Once again, politicians in the United States and Europe are attempting to make the case for military intervention in the Middle East. Their problem is that we all remember the last time they tried something similar.
The shadow of Iraq has had the positive effect of rendering politicians reluctant to spin intelligence in the way the Blair and Bush governments were keen to do before their invasion of 2003.
Despite what we may have been led to believe in the past, intelligence is almost always vague and ambiguous. As Prime Minister David Cameron told MPs in the British parliament when he put his argument for intervention to them, one needs to make a judgment. A judgment based on, as it turns out, best guesses. And our guesses are rooted as much in our own biases as in evidence. When seeking support for military intervention, the Americans, especially, repeat that they have evidence sarin gas was used. The assumption that Assad is to blame follows naturally but the link is never entirely successfully made. We are told there is more evidence, too sensitive to be made public, that builds the case against Assad more strongly. And, as in the case of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, we are asked to trust them.
The British people and the watching world were promised by David Cameron that he personally had seen evidence compiled by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) of the Assad’s regime’s culpability and he would reveal all – but not yet.
One phrase the British report used was ‘open source’. This means, to you and me, YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts. Ordinarily as a journalist I would shy away from homemade videos as a source, but since our intelligence services have turned to them it is worth mentioning that ‘open source’ evidence tells us rebel groups have boasted about having chemical weapons and their willingness to use them.
And looking at the same ‘open source’ evidence, some chemical weapons experts have cast doubt on the official version of events in any case.
The JIC attempts to support its conclusions on other alleged attacks, which remain unsupported by evidence. ‘We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012,’ says the report.
‘This judgment was made with the highest possible level of certainty. A clear pattern of regime use has therefore been established.’
A conclusion based on an unproven premise is a well- known logical fallacy, known as ‘Begging the Question’. Evidence promised by the US has also proved inconclusive to everyone except those already in favour of intervention. In its own summary it said “Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of Adra from Sunday, 18 August until early in the morning on Wednesday, 21 August, near an area that the regime uses to mix chemical weapons, including sarin.”
They do not elaborate on the verb ‘operating’. Indeed, US intelligence knew of these activities in the days before the alleged attack and thought nothing of it. Now, how- ever, those same activities have since taken shadier hue.
The US document also claims via an unnamed source, “On 21 August a Syrian regime element prepared for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area, including through the utilisation of gas masks.”
This would be equally true if the regime were planning an attack of its own or if it expected one by the rebels. This is not a nuance the report appears very troubled over, though. US Secretary of State John Kerry made the claim an attack on such a scale was beyond the capability of the rebels. The evidence to support this, if it exists, was not shared.
US intelligence’s reluctance to commit over the cause of death of the alleged victims is also telling. It does not use the word ‘victims’ but refers to ‘bodies’ and will only go so far as to say they display ‘physical signs consistent with, but not unique to, nerve agent exposure.’ This is hardly the incontrovertible proof we had been promised.
Another phrase to note in the JIC document (not a dossier) is the committee’s ‘high confidence’ in the accuracy of their assessment. As is the opinion that the alleged attacks were ‘probably delegated’ by Assad. Neither assertion was supported. There is also what the reports left out. Most significantly, they made no mention of alleged chemical attacks in Khan Al Assal on 19 March, against Syrian government forces that President Assad asked the UN to investigate having first handed over his own evidence.
It is the view of the Russians that these findings need to be taken into account before any final decision on military action is made.
The intelligence reports fail to address one very important question. Government forces, at the time of the alleged attack, were making gains. Why then would they launch a chemical attack on an area in which they knew UN weapons inspectors were just five minutes away from, knowing also that they would, in doing so, provide just the pretext for military intervention the US was looking for? That question will not go away. Indeed, the JIC admit Assad’s motivation is not at all clear.
The qualified phrases and ambiguous assertions we are asked to accept as evidence and which politicians are using to convince themselves and others of the need of military intervention are well trodden. They simplify a complex situation to the point of meaninglessness.
George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language wrote: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
As arguments rage it must not be forgotten that on 21 August, hundreds of innocent people died, joining the tens of thousands who died before them, whether by chemical weapons or the more acceptable method of bombs and bullets.