Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Here's One We Bombed Earlier

As the international community beats the war drums over the probable use of nerve gas by Syria's army analogies are being made with the 2003 Iraq War.

The similarities are obvious; a Middle Eastern country, Weapons of Mass Destruction, a reluctant UN Security Council and even Tony Blair popping up to put the moral case.

However there are also crucial differences. In 2003 Iraq had no WMDs but plenty of oil, whilst Syria has very real WMDs but no oil, and to me it seems we don't so much have a rush to war but a distinct dragging of feet.

A better comparison would be with the 1999 Kosovo conflict.

Then you had a dictator in conflict with his own people crossing a 'red line' in the form of mass ethnic cleansing and being threatened with a punitive bombing campaign. Then as now the Russia stood in defiance of the West, there was a background of regional conflict and, then as now, some the victims of the atrocities were fairly dodgy terrorist types. The US and its allies must hope though that Assad proves more compliant now than Milosevic proved then.

In 1999 Slobbo refused to take his medicine and behave himself, and instead responded to the attacks by driving out even more Kosovans. This left NATO in a dilemma. The bombing hadn't achieved its objective and so couldn't stop, but neither did it appear to be doing any good. Indeed, only later did NATO discover exactly how badly they had in fact done.

The Responsibility to Protect, known as R2P, is a tenet of that nebulous branch of philosophy, ethics and guesswork that passes as international law. The idea is that if someone is doing something bad you have a duty to take proportionate means to stop them. 'Proportionate means' being the term that sets military heads spinning.

In attempting to be proportion NATO pilots had been hunting down Milosevic's military tank by tank. Unfortunately they were hidden by dense Balkan terrain underneath grotty Balkans weather, whilst the jets were 10000 feet above them trying to avoid the Serbian air defences. Not surprisingly they hit very little, and it was to turn out much of what they did hit they shouldn't have done, including numerous dummy guns and a refugee convoy. Even worse the Serbs had used the low frequency radar on an old Soviet air defence system to overcome the stealth abilities of the USAFs best plane and shot down a Stealth Fighter, the bits being sent to Russia.

NATO then gave up on 'proportionate means' and went back to what it knew best; bombing the Serbs back to the stone age. Instead of going for individual tanks they took out bridges, power stations, factories and the national television station. It wasn't pretty - and when a cruise missile hit the Chinese embassy it looked like it could get even uglier - but it was effective and once he realised the Russians weren't going to save him, Milosevic gave in.

The Serbs withdrew and in moved a 30,000 strong force containing the cream of NATOs military might; French infantry, German panzers, American helicopters and James Blunt (yes, him). Everything seemed to be going like clockwork until a unit of British light tanks arrived at Pristina airport and found the Russians waiting for them.

Leading the NATO force was the young Captain Blunt, his guitar was strapped to the outside of his tank. You'd think the Kosovans had suffered enough, but he brought it anyway. NATO commander General Wesley Clark ordered him to attack, but his British number two General Mike Jackson didn't pass the order on, saying "I'm not going to start a Third World War for you." Jackson may have had in mind the 1978 book of that name by John Hackett in which what eventually becomes a nuclear conflict starts with a clash between NATO and the USSR in Yugoslavia. Either way, Captain Blunt was quite sure he wasn't going to be shooting anyone and let the Russians be.

Instead the Russians were diplomatically isolated and their little force in Pristina became an object of fascination for the NATO soldiers, not least when they were observed flogging some of their own men.

In due course they were integrated into the peacekeeping force and the KLA disarmed. Kosovo eventually recovered - sort of - and Milosevic ended up in the dock at the Hague, where he died of old age waiting for the prosecutors to sort out their case against him.

So it all ended more or less for the better. My own tiny role in the conflict was being part of a Social Services team that stayed up all night (unpaid) to sort out refugees arriving at Leeds airport in what was possibly the last occasion Britain actually welcomed asylum seekers.

However it had taken considerably more effort than planned. The French army, for example, had used pretty much everything it had; initially it's helicopters and paratroopers to cover the UN observers, then all its engineers to build camps for the refugees, then it's armoured units as the backbone of the ground invasion.

So what are the lessons for Syria? Don't make threats unless you mean to carry them out, smart bombs can be pretty dumb, expect the Russians to do something daft and James Blunt may be a terrible musician but he did help prevent a Third World War.

No comments: