My feeling that we are in a pre-war era, and are being prepared for that war almost every day, grows. I am not feeling especially well at the moment, and my days are tinged with a certain darkness anyway, despite the arrival of spring, but I cannot at any point in my life ever recall being gripped by such a feeling of impending, unavoidable disaster.
It began early on Sunday morning with claims of a gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Although the BBC were careful to state that the reports were unverified, my heart sank. The prominence being given to the story suggested that it didn’t much matter that they were not verified. Why lead a news bulletin on a main national material with unverified material, if you think verification matters a lot? Surely the old rule was ‘verify first’, then publish’?
Is it 1914 again?
I wearily resigned myself to the fact that at some point I would have to write what I am now writing, a warning that these claims have not been proven, may not be proven, and serve the end of those who desire to draw this country into a war. What sort of war? Well, I am horribly reminded of the summer of 1914.
Two major powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are irreconcilably hostile to each other. One of them, by aggressive diplomacy in proxy states, has created a state of grave tension between them which, if it goes much further, threatens to draw the great powers into open conflict. A single incident, by providing the basis for aggressive diplomacy, unacceptable demands and perhaps actual warlike violence, could trigger that war. If so, it will not be confined to the Middle East, because of the involvement of Russia in the dispute. Indeed, it may be Russia’s involvement in Syria, where it has frustrated Saudi Arabian designs and those of Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as the USA, this country and France, which triggered the considerable increase in tension in Ukraine which began to heat up in 2013.
A single incident could trigger war
Given the nature of the controversy about Ghouta today, even the events in Salisbury have a relevance to this, as does the mass expulsion of diplomats which followed that outrage, even though it has never actually been linked by indisputable evidence to the direct action of the Russian state.
War fever means the death of honest debate
Careful readers will also have noticed that the Labour leader has been facing increasing accusations from the Tory party of being a Russian stooge, in my view a breach of the moral code which allows freedom to live. If the Leader of the Opposition cannot oppose the government without being accused of some sort of fealty to a foreign power, then we are not free. I have no doubt something similar will soon be said of me. I find this worrying not because it is bone-headed and childish (though it is) but because it is a symptom of something very serious – the death of open, honest debate.This is an invariable symptom of a country whose elite is bent on war.
…is the proof of that, a catalogue of my long record of severe criticism of the Assad state (such that I have never even sought a visa for Syria, on the assumption that it might be refused or, worse, that it might be granted and some sort of revenge taken on me once I arrived).
By the way, my fear of such accusations is not unfounded, as you may read here in an account of my dispute with the former Tory MP Brooks Newmark, during an earlier attempt to drag this country into intervening in Syria.
I contacted him and politely asked him to withdraw, but he would not, and eventually my own then MP, the excellent Andrew Smith (a proper old-fashioned Honourable Gentleman who treated his constituents without fear or favour) was kind enough to make my rebuttal for me in the Commons, so ensuring that it was recorded in Hansard. But Mr Newmark never retracted.
Now, despite my equally long record of criticism of Vladimir Putin, going back to 2004 , see http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2014/11/getting-putin-right-but-russia-wrong-two-old-articles-.html I have no doubt that some semi-literate will accuse me of being a ‘useful idiot’.This hackneyed and ill-understood Cold War term was never actually used by Lenin, as claimed. In any case it applies specifically to the dim fellow-travellers of Communism, who defended the USSR’s misdeeds because of ideological sympathy. This is an accusation that simply cannot be made against me. Russia has no ideology. And I am not a defender of, or a friend of, the Russian state.
That done, I was going to have to examine, patiently and dispassionately, the accounts of the latest alleged atrocities, and apply the same treatment to them. I cannot, alas, analyse them all. So I have chosen two left-wing papers. But I must also remind readers of the difficulty of sources for reports in these areas, where in general western journalists cannot safely go. This article (please note the interesting background of the doctor quoted) may help you understand just how difficult it is to get straight information under these circumstances
It is very hard to get straight facts out of war zones
The Financial Times prominently quotes the words of others who *have* assumed the case is proven, such as President Trump and, apparently, the EU, both of whom are said to be calling for action. ‘Sentence first, verdict later’, as the King of Hearts says in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. But it is careful to say in its headline that it is an ‘alleged chemical attack’. And it uses the qualifying phrase ‘if confirmed’ , before saying it would then be the most serious since sarin gas *was* dropped in Khan Sheikhoun a year ago.
