2018 05 – Britain’s Guilt in Syria

And So To War

by Martin Dolphin

British foreign policy, including military intervention in the world, is based on Britain’s understanding of its own strategic interests and is rarely if ever affected by any humanitarian considerations.  The idea that is being put to the British public, that Theresa May bombed Syrian chemical weapon production facilities because she had to assert humanitarian values, is nonsensical.  A British Prime Minister will not base her foreign policy on the death of a few Arab women and children.  The idea is naïve at best.  If Theresa May cared about women and children, she would have done something a long time ago about The Yemen and Israel.

So if Theresa May is not concerned with dead women and children why then did she advocate and participate in a missile strike against Syria.  Certainly any explanation must be in terms of Britain’s strategic interests.

Two explanations come to mind.

The first concerns itself with the British desire to show unity with their main ally in foreign policy ventures, the US.  Donald Trump had announced in a tweet that he was going to bomb Assad’s forces in retaliation for a supposed chemical weapon attack.  Once tweeted it had to happen otherwise the US lost face.  Britain and France, as US allies, therefore dutifully claimed that the chemical attack had occurred and stated that a red line had been crossed and so a missile attack was justified and required.  Britain and France did all this because they felt that their main ally, the US, had to be supported.  But actually Britain and France would have preferred if Trump had not tweeted his determination to attack and had instead waited for the emergence of any evidence through an OP CHEMICAL WEAPON investigation.

It is not impossible that this is the explanation.  Did Trump consult with anyone else before he sent his tweet?  Who knows?

However a second and possibly more likely explanation comes to mind.  As the war of the Assad government against those attempting to overthrow the Syrian government comes to an end with victory for Assad, Britain is desperately searching for ways to prevent that outcome.

In Ghouta, Assad was about to rid Damascus of the last opponents of the Syrian government and effectively establish control over all Syrian towns and the vast majority of the Syrian population.  Britain decided that one last attempt was worth pursuing to prevent that happening.  Reports of a chemical weapons attack in Ghouta presented an opportunity.  (Subsequent reports by Report Fisk, among others, support the view that this attack never occurred but was staged by anti-Assad groups.)

Trump is then made aware of this alleged attack and takes the bait.  He tweets his determination to address this crossing of a red line – in the form of the supposed use of chemical weapon s.

The initial response to the supposed attack in Ghouta was that Assad was a monster and that Russia and Iran were almost as bad.  The ground was being laid for an attack on Syrian, Russian and Iranian military assets in Syria.  Initially the plan was to attack not merely Assad’s potential chemical weapon production facilities but also Assad’s military assets in the form of airfields and army.  Essentially the situation was being set up for a Libyan type intervention with the final aim of regime change.

This understanding of events is supported by a reading of the foreign policy recommendations made by Dr Lina Khatib, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (more commonly referred to as Chatham House).  In an article in the Guardian on 15th April Dr Khatib stated:

“What works in favour of the US is that its key allies – the UK, France and Saudi Arabia – are all aligned. This gives it a unique opportunity to engage in a sustained, targeted campaign against Assad’s military assets that has wide international endorsement.”

A crucial assumption in this line of reasoning is that Russia would not dare to oppose the combined weight of a US, French and British alliance.  Who would dare oppose such a strong military alliance?

If this was the plan, the US, France and Britain miscalculated on the Russian reaction.  Russia did not back down.  They sent a very clear message to the West that an attack on Assad’s military assets would be met with an attack on the military equipment launching those attacks whether they were ships or airfields.  Russia warned that this represented a significant escalation in the level of the war being fought and it was not clear how this would develop.  The clear implication was that a nuclear war might not be avoided.

And the West blinked. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Western politicians blinked.  I say Western politicians because I suspect the Western military would have been very wary of backing Russia into this impasse and would have also been very clear that there would have been no winners in a nuclear war with Russia.

It is likely that it was made very clear to Theresa May that if she did what she was initially proposing – to degrade Assad’s military assets – she was going down a path that could result in a full scale confrontation with Russia.

But the West had painted itself into a corner by so rapidly committing to a military response and needed some sort of attack on Assad however pointless to avoid losing face.  A very limited and ineffective attack was made and we had the bizarre situation of seeing May having to announce that the attacks were emphatically not an attempt at regime change, were emphatically not an attempt to influence the war in Syria but were simply a statement by the international community that you were not allowed to kill people with chemical weapons.

In the past the West had announced ‘Red Lines’.  If a ‘Red Line’ was crossed then the West claimed for itself the right to intervene without UN approval.  The main red line was the use of chemical weapons.  Now, post Ghouta, Russia has very clearly announced its own red lines.   Any missile attack by a foreign power on Syria that damages Russian, Syrian or Iranian military assets will likely be met with a Russian military response.

So the West managed to save a little face.  But Russia has made it clear it is prepared to go into a full confrontation with a combined US, British and French military force.  That is surely a change in the game.