Obama’s own smokeless gun?

by Andrew Mason

With three new ‘dossiers’ on Syrian WMD capabilities now published, all saying much the same thing and none providing any hard evidence of Bashar al-Assad’s direct involvement in the August 21 chemical incidents in the Ghouta district of Damascus, it is probably worth revisiting one particular previous US claim about the existence of a number of ‘smoking guns’ – in other words prima facie evidence strongly suggesting implied proof of the case that the US wanted to make.

In February 2003 US Secretary of State Colin Powell played and then translated (from Arabic) to a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council parts of the content of three intercepted conversations between Iraqi military officers discussing what was said to be WMD concealment efforts involving a ‘modified’ vehicle, nerve agent and ‘forbidden ammo’. This third claim, actually the second chronologically in the speech, was not a verbatim report of what had actually been said.

Powell not only did not place this communication into proper context, whereby the Iraqi authorities, as part of their increasingly proactive efforts to account for any remaining proscribed weapons, had just agreed with UN inspectors that they would search their vast ammunition dumps for lost, stray, or otherwise empty chemical warheads which had been left over from previous wars, he also added fictitious detail into his version of the transcript to make it sound far more incriminating towards the Iraqi regime, in so far as this then allowed for the possibility that such weapons had been at some point deliberately retained.

The following is a compilation of the original conversation, with Powell’s additions interposed:

Lt. Col: Sir …

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: There is a directive of the [Republican] Guard Chief of Staff at the conference today …

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: They are inspecting the ammunition you have.

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: for the possibility there are forbidden ammo.

Col: Yes?

Lt. Col: For the possibility there is by chance, forbidden ammo.

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: And we sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.

(Powell’s version: And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.)

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: After you have carried out what is contained in the message … destroy the message.

Col: Yes.

Lt. Col: Because I don’t want anyone to see this message.

Col: Okay okay.

Col: Thanks.

Lt. Col: Goodbye.

Moving forwards to today, it would seem that there is another message that no-one wants the world to see. Reported nearly a week ago by Kenneth Timmerman, a recognised authority on Middle Eastern military affairs, and published by the Daily Caller, a relatively new and successful entrant into the world of online reporting operating in the same sphere as the Huffington Post before it, this piece may explain why President Obama has taken the decision he has, to delay any US military action against the Syrian regime until such time as Congress returns on September 9 and further debates the situation.

The Obama administration has selectively used intelligence to justify military strikes on Syria, former military officers with access to the original intelligence reports say, in a manner that goes far beyond what critics charged the Bush administration of doing in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

According to these officers, who served in top positions in the United States, Britain, France, Israel, and Jordan, a Syrian military communication intercepted by Israel’s famed Unit 8200 electronic intelligence outfit has been doctored so that it leads a reader to just the opposite conclusion reached by the original report.

The doctored report was leaked to a private Internet-based newsletter that boasts of close ties to the Israeli intelligence community, and led to news reports that the United States now had firm evidence showing that the Syrian government had ordered the chemical weapons attack on August 21 against a rebel-controlled suburb of Damascus.

The doctored report was picked up on Israel’s Channel 2 TV on Aug. 24, then by Focus magazine in Germany, the Times of Israel, and eventually by The Cable in Washington, DC.

According to the doctored report, the chemical attack was carried out by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother.

However, the original communication intercepted by Unit 8200 between a major in command of the rocket troops assigned to the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division, and the general staff, shows just the opposite.

The general staff officer asked the major if he was responsible for the chemical weapons attack. From the tone of the conversation, it was clear that “the Syrian general staff were out of their minds with panic that an unauthorized strike had been launched by the 155th Brigade in express defiance of their instructions,” the former officers say.

According to the transcript of the original Unit 8200 report, the major “hotly denied firing any of his missiles” and invited the general staff to come and verify that all his weapons were present.

The report contains a note at the end that the major was interrogated by Syrian intelligence for three days, then returned to command of his unit. “All of his weapons were accounted for,” the report stated.

What is quite unusual about this account is that it hasn’t been more widely picked up on and referred to elsewhere. It is possible that the author’s work is treated with a degree of caution being as some earlier claims made by him turned out to be less than wholy accurate, this with particular regard to reporting alleging that Iran had acquired Russian-made nuclear-capable missiles from North Korea, and that Saddam Hussein may have been responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Nevertheless, it is possible that his sources might see him as a trusted go-to person. In the Frontpage Magazine article which mentioned the Soviet-era SS-N-6 missiles he clearly states that “U.S. intelligence sources privately confirmed these reports to me.”

Although the magazine subsequently modified the wording of his article from ‘Iran had acquired Russian-made nuclear warheads’ to ‘Iran had acquired medium-range Russian-made nuclear missiles’, this account was still somewhat inaccurate because these were in fact more likely to have been N. Korean-made R-27 copies, otherwise known as the BM25/Musudan-1.

In originally debunking the initial missile claim the archived Newshoggers site also considers Timmerman’s wider bono fides, noting his earlier claimed neoconservative links.

What is currently difficult to reconcile is why the Daily Caller would publish this piece now if it had any doubt about the veracity of the information, which if shown to have been falsified would seriously damage the outlet’s future credibility and reporting credentials. It is quite possible that individual elements within the military/intelligence communities as mentioned in the piece are clearly aware that the manipulation of intercept data has already taken place, and by speaking out seek to defuse a potential repeat of the earlier Iraq intelligence debacle which ended up being hugely damaging to all concerned after it led to the war in Iraq which could have been otherwise been avoided. It is also possible that Obama himself has asked to see the original intelligence material to prevent a recurrence of recent history where he would end up eventually being seen in the same light as George W Bush, and this factor has now caused the deferral of responsibility for any attack against Syria to the wider congressional body-politic.

24 comments to this article

  1. andrewsimon

    on September 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm -

    We also have this from Gareth Porter, writing at Truthout:

    The clumsy attempt to pass off intelligence claimed dubiously by the Israelis as a U.S. intercept raises a major question about the integrity of the entire document. The Israelis have an interest in promoting a U.S. attack on Syria, and the authenticity of the alleged intercept cannot be assumed.

    Elsewhere, Petri Krohn is doing good work on a shoutwiki.com page (along with other sub-pages), and seems to believe that some rockets were fired from rebel controlled areas in Qaboun, near to the Special Forces HQ, which may have been in FSA/al-Nusra hands at the time.

    The Guardian has now posted a page comparing the three Syria dossiers, but does not provide links to their sources – this page at the Nuclear Diner website carries links to translations of the French one.

  2. andrewsimon

    on September 4, 2013 at 11:03 pm -

    From RT (well – who else?) re the March 19 Aleppo CW incident:

    The key points of the report have been given as follows:

    • the shell used in the incident “does not belong to the standard ammunition of the Syrian army and was crudely according to type and parameters of the rocket-propelled unguided missiles manufactured in the north of Syria by the so-called Bashair al-Nasr brigade“;

    • RDX, which is also known as hexogen or cyclonite, was used as the bursting charge for the shell, and it is “not used in standard chemical munitions“;

    • soil and shell samples contain “the non-industrially synthesized nerve agent sarin and diisopropylfluorophosphate,” which was “used by Western states for producing chemical weapons during World War II.

    The findings of the report are “extremely specific,” as they mostly consist of scientific and technical data from probes’ analysis, the ministry stressed, adding that this data can “substantially aid” the UN investigation of the incident.

    In other news:

    6 hours ago • Associated Press

    WASHINGTON — Sen. John Barrasso says the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may not vote Wednesday on a resolution authorizing President Barack Obama’s proposed military intervention in Syria. The Wyoming Republican, a member of the panel, said it was still meeting on the resolution.

    Word of the possible delay came after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he did not support the latest version of the Senate resolution. McCain, an outspoken advocate of intervention, said he wants more than cruise missile strikes and other limited action.

    Was it poker that McCain was playing at the committee hearing or was it just a game of high brinkmanship?

  3. chris lamb

    on September 5, 2013 at 10:12 am -

    Here is Reuters on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote referred to above:


    Senators John McCain and Linsey Graham’s objections that the scope of the military strike should be ratcheted up to significantly alter the balance of military forces on the ground in favour of the rebels- a prescription favouring regime change- are to be included in an amendment to the resolution.

    In my understanding, setting the time period to 90 days for the military strike significantly extends what was suggested before. In the context of potential escalation and ‘unintended consequences’ from the strike, there is a significant risk in my view that the military action could lead to the US becoming heavily embroiled in the civil war and regime change being pursued further down the line (even if it is not an objective now, which is doubtful).

