Gordon Campbell on regime change, bombs and Syria

Now that America has found its greatness again the traditional way – by bombing someone – the misgivings have set in. Despite the 57 Cruise missiles fired at the al Shayrat airbase in Syria, the airbase was reportedly functioning again soon afterwards. Subsequently, the task of identifying just what the current US policy goals in Syria may be remains up in the air, at least until President Donald Trump watches the next round of Syria footage on Fox News.

Back in February, there did seem to be a reasonably coherent Trump policy on Syria. Back then, the White House seemed to be using maverick Democratic politician Tulsi Gabbard as a messenger to Syrian President Bashir Assad:

Trump asked her [Gabbard] “Are you going to meet Assad in Damascus”?
She answered him: “Most likely”
Trump said: “Well, ask him if he is ready to communicate with us, and I am ready to call him by phone. However, it should be known from now on that cooperation will be under the “Fighting Da’esh” title. He’ll find that the demand to remove him from office is not in my interests. And such slogan will gradually disappear from (media) circulation. However, direct communication and the abolition of sanctions are time-consuming, and it is important to know how he’ll act and how willing he is to cooperate with us in isolation from the Russians and the Iranians. We must change our policy towards Assad. Direct containment may be useful. The man has remained in power. Reality tells us that we have to deal with him if we really want to confront Da’esh”.

Supposedly, all that went out the window once the gas attack occurred, and Trump saw the Fox News footage of, as he put it, those “beautiful babies” killed by sarin gas, and changed his mind about Assad. (Not that this has caused Trump to change his mind about barring other beautiful Syrian babies and their parents from entering the US as refugees.) Presumably eliminating Dae’sh is now not the only US goal in Syria, and regime change is also now on the agenda. But…if regime change in Syria really is now official US policy, what does that herald for the US military effort against Daesh/Islamic State, which has been spearheaded by Assad plus the Russians plus the Iranians plus the Kurds? BTW, if you’re wanting a quick update on the origins and progress to date of the Syrian civil war, this is a good, brief summary.

At home, the bombing raid has hit one key target: the US media investigations into the links between Trump’s closest aides and Russia. By attacking Russia’s ally, Assad, Trump has blown away the headlines that were painting him as Putin’s stooge. It may even have been the prime intention of the raid. Hilariously, while the liberal New Yorker magazine says there is a clear strategic case for the US bombing raid, senior Trump administration officials seem to be saying there is actually no clear strategy at all behind the raid.

Or not a policy that isn’t going to be dictated by Assad’s response. For its part, the New York Times tried to say both these things at once – ie that Trump is winging it on impulse, and yet that this is (somehow) re-assuring, or tactically astute or something:

In a week in which he hosted foreign heads of state and launched a cruise missile strike against Syria’s government, Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era. He demonstrated a highly improvisational and situational approach that could inject a risky unpredictability into relations with potential antagonists, but he also opened the door to a more traditional American engagement with the world that eases allies’ fears… Given his unpredictability, none of this means that Mr. Trump has pivoted permanently in any of these areas.

So the plan is really to have no plan – which to be clear on this, isn’t actually a very good plan, not for a quagmire like Syria. Yet by bombing someone, anyone, Trump has probably pushed up his approval numbers.

War crimes?

Talking of raids and being in the dark… The debate over the Hit and Run book has seen the word ‘war crimes’ being bandied about – both to raise the ante in favour of an inquiry and to discount the need for one, given that a certain extreme type of “war crimes” clearly didn’t take place. For the benefit of the Listener’s Bill Ralston, a war crime doesn’t need to entail lining dozens of civilians up against a wall and shooting them. That’s an extreme form, but not the only form. Historically speaking, it is related to why what happened in those two Afghan villages could possibly qualify as a war crime.

During WWII, the Nazis committed a famous massacre in the two Polish* villages of Lidice and Lezaky, as retribution for the assassination of a senior Nazi officer, Reinhard Heydrich. False Nazi intelligence information had linked the Heydrich killing to those two Bohemian villages – which were razed, all men and boys over the age of 16 were shot, and most of the women and children were deported to Nazi death camps. Postwar, the fate of Lidice/Lezaky helped to formulate UN resolutions (and article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention) outlawing the entire notion of ‘collective punishment’.

Under the postwar rules for modern warfare, civilians had to be distinguished from combatants, and civilians could also not be punished collectively for the actions of individuals who may have come from their vicinity, or even from within their midst. The forbidden forms of collective retribution – ie war crimes – included everything from shooting civilians to the deliberate destruction of their property.

In the case of the military action described in Hit and Run, the raid seems to have been in retribution for the death shortly beforehand of a New Zealand soldier. His killers were believed to have come from the “vicinity” of the two villages targeted in the raid. It remains unclear (and only an inquiry can determine) how civilians were meant to be distinguished from insurgents from the air and on the ground, during the subsequent night-time raid. Not to mention how soldiers on the ground were supposed to tell whether people running towards them in the dark were (a) combatants confronting them with military intent or (b) unarmed civilians fleeing towards them from a surprise attack on their homes. Subsequently, there were reports of some houses in these villages being demolished as retribution, reports which have been denied by NZDF.

Most of the talk of war crimes has turned on this notion of collective punishment. Did prior attacks from the “vicinity” of these two villages lead to the villages ( and villagers) per se being treated as targets? The further fact that none of the nine dead ‘insurgents’ claimed by the NZDF were the insurgents who were the intended targets of the SAS raid continues to raise obvious concerns. Is the NZDF really saying that if they’re dead, they must have been insurgents? If not, then how did the SAS identify on the battlefield who were the legitimate targets of this raid, and how did they subsequently identify the combatant status of those killed?

Were all the dead (any of the dead) armed? Do we know their names, and were any photos taken of their bodies?
Asymnetric warfare – in which insurgents emerge from the civilian population and dissolve back into it – is increasingly the norm. The rules of war though, remain clear about the need to distinguish civilians from combatants. In this case we still have no clear sense of whether – or how – our troops carried out this crucial task, especially given that they chose to launch the raid in the dark. Given the trends in modern warfare, such incidents are only likely to recur. We need to be sure when deadly force is being used in our name, that innocent people are not on the receiving end. Only an inquiry can provide that assurance.

[* Correction : the villages of Lidice and Lezaky were not as stated above, in Poland. They were situated in the Nazi-era Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, in a region now part of the Czech Republic. back]

Acoustic Monday

Starting out the week gently… here’s Tillery, a trio of New York jazz musicians

singing in tribute to the film composer and songwriter Kenya Tillery, who died in 2008 of cancer, aged 36. The story about the group, and the creation of this composition/tribute is here.

And here from Iceland, is the acoustic version by Sigrid of her hit song “Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

And FYI here’s the full band version. Your choice. It’s a good song, either way.