Syria: myths and omissions (with personal postscript)

How quickly the English commentariat forgets the recent past and glosses over inconvenient aspects of the present!  The Guardian of 10 April 2017 published a slightly edited version of a letter from me of which the original text as submitted read as follows:

Two myths and an omission infest much of the commentariat’s coverage of the Syrian government’s Sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday andPresident Trump’s knee-jerk response (A world defined by Trump’s impulses cannot be a safe one, editorial, 8 April).  The omission is the blatant illegality of the US airstrikes, done neither in self-defence nor with UN authority.  That Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a shocking war crime can’t justify such a breach of international law, another war crime, in response. The first myth is that in 2013 the UK parliament voted against UK participation in a military response to Assad’s chemical weapon attack on Syrian rebels and that this influenced Obama against a US military attack. In fact parliament merely rejected both Labour’s and the government’s proposed lists of criteria for a justified air strike against Syria, but Mr Cameron chose to interpret the votes as a rejection of military action, period.  Myth no. 2: that in the face of Assad’s 2013 chemical weapons attack, Obama weakly preferred inaction to a military response. In reality he chose diplomacy over the use of more violence, activating a long gestated agreement with Putin, imposed on a reluctant Assad by Russia, under which UN weapons inspectors would identify and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons capability.  Clearly that operation was incomplete or else chemical weapons have been reintroduced since the UN operation, with or without Russia’s knowledge. But that doesn’t affect the fact that Obama’s response – collaborating with Russia in a limited international peaceful solution – far from being weak or inactive, was infinitely preferable to Trump’s, which killed a few more people but otherwise seems likely to achieve nothing. For once Mr Corbyn is absolutely right.

Brian Barder

London SW18

9 April 2017

To which I might have added, if space had allowed (which it didn’t), an expression of bemusement that our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, is disappointed by his fellow G7 foreign ministers’ rejection of his extraordinary demand for yet more sanctions against Russia, an utterly predictable reaction that should have deterred him from making it: and that he has apparently collected more support for his ludicrous demand that President Putin should now abandon his support for President Assad, while repeating his self-defeating insistence that Assad cannot be part of any eventual settlement in Syria.  Much more realistically, the US Secretary of State Mr Rex Tillerson, speaking before his visit to Moscow for talks with Mr Lavrov, his Russian opposite number, expressed the hope that the Syrian people would be able to determine their own long-term future, and his own “hope” that Assad would not be a part of it — a significantly different formulation from that of Mr Johnson and some of the G7 foreign ministers, who forget a lot and learn nothing.

Postscript: I apologise for the long period of silence here.  As some readers of Ephems already know, this blog has been experiencing a slow and arduous recovery from a radical operation for cancer in mid-February, and embarked yesterday (11 April) on a six-month round of chemotherapy and probably some radiotherapy in an effort to head off an early recurrence.  Despite adverse odds, the writer is obstinately optimistic.  But with severely reduced energy levels in the coming months, new blog posts may be few and far between compared with pre-operational frequencies.  Please no messages, no flowers — yet!


7 Responses

  1. Hang in there! We need you.

    On the Syria substance, one of the worst of all possible approaches in diplomacy is to talk tough then act weak. The Obama ‘red line’ debacle was so ghastly an example of this ineptitude that you seem to be about the only person on Earth now defending it. It was obvious that the US/Russian deal (a) would not get all CW removed from Syria, and (b) would lead to war criminal Assad getting re-legitimised mainly on Putin’s terms. A dismal result by any serious measure.

  2. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    Whilst delighted that you are strong enough to fire off one of your trenchant, as always, missiles (? a tomahawk) I agree with Charles Crawford that Obama’s reluctance to enforce his so-called ‘red line has resulted in the impunity to do what they want in Syria exhibited by both Assad and Putin.

    The firm but limited US response  to the latest appalling use of sarin gas may or may not be legal under traditional international law but it will surely have posted a warning in Damascus that Assad will feel he has to take seriously. If this saves further suffering many, including myself, will feel that such proportionate action was justified.

  3. Lorna says:

    Great to have you and your thought-provoking blogs back!  Thinking of you and hoping the chemo/radio therapy aren’t too wearing.

  4. Derek Tonkin says:

    The strong probability is that Assad is responsible for the chemical attack. But the publicly available evidence is not conclusive. If the US already have conclusive evidence, then the clear breach of international law by the US is to some extent mitigated, given the proportionate and narrowly focussed nature of US action, the advance warning given and Assad’s previously known use of chemical weapons and WMD like barrel bombs against the civilian population. For the present, though,  residual doubts about Syrian responsibility should not be swept under the carpet.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    I agree with Lorna!

  6. Aidan says:

    Best of luck with your health, I have missed your wise commentary.

    Having read your analysis of the legality of the attacks on Iraq, it hadn’t escaped my notice that Trump’s strike is surely an illegal act of aggression. I’m also bemused that there hasn’t been more debate and analysis of the exact nature of the incident. There isn’t a lot of primary evidence, it has come from Assad’s enemies and there are a lot of suspect features to it.

    Lack of conclusive evidence aside, what really troubles me is why on earth would Assad order a chemical attack? Only weeks ago the US administration was saying that his removal was no longer a priority, now it’s straight back to the top of the list. Why would he fight a careful, patient, strategic war for year after year, only to bring down the wrath of the international community on him just as his forces are winning on almost every front? I don’t think he would – I think this is either an out-and-out hoax, or it was a false flag attack, where rebels used improvised rockets or released chemicals on the ground, during a nearby air raid, in order to score a propaganda coup. The target had no military value, and chemical attacks would only have value as a terror weapon if they became widely known about – but that would also trigger an international backlash, so that wouldn’t work for him either. I think the current narrative is largely false, but US/UK governments are choosing to believe it because it suits their agenda.

  7. Paul Sharp says:


    Delighted to receive notice of this post in my e mail. I was worried that you had given up -not in the face of changes which you do not like but, far more importantly, in despair at the way they are being handled and commented on from all points of the compass.

    I am a power man more than a law man, and so what worries me is power in unpredictable hands. How, if this is in fact the story, images of innocents dying in one horrible way as opposed to another can turn the policy of the last superpower on its head in the space of a week is very worrying. If we are simply seeing Trump being absorbed into the strategic orthodoxy of the swamp of what his more extreme allies call the deep state, this is less worrying, but only marginally so.

    In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness there is a passage where the narrator’s boat passes mails to a French gunboat lobbing shells aimlessly and pointlessly into the jungle. Trump’s strike reminds me of this.  To think that a reversion to Bill Clinton’s aimless rocket-lobbing to get people off his back in the 90’s is our most hopeful explanation of what is currently going on is depressing.

    Very disappointed with Boris. I hoped he would inject a little of the cavalier spirit into British foreign policy. Did his people not tell him to sound out whether or not initiative will fly before making it? Did he not hear? Did he not care?

    Get well. You’re still worth more to us alive…..etc.



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