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'Assad unpleasant, but rational, chemical attack seems illogical’ - Former UK Foreign Secretary

September 09, 2013 08:30

Jack Straw (AFP Photo / Ben Stansall)

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Will Obama strike Syria? Have all the consequences of such a strike been weighed in the balance? Is the evidence of a chemical attack enough and credible to punish Assad and the Syrians? Have we not seen the same story in Iraq and if we have, did we learn from history? We talk about this and more with Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary at the time when the West took the crucial decision to launch a war on Iraq.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Our guest today is the person directly involved in taking a similar decision to launch an attack on another country without a complete picture. Jack Straw, veteran member of parliament and British foreign secretary when Britain went to war with Iraq. Mr. Straw it’s good to have you with us today.

Jack Straw: Thank you.

SS: Do you think the Congress will approve the strike?

JS: I assume the Congress will approve the strike, if only because it would make no sense for President Obama to decide to put this before Congress without having done the numbers in advance. On the other hand all of us made the same assumptions of the British House of Commons about 12 days ago. And the assumption was that PM Cameron had done the numbers, particularly on his own side to ensure that he would win that vote – and he failed to do so. From President’s Obama point of view it is really rather important that he does win, clearly, than what effect that will have on the situation in Syria and on stability in the Middle East.

SS: You’ve said it – you never know for sure – what do you think will happen in the case of a ‘No’ vote? Do you think Obama will go on with this strike without the support of his people and politicians?

JS: I can’t see any circumstances in which President Obama would press ahead with a military strike if Congress voted against that strike. You can’t go to the democratic institution of the government, of the country, like the American Congress, ask them for decision, and if you get the decision you don’t like – then ignore it. That would be serious indeed for the President Obama really to do that. So, he’ll have to respect the decision, whether it is ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ just as PM Cameron has done so.

SS: It is a fact that Assad had been advancing against the rebels in the weeks leading to August 21. Do you think that maybe informed Obama’s reaction to the alleged attack?

JS: I think there’s absolutely no doubt that chemical weapons were used in the suburb of Damascus. We await final confirmation from UN inspectors, but no one is seriously disputing that chemical weapons were used and that certainly was sarin. The second question is: were they used at the instigation of Assad regime. And the evidence is overwhelming, although it is not completely conclusive. One of the reasons why it’s not absolutely conclusive is because people are scratching their heads and thinking, “Why was chemical attack of any interest for the Assad regime, given the fact that in recent months they’ve been making advances rather than retreating? And why would Assad – by all account such an extremely unpleasant regime, but it’s not irrational – why would he decide to risk the wrath of US when he was making progress in any event?" However, stranger things have happened in warfare. What we have in Syria is warfare – it could’ve been a commander down the line who took this action, but moreover I think there is very little evidence that the rebels would’ve had any capacity to launch a chemical weapons attack.

So let us just assume for a moment that this was a chemical weapons attack, launched by the Assad regime and then the question that arises is “What do you do about it?” And one of the reasons why there was such hesitation in the House of Commons, when we debated this at the end of August was because no one was clear, it wasn’t spelled out to us what the consequence would be. We were told that there were going to be some Tomahawk missile strikes. That morning, President Obama had said that this would be “shot across the bow” of the Syrian regime. But “shots across the bow” are token, they don’t cause damage, so the question then was “What happens if the shot across the bow doesn’t work?” and that was never satisfactorily answered, except we learned from communications which had taken place between the head of the US military, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff and leading congressmen that the US fully understood that they had no plans and no capacity short of “hundreds of ships and thousands of forces” to take out Assad’s chemical weapons capability, so we were left scratching our heads – what would the consequences of this action be, and that remains a worry.

But one thing is for certain – if President Obama does launch a series of sustained missile attacks, then he would explicitly join the rebels and there’s no way he can detach sanctioned punishment for chemical weapons from joining the rebels.

SS: We’re going to get to the rebels in just a minute. I’m sure you understand that we over here are getting totally different intelligence data. Do you personally believe the evidence is sufficient that it was Assad who carried out the attack – just your personal opinion?

JS: I’ve not seen the intelligence; I think that the high probability is that it was the Assad regime, not the rebels - for series of reasons. But one of the things I’d like to see is much better cooperation between the US, France and the UK and Russia, particularly, including the intelligence sharing about this, I mean my long experience of handling intelligence is that such good intelligence going to one country’s sources is likely to be parallel intelligence going to another country’s sources. And although Russia and the US, France and the UK have typically been on ‘different sides’, there’s been plenty intelligence cooperation as well, and I think both sides need to sit down and share the information that they have got, because we need to know definitively who was responsible.

However as I say then there is a larger question – even it was the Assad regime, does launching Tomahawk missiles on parts of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria…would that help or hinder the chances of peace and the reduction in the number of casualties?

SS: You said Cameron presentation of the case to Parliament was rather unconvincing. Would you want to see the vote go differently?

