In an exclusive interview with LIGNET, a former head of Britain’s armed forces has voiced his strong opposition to a military strike on Syria, saying a war on the country would be a “mistake” as its consequences would be “particularly uncertain” and could make the situation “much, much worse.”
Field Marshall Charles Guthrie, Baron Guthrie of Craigiebank, also believes hostilities favoured by the Obama administration in reaction to an alleged chemical weapons attack last month would not fulfil the criteria of a just war.
Charles Guthrie served as head of Britain’s armed forces from 1997-2001 under Prime Minister Tony Blair. From 2000 until 2009 he was head of the SAS, Britain’s special forces. He commanded the British Army from 1994 to 1997 and advised the British government during the Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
Speaking to LIGNET Sept. 6th, Guthrie said: “I do not think we should carry out a military strike or anything like that – that’s mainly where I’m coming from.”
He said it would be “a mistake to go to war” because there are “a lot of reasons not to do it.”
“What effect will it have on the region? What effect will it actually have on the people on the ground?,” he asked. “And what we have to remember is that, quite honestly, every war has unforeseen consequences.”
He said this conflict is “particularly uncertain” because “we’re not quite sure of what the opposition is really like,” and he was wary of any military action in the Middle East in general. “There are other countries who are very fragile at the moment – I’m thinking of Lebanon and Jordan – so it could spread quite easily.”
Asked what he thought might be the most likely consequences would be, he said: “It’s difficult to say, but are we seriously going to say that if the bombs don’t work, we’re going to bomb and bomb and bomb, day after day, week after week? Is that a good policy?”
Over the course of his career, Lord Guthrie served in Malaysia, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, East and West Africa and Northern Ireland. Last year, Queen Elizabeth II raised him to the rank of Field Marshal.
An expert in the ethics of war, in 2007 Guthrie co-authored with Sir Michael Quinlan, a former top official in Britain’s Ministry of Defense, a best-selling book called “Just War – The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare.”
He is particularly concerned that this operation would fail to measure up to the criteria for a just war. Without UN Security Council backing (never likely in this case), he said it would lack legitimate authority. He was also not fully convinced such a war would be a sufficient and proportionate response.
“I think probably there’s a just cause, but it’s awfully difficult to tell,” Guthrie said. “You can never tell whether a war will go smoothly and easily. And when you’ve embarked on a war, there are unforeseen consequences and you’re never quite sure when it’s going to end.” He is also convinced that bombing a country “makes people war resolute.”
Moreover, he’s wary that bombs can hit the wrong targets. “They can hit civilians, there can be collateral damage, and what seems a frightfully good idea can be used against you,” he said.
Some just war theorists argue that punishment is a legitimate criteria, but Guthrie doesn’t share this view. “You’ve got to make the situation better and you could be making it much, much worse,” he said. The Field Marshal is also sceptical that a bombing campaign will be effective as a deterrence against further chemical weapons attacks in Syria. It could work, he said, “but at what price?”
He stressed it’s important to say that chemical weapons are a “horrible thing” and that people are “very emotional about it.”
“People recall even now, a long, long time after the First World War, that chemical warfare has been used recently by Iraq on the Kurds and on the Iranians,” he said. “But though it’s a particularly nasty and revolting way to kill people, there are a lot of other ways to kill people, too.”
A Catholic, Lord Guthrie is supportive of calls from Pope Francis and others for talks and a political settlement. “That’s absolutely right, but the difficult is getting people to want to talk,” he said. “The best way is for people to get round a table and hammer it out. It’s all very well for the Holy See to say that, but you’ve got to have two sides who earnestly want to have a solution, and whether you’ve got that I don’t know,” he said.
“Eventually they will come to the table I suspect, but they’re not ready to come yet and the Russians aren’t being particularly helpful.” Russia and Iran have been accused of arming President Bashar al-Assad. Other nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have been bankrolling Islamist rebel forces fighting the Assad regime, making this conflict “very, very complicated” and “completely different to Iraq,” he said.
“We need to say a lot of prayers,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie’s opposition to a military strike is similar to other very senior military figures such as Lord Dannatt, another former head of the British Army, who recently said he did not currently support military action in Syria “in any shape or form”.
This article appeared in LIGNET, 9 September 2013