David Cameron: humiliated

Syria: War bid hits buffers

The UK will not be taking part in any punishment strikes on Syria for now, but the threat of imperialist intervention remains, writes Paul Demarty

A week, as they say, is a long time in politics. Some weeks, however, are longer than others, and the hasty attempt of David Cameron to commit the UK to joining the US-led strikes on Syria hit the buffers almost as soon as it got into gear.

We are not out of the woods yet, of course. An unlikely coalition of the parliamentary Labour Party and rightwing Tory dissidents may have inflicted on Cameron a humiliation he will not soon forget; and it has pushed Obama into seeking the approval of congress for strikes; getting the go-ahead is hardly an impossibility for him, but not a gimme either, given the disruptive habits of Republican lawmakers. (Perhaps suspecting a difficult time, John Kerry has made it clear that Obama is the ultimate authority on whether or not to go to war.)1

Not many MPs, however, need to be prodded into changing their minds for the next Commons vote - should there be one - to turn out in Cameron's favour. His whips, should any be left alive after this debacle, will not let it happen again.

For now, there is time for all sides to regroup. Congress will not discuss the issue until it reconvenes on September 9. In the meantime, UN weapons inspectors will (no doubt sincerely) do their level best to get to the bottom of things; Bashar al-Assad will prepare his forces (many troops, planes and missiles have already been moved to secure locations), and allies such as Russia and Iran will make contingency plans, in the eventuality of a western strike; the war itself, above all, will continue, be the arsenals of either side chemical or conventional.

The inspectors have their work cut out. They cannot truly do more than assess whether, as is likely, a sarin gas attack took place in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and perhaps whether other alleged gas attacks have taken place. Working out the responsible parties falls to other forces, none of whom can be trusted.

Much of the US and British intelligence, as often in these situations, comes from Mossad, which can hardly be called a disinterested party in this matter. There are counter- accusations that the Ghouta attack was carried out by rebels as a provocation, being put about mainly by the outlets of the Russian state. Others suggest, without any compelling evidence, that the whole thing was a terrible accident, or the action of a rogue commander of either side. The regime has the greatest capacity, but also the weakest motive, for carrying out this atrocity. Given this mess, we can be certain of only one thing - the supposed confidence of the British and American intelligence services that Assad must be responsible is yet another instance of them pulling a fast one. They know no such thing. It is nothing more than the best available educated guess.

Such a fast one, in fact, that it failed even to convince Ed Miliband - let alone the war-weary population, who in poll after poll overwhelmingly oppose any action. This, at least, is encouraging. The residual anti-war sentiment may be cynical rather than insurrectionary, isolationist rather than internationalist, but the fact remains: the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan have made further 'humanitarian interventions' a harder sell, especially when there is a suspicion that evidence is being manipulated. The cultural memory of the anti-war movement, at its peak bigger than any movement in British history and hardly insubstantial elsewhere in the world, probably helps too.

There is also the small matter that not a huge proportion of the imperialist establishment seems convinced of the wisdom of this move. Cameron was at pains to stress how 'limited' the aims of any strikes on Syria would be - but was so convincing that one might reasonably ask what the point was. Perhaps the 'best' that could be done in a short, sharp shock of air strikes would be to take out Assad's own air capabilities; but with the assurance that no further consequences would be forthcoming, Putin would hardly be dissuaded from sending over a few more Migs. Rarely has imperial posturing looked so empty.

Cameron's former defence secretary, Liam Fox, not known for his dovish tendencies, wondered if Cameron really wanted the Syrian opposition to win, and thereby have access to the chemical weapons we are all so concerned about - and, if not, how would America and Britain stop them from getting those stockpiles without far greater involvement than was ostensibly on the table? Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, voiced concern over potential reprisals against Syria's Christians, who for reasons both historical and immediate tend to support Assad. It is safe to say that if you have offended a posturing clergyman and a wild-eyed Atlanticist like Fox in one go, your casus belli probably stinks.

Jack Straw put it particularly sharply, in his speech in parliament and on The Guardian website afterwards: "On Thursday, [Obama] described his plan as a 'shot across the bow' of the Assad regime. Words have meaning. Shots across bows produce no damage, no casualties. It was an extraordinary metaphor to choose; a euphemism which was bound to obscure further exactly what the president had in mind."2

Out of control

Behind the very obvious farcicality of this entire episode lurks, one suspects, a bit of wisdom on the part of the American and British state machines. It is transparently obvious, to all concerned, that the Syrian situation is spiralling out of control. The rebels, if ever they were unified, are certainly not so now.

The Al-Nusra Front, an organisation of al Qa'eda sympathisers officially designated as terrorists by the US and other western countries (and who certainly fit the dictionary definition of that much abused word as well), is growing in strength. A split from the above, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is acting as a lightning rod for foreign jihadis. Some sources suggest that local populations - provided they are from the correct sect, of course - have come to prefer ISIS to the 'official' Free Syrian Army, whose habits of widespread plunder and warlordism compare unfavourably to the honest fanaticism of the likes of ISIS. There are predictions of open clashes between ISIS and the FSA, following the former's targeted assassinations of FSA commanders, adding a whole other bloody dimension to the conflict.3

The exact balance of forces is open to argument, but it is hardly a surprise that a movement in which Islamists of various stripes were dominant from the beginning should produce, in deepening conditions of civil war, a fighting force of such a sectarian character. Sectarianism is written into the Syrian situation, thanks to the divide-and-rule tactics of the former colonial powers, of course, but it is also worth noting that such arms as the rebels can get come overwhelmingly from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other reactionary regimes in the Gulf, and thus find their way invariably into the hands of Islamists, be they 'extremists' or 'moderates'.

Assad's pseudo-secularism, meanwhile, has been thoroughly shown up by events, threadbare as it was before the war. The Alawite ascendancy is very much still in place in his regime; and his closest regional ally is evidently the Iranian Shia theocracy, along with its tool, Hezbollah.

The very name of ISIS points to a more troubling prospect still. Syria is a powder keg that could detonate the entire Middle East. The involvement of Hezbollah, coupled with geographical proximity and fatal historical entanglements, means that the Lebanon is getting rapidly sucked into the maelstrom. Iraq has already been decomposed by the US-UK invasion, is in any case subject still to regular suicide attacks and so on, and has ended up with an Iran-friendly government with an obvious side in the Syrian conflict. Iraqi security forces have allegedly massacred over 50 members of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq group of Iranian exiles who were still living at their Al-Ashraf camp in Iraq - an event difficult to dissociate from developments in Syria and the concomitant rising regional tensions.4

Even in Turkey, which is a bastion of stability compared to the Arab countries, spill-over is not a minor matter. Tentative moves towards a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are complicated by the latter's fraternal organisation in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which appears to have struck some kind of non-aggression pact with Assad in the interests of greater autonomy for Syrian Kurdistan. Add a torrent of refugees to the mix and you can see why tensions are rising.



1. The Guardian September 2.

2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/ aug/30/syria-intervention-case-paddy-ashdown.

3. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2013/07/ syria-possible-battle-fsa-islamic-state-iraq-syria. html . The source, which should be treated with some scepticism, is the Lebanese paper, As-Safir, politically close to Hezbollah.

4. www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/ sep/1/least-47-iranian-exiles-killed-iraqs- camp-ashraf/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_ medium=RSS.