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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Sabre rattlers ignore warnings of history

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America needs to pause and remember what happened last time

If keeping the WMDs secure is the real objective, surely the West should be propping up Assad, rather than cheering on the rebels. The tyrant is like Macbeth: "I am in blood stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Being from a minority sect and heading the Baath Party, whose power base is essentially the military, the security apparatus and the bureaucracy, he has never had significant popular support.

He personifies Chairman Mao's dictum that political power comes from the barrel of a gun.

He embraces the frightful logic of tyranny: the bolder the challenge to his rule, the more ruthless his response. He even wages chemical warfare on his own people.

He bullies neighbouring states and harbours terrorists. He stockpiles weapons of mass destruction.

Israel is urging the West to act, hinting that if action isn't forthcoming it will be forced to take matters into its own hands.

That threat can't be taken lightly, since in the past Israel has dispatched its bombers to stymie the tyrant's secret nuclear project.

Then, the tyrant was Saddam Hussein. This time it's Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The theory of accelerated change holds that the ever-increasing rate of technological progress has a knock-on effect on society and culture; history speeds up so events and developments that once would have unfolded over decades now happen in a few years.

But surely we haven't forgotten already. Ten years ago this week, President George W. Bush landed on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and, beneath a giant banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished", announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

But it was only the end of the beginning. Tens of thousands of lives would be lost and trillions of dollars would disappear into the ether before America eventually abandoned Iraq to an uncertain future.

Listening to the claims that the Syrian regime's alleged use of sarin gas in the civil conflict necessitates US intervention, one could be excused for thinking the invasion and occupation of Iraq happened in another lifetime. It was certainly hard to believe that practically the only people on the planet who still think it was a good idea could be found under one roof in Dallas last week, at the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Centre.

Yet we had commentators insisting that "something must be done" to stop more Syrians being gassed. The sabre-rattling double act of Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have never seen a trouble spot they didn't want America to blunder into, were demanding prompt action to avert further atrocities and avoid that dreaded "loss of face", the inevitable consequence of a failure to be decisive, ie bomb people.

And of course, the Israelis, ever eager to draw their benefactor into the Middle Eastern morass, were demanding that the international community "take control of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal".

When you put it that way, it sounds like the diplomatic equivalent of asking the city council to impound a vicious dog. But it's hard to imagine how this outcome could be achieved without "boots on the ground", the current euphemism for sending your troops into someone else's war zone.

Incidentally, the United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have already been killed in the Syrian conflict, which suggests that if you're being slaughtered by conventional means, you shouldn't rely on the West coming to your aid.

The Israelis are at least upfront: they're much more concerned about the threat to Israel than what Syrians might be doing to one another. What troubles them is the prospect of Assad's weapons of mass destruction falling into jihadist hands.

(An indication of how far this conflict has developed - or deteriorated - from the original popular uprising is that there are now two leading terrorist organisations involved: Hizbollah is fighting for the regime, al-Qaeda against it.) If keeping the WMDs secure is the real objective, surely the West should be propping up Assad, rather than cheering on the rebels. That may be realpolitik at its most cynical, but in the wider context of the war on terror it makes perfect sense.

Former CIA case officer Bob Baer's books formed the basis for the 2005 movie Syriana. The George Clooney character was loosely based on him.

Discussing the CIA's rendition programme (the apprehension and transfer of terrorist suspects to a third country where they could be interrogated outside judicial oversight), Baer told the New Statesman: "If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria."

- NZ Herald

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