Peter Oborne writes:
Almost two years have passed since Sir John Chilcot produced his 12-volume report on the lessons of the Iraq war. We collectively promised to learn the lessons. Last weekend it was as if the Chilcot report never happened. Britain, cheered on by a bellicose press and a largely docile Parliament, launched airstrikes that showed the same disregard for due process against which Chilcot warned.
Remember what Chilcot told us: ‘The judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction – WMD – were presented with a certainty that was not justified.’ He concluded: ‘the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. Military action at that time was not a last resort.’
Chilcot judged that Blair and George W Bush were mistaken to invade Iraq before the inspectors had finished their search for Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. It’s déjà vu all over again. Britain, France and the United States ignored the United Nations, international law and due process.
Remember Tony Blair and George W Bush’s lacerating contempt for Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors? We saw a repeat last weekend. When the bombing started the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was actually in Damascus and preparing to travel to the area where the alleged chemical attacks took place.
Britain justified our action by claiming that Russia vetoed UN Security Council resolutions for chemical inspectors to investigate what happened. These claims are disingenuous. It’s true that Russia blocked a proposal to create a new joint UN OPCW investigative mechanism which would have a new and broader mandate to apportion blame for any attack it concluded had happened. But it was actually Syria and Russia who asked for the OPCW fact-finding mission.
This is extremely significant. Had we wanted independent verification on this occasion in Syria surely we ourselves would have demanded the OPCW send a mission to Douma. Yet we conspicuously omitted to ask for it.
Britain and the US claimed on Monday that Russia and Syria are delaying the OPCW. Another dodgy assertion. Russia has stated that UN bureaucracy is to blame. Those familiar with the UN tell me that this claim is all too credible.
There are also question marks around the veracity of British and American assertions about the bombing raids. The US said it struck three known chemical weapons facilities in Syria – including at Barzeh and Jamraya outside Damascus. Yet the OPCW itself found these sites to have no chemical weapons as recently as last November.
In order to help prove the existence of chemical weapons, Theresa May said in her statement to Parliament on Monday that Asad’s helicopters were operating over Douma shortly before reports of a chemical weapons attack emerged. This was true, but completely irrelevant. Nobody disputes that bombings was occurring and that helicopters were in the area. The real question is, what was the payload? The alternative explanation of the incident offered by the Syrians is that conventional bombing caused it. The presence of helicopters is consistent with this explanation.
As for Mrs May’s excuse for not going to Parliament, it’s laughable. She cited security concerns, but Trump had signalled to the world as early as last Wednesday that there would be reprisals.
There are big questions here. Courtesy of Chilcot we all know that British and American intelligence were deeply complicit in the falsehoods told about WMDs to justify Iraq. We also know that the official justification for the intervention in Libya – that atrocities were about to take place in Benghazi – wasn’t true. In view of those twin disasters surely we all have a duty to be sceptical this time?
This makes it all the more important significant that we pay attention to the respectable voices who are questioning the government’s narrative of events. Former First Sea Lord Admiral West, former SAS commander Jonathan Shaw, and former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford have all made interesting contributions to the debate. They have either been ignored or been trashed. I wonder.
As a journalist I also dislike the character assassination which has been carried out against the only British journalist who has gone to Douma since the attack supposedly took place. This is Robert Fisk. I know he’s controversial and that he has made serious mistakes. Whatever else you say about Fisk, he has a massive record of reporting from Northern Ireland and the Middle East. He has won most prizes available to journalists including the Orwell Prize and the British Press Awards’ International Journalist of the Year seven times.
I’ve read his report from Douma, which I recommend. It seems even-handed and balanced. Fisk is not justifying the Assad regime. All he has done is to record testimonies from individuals including a named medic on the ground. This is important. Karl Marx said that history happened first in tragedy and second in farce. This time it could be the other way around. The gesture bombing in Syria last weekend was farcical. But next time farce could turn to tragedy.
It’s all too likely that there will a repeat of an alleged chemical attack. We are already painting ourselves into a position where we will have no choice but to launch much bigger attacks of our own, again based on the flimsiest of evidence.
I don’t claim to know what happened in Douma. But I do know from bitter and ugly experience that official sources and media narratives can’t be trusted. And I can see that we are making it easy for ourselves to be manipulated. So let’s not jump to conclusions. Let’s listen to those who challenge our assumptions.
We have a profound moral duty to doubt the official version of events. The next attack could take us into the regional conflagration which was only narrowly avoided last weekend. So let’s pay attention to the advice proffered by boring old Sir John Chilcott.