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The West’s missile strike: chaos in place of policy; symbolism in place of action

All the West has achieved is expose its fear of the Russian military, its lack of a plan for Syria, and its contempt for international law

epa05290100 Russian soldiers march during a rehearsal of Victory Day parade, in which they will take part with a Syrian unit at Hmeimym airbase in Latakia province, Syria, 04 May 2016. Victory Day will be held on 09 May 2016 to mark the 71st anniversary since the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. Hmeimym airbase serves as the base of operation for the Russian air force in Syria. The United States and Russia have agreed to extend the cease-fire in Syria to the city of Aleppo, the US State Department reported on 04 May. EPA/SERGEI CHIRIKOV

Over the last few days the word has been the witness of one of the most grotesque and shameful episodes in the history of international relations.

Three nuclear powers, one of them the US, the world’s erstwhile “hyperpower”, and the other two like the US permanent members of the UN Security Council, after days of dithering and argument, launched a military strike on Syria which (depending on whose reports you believe) either failed dismally or which was preplanned to achieve nothing.

They launched this strike in utter disregard of international law, which vests the power to launch strikes of this sort exclusively with the UN Security Council.

In Britain’s case the strike was also launched contrary to a well-established constitutional convention, and in the US’s case it was launched contrary to the US constitution (see this discussion in The Atlantic following the very similar Al-Sharyat attack last year).

As to how the strike violates international law, I can do no better than quote Craig Murray’s brilliant demolition job of the British government’s pitifully inadequate and wholly unmeritorious arguments justifying the strike

……this “legal argument” cites no authority. It does not quote the UN Charter, any Security Council Resolution or any international treaty or agreement of any kind which justifies this action. This is because there is absolutely nothing which can be quoted – all the relevant texts say that an attack on another state is illegal without authorisation of the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Nor does the government quote any judgement of the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court or any other international legal authority. This is important because rather than any treatment, the government makes a specific claim its actions are justified by customary international law, which means accepted state practice. But the existence of such state practice is usually proven through existing court judgements, and there are no judgements that endorse the approach taken by the government in its argument.

The three “tests” set out under para 3 as to what is permitted under international law are not in fact a statement of anything other than the UK’s own position. These “tests” are specifically quoted by Ola Engdahl in Bailliet and Larsen (ed) “Promoting Peace Through International Law” (Oxford University Press 2015). Engdahl notes:

The UK position, that it is permitted to take coercive action under a doctrine of humanitarian intervention when certain conditions are met, is a minority view and does not reflect lex data on the prohibition of the use of force in international relations as expressed in article 2(4) of the UN Charter.

That is undeniably true, and as it is equally undeniably true that a minority view cannot be customary international law, the British government position is utterly devoid of merit……

……the government’s argument is entirely hypothetical, because as the liberal intervention doctrine is not customary international law these arguments cannot justify intervention.

But the evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against Douma is non-existent, and the OPCW did not conclude that the Assad government was responsible for the attack on Khan Sheikhoun. There is no evidence whatsoever that military action was urgently required to avert another such “immediate” attack. Nor is it true that the UK’s analysis of the situation is “generally accepted” by the international community, as witness China and Russia voting together in the Security Council yesterday to condemn the attack.

So the British government sets up its own “three tests” which have no legal standing and are entirely a British concoction, yet still manages to fail them.

If the strike was plainly illegal, it was also utterly immoral.

The purported pretext of the strike was the incident which took place in Douma on 7th April 2018.

The Western powers insist it was a chemical weapons attack.  The Syrians and the Russians furiously deny that it was.

The Western powers – as they admit themselves – have no access to the site of the incident, and have produced no evidence to justify their claims (they claim their evidence is “classified”, which means that it is evidentially worthless).

The Russians by contrast are physically present and in control of the site and say that they have verified from eyewitnesses and by taking samples that no chemical weapons attack took place.

The Syrians and the Russians have also invited a team of investigators from the OPCW, who have just arrived in Syria to investigate the incident.

By launching their strike the Western powers have not only pre-empted the investigation; they have purported to impose ‘punishment’ before there is actually proof of a crime.

Indeed as I have suggested previously, there are strong reasons to think that the entire purpose of the strike was to prevent a proper investigation of the incident which might expose the ‘witnesses’ the West typically relies on in Syria as unreliable by staking the prestige and authority of the Western powers behind a finding of Syrian guilt which the OPCW might be afraid to go against.

I was fascinated to see that the Russian Foreign Ministry in a Statement published yesterday expresses exactly the same view

This step was designed to intimidate and was taken under an absolutely contrived pretext of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government in the city of Douma on April 7. The facts presented by the Syrian government and the Russian side showing that the incident had been deliberately and cynically staged have been ignored. The missile strikes were made just as inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were about to head to Douma with a mission to find out the truth. There is every reason to believe that the objective behind the attack on Syria was to obstruct the work of the OPCW inspectors.

(bold italics added)

However all of this – extremely bad as it is – is eclipsed by the abject handling of the strike itself.

I have repeatedly said in article after article for The Duran that Russian warnings of military action by Russia if Russia’s red lines in Syria are crossed are not bluff, and the US military is under no illusions that they are.

My latest article in which I discussed this was published only days before the 7th April 2018 Douma incident and just a week before the strike.

Quite simply, as the events of October 2016, April 2017 and June 2017 show, the US military is not prepared to take on the Russian military in Syria and risk a full scale armed confrontation with Russia there.

I discussed all this in my article in which I discussed the Russian response to the US’s shooting down in June 2017 of the SU-22 fighter bomber in eastern Syria

The fact that the Russians have installed a powerful air defence system in Syria incorporating advanced S-400 and S-300VM Antey 2500 missiles means that the US is unable to confront the Russians directly unless it is prepared to risk possibly very serious casualties.

