September 3, 2013


Syria Commons vote: Our ill-informed MPs are too careless with the facts to dictate foreign policy (Richard Spencer World, September 3rd, 2013, The Telegraph)

Some backbenchers made articulate arguments. Some with specialist knowledge, like Brooks Newmark, who has met Assad a number of times, weighed in forcefully. But it was disappointing how many members trotted out arguments and "facts" that have little credibility.

Regrettably, those responsible were often those "mavericks" whom we are encouraged to admire for the fact that they don't toe the party line. Kate Hoey, for example, widely respected for standing up to her party over everything from the Gulf War to hunting, was among a number who trotted out the "fact" that Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN commission on Syria, had "pointed out" that the rebels had used poison gas. This is the danger of MPs deciding their positions on a shallow reading of newspaper columnists with whom they agree, Twitter and other social media - all of which have been reposting this line obsessively for the last ten days in support of the tenuous idea that the East Ghouta attack was the work of the opposition. Cursory checks would reveal that this claim by Ms del Ponte was based on a misreading of what her commission was told, and was not supported by the UN, which issued a correction. She herself has never explained what she said (in a BBC interview), defended, provided evidence, or said why she said it. The UN was accused of "covering up" her claims, but that seems nonsensical.

David Davis, the Tory MP for Haltemprice, who also opposes his party leadership on many issues, made the same error, compounded by the fact that he got Ms del Ponte's title wrong. For good measure he threw in "reports" that jihadist rebels had been arrested in Turkey with 2kg of sarin (it turned out to be antifreeze) and concluded that there were three explanations for the chemical weapons attack - that the regime did it, that a rogue part of the regime did it without Assad knowing, and that the rebels did it. Mystifyingly, he first described the first possibility as "probably the most likely" and then said that the second "may be the most likely explanation", which tells you all you need to know on that score.
Several others based their arguments on the idea that the rebels "could have done it", as if this was a real theory. Well, they "could" have, but it is worth pointing out that no one credible has argued that they did. No one involved in studying the issue has argued that they have the capacity or the material to conduct anything on this scale, or found any evidence of preparations in this case. On the other hand, just from open source material (videos etc) you can see the regime missile barrage on the night in question, see the remains of missiles compatible with chemical weapons delivery in the ground, apparently directed from regime positions, and see the same types of missile being loaded and fired by regime troops on other occasions.

Then there's George Galloway, not to the taste of many but not to be ignored for his long knowledge of the region and strongly held views. He made some fair points - who indeed is to say which vetoed Security Council resolutions are more valid than others? - but he too trots out "facts" gleaned from the blogosphere, such as the one about jihadis sawing off the head of a Christian priest (a bunch of Chechens, not Syrians, did indeed decapitate someone, but the idea it was a priest was an invention).

There is another argument in a category all of its own, best put by Roger Godsiff, another Labour MP: the argument from Assad's rationality, that he was not a fool and would not carry out this attack, out of self-interest. "What is in this for Assad? Why should he deliberately participate in an atrocity guaranteed to bring an international response," he said, before voting against just such an international response, apparently unaware of the joke.

Posted by at September 3, 2013 4:32 PM

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