With allegations of chlorine gas attacks in Syria on March 16, some humanitarian groups have called for a “No Fly Zone” over part of Syria. I believe this is reckless and dangerous and will explain why.
Part 1 of this article was published on March 31. It documented the campaign by Avaaz and others for a “No Fly Zone” in Syria and contrasted the promises with the consequences in Libya.
Part 2 examines the allegations of chlorine gas attacks in Syria, what various organizations are doing and saying and where major violations of international law are occurring.
Humanitarians Pushing for Intervention
We have a strange situation where “human rights” groups are demanding foreign intervention in Syria via a “No Fly Zone” while military leaders are expressing caution saying “hold on…do you realize that’s an act of war?” The humanitarian interventionists may feel righteous in their cause, but they should be held accountable when it leads to disaster and tragedy as we saw in Libya.
After decades of wars and occupation based on deception, exaggeration and outright lies, it’s past time to demand proof of accusations and to be skeptical regarding any call for military action.
What is the Evidence from Syria?
Syrian rebels and supporters have repeatedly accused the Syrian military of using chemical weapons, often with the accompanying demand for foreign intervention. The Syrian government has consistently denied the accusations.
A major push for a foreign attack on Syria followed the highly publicized incidents in Ghouta in outer Damascus on August 21, 2013. Many humanitarian groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) joined or led in accusing the Syrian government of being responsible and calling for “action.” A military attack was averted by the Syrian government agreeing to remove its existing chemical weapons and manufacturing facilities.
Opposition supporters like Kenan Rahmani predicted that the Syrian government would not comply with the agreement. But it did. On October 1, 2014, the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced that the elimination of prohibited chemical weapons and facilities in Syria had been successfully completed. It was a remarkable achievement and the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Syria received little credit.
During 2014, as the Syrian government was working to successfully implement the agreement to dispose of banned chemical weapons, new unverified accusations emerged that the Syrian military was using barrel bombs containing poisonous chlorine gas. The accusations prompted renewed demands from governments actively supporting the armed opposition. The Syrian government removed all prohibited chemicals and facilities but now is accused of using a chemical which is not on the prohibited list.
According to its report, in May 2014, an OPCW team tried to investigate at the site of alleged chlorine gas attacks. The Syrian government gave the OPCW team passage to the rebel controlled area but the convoy was attacked by a rebel faction. None of the team members was injured but that stopped their on-site investigation. Instead, the OPCW worked with the well-funded opposition-supporting Violations Documentation Center to arrange interviews with numerous people from three villages. The interviews were conducted outside Syria, probably in Turkey. They gathered photographs, videos and other evidence and expressed “high confidence that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Syria” in three villages. They did not ascribe responsibility.
More recently there was an alleged chlorine gas attack on March 16, 2015 with six deaths including three children. The Avaaz petition and campaign sprung from this alleged incident.
Along with these accusations, there has been a steady drumbeat from various organizations that the Syrian government is committing war crimes. For example, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) issued a press release on May 14 with the title “New Map Shows Government Forces Deliberately Attacking Syria’s Medical System.”
Are the Accusations Objective or Biased?
Following are some of the major organizations reporting or making accusations regarding the conflict in Syria:
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – This is the official intergovernmental organization tasked with promoting adherence to the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has been responsible for removal of chemical weapons from Syria. It was then tasked with investigating allegations about use of chlorine gas as a weapon. While OPCW seeks to be highly professional and nonpartisan, there are questions of potential conflict of interest and bias as follows:
* The director general of OPCW, Ahmet Uzumcu, is the appointee of Turkey, a country which actively supports the Syrian opposition and has pushed for a No Fly Zone. Given that Uzumcu is a political appointee of a state directly involved in the conflict, he has a potential conflict of interest: he might advance his own career and please the Turkish government by making the Syrian government look bad.
* The interviews with villagers were done with OPCW “working closely” with the partisan “Violations Documentation Center.” How did OPCW verify the integrity of the witnesses?
* According to OPCW report, NATO’s CBRN Task Force (Chemical-Biological-Radioactive-Nuclear) collected data “in the field following reported attacks” and supplied this to OPCW. What exactly was the NATO task force doing in the rebel controlled territory?
* The official report of the OPCW notes that in the UN Security Council “Some doubts and questions were also raised in regard to the procedures and methods (of the Fact Finding Mission).”
AVAAZ – Avaaz is clearly biased and was involved in the Syria conflict from early on. They were supplying satellite phones and otherwise aiding and promoting local activists from early on. Is that a good thing? Not necessarily; their claims and actions in Syria have been controversial and criticized.
WHITE HELMETS / SYRIAN CIVIL DEFENCE – This is a new organization, highly publicized as civilian rescue workers in Syria. Their video and reports have influenced Avaaz and other humanitarian groups. Avaaz refers to the White Helmets as “Syria’s respected and non-partisan civil protection force.”
In reality the White Helmets is a project created by the UK and USA. Training of civilians in Turkey has been overseen by former British military officer and current contractor, James Le Mesurier. Promotion of the program is done by “The Syria Campaign” supported by the foundation of billionaire Ayman Asfari. The White Helmets is clearly a public relations project which has received glowing publicity from HuffPo to Nicholas Kristof at the NYