Before we Bomb Syria, Shouldn’t we Seek Proof of Guilt?

The pathetic bleating flock of the British political media are helping to beat the drums for war. Yet again by Peter Hitchens (Mail on Sunday)

Late last week, the BBC began blasting the airwaves with stories about a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Initially, its reporters and presenters were reasonably careful to point out that the videos on which this claim was based were unverified – and in fact impossible to verify. As has since become quite clear, the site of the alleged atrocity is very difficult to reach. This fact would be well-known to those who released the films. Indeed, they are in a position to make the site hard to reach.  This is by no means the first such allegation that has been made. No reliable proof has ever been produced of any of them

But bit by bit, this caution lessened. The more the claims were repeated, and the more the films were shown, the more commentators and reporters would say that it was ‘almost certain’ or ‘increasingly likely’ that the Syrian government’s armed forces were responsible for a huge chemical warfare attack on civilians, in the suburbs of the capital city.

In a slow news week, the unpopular papers and then the popular papers, joined in with their own coverage. Even some normally-sceptical writers and commentators were regrettably swept up in proclaiming the likelihood of the truth of the story. It is becoming increasingly risky to voice doubt. What if it’s true? How will the doubters look then?  Well, when it’s proved to be true, I’ll accept it is true. But until then, I won’t.  I won’t be frightened into abandoning the rules of evidence, and nor should you be.

If you want absolutely proven atrocities, all you need to do is look at Egypt, where the new military government, lawlessly installed by violence,  has openly engaged in several severe massacres of  ‘its own people’, in most cases unarmed and defenceless.  Yet because these massacres were done with bullets, or for some other reason I can’t fathom,  no cruise-missile attacks on Cairo are currently proposed. Ask yourself about this. The contrast couldn’t be clearer. Known, undeniable mass-murders, of which there is no doubt, and whose culprits are known and undisputed,  bring no outrage. An alleged mass-murder, whose culprit is not proven, is the subject of huge outrage.

I cannot say how many times I have heard people assert that there is ‘little doubt’ the Syrian government used chemical weapons – in fact I just heard this tricky phrase on the BBC’s  radio news.

‘Little doubt’?

How does one quantify doubt?  How much doubt does there have to be, when a quite possibly unlimited war is in question? If there is doubt of any kind, surely we shouldn’t be broadcasting or writing as if there were no doubt, let alone talking about embroiling ourselves in a vast and probably endless sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, now rapidly catching fire in the region?

Easy enough to lob a cruise missile into Syria from a submarine, no doubt. But what sort of child imagines it would end there? If the missiles failed to shift President Assad, what next? And there are other horrible possibilities I will leave it to you to work out.

William HagueIn a criminal trial, doubt simply has to be reasonable to prevent conviction.  But where has reason gone in this episode? The ridiculous William Hague, who seems to have become sabre-rattler in chief just as this country has sunk to the level of a third-rate military power, talks and acts as if the matter is settled. Our Prime Minister has abandoned one of his holidays ( and who can blame him? It appears to be taking place solely for PR reasons) to hurry back to London for a meeting of the grandiosely-titled ‘National Security Council’. Not only is this name copied from the Americans. It is a body which we managed very well without for many centuries of free and independent (and secure)  existence. Do these people think they are in an episode of ‘The West Wing’, that seductive drama of power-pornography, in which minor politicians imagine themselves as mighty political hunks? I have to conclude that the answer is ‘Probably yes’.

Have I missed something here?  I do not (at the time of writing, 1.00 pm on Monday 26th August) recall there having been a single item of independent verifiable proof of the proposition that the Syrian government is responsible for this episode.

There is some evidence, none of it direct, that a chemical outrage of some sort did happen.

But we are a long way short of an independently verified account, with names of victims, proof of the nature of their deaths, let alone any proof clearly establishing responsibility.

We have been told that such things surely couldn’t have been faked, except by incredibly skilled technicians. But the Syrian ‘rebels’ (in fact a salad of Sunni extremists backed by Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf States, and egged on by two major Arab TV stations) are not short of money or propaganda skills.

Then there is the logic of it. President Assad has in fact denied that his government is responsible. The denial is by no means incredible. He knows (for it has been made clear so many times, not least on the precedent of Saddam Hussein’s Halabja massacre, as well as by President Barack Obama’s statement that such an attack would constitute a ‘red line’) that such an attack would provide the pretext for a ‘Western’ intervention in his country.

It would allow the USA, Britain and France to bypass the UN Security Council, and the vetoes of China and Russia against any UN-sponsored intervention.  Mr Assad knows that a UN inspection team is on hand in Damascus. He also knows  (and so do the rebels) that the fighting in the Damascus suburbs makes it very difficult for that team to reach the site of the alleged massacre. He does not control these suburbs, and cannot guarantee the UN team’s safety( at the time of writing the UN experts have withdrawn after they were fired upon, allegedly by rebels) . If he is to be required to prove his innocence, it will be very difficult. Thus, a media presumption of guilt, readily swallowed by vainglorious and posturing politicians (the sort we mostly have these days) is very likely.

In those circumstances, what could possibly have possessed him to do something so completely crazy? He was, until this event, actually doing quite well in his war against the Sunni rebels. Any conceivable gains from using chemical weapons would be cancelled out a million times by the diplomatic risk. It does not make sense. Mr Assad is not Saddam Hussein, or some mad carpet-biting dictator, but a reasonably intelligent, medically-trained person who has no detectable reason to act in such an illogical and self-damaging fashion.

The rebels, on the other hand (in many cases non-Syrian jihadists who are much disliked by many ordinary Syrians because of the misery they have brought upon them) , have many good reasons to stage such an attack .

Examination of one previous chemical weapons episode, in May ended with Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria suggesting that the rebels, rather than the government,  had used chemical weapons.

On that occasion, the White House had its scepticism turned on “We find it highly likely that chemical weapons, if they were in fact used in Syria – and there is certainly evidence that they were – that the Assad regime was responsible,” spokesman Jay Carney said.”

Funny that.  The independent Ms Del Ponte, after lengthy investigations, interviews with victims and doctors,  makes a cautious statement suggesting the rebels may have been responsible. The White House brushes it aside. But a few months later it swallows whole, without a moment’s doubt,  a far-less-verified or verifiable report, from a far-less independent source. Talk about confirmation bias.

Atrocities happen. The Syrian government may be guilty. If it is, I am myself just as much against intervention as if it hasn’t, though I understand that others may feel differently. But it seems to me that there are several reasons to be careful. The first is that we seek to believe evil of those we have already decided to be enemies, especially in democracies where voters must be persuaded to sign the vast blank cheque of war.

The 1914 stories (in the modern world, in the early months of the first great modern war) of raped nuns and babies tossed in the air and caught on bayonets, as the Germans marched through Belgium, were all lies. In fact the German troops did many wicked things (invading troops almost always do this, especially if brave civilians resist them) but not  these atrocities. Yet they were universally believed, at a time when disbelief might have been better.

Then there is the case of the mass-rape of German women by the Red Army when they stormed into Berlin in 1945. Nobody now disputes that this horror happened. But because they were our allies, we refused to believe it, or kept quiet about it.

It is said that the only lesson of history is that nobody learns any lessons from history, and I am now old enough to believe that this may be true. But before we sign the current  blank cheque, being placed in front of us, (unlimited lives, unlimited money, unlimited duration) for William Hague’s War, I thought it reasonable to ask for proof of the allegations on which the war will be based. Can anyone help?

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