Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Known Unknowns

The following story appeared in the Mail on Sunday on the 15th April: 

A former head of Britain's Special Forces has challenged Theresa May's claim that President Assad was behind the chemical attack in Douma. Major General Jonathan Shaw said: “Why would Assad use chemical weapons at this time? He's won the war. That's not just my opinion, it is shared by senior commanders in the US military. There is no rationale behind Assad's involvement whatsoever. “He's convinced the rebels to leave occupied areas in buses. He's gained their territory. So why would he be bothering gassing them?”

Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, the ex-SAS and Parachute Regiment commander added: “The jihadists and the various opposition groups who've been fighting against Assad have much greater motivation to launch a chemical weapons attack and make it look like Assad was responsible. Their motivation being that they want to keep the Americans involved in the war - following Trump saying the US was going to leave Syria for other people to sort out.” 

His views were echoed by Admiral Lord West, former head of the Royal Navy, who said: “If I was advising President Assad, why would I say use chemical weapons at this point? It doesn't make any sense. But for the jihadist opposition groups I can see why they would. But one must give Theresa May the benefit of the doubt and trust she has seen some unequivocal evidence which leaves no doubt that Assad was behind the atrocity.”

But the ex-commander of the Army's chemical weapons regiment, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, said: “A sophisticated nerve agent was used at Douma, not just chlorine. Only Assad has the capability to produce these substances inside Syria. And using chemical weapons is his standard modus operandi.”

The Daily Mirror on Saturday carried this story about General Shaw. This offers an explanation for the way in which the General was suddenly cut off in mid-flow just as he was saying something which many viewers might not have expected from a senior, highly-experienced military officer whose courage and judgement are beyond doubt.

Who can judge its validity? In my experience broadcasters find time for what they want to show and don’t find time for what they don’t want to show. I was myself once abruptly dumped by Sky News after I had arrived (unpaid, and not in the expectation of monetary reward, since you ask) at their studio at their request at some inconvenience. But there. Who can ever say, without internal knowledge which we do not now possess? 

And there we are, back again, with this question of knowledge. Here we see two distinguished military leaders, men who have seen combat and have a good knowledge of politics. And they say, much as I have often done, that it made no military or political sense for President Assad to use Chemical Weapons either last week or earlier. Peter Ford, a former British ambassador in Damascus from 2003 to 2006 has frequently said the same, adding (presumably from personal acquaintance) that however bad Mr Assad may be, he is not mad. 

From this some shocking possibilities emerge. But I am not prepared to speculate about them because I have concluded that we must restrict ourselves to known, demonstrable, testable, falsifiable facts on this matter. Currently we have none. What we must repeatedly remind ourselves of is what we do not know. Jeremy Corbyn, in his speech on Monday, made a significant and common error in claiming knowledge on an issue where the matter is in fact unclear. He said: ‘As the Prime Minister will be aware, there were US strikes in 2017 in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Khan Shaykhun, for which the UN OPCW team held the Assad regime to be responsible.’

This is incorrect. The OPCW did not do so. It is not the OPCW’s job. The body which concluded that the Syrian state was responsible was the JIM (Joint Investigative Mechanism) which did so not on the basis of objective knowledge, for it had no conclusive knowledge at all - but on the basis of subjective opinion. This was why, as I understand it, the Russian Federation refused to support the further operations of the JIM and it has ceased to exist.

Sherlock Holmes, the great fictional detective, propounded two useful maxims for deduction. In the first, he warned that it is a capital error to theorise without data. In the second, in The Sign of Four, he said ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. Well, we have yet to eliminate anything because there has still been no independent scientific investigation of the claims. I am not prepared to speculate about it because I have absolutely no data, positive or negative, of such a thing having taken place. 

What is more, before forming any judgement on the Douma event I am committed to reading, though with very great care, the report which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will eventually produce. As readers here know, I think the reports of this body need to be read with extremely close attention and self-restraint, to be properly understood. 

Much in them is circumstantial, and most especially in the case of Khan Shaykhun, based upon second hand accounts form unnamed sources. Sometimes politically interested parties draw conclusions from them which are not justified by the actual text. To me they demonstrate mainly just how very difficult it is to be sure about such matters, when attacks take place on contested territory. 

It was also interesting last week to see James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, a craggy old US Marine General who is now US Secretary for Defence, , and the extraordinarily inexperienced Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, not quite seeing eye to eye on the question of evidence. Ms Haley was satisfied that gas had been used. Mattis said he believed Assad had used gas (I am not sure why he thought this) but stressed that he and the Pentagon did not actually know this, and deigned to mention the annoying fact that the OPCW had not yet begin their investigation at Douma. 

My guess is that General Mattis, despite his ‘mad dog’ name, is actually quite a wise person. He may even privately have suspicions similar to those of Admiral Lord West and Major General Shaw. And I suspect that he, perhaps supported by Mrs May and President Macron (I am being generous to them here), may have got the original attack toned down.

There has to be some explanation of the gap between Mr Trump’s fist-pounding rhetoric on Twitter and the very limited scale of the firework display we actually got. Someone somewhere pointed out that this was not the time or the place to test the effectiveness of modern Russian anti-aircraft missiles. The same someone must have mentioned the risk of Russian deaths, and the obligation this would place on President Putin to retaliate. 

Looking at the whole gallery of unprepossessing personnel now in charge in Washington DC, I think General Mattis looks like the sensible one. I’d like to relax over this, but there is a nagging, frightening problem about this, which is why I mentioned the speculation about the genuineness of the widely-accepted accounts of the Douma attack, which is bound to follow the raising of doubts over the claims by serious figures. 

We have seen the USA, Britain and France, all law-governed states with free media and parliaments, launching legally dubious (again, I am being generous here, since I suspect these attacks were illegal but will be without consequences because they have widespread political support and casualties seem to have been avoided) attacks on a sovereign state without any proof of the crime against which they are acting, and indeed deliberately not waiting for such proof to be obtained.

The more I think about this behaviour the more extraordinary it seems to me to be. Equally extraordinary is the willing, even enthusiastic and machismo-infected acceptance of it by politicians and media who, quite rightly, will often question American court decisions to execute persons who have been convicted of heinous murders after long trials and repeated appeals.

Imagine this frightening possibility, which arises from that rush to act without facts, on the basis of unverified and unverifiable reports. Might this be a temptation to those who oppose President Assad, to fake such attacks in future? If these major nations will act in defiance of law, and without waiting for verification, this must surely be such a temptation to any cynical person, and I think we may assume there are some cynical people in this conflict on both sides. If they can get the USA, Britain and France directly embroiled in the Syrian civil war, who will pay much attention if a month later the OPCW produces an inconclusive report? Certainly not the politicians and media who cheered on the attack. 

The OPCW will find its report covered sketchily on page 94 of the unpopular papers, and probably nowhere else except here. And if the resulting attacks lead to direct entanglements between Western forces and those of Russia and Iran, then we will be well on the way to a regional war pregnant with the possibilities of world war, a new 1914 in which Iran and Saudi Arabia stand in for Germany and Russia, and the rest of the world eventually piles in, and then cannot find any way out again. 

This region is a tangle of bizarre alliances of convenience, but they all revolve around Saudi Arabia’s furious, sectarian loathing of Iran. My own personal view, based on a visit to Iran is that Iran is not the aggressor in this quarrel, not least because Shia Islam, despite the efforts of Ayatollah Khomeini, is fundamentally not a warlike creed, and the appalling cost of the ‘imposed war’ with Iraq still haunts Iranian politics and culture. 

The war cemeteries near Tehran are as vast and distressing as the First World War graveyards of the Somme. And a lot newer. Plenty of Iranian people still in the midst of active lives have relatives lying in those enormous graveyards. Unpolitical Iranians unsympathetic to the regime, to my personal knowledge, are overpoweringly moved by them.

But many other factors are involved. Iran’s defence of its Syrian ally has brought into even closer friendship with the Hizbollah militias who have done much of the fighting against the Saudi-backed Sunni militias in Syria. Some reports say that Israel’s attack on Syria last week had more to do with Israeli fears that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is seeking to install serious air defences covering its bases in Syria, than in any retaliation for Douma.

Israel (in my view wholly mistakenly) is preoccupied almost beyond reason with an alleged threat from Iran, and this has brought Jerusalem into a sort of informal alliance with, of all people, Saudi Arabia. It has also done great damage to what until recently was one of the most fascinating diplomatic rapprochements in modern history, the remarkably warm friendship between Moscow and Jerusalem, much encouraged by Vladimir Putin.

But last week’s Israeli attack on the Iranians in Syria greatly annoyed the Kremlin, which values its close ties with Tehran. This is perhaps why the USA is so reluctant to leave Syria alone. President Trump seems to have accepted the Netanyahu vision of the Middle East, in which Iran is the great threat, and is seeking power in Syria and Lebanon so as to threaten Israel.

And this vision is the likely source of the growing readiness of the USA to get and stay involved in the area, with France and Britain the fifth and six wheels in its military cart, reliable cover for whenever the USA is accused of acting in its own interests rather than for some grand global ideal. 

The paradox of this is that the USA is acting for a global ideal, is genuinely persuaded that its interventions in this area are aimed at some sort of common good. I suspect they are intended to eliminate the undoubtedly nasty Iranian regime. Well, the Iraq war was aimed at the elimination of the undoubtedly nasty Saddam Hussein. And look where that got us. Saddam was indeed eliminated, but at a price we are still paying. 

Likewise the undoubtedly nasty Gadaffi was eliminated in Libya. But his replacements were no nicer. And the ultimate price of both these things together, the unprecedented movement of people in search of better safer lives which they created, will probably be the continued maintenance of Europe as a post-Christian pluralist continent. So the USA’s interests, and those of the people of the fast-declining western world, are not served by this belligerence. 

A major war in the Middle East, one with more danger of going nuclear than any in modern times and one which will quite possibly spread to Europe, will end with only one victor, China, just as the USA was the great beneficiary of Britain’s and France’s attempts to maintain their dying greatness a century ago. And China watches, interested and amazed at our folly, as we talk ourselves into this.

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