A word of praise here for The Guardian which
has once again shown the value of a diverse and adversarial press. Earlier this
week The Times carried reports which suggested that there was now credible
evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against the
This view is pretty much shared by the BBC (which has in my view
been running a disgraceful and unbalanced campaign for intervention in Syria
for many months, way beyond the remit of its Charter obligations) and by many
newspapers and politicians. Regular readers here will know that it’s not shared
by me, but forget that for a moment and examine the matter for yourselves.
This is important because if such an action could
be proven, the USA, Britain and France could get round the difficulty that the
UN Security Council will not currently permit intervention in Syria, thanks to
the vetoes of Russia and China. Moscow and Peking both feel their
goodwill was abused in Libya, where an operation said to be aimed at protecting
civilians ended in the overthrow of the Gadaffi state, and its replacement, as
it happens, with a lawless chaos, which nobody mentions.
Also, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as I have pointed
out before, has a shrewd feeling that the trend towards over-riding national
sovereignty could one day soon be used to overthrow him and his government.
Russia is unique in the modern world in not being a global superpower, but in
having enough military, economic and diplomatic power to continue to behave as
a sovereign nation.
This was Britain’s position till the unhinged Suez
episode of 1956. After that, we became a sycophantic client of the USA, which
showed its gratitude for our loyalty by ushering us brusquely into EU
servitude, and backing Irish nationalist revolts against our internal national
authority. What a terrible tangle this gets us into, especially when EU and US
interests don’t coincide.
I don’t know if Mr Putin cares about what would
probably happen to Syria if the rebels won, though if he doesn’t, he should. I
fear for the Christian and Alawi minorities if Sunni Muslim radicals, backed by
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Sunni Turkey, take over. And who knows what would then
happen in precarious Lebanon, where the Shia Muslim Hizbollah would then be in
a very sensitive position, deprived of a major ally, presumably next on the
Saudi target list, yet still powerfully armed and well-trained?
And then there is Shia Iran - Syria’s principal
ally and Saudi Arabia’s principal hate-object, and probably the real target of
all this fuss. Much could follow from an Assad defeat, and much of it could
involve violence and danger. It is time people realised that the Sunni-Shia
split, in which Syria is embroiled whether she likes it or not, is now a more
dangerous fault-line in the Middle East than the stalemated Arab-Israeli
Anyway, Friday’s edition of The Times carried a
frightening and distressing despatch from Anthony Loyd in Aleppo, which began
‘The chemical attack that killed Yasser Yunis's family was a small, almost
private affair. Had the 27-year-old car mechanic not managed to struggle out of
the doorway of his home in Aleppo on to the street in the darkness of night,
clutching his infant son to his chest, no one might have ever known what wiped
out the family. They died twitching, hallucinating and choking
on white froth that poured from their noses and mouths. Their doctors believe
that they were killed by nerve gas.’
Mr Loyd, like other Times writers who send
despatches from that country, is a fine and brave reporter. And I’ve no doubt
that the Syrian civil war has caused a great deal of pain, grief and loss. This
is why I hate war. I’ve seen the fringes of this sort of thing and it is
intensely dispiriting and gloomy, as one has no comfort to offer, and often
yearns for ‘something to be done’ in an irrational way.
After seeing Soviet special forces go mad in
Vilnius, Lithuania, in January 1991, and observing a few of their victims with
various bits of their heads and bodies absent, and then having attended a
grotesquely dishonest press conference at which these actions were justified by
uniformed officers, I was for weeks afterwards in a state of dark,
angry despair and rage.
From having been sympathetic towards my Russian
neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances, I grew testy with them. The tone of
my writing and my conversation changed. I lost objectivity and detachment, and
took many months to regain them. Another odd effect was that for about ten
years afterwards I could not bear firework displays, as the noise is so similar
to that of real guns being fired, and it would instantly remind me of dark,
dangerous nights in Vilnius.
My point is that anyone reporting on such things
is entitled to his feelings. More, we should be glad that he is engaged, and
ready to risk himself in the general cause of revealing the true face of the
world. But his editors at home need to be cooler and
more dispassionate, especially when so much is at stake.
This is where The Guardian
comes in. In
Saturday’s edition, Julian Borger (the paper’s Diplomatic Editor) wrote a crisp
question-and-answer summary of the position
, which makes it clear that things
are not as clear-cut as you might have thought, if you depended on (say) the
BBC for your view.
‘The letter issued by the White House to two
senators on Thursday [on Syrian use of chemical weapons] makes it clear the
evidence is far from conclusive. There are questions over the "chain of
custody" of the physical evidence - ie the US analysts cannot guarantee
the provenance of the samples they have been given because they were collected
and handed over by someone else, either another government or an opposition
According to a report by the McClatchy news
agency in the US, the soil sample examined by American experts is minuscule and
contains a byproduct of sarin that could also be from fertiliser production. Some of the videos in circulation online show
alleged victims foaming at the mouth, but that is not listed as a sarin symptom
on the website of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons
expert and former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said: "That [foaming at
the mouth] would not be indicative of use of nerve agents but is more likely to
be a sign of a choking agent such as phosgene being used, if anything."
Jean-Pascal Zanders, an expert at the EU
Institute for Strategic Studies, said: "It's not possible that what is
being shown to the public is a chemical weapons attack. The video from Aleppo
showing foaming at the mouth does not look like a nerve agent. I'm wholly
unconvinced." Alas, I cannot link to Mr Loyd’s report in The Times, as it is behind a pay-wall.
Personally, it strikes me that President Assad would need to be exceptionally
stupid to use chemical weapons. They are tricky things to use anyway, unstable,
hard to transport, apt to decay in storage, unsafe for their users as well as
for their victims. That, rather than international convention, is the
reason why they have been used so rarely since they were introduced in the
Mainly designed to be used on battlefields (where by forcing the
use of cumbersome and hot protective clothing they can gravely hold up an
advancing army) they would provide him with little advantage in the sort of
urban war he is fighting. He knows perfectly well that their use would be the
pretext for a Western intervention.
On the other hand, the rebels, many of whom
aren’t much nicer than Mr Assad, would see many advantages in suggesting to
outside observers that such weapons had been used. I have no idea of the truth, but I would examine
the evidence on that basis, and informed by the knowledge we all gained during
the Iraq war run-up, that governments don’t always tell the truth.
know, like the fact that statistics aren’t always wholly right, and may be
influenced by those who compile them. But you need to know.