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.
Tags: Arab League, Arms Control, Australia, Egypt, Human Rights, international relations, interstate system, intervention, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, NATO, Syria, United Kingdom, United Nations, United States, world politics
US Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the apparent chemical attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus on 21 August 2013, the Syrian capital, as a “moral obscenity” and a spokesman for the British Prime Minister David Cameron called it “completely abhorrent.” Almost a year ago to the day, on 20 August 2012, President Barack Obama had warned his Syrian counterpart that the use of chemical weapons would cross his “red line.” The US has already positioned four ships armed with cruise missiles in the eastern Mediterranean and aircraft may also be launched from Britain’s Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus a mere 100 miles from Syria’s coast.
Though Kerry and Cameron are categorical in blaming the Bashar al-Assad regime for the chemical attacks, no proof has been produced to back these assertions nor has it been determined as to what chemicals had been used. No precise casualty counts are available and no one know who, if anyone, gave the order to use chemical weapons. When UN inspectors went to Syria, their convoy escorted by the Syrian military came under fire and they had to withdraw briefly before resuming their inspection. The White House claims that since these inspections come five days after the attack the evidence will necessary be tainted and has decided to ignore the investigation and its results just as the Bush White House “knew” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as it launched the disastrous attack on that country ten years ago. Once again, the United States and the United Kingdom have appointed themselves the international judge, jury, prosecutor, and executioner in an untrammeled exercise of hubris.
Once the decision to go to war has been taken in the councils of state in Washington, London, Paris, and Sydney (Australia begins its term as chair of the UN Security Council besides being a reliable side kick to the Washington-London anglo-saxon axis), the press has rushed to beat the war drums in support. The New York Times edited its online article on the alleged use of chemical weapons 22 times yesterday, mainly to shore up support for the administration’s position. Crucially, there has been no report 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. This finding and the attack on UN inspectors being escorted by the military should at least create doubt on who actually used the chemical weapons, if indeed these were used.
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, 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. Prime Minister Cameron thundered:
“Almost 100 years ago, the whole world came together and said that the use of chemical weapons was morally indefensible and completely wrong. What we have seen in Syria are appalling scenes of death and suffering because of the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“I don’t believe we can let that stand. Of course any action we take, or others take, would have to be legal, would have to be proportionate. It would have to be specifically to deter the future use of chemical weapons.
“This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict. It is nothing to do that. It is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”
But this conveniently glossed over the inconvenient fact that Britain and the United States had supplied chemicals and weapon-making equipment in the 1980s to Saddam Hussein for his war against Iran.
And in the United States, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 precludes the president from going to war without congressional authorization except in self-defence. Candidate Obama had unequivocally stated in response to a direct question that:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.
As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.
Of course, as president, he had not sought Congressional approval for US actions in Libya two years ago, claiming that it was very limited in scope.
Not only is there no compelling evidence that the Syrian government had deployed chemical weapons and no legal basis 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 governments 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 a clear target. It is only those command-and-control positions that are not easily moveable which could be attacked and these may cause civilian casualties as well.
The Washington Post reports that a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted on the week of August 19-23, the very week in which television images of the alleged chemical attack flickered across television screens, only 9 percent of the respondents supported a military intervention in Syria. It is clear that there is no support for an extensive intervention either by troops on the ground or a prolonged air strike against the Syrian forces and in any case President Obama has ruled out regime change.
The conclusion is inescapable: any attack on Syria is simply to counter domestic opponents who claim that the Obama is weak. For that some Syrians will die a senseless death.
Hail to the Chief!
Tags: democracy, Human Rights, Syria, Turkey, United States, world politics
What began as a peaceful sit-in against government plans to turn Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul, into a shopping mall has been met with perhaps the most violent police attacks on peaceful protesters in recent history.
Initially, trotting out clichéd Western tropes about the Middle East, international media had painted the clash between protesters and the government as a conflict between secular and Islamist Turks. The claim that this is a secular revolt against an Islamic identity is based on prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) winning 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. But the AKP’s support came not only from the Islamists. AKP’s successes at the ballot box has to do with the government diluting the dominance of the industrial family clans of Istanbul and steering benefits to the rural poor in Anatolia and elsewhere.
Faced with a disorganized opposition, the AKP government has become increasingly authoritarian. Last month, the Turkish parliament passed a law severely restricting the sale of alcohol, and the Ankara metro made an announcement asking passengers “to act in accordance with moral rules” after a couple was caught kissing on security cameras–an announcement that was met by dozens of couples locking lips in front of the capital’s metro stations!
Today, the protests stem from the government’s increasingly authoritarian policies and its majoritarian conception of power. Zeyno Üstun, one of the first 50 demonstrators to occupy Gezi Park on May 27 says
Sure, there are hardcore secularists in the crowds. But there are also feminists, LGBT activists, anarchists, socialists of various stripes, Kurdish movements leaders, unionized workers, architects and urban planners, soccer hooligans, environmentalists, and people who are protesting for the first time! Someone wearing an Atatürk [the founder of the Turkish Republic as a secular, ethnically Turkish nation-state] T-shirt walks alongside another waving a flag of [imprisoned Kurdish leader] Abdullah Öcalan.
Tags: Egypt, European Union, Gaza, Human Rights, international relations, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Qatar, Russia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Nations, United States, West Bank, world politics
Israel’s eight-day assault on Gaza caused enormous damage to the physical infrastructure of that impoverished coastal strip and a vastly disproportionate human toll on the Palestinians. Yet, in a preliminary balance sheet, Hamas is a clear winner. Long shunned by the European Union, Israel, and the United States, it has now emerged as a legitimate player. its rival–the Palestinian Authority–was completely sidelined with its foreign minister forced to visit Gaza with an Arab League delegation! The Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmud Abbas did not visit Gaza at all in contrast to the Egyptian Prime Minister and the Tunisian Foreign Minister. Four years ago, when the Israeli’s had launched their last assault on Gaza, the Palestinian Authority had prevented demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza on the West Bank: this time it could not hold back support for Gaza. It was able to launch rockets to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that even the more militarily capable Hezbollah had not contemplated when Israel invaded Lebanon. Hezbollah, itself, by continuing to back Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who is engaged in a murderous internal war to retain his position, has also lost considerable legitimacy in the Arab street. Conversely, on this register too, Hamas by distancing itself from the Syrian regime and moving its headquarters from Damascus to Qatar, emerges stronger.
In the deliberately ambiguously worded ceasefire negotiated by Cairo and Washington, none of the terms insisted by the Quartet–the US, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations—that Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel in return for an engagement were mentioned. Instead, the ceasefire agreement accepted, however vaguely, Hamas’ central demands that targeted assassinations of individuals be stopped and that the border crossings be opened to the free movement of goods and people has been accepted. Whether these agreements will be implemented remains to be seen of course.
Egypt’s newly elected president Mohamed Morsi has emerged as a key regional power weight. less than 48 hours after the Israeil bombardment, he dispatched his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza in a show of support and pointedly condemned Israeli aggression. When the United States continued to unflinchingly support Israel, and refusing to engage Hamas, and with Turkey’s prime minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, having cut his ties to Israel, Morsi was the only credible interlocutor capable of negotiating a ceasefire. In fact, emboldened by his role in the Gaza ceasefire, Morsi has flexed his political muscle domestically: conferring on himself extensive powers and immunity from judicial overview.
Cementing Hamas’ role as a legitimate regional power has been a defeat for the United States. Once again, as the Israeli assault on Gaza began, President Barack Obama said he “fully supported israel’s right to self-defense” and both houses of Congress passed lopsided resolutions in favor of Israel. Yet, as even the Economist magazine indicated the casualties have been disproportionate.
- Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza between January 1st 2012 and November 11th 2012: 1
- Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire during the same period: 78
- Number of Israelis killed by fire from Gaza, November 13th-19th 2012: 3
- Total number of Israelis killed by rocket, mortar or anti-tank fire from Gaza since 2006: 47
- Number of Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli fire from April 1st 2006 to July 21st 2012: 2,879
- Number of people killed in traffic accidents in Israel in 2011: 384
Unable to deal directly with Hamas with which it has no formal engagement, the United States was forced to deal with them through Morsi and thus for the first time in the long history of Israeli occupation of Palestine, the ceasefire was announced in an Arab capital!
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have thought that another attack on Gaza, less than two months before an election, would have bolstered support for him. But continued international pressure, and the impossibility of stifling Gaza resistance to Israeli oppression compelled him to agree to a ceasefire. A poll found that more than 70 percent of those polled in Israel were opposed to the ceasefire, signaling possibly that Netanyahu had badly miscalculated his pre-election war strategy. No doubt, the US will fund a large part of the costs of the Israeli assault: each interceptor missile fired by its Iron Dome system costs $62,000 and each of the 5 Iron Dome batteries cost $50 million and it plans to deploy a total of 13 batteries. This cost will undoubtedly be borne by the American taxpayers–given the US Administration and Congress’ unconditional support for Israel.
Aid from Qatar and other Arab states–in October 2012, the Emir of Qater was the first head of state to visit Gaza since the tiny coastal enclave was turned into an open air prison by Israel in 2007–will help rebuild its arsenals and the infrastructure, along with of course support from Iran. Moreover, even as Israeli missiles and air-strikes may have devastated its weapons factories and arsenals, by bombing buses, Hamas has reminded Israeli leaders of its extraordinary resilience.
In any preliminary assessment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, Hamas and Morsi have emerged as winners, though at a terrible cost to the people of Gaza–another thing that Netanyahu has to answer for.
Tags: 21st Century Capitalism, democracy, Euro, European Union, Eurozone, France, Germany, Greece, Libya, Spain, Syria, United Kingdom, World-economy
“A typical sight during the pre-election protests,” in Spain last year Katherine Ainger wrote in the Guardian, “was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing ‘Vote here’ on the lids.” A few months later, at the other end of the Eurozone, in return for loans from the European Union, leaders of all three major political parties in Greece were required to sign pledges not to rescind a savage austerity program cutting more than 3.3 billion euros from the budget, rendering these pledges concrete and irreversible regardless of the outcome of the general election in April 2012. If the ‘typical sight’ during last year’s Spanish elections suggested that all political parties are the same, the demand that the EU wrested from the Greek politicians proved that their general election, announced for May 6, was rendered meaningless as the victors could not implement a new program. Elections become meaningless.
Paradoxically, just as French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron after a brief hesitation, abandoned their client dictators in North Africa–even violently overthrowing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and chafing at the bit to do the same to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria–Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel abandoned all pretense of supporting democracy when they forced then Greek Prime Minister Giorgios Papandreou to cancel a referendum he had proposed on the harsh terms imposed by the European Union for a bailout to Athens in November 2011. Threatening to expel Greece from the Eurozone, they effectively forced Papandreou to resign two days later and for him to be replaced by a national unity government headed by a former Vice President of the European Central Bank, Lucas Papademos.
Reporting in the Guardian, Helena Smith wrote:
For a country not only burdened by debt but closer to default than ever before, his appointment at the helm of a transitional government in Athens would be widely welcomed. An avuncular figure, Papademos is well respected in the European Union. In the corridors of power in Paris and Berlin, the capitals that count in deciding Greece’s fate, he is seen as a safe pair of hands, more capable than most at navigating the crisis-hit nation away from the shores of economic Armageddon.
Yet, this ‘safe pair of hands’ was the very one who, as president of the Greek Central Bank cooked the books so that Greece could enter the monetary union–and he was helped in this creative accounting by the European division of the Goldman Sachs—which is to be headed soon by the current president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi—for a fee of $300 million. Northern European governments only feign ignorance of their Mediterranean neighbors’ debts and subsidies, as Wolfgang Streeck notes, because their surveillance agencies could not “have failed to notice how countries like Greece saturated themselves with cheap credit after their accession to the Eurozone.” In fact, as government subsidies slowed down in conditions of budget consolidation, it was private flows that made up the difference–and it profited the export industries of the north because of the improved purchasing power among the Mediterranean countries—the prosperity of the north was predicated on the indebtedness of the south! Despite the fact that Eurostat had disclosed in 2004 that billions of euros had been shifted off public records in Greece, Athens continued to enjoy triple-A ratings.
Even the money being borrowed by Greece may have been the money of wealthy Greeks sent abroad as the Greek upper classes were practically tax-exempt as Stathis Kouvelakis has pointed out. When PASOK took office in 1981, it began to institute a social welfare system but did not seek to enlarge the tax base and even the middle class and the moderately wealthy remained exempt. In a sense then it is the untaxed money of richer Greeks, recycled through European banks, that is the source of the Greek debt! Yet, precisely because these funds were recycled through European banks, a Greek default would undermine the whole European financial system.
It is no wonder then that Sarkozy and Merkel refused to countenance a referendum in Greece and not only installed their own man at the helm of the government in Athens but placed officials from the ‘troika’–the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund–to oversee the operations of the government. Unless the Greek government complied with the stringent terms of the agreement imposed on it, funds in the escrow account will be withheld from Athens: a 32 percent cut in the minimum wage for those under 25, a 22 percent cut for those above 25, a cut in pensions by 25 percent on top of the laying off of some 200,000 workers over the past 12 months.
Given that politicians are hand-in-glove with the banks–from Goldman Sachs helping the Papademos shift billions of euros off the books to the Greek police beat up its Greek citizens to impose order for banks and hedge funds–it is no wonder that citizens are turning their backs on the politicians!