Simon Barrow

Syria: what lies behind the clamour for military strikes?

By Simon Barrow
August 27, 2013

According to the US state department, a strike on Syria could come "within days" as military assets are "ready to go". Secretary of State John Kerry says that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is "undeniable", though he has produced no concrete evidence to back this up – just emotive soundbites, which have been echoed in Downing Street's "we shall not stand by" response to the sudden upsurge in militaristic fervour across the Atlantic, ahead of the recall of parliament in Westminster this week.

The Violations Documentation Centre, the most reliable of the organisations logging casualties in the tragic conflict, has listed the names and details of 457 people it says died of chemical poisoning in eight Damascus suburbs last Wednesday. This is horrific. Who released those toxins, how and why? This is not yet clear. It may have been forces allied to the Syrian government. The intelligence the US will release over the next few days is from Mossad. It will finger Assad and is likely to divert attention from the UN experts' less partial investigations. Indeed, in May 2013, UN human rights investigators gathered testimony from casualties and medical staff indicating that rebel forces had used the nerve agent sarin, a point made public by the Secretary-General at the time.

When the chemical weapons pretext for intervention was first launched by the Pentagon exactly a year ago, the accusations were not in fact directed against President Assad as a likely user of them. On the contrary, it was suggested and feared that Syria’s WMDs, which allegedly had been “left unguarded” in military bunkers, could fall into the hands of opposition jihadist forces.

In addition, while waxing with righteous indignation about the "appalling atrocity" committed in Syria last week (they're right: it was), the US State Department, which has been responsible for sanctioning thousands of deaths through illegal drone attacks in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, failed to mention that in May 2013 Turkish security forces found a cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front (, and allegedly has also trained rebels in the handling of these weapons in Jordan and Turkey (, according to reports published earlier this year (CNN, 9 May 2013; [1]

Moreover, in 1988, US officials gave Iraq's army details about the whereabouts of Iranian forces, knowing that they would likely deploy chemical weapons against them, as they did, Foreign Policy magazine has claimed recently. Different wrongs don't cancel each other out or make a meaningful right, but the breathtaking moral and political hypocrisy involved cannot but be noted.

So what about the situation right now? We do indeed need to know what is happening, and how to respond. The team of United Nations inspectors probing the situation spent its first day in the suburbs of Damascus at the site of last Wednesday's incident only yesterday, interviewing witnesses, survivors and doctors, as well as collecting samples. Before it set foot in the country, the mission was rubbished as "too late" by sections of the media allied to those eager to see western intervention. In fact, it was delayed because armed opposition groups at first refused to promise safe passage. For its part, the Syrian government wavered then acceded.

Yet suddenly, empty "something must be done" rhetoric has given way to naked threats of missile attacks against military targets (not chemical plants, note) by the US and its allies. That is the leap in logic and politics which we have seen so often before: from hand-wringing to state sanctioned violence, as if nothing else exists in between. The move towards pre-emptive aggression nearly always happens at a time when the strategic situation is beginning to drift from the Pentagon's perspective. This is the case in Syria right now, with the evidence on the ground indicating a stalemate overall, but with gains for the regime and little progress by the NATO-favoured Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Syrian National Council (SNC).

Undoubtedly, the situation in Syria is extremely grim. Many have died in the conflict, while 1.7 million have become refugees outside Syria and 1.5 million are displaced inside the country, report humanitarian agencies. Half of those refugees and displaced people are under 18-years-of-age. Since fighting began in March 2011 between the government and armed groups seeking to oust President Bashar Al-Assad, some 100,000 people have been killed, including more than 7,000 children. What began as a protest for democracy, met with brutal repression, has ended in asymetric civil war in which atrocities have been committed on all sides, and combatants include a range of opposition groups, from those backed by the West and Turkey, right through to a plethora of extreme jihadist organisations, many aided from outside the country.

