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Do to Syria what we did to Libya says British army general


It's that time of year again. Another British army general retires, and marks the event with an interview in a right wing newspaper arguing the need for greater and more intense military interventions somewhere in the world.

This time it's General Sir David Richards, and his target is Syria. He tells the Daily Telegraph that a no fly zone in Syria won't be adequate 'to restrain the Syrian army'.

Given Richards' own role in an army which has presided over catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whose government's no fly zone in Libya led to a further 30,000 deaths there, you might think he would be thinking first and foremost about restraining his own institution. But no one could accuse the British army of hesitating in further conflicts just because of failure elsewhere.

Far from it. In his interview with Telegraph defence correspondent Con Coughlin, the retiring army chief of staff raises the possibility of a full war in Syria.

'You have to be able, as we did successfully in Libya, to hit ground targets. You have to establish a ground control zone. You have to take out their air defences. You also have to make sure they can't manoeuvre – which means you have to take out their tanks, and their armoured personnel carriers and all the other things that are actually doing the damage. If you want to have the material effect that people seek you have to be able to hit ground targets and so you would be going to war if that is what you want to do.'

Richards expresses the dilemma facing British government and military over the intervention in Syria. For two years now, there has been a constant international debate about how to effect regime change in Syria, accompanied by a series of moves which have at different times supplied finance, arms and logistical support to the Syrian opposition, recognised an effective 'government in waiting' in the form of the SNC, provided a control centre for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, and imposed sanctions on the Syrian government.

While for a long time, the western powers and their allies in the Middle East hoped that this would be sufficient to overthrow Assad, in recent months the opposition has been losing ground militarily. Hence the pressure from Britain and France to lift the EU arms embargo, which takes effect next month, so that it could send arms and other equipment directly. The opposition in parliament to this, in part from dissident Tory MPs, has forced David Cameron and William Hague to concede that there will be a parliamentary vote before any specific opposition group is provided with arms.

The political and logistical difficulties connected with providing arms, and particularly the fear that they will 'fall into the wrong hands' (unlike the safe and reassuring hands of the British military) has seen Cameron blow cold on the idea once again. This is even despite the fact that his wife Samantha Cameron, displaying a newfound interest in foreign policy, is supposedly urging him to do so!

Richards' comments should be seen in this context. Covert intervention has suited all sides because it avoids involvement in a full war, but it isn't working. If the opposition is regarded as unreliable, then pro interventionists argue this makes it necessary to impose a no fly zone.

What Richards is saying is that a no fly zone is nothing of the sort. It involves a serious bombing campaign to succeed, or even troops on the ground. He cites the 2011 intervention in Libya as a success, but this was at a cost of 30,000 lives then, and constant destabilisation and fighting since. Libya is now a major source of weapons sales from different groups.

Syria is a much more serious proposition for the western powers to take on: it is much better defended, has a substantial air force, is supplied with arms by Russia and is located in the centre of a contested region: western allies Turkey and Israel border it, and already fighting has spread beyond its borders to Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. The war is becoming a Middle East war, pitting Syria's allies in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon against Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Richards is signalling that Syria cannot be left alone if western strategic interests are to be served. He told the Sun on the same day (interesting choice of newspapers) that Britain 'would have to act' if Assad's regime collapsed to stop chemical weapons getting into the hands of terrorists.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. We have been here before over Iraq. The army, which confidently justified war then, and in Afghanistan, continue to do so, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Richards also said this week 'I do not associate the military with wars and bloodshed in a narrow sense. I actually associate the military with doing good, with bringing down tyrants, with releasing people's ambitions for their children.'

Not a view shared by many in the countries which have experienced the wars.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

Tags: united-kingdom, syria

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