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...
"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.