Theresa May: Protesting too much?
If Theresa May thinks we’ll swallow unquestioningly her “statement” on the air strikes she ordered last Friday, she must think we were all born yesterday.
We all know the justification by now, right? The claim is that the town of Douma, in Syria, was attacked by government forces using chemical weapons. These have been banned across the world for a century and the US, UK and France launched air strikes against facilities believed to be involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons for humanitarian reasons – to discourage any further use of such weapons. The strikes were said to be tightly targeted, focused on this single objective.
That was the substance of Mrs May’s speech. But it has been seriously undermined already.
She said: “On Saturday 7 April, up to 75 people, including young children, were killed in a horrific attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties. All indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack. UK medical and scientific experts have analysed open-source reports [she means social media posts], images and video footage from the incident and concluded that the victims were exposed to a toxic chemical. That is corroborated by first-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers, while the World Health Organisation received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian health facilities on Saturday night with ‘signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals’.”
But as she was participating in a Parliamentary debate on the air strikes, journalist Robert Fisk published a claim that the casualties in the Douma attack were treated for dust inhalation – and not for a chemical gas attack. Listen:
You can also read the Independent article.
“We needed to intervene rapidly to alleviate further indiscriminate humanitarian suffering,” said Mrs May. “It was not just morally right but legally right to take military action, together with our closest allies.
“We have published the legal basis for this action. It required three conditions to be met. First, there must be convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief. Secondly, it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved. Thirdly, the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian suffering, and must be strictly limited in time and in scope to this aim.”
We have already seen that claims of convincing evidence may have been exaggerated – and in any case, claims that action on a humanitarian basis is legal have been disputed. As the use of chemical weapons is now in doubt, the second condition is also unmet – people are still being killed in Syria. Thirdly – well, we’ll come to that.
“This was a limited, targeted and effective strike that would significantly degrade Syrian chemical weapons capabilities and deter their future use, and with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.
“As a result, the co-ordinated actions of the US, UK and France were successfully and specifically targeted at three sites. Contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition said at the weekend, these were not “empty buildings”. The first was the Barzeh branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in northern Damascus. This was a centre for the research and development of Syria’s chemical and biological programme. It was hit by 57 American TLAMs and 19 American JASSMs.”
In that case, if chemical weapons were present – or just the ingredients for them – they would have been spread out over a wide area by the explosions. There has been no report of any such contamination.
Quite the opposite, it seems. I accept that the link runs to a report by Russia Today, so perhaps you’d prefer a report by CBS News – the US media outlet. Both make it clear that reporters saw no evidence of harmful chemicals – just anti-venom for snakebites (as reported on This Site previously). We now see that Barzeh was the planned base for the OPCW inspectors, who would have taken up residence there on April 15. Well, it’s rubble now. Who benefits from that?
“The second site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons bunkers, 15 miles west of the city of Homs, which contained both a chemical weapons equipment and storage facility and an important command post. These were successfully hit by seven French SCALP cruise missiles.
“The third site was the Him Shinsar chemical weapons storage site and former missile base, which is now a military facility. This was assessed to be a location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment, whose destruction would degrade Syria’s ability to deliver sarin in the future. This was hit by nine US TLAMs, five naval and two SCALP cruise missiles from France and eight Storm Shadow missiles launched by our four RAF Tornado GR4s. Very careful scientific analysis was used to determine where best to target these missiles to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks to the surrounding area. The facility that we targeted is located some distance from any known population centres, reducing yet further any such risk of civilian casualties.”
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, in his response to the statement, pointed out that OPCW inspectors had given both Barzeh and the Him Shinsar facilities a clean bill of health in November 2017.
He said: “In relation to the air strikes against the Barzeh and Him Shinsar facilities, the Prime Minister will be aware that the OPCW carried out inspections on both those facilities in 2017 and concluded that ‘the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations’ under the chemical weapons convention.”
Mention of the OPCW brings us to further questions about the intelligence Mrs May has used:
The new questions are:
- If we knew where [Syrian president Bashar al] Assad was stashing his chemical weapons, why did we wait for him to use them again?
- If we just bombed chemical weapons factories in Syria, why was the existence of these factories never reported before – to the UN, the OPCW or the public?
- Why did the bombing commence before the OPCW had concluded their chemical weapons investigation?
In this context, it was bizarre to hear Mrs May saying that she supports the OPCW investigation, after having blown up the investigators’ base: “”e support strongly the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission that is currently in Damascus.”
She went on to say that she decided to act ahead of any results because the OPCW would not be able to attach blame, due to a Russian veto on a UN resolution to establish such a mechanism. She said: “Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment… it cannot attribute responsibility.
She continued: “Even if we had the OPCW’s findings and a mechanism to attribute, for as long as Russia continued to veto the UN Security Council would still not be able to act.”
So Mrs May hid evidence that Syria was developing chemical weapons from the OPCW, supported a military operation that bombed the OPCW’s planned base of operations, and would have taken part in air strikes no matter what report the OPCW investigators would have given. That doesn’t seem very supportive to me!
Mrs May denied acting on the orders of US President Donald Trump: “It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used, for we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised—within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.”
“On the streets of the UK or elsewhere”. She had to mention the alleged chemical attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, you see. It is as though that incident was staged in order to soften up the British public to the idea of military action on the pretext of preventing the use of such weaponry. Isn’t it?
Mrs May later added: “Last Thursday’s report from the OPCW has confirmed our findings that it was indeed a Novichok in Salisbury… While of a much lower order of magnitude, the use of a nerve agent on the streets of Salisbury is part of a pattern of disregard for the global norms that prohibit the use of chemical weapons.”
The problem is, the lab that tested the Salisbury substance for the OPCW found that it was BZ – a chemical agent apparently used by the UK and the US.
And there is no evidence of chemical weapons at Barzeh, and both that facility and those at Him Shinsar were cleared by the OPCW five months ago.
Without actual evidence of chemical weapons, it is impossible for Mrs May to justify these activities. And she has no evidence.
Mrs May continued: “Why did we not recall Parliament? The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations.”
We have established that it wasn’t. Blowing up facilities that have nothing to do with chemical weapons will not alleviate humanitarian suffering (actually, what does that even mean? She was trying to say she was acting on humanitarian principles but mangled the English language instead).
“This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before.”
And falsely used in this instance.
“And it was a decision that required the evaluation of intelligence and information, much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament.”
But it could have been shared with other members of the Privy Council, like Mr Corbyn. Clearly it was not, which casts it into doubt.
The best that can be said of Mrs May’s statement is that it is unconvincing.
We have an eyewitness account that the alleged victims of a chemical attack in Douma were in fact under treatment for dust inhalation, there is no evidence that chemical weapons were manufactured or stored at the sites the UK, US and France bombed last weekend (and claims that a Russian chemical weapon was used on the Skripals have been contradicted), so there was no justification for the military action.
On the other hand, Mrs May’s keenness to ascribe the Salisbury poisoning to Russia without evidence, her support for a military adventure that stymied OPCW inspectors, her withholding of evidence – or inability to supply it – from the same organisation – all these elements seem very suspicious indeed.
As this situation is ongoing, further information is likely to become available and I stand ready to be corrected if Mrs May is vindicated.
At the moment, she seems a weak leader, desperately trying to manufacture some popularity – and failing.
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