That is an option neither the US military nor the civilian officials of the Obama and Trump administrations are prepared to face.  This is because they know the extraordinary dangers such a clash with the armed forces of a nuclear superpower would risk.  They also know US public opinion is strongly opposed to the US becoming drawn into such a clash.

This is what explains the US’s failure to intervene in the fighting in East Ghouta.

On three prior occasions – in October 2016, in April 2017 and in June 2017 – the US has appeared to come close to an armed clash with the Russian military in Syria.

Following Russian warnings and counter-moves it has on each occasion backed off.

The same thing has now happened in relation to the fighting in East Ghouta.

Talk of US intervention has again resulted in Russian warnings, which have again caused the US to back off…….

What is the source of much confusion is the persistent claim – made for example in the article in Guardian which I quoted above – that the Russian warnings against US military action are no more than bluff.

Those who make this claim have lately taken to citing the supposed Russian failure to respond to the following incidents

(1) the cruise missile strike on Al-Sharyat air base in April 2017;

(2) the Israeli attack on the Syrian air defence system in February 2018 following the shooting down By Syria of an Israeli F-16 fighter; and

(3) the US air strike in eastern Syria in February 2018 in which a number of Russian mercenaries were killed.

The first of these alleged examples of Russian inaction in response to attacks on Syria is in fact obviously wrong.  The Russians did respond strongly to the US cruise missile strike on Al-Sharyat air base.  They switched off the deconfliction hotline, causing a drastic cut in US air operations over Syria (see above).

As to the other two examples, they are based on the fallacy that the Russians have committed themselves to responding to every attack on the Syrian military by the US and its allies however minor such an attack might be, and that their failure to defend Syria from every such attack is therefore in some way ‘proof’ of their inability or unwillingness to defend Syria when it is attacked…..

As I have repeatedly pointed out, the Russians will not let themselves get drawn into unnecessary confrontations with the Western powers over minor attacks on Syrian military units which have no bearing on the course of the war.   The Israeli strike in February 2018 in retaliation for the Syrian shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter was exactly such a minor attack.

To be clear, the Israeli strike – part of a decades long conflict between Israel and Syria in which Russia is not a party – neither interfered with Syrian military operations against the Jihadis nor did it threaten the existence of the Syrian government.  The Russians accordingly were not concerned by it.

By contrast the Russians most certainly are concerned about the fighting in East Ghouta.

Not only is the Battle of East Ghouta a key battle which the Syrian military must win if the Jihadi threat to Syria is to be eliminated, but the Russian military is itself heavily involved in the battle, with the Russian Aerospace Forces actively involved in the fighting, and the Russian military brokering withdrawal agreements with the Jihadis which are paving the way for the Syrian army’s eventual victory in the battle.

Given that this is so, the US and its allies can be under no illusions that a US military intervention in the fighting in East Ghouta will be anything other than fiercely resisted by the Russians.

That guarantees that no such intervention will take place, which is why of course it has not happened.

Rarely have my words been more rapidly or conclusively confirmed by subsequent events.

Not only did the Western powers make sure that their strike was launched only after the Battle of East Ghouta was over and the Jihadis there had been comprehensively defeated, but their efforts to calibrate their strike to a level where it neither threatened the existence of the Syrian government, nor interfered in Syrian military operations, nor risked the lives of Russian military personnel in Syria, have been quite simply extraordinary to behold, and have resulted in a strike so symbolic and empty of meaning as to be completely ineffective.

Needless to say such a strike – one which tells the Russian military how frightened the West is of them – cannot possibly deter.

If the purpose of the strike was to deter President Assad from using chemical weapons – as the Western powers say – then on any objective analysis its utter ineffectiveness can only have the opposite effect.

If President Assad really were the blood-thirsty power mad psychopath the West says he is such a strike could not possibly deter him; it would only embolden him.

For once the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall – liberal interventionist and arch war-hawk that he is – has got the essence of it right.

Lamenting the token nature of the strike, and talking of President Putin rather than of President Assad, he complains bitterly

Dismayed, too, will be those in the west and in Syria’s opposition who hoped sustained military intervention would finally halt the pitiless slaughter of civilians.

Despite their angry protestations, Moscow and Tehran will be content with this outcome. It could have been a whole lot worse.

Putin’s propaganda and disinformation machines will continue to deny responsibility for Douma, preposterously blaming it on a British government determined to avenge the Salisbury nerve gas attack. Russia will cynically use the UN to claim the US and its allies are aggressors, in breach of international law.

But there will be no direct Russian military retaliation. There is no need. Putin has got away with it, again.

As for a coherent plan for Syria, a military strike which has no military effect cannot possibly advance any plan the US may have in Syria, though it is actually impossible to see a US plan.

Thus on one day the President of the United States talks about withdrawing US troops from Syria “very soon”.  Days later his officials talk of keeping them there.

Since the presence of the Russians means these troops cannot march on Damascus, what exactly they are supposed to do – other than become eventual targets of the Syrian anti-US insurgency which is likely to come – is left unexplained.

Perhaps – as Simon Tisdall’s comments suggest – the real target of all these manoeuvres is not Syria at all.

Perhaps the phoney Syrian confrontation is being cranked up to a further level of hysteria in order to justify sustaining the West’s grand geopolitical conflict with Russia.

If so then both the means used – and the objective – are sordid and unworthy of countries which call themselves Great Powers.

The day may soon come when the events of the last few days are seen as a further sign of their decline.

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