JS: We voted for our resolution. Our resolution was not ruling out the military action in respect of Syria. Our resolutionwas laying down a clear process, not least based on the lessons that all of us had learned from Iraq and that process included waiting for reports from the weapons inspectors, because although they aren’t allocating blame, those reports I’m sure were very important in terms of others making assessment of the responsibility. And then, having the matter discussed and brought to a vote in the UNSC – okay, on current predictions it may be that the resolution, put to the security council by, for example, the US, UK and France, would fail as a result of the veto by either or both Russia and China – but we don’t know that for certain. We don’t know what the terms of the resolution would be and in any event, we want to see what the argument is when there’s a prospect of vote, so we wanted both of those to happen, and much clearer statement about the strategic objectives if those at all been forthcoming, including clearer evidence about culpability – then Labour could have supported, not saying ‘would’ – ‘could’ have supported military action, but those weren’t forthcoming.

Instead we had this extraordinary situation where the Labour opposition motion was voted down. It then went to government motion, the government, bear in mind, has got a big majority normally in the British House of Commons that then gets voted down as well. Our leader, Ed Miliband, simply stood up in what’s called a ‘point of order’ after that vote, and asked Cameron whether he could give an undertaking that he wouldn’t put British forces into action without a further vote. That was all he asked. Mr. Cameron used that [chance] to read from a prepared text to say words to the effect that he would rather not bring the matter back to the House of Commons at all. So this is a situation, I’m afraid, that Mr. Cameron brought on himself.

SS: Just in a nutshell – where are the big holes in Cameron’s case and his presentation?

JS: First of all, it was the timing. We were brought back from our holidays, four days before we were due to go back anyway, so everybody’s thinking – what’s the urgency here? Is there about to be a missile strike launched over the weekend? Are we to be presented with significant intelligence? We were never offered a proper explanation, so people were brought back without proper explanation. They were left wondering why that was. Secondly, we were brought back before weapons inspectors have reported, before there were any discussion about resolution inside the UNSC and we were given an abstract summary of some intelligence, which doesn’t say any more, frankly, about the capability than one can read in the newspapers, except it used the phrase that “it was very likely” that the Assad regime was responsible.

The difficulty is that in the case of Iraq we had much better intelligence than that and we had a very clear-based line of all the holdings of chemical and biological weapons that the Saddam regime have held, without question. But, because of Iraq, the bar that has to be overcome for decisions like this is now much higher.

SS: It seems to be that British public opposes this attack on Syria, the British Parliament doesn’t want it, in particular – who does?

JS: It is certainly the case that there’s a very high level of opposition amongst the British public, I mean much higher I think than most parliamentarians including myself anticipated, and you’ve drawn attention to the vote in August, in the British House of Commons. That said, the British government has to take responsibility, so does the British parliament, so if we in parliament were convinced about both the process for the decision and the need for the decision in favor of military action in respect of Syria – then we would’ve taken it, notwithstanding the fact it was going to be unpopular. I can tell you that in my in own constituency, main parliamentary district, the military action against Iraq wasn’t popular at the time it was taken, but I made every effort to explain why I thought it was right and I subsequently had my position endorsed in the following election. So you can take unpopular decisions indeed as part of the responsibility of government, but you’ve got to be able to explain them, and that has so far not been the case.

SS: But if you could, if you were in charge – would you order a strike?

JS: Not as I am sitting here today. No, because I would need to have much more information, I would also need the intelligence which I don’t get as a member of the opposition. I would need to have much clearer idea about what consequences would be. All of us are shocked and very upset about the fact that there has been a chemical weapons attack in Syria and the consequences of the deaths of some hundreds, if not thousands, of people including women and children and the elderly. So, that it a shock, regardless of anybody’s political or religious opinions. But, shock and anxiety is not enough to make a policy, and the question is this, which is got to be answered: if there are missile attacks of any kind of scale in Syria, how does that advance the course of peace and help both sides. The other point is here – I understand the opponents of chemical weapons, of course I do. But it is fair enough for some people, as they did in the House of Commons to point out that the West has been relative in its condemnation of the use of chemical weapons. And, notoriously, when the Iraqis, with Saddam, backed by the West, used various chemical weapons against Iranians, innocent Iranians, there was no hullabaloo from the West at that time – and that is, say, very much, weight in the balance, and I’m sure is something producing a certain amount of cynicism in some quarters in the Middle East.

SS: When I’m thinking of this war, I’m saying that it is being framed in Western terms, but it’s not a Western war though, and decisions are still being taken on the basis of Western perception rather than proven facts as of now. We are still learning from the damage of such orientalism by watching Libya, aren’t we?

