Looking for a Fig Leaf: US & UK Mull Punitive Action against Syria

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad

Here we go again. The US and Britain are whipping themselves once more into a frenzy over the actions of an evil strongman in the Middle East. This time around the recipient of American and British ire is Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. He is suspected of having ordered a series of attacks with chemical weapons on rebel strongholds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a mostly agricultural area to the east of the capital.

Depending on the source, anywhere between 322 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) and 1729 (Free Syrian Army) people were killed on the early morning of Wednesday, August 21. The Syrian government initially denied the use of chemical weapons and later claimed the rebels were to blame for the attacks. Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) reported some 3,600 cases of people admitted to local hospitals on the morning of the 21st with neurotoxic symptoms of whom 355 died later that day.

A team of United Nations observers is now trying to ascertain facts on the ground. Their work is hampered by continued fighting in the affected area and less-than-helpful authorities. Also, as time goes by, traces of the possible chemical attack become harder to document.

“The Syrian government initially denied the use of chemical weapons and later claimed the rebels were to blame for the attacks.”

However, we may be reasonably certain that before long both Washington and London will conclude that a chemical attack has indeed taken place and that Mr al-Assad – admittedly no choirboy – is to blame. Intelligence agencies such as the CIA and MI6 will obligingly furnish the proof needed in order to justify retaliatory air strikes and possibly even a full-blown intervention.

True to the script he inherited from his predecessor, US president Barack Obama, on Monday already mentioned that his government was looking to assemble a “coalition” to “make this work.” In the likely event that the US, Britain and their lesser allies feel the need to intervene before a UN sanctioned mandate is obtained, a legally sound precedent is required.

According to the New York Times, the Obama Administration is looking at the 1999 conflict in Kosovo when then-president Bill Clinton went ahead with air strikes against Serbia in order to protect endangered civilians. Partially as a result of this unilateral US military operation, the UN formally adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm in 2005.

The R2P norm may now be conveniently employed as a legal fig leaf for punitive military action against the Syrian regime. The writing is very much on the wall: Even before UN observers on the ground in Syria have had a chance to report their findings, US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government in Damascus of perpetrating a “moral obscenity.” Whitehouse spokesperson Jay Carney said that the US government has “very little doubt” that the Syrian government is culpable and promised to release an intelligence report shortly to back up his assessment.

One cannot help drawing parallels with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. Then too intelligence agencies duly produced detailed reports on that country’s vast stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) among which mobile plants for producing chemicals weapons right on the battlefield. The fact that these reports were the product of wild speculation – and had merely sprung from the minds of desk-bound spies suffering both from an excess of zeal and lack of competence – now seems lost on President Obama and his team.

It may be a cliché to state that history does indeed repeat itself, but we now are watching this process take shape. The outcome is also depressingly predictable: Rather than contributing to an end of hostilities in Syria, the indignant powers of the west will in all likelihood make matters worse by entering a civil war they don’t quite understand and moreover lacks any “good guys” to support.

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