The reasons given by President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and French President Francois Hollande for wanting to use air strikes to “punish” Syria for its alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack are not convincing. Even less convincing is the “humanitarian intervention” fig leaf.
To make the case for an armed attack on Syria, the Obama administration last week distributed a sketchy document that consists of assertions not backed up by any clue as to how they could be evaluated by anyone outside the magic circle of national security operatives.
Many reports are circulating in the media and online that cast doubt on the U.S. administration’s version. One suggests that someone low in the Syrian Armed Forces chain of command may have used chemical weapons without orders from above. Another is that the rebels had received a shipment of chemical weapons from outside and had accidentally set them off. The administration’s white paper too readily discounts these possibilities.
The language the administration is using to argue for an attack on Syria suggests that “we” must not allow Syria to get away with crossing an imaginary “red line,” or other countries (Iran or even North Korea) will see the United States as weak and then feel free to act against our country. This is morally bankrupt power politics, not humanitarianism, and would violate international law.
The administration appears to be utilizing the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” developed by, among others, Samantha Power, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Bernard Kouchner, former French foreign minister and founder of “Medecins sans Frontieres” (Doctors Without Borders), which first broke the news of the chemical attack.
“Humanitarian intervention” is the notion that national sovereignty is limited, and the more powerful countries have a responsibility to intervene with military force in internal situations in less powerful countries, in order to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity. Samantha Power and others developed the idea based on shocking events such as the Rwanda genocide of 1994. The idea was further developed into United Nations policy guidelines as “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P at the UN World Summit in 2005, after the overthrow of the legally elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Note these are guidelines, not yet part of international law.
“Responsibility to Protect” requires nations to protect their own peoples against “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” and suggests that if a nation can’t or won’t do that, other nations can and should intervene. It does say that armed intervention should be the “last resort” and should not do more harm than good. But how can one tell in advance?
In the Haiti situation, the United States, France and Canada had been looking for a legalistic mechanism to justify their overthrow of Aristide, and to place Haiti under outside control so as to prevent him or his Lavalas Party from returning to power.
But this intervention did not bring either peace or security to Haiti, which has continued to be wracked by severe problems that the wealthy capitalist countries merely exploit and do nothing to solve. It came just after Aristide had annoyed France and frightened the U.S. by reviving demands that France pay reparations to Haiti for economic damage caused by France in the 19th century. (France had insisted that Haiti reimburse the losses entailed by French citizens whose “property,” including slaves, was lost with Haiti’s independence.)
“R2P” is a classic case of the foxes being set to guard the chicken coop, a fig leaf for imperial intervention. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which poorer countries could use it to intervene against major powers, no matter how real the humanitarian crisis.
In the Syria crisis, there are also grubby material interests at work. There is a dispute about the route that pipelines going through Syria should take. According to environmental and international security scholar Nafeez Ahmad, Qatar wanted a pipeline to run from its own oilfields through Syria to the Mediterranean and European markets. Syria’s promotion of a rival route more favorable to Russia and Iran may be related to this, as Qatar is one of the major funders of the rebels.
Escalating the Syria conflict will strengthen al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and other such groups, as happened with the overthrow of Libya’s Gadaffi in 2011. The dispersal of Gadaffi’s troops and arsenal had the result of destabilizing Mali and other countries in the region, costing many lives and creating hundreds of thousands of starving refugees. And the fighting and dying in Libya has not stopped.
The only route out of the Syria mess is a return to a negotiated settlement. That would be a genuine “humanitarian intervention.” To make that happen, call the White House, the State Department and your congressional representatives now!
Photo: Syrian refugees on a bus in Turkey, September 2012. Wikimedia Commons