See what you think
It seems oddly unaware that this allegation remains in question, or that no independent observer ever investigated the site. Time does not turn an allegation into a proven fact, and the truth about this should not be forgotten. The FT’s story is datelined ‘Rebecca Collard in Beirut’. Beirut is 70 miles from the alleged attack, and in a separate country, even assuming she could have got to the scene in time or entered the very dangerous conflict zone involved, and also to ‘Courtney Weaver in Washington’, which is even further away from Ghouta than I am. The report cites as a source a body called the Syrian American Medical Society, whose website here https://www.sams-usa.net/who-we-are/ gives some indication that it may not be wholly neutral in Syrian matters. Click on ‘Our Advocacy’ and then on ‘Campaigns’ and see what you think.
The Guardian’s Page One story is from Martin Chulov, likewise 70 miles from the scene, in Beirut.
It is illustrated by a moving photograph of a child, eyes closed, with an oxygen mask over his face. The caption says he is ‘struggling to breathe after the attack”. No qualification is visible in this caption , in the headline (Outcry over chemical attack in Syria’), or in the opening paragraph, which uses the phrase ‘chemical strike’ and the word ‘atrocity’ without the word ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’.
The picture is credited to Mouneb Taim, who I think must be the same person as the author of this Twitter feed:
On page nine, the Guardian has a longer account from Kareem Shaheen – in Istanbul, 900 miles from Damascus.
It attributes to ‘aid workers and medics’ descriptions of ‘apocalyptic scenes’, and does use the word ‘alleged’. But I could not see a single named person quoted, just unidentified doctors, paramedics and a local journalist.
The Guardian Becomes the Warmonger’s Gazette
Remember, this is the Guardian, a newspaper which for decades was the house journal of ban-the-bombers and protestors against the Suez adventure and the Vietnam war, with very high proportions of Quakers, moth-eaten liberals and vegans among its readers. Yet now it has become a trumpet for armed intervention. Under the pious slogan ‘Comment is free…but facts are sacred’ first stated by its greatest editor C.P.Scott, the paper’s opinion column declares (again without the slightest qualification): ‘Syria’s renewed use of chemical weapons against its own people at the weekend is shameless and barbaric. Dozens of people in the remaining rebel-held suburbs of Damascus were suffocated by Saturday’s chemical attack on the Douma district. This is not the first time this has happened. Since the use of sarin at Khan al-Assal in 2013 there have been dozens of chemical attacks by the regime. These deliberate attacks on civilians show callous contempt for humanity and disregard for the laws of war. Official Syrian claims that the latest killings have been fabricated are beneath contempt.’
But if facts are sacred, how can the Guardian be so sure, given that it is relying on a report from one correspondent 70 miles away, and another one 900 miles away, however good they are at their jobs, and some anonymous quotes from people whose stories it has no way of checking?
Long-distance Psychiatry? A Breakthrough! It recognises the problem that any such action by President Assad would be raving mad. Assad is on the verge of a highly significant victory in Ghouta, and a gas attack would provide the only realistic opportunity for an American intervention against him, about the only thing that could once again put his position in doubt. The Guardian isn’t troubled by that. It argues: ‘Some may ask why, since the slow throttling of Damascus’s eastern Ghouta suburbs seems to be approaching a grisly climax, the government feels any need to breach one of the oldest taboos in warfare once more. To answer that adequately it is necessary to delve into the darkest places of the psychology of a regime that celebrates the overwhelming use of force, the need to terrorise civilians and the right to punish opponents indiscriminately as a weapon of policy.’ In other words, yes, President Assad is mad. Well it is a point of view, but even if reporting of atrocities can be done accurately from a distance of 900 miles, I have heard of no attested experiments showing that psychiatry can be done at such distances.