Assad? The government can’t even spell it

3rd September, 2013 1:15 pm

Now that the dust has settled a little after last Thursday’s votes on Syria, it is worth reflecting on what took place and why.

The position which Labour took in those votes was both coherent and principled. Central to our view was the Government had re-called Parliament and was asking MPs to support military action according to a timetable which was unreasonable and unnecessary. Even when the Government came forward with a weaker motion it was still Cameron’s intention to have a vote which would “in principle” commit us to military action.

The Prime Minister recalled Parliament so he could demonstrate that he was somehow ‘leading’ the march towards military action. And yet he wished to do this on the basis of evidence which was insubstantial and when he had no clear plan about what military action would entail, what its objectives would be, and what its consequences might be.

On the issue of the evidence of chemical weapons use, last Thursday, the only ‘evidence’ Cameron was able to present to the House was a 1½ page memo from the Joint Intelligence Committee. This memo was devoid of specifics and even spelt the name of Assad incorrectly. This was not the compelling body of evidence which Labour was asking for. At the very least, Members believed that they were being bounced into a commitment to military action and that there was no reason why a decision had to be taken before UN inspectors had reported their findings.

The legality of military action was also far from clear and this was compounded by an absence of any commitment, initially at least, to attempt to engage the UN in any decision on military action. But I think it is true to say that it was the lack of any real thought or indeed the refusal to express any opinions, about what military action would mean and could lead to, was of understandable concern to Labour MPs.

In the debate, Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary during the time of the Iraq War don’t forget, made the telling point that cruise missiles could not target chemical weapons as this would lead to the release of agents into the atmosphere and therefore any strikes would have to focus on Assad’s operational and military command structure. This would inevitably mean that any military strike would be of material assistance to the Syrian rebels. Jack believed that there may be a justification for this, but argued that we ought to be clear that the consequences of assisting the opposition had to be thought through extremely carefully. The opposition of course contains extreme elements, such as al-Qaeda. There was no indication that the Government had given military action the necessary detailed thought.

MPs were also acutely aware that the Syrian civil war could escalate into a broader regional conflict, involving in one way or another Israel, Russia, Iran, Turkey and indeed potentially other states. It is extremely unlikely that military action would simply mean “a shot across Assad’s bows”. If it were, there would be little point to the action.

These were and still are difficult and complex issues. Everyone in the House shares a revulsion at the use of chemical weapons. But we are also acutely aware that a knee-jerk reaction could have made a bad situation even worse. Last Thursday, David Cameron failed to win the argument in favour of armed intervention. Leadership is about winning the arguments, but it also about listening and taking people with you. This of course requires sound judgement. The debate on Syria demonstrated that David Cameron lacks these qualities. Equally, it showed that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Wayne David is Shadow Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform and MP for Caerphilly


  • 1Brian2Whitaker3

    Wrong. In Arabic, Asad does not have a double S.

  • RogerMcC

    As it is written in Arabic there is no more a standard English spelling of Assad than there is for Gaddafi or Muhammad.

    Indeed a letter-for-letter transliteration as favoured by most actual Arabic scholars would be Asad (or rather al-Asad) – that double-s is a attempt to render the hissing sound of Arabic س

    So I suspect that your briefing was written by an actual Arabic speaker and is actually ‘right’ and its everyone else’s spelling that is ‘wrong’.

    If I were Mark/Wayne I would amend this piece accordingly before some snarky Tory like ‘Guido Fawkes’ mocks you for it.

  • Danny Sweeney

    Before anyone accuses me of missing the point, I wholeheartedly agree with the essence of this article. However, there is something which I find deeply disturbing. As someone that is dyslexic, and is keen to promote issues around disability and specific learning difficulties, it worries me that people in our party will use something such as a spelling mistake to draw attention to what is obviously a very valid point.
    While I know that in today’s world we have spell check and such legislation should be checked and and edited, are we really saying that these mistakes should not happen?
    If so then I am forced to draw the conclusion that we are also say that dyslexics such as myself are not good enough to work in such roles?
    I know I’m being somewhat pedantic, but what if some future legislation is written by someone that is hugely innovative and effective, but has a spelling mistake? Do we then just dismiss it as meaningless mumbo-jumbo?
    This is the ugly side of politics where we point to little things, that miss the bigger picture, the kind of politics that we deplore when Cameron laughs at Ed Balls’ stammer, or George Osborne dismisses Gordon Brown as Autistic.
    I love our party, but I worry what happens when we point to the wrong things to criticize, that we will put off people with disabilities, or women, or BAME and LGBT community.
    I’m sure the comment was made off-the-cuff and did not think about this, but this is why I fell the need to post this, if nothing else, to raise awareness within our party.

  • Alec

    Wayne, there is no standard transliteration method between Modern Standard Arabic and English. Thus, your triumphant correction of the JIC’s spelling of Assad is of as much value spelling trolls on Internet discussion boards.

    >> The position which Labour took in those votes was both coherent and principled.

    No it wasn’t. And it has been quickly realized with self-exculpatory and not-me-guv pieces like this.It didn’t even stay still long enough for a clear view of it to be established.

    Then there was this smirker who clearly was loving the anticipation . Who is it? Did his smile remain as he emerged from the Chamber to see footage of the napalm attack at the school in Aleppo?


  • whs1954

    “This memo was devoid of specifics and even spelt the name of Assad incorrectly.”

    These things are what happens when you are asked to present something in a hurry. Given the timescales the Foreign Office etc were working to, and Ed Miliband’s need to have this evidence asap and well before the debate, what did you expect? Jam on it?

    • Alec

      As a Privy Counselor through his position as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, Miliband could have asked to see unexpurgated JIC reports.


  • denise clendinning

    They should call Cameron rush it through Dave

  • JimmyRushmore

    As several other posters have pointed out there is no standard spelling of Arabic names; this just shows a typical Western misunderstanding of the the Middle East and Arabic culture in general.

  • S&A

    ‘This memo was devoid of specifics and even spelt the name of Assad incorrectly’.

    There is no standard accepted method of transliterating Arabic into Latin script. Hence ‘Qadhafi’, ‘Gaddafi’/’Al Qaeda’, ‘Al Qaida’/’Hezbollah’, ‘Hizbullah’.

    As for the ‘specifics’, MPs have RUSI just up Whitehall and IISS near Temple. The Dept of War Studies is just up the road at King’s College. It is not beyond their wit to get in touch with these depts/think tanks and ask them if they have any subject matter experts who can advise on whether they can answer questions on (1) the likelihood that there was a major chemical weapons attack in Syria two weeks ago and (2) who was likely to have been responsible, the regime or the rebels.

    As for Miliband’s ‘leadership’ qualities, could you please tell me where he actually stands on Syria. Because last Tuesday he indicated he’d support a government motion setting the conditions for British involvement in an allied military strike against Assad’s regime, then he appeared (if I understood his incoherent rambling) to oppose it on Thursday, and then the following day he was on the BBC telling us that we mustn’t turn our back on the Syrian people. I don’t see this as ‘coherent’ or ‘principled’ behaviour.


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