    Interestingly, this time UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has warned of the illegality of unilateral US military force without UN Charter Article 51 (‘self defence’) being satisfied or UN Security Council authorization. (In the case of Iraq, it took Kofi Annan 18 months to go public with the statement that the invasion was illegal under international law). If neither of these conditions are fulfilled, it will be interesting to see whether the UN responds to another breach of the UN Charter with anything but paralysis.

  4. chris lamb

    on September 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm -

    The unraveling of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), referred to in the above link, redrew the boundaries of the Middle East as foreign policy spheres of influence for Britain, France and Russia after World War 1. It created the modern states of Syria, Iraq largely against the grain of their histories and sowed the troubles afflicting them today.

    For those who may be interested in tracing the history of the troubles in Syria, here is an interesting link on the French mandate which holds responsibility for much of today’s problems. It should be noted that the Syrian Assembly tried to push through a western type democratic constitution in 1926 which the French scuppered because it was not in their foreign policy interests. If this had been introduced the Syria of today may have been very different:


  5. andrewsimon

    on September 5, 2013 at 2:57 pm -

    Obama (at Stockholm):

    (See here from 27.45.)

    “…(I’m) not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence…”

    Does he not see which way the wind may be blowing?

    And, by the way, Iran doesn’t deny it. Even Syria doesn’t actually deny that they were used…

    Why would Iran deny anything they’ve got nothing to do with? Syria quite plainly blames the rebels.

    The only remaining dispute is who used them, which is outside the parameters of the U.N. investigation. So the U.N. investigation will not be able to answer that preliminarily; they’re not supposed to.

    On the first part – yes indeed – quite right too. Preliminarily? What comes next then? Why is the UN not supposed to find the truth about what happened? What was the real point of them going there in the first place?

    It strikes me that McCain was playing a very high stakes game – more akin to hardball – in pushing for a much stronger resolution which now stands less of a chance of easily passing its final base.

    Bearing in mind Obama ultimately wants to be seen as a man who ends wars rather than starts them, I can see a certain game of ‘pass the parcel’ going on here as well. He doesn’t want to take the decision to attack Syria by himself so he gets Congress involved, the hearings before the Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations committees raise the ante somewhat, now Congress itself has to take a turn at battling towards the multi-faceted core of the matter, before later passing it back to the President to finally discover the true nature of the consequential content that actually lies within.

    Now he says it’s not actually his red line.

    So McCain’s gameplay may be not so much about being hard on al-Assad, and more about making this hard for Obama. If Congress doesn’t come down decisively against the Syrian regime (and it probably won’t – more so now) then Obama’s next innings at the home plate is going to especially difficult. If he then doesn’t strike hard enough, or strikes out in the baseball sense, then it’s more or less over for him – he will be seen as a lame-duck president for the remainder of his term in office and the Republicans get an advantage that will carry them through the league towards the next series championship playoff.

  6. chris lamb

    on September 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm -

    McCain, no doubt to belittle and undermine any UN role, perhaps gives too little credit to the UN weapons inspectors investigation. Besides establishing whether a chemical nerve agent was used- such as sarin- they can judge whether it was industrially made, weapons grade sarin or some ‘home-made’ type. They can also provide a ‘narrative’, which will place the attack in some context. They may also be able to comment on the missile casings used.

  7. andrewsimon

    on September 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm -

    Another good write-up of the situation, this time by William R. Polk, a veteran US foreign policy expert, is here.

    What was the American government position on inspection? Secretary of State John Kerry initially demanded that the Syrian government make access to the suspected site or sites possible. Then it charged that the Syrian government purposefully delayed permission so that such evidence as existed might be “corrupted” or destroyed. On the basis of this charge, he reversed his position and urged UN Secretary General Ban to stop the inquiry. According to The Wall Street Journal of August 26, Secretary Kerry told Mr. Ban that “the inspection mission was pointless and no longer safe…” To emphasize the American position, according to the same Wall Street Journal report, “Administration officials made clear Mr. Obama would make his decision based on the U.S. assessment and not the findings brought back by the U.N. inspectors.”

    I can’t understand why the UN are not taking (not being allowed to take?) a bigger role in investigating the wider circumstances of the CW attacks. Unless, of course, the US administration wants to create for itself a get-out-of-jail-free card situation for the eventuality that either someone (like a rebel group) admits to responsibility for the attacks, or else another CW attack occurs whereby there is then little doubt that the rebels do in fact have the capability to carry out such actions.

