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Sunday, 1 September 2013

The sheriff threatens to strike Syria

People against war: Supporters of the anti-war group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition participate in a rally in Washington DC, in opposition to a possible US military strike in Syria. – EPA

For nearly all countries including the US, a military attack on Syria will only make things worse.

TEN years after US President George W. Bush attacked Iraq, his successor Barack Obama is set to do it with Syria.

A secular Muslim autocrat in West Asia, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, was accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) so he “had” to be removed. Back then, Senator Obama had accused Bush of an unjustifiable and unnecessary war based on a flimsy pretext.

Now a secular Muslim autocrat in West Asia, Syrian President Bashar Assad, stands accused of using chemical WMDs. No evidence against Bashar had been presented before Washington’s decision to punish Syria.

Obama’s supporters may say it is a little different this time – just a little, though not much. Saddam’s case involved accusations of WMD possession, while Bashar’s involves accusations of actual use.

But what real difference is there once the bombs begin to drop? The arguments and circumstantial “evidence” so far are insufficient to support even a misdemeanour in a civil court, let alone a serious action such as war.

Just as the so-called evidence against Saddam’s Iraq was false, the same may be said of the case against Syria so far.

At a time when the US needed to convince the international community to support action against Syria, no evidence against Bashar had been offered. It nonetheless seemed sufficient to get Washington on the warpath again.

The White House says there is no doubt that Syria had used chemical weapons, but doubts persist. The Syrian government insists it did no such thing.

The issue concerns allegations of chemical weapons use in an area controlled by rebel forces just outside Damascus on August 21. The result – about 1400 civilian deaths.

Critics of military action ask why Syria had agreed to a UN arms inspection if it had just used banned chemical weapons, why it should target civilians including children who were not against it, and why it should do so knowing the likely international consequences. They also question the reliability of the evidence linking the incidents to the Syrian government, and the credibility of the source of the alleged evidence itself.

At the same time, motives also exist for falsifying evidence to blame Syria, so that US military action would weaken or dislodge Bashar. The beneficiaries are within and outside Syria.

The strongest “evidence” against Damascus comes from Israel, specifically Unit 8200 of the Israeli Defense Forces that supposedly intercepted the Syrian military’s electronic communications. According to Prof. John Schindler at the US Naval War College, Israel then fed this information to Washington and London for follow-up action against Syria.

Bashar’s Syria is the latest Muslim country in West Asia to be undermined by Israel, following Iraq, Libya and Egypt. In quietly promoting Western military action against these countries, Israel need not spend a single dollar or risk a single soldier’s life.

Western countries inclined to military action often find they have to depend on Israel. They lack the kind of intelligence information on the ground that Israel has, regardless of whether that information is trustworthy.

This also happens to benefit various militant groups hoping to seize power after Bashar – up to a point. Israel expects them to disagree among themselves and neutralise one another as Syria disintegrates, leaving the door open to Israeli interests.

In a US poll on Friday, 52% of respondents believe that once Bashar falls, Syria would be split. Over the medium and long terms, Israel would be the only beneficiary of another dismembered Muslim nation.

Within Syria, the considerable but still limited military strength of the various opposition groups has meant an armed stalemate while Bashar remains in office. The only factor likely to make a difference is Western military intervention, if that could be “arranged”.

On Thursday, an Associated Press news report said Washington remained uncertain where Syria stored its chemical weapons. US intelligence officials acknowledged that proof of Syria’s use of these weapons was still unclear, and that they were even less certain of Bashar’s guilt than they were of Saddam’s.

On the same day, a report released by the British government revealed that London did not understand why the Syrian government would want to use chemical weapons as alleged. Yet Britain was prepared to support the US position that Syria was guilty, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of international opinion is set against military action. This includes the general populations in Britain and the US.

The US Congress is divided on the issue and insists that its prior approval is needed, while the British Parliament on Thursday voted to oppose military action. But US officials have said none of this would change their plans.

Russia says no evidence exists of chemical weapons use, much less to link the Syrian government to such use. China says the UN Security Council should not be pressured on deadlines to approve any action before UN inspections are complete.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for calm and for enough time for UN weapons inspectors in Syria to complete their job. Their mission ends this weekend.

Former chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix, in a similar situation a decade ago when the US had already decided to attack Iraq, now questions the right of any country to attack Syria even if it had actually used chemical weapons.

Despite the international ban on chemical weapons, no international law obligates any power to attack a country for the use of WMDs. The US itself is not restrained against its first use of nuclear WMDs.

The official US line is that “punishing” Syria is not intended to topple Bashar. In the heat of hostilities, however, nobody can guarantee there would be no regime change, especially when US forces meet with resistance and risk international embarrassment for not achieving anything substantial.

The US case for an attack also claims the “immorality” of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons use. But the moral argument is defeated when an attack could result in more civilian deaths and suffering than the supposed use of chemical weapons.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that any action that escalates the Syrian conflict would only result in more civilian suffering. Unesco said the looting of Syria’s rich cultural heritage had already begun.

White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that logically, there was no doubt about the Syrian government’s guilt. But logic remains the biggest impediment to the US argument.

Attacking another country can be legitimate only in a case of self-defence or when approved by the UN Security Council. The latter requires endorsement by all the UNSC’s Permanent Five members.

A US attack cannot cite self-defence because Syria did not attack the US. Neither will there be UNSC approval, since Russia and China are likely to vote against.

Nonetheless, the US proceeded to attack Iraq in 2003 even after China abstained. Obama may now outdo Bush by attacking Syria when both Russia and China object.

US bombs may also hit chemical weapons stockpiles, releasing poison gas and killing many more people. But then only Syrians would be affected.

Obama’s standing in the Muslim world has declined considerably since its height with his 2009 Cairo speech. Where actions speak louder than words, that decline is also happening in the developing world in general.

BUNN NAGARA is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia

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