lot on trustWhat does ‘highly likely’ mean, what is it based on, how is that judged, and is reasonable doubt eliminated?

Motive was a matter that bothered MPs. Peter Bone saw ‘no logic to this chemical attack and that is what is worrying some people.’ Julian Lewis noted ‘the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this’, adding, ‘as well it might be’, given that it would have been ‘the height of irrationality for him to do the one thing that might get the west intervening against him.’ Like Mr Godsiff, too, David Davis pointed out that ‘even the JIC says that this is an irrational and incomprehensible act’.

George Galloway asked what reason Assad could have to ‘launch a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on the very day on which a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team arrives there’.

Neither Cameron nor the JIC could answer on motive. By contrast, a clear motive could be attributed to Assad’s enemies, as David Davis pointed out: ‘it could have been done by the Syrian rebels with the direct aim of dragging the west into the war.’ He noted that ‘JIC discounted that last possibility’, but he worried it was not clear why.

It was on the grounds of means, not motive, that JIC judged it could rule out rebel responsibility. The JIC’s chair stated that there is ‘no credible intelligence or other evidence’ that the opposition possessed chemical weapons, so it is ‘not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale’.

Yet there were MPs who believed this claim to be false. David Davis noted that ‘the UN representative for human rights for Syria thought there was concrete evidence of rebels having sarin gas. There were reports that the Turkish authorities arrested 12 al-Nusra fighters with 2 kg of sarin gas, and other reports that Hezbollah fighters are in Beirut hospitals suffering from the effects of sarin gas.’ George Galloway was forthright in stating that ‘the Syrian rebels definitely had sarin gas’ and he highlighted the relative ease with which improvised forms of sarin can be produced without sophisticated lab equipment.[5]

On this point I think it is important to note that now, in 2017 a similar claim is asserted by UK government: there is ‘no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian Government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin.’[6] I am sure there would be MPs with concerns that this could be misleading.

Certainly, the reference to complexity suggests they are thinking of how military grade Sarin could perhaps only be produced by the Government; yet the actual evidence suggests the chemicals involved are other grades of sarin that can be made by rebels.

Given that the OPCW report is vague on precisely this point – whether it is sarin a ‘sarin-like substance’ that has been found where and by whom – the MPs could rightly pose some challenging questions. Those who had followed some of the debate by independent researchers would know to ask that information be released from the UK’s own labs on both the 2013 and the 2017 samples. The UK scientists would presumably know the chemical profiles of those samples, as would those in USA and Russia too.[7]

The fact is, that if rebels were understood to have Sarin in 2013, they would still have it now. Unless, of course, they had used it all, in which case a major premise of the UK’s government’s stance would be directly kicked away. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that with supply lines continuing to operate since 2013 they could have a great deal more by now.

In light of all this, would MPs, if allowed to debate, agree that rebel capability is ruled out?

But even if the opposition could have had the means, did they really have the opportunity? MPs would be aware that the incidents of both 2013 and 2017 occurred in areas over which the opposition were in complete control.  Evidence could be managed and produced by them to a great extent without external interference or observation.[8]This means that if they had sought to construct a ‘false flag’ operation, they could have had the opportunity.

Exactly how they would have done it involves considering some very horrific possibilities.[9] But if a possible account sounds ‘too horrific to believe’ MPs might still be wary of underestimating the horrors that some of those involved might be capable of.

So where might our elected representatives think evidence concerning motive, means and opportunity points today?

Would they be inclined to accept the view of the government that it is so likely Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks that we’d be justified in engaging in acts of war against Syria?

I don’t claim to know how the debate would go today, but we can reflect on how it went in 2013. Andrew Mitchell offered his ‘strong advice to the Government’, in view of doubts about whether the use of chemical weapons is unequivocally the work of Assad, ‘to publish in full the evidence’.

Julian Lewis argued that even if not all members could see the full report, at least The Intelligence and Security Committee should be allowed to, given that it had sufficient security clearance.

Ed Milliband found that evidence against Assad was not compelling, and John McDonnell agreed that ‘to say that “highly likely” and “some evidence” are not good enough’.

Richard Ottaway complained that all they’d been given was ‘bare bones’ with ‘no depth’. He endorsed the proposal that ‘the Intelligence and Security Committee could look at the JIC analysis, report to the House on the veracity of the intelligence and confirm that it agrees with the opinion in the JIC intelligence letter before us.’

Alasdair McDonnell expressed concern about acting ‘on the basis of uncertain or confused intelligence, particularly in view of possible consequences of action for the Syrian people, something Galloway urged the house to think about:

‘Every religious minority in Syria—there are 23 of them—is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels, whom the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing their utmost to supply with weapons and money over the last two years.’

So much hinges on the reliability of intelligence, and yet so little, in truth, is really known about it by those who uphold democracy in our country.

Surely, if we have learned anything at all from the recent history of UK intervention in the Middle East, it is that our leaders’ summary judgements about indirect reports of evidence can let us down, and very badly.


[1] See the worrying discussion of the use of the ‘Enabling Act’ to authorize military action without express approval http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40496773

[2] Source of Hansard references: http://www.parliament.uk Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons 29 August 2013 Volume 566 [Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 16 July 2013, on Developments in UK Foreign Policy, HC 268-i.]

[3] In the event, of course, Obama himself drew back from the direct confrontation with Syria. Did he know the evidence did not in fact support a justification for it, and congress could expose this fact?

[4] The Greens’ Caroline Lucas: asks ‘why he has refused to publish the Attorney-General’s full advice? Why has he instead published just a one-and-a-half-side summary of it, especially when so many legal experts are saying that without explicit UN Security Council reinforcement, military action simply would not be legal under international law?’ And the SNP’s Angus Robertson says ‘we have been recalled to Parliament because of potential imminent military action by UK and other forces. We have been called back four days before Parliament was to reconvene anyway, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that there was a high probability that intervention would take place before Monday. The UK Government expected that we should vote for a blank cheque that would have allowed UK military action before UN weapons inspectors concluded their investigations and before their detailed evidence was provided to the United Nations—or, indeed, Members of this House. Following our having been misled on the reasons for war in Iraq, the least the UK Government could have done was to provide detailed evidence. Frankly, they have not, as was underlined in my intervention on the Prime Minister earlier. … Surely we must have definitive evidence that the Syrian regime or opposition was responsible for the use of these weapons—with the greatest respect, that means not just two pages of A4 paper.’

[5] Galloway: ‘The Syrian rebels have plenty of access to sarin. It is not rocket science. A group of Shinto obscurantists in Japan living on Mount Fuji poisoned the Tokyo underground with sarin gas less than 20 years ago. One does not have to be Einstein to have one’s hands on sarin gas or the means to distribute it.’

[6] Statement by H.E. Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams, UK Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. 5th July 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/55th-special-session-of-opcw-executive-council

[7] According to a technically well-informed blogger, ‘There is ample evidence that (1) the Nusra Front was producing sarin, and (2) that the sarin used in Syria in 2013 was kitchen sarin that did not match the synthetic pathway used for Syrian military stocks. Mokhtar Lamani, the UN Special Representative in Damascus, had reported to the UNSG in March 2013 that Nusra was bringing nerve agents into Syria through the border at Azaz. The Russian lab that analysed environmental samples from the Khan-al-Assal attack in March 2013 reported that the sarin had been produced under “cottage industry” conditions. It’s likely that Porton Down had obtained similar results from their own analysis of a sarin sample from Uteybah, and were able to compare the Russian findings with their own (very helpful when trying to interpret mass spectrometry results on a complex mixture). This would have helped to establish the credibility of the Russian in this matter.

The phone transcripts of the Nusra team arrested in Turkey in May 2013 showed that they were buying sarin precursors in quantities of hundreds of kilos, including white phosphorus. The OPCW labs reported that the sarin used in Ghouta contained hexafluorophosphate. This indicates that the synthesis started with phosphorus trichloride or elemental phosphorus, and that intermediate reaction products were not purified at each step. The Syrian government’s sarin production started with trimethyl phosphite, bought in large quantities from the UK and India during the 1980s. Finally, Seymour Hersh has reported that the US, which fitted out the ship Cape Ray as a sarin disposal facility, obtained samples of the sarin binaries given up by the Syrian government and determined that their chemical profile did not match the Ghouta sarin.’ ‘On 29 August, just before the House of Commons met to debate the resolution for war on Syria, the UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a report to the Prime Minister stating that there was “no evidence for an opposition CW capability” and therefore “no alternative to a regime attack scenario”. Yet only one day later, Obama had been informed that both these statements were false. It’s clear that the UK defence lab scientists and defence intelligence officials were well aware that the JIC was misleading the House of Commons (a crime against the constitution) and that they resorted to passing information via the military chain of command.’ http://pundita.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/ghouta-sarin-gas-story-i-think-this-is.html

[8] The 2017 incident occurred at (or around) the time of a Syrian bombing raid at the area in question, and some MPs would surely ask how the rebels could have arranged for this. But, apparently, it would not have been as difficult as one might imagine. Given that air raids within a certain radius and timeframe could be known in advance, and given that various elements of testimony could also be prepared ahead, then mobilizing some key parts of material evidence on the day would not be logistically impossible. In fact, there are unresolved discrepancies in accounts of the timing of events on the ground in relation to the bombing from the air as well as surprising vagueness about locations of victims at key times. Independent researchers have discussed at great length every aspect of the reported incidents and seem to be coming towards the sort of view that became a consensus among them regarding the 2013 incidents.

[9] Attentive researchers have examined these and come to some extremely disturbing conclusions about these. Anyone interested is recommended to consult the collective findings and analysis of A Closer Look On Syriahttp://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Special:AllPages. I find this rather more exhaustive and realistic than Bellingcat’s recent hasty attempt to set out a reductio ad absurdum of what would need to be believed https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2017/07/04/khan-sheikhoun-false-flag-conspiracy-actually-mean/ .


Tim Hayward is a Professor of Environmental Political Theory, founding Director of the Just World Institute and the Ethics Forum. Beyond Edinburgh I administer the Political Theory Email List, including its facebook page and am a founding member of the Britain and Ireland Association for Political Thought. This article was originally published at Tim Hayward’s blog.

READ MORE SYRIA NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire SYRIA Files




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