However, threats of preemptive action obscure rather than illuminate the development of credible paths to the cessation of bloodshed in Syria and the containment of further regional conflagrations. The Daily Telegraph (hardly an anti-war newspaper) noted today (27 August 2013): "Tony Blair’s call yesterday for military intervention served as a reminder of the lies and obfuscations that were used to justify that invasion: it is extraordinary that we may be on the verge of going to war with Syria before the Chilcot Inquiry has reported. The caution expressed by former military chiefs such as Lord Dannatt should also raise serious doubts about the rationale and objectives of any intervention."

Dannatt, former head of the Army, has warned against an attack, pointing out that there is no international consensus about the legal and strategic issues. He has added: "[T]here are many things we do not know about Syria, and the main thing we don't know is what the effect of these strikes would be on the developments and consequences of the civil conflict in Syria."

Rather than implementing tough arms embargoes, strengthening the legitimacy of international agencies, collaborating through the UN, seeking to demilitarise the conflict, and pressing all sides to the negotiating table publicly and privately, Western governments have indulged in empty speeches, cooked up plans to pour more weapons in (without any clear idea about who they will end up aiding), engaged in fruitless diplomatic arguments with the avowedly non-interventionist Russians and the Chinese, and pursued confused strategic interests emanating from decades of disastrous interference (often to prop up oppressive regimes and boost regional arms sales).

As former UK minister Clare Short said this evening, what needs to happen is that Russia should be brought into a collaborative attempt to get the antagonists round the table, rather than continuing to seek to use the terrible Syrian conflict as a pawn in the Western attempt to destabilise Hezbollah and Tehran.

Instead, while simultaneously contemplating backing US intervention, "people in Syria will wonder why companies that supply Assad's vicious regime look set to be allowed to exhibit their products at the London arms fair next month," observes Ekklesia associate Symon Hill. "The arms fair, euphemistically called Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEi)... happens every two years, subsidised with UK taxpayers' money."

Military action against Syria is not the answer to any of these contradictions. It would straightaway tie the West in with Israel, whose air and missile strikes this year have been held up by the regime as evidence that its internal troubles are part of a Western-Zionist-Salafist plot. It would constitute intervention (no matter how strongly denied) in a civil war, as the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank has warned. Beyond 'sending a signal', and a confused one at that, its trajectory would be largely unknown. Meanwhile, hardline Islamist groups and al-Qaeda must be rubbing their hands with glee at the further reverberations western intervention will send throughout the troubled Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

As the World Council of Churches has pointed out, "the prevention of catastrophic human insecurity requires attention to the root causes of insecurity as well as to more immediate or direct causes of insecurity."

David Cameron has insisted that a final decision on armed action has not been reached. Yet it is clear that Washington, London and Paris are resolved to attack Assad if they can, in order to weaken Iran. No doubt the UK Prime Minister is pleading with the Obama administration to at least hold back until his parliamentarians are given the semblance of a say, as in the Iraq debacle. But it is logistics, soundings among hesitant Arab allies and internal wrangling, rather than any concern for the diplomatic difficulties of European clients, that is likely to decide Washington's timing on this matter. Besides, the UK's Permanent Joint Headquarters in north London has already been working on detailed contingency plans, liaising with counterparts in the US military to prepare options for armed action in Syria.

The ray of hope is that MPs will be mindful of the deceptions of the past, that civil anti-war movements will mobilise already-sceptical public opinion quickly (a protest has been organised at Downing Street, 5pm tomorrow, 28 August), and that churches, faith groups and secular NGOs will push for political rather than military action.

The unusual direct contact between Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and US Secretary of State John Kerry may also indicate a different undertow to the public belligerence, though the White House denies that it will go any further at present. Germany has already indicated that it will not take part in an attack on Syria, and even Saudi Arabia has not categorically backed such a move. The UK Ministry of Defence is implicated, but its best informed strategists are hesitant. There is uncertainty in many quarters, let alone the UN Security Council.

One commentator has warned of the "the staging of a US-NATO sponsored humanitarian disaster" in Syria. The current auguries are not good. Can another way be found?


[1] Prof Michel Chossudovsky has claimed that the US has allowed al-Nusra access to chemical weapons, but no verification of this has been forthcoming. See also: 'US and UK dossiers leave confusion over Syrian chemical weapons',

* More on Syria from Ekklesia:


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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