Syria: return to the Middle Ages

If the US decides to unilaterally attack Syria, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s recent observations on the subject will be fulfilled: "If any country attacks another when it wants, that is like the Middle Ages."

Bob Rigg
1 September 2013

The US push for the UNSC to support its intervention in Iraq highlighted the struggle to maintain the legitimacy of the UN in the face of US resolve to go it alone. The US resorted to its tried and tested ways of arm-twisting and persuasion to legitimise its proposed intervention, and failed, at least initially, with France joining Russia and China in opposition to a war justified in terms of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that, upon inspection, did not exist.

After a coalition of the unwilling, dominated by the US, had entrenched itself in Iraq, the UNSC crumpled and retroactively gave its blessing to a brutal US military occupation which destroyed much of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, greatly lowering the average standard of living and smashing its economy, while brutalising and corrupting everyday life. The US rationale for the intervention proved to be a tissue of lies, cobbled together by US intelligence.

Lack of faith in intelligence

This gigantic confidence trick and its aftermath have overshadowed the fierce international debate about the recent alleged use of chemical weapons (CW) by the Syrian government on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Almost all relevant facts, including the number of people killed, are hotly disputed.

It is important to recall that, after an alleged CW incident near Aleppo on 19 March 2013, the Syrian government approached the UN Secretary-General, formally requesting an independent UN investigation. The Syrian government was absolutely convinced that rebel forces had used the chemical in question. Although the US government was not in full possession of the facts, it insisted from the outset that its rebel allies could not possibly have been responsible for such an incident, in part because, it maintained, they did not have access to CW.

The US denounced the Syrian government for having the temerity to even suggest that the rebels would be capable of such gross human rights abuse. The US had, politically speaking, aligned itself with the rebels. This was before the world awakened to the brutality and ruthlessness of some rebel groups. ‘Eat your heart out’ became the motto of one rebel leader.

US frustrates Syrian calls for UN investigation

If a UN investigation had then found that rebels had used CW, this would have irretrievably damaged their international standing, undermining their claim to be a legitimate transitional Syrian government-in-waiting. It also would have pulled the rug out from beneath the US strategy to lay the foundations for the overthrow of Assad. The US conspicuously did not actively support Syria’s request for an independent UN investigation of the Aleppo incident. The US has also vociferously asserted throughout the war that no rebel group has chemical weapons, in the face of evidence that five members of Iraq’s Al Qaeda had been arrested for producing both mustard gas and sarin. The possibility that a well-resourced government aligned with the rebels may have been covertly providing it with CW cannot be ruled out.

The UN and Syria finally agreed to investigate Syria’s Aleppo allegations, in addition to two other incidents referred to it by rebels.

Shortly after the UN inspection team began its work in Syria, the Ghouta incident occurred, to expressions of international shock and horror, led by John Kerry and Joe Biden in particular. From day one the US has insisted, initially in the absence of any hard evidence, that CW had undoubtedly been used by the Syrian government.

What then happened to the original UN inspection team mandate has been obscured in the recent flurry of events. But it appears as though the Ghouta  incident prevented the UN inspectors from conducting any serious investigation of the Khan al-Assal event of 19 March. Was the Damascus incident timed, amongst other things, to prevent a UN finding of CW use by a rebel group on that occasion?

It has just been confirmed that the UN team will return to Syria later, to follow through on these investigations. By the time their results are announced, the UN report on Ghouta will have been formally completed, and the US may have attacked.

Did the US influence the UNSG’s mandate for the UN investigation?

The UN inspection team’s report may throw some light on all of this, although the UN Secretary-General’s questionable insistence that the inspection team may not attribute use of CW will require the team to exclude from its report any information or analysis that could be perceived as identifying those responsible for this incident. Even if the UN inspection team has been able to point the finger at one side or the other, Ban's instruction prevents it from disclosing this. Although almost everyone is now commenting unfavourably on the restrictive nature of Ban’s mandate, no one is asking the question: where and how did it originate?

Ban must have consulted with the five permanent UNSC members about the Khan al-Assal investigation, which triggered his now controversial UN inspection mandate. As Russia was adamant that Al Nusra rebels were responsible, it would not have insisted on concealing the identity of the culprit. It therefore appears probable that the US, not wanting to blot the reputation of its rebel allies, may well have insisted on excluding the assignment of responsibility for CW use from the inspection mandate.

Shortly after the Ghouta incident the CIA confirmed that the US had provided satellite intelligence helping the Iraqis to hit Iranian targets with CW during the Iran-Iraq War.

The political provenance of Obama’s ‘red line’

Although much has been written about Obama’s ‘red line’ in relation to CW use in Syria, no one has enquired into its provenance. What has already become clear is that, when Obama first introduced his red line, he had not thought it through. Why did he zero in on CW use as a more deadly violation of human rights than any killing of large numbers of civilians, by conventional or unconventional means?

Throughout the Syrian crisis, the Israelis have perceived Syria’s chemical arsenal as a serious threat to Israel’s national security, with good reason. Syria’s large CW arsenal, backed up by sophisticated Russian-made delivery vehicles able to target all major population centres in Israel, was created with Israel in mind. Syria’s CW arsenal was a partial response to Israel’s nuclear strike capability. Israel intensively lobbied the US about this real threat, suggesting that the US should define Syrian CW use as a trigger for US military involvement. This also created a powerful incentive for Syrian rebels and their political backers to precipitate US intervention through a false flag incident.

The real threat of Syria’s CW was not to the people of Syria, but to the population centres of Israel, where gas masks are a market leader at present. Obama bought into a Syrian ‘red line’ for CW, but resisted Netanyahu’s public calls for him to come up with another red line in relation to Iran’s nuclear program. It had dawned on him that, once a US President draws up a red line, he can become a political hostage to his own concept.

Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have gone out of their way to demonise the Syrian government as the enemy and to sermonise about its dastardly war crimes, demanding military retribution. John Kerry’s State Department has, unusually, been leading the charge, with a former member of US intelligence services as its bellicose new spokesperson. Obama has remained strangely silent in the face of all this, even saying in language befitting of a law professor that:

“ If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it ...the notion that the US can somehow solve what is a sectarian complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.”

Coalition of the unwilling

What Biden, Kerry, and Obama himself fail to acknowledge is that, since Obama became President and Commander-in-Chief, US military and intelligence operatives have killed, tortured and wounded large numbers of innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, with Obama personally signing off on drone hit lists. Many of these countries, like Korea and Vietnam before them, have been reduced to poverty-stricken moonscapes, with wrecked infrastructure, schools, hospitals, and public amenities. 

The US supported an independent investigation by UN inspectors until the Damascus incident erupted. However, once UN inspectors went in to investigate, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry openly stated that, in the event of conflict between the findings of UN inspectors and those of US, Israeli, British and French intelligence, the US would unhesitatingly be guided by their own findings.

Obama's Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey recently wrote: "the use of US military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fuelling this conflict." US military leaders are unenthusiastic about committing to an engagement which, like others, lacks clearly defined objectives and could bog the US military down in yet another Middle Eastern morass.

But though the US administration is desperate to legitimise a punitive military attack on Syria, it is completely diplomatically isolated now that the UK has joined Germany, Italy and NATO  in withdrawing support for an intervention not blessed by the UNSC. NATO’s US-friendly Anders Fogh Rasmussen has just confirmed NATO’s commitment to a diplomatic solution; its 28 members lack the consensus that would be a precondition for any foreign military engagement. The UNSC will not support any military moves, but, urged on by the UN Secretary-General, will certainly continue with its peace-making efforts.

Moves have been afoot for some time to mobilise an international coalition of the willing in support of military intervention in Syria. At the beginning of this week, Turkey’s Foreign Minister confirmed that 36-37 governments had undertaken to offer political support for such an intervention. These governments are, however, so concerned with their own publics’ disaffection with their cause, that they have insisted on not being publicly identified, presumably in the name of political accountability and transparency.

One week ago the US appeared ready to rush into a strike against Syria. One vital element was, however, missing from the war equation. President Obama kept insisting that he had not decided to attack while his four dogs of war – Joe Biden, John Kerry, David Cameron, and William Hague – barked and howled to the moon. Now David Cameron and William Hague have fallen by the wayside, casualties of British parliamentary democracy.  Obama still enjoys the strong backing of France’s François Hollande who, like Obama, was elected on an anti-war platform, and also seems prepared to turn his back on his own constituency.

Obama lacks any meaningful support for a military intervention. Public opinion in the US is powerfully opposed to further US meddling in the Middle Eastern crucible. The GOP opposition is concerned at the possibility that even a limited military intervention could blow up in the face of the US, isolating and embarrassing it internationally. Throughout Europe, including France, and also in the Middle East public opinion sees a US intervention as fraught with peril. The Arab League appears, after much heavy infighting,  to have endorsed an interventionist statement. In particular Egypt and small states neighbouring Syria such as Jordan and Lebanon want to avoid igniting a spark that could set their region ablaze. The acute bellicosity of recent days is already being replaced by a more thoughtful appreciation of the downside of a ‘symbolic’ US strike.

Obama’s Pax Americana

The Syria crisis has, somewhat unexpectedly, affirmed the central importance of the UNSC for international consultation and decision-making in matters of war and peace. In our age of discontent and acute financial and political instability, governments that ignore public opinion on matters of war and peace run the risk of going to the wall. For some time David Cameron spoke as though he represented the full weight of British public opinion. He had to discover that he lacked a public powerbase, and represented only himself and the hard right.

Because the UN Secretary-General has mystifyingly specified that the eagerly anticipated UN inspection report must be limited solely to whether CW were used - but may not in any way address the question of who used them, the report will not provide a clear war mandate for the US and its decimated band of brothers. Chaos, uncertainty, endless speculation and acrimony will result. 

If the US launches a unilateral attack on Syria, bypassing the UNSC and thumbing its nose at the UN, the UN Charter and the international community, it will turn its back on post WWII rules-based values, principles, and institutions aiming to maximise the probability of world peace.  It will instead embrace a Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest that may lead the world back into the dark ages.  A professor of constitutional law will have ensured that the US is a law unto itself on the international stage.

The best-case scenario would be for the US Congress to be inspired by the example of the UK Parliament, and to reject Obama’s request for approval for a symbolic military intervention with the potential to destabilise Syria and the region. Can a dysfunctional and corrupt closed shop transform itself into an agent of democracy?


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