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The hypocrisy of the West's Syria policy

The West, led by the US, has shown as much contempt for international law as Assad in the conflict

At this stage, it seems reasonable to wonder whether Syria was attacked in April because it didn't use chemical weapons, rather than because it did. 

That may seem strange until we remember the rather weighty suspicions surrounding the main accusers, especially the White Helmets, with their long-standing links to the US government and past scepticism about their inflammatory accusations, which critics claim used fabricated evidence.

A second irreverent puzzle is whether the dominant motive for the attack was not really about what was happening in Syria, but rather what was not happening in the domestic politics of the attacking countries. 

Every student of world politics knows that when the leadership of strong states feel stressed or cornered, they look outside their borders for enemies to blame and slay, counting on transcendent feelings of national pride and patriotic unity associated with international displays of military prowess to distract the discontented folks at home, at least for a while. 

Domestic discontent

All three leaders of the attacking coalition were beset by rather severe tremors of domestic discontent, making attractive the occasion for a cheap shot at Syria undertaken at the expense of international law and the UN, just to please responsive populist sentiment at home - and above all, to show the world that the West remains willing and able to strike violently at Islamic countries without fearing retaliation.

Of course, this last point requires clarification and some qualification to explain the strictly limited nature of the military strike. Although the attackers wanted to claim the high moral ground as defenders of civilised limits on military actions in wartime, itself an oxymoron, they wanted - even more crucially - to avoid escalation, carrying risks of a dangerous military encounter with Russia and the Syrian quagmire. 

There is pressure from Israel to mute President Donald Trump’s feared slide towards disengagement from Syria as a prelude to strategic withdrawal from the Middle East as a whole

As Syrian pro-interventionists have angrily pointed out, the attack was more in the nature of a gesture than a credible effort to influence the future behaviour of the Bashar al-Assad government, much less to tip the balance of the Syrian struggle against the government. As such, it strengthens the argument of those who interpret the attack as more about domestic crises of legitimacy unfolding in the now illiberal democracies of the United States, the UK and France than about any reshaping of the Syrian ordeal. 

A third line of interpretation insists that what was said by the leaders and representatives of the three attacking Western powers was not the real reason that the attack was undertaken. In this optic, there is pressure from Israel to mute President Donald Trump's feared slide towards disengagement from Syria as a prelude to strategic withdrawal from the Middle East as a whole, a region that Trump calls "troubled" beyond the capacity of the US to fix. At least temporarily, from Israel's point of view, the air strikes sent a signal to Moscow that the US was not ready to concede Syria to Russia and Iran. 

Supposedly, the Benjamin Netanyahu entourage - although pleased by the Jerusalem embassy move, and even more so, the repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement and the deafening silence about the Israeli army's murderous response to the Great Return March in Gaza - has new concerns about maintaining the regional belligerence and military engagement of the United States. The Israeli fear is that in the end, Trump will be no more help than former president Barack Obama, who, quite irrationally, was their nightmare US president.

The Iraq model

If that is not enough to ponder on the Syria policy, consider that Iraq was savagely attacked in 2003 by a US/UK coalition under similar circumstances - that is, without either an international law justification or authorisation by the UN Security Council, the only two ways that international force can be lawfully employed, and even then only as a last resort after sanctions and diplomacy have been tried and failed. 

It turned out that the political rationale for recourse to aggressive war against Iraq, its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, was totally false - either building a false case for intervention on elaborately orchestrated false evidence, or, more generously, being victimised by a hugely embarrassing intelligence lapse.

To be fair, this Syrian military caper could have turned out far worse for the civilian population. The entire attack lasted only three minutes, no civilian casualties were reported, and thankfully, there was no challenge posed to the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria, or to the Syrian government, thus avoiding the rightly feared retaliation and escalation cycle. 

