Saturday, 8 April 2017

Trump's Bombs - An Analysis

The question today is whether the Assad Government (the use of 'regime' is a propaganda tool otherwise we would say Trump Regime or Hollande Regime, only our enemies are 'regimes') used chemical weapons in Idlib. There are five reasonable theories:

- a) it did

- b) Assad is not in control of his forces and one of his Syrian airbase commanders undertook this action without authorisation (in which case he must still take responsibility if he does not expose and remove the commander, that is, if he can),

- c) the Syrian Air Force (as the Russians once said) accidentally struck a chemical weapons dump in rebel hands (this is plausible but we have to add the possibility that the air force deliberately bombed such a dump),

- d) a chemicals dump in rebel hands was deliberately used in a false flag operation by rebels or proxies for political reasons against its own people (unfortunately this really cannot be dismissed as a possibility given what is at stake and the ruthlessness of all parties in the struggle),

- e) chemical weapons were brought into the area by an unknown group in order to create an incident or provocation for political reasons.

The truth is that we really do not know what happened and the reasons to take d) and e) seriously without accepting them as necessarily true are these:

- i) chemical weapons stocks cannot be assumed to be solely under the control of the Syrian Government nor unavailable from a range of proxy actors in the country,

- ii) all proxy actors have shown the ability to disregard civilian life in the past when it is politically useful or deemed necessary (just as much as the Government in Damascus),

- iii) proxies and their client rebels were in a desperate political situation in relation to the US Presidency increasing the motivation for a desperate acts,

- iv) the timing was totally counter-intuitive to Syrian state interests to the extent that option a) above is almost certainly irrational: Damascus appears genuine in its anger at the turn of events (only the radically absurd notion that Damascus was testing Trump to the limit accounts for the fact unless a faction of the Syrian Air Force undertook the action to scupper the peace process),

- v) Russian protests at the claims should be treated with care but the firmness of the protest indicates genuine anger at the claims with Russia in a better position to understand the facts on the ground than the West.

There are other considerations to be taken relating to the Western side. Western intelligence has proven poor in the past. Its incoming intelligence may come from the very persons who may be motivated to undertake a 'false flag' operation. Western allied assertions have often been dictated by their unified stance towards Russia and not by the facts on the ground. Whatever the truth of the matter on the ground, conservative Republicans, European allies, pro-rebel activists (who are well funded) in Washington, and senior State Department, intelligence and Pentagon officials are all engaged in manouevres to place an unstable Presidency under control and force him into a defining interventionist line. The underlying aim is to shift his policy from a populist one to the standard line that has existed since 1945 of forward defence against Russia.

This last motivation is not to be dismissed. Trump has threatened to over turn American foreign policy priorities. In this one action, he has proven that he is not willing or able to do that when push comes to shove. Because of what is at stake, without conspiracy theory being required, these facts provide the motivation for taking d) and e) seriously. Given the long history of such operations in American and Western foreign policy, provocation must be accepted as a real possibility in the context of what has been called the American Deep State (that is, those career military and foreign policy officials with skin in the game of a particular policy line). The speed of alignment of allies indicates that this manouevre represents a major political win for the international shared position underpinning the NATO model.

This is not to say that the American Deep State engaged directly in a provocation but only that its reaction to a provocation and its own difficulties in controlling the Presidency would have made the calculations of third parties capable of a provocation ones that encouraged direct action. However, this is not to say that d) and e) are true representations of events and we do not want to go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory with no more facts in favour of a provocation than one of deliberate state action but only to say that d) and e) are, at this point in time, no more nor less possibly true than a), b) and c). The wise and fair approach would have been either to undertake investigations in order to bring the matter before the UN or supply sufficient reliable intelligence (better than the rubbish presented to the UN in 2003) into the public domain that would incontrovertibly justify direct action that we could all support. In this regard, Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right in his caution.

Without public access to intelligence, a reasonable suspicion has to be that Trump was guided into a machismo gesture by motives far beyond the simple direct response to a humanitarian disaster. If so, it was not even directed at Russia primarily, let alone Damascus. It was directed at halting a certain turn in American foreign policy, signalled only days before, and shifting it back in a conservative direction through the advisory intervention of an array of forces within the Washington and NATO establishment with two aims in mind - the restoration of the elimination of the Assad Leadership from the ultimate game plan for Syria (a position strongly advocated by France and Britain) and the re-assertion of a policy of contestation for territory and influence with Moscow and the final burying of any suggestion of a Washington-Moscow detente.

Again, we are not saying here that a) and b) were not possible - far from it - but only that the trajectory of events seems not to be a simple one of a proven war crime resulting in a efficacious direct response but rather one of a crime veiled in the fog of war and being used in such a way that it raises the reasonable suspicion (no more) of it being a provocation. Eliminating all chances of it being a provocation through rapid investigation (with a refusal by the Syrian Government to permit investigation being a reasonable admission of guilt) should have been prior to what amounted to an act of war. 


Since writing this note, we have seen the publication of the important letter from Theodore A Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and National Security Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which casts severe doubt on the intelligence assessment on which the bombing was based and which indirectly raises questions that relate directly to the analysis above. 

It may be useful to note that Al-Nusra (or rather its successor organisation which really is just a rebranded Al-Nusra, meaning Al-Qaeda) is on the very border of the town, that it was reported as quarrelling with the other rebel groups as recently as January and that the original Al-Nusra seized one Syrian air base and besieged another before the September 2013 Chemical weapons Agreement and then captured the second after it (conditions would never have been ideal for any decommissioning). Most observers agree that some chemical weapons are in the hands of rebel groups and Al-Nusra declined to sign the 2013 Agreement. 

This is definitely not to say that Al-Nusra 'did it' (we have no evidence of that) but only to say that a lot more questions needed to be asked before lobbing missiles around and reversing policy on the say-so of analysts working for agencies with skin in the game of preserving the policies of the previous Administration. Maybe answering those questions would have led back to Damascus but it seems a lot of key questions were not being asked any more than they were in previous 'shoot from the hip' American operations. 

This is not a cowboy show on 1950s TV with men in black hats and men in white hats who can see each other clearly across the saloon, designed to entertain tired less-than-well-educated punters at the end of a tough working day ... it is complicated and it decides whether tens of thousands live or die or are maimed or made homeless. This means that a high level of intelligence analysis is required without the 'sources' (which include the 'white helmets') being given too much leeway as if they had none of that 'skin in the game' themselves.