While the Facebook nation’s eyes and hearts are focused on Jacinda looking resplendent and pregnant with Clarke Gayford in Buckingham Palace with the Queen, my mind is on the people of Syria and Palestine.
The pomp and ceremony, the costumes and finery, of the visit of Commonwealth leaders, including our own, to the Palace, is a compelling distraction from the business of economics and war which has been the real agenda in the week-long visit of the Prime Minister’s delegation abroad.
The sight of ‘our pregnant Jacinda’ means the visit ends on a high PR note. Confirmed by her rankings among Time magazine’s 100 most powerful people and footing it with the heavy hitters among world leaders, many New Zealanders feel renewed pride and confidence in our place in the world.
However, that place in the world, and that pride, shouldn’t be uncritical either. Let’s not forget the purpose of these meetings, and their focus on trade, not so much on human rights. You can be sure the western, neo-liberal consensus, has been shored up by all the bilateral and multilateral cups of tea and hand shaking, and discussions behind closed doors. Conveniently for many leaders present, and those in association, the western attack on Syria, the diplomatic dance, the discussions on trade and security, the military parades and ceremonies, were convenient distractions from troubles like protests and low polls at home.
Trade and security were at the top of the agenda, but ultimately however, security in question was more about security of trade than security of the world’s dispossessed.
The US-led airstrikes of Syrian bases, unsanctioned by either the UN or domestic governmental mandates, were appropriately under discussion. But the airstrikes themselves were an agenda set by the west and so were the terms of debate. When Jacinda Ardern talked about the Five Eyes partners reaffirming their commitment to ‘rules-based order’, it was western rules she referred to, not so much, international law.
The French constitution requires the Government to inform Parliament of military action but not necessarily to vote. France’s participation in a show of power in the Middle East may well have been a convenient diversion from protests and state services shut downs and university blockades. US domestic law bans the use of hostile force without Congressional authorisation. But bombing another country to divert attention away from illicit liaisons was a strategy deployed by former US President Bill Clinton, and while current President Donald Trump faces unsavoury allegations about prostitution, extra-marital affairs and blackmail, diversionary US airstrikes on another continent have precedent.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was not bound to seek Parliamentary support for military action but it’s customary to do so. Without basis she said the airstrikes were right both legally and morally. She said, ‘it’s always been clear that the Government has the right to act quickly in the national interest’.
The purported justification for the ‘allied’ forces airstrikes in Syria, was in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack on the last rebel stronghold in Syria, in Douma, East Ghouta. We all agree chemical weapons are bad. But whether they were used in this instance is less clear. America and the UK say they have evidence of the attacks they’re not prepared to disclose.
Some mainstream media reports have clearly emotionalised and fabricated information to support the claim of a chemical weapons attack. CNN for example, interviewed refugees who arrived in Turkey before the alleged attacks occurred, but could still smell chlorine on a young girl’s backpack. The White Helmets, Syria’s UK backed ‘Civil Defence’ force provided photos as evidence of the attack which were taken from a film set.
One American News visited the area and found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack. Acclaimed and award winning journalist Robert Fisk, found no evidence either, and instead found doctors at the medical clinic where treatment of victims occurred, (dousing with water), who said the chemical weapon use never happened. Instead, the story goes, residents remaining living in bombed out basements and underground shelters subsequent to the absolute destruction of their homes, suffered from a mix of heavy bombardment and a dust storm, and experienced oxygen starvation as their makeshift refuges filled with dust and smoke. In some accounts, unharmed people were encouraged to run to the clinic where they were unwittingly doused with water, and in other reports, victims raced for help against the conventional, but no less powerful, forces of bombs and dust. In the clinic, White Helmets cried out ‘gas’, ‘gas’, and so history was written, and a legend was born.
As they say, in war, one of the first casualties is truth. With this war now going since 2011, truth lies beneath buried cities and the bodies of dead innocents. Even the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights, a pro-rebel organisation confirmed the shelling and dust scenario yet chemical weapons were given as the provocation for the breach of international law in attacks on a sovereign nation.
Elsewhere however, there are reports of more than forty men, women and children dead in a two room shelter, frothing at the mouth from chlorine poisoning; rooms where according to Associated Press, a ‘strange smell still lingered’, nine days after the attack. A chemical weapons attack at the hands of opposition forces, they say.
Obviously the proper course of action in face of these allegations, would be to call in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons before military action is taken, and through recourse to the United Nations. But the inevitable Russian UN Security Council veto made such a referral a less preferred path for the western heavies, and unilateral airstrikes on Syrian targets were the sanction of choice.
The airstrikes have been criticised as a breach of international law which forbids the use of unilateral force except in self-defence. UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says the US/UK/French airstrikes with the support of the rest of the west, makes real accountability for war crimes and use of chemical weapons less likely, not more. Donald Trump says the strikes were in response to the Syrian disregard for international law in using chemical weapons, and ‘our Jacinda’ agrees, ‘the use of chemical weapons could not be tolerated without a response’, she said and given that Russian veto, and the need to protect western national and collective interests, she ‘absolutely understands’ the reasoning behind the attacks. The NZ Green MP and human rights lawyer Golriz Ghahraman however, says the airstrikes lack even the pretense of lawful sanction. While it’s not known if there really was a chemical weapons attack, and if so, who perpetrated it, and without exhausting diplomatic and other potential resolutions, military action against Syria is ad hoc and unjustified.
Golriz says we’ve been sold a story that elevates the moral authority of the US, UK and France, against Russia. And trotting along behind to encourage that sense of moral authority are Australia, Canada, the EU, NATO and New Zealand. Are we bound to adopt Five Eyes policy and threat definition just by being members? And what sort of strategy is bombing selected, alleged Syrian chemical weapons sites anyway? The western bombing of sites last year in response to the Khan Sheikhoun chemical weapons attack achieved little. The latest intervention does not seek to oust Syrian President Assad, does not seek regime change, does not seek accountability for the last seven years of atrocities against the Syrian people and their civilisation. There is no strategy to end the Syrian crisis, and no real plan to end chemical weapons use in Syria either by the government or opposition. That Russia and Syria were informed through media signalling and ‘deconfliction channels’ so to prevent casualties and losses, shows what a farce this really is.
According to some commentators, there’s no moral authority for the west in any of this. Mehi Hasan writing for Al Jazeera, says the western airstrikes were brazenly illegal and rather pointless, and that western humanitarianism is a sham. If western intervention is driven by universal human rights then why is there no similar response to the atrocities inflicted upon the people of Palestine? Maybe these rights are in practice, only selectively universalised. Hasan notes in Syria that conventional weapons at the hands of Assad have been tools in crimes against humanity and war crimes even more lethal than chemical weapons. The indiscriminate bombing of homes, schools, utilities and medical facilities, starvation as a weapon of war, the deployment of an estimated 68,000 barrel bombs since 2012, shooting of protestors, torture, people ‘disappeared’, on any scale seem of less consideration than scores killed by chemical.
It’s no consolation that the bombing of hospitals, schools, homes and the very means of survival in Palestine also go unmarked by the west. Governmental hearts bleed for purported victims of chemical weapons in Syria, but not those killed by conventional warfare in the same state or Palestine. This moral blindness says Mehi Hasan, means western action is morally bankrupt, and cynically hypocritical. And in terms of a Russian UN Security Council veto as justification for unilateral military action against Syria, let’s remember that the US has used its UN veto in favour of Israel 42 times. Last weekend when Israeli forces shot 773 people with live ammunition, including fleeing protestors in the back, killing 17, those same western nations conspiring to attack Syria, said relatively little.
So when the UK, France and America claim pursuit of national interests to justify targeting 100+ cruise missiles into three Syrian targets, what interests are they defending? The right to define the rules of the political and economic game? The right to sanction or support action dependent on previous alliances? The pursuit of geopolitical strength, access to resources, oil, trade, and trade routes? A liberal world order?
Indeed, with austerity budgets here in New Zealand and abroad, and protests in the public and private sectors, and with the challenges and opportunities of Brexit and free trade, meetings between the leaders of trading nations couldn’t be more important.
Liberal interventionism is the foreign policy doctrine that says liberal states should intervene in other sovereign states to pursue liberal objectives. Methods include both invasion and ‘humanitarian’ aid. Proxy wars and weapon sales are means to this end. The 2019 US budget asks for equipment and weapons for 65,000 partnered troops in Syria, apparently to fight ISIS and to support border security. That requisition includes 25,000 AK47s, 1500 light machine guns, 500 heavy machine guns, 400 rocket launchers, 95 sniper air rifles, and mortars for the ‘Syrian Democratic Front’, a ‘terrorist’ group working in Syria. At that rate, insecurity and violence is guaranteed.
So while leaders from European superpowers, Five Eyes nations and the Commonwealth parade, in self-congratulatory back slapping and hand shaking in front of the cameras, they engage in lock step and group think, marching as one over firing missiles at Syria that are actually aimed at Russia, in a real battle for supremacy of the ‘There is No Alternative’ approach to economic management, monetary policy, growth, trade and the neo-liberal agenda.