Gordon Campbell on the practice of selective morality towards Syria

As Prime Minister John Key said at yesterday’s post-Cabinet press conference, the briefings on Syria and the exchanges of views New Zealand has been engaged in with its allies has indicated to him that “regime change” (i.e., the toppling of the Assad regime) is not the purpose of the military action that is currently being contemplated – whether that be a multilateral military effort condoned by the UN Security Council or a unilateral strike led by the United States with the direct (or tacit) support of some of its allies. No, Key said, he did not think New Zealand could be counted among the list of such allies, at this stage.

Syria has never agreed to the main international treaty against chemical weapons. It happens to be one of the few countries (there are only five: Angola, North Korea, South Sudan and Egypt are the others) that have not signed and do not accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The reason for this is explained in this excellent and detailed history of how Syria came to develop chemical weapons in the first place.

Basically, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal functions as a poor country’s nuclear deterrent, and was created in the 1970s, as a defensive response to Israel’s attainment of nuclear weapons. It is a textbook case of what happens when the West ignores one case of WMD proliferation – Israel’s nuclear programme – and focuses its wrathful responses on the actions and threat potential of Israel’s enemies. In the meantime, US President Barack Obama faces a dilemma that few would envy. Having talked himself into a corner where a military strike has become politically inevitable, he has to somehow calibrate a severity that will be sufficient to punish Assad but without significantly helping Assad’s opponents – most of whom are fiercely anti-US and anti-Israeli – gain an advantage on the battlefield. (A regime change that brought such people to power would be disastrous for the US. Clearly, that’s what they’ve been telling Murray McCully, too.) It also has to be a strike not so weak as to lead to Republican charges that it had been ineffectual, but not so strong as to cause major civilian casualties that would be paraded on Al Jazeera and would inflame anti-US feeling across the region. If anything, this balancing act just became even more difficult. Following up on a slip of the tongue by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia has suggested that Syria should put its chemical weapons under international control. The Assad regime has jumped at the offer, and readily acceded. This has left the US speedily trying to express its scepticism about a peaceful solution that it itself had suggested:

….In addition to putting its chemical arsenal under international control, Russia was urging Syria to eventually destroy the weapons and become a full member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)

Here’s how the New York Times has depicted Obama’s dilemma:

Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.

“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”

Rrright. Again, the military strike against Syria is something into which the US has allowed itself to be pushed – by allies such Saudi Arabia, as a virtual curtain raiser to the showdown over the nuclear programme being pursued by Iran, the Saudis’ main political and sectarian rival in the region. Again, the US says it feels impelled to act over crimes against humanity in Syria, but not those committed by its allies in the Middle East. (Gaza? Bahrain? Not a peep from the White House.) Bad as Assad is, the alternative will be worse, in terms of refugee flight, sectarian violence, and the racial cleansing of the Alawite minority to which the Assads belong. Moreover if Assad falls, the spillover would almost certainly de-stabilise Syria’s already fragile neighbours, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Would the Republicans who are currently clamouring for a meaningful military strike by the US really thank Obama if the result is a failed state on a Somalian scale, perched right on Israel’s border? One has only to look at Iraq – ten years after the overthrow of Saddam – to see that the toppling of a tyrant by outside force can unleash carnage on a massive scale, with no end in sight.

If concerns about the likely impact on the region of a military strike wasn’t bad enough, what – exactly – is Obama going to be directing his aim at? You can’t bomb chemical weapons factories. That would be a bit like bombing the Fukushima nuclear plant, in that it would spread the very chemical agents that the US is seeking to contain. Mindful of that possibility, Assad has reportedly been dispersing his chemical weapons capacity all over the parts of Syria that he still controls. If you want to bomb the regime’s military units that can be identified as having had something (theoretically, actually) to do with chemical weapons delivery, you first have to find them. That’s why Obama has reportedly been seeking up-to-date information on Syrian troop movements.

While Obama tries to line up Congressional support for US military action, the bugbears of the past few weeks – that have created problems for him garnering support in Europe for a strike against Syria – still remain. The allegedly “compelling” evidence that proves the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack has still not been publicly released. This security intelligence is important not only for the obvious reason – in proving that regime forces and not the rebels carried out the attack- but is essential to demonstrating that this was done on the command of the regime’s leaders, and not at the initiative of a rogue commander. Presumably, the AWACs aircraft carrying out their routine surveillance of the region would have been able to intercept such battlefield instructions. It is time Obama released that evidence.

There are wider issues, to do with different forms of selective morality. The West has an abhorrence of chemical weapons based on its own WW1 experience of mustard gas. Yet while killing people indiscriminately with chemical weapons is intolerable – and a war crime – achieving the same outcome with napalm, the white phosphorus used in Gaza, depleted uranium and cluster bombs does not cause the same shocked response from the White House. Not to mention that a selective morality even about the use of chemical weapons was evident in 1988 when Saddam Hussein killed 3,000-5,000 people in the city of Halabja with multiple chemical agents.

The criticism was muted because, at the time, Saddam was a US ally against Iran. In his speech today on Syria, Obama will have to marshal all of his rhetorical skills. He has to be convincing on many fronts, on issues that tend to contradict each other.