Chemical weapons threat does not justify UK going into Syria

Gen Richards can't think of a military reason why the British Army shouldn't go in. Well, some of us can...

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:57 ON Wed 5 Dec 2012

"TODAY, I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command, the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable."

President Obama's threat on Tuesday was clear. Western intervention in the Syrian civil war has come one step closer. Not because of 21 months of mayhem and massacre on both sides (the secular, brutal Assad and his thugs versus the religious, brutal Islamists and their thugs) but because of intelligence reports on chemical weapons – an eerie repeat of the public relations preparations for the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.

According to a flurry of press reports across the globe quoting US intelligence officials, on condition of anonymity, US intel has detected activity inside a number of Syrian sites suggesting Assad is preparing to unleash chemical weapons, particularly the nerve gas Sarin (Nato codename GB), on his own people.

Yet only last month, when US intel (also briefed to the press on condition of anonymity) detected chemical weapons stockpiles being moved within Syria, the suggestion was that Assad was trying to secure the substances from insurgents.

How can you tell the rather crucial difference between the two from satellite photographs? Remember Saddam's mobile biological weapon laboratories that turned out to be mobile thunderboxes? James Schlesinger, briefly (a hugely unpopular) director of the CIA during the last months of the Nixon presidency, famously said: "You cannot photograph an intention." Quite.

The only way you can understand intent is through human intelligence – and in this case it would require an agent close to the centre of the Assad regime. Even if such a contact could be recruited, there is a snag: as a regime decays, such people tend to fall into the hugely unreliable category of those looking for an opportunity to jump ship and secure a future for themselves in the West. They exaggerate or lie to enhance their own position.

As do intelligence sources in the opposition – whether inside the country fighting or in exile yacking on television and having power lunches with senior officials in the Obama administration. Everyone has an axe to grind, as we discovered in Iraq.

No one would dispute that Sarin is extremely unpleasant. Fifty times more toxic than cyanide, even miniscule doses absorbed through the skin or inhaled cause a rapid and unpleasant death. Most of us will be familiar with the death agonies of flies who have been sprayed with an insecticide – how they buzz frantically and then spin round and round as their nervous system loses control. Sarin does that to people.

But high explosives kill just as reliably.

President Obama and his inner circle will have to wrestle with all this – and with the added risk that Assad's replacement, if he goes, will almost certainly be an Islamist backed by Saudi money and intent on establishing Sharia law ASAP. Best of luck to them.

Britain should, of course, give the United States whatever help it can – share intelligence from our listening stations on Cyprus, make available RAF Akrotiri and so on.

Other than that it has got nothing to do with us – you would have thought. But as ever David Cameron wants to be involved. This was clearly signalled by the UK's top military man, General Sir David Richards, who said in early November on the Andrew Marr Show:

"The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may provoke calls to intervene in a limited way. But no, there's no ultimately military reason why one shouldn't and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined."

And today we have The Times reporting that an American-led military intervention, involving Britain and other allies, is ready to be launched "within days". The Times' US source says: "It won't require major movement to make action happen. The muscle is already there to be flexed."

But why should Britain be involved? Do we really have the energy? Military campaigns might give the ministers and top brass involved a buzz but the overall effect is to drain energy from Whitehall, muffle the proper day-to-day business of parliament and encourage a war-addicted media to bang on, yet again, about "punching above our weight".

General Richards cannot think of a military reason why one shouldn't. Quite a few immediately crowd my mind. Will there be any support for it? Is it in the national interest? Would it be wise given the deepest defence cuts for a generation? The Royal Navy with five destroyers and 13 frigates is a third of its 1982 strength. You can just about fit the entire British Army into Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. To paraphrase Bismarck, is it worth the bones of a single British Grenadier?

In any case we have a forgotten army of nearly 10,000 men and women deployed on the Helmand River with precarious lines of communication. They have never had enough helicopters or an effective mine-proof vehicle, efficient leave flights, a reliable mail service – or even a decent operational plan. Soldiers returning from Afghanistan are being thrown onto the streets a few months short of their pension dates.

We are also broke. The army has been sent home for a month over Christmas to save on electricity bills. A British military contribution to a western intervention in Syria is not justified. · 

Disqus - noscript

Spot on Crispin, nothing more need be said. Of course what you just explained is perfect common sense to anybody with more than two brain cells to rub together, so where does that leave our man Dave?

Your editorial makes valid points Mr. Black.
However, what you failed to address is: why were these threats of a military intervention not similarly opined in the case of Israel when it ACTUALLY used chemical weapons (phosphorus bombs - banned under the UN convention) in Gaza in 2008? There was no question of speculation as is the case with Syria here - in the case of Israel used chemical weapons and the world - especially, the "Western" world stood by and kept mum over this. Why has no "Western" journalist called for Israel to be brought to court for attempted genocide using chemical weapons?

Why is there such glaring hypocrisy by the "Western" media in not pursuing these odious skeletons of violations of international agreements just as vigorously with Israel as they are inevitably with every other nation state?

And...what exactly is the definition of the "West" "Western", by the way? "West" of what - the Greenwich meridian or the Ural mountains?

No sir, phosphorus bombs of the type Israel,used are not banned by any UN convention

Ok. I'll accept that unverified.

The point is: does it still justify allowing one state to use it liberally but, on the other hand, hounding any other nation state that has not YET used chemical weapons and is merely speculated to be likely to? Why the double standards - when it comes to Israel: they already used it on Palestinian civilians and got away with it - why is that not a major war crime issue as well as an excuse for the invasion of Israel and a "regime change"? Why is the "West" inexplicably quiet on this gross monstrosity by Israel in 2008?

The phosphorus weapons were not used liberally by Israel. This kind of phosphorus weapon is not banned because it is used for smokescreen purposes and is not poisonous. The Syrian regime has used poisonous gasses to wipe out thousands of civilians in Homa some years ago. so that's why the US is warning them.

Further, the invasion of Gaza in 2008 was undertaken after Hamas fired over 8000 rockets into Israel, during 2006-2008. Would your country accept such attacks without acting militarily?

What is it about out politicians that make them so eager to take this country to war over issues that have absolutely nothing to do with UK security? I have recently visited Alrewas military cemetery and witnessed the names of thousands of British dead, sacrificed to the arrogance of British politicians. These same politicians should be denied any say in military intervention unless they themselves have members of their own families personally exposed to the prospect of death or disablement in other people’s wars! Are these fools that keep committing us to these military adventures not aware that these wars actually have to be paid for by further adding to the huge national debt that their predecessors have already committed future generations? Are they not betraying the next generations, without any vestige of a mandate to support their idiotic behavior.

Fupa. WMD threat to get into another war and increase military spending.

Does not matter how much definitions are outlined, it still does not provide a valid answer to the questions posed - the statements provided are simply a deflection from answering the real issues - one which, again, is: why are the Israeli Jews being allowed to flout international laws at will without any threat of military intervention, or international sanctions or any UN resolutions condemning the Israeli Jews for their ultra-aggressive tactics in the name of "self-defense"?

What makes the Israeli Jews so special that all of the worlds resources are sucked up paying attention to that insignificant proportion of humanity while the world simultaneously ignores the thousands dying in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan - to name a few??

Why are the Israeli Jews allowed to have nuclear weapons and chemical weapons? Why are they not in the dock for war crimes against humanity? Why are they allowed to sanction illegal immigration (euphemistically called "settlers") with impunity?

You are now getting off the subject. Israel has not flouted international law. The mandate for Palestine of 1922, by the League of Nations allowed Jews to settle anywhere in Palestine. The mandates of the league are accepted as valid by the UN charter, Article 80. This has already been tested in the International court of Justice in amongst others the South African mandate over What was South West Africa. The court expressly decided that article 80 of the UN accepts all mandate decisions made by the league as relevant and binding on he UN. This includes the Palestine mandate. So in spite of protestations that the settlements are " illegal", the accusers never say by which law they are illegal and have never challenged it in the. International court because they know th

The resolutions of the biased UN general assembly are not binding, neither are the resolutions made under chapter 6of the security council (most of their resolutions are under chapter 6). The only binding resolutions are made under chapter 7, which have not been used in regards to Israel. As far as other conflicts are concerned, it's not Israels fault hat the UN does not consider them. The reason is that these third world counties make up a majority of UN members and block attempts to consider these conflicts in the UN. Israel would be very happy if the world did consider these conflicts. All of Israels wars have been bona fide wars of self defence. She has only responded to attacks on her. If there were no attacks she would not take action.

If only Cameron could understand history (he doesn't even know any history, I suspect - he didn't even know what "Magna Carta" meant!!).

If this "floppy-haired boy blunder and his metropolitan, self-appointed, "elites" get their way they will further stretch our pathetically small military resources until breaking point is reached. As a career ex-soldier, it was always drummed into me and my colleagues that a nation should only ever go to war if its own VITAL national interests are threatened - this is, patently, NOT so with the United Kingdom and Syria (although it might just apply re our entrapment within the EU!).

This is not even a legitimate reason for NATO member states to become embroiled - it might be used as a flimsy excuse to do so, but it will be transparently seen to be just that - I applaud the restraint of the Russians, thus far, despite the provocation of the West in a region that has traditionally been within the broader Russian sphere of interest and influence.

I fear that Cameron wants to feel able to "influence" world affairs and adopt the moral high ground by posturing in such a manner - he should realise, and understand, that - largely by his own reckless doing - he has taken much away from our armed forces (and our intelligence gathering capability) by the wanton and quite needless destruction of the newly, and very expensively, refurbished Nimrods - perhaps, if we still had some of those amazing intelligence gathering and monitoring platforms, we might have some inkling of what the Syrian regime (or the Islamist opposition thugs) are actually planning to do.

With "influence" must, necessarily, go credibility - ultimately, by possessing a credible military capability - Cameron seems incapable of understanding that sad, and basic, fact of international relations.

We have NO obligation to America on this one - we should remain unconvinced re the "chemical weapons" stockpiles and the "imminent" and "real" danger that they pose - I fear that they will be far more dangerous if they fall into the hands of the opposition (for that, read "Al Qaeda").

Stay out Cameron!

I did leave my comment some days ago, it was not published, perhaps because I mentioned the American use of the chemical Agent Orange on Vietnam............ too painful for you to publish the truth................

Have you seen the world terrorist report as published by the BBC? The terrorism is in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and a few other places plagued by Western Intervention. In Western Europe and the USA it is almost non existant. If the Ministry of Defence is about defence and safety of the British people, the call is stay out and use ahimsa, peaceful dialogue and diplomatic pressutre as well as support Arab institutions to deal with their own problems. Lets learn by are mistakes and stop trying to be White House poodles

It is not just the US, the same could be said of the Israelis - the bias in media and the subliminal brainwashing that is rampant is something that is going to take a long time to clean out....nobody ever criticises transgressions by either of these vile "Western" countries. Here's another more recent abuse and violation example - this is the headline from 20 Dec 2012 on First Post:

4. NETANYAHU DEFIES UN SETTLEMENTS CALL

The United Nations yesterday stepped up pressure on Israel over its illegal settlement building on occupied Palestinian land. The secretary general and all members of the security council except for the US – but including Britain – demanded an immediate halt to new construction. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said new settlements would go ahead anyway.