By Dan Glazebrook
The vote by British lawmakers in the House of Commons late last month against attacking Syria was widely hailed as unprecedented in modern times. This is the same House of Commons that voted, with huge majorities, for military aggression against Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya - the last in this very parliament - with devastating consequences.
It is the same House that has never opposed Britain's role in hugely destructive sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Iraq: sanctions known, and arguably designed, to inflict pain on the civilian populations, and reaching genocidal proportions in the last case according to two high-level UN officials.
It is the same House that routinely votes through legislation not only allowing people to be detained without charge, but now stripped of their citizenship so they can be drone-blitzed without government embarrassment.
A case of parliament vetoing military action proposed by the government is so rare that newspapers have reminded us that you have to go back as far as 1782 to find another example; in that case Lord North's plea, at the behest of George III, to continue fighting the American independence movement even after the disastrous and pivotal defeat at Yorktown.
What has changed parliament's mind? Why did British lawmakers act so seemingly out of character last week? Various explanations have emerged in the British press. For many mainstream newspapers, the issue has been reduced to a technical, bureaucratic issue of "party mismanagement" by Prime Minister David Cameron and his whips; that he did not work hard enough to get MPs, and in some cases even government ministers, back from their holidays in time for the vote, or to get cross-party consensus, or to make concessions to his rebellious backbenchers.
Others say it was all down to opposition leader Ed Miliband cynically using the split among the ruling Conservatives for party advantage. All this may be true, but it still begs the questions of why the Tories were so divided on the issue, and why the vote was going to be so close in the first place? All other votes of this nature have been anything but close; even the celebrated backbench rebellion over the Iraq war did not prevent that motion breezing through with a comfortable majority of well over 250.
Many in the anti-war movement have congratulated themselves on a great "victory". Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition wrote in the Guardian newspaper that "the sustained mass pressure of the anti-war movement has undoubtedly been a decisive factor", adding that "Ed Miliband deserves a measure of credit too, of course."  Really? Can we really say that the anti-war movement has exercised "sustained pressure" on the government on this issue?
The greatest anti-war pressure, surely, came at the time of the Iraq war, since when the movement - at least in terms of numbers participating in any obvious, visible form of collective protest - has collapsed. Indeed, the coalition itself held its first significant national demonstration against war on Syria only after the parliamentary vote had taken place; do its organizers really think that the mere threat of impending demonstration altered lawmakers' opinions? Public opinion has continued to side with the general anti-war sentiment of the movement, undoubtedly, but public opinion alone does not equal "sustained pressure".
Elsewhere the parliamentary vote has been attributed to the lack of evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government was responsible for the attack. Many MPs argued in last week's debate that the experience of being "misled" over Iraq meant that "bar has now been raised" in terms of the quality of evidence they now demand before supporting military action.
Other explanations for the vote's outcome include the idea of "war fatigue" (implied by US Secretary of State John Kerry), or of some kind of sudden, road-away-from-Damascus conversion to the sanctity of public opinion: "MPs can read opinion polls" the Independent's John Rentoul pointed out, as if they had been unable to do so previously, and as if the British public ever voted according to foreign policy preferences anyway.
These explanations all have their appeal. They add up to a general explanation that parliament has now "learned the lessons" of Iraq, that it can no longer be relied upon to support war in the Middle East in the face of public opinion, on the basis of flimsy evidence, and without regard to the generally disastrous humanitarian consequences.
The Libyan paradox
This argument might seem plausible if not for one almighty spanner in the logical works. Libya. Two and a half years ago, this same House of Commons voted - by 544 to 13 no less - to support the bombing of Libya in a war that ultimately resulted in the total destruction of the Libyan state and thus condemned the country to instability and violence for decades to come. Many of the arguments used about Syria now would have equally - if not more so - applied to Libya then. Take the issue of evidence.
The momentum for war against Libya, as Thomas Mountain has discussed,  was built up primarily on the basis of four major lies. The most important, of course, was that Gaddafi was on the verge of committing a massacre against thousands of innocent civilians - half a million, in Benghazi, the Guardian reported. 
Yet the evidence for this assertion was even flimsier than the chemical weapons case against Assad, resting solely on one decontextualised extract from a single, badly translated speech by Gaddafi, where he threatened "no mercy" against rebels. Gaddafi specifically outlined what he meant by rebels - those who had taken up arms against the government and had rejected the government's offer of amnesty should they give themselves up - yet, strangely, the mainstream media chose not to pick up either this caveat or the amnesty offer. 
As Hugh Roberts of the International Crisis Group has pointed out, the Libyan army's retaking of other rebel-held territories earlier in the uprising had not once resulted in massacres against civilians, and neither had his response to other rebellions at any other time during his forty two years in power:
"In retaking the towns that the uprising had briefly wrested from the government's control, Gaddafi's forces had committed no massacres at all; the fighting had been bitter and bloody, but there had been nothing remotely resembling the slaughter at Srebrenica, let alone in Rwanda ... [and yet] what was decided was to declare Gaddafi guilty in advance of a massacre of defenceless civilians and instigate the process of destroying his regime and him (and his family) by way of punishment of a crime he was yet to commit, and actually unlikely to commit, and to persist with this process despite his repeated offers to suspend military action."
