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Is “highly likely” really enough?

We need evidence and a democratic decision before launching our nation into war.

An opinion piece by Matt Coot

Syria

The Prime Minister has met with the Cabinet to discuss potential action in response to the alleged chemical weapon attack in Douma, Syria. Ministers have agreed that the Assad regime was “highly likely” responsible and that action should be taken to “deter the further use of chemical weapons”. I don’t think anybody is in any denial that this will also lead to conflict with Russia, who has been supporting the Syrian regime.

“Highly likely” was the term used by Theresa May when blaming Russia for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury. The phrase “highly likely” means that it isn’t for certain. In fact, we could replace those words with “probably”. There is absolutely no evidence that can be provided to show that it happened or, if it did happen, who was responsible for the alleged Syrian chemical weapon attack. Just like there is no evidence – or very little evidence – to prove that the Salisbury attack was the actions of the Russian state.

Is “highly likely” enough to start a war? For the Cabinet of the UK government, it seems to be that it is. “Highly likely” is enough to take military action. But, why isn’t parliament being allowed to decide whether this nation goes to war?

Could it be because there’s an election coming up and any loss of this important vote will show that Theresa May’s leadership is weak and wobbly? After all, the last time Parliament voted on air strikes on Syria, the government lost the vote.

If this nation goes to war without parliament being consulted, this nation will no longer be living in a democracy. We will be living in an autocratic regime. Theresa May will be an autocratic warmongering dictator.

Our elected representatives need to be presented with evidence that can prove that a chemical weapon attack took place, that the Assad regime is to blame, and that military action will stop further use of chemical weapons or an escalation to a larger war involving Syria’s allies (Russia and Iran). They then need to make the decision as a democratic body – and this needs to be done without the vote being whipped. MPs need to be free to vote with their conscience and not with what they are told by their party leadership.

Russia

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has announced that it agreed with the UK government on the identity of the nerve agent. They didn’t name it as “novichok” and they didn’t identify the location of the origin of the nerve agent.

“There can be no doubt” Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, said in response to the findings of the OPCW. “There remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record.”

Boris Johnson is wrong because there are many “alternative” explanations. Maria Zakharova, from the Russian Foreign Ministry, has offered “alternative” explanations. So have many (so many) conspiracy theorists on social media. Some “alternative” explanations consider the attack as a “false flag” event, and some even accuse Theresa May of being responsible because she was down in the polls prior to the election in May. I don’t believe any of these conspiracy theories, but to state that there isn’t any “alternative” explanations is factually incorrect.

Just because you refuse to look for alternative explanations, it doesn’t mean that it is proof. Just because Boris Johnson and the Conservative party refuse to look for alternative explanations, it is not proof that Russia did it. This statement that the Foreign Secretary has used means that the government is still working from a hypothesis based upon prejudicial opinion and guesswork. Johnson might as well say ‘We have no proof but we can’t trust the Russians so they did it”.

“Only Russia has the means, motive and record” – actually, if we are talking about “means”, then perhaps we should admit that Porton Down, the UK’s chemical weapons laboratory located close to the attack site, also has developed Novichok agents. The USA is reported to have developed Novichok agents too. And, of course, Iran successfully synthesised the agent in 2016.

As for motive, what motive? Yes, Mr Skripal was a former Russian spy who was accused of spying for the UK, but Putin allowed for Skripal to be exchanged in a prisoner exchange. The question remains, why would the Russian state want to attack a British city and target someone who was no longer a threat to them? Why would they risk this escalation towards conflict? The argument for Russia being the only one with the means and motive is rather shaky and lacking in hard facts.

However, yes, there is a record of Russia using chemical weaponry against a former spy on UK soil. However, they are not the only threat to the UK that has a record of launching attacks on our cities. Most recently, we have faced attacks from Daesh and other terrorist organisations.

Simply pointing the finger of blame at the Russian state and saying they are the only ones capable of doing this, the only ones who want to do this, and the only ones with a record of doing similar things… well, it just simply isn’t good enough.

Now, I am not saying it isn’t Russia. I’m not a conspiracy theory believing lunatic. However, I am someone who believes in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty. Proven guilty without a shadow of a doubt. A chemical weapon attack against a nation is an act of war. If the Foreign Secretary, and the UK government, want to continue blaming Russia, then it needs to provide evidence that proves, without a shadow of a doubt, that Russia is the guilty party. “Highly likely” is not good enough.

The Foreign Secretary went on to say that the UK government has “nothing to hide”. He also said that “in the interest of transparency”, that the UK government has asked the OPCW release the executive summary of their report. Well, if the UK has “nothing to hide”, and “in the interest of transparency” can we be shown all the evidence that the government has against Russia so that this country can – without a shadow of a doubt – be confident that the government is acting in the correct and reasonable manner against the correct enemy? If not, back down until you can provide such evidence.

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