Bombing Syria would be both dangerous and illegal

By Mohamed Elmaazi / Open Democracy.

Britain and its ‘Allies’ have helped arm warring Syrian factions, fuelled conflict, spurned refugees. Now they want to punish Assad’s alleged war crimes by committing war crimes of their own.

Image: Kobani during bombing by US-led coalition in 2014. PA Images/Depo photos/ABACA, all rights reserved.

Despite all the moral hand-wringing, international law forbids nations from attacking each other, outside of Security Council approval or in self-defence, and alleged use of chemical weapons is no exception. Western media and politicians are once again calling for our governments to commit what Nuremberg Judges labelled the “supreme international crime”. They risk further escalating the conflict despite a lack of independent verification as to what actually happened in Douma, eastern Ghouta.

Something must be done

We once again find ourselves surrounded by a hypocritical, self-righteous and war-mongering echo chamber. Liberals and Conservatives, with few exceptions, all appear to agree the question is not whether the UK and US shall be launching military strikes against Syria, but rather when, and with what level of payload.

The scene is all too familiar. Unverified (though certainly possible) use of chemical weapons. Crying children. Pictures and videos of people being hosed off in medical facilities. How can anyone not be moved to “do something” rather than “stand by and do nothing”?

Unfortunately, the only “something” being offered to the British, American and French public is the launching of a military assault (of an unspecified nature) inside Syria - a sovereign state - which has attacked neither Britain, America or France. Humanitarian options like taking in refugees beyond the measly 11,000 or so that Britain has grudgingly accepted thus far, are not on the table. The only response by an apparent use of violence by the Syrian government is even more violence by the self-proclaimed leaders of the “free world”.

The situation has reached boiling point with Russia officially stating that they will “[shoot] down” US missiles and “even the sources from which the missiles were fired". The state of Israel has already launched strikes within Syria, also without any legal justification whatsoever, apparently killing 14 Iranians. Iran has vowed to retaliate against the attack. Now it appears May won’t even seek permission from parliament before she drags the country further into the war in Syria, having been pushed relentlessly by the British press and political class to “act” now.

This already multi-layered conflict risks snowballing even further, without any concrete evidence as to what exactly happened, as former Marine Corps intelligence officer and weapons inspector, Scott Ritter outlines in his important piece for the American Conservative.

The supreme international crime

For the avoidance of any doubt or confusion, attacking a foreign country without legal basis under international law represents the “supreme international crime”. The launching of an “aggressive war” is the “supreme crime” because it is the overarching offense which contains within itself “the accumulated evil of the whole” (e.g. rape, torture, murder, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, etc).

People were tried, convicted and hanged at Nuremberg for the crime of waging wars of aggression (as well as crimes against humanity).

Regardless of how unpalatable we may find it, even the verified use of chemical weapons -be they by state or non-state actors - is not a legal basis to attack a country, any country.

As Phyllis Bennis, Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., clearly explained (following the last alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, and subsequent military strike on the Syrian air base ordered by President Trump):

“The UN Charter is very vague about a lot of things, but it's very clear about one thing, and that is, when is it legal to go to war? When is it legal to use a military strike? There's only two occasions according to the UN Charter…The UN Charter says, "A country can use military force under two circumstances: Number one, if the Security Council authorizes it."…Number two, Article 51 of the UN Charter, which is about self-defence. But it's a very narrowly constrained version of self-defence… It says very explicitly, "If a country has been attacked."…"until the Security Council can meet, immediate self-defence is allowed." Neither of those two categories applied here. So, it was clearly an illegal act.”

We find ourselves once again in the exact same situation.

We have been here before

In July 2017 award winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh discussed with The Real News Network his article published by the German Die Welt, describing the claims that Trump ignored warnings by US intelligence that there was “no evidence that” Assad used chemical weapons in Kan Sheikhoun on 04 April 2017.

A subsequent UN report concluded (well after the strikes were conducted) in September 2017 that there “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Syrian government was responsible for a chemical attack on Kan Sheykhoun on 04 April 2017 along with two chlorine attacks on 25 and 30 March in Al-Latamneh this was well after the strikes.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis would then, five months later, go on to tell reporters that the US still “had no evidence” that the Syrian government used Sarin gas.

Irrespective of the UN findings, or Mattis’ subsequent bombshell, as Phyllis Bennis pointed out, the strike was illegal.

Yet, despite the illegality of the 2017 US strikes, despite the death toll that followed (nine Syrian soldiers and nine civilians including four children according to Syrian state television), and despite the lack of conclusive proof at the time that there even was a chemical attack, let alone verification as to what party or parties were responsible, Donald Trump received strong bi-partisan support for the strikes. The “liberal” press, including outlets such as MSNBC and CNN, along with the Democratic Party establishment supported the attack.