Yet parliament had been led to believe that Gaddafi had already slaughtered at least 6,000 innocent protesters in Benghazi, a number plucked out of the sky by Libyan opposition members, re-tweeted, and then reported as "news" across the globe.
Comprehensive research by Amnesty International later revealed the true pre-NATO death toll in Benghazi to be 110 - including armed rebels and government forces killed by the rebels.
Further allegations referred to Gaddafi's use of "African mercenaries" and employment of mass rape as a tactic, backed up by re-tweeted opposition claims, "unconfirmed eyewitness reports" and even, bizarrely, YouTube footage of yellow-helmeted construction workers supposedly providing proof of mercenaries. Both claims were later comprehensively demolished by both Amnesty International and UN investigation teams. 
Parliament, however, seems to have had no problem supporting that particular war on the basis of zero credible evidence; indeed the word ''evidence" was used only three times during the six-hour debate that preceded the Libya vote, compared to 112 uses in the six-hour debate on Syria last week.
So why the sudden concern with evidence where no such concern existed the last time around? Would a parliament that was so eager to destroy Libya on the "evidence" of re-tweeted gossip and YouTube pictures of people in yellow hats really be unwilling to launch a limited strike on the basis of its own intelligence reports? That idea in itself defies belief as much as anything Tony Blair ever came out with as prime minister. What seems rather more likely is that MPs were just using the "lack of evidence" issue to hide the real reasons behind their opposition.
The major difference between Syria now and Libya then is not, in fact, one of evidence, mass pressure, or "war fatigue", but one of strength.
Parliament has not changed its ways; it is acting now just as it did in 2011, 2003 and, indeed, 1782, according to a very consistent principle - wars of choice should only be waged against the weak and isolated. Libya and Iraq were both of these things; Syria is neither. Libya and Iraq had both subjected themselves to comprehensive disarmament programs prior to being attacked, and both were without strong powerful allies willing to defend them.
For Joan Smith, one of the pundits dismayed by the outcome of last week's vote, there is somehow "a massive irony here: we went to war against a tyrant who turned out no longer to have weapons of mass destruction but won't consider limited air strikes against one who has used them in recent days". 
In fact, there is no irony at all. Leaving aside her credulity over British and US claims to possess secret classified evidence of Assad's guilt, the point is that it is - by definition - much safer to attack countries that lack effective deterrents; that is not irony, that is the defining feature of the cowardly brutality that has become such a hallmark of Western behavior in the Middle East to all those with eyes to see it.
Again, a comparison of the two Commons debates - over action against Syria and Libya, both six hours long - is instructive. The words "consequence" and "consequences" were used twice as much about Syria than about Libya (72 times compared to 35), while the words "escalate" and "escalation" were used eight times as often (33 times compared to just four). "Retaliate" and "retaliation" were used nine times regarding Syria, compared to just once with Libya. Indeed, doubts concerning the ''risk of escalation'' were made so frequently during the Syria debate that they were the first issue Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg attempted to address in his summing up.
This begs the question - exactly what consequences, escalation and retaliation is it that MPs are suddenly so worried about? After all, the Libya conflict certainly "escalated", and ended up destroying the security framework of the whole of North Africa. The country now functions as a safe haven and training ground for death squads and gangster elements from across the region, with recent attacks on Algeria and Mali merely the most obvious immediate results.
None of this seems to register - either then or now - as much of a concern in the House of Commons. Could this be because the destabilization of North Africa poses no threat to the projection of British power - and, indeed, fits in rather nicely with Anglo-American plans to weaken Algeria and militarize West Africa? MPs' fears of "escalation", then, cannot be taken to mean a fear of escalation of violence in the region per se, but an escalation of violence directed against Britain, its allies and its interests in the region. And why would they fear such an escalation in this case? Because of the military power of Syria and her allies.
Michael Meacher, an MP from the opposition Labour Party, stated it clearly:
"Let us not forget that Syria is no Libya. It is far stronger than Libya, with far more disciplined and larger armed forces, and it is still powerfully backed and reinforced by Russia."
Meacher's point is backed up by the assessments of various military personnel, such as this anonymous US officer quoted in the Washington Post:
"I can't believe the president is even considering it. We have been fighting the last ten years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.
James Mattis, former head of US Central Command, who oversaw planning for potential US military action in Syria, concurs: "If Americans take ownership of this, this is going to be a full-throated, very, very serious war". "
Former foreign secretary Jack Straw, in the parliamentary debate, noted that General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, had already "spelt out that fully to [degrade Syria's chemical weapons capability] would involve hundreds of ships and aircraft and thousands of ground troops, at a cost of US$1billion per month".
Syria's strength is also underlined by Robert Kaplan in an article questioning comparisons between a war against Syria and the 78-day NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. "Syria has a population ten times the size of Kosovo's in 1999. Because everything in Syria is on a much vaster scale, deciding the outcome by military means could be that much harder," Kaplan writes.
