The War That Wasn’t


Of the many distortions and falsehoods that comprise ‘debate’ over Syria in the British press, I think the one that comes up most is the 2013 Commons vote on launching punitive airstrikes on Assad following his illegal use of chemical weapons. As apparently no-one remembers, when Assad crossed Obama’s ‘red line’ on using chemical weapons on civilians, there was a Franco-British-US rush to an ill-defined war. There were no objectives or long-term plans to this, it was a really strangely incoherent plan. It wasn’t a no-fly zone, or a full-on humanitarian intervention, it seemed to literally just consist of chucking some missiles at some command centres and chemical weapons facilities to chastise Assad for being a knob (which, tbf).

Ed Miliband, bless his soul, dared to demand some clarification on this plan. NB: he didn’t at the time oppose striking Assad [not gonna lie, lads, I’ve had to Google this bit because I’m a bit shaky on the details. So this post is immediately going to be 2x as factually based as anything on Comment is Free]. As it became clear that there was no support for this bad plan, even Tory MPs started rebelling, and Cameron lost the vote, leading him to rule out military action against Syria.

Summed up quite ably here, tbh:

This has since been recharacterised in the most dramatic and apocalyptic terms possible (including, to his discredit, by Miliband himself – “facing down the leader of the free world” indeed, Ed). It has become the marker of Britain’s retreat from the world stage, evidence of Miliband’s fundamental unseriousness, and a just sort of general decision by the UK to condemn the people of Syria to their fate.

More than that – it was a Chamberlain moment. As the Ukraine crisis kicked off, apparently-not-stupid man Sajid Javid* argued it was this vote that emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine. And so, gradually, the significance of this vote escalated to the point that now it can be used as shorthand for whatever the author wants it to.

I just re-read the article that really set off this rant and I’m fuming again.

Apparently-lucid-political-commentator Matthew D’Ancona thinks this is a good paragraph:


It isn’t.

In order to keep this slightly unhinged rant of a post on-track, I’ll ignore most of it, as it’s all speculative, baseless drivel of the sort that apparently you get paid for if you once edited The Spectator.

That first sentence though. I’ll refer us to past-me for this one:

It’s breath-taking. For a ‘faction’ that is so relentlessly keen to proclaim its readiness to face reality and take tough decisions they seem consistently delusional.

To be plain.

This was not Iraq (for all the British press’ tedious desperation to make everything about Iraq). This was not even Libya. The goals of whatever operation had been planned in the summer of 2013 were not about “levelling the playing field”, or “getting Assad to the negotiating table”.

They were a lot more limited, and a lot less coherent. Counterfactuals are obviously a mug’s game but I think you have to stretch yourself into some really shaky mission-creep arguments to try and claim that the operation being proposed in the summer of 2013 would have led to any substantial improvement in the situation in Syria**.

So it probably didn’t matter that much in the grand scheme. I know writing is hard*** and that Syria is really complicated and really depressing but can we just… let go of this particular form of shorthand.

It’s bad.

More on this sort of thing to follow, I think.



*I was talking about this with a friend the other day – it is a bit baffling that such an apparently brilliant and successful bloke says such stupid shit

**there’s also the sort of still-inconclusive fate of the OPCW deal that in theory deprived Assad of all his chemical weapons. For a while that looked like a real triumph of diplomacy, but there’s consistent reports of chemical attacks in Syria, though I’ve read that they are using cruder and less lethal toxins as the worst stuff was dismantled. So there’s that too.

***this post has taken me about five tins of Stella, four hours, three rewrites, two listens to Sia’s album and one very patient [redacted], so I know all about how difficult writing is tbh

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