“I am tempted to quote [singer and songwriter] Leonard Cohen” said MSNBC News Anchor, who proceeded to then quote Leonard Cohen: “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons”.

Influential commentator (and protégé of the late Samuel Huntington) Fareed Zakaria told CNN, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment.” Apparently the killing of twenty five men, women and children in Yemen by US special forces four months earlier wasn’t enough to establish Trump’s “presidential” bona fides.

This one minute video by CNBC of a list of “experts” on their view of the value of the Syria strikes is also well worth watching, if only to belabour the unanimity of the views on this missile strike.

The constant blasting of Trump as being a “Putin puppet” puts immense pressure on the US President to prove otherwise. Launching military strikes against the Russian backed Syrian government delivers Trump bi-partisan establishment praise. It appears to be a lesson he has learned well.

Media manipulation

All of this seems to be of little concern to the British establishment and their compliant press. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair told Sky News that the UK will have to intervene in Syria or give “cart blanche” for the further use of chemical weapons.

Conveniently left out by Sky News is that Blair himself is guilty of deceiving parliament and the international community about “weapons of mass destruction” possessed by Iraq, and pushed an illegal invasion of the country that has killed hundreds of thousands, led to mass ethnic cleansing, the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and ISIS, along with other sectarian death squads.

All water under the bridge apparently.

Another example of the press cultivating a climate conducive to a British attack on Syria is ITV’s Good Morning Breakfast show asking its followers on Twitter:

“After horrendous chemical attack in Syria, should British forces hit back?”

As the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens once noted, opinion polls are more often about manufacturing opinion than they are about gauging it.

Attempting to bring attention to the manipulative nature of the “poll” I replied:

“No such poll for "striking back" against Turkey’s illegal invasion of Northern Syria, or Israel's massacre of unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza, or the use of White Phosphorus (a chemical weapon) by the US in Raqqa or allied forces in Mosul or Saudi's carpet bombing of Yemen.”

Neutral bystanders?

Also conveniently left out of mainstream media discussion over “what to do about Syria” is that the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have all been inflaming the civil war, and keeping it going since it broke out in 2011. These governments are not now, nor have they ever been, neutral or innocent bystanders.

On the contrary, they have been funnelling billions of dollars’ worth of conventional weapons, rocket launchers, assault rifles, anti-tank missiles and the like. Britain is already neck deep in this conflict, as are its “allies”, a point that award winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter illustrates in frightening detail in his article “How America armed terrorists in Syria”. Porter describes a declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency report that revealed:

“that the [Saudi funded and CIA facilitated] shipment [into Syria] in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment. Even if the CIA had organized only one shipment per month, the arms shipments would have totalled 2,750 tons of arms bound ultimately for Syria from October 2011 through August 2012. More likely it was a multiple of that figure”

The same declassified report described the main armed opposition backed by “the west” to be highly sectarian in nature and seeking to create a “Salafist Principality” or “state”.

The criminality of these actions and their destructive effect on the people of Syria is difficult to overstate.

Relearning the lessons of the past

It seems every generation must be perpetually (re)educated as to the extent to which truths, half-truths and outright lies are repeated daily by their politicians, governments and media, particularly in matters of war and peace.

Perhaps chemical weapons were used in eastern Ghouta and perhaps not. Hersch and others have suggested that there is some evidence of discussions about “false flag” operations to justify incursions into Syria in the past. The timing now is noteworthy - President Trump has publicly stated that he wants to bring US troops “back home” from Syria, and eastern Ghouta is falling into government control, according to Reuters reports.

Or perhaps the Syrian government did use chemical weapons simply to crush any last hope among the rebels.

Unfortunately the proposed military strikes will have nothing to do with exposing the truth or holding anyone accountable. They will be purely for show, by self-interested parties that are themselves deeply implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes being committed in Syria. And as was outlined at the beginning of this article, military strikes by Britain, France or the US into Syria would not only continue to destabilise the country and risk direct confrontation with Russia they would also be wholly illegal.

We cannot hold people to account for committing alleged war crimes by committing further actual war crimes.

Unlike citizens in many other parts of the world, those of us in self-proclaimed liberal democracies have the ability – however limited – to assert pressure to curtail our governments’ use of violence. I would go further and say we have the obligation to do so.

We may not be able to stop all the horrors going on in Syria but we can certainly reduce them by calling out and pressuring our governments to cease and desist in their complicity in crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the arming (directly or indirectly) of Salafi-jihadist groups, their support for the unlawful Turkish invasion of Northern Syria, as well as opposing any military strikes against the country.

Write to your local paper, contact your political representatives, and tell them you oppose any further involvement in Syria, other than providing humanitarian aid and support to civilian victims of the war in a manner that is transparent and verifiable.

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