By Ibrahim Al-Marashi
1 September 2013
David Cameron stressed several times in front of parliament that military strikes against Syria differed from the case to go to war against Iraq in 2003. Having been personally implicated in the justification for war against in Iraq in 2003, I cannot help but to feel that his justifications resemble those of 2003.
Cameron's reliance on a joint intelligence committee dossier on Syrian WMD during his presentation reminded me of how 10 years ago Tony Blair also relied on a dossier on Iraq's WMD programme to justify military action. In that instance parliament agreed to go to war, but it was later revealed that the dossier had been plagiarised from research on Iraq that I was conducting at the Department of Modern History at Oxford University.
While I am not suggesting the new Syria dossier is by any means plagiarised, the British parliament, media and public have proven to be more sceptical and inquisitive about the sources that serve as the basis for the intelligence that London and Washington provides for military action.
Nevertheless, this lesson has not been learned in the US. The Obama administration has guaranteed it has convincing evidence that Syria was behind the nerve agent that killed more than 1,000 people in Ghouta, which it may well have. However, the mistake that the US government is making by relying on intelligence is that once intelligence proves culpability, a military solution will follow, even though it may turn out that the intelligence was flawed after the fact.
Past precedent offers better lessons about a future strike on Syria. As well as deterrence, one aim of an American strike is to degrade Syria's WMD programme. But aerial military campaigns have failed in this regard in the past and a surgical strike envisioned by the Obama administration will probably do little strategic damage to Damascus's arsenal.
In 1981 Israel successfully bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor. Nevertheless, this attack only convinced the Iraqi state, including its scientists, to continue with its nuclear programme as a means of denying Israel a victory. After 1981 the programme's nuclear sites were placed in well-protected structures underground, and the Soviets taught the Iraqis how these structures could evade detection. It was not until after the 1991 Gulf war that the extent of Iraq's nuclear programme was known.
During the 1991 Gulf war aerial sorties were conducted against Iraq's WMD sites over a span of six weeks. Yet UN weapons inspectors on the ground after the war still discovered both facilities and munitions that survived the air campaign.
Even the targeted assassinations of Iran's nuclear scientists had unintended consequences. The number of engineering students in Iran who changed their speciality to nuclear engineering soared after these assassinations.
Several commentaries have compared the Ghouta attack to the chemical weapon attack against the Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988. This comparison is misleading. I have read transcripts captured after the 2003 Iraq war, in which Saddam Hussein stated that he could attack Iraq's Kurds because the UN and the US were turning a blind eye to his use of WMDs. If deterrence is Washington's goal, Bashar al-Assad should have already learned the lesson that he does not enjoy the impunity that Saddam did. The military buildup and sabre rattling communicated this fact, without an air strike occurring.
A wiser course for Washington is to try to influence Russia, which has been keen to avoid a military showdown. The Syrian state is pursuing its civil war with a military force dependent almost entirely on Soviet-era or Russian arms. Syria's WMD arsenal can be delivered by artillery shells, rockets, or from aircraft that are produced in Russia.
Russia and the US had discussed a political solution that would bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to a conference in Geneva to search for a negotiated solution to the conflict. But this was forgotten as the crisis escalated over the last couple of months. Perhaps by Washington choosing not to carry out a military strike, the Syrian government will be induced to negotiate. If that were to occur, the civilians who were killed in Ghouta would not have died in vain.