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Helping Syria: it's time for an end to regime change wars

15 years of regime change wars, spurious claims regarding weapons of mass destruction and a propagandised information environment: we should be alert to our governments deceiving us in order to launch war.

March to support Assad by Beshr Abdulhadi. Flickr/Some rights reserved.There are signs that the US and its allies are preparing for a major escalation in Syria. The Trump administration has already reacted hastily to the chemical weapon event in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April this year with a limited cruise missile strike. Since then tensions have risen with the US downing a Syrian Air Force jet and, recently, issuing warnings to the Syrian government regarding alleged use, and alleged potential future use, of prohibited weapons.

This week’s release of the OPCW report into the Khan Sheikhoun event, which finds that ‘Sarin or sarin-like material’ had been used, has been seized upon by UK, US and German officials as confirmation of Syrian government culpability. A statement from UK Ambassador Geoffrey Adams on July 5 asserts that Syrian government responsibility is ‘almost certain’ and that only it has access to ‘a complex nerve agent such as sarin’.

Meanwhile, British MPs Crispin Blunt and Johnny Mercer are advancing the idea of pre-emptive parliamentary authority, whereby military action could be initiated without the need for parliamentary debate, whilst US military build-up within Syria is underway.

As the drum beats for war grow louder, it is imperative that we learn, and implement, the lessons of the last 15 years of destructive Western military engagements across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Indeed, context and insight are vital if we are to understand fully the events unfolding before us and influence effective political debate and action.

What are these lessons?

First, the war in Syria needs to be understood, at least in large part, as one element of a broader regime change strategy that has been in play since 9/11. The Chilcot Report of 2016 published Bush-Blair communications from the immediate aftermath of 9/11 which discussed phases one and two of the ‘war on terror’ and indicated debate over when to ‘hit’ countries unconnected with Al Qaeda, such as Iraq, Syria and Iran. Remarkably, Chilcot reported an embassy cable from days after 9/11 which stated ‘the “regime-change hawks” in Washington are arguing that a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region’. As such, Chilcot corroborates former Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark’s claim that he was informed, immediately after 9/11 that seven countries, including Syria, were to be ‘taken out’ in five years.

Although those early objectives were not achieved within 5 years, and almost 10 years separate 9/11 from the current conflict in Syria, leaked documents indicate the existence of US plans from 2006 to destabilize Syria whilst, since at least as early as 2012, we know that the US and its Gulf state allies have been actively seeking the overthrow of the Syrian government frequently via the sponsorship of jihadist groups.

What is not in doubt is the existence of much longer standing Western intentions and actions aimed at achieving ‘regime change’ in Syria. 

Whatever the role and nature of the anti-government protests and Syrian ‘revolution’ in 2011 the true extent and nature remains very unclear, what is not in doubt is the existence of much longer standing Western intentions and actions aimed at achieving ‘regime change’ in Syria. Western government allegations since 2011 of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the illegitimacy of the Assad government, need to be understood in this context.

Second, since the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons event, Western governments have intensified their accusations that the Assad government is using prohibited weapons. Back in 2013, the Obama administration famously declared that such actions represented a red line that, once crossed, would trigger military intervention.

In 2013, amid uncertainty over responsibility for those attacks, the Obama administration backed away from escalation, although continued to fund and support - to the tune of 1 billion per year – opposition groups.

The Khan Sheikhoun event of April 4 this year has led directly to the current escalation in rhetoric, especially since the OPCW finding of sarin/sarin-like use. Many of the allegations have been underpinned by intelligence-based assessments and claims which, invariably, express great certainty of the guilt of the Syrian government. Regarding the Ghouta 2013 event, the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Chair judged it was ‘highly likely that the Syrian Regime was responsible’.  

Again, context and historical backdrop are essential here and warn against easy acceptance of the claims being advanced by Western governments. The lead up to the 2003 Iraq was replete with bold and uncompromising assertions, based upon intelligence reports and UN weapons inspection results, that Iraq had an active and threatening WMD capability. As we now know, intelligence was manipulated and spun, through processes of omission and exaggeration in order to persuade publics that war was necessary.