An explosion on the outskirts of Damascus after Western strikes in April (Handout/STR/SANA/AFP)

What is puzzling beyond easy understanding is the claim that one of the targets was a storage facility containing toxic nerve gas in a heavily populated area, which, if hit with a missile - had the stockpile of chemical weapons actually existed - would have been responsible for far more civilian casualties than were alleged to have occurred at Douma. More than at any time since the end of the Cold War, sober concerns abounded preceding the attack that a clash of political wills or an accidental targeting mistake could cause geopolitical stumbles, culminating in World War Three. 

Historically minded observers saw alarming parallels with the confusions and exaggerated responses that led directly to the prolonged horror of the First World War. The relevant restraint of the 14 April missile attacks seems to be the work of the Pentagon, certainly not the White House. Military planners designed the attack to minimise the risks of escalation, possibly even reaching behind the scenes an undisclosed negotiated understanding with the Russians. In effect, Trump's red line on chemical weapons was supposedly defended and redrawn at the UN as a warning to Damascus.

But with Israel's major attacks on the Iranian military presence in Syria coming less than 24 hours after Trump disowned the P5 + 1 agreement with Iran, the march towards regional war seems to have resumed in full force.

Rush to judgement

The Syrian attack set the stage for escalation, and seems in retrospect to have been contrived.

We cannot, at this stage, even be sure that the factual basis of this aggressive move accurately portrayed Syria as having launched a lethal chlorine and nerve gas attack on the people of Douma. We have been fooled too often in the past by the confident claims of the intelligence services working for these same countries that sent missiles to Syria. 

There is a feeling of a rush to judgment amid some strident, yet credible, voices of doubt, including from UN sources. The most cynical observers are suggesting that the timing of the attack - if not its real purpose, other than Trump's red line - was to destroy evidence that would incriminate others than the Syrian government as the responsible party.

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Further suspicions have been fuelled by the refusal to wait until the factual claims could be validated. As matters stand, the air strikes seem to have been rushed to make sure that the respected Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), when finally carrying out its fact-finding mission, would have nothing to find. 

To allay reactions that these are ideologically driven worries, it is notable that the Wall Street Journal, never a voice for peace and moderation, put forward its view that it was not "clear who carried out the attack" on Douma - a view shared by several mainstream media outlets, including the Associated Press. 

Blaming Syria, much less attacking it, is clearly premature, and quite possibly altogether false, undermining the essential factual foundation of the coalition claim without even reaching the formidable doubts associated with issues of unlawfulness and illegitimacy.

Remnants of colonialism

Less noticed, but starkly relevant, is the intriguing reality that the identity of the three states responsible for this aggressive act share strong colonialist credentials that expose the deep roots of the turmoil afflicting, in different ways, the entire Middle East. It is relevant to recall that it was British and French colonial ambitions in 1917 that carved up the collapsed Ottoman Empire, imposing artificial political communities with borders reflecting European priorities, rather than natural affinities, and taking no account of the preferences of the resident populations. This colonial plot foiled former US President Woodrow Wilson’s more positive proposal to implement self-determination based on affinities of ethnicity, tradition and religion of those formerly living under Ottoman rule. 

The US supplanted this colonial duopoly rather late, as the Europeans faltered in the 1956 Suez Crisis, but quickly left its own heavy footprint throughout the region with an updated imperial agenda of Soviet containment, oil geopolitics and untethered support for Israel. 

After a century of exploitation, intervention and betrayal by the West, it should come as no surprise that anti-Western extremist movements have surfaced throughout the Arab world

Even earlier, the Truman Doctrine and the CIA role in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected and nationalist government of Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh disclosed the extent of US involvement in the region. These strategic priorities were later supplemented by worries over the spread of Islam and fears that nuclear weaponry could fall into the wrong political hands, from the perspective of the West. 

After a century of exploitation, intervention and betrayal by the West, it should come as no surprise that anti-Western extremist movements have surfaced throughout the Arab world and engendered some populist sympathies, despite their barbaric tactics.

It is also helpful to recall the 1999 Kosovo War and the 2011 war in Libya, both managed as NATO operations carried out in defiance of international law and the UN charter. Because of an anticipated Russian veto, NATO, with strong European backing, launched a punishing air attack that drove Serbia out of Kosovo. Despite the presence of a strong case for humanitarian intervention within the Kosovo context, it set a dangerous precedent, which Iraq hawks found convenient a few years later. 

In effect, the US found itself backed into insisting on an absurd position, to the effect that the veto should be respected without any questioning when the West uses it, most arbitrarily to protect Israel from much more trivial, yet justifiable, criticisms of its policies. Evading the veto to launch this missile attack on the basic sovereign rights of a member government is a much more serious challenge to the spirit and letter of the UN charter.

Cognitive dissonance

American diplomats do not try to justify, or even explain, their inconsistent attitudes towards the authority of the UN veto, despite the starkness of the contradiction. Perhaps it is a textbook example of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. More accessibly, it is a prime instance of American exceptionalism. 

The US, as the anointed guarantor of virtue and perpetual innocence in world politics, is not bound by the rules and standards by which we judge the conduct of others, especially adversaries.

Members of the United Nations Security Council attend a meeting in New York on 17 May (AFP)

The Libyan precedent is also relevant, although in a different way, to the marginalisation of the UN and international law, to which this latest Syrian action is a grim addition. Because the people of the Libyan city of Benghazi truly faced an imminent humanitarian emergency in 2011, the UN case for lending protection seemed strong. Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council, were persuaded to suspend their suspicions about Western motives and abstain from a Security Council resolution specifically authorising the establishment of a no-fly zone to protect Benghazi. 

It didn’t take long to disabuse Russia and China, mocking their trust. They were quickly shocked into the realisation that NATO’s real mission in Libya was regime change, not humanitarian protection. In other words, these Western powers who are currently claiming at the UN that international law is on their side with regards to Syria, have themselves a terrible record of flouting and manipulating UN authority whenever convenient and insisting on their full panoply of obstructive rights under the charter when Israel’s wrongdoing is under review.

Reigniting the Syrian war

The Syrian attack, and its legal rationale at the UN, puts the world back at square one when it comes to restraining the international use of force. Imagine the indignation that the US would muster if Russia or China proposed at the Security Council a long-overdue peacekeeping mission to protect the multiply abused population of Gaza. And if these countries went further, and had the geopolitical gall to act outside the UN because of the urgency of the humanitarian justification, the world would almost certainly experience the bitter taste of apocalyptic warfare. 

The charter framework makes as much sense, or more, now than when crafted in 1945. Recourse to force is only permissible as an act of self-defence against a prior armed attack, and then only until the Security Council has time to act. In non-defensive situations, such as the Syrian case, the charter makes clear beyond reasonable doubt that the Security Council alone possesses the authority to mandate the use of force, including in response to an ongoing humanitarian emergency. The breakthrough idea in the charter is to limit, as much as language can, discretion by states to decide on their own when to make war. Syria is the latest indication that this hopeful idea has been crudely cast in the geopolitical wastebasket. 

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It will be up to the multitudes to challenge these developments, and to use their mobilised influence to reverse the decline of international law and the authority of the UN. Trump’s boastful tweet after the Syrian attack, which used the words "mission accomplished", weirdly recalled the time in 2003 when the same phrase was on a banner behind George W Bush as he spoke prematurely of victory in Iraq. Those words soon came back to haunt Bush, and if Trump were capable of irony, he might have realised that he is likely to endure an even more humbling fate. 

The end result is the reigniting of the Syrian war just when it seemed to be nearing its end, with the widespread recognition that Damascus prevailed, for better or worse. Now Israel has been given the opportunity to pour oil on the dying embers in Syria to sustain its policy of making sure that chaos and conflict persist, with neither side being allowed to win and end the violence. In the process, the West, led by the US, has again shown its contempt for international law and UN authority.

- Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008, he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the special rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman, involved in air operations in Syria, stand beside an F18 Hornet fighter jet on the flight deck of the ship in the eastern Mediterranean on 8 May 2018 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.