He also recognizes that, while terrorizing the population would be the clear aim of any aerial bombing campaign, the 30 months of bombing already suffered by Syrians at the hands of British-backed death squads may have somewhat hardened them against any additional terror from the skies:
"The Kosovo war inflicted significant pain on Serbian civilians through airstrikes, but the Syrian population has already been pummeled by a brutal war for two years now, and so it is problematic whether airstrikes in this case can inflict that much more psychological pain on the parts of the population either still loyal or indifferent to the regime."
As well as Russian support, Kaplan identified Syria's alliance with Iran as another serious obstacle:
"The Kosovo war did not engage Iran as this war must. For all of the missiles that America can fire, it does not have operatives on the ground like Iran has. Neither will the United States necessarily have the patience and fortitude to prosecute a lengthy and covert ground-level operation as Iran might for years to come, and already has."
George Friedman, writing for global intelligence analysts Stratfor, notes that Russia and Iran "might both retaliate were someone to attack the Syrian regime ... If [Obama] strikes, he must prepare for Russian counters ... Libya was easy compared to Syria".
Likewise, the Jamestown Foundation noted earlier this year that, "A stark warning to the West that Tehran would retaliate if Syria was attacked came on January 26 from Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to Velayati, Syria is the 'resistance front' and any attack on Iran's strongest ally in the region would be considered an attack on Iran." 
Lebanese writer and analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb is more precise:
"When the takfiri rebels attacked Lebanese villages and Lebanese civilians inside Syria, Hizbullah's response was to openly engage them in Qusayr. When they staged terrorist attacks in Dahyeh, [Hizbollah secretary-general Seyyed Hassan] Nasrallah threatened them with doubling the number of Hizbullah fighters in Syria. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to fathom just how much more of an existential threat an American-Zionist-Arab scheme to destroy the Syrian Army would pose to Hizbullah's resistance and Lebanon's internal security. And Hizbullah wouldn't even need to retaliate against Israel from Lebanon, but would do so from Syria itself, alongside the Syrian Army and with Iranian military assistance."
That Syria's friends were clearly on the minds of MPs last Thursday is illustrated by their references to these allies, with Hizbollah mentioned 11 times, Iran 43 times, and Russia 68 times. Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, put it simply:
"In one crucial respect Assad is in a stronger position than Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. These three leaders were internationally isolated, while Assad has powerful and committed foreign allies." 
This is what has changed parliament's mind; they prefer to fight their wars against the weak and vulnerable.
And what of the argument that the MPs were now finally following public opinion? Certainly the public is much more united over its opposition to attacks on Syria than on attacks on Libya, but this still begs the question of why is public opposition to military action so strong now, when it wasn't in 2011? The public, too, fears "escalation". In other words, people too know that Syria is strong and supported by powerful allies. As Tory MP Sarah Wollaston put it during the debate,
"The country is almost unanimously opposed to unilateral Western military intervention. That is not because we are a nation of appeasers and apologists; it is because the nation rightly has weighed up the risks of such action exploding into a wider military conflict with hundreds of thousands more deaths."
This does not mean that MPs are listening to public opinion; merely that both are following the same logic - don't attack the strong. Not that this means that an attack will not take place, or that Britain will not be involved - regardless of parliament's well-founded fears of serious military resistance. The Great Recession facing the global capitalist system today is pushing inexorably towards major war in just the same way as the Great Depressions of 1873-96 and 1929-39 were pushing towards war, and for the same reason; the need to destroy surplus capital and pave the way for a new round of profitable investment.
Likewise, the crisis of Western hegemony - the imminent prospect of an end to 500 years of Western military preponderance in the face of a resurgent global South - is leaving "the West" with ever fewer options other than the obliteration of all independent regional powers in order to preserve its dominance.
There is indeed a "red line" in Syria, but it has nothing to do with chemical weapons. The real red line is the prospect of a victory for the Syrian government. This is the scenario the Franco-Anglo-Saxons will not tolerate without throwing everything they have into the fight. What they have tried so far has failed. This is why now, at last, they are seriously contemplating an air campaign.
1. Syria vote: a corner has been turned on the road to peace, The Guardian, August 31, 2013.
2. Lies of the Libyan War, Counterpunch, July 27, 2011.
3. Gaddafi's army will kill half a million, warn Libyan rebels, The Guardian, March 12, 2011.
4. False pretense for war in Libya, Boston Globe, April 14, 2011.
5. Amnesty questions claim that Gaddafi ordered rape as weapon of war, June 24, 2011.
6. MPs are scarred by the war in Iraq, The Independent, September 1, 2013.
7. If Syria is Attacked, Will Iran Retaliate?, Jamestown, February 22, 2013.
8. In Syria, it's a case of all or nothing, The Independent, September 1, 2013.
9. Poll finds 60% of British public oppose UK military action against Syria, The Guardian, August 31, 2013; Analysis: Opinions on Libya, YouGov, March 23, 2011.