Sir Jeremy Greenstock on Syria: "Iraq WMD was a big turn off of people's trust in government assertion and that can't be put back in the box."

Jeremy Greenstock

Two weeks ago, the world braced itself for US-led military strikes against Syria. For a while it that seemed the superpower and its allies were inching closer and closer towards intervention following a chemical attack in Damascus that killed over 1,000 people.

On Saturday 31 August, though, from between the green bushes of the White House Rose Garden, the American President surprised the nation, explaining that before he intervened he would first seek permission from Congress.

"It might be that having observed the whole Iraq story he wants to be as careful as possible about bringing the American people along with any decision he makes because it matters to him," replies Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's Special Representative for Iraq from 2003 to 2004, when I ask him why Obama changed his mind. "And he's right to think that it matters."

We meet a week after the vote at the House of Commons, which rejected military action against the Syrian regime, a decision that Greenstock says has roots in the Iraq story. "In the experience that current members [of parliament] have in recent conflicts, all of them - except perhaps Sierra Leone - and to some extent Kosovo, but Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, all turned out more difficult and worse for British forces."

On the one hand Greenstock believes that taking action on chemical weapons makes it harder to stop the killing overall, and it does make the public suspicious of governments' motivations. "President Hollande was trying to justify the idea of military action by France beforehand," he says, "which has echoes of the dossier and everything else in Iraq. People are suspicious of governments' assertions about things. They can't see the raw intelligence. It's secret. They've been misled in the past. Iraq WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was a big turn off of people's trust in government assertions and that can't be put back in the box."

Yet on the other hand, reflects Greenstock, we don't want chemical weapons to go unpunished as they are against international law.

In the case of Syria, what would underlie the legitimacy and legality of military strikes would be an objective report by UN inspectors that was considered by the Security Council, he says: "An individual member state of the UN making an assertion is not as powerful as that of getting international opinion to understand and accept that action has to be taken. But a UN report does."

A military strike is unlikely to get backing from the Security Council. Assad's two closest allies, China and Russia, have so far made it clear that they will veto any resolution for action against Syria.

Whilst this means you won't get a legal basis from the Security Council, legitimacy can be established in international opinion, says Greenstock. "You can go forward if you've constructed a case that only Russian obstinacy or difficulty has prevented getting a Security Council resolution."

Still, overriding the decision does "weaken people's respect for the UN as an overall institution in handling the most difficult issues," he says. "We all know that the UN can't deal with every difficult issue, because by definition the most difficult issues are those where member states don't agree. And it's because of member state disagreement that the Security Council can't act."

Whilst America and France have largely focused on flexing their military muscles, few alternatives have been brought to the table, such as offering practical support to the anti-Assad forces. "But they aren't immediately punitive. There is a symbolic element to what political leaders are trying to do on the chemical weapons' attack," points out Greenstock, "which I think genuinely did come from the Assad forces."

Actively training the rebel forces on the ground, he believes, would mean implementing training teams illegally where they would face being caught up in the civil war. "That's the beginning of a slippery slope to intervention. You can send weaponry, you can train groups somewhere else if you arranged it with the weapons; you could do various things. But as I said earlier, this is a complex issue; we don't really know who the opposition forces are. If we know roughly who they are now, we don't know who they might be in a year's time."

If the regime collapsed we don't know who would take over, he adds, and many people fear "losing the hand of nurse" as it could be worse. It is also unclear if there are a majority of people against Assad, or if there are minorities feeding rebel activity.

"So there is uncertainty and it's absolutely right to understand that there is uncertainty because the unintended consequences of a hard intervention as we've found in other scenarios can be quite serious," says the former diplomat.

Even sending lethal weaponry is an option that the British government have backed away from, he points out: "They didn't know where these weapons might end up; remember how powerful the Taliban were made by external, including American, support for them during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? These things come back to bite you."

On the other hand, says Greenstock, Syria is suffering. The UN has said it is the country with the most refugees in the world. "It's an appalling, appalling humanitarian tragedy and we should be doing much more on the humanitarian front."

He says that he would continue to be "very, very cautious" both about any military action, including anything against chemical weapons - "although I think there is a case if it's surgical and temporary" - and certainly on any form of military intervention. "That includes the sending of any really lethal weapons to the opposition. I'm afraid that we've got to allow this situation to exhaust itself before we can begin to mend it."

Greenstock believes that preparing for the next stage, for the humanitarian response and for international co-operation through a conference offers an incentive for the fighting in Syria to end more quickly. Similarly, the Iran Iraq war in the eighties stopped sooner because of Security Council resolution 598 that called for a ceasefire.

Also of importance, he points out, is that to get a diplomatic and political exit from the civil war the Russians are needed. "They're the ones to persuade the Assad regime to give up or do something different," he says. "That was the end of the story on Kosovo when Russian's Viktor Chernomyrdin and President Ahtisaari of Finland persuaded Milosevic to give up in the summer of 1999. We need the Russians for the final exit. Hitting Assad on the chemical weapons in the face of Russian opposition doesn't make that next stage any easier, it makes it harder."

Given the regional players involved in Syria - Hezbollah next door, sectarian division and instability in Iraq, Syrian refugees in Lebanon - I ask Greenstock how military intervention could affect the region. It could start a region wide conflict, or retaliation from Iran with which the West already has an issue over nuclear weaponry, he suggests. Hezbollah could react to an attack on Syria by trying to strike Israel.

"It [Syria] is a very complex country to deal with, with all its regional ramifications. It's a dangerous mix, a flammable mix and that's all the more reason not to get our own soldiers involved in trying to save one piece of it. But not treating it also allows these other things to fester."

"We've got to think bigger than we're thinking at the moment about how all these things interact and not just leave it to the Americans, or leave it to the Americans scrapping with the Russians." There is a need for a mechanism, he says, where many countries come together and that includes people who don't talk easily to each other, like the Americans and the Iranians.

"This time we've got to talk to the people we dislike because our wider interests are more affected than our wish not to talk to the Iranians and I think it's time to show responsibility on this, for the sake of the Syrian people yes but also for the sake of all our interests in a stable Middle East. People aren't thinking big enough. It's a bit petty when big things are at stake and people are dying in droves."

Greenstock believes that what we're seeing in many parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, is how the boundaries and frontiers set by 20th century politics don't fit the identity mix, the ethnic, religious, sectarian and political society arrangements of the 21st century. People from the same tribe are often divided by borders. We live more and more in a virtual world where communications, business, lobbying and demonstrating take place across the world, both physically and virtually. Communicating via Twitter and Facebook means we live in a global space where we are less conscious of these borders.

"The identity mosaic of a free world doesn't fit the national boundary setting of the 20th century," he says, later explaining: "The West has to be careful about intervention to sustain a situation that no longer carries the same legitimacy."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor