Defending the indefensible in Syria

There is neither any justification for the West's imminent military intervention nor any substance to its claim that the assault will be limited and short-lived.

August 28, 2013 06:51 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:38 pm IST

An air strike on Damascus and other strongholds of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, led by the U.S, U.K. and France, seems imminent. In the days and weeks to come, we will be duly informed by pundits that Syria is not Iraq - and hence not a shambolic intervention - what with its proven arsenal of weapon of mass destruction (WMDs). This military assault, we will be told, will be quick and decisive, and intended only to deter Mr. Assad and other war criminals from using chemical weapons. Above all, the familiar refrain of the United Nations’ “inability to act” on Syria will be sold as the primary motivation behind this illegal intervention.

For starters, the claim that a Western air strike will be short-lived – according to a Washington Post >report , lasting for all of two days – is absurd. It is ludicrous to suggest a “drive-by” attack will somehow make the Syrian government think twice before using chemical weapons, if it has not already done so. On the contrary, Bashar al-Assad made it clear last year he will resort to them if Syria is attacked from outside. History too bears adversely on such claims. In 1998, the US and UK bombed Iraq without UN Security Council sanction, with the goal of taking out its WMD manufacturing facilities. Operation Desert Fox, which lasted for four days, not only went well beyond its mandate of targeting WMD-specific installations in Iraq, but also set back UN efforts at disarming the regime. In its aftermath, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously >said , “I would be amazed if a three-day campaign made a decisive difference, or if we can even precisely define what we meant by WMDs that we were going after [...].” The fog of war that persisted after this bombing allowed the Western military-industrial complex in 2003 to invade Iraq, on the pretext of destroying WMDs.

Questionable precedent

The NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 - which in the backdrop of a deadlocked Security Council, is being held up as a precedent to justify an assault on Syria - too began with the objective of halting President Slobodan Milosevic’s aggression. In the carpet bombing that followed, NATO’s deplorable targeting of civilian facilities, including hospitals and embassies, to attain its objective has been well documented. As with the NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, we can be sure Syria’s broadcasting agencies and media outlets, especially the Syrian Arab News Agency, will be targeted in this attack.

No intervention against the regime can be successful without taking out its powerful propaganda machine. Make no mistake: whatever the Obama administration may have us believe, the military intervention in Syria is not going to be quick, decisive or limited in scope.

Unilateral intervention predicated on the use of WMDs by a regime finds no backing in international law. Whether the West likes it or not, there is no alternative to legitimising the use of force in Syria but through express sanction from the UN Security Council. The Obama administration’s attempts to circumvent the UN Charter in this regard represent one of the greatest threats to the comity of nations since the Second World War. As Ian Hurd, a political scientist at North-western University, >notes , the United States has always been careful to justify its aggression under the >Article 2(4) of the Charter, which generally prohibits unauthorised intervention.

Even the egregious unilateralism of the Bush years saw the United States trying to mount a defence, however indefensible, of the Iraqi invasion under the UN Charter. President Barack Obama instead plans to justify his attack on Syria based on principles contained in the Geneva Conventions and the Chemical Weapons Convention, neither of which is applicable in this context. Syria is not even a signatory to the CWC. In effect, the United States is asking a sovereign state to comply with the provisions of a treaty it has not signed, failing which it will intervene militarily. How’s that for sound legal precedent?

No interest in verifyng claims

The West has sought to advertise this intervention as its stepping in where the UN failed. If airstrikes do occur as planned, it is unlikely the international community will get to know if Ds were ever used in Syria, either by the Assad regime or by the rebels. The UN, which has dispatched an inspection team to verify such claims, will not have had an opportunity to present its findings at the Security Council. The Wall Street Journal has >reported how the Obama administration in fact tried to convince the UN to pull its team out from Damascus.

This is now a recurrent pattern: the UN Monitoring team in Iraq, which in 2003 found little evidence to substantiate the Bush administration’s WMD claims, was discredited by the West for standing up to its warmongering. NATO’s bombing of Libya offered no chance for the Security Council to hear on-the-ground reports from the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative. The French intervention in Mali earlier this year came after Paris failed to address the African International Support Mission’s (AFISMA) long-standing request – endorsed by the UNSC – for financial and logistical assistance.

Superceding due process

The quick and dirty multilateralism that the West wants and achieves through “coalitions of the willing” is no substitute for the UN’s deliberative process. Hans Blix, head of the 2003 UN inspection team in Iraq, rightly suggested in an >interview to Huffington Post recently, “political dynamics are running ahead of due process.” Those who assert the United States and its allies have been reluctant to intervene in this conflict perhaps suffer from selective memory loss. As early as >October 2011 , and in >July 2012 , the West put forth draft resolutions in the Security Council that invoked Chapter VII measures under the UN Charter – their passing would have effectively allowed for military intervention in Syria. The dogs of war have thus far only been allowed to bark. It is imperative the international community steps in immediately, before they are unchained.


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