    It seems that Obama is now going to delay any Congressional vote on the resolution for another two weeks. This then should allow for the UN to make its report in the interim period. If the report fails to add clarity about what happened this will further undermine the UN as a neutral investigatory body. I can’t imagine that the UN in its own right would want to do this – according to MSNBC Ban Ki-Moon said the UN took its own decision about the investigation mandate:

    Asked by a reporter whether the UN investigation’s mandate was limited by the UN or by the Syrian government, Ban said that the UN had decided on its own to restrict the investigation to whether or not an attack occurred, and not determine who carried it out.

    It’s not possible, I suppose, that those in charge of the UN are now planning to spring a sudden September surprise on the US and those other members who so badly neglected its authority back in 2003?

  8. John Bone

    on September 8, 2013 at 8:51 am -

    There are still some people who believe that mistakes were made in the intelligence realm in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. You would therefore expect there to be some effort to understand how those mistakes were made, but I see no effort in that direction.

    My own view is that major factors were the bandwagon effect (politicians and commentators were simply repeating the received wisdom that Iraq had WMD without looking at the evidence themselves – there was safety in numbers in saying Iraq had WMD because everybody else thought so too) and an inability (or unwillingness) to test alternative hypotheses. Whatever the truth about the 21st August chemical weapons’ attacks in Syria, I think that we seeing the same factors playing out. The JIC has said that it must have been Assad’s forces that used chemical weapons because it cannot imagine that it was the rebels: is that because they have actually thought about the possibility that it was the rebels, or is it because it would be politically inconvenient to explore that possibility?

    I was at a debate at Chatham House last week, which was on the record so I can say something about it. Malcolm Rifkind was asked a very good question from the floor: who did he think we should bomb if it turned out that the rebels had used chemical weapons? He refused to answer the question because, he said, the premise was absurd: it was impossible that it was the rebels. IO wonder: did he say that because he had really thought about it, or because accepting that the rebels might have used chemical weapons (even if it is of low probability) would mean facing up to the tricky question asked from the floor.

    Rifkind’s argument was that it was a large-scale attack to it must have been Assad’s regime: rebel groups are too small and unsophisticated to have carried out a large-scale attack. Personally I think that is a weak argument. As another speaker said, there are other governments involved in this. Furthermore the rebel groups are not like the terrorist cell in Tokyo who were a tiny group in a well-functioning society where someone would have noticed if they bought and messed around with these chemicals on a large-scale. The Syrian rebels are working in a failed state where there are no police and factory inspectors and customs’ authorities; they have open supply lines to the rest of the world. It isn’t absurd to think that they might be able to carry out a chemical attack.

    Rifkind sounded like Blair in 2003, refusing to say what he would do if he didn’t get a second resolution because he knew he would get one, claiming that it was absurd to say that Iraq may not have WMD. The same unwillingness to explore all possibilities is being shown, and the same reluctance to wait for full evidence. I don’t think you can get away with that now with the public, and it looks like you cannot get away with it with many MPs (though large sections of the commentariat have spent the week squealing like a farmyard of suckling pigs because Milliband didn’t let them bomb Syria before we hear from the weapons’ inspectors).

  9. chris lamb

    on September 9, 2013 at 10:56 pm -

    Two reports on today’s important developments with Russia’s proposal to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to the United Nations which has been accepted by the Syrian Foreign Minister; taken on board by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who intends to put it to the Security Council as a matter of urgency but has been received with skepticism by the US who are still going ahead with a Congress vote for war-



  10. chris lamb

    on September 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm -

    Fascinating though the unfolding crisis in Syria is, perhaps we should try to draw some threads of argument together about how Syria may impact on the Chilcot Inquiry and its long delayed report. For me, the developments in Syria expose the shortcomings and absurdities of the ‘lessons-based’ approach adopted by Chilcot. The most obvious problem with this approach is that after five years (and possibly even longer) of not delivering ‘lessons’, it is very hard to see that when these ‘lessons’ at last appear they will have any real relevance or meaningful value.

