Syria between the shadow of Iraq, confusion and propaganda

Are we about to see a repeat performance of the Iraq war in Syria?

In a clear-headed blogpost, former Guardian Middle East Editor Brian Whitaker explains why the answer is no, and how the shadow of the Iraq war deception is making rational debate about Syria increasingly difficult. It’s a difficulty, he says, that’s compounded by the war hysteria in the mainstream and social media, and the chaff that’s contaminating much of the social media – talk of an invasion, troops going in, a lack of exit strategies and the “false flag” theories.

In his blogpost, Whitaker points out three key differences between Iraq in 2002-03 and Syria now:

1. Syria has chemical weapons, and the regime has said so itself.

2. President Obama has been palpably reluctant to get involved, directly and militarily, in Syria. American public opinion is strongly against it and there is no significant war lobby in Washington as there was when the neocons held sway.

3. The US does not particularly want Assad to be overthrown at the moment because it’s too worried about what might follow.

Whitaker says that the issue in question now is straightforward: what to do if someone uses chemical weapons. He argues that it’s important to separate this as far as possible from the broader conflict in Syria and its politics. “Chemical weapons are not just a matter of concern in Syria; they are a matter of concern for the whole world, since the world has banned their use.”

This, he says,

poses an invidious moral dilemma. One approach is to say that offenders must be held accountable – otherwise the ban on chemical weapons will become pointless. At the same time, though, holding the Syrian regime accountable is unlikely to be achieved without loss of life.

The alternative is to take no action. That avoids further immediate casualties but in the longer run also leads to a loss of life, probably on a larger scale, by giving a green light to further attacks in Syria and by helping to normalise the use of chemical weapons more generally.

There is of course a possibility that the armed opposition, especially the Islamists among them – whose disregard for human life almost matches that of the Assad regime – might have launched the chemical attack on 21 August that resulted in hundreds of innocent casualties. After all, a preliminary UN investigation into a previous, much smaller chemical attack in May 2013 suggested that the rebels, rather than the government, had used chemical weapons.

However, as Whitaker says in reply to a reader’s comment:

The regime has the weapons and the ruthlessness to use them [chemical weapons]. The gas was released during an attack by govt forces. Subsequent behaviour by the regime has not been that of an innocent party. It promised evidence to back up its claim that the rebels were responsible but it hasn’t done so. [US Secretary of State John] Kerry has promised more evidence – probably military intercepts.

As clear-headed as Whitaker’s analysis is, it’s unlikely to stop the ill-informed comments, conspiracy theories and unfounded talk of false flags which can only muddy the already mucky waters in which Syria is drowning.

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