JS: My view is as far as Libya is concerned, it was right for France and the U.K, U.S. and others to take the action that we did in Libya. I understand that it’s a course of some very great concern in Russia, and that the Russian government felt that they were blind sighted in the UNSC, but that said, it’s not the view we accept, it is also the case that it was a very clear mandate from the Security Council which Russia had endorsed, in favor of that military action, and I think that Libya is a better place that it was before and will become an even better place. So I don’t think it’s the parallel with Libya, but what you had in Libya was the mass of the population pretty united against very small, pretty corrupt elite around the Gaddafi clan. In Syria, you’ve got a very much more complicated situation. It is multi-sect, multi-religious, say, you’ve got the Alawites, the Shia, the Christians on one side, and Sunni on the other side, but it’s even more complicated than that as we know. You’ve also got different interests in that country including, historically, that of France - after the carve-up of the Middle East at the end of the First World War they got what became Syria, and you’ve also got Russia which has, seems to me, perfectly legitimate interest in its naval base and as a traditional ally of Syria – so you’ve got that complexity, and you’ve got the neighbors: Turkey on one side and Iran on the other, both of which have separate, but legitimate interests.And it’s for this reason, amongst others, that we feel not that we want to see it trough Russia’s eyes or British eyes, but we need to examine the strategy through the eyes of what is best for the people of that benighted country and the neighbors. And there’ve been calls very recently in the British House of Commons for not only there to be “Friends of Syria” which are essentially friends of Syrian rebels, but for there to be a contact group which brings together the Western interests with Russia and with Iran particularly as well as some of the Gulf states, to see whether we can finally produce some solution to this crisis, because how many people were killed or maimed or gassed, in the end there has to be a political solution to what is happening in Syria.

SS: Alleged threats from Syria to attack Israel, I mean, surely there will be unplanned consequences if the strikes take place?

JS: This is one of my great concerns about this. I know no military action where some of the consequences have not been unintended. I may be wrong, but I see no report from Israel that they are pushing for an immediate strike by Americans on the Syrians.

SS: And that’s understandable.

JS: Exactly. Some of the reports I’ve seen suggest although there was no love lost between the Israeli government and the Assad regime, they felt that at least he was a devil they knew and was reasonably predictable.

SS: Here’s another question. Why do you think the West consciously is waging military campaigns against secular leaders when we know that if they are toppled, right or wrong –because toppling dictators is obviously a good thing, but in this case the only alternative that western policies or Europe’s policies can create is a hard-line Islamists? Isn’t it like simply a pursuit of policy contrary to best interests?

JS: It’s not automatic that you get Islamists, but one of the reasons there’ve been such caution by the British government as well as British House of Commons about providing lethal support, weaponry, to the rebels was because of concerns as to the nature of the rebel course. Now, some of them are perfectly respectable secular people and I’m told that this a majority, but there are as we now know people who are equated to the Taliban, and even more extreme people behind them, Salafist people attached to Al-Qaeda. This is another part of the complexity of the Syrian situation.

If you take the Egyptian situation, I thought it was quite right that we backed elections in Egypt and I believe the West as well as everybody else should have described what was happening before our eyes which was a military coup against an elected government, albeit one [that] people disagreed with, the Muslim Brotherhood, in those terms, because people’s confidence in the idea of democracy is undermined if they think that those ‘outside’ not least people of the West want to have you both ways – saying there should be free and fair elections, but when and if they are free and fair, and the wrong results come through, then removing that government – doesn’t seem to be in the long term very sensible.

SS: In this particular case, is it possible to undermine Assad’s regime without playing into the hands of radical Islam?

JS: The way to undermine Assad regime would be for its external allies, particularly Russia and Iran, to give President Assad council and advice in very strong terms about his need, Assad’s need to see political settlement which would not result in the destruction of the Alawites’ interest. And we know what Assad and his clan fear, which is that if they give up any power, then they are dead. They want some protection.

SS: Just to make sure – do you really believe that if President Putin were to say to President Assad “You need to go”, he will just get his stuff, pack it up and leave?

JS: It’s not that simple, but I do believe that if there were a better level of engagement by the West and an understanding by the West of Russia’s own needs in the area and legitimate interests – Russia has a base in Syria – well, Russia has the base in Syria, the US has bases in the Gulf, United Kingdom has sovereign bases on Cyprus. So all of the old great powers have got interests in that area, including some territorial interests.

There needs to be an understanding about that, there needs to be an understanding Russia’s own high levels of anxiety about the possibilities of Islamism feeding further into the Caucasus, into their own backyard and destabilizing southern part of Russia. So, we need that. We need an understanding about Iran’s role as well, not least as we now have the optimism following the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani as president. And I’m not saying that if President Putin picks up the telephone to President Assad, President Assad would jump…I am saying, however, that the Assad regime is very sensitive to Russian influence, it relies a lot on Russia for armaments and maybe in terms of financial support, as well as certainly international political support it receives.

Russia is absolutely critical. And if President Putin was therefore to say “You need to do this, you need to start to moderate your attacks on the rebels and start to take part in as it was Geneva-2” and get the Iranians in there as well, then I think we may be in a more optimistic situation.

SS: Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for today. That was Jack Straw, former UK foreign secretary, thank you for being with us.