Tags: Arms Control, Human Rights, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kurds, Middle East, Russia, Syria, United Kingdom, United Nations, United States
Grotesque images of children foaming at the mouth as they lay dying from an apparent chemical weapons attack in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013 was, in the words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity.” Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reports that the three hospitals it supports in Damascus treated 3,600 patients with symptoms of poisoning and 355 of them have died. While Kerry and his counterparts in Britain, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have been quick to blame the attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime they have not yet produced any evidence linking the regime to the attacks. MSF reports that while there are strong indications that thousands of patients were exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they “can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack.”
Indeed, the timing of the attack—on the one year anniversary of President Barack Obama’s warning to the Assad government that the use of chemical weapons against their adversaries would cross his “red line”—is suspicious. The regime, by all accounts, was pushing back the rebels. Why would it now invite retribution from the West? We don’t know what chemicals were used or even who gave the order to launch the chemical weapons. Even if the attack was launched by Syrian government forces, is it possible that it was by a mid-level officer fearful of failure—not because the regime has qualms killing its own people, but because it is not mad enough to invite a hail of missiles?
Washington initially balked at the UN inspectors going to investigate the attack and then when they eventually commenced their inquiry, the White House claimed that the evidence will necessarily be tainted since it was already five days after the attack. Yet, scientists have found the unique chemical signature of sarin in a Kurdish village 4 years after Iraqi warplanes dropped cluster bombs according to a New York Times report and the UN investigators are confident of finding evidence if there are any. Long years of experience have given investigators sophisticated techniques to decipher the use of chemical weapons long after the fact. Tellingly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told reporters that the UN asked permission to access the sites of the alleged chemical attacks only on Saturday 24 August and permission was granted the next day! This does not qualify as stalling by any standard. While the investigators have no mandate to determine who was culpable, the fact that their convoy, when escorted by Syrian government forces, was shot at and had to retreat temporarily is also suspicious. Why should the government shoot its own military escorts?
The US and UK governments claim to have incontrovertible evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks but no such evidence has been presented and journalists do not press them to reveal this secret evidence. As Noam Chomsky noted many years ago, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Thus, mainstream media in the US or the UK have not conducted interviews with Syrian government officials—except for a few cameo quotes which are then obscured by long interviews with administration spokesmen—or even the UN inspectors on the ground.
No mention has been made in the mainstream media that Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria reported in May 2013 that testimony from medical personnel indicated “strongly but not incontrovertibly” that rebel forces were using the nerve agent sarin. In fact, the New York Times edited its online article on the alleged use of chemical weapons 22 times on Monday August 26, mainly to shore up support for the administration’s position. And after the Bush White House assurances of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 10 years ago, claims by the Obama White House of chemical attacks by the Assad regime without any evidence to back it up is equally suspect.
In fact, as veteran journalist Gwynne Dyer notes, if we apply the time-honored test of who benefited from the chemical attack—the only likely answer are one of the many rebel factions knowing that their use will bring retribution on Assad. Indeed, the focus on chemical weapons attack also detracts from the atrocities of the rebels—notably the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the north-east forcing 40,000 of them to flee to northern Iraq in the biggest refugee exodus of the Syrian civil war. In all the moral fury marshaled by US and UK administrations there is nary a word about this outrage!
What is also remarkable is that left-liberal opinion in the United States is so overjoyed that Obama is not Bush that they do not hold him to the same standards of scrutiny to which they have held other presidents. No large anti-war protests are planned when the US has already stationed four ships and some submarines capable of firing cruise missiles at Syria in the eastern Mediterranean and Prime Minister David Cameron has called back parliament to debate a punitive strike on Syria.
Then again there is the question of legal justification. As it is clear that there will be no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for a punitive strike on Syria since Russia is irremediably opposed to it, justifications are trotted out on what William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary said was “a great humanitarian need and distress” and claimed that it is based on “international law.” It is not clear though which “international law” was being invoked. If it was the international convention on the non-use of chemical and biological weapons, three major states in the Middle East–Egypt, Israel, and Syria–have not ratified it. So Syria is being asked to adhere to a treaty it has not signed—an excellent legal precedent!
US forces have admitted dropping white phosphorus over Fallujah in 2004 and Britain and the United States had supplied chemicals and weapon-making equipment in the 1980s to Saddam Hussein for his war against Iran. But of course, in true imperialist hubris, the laws they impose on others do not apply to themselves.
Not only is there no compelling evidence that the Syrian government had deployed chemical weapons and no legal basis exists for attacking the country, but options to attack are so marginal that they are merely a pointless punitive strike. Israel has attacked Syria with missiles several times without causing any real change in the Assad government’s behavior and it is unclear what more can be expected from a US-led NATO strike. Clearly Syria’s chemical weapons cannot be targeted as that would cause unimaginable casualties. Syrian government, anticipating an attack would already have reconfigured its command-and-control operations so they do not present an easy target. It is only those command-and-control positions that are not easily moveable which could be attacked and these may cause large civilian casualties as well. Military airfields could be cratered and aircraft bombed and this may hurt the Assad regime in the short run. Even the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has admitted that less than 10 percent of the casualties in the two and a half years of civil war in Syria are accounted by bombs.
The conclusion is inescapable: any attack on Syria is simply to counter domestic opponents who claim that the Obama is weak. His Republican nemesis, John McCain and his allies have been hunkering for a more muscular American response to Syria even though it would raise military spending and further complicate the budgetary situation in Washington. But Obama can now become a ‘war president.’ For that, many Syrians will die a senseless death.
Even worse, launching missile strikes against the Assad regime will complicate the current moribund peace talks which are the only way to resolve the crisis. Here, too the US is torpedoing efforts to bring the warring parties together by insisting that Syria’s close ally, Iran, be excluded from it. There are so many rebel factions—some 1,200 different military units by Patrick Cockburn’s count ranging from small family outfits to large organized units with tanks and artillery—that they cannot even agree on a delegation to represent them. It is as he says “a failed country and a failed opposition.”
This is not a situation that calls for surgical air strikes. If the Obama administration really wants to bring peace, it needs to cooperate with Russia and get their regional allies to sit together at a conference table after agreeing to a cease fire.