Of course, it transpired that Iraq possessed no WMD whatsoever. 

Of course, it transpired that Iraq possessed no WMD whatsoever. Only recently, Sir John Chilcot, lead of the Iraq Inquiry in 2016, stated that Prime Minister Blair had ‘not been straight’ with the British public.

Even those disposed towards the most generous reading of government claims regarding Syrian chemical weapons might reasonably be expected to exercise caution given the glaring historical precedent of intelligence deceptions over Iraqi WMD. The most objective position is to remain profoundly circumspect with respect to the claims of Western governments and demand verification and facts, not assertions.

The bottom line here is that, given their desire for regime change in Syria, and for precisely the same reasons that intelligence was spun in the Iraq case, there are powerful incentives for Western governments to distort and exaggerate in the case of Syria in order to create the casus belli they so desperately want. To think otherwise requires a remarkable degree of historical amnesia.

Third, connected with the issue of intelligence-based claims regarding WMD is the matter of propaganda. It has become increasingly apparent over the last 15 years that Western publics have been exposed to comprehensive and far-reaching propaganda campaigns. This is not a matter of conjecture. The Chilcot report released one memo from Blair to Bush discussing phases one and two of the war on terror, in which Blair stated the need for a ‘dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit’ and, as already discussed, the intelligence case for Iraqi WMD was highly propagandized via omissions and exaggerations.

It is now well established that there have been significant propaganda activities designed to manipulate public opinion in support of Western regime change objectives.

With respect to Syria, it is now well established that there have been significant propaganda activities designed to manipulate public opinion in support of Western regime change objectives. For example, in 2012, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in 2012 authorised the ‘training for more than a thousand (Syrian) activists, students, and independent journalists’ in order to help promote her regime change preference. The lauded White Helmets civilian rescue group, which receives widespread positive attention from Western media, and even an Oscar for a film about their activities, have been shown to be largely a propaganda construct. Set up by a former British military officer with substantial funding from the pro-regime change countries, the group operates only within opposition held areas and, certainly in some instances, has been shown to be embedded with extremist groups including Al Qaeda. Their propaganda objective would appear to be the supply of civilian casualty stories in order to feed a narrative demonizing the Syrian government and obscuring public understanding of the violence being perpetrated by the extremist groups dominating the opposition.

At the same time, apparently independent NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been criticized for asserting Syrian government culpability but without adequately supporting their claims. Given the range of these propaganda activities, coupled with the very real possibility that allegations regarding Syrian government responsibility for chemical weapons attacks are underpinned by precisely the same obfuscation and exaggeration witnessed in the run up to the Iraq invasion, it is highly likely that Western public perceptions of the Syrian war have been profoundly distorted by official lies and disinformation. Indeed, this is the public position now of former British Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford and ‘unusual suspects’ such as right wing commentator Peter Hitchens.

Over the coming months, if those forces in the West seeking the overthrow of Assad ratchet up the pressure, we will hear more and more stories about the depravity of the Syrian government and its responsibility for horrendous chemical weapon attacks on civilians. Reality will be presented in black and white terms and those voicing dissent will be heckled and abused as ‘apologists’, ‘leftists’ or ‘useful idiots’. And we will be asked, in fact demanded, to trust our governments in what they are telling us.

However, 15 years of regime change wars, spurious claims regarding WMD, and a profoundly propagandised information environment should alert us to the foolhardiness of such trust. We have been shown, time and time again, that our governments deceive in order to launch wars. It is time to stop being fooled, to ask tough questions whilst demanding that they are answered, and to hold our governments, finally, to account. 

About the author

Professor Piers Robinson is Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield. His latest academic paper is ‘Learning from the Chilcot Report: Propaganda, deception and the ‘War on Terror’.


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