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Framing the narrative of international interv -

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MARK COLVIN: There are a lot of questions hanging over any possible US attack on Syria, and the biggest of them centre on what it would actually achieve. That would very much depend on its scale and the declared intent.

Would it be just a warning about the use of chemical weapons, or could it be a prelude to a much wider and deeper involvement?

Emile Simpson is a former British army officer whose book War from the Ground Up is making big waves in military circles.

Subtitled Twenty-first century combat as politics, the book insists on clarity about what military action is actually designed to achieve.

On the phone from London, I asked Emile Simpson to apply his ideas to a possible US Syria attack.

EMILE SIMPSON: The key thing to understand is that this strategic narrative is what determines how the strikes, should they happen, will be understood. If one has a very broad and expansive strategic narrative, which is what Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister's position suggested, I think that the strikes could very well be misunderstood as intervention in the Syrian Civil War.

MARK COLVIN: So what is Blair saying?

EMILE SIMPSON: Blair's position is that the strikes would be part of a far broader campaign against extremism in the region, effectively. Whereas a much more narrow position is simply a deterrent message to the Assad regime. Hence the importance of how one frames the narrative in order to situate how the tactical action is understood.

MARK COLVIN: How much, when you speak of Tony Blair for instance, how much are we now replaying old wars, old conflicts; the hand wringing for years in the 90s over Bosnia, the attacks on Kosovo, the Iraq war - how much of that is now just woven into this debate?

EMILE SIMPSON: Yes, the debate is coloured very much by a competition if you life between two analogies: one being Kosovo, in which there was no UN resolution but there was a genocide going on and force was used, again effectively illegally under international law - although that's questionable.
Yet it was perceived as, generally perceived as legitimate. And the other analogy being Iraq which had a far more negative response and the degree to which politicians can colour the action through one or other analogies certainly is at the heart of the debate today.

MARK COLVIN: How much is that playing, for instance, into the British political debate? Because I understand that David Cameron has found his hands tied by the refused of Ed Miliband to go along with action?

EMILE SIMPSON: There's a debate today in parliament so we'll see if that…we'll see what Labour's position is. I think that, from what I understand, Labour's position in the UK is to wait for the evidence before being able to vote. And they've split now the parliamentary vote into two, so that this vote today, from what I understand is preliminary procedural vote.

It's not entirely clear how it will play out in the house, and then a second vote will actually decide how military force is used. So I think the position, with regards to Labour, is still evolving.

MARK COLVIN: But without David Cameron, can Obama go ahead? Even Bush didn't go ahead without Britain?

EMILE SIMPSON: It depends on the message that the US wants to send. If the strikes occur without British and French support, the strikes will send a different meaning, because they will represent deterrence mainly at one segment of the international community and not others, which is a different type of deterrence and so I can't double-guess president Obama - that depends what his policy intent is.

MARK COLVIN: But your central argument would be to make the intent very clear, to limit the causes and targets of any war?

EMILE SIMPSON: The language of war is interesting because war normally presupposes the defeat of an enemy, i.e. a military objective in order to set conditions for a political solution. That's a classic of war, and the use of force in war. But what this is, um well, should the strikes be intended only to present a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons and effectively enforcing a series of international agreements dating back to 1925 prohibiting that, then the use of force is really directly sending a message to the Assad regime and anybody else who would use chemical weapons.

The defeat of an enemy has become a largely irrelevant concept, and that's important in terms of de-limiting the extent to which any such strikes prosecuted on that basis would actually intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil War. Clearly they could be misunderstood as doing that and hence the importance of a clear narrative.

MARK COLVIN: Emile Simpson, author of War From the Ground Up. And you can hear a longer interview with him on our website from this evening.