    Connected to this problem is the inevitability that such a long delay will result in political leaders and senior civil servants pre-empting the process by drawing their own lessons, since international affairs move on. In the case of Syria (more so than Libya), the lessons Government ministers say they have learnt from Iraq have resulted in policy toward military force replicating the most questionable and controversial aspects of the Iraq invasion. In particular, an absolute reliance, firstly, upon sketchy, incomplete and unverified intelligence at the expense of impartial evidence gathering, verification and reporting and, secondly, an advocacy of bilateral initiation of military force, using a ‘coalition of the willing’, without proper authorization by a Security Council vote.

    The latter potentially breaches (once again) Chapter V of the UN Charter and US attempts to build a ‘coalition of the willing’ (successful in the case of Kosovo but a spectacularly failure in the case of Iraq) potentially breaches Article 103 of the UN Charter which stipulates that no other international treaty or arrangement should take precedence over the UN Charter.

    One wonders whether the Chilcot Inquiry will extend its ‘lessons based’ approach to Syria in order to address the hubris of politicians drawing their own ‘lessons’ without any reference to Chilcot at all? A related question to this is whether Government politicians will even heed Chilcot’s ‘lessons’ as their hubris no doubt will extend not just to drawing their own ‘lessons’ but believing these to be the right lessons in applying to Syria(and, thus, in retrospect the right lessons for Iraq).

    My perception is that the longer Chilcot takes to report, the less relevance his Inquiry will have beyond producing a worthy, academic tome of such volume that few will read it. The primary underlying purpose of Chilcot may well be to relegate the Iraq invasion to the safe domain of ‘ancient history’, removing the sting of vox populi by massively reducing public expectations, and thus making the whole exercise a closed incestuous dialogue of the Establishment.

  11. Bobm

    on September 10, 2013 at 4:44 pm -

    The doubts about the instigators of the chemical attacks in Syria took me straight back to the “false flag” claims about 9/11.

    A quick look at the accumulated material on the web suggests that, in the US, public doubts that 9/11 was as presented by the Bush administration [and by Blair, but not accepted by serious public figures elsewhere] have only grown with time; and the adequacy of the investigations that were undertaken is subject to grave doubts.

    My complaint is that Chilcot has looked to be too complete. It would have been preferable to publish earlier, with explicit gaps, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions; but Sir John might just have been aware of the opprobrium that has been heaped on the patently inadequate US investigations of 9/11.

    Chilcot will not, of course, look at the original false prospectus for the war on terror, but how nice it would be if he were to mention the doubtful originating context; or if the 9/11 deniers were to surface some new revelations about that extraordinary day.


  12. Bobm

    on September 10, 2013 at 5:19 pm -

    The link seems not to have worked.
    Here is an excerpt, regarding Building 7


    Apologies to all that this is not directly on topic; but in all of this, our governments are clearly not interested in truth, as opposed to political goals.

  13. John Bone

    on September 11, 2013 at 10:47 am -

    Chris Lamb:- “The most obvious problem with this approach [the lessons learnt approach] is that after five years (and possibly even longer) of not delivering ‘lessons’, it is very hard to see that when these ‘lessons’ at last appear they will have any real relevance or meaningful value.”

    Some of the commentary in the last three weeks has implied that the public (and some MPs) are suffering from a strange trauma caused by the invasion of Iraq, that the Syria story is completely different and that whatever lessons the public have learnt from 10 years ago are either wrong or irrelevant in the present case. I’m surprised that it hasn’t been called “The Iraq Syndrome” in line with a similar trauma that apparently affected the American public after Vietnam. For some US politicians, the lesson to be drawn from the Vietnam War was not that the inhabitants of other countries do not want the Americans interfering in their affairs but that something had to be done about the strange reluctance of the American public to support military adventures. It became common to hear that the US could have won in Vietnam, with a little more escalation, if it wasn’t for the opposition back home. (“A little more escalation” would have meant what? Bombing more countries? Dropping more bombs and defoliants? Nukes?)

    I was reminded of the Vietnam Syndrome when trying to make sense of this blog post by John Rentoul.


    I find it hard to make sense of much of Rentoul’s writing (and the comments by his supporters) because I have to imagine what his basic premises are. As far as I can see the basic premises are:-

    – the invasion of Iraq was about regime change
    – the fact that international law doesn’t allow this doesn’t matter
    – the fact that this was hidden behind a smoke-screen of justifications about terrorism and WMD doesn’t matter
    – it could have been a success
    – a mess was made of it (for some mysterious reasons)
    – according to some of the commenters, if the US/UK hadn’t withdrawn it would have been a success so the fault lies with those who campaigned for withdrawal.

    I presume that Rentoul is trying to put into words the implicit assumptions of our political establishment, and this involves pretending that regime change is legal, legitimate and feasible. And here we are again proposing regime change in Syria hidden behind a think smoke screen of humanitarian concern. Once again we are expected to take on trust the implicit assumptions that Syria won’t be plunged into a prolonged war if Assad’s regime falls and that the new regime won’t be as bad as the present one. Given that even the most careful commentators and intrepid reporters cannot tell us what the Syrian opposition is and what would happen if Assad fell, these are big assumptions. Ten years ago Blair assumed that Bush had a plan for the new regime in Iraq. This time it seems that Cameron isn’t even assuming that; he’s assuming that Obama will manage to invent one when it’s required.

    The illegality of regime change isn’t a “lesson learnt”: it is a fact. However the political establishment doesn’t want to talk about it. Lessons could be learnt about the impracticalities of regime change, though one can sense the reluctance to do so. It seems that we are doomed to doing it over and over again until one day by chance it works. Legitimacy? The approach appears to be to ignore the public feeling that a legitimate case has not been made, and blame it on “Iraq casting a shadow”.

    The “mistakes” that were made with Iraq, and are being made with Syria, are obvious and shouldn’t have been made. It is doubtful whether Chilcot turning them into “lessons” will have much impact.

  14. John Bone

    on September 11, 2013 at 2:19 pm -

    Another quick point. Usually in “lesson learning” exercises there are two parts. The first part is sometimes called “getting everyone on the same page” and involves establishing the facts: what the plan was (objectives, planned actions) and what actually happened (what was done, what was achieved). The participants then have a coffee break, while the facilitator writes this up schematically on flip charts, and then everyone comes back to discuss what went wrong and what can be learnt.

    In this case it is clear that not everybody is on the same page. What we have seen in the public sessions is Chilcot & Co apparently trying to establish what decisions were made when but we have no idea if they have established a clear narrative. When they publish their report there will be two sets of arguments: whether what they say happened fits with people’s perception of what happened, and then what lessons can be drawn from this. That sounds like a recipe for chaos.

  15. chris lamb

    on September 11, 2013 at 11:18 pm -

    With reference to the Chilcot Inquiry’s ‘lessons based’ approach, I have always regarded it with suspicion. This is not just because the scope of the Inquiry is too wide (‘complete’ in Bob M’s words) and too much ballast has been taken on board, but also because it must be necessary to determine first whether there are sufficient grounds to consider (and judicially test) the invasion as a breach of treaty obligations and international law before attempting to comprehensively draw out ‘lessons’. This is because if there are sufficient grounds and a case exists for such a legal test, everything which follows the invasion is fundamentally tainted by it. Thus, if there is a strong chance the invasion was in breach of international law, the following ‘occupation’ must also be in breach (notwithstanding a UN resolution which covered it but never used the term ‘occupation’. An ‘occupation’ would be as much in breach of Article 2 of the UN Charter as a military invasion not satisfying ‘self defence’ or authorized by the Security Council to achieve regime change.

    Thus, ‘lessons’ from Chilcot about how a future government might more successfully manage an occupation or plan for the aftermath of an invasion would fall foul of the whole enterprise, potentially being in breach of international law.

    My perception is that the Chilcot Inquiry will evade this difficulty in one of two ways; either glossing over the legality question altogether (most likely) or implicitly accepting legality while questioning ‘legitimacy’ (the Sir Jeremy Greenstock option).

    The question of legality is additionally complicated by a fundamental weakness in the UN system which can be baldly stated as whether the most senior policemen of international peace and security are effectively bound by the same UN Charter obligations as everyone else. The problem here, as far as I understand it, revolves around the voluntary status of incorporation of the P5 powers into the Security Council. The UN Charter is pretty clear as to the meanings of its texts, but there is an issue regarding whether these texts were ever intended to apply to the P5.

    This can be seen from the way that the UN appears to have no mechanism to bring the P5 powers to legal account if they break away from the corporate entity which is meant to be the Security Council and unilaterally or bilaterally initiate actions involving force which are not consistent with what is required by the Charter. This has, of course, not only happened in the case of Iraq in 2003, but also with Kosovo, Iraq in 1998 and potentially Syria. Although the International Court of Justice, mandated in conjunction with the UN Charter, is charged to legally bring to book potential breaches of the Charter, it appears powerless in respect of the P5. There appears to be no other international judicial format from which legal accountability can be pursued.

    It has been argued that because of this, the UN Charter has the status of mere paper legality and the reality of geo-political power has outmaneuvered any effective form of international law. I don’t necessarily subscribe to this view but it is a very real problem in terms of ever seeing those responsible for events like the Iraq invasion brought to any kind of legal accountability.

    On the Syria issue, I note that the Security Council is currently in negotiation over precisely what kind of resolution it will put forward to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under its supervision. If a Chapter VII resolution is submitted by a power pushing for military force, the experience of Iraq in 2003 would suggest that care should be taken to prevent traps, of impossible conditions and demands being set (to trigger a military strike), and implied authority (preventing any ultimate Security Council decision) from being drafted in. This, of course, was the strategy adopted for 1441 by its drafters, the US and UK.

  16. John Bone

    on September 12, 2013 at 10:19 am -

    Chris Lamb – “Thus, ‘lessons’ from Chilcot about how a future government might more successfully manage an occupation or plan for the aftermath of an invasion would fall foul of the whole enterprise, potentially being in breach of international law.”

    One of the lessons from the invasion of Iraq should be that regime change is much more complicated than its proponents think it is. One of the lessons from the invasion of Iraq should be that the assumptions being made by proponents of regime change are hopelessly naïve: removing Saddam or Assad doesn’t mean that a country will automatically revert to being a liberal democracy. A lot of work has to be done to build a stable society, which is the responsibility of the occupiers. I think that there are a handful of people in the UK’s Stabilisation Unit who understand this, and maybe some in the US State Department, but they are overwhelmed by the urges of politicians and keyboard warriors to “take out” a strongman with little idea what comes next. Some of the Syrian rebels are very clear that they want the US to come in and overthrow Assad, then help the “good rebels” fight the “bad rebels” (who are easily identifiable because they wear black cloaks!) and then help them rebuild Syria; the proponents of “taking out” Assad usually fail to mention the latter stages.

    If Iraq had trained the 9/11 hijackers or had been about to invade a neighbouring country or did have WMD, then possibly a legal and legitimate case could have been made for invading Iraq. So I have no objection to an analysis of the occupation and what lessons can be learnt, provided that it is prefaced by the warning that you shouldn’t do it unless it is absolutely necessary.

  17. chris lamb

    on September 13, 2013 at 5:59 am -

    I am afraid you miss my point, John. Article 2 of the UN Charter states “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”. A military invasion to bring about regime change- or even to address, on the most spurious of grounds, an alleged WMD threat- without explicit authorization of a Security Council decision breaches this Article. Thus, an occupation, which is the logical outcome of such an action, would also breach the Article. UNSCR 1483, using all means of sleight of language, studiously avoids referring to the reality on the ground in post invasion Iraq as an ‘occupation’.

    A central problem facing the United Nations is that the UN Charter is being serially flouted and bypassed by the UN’s own senior Members seemingly without an effective mechanism for legal redress and accountability.

  18. chris lamb

    on September 13, 2013 at 6:12 am -

    Apologies, my statement above is not entirely correct as SCR1483 does refer to ‘occupying powers’ but studiously avoids referring to the reality on the ground as an ‘occupation’. The resolution makes reference to ‘guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity and political sovereignty’, but (on careful examination) there appears a significant discrepancy between this and the role envisaged for the Coalition Provisional Authority in OP4 of the resolution. The country’s territorial integrity was also not safeguarded to the extent that a major post invasion action was for the Kurds to assert an autonomy for their region from the rest of Iraq. This was, arguably, a key motive in their agitation for military intervention from well before the March 2003 invasion.

    Here is UNSCR1483:


  19. John Bone

    on September 13, 2013 at 8:04 am -

    I meant, in my last paragraph, that it would have been possible, if Iraq had trained the 9/11 hijackers or had been about to invade a neighbouring country or did have WMD, to get an UNSC resolution to invade Iraq.

    We are faced with a situation where the occupation of other countries is discussed daily, in the press abd by politicians, without mentioning that this flouts the UN Charter and without mentioning that one of the lessons of Iraq is how difficult an occupation is. Unfortunately we need to use both arguments; it is no longer enough to point out that something flouts international law to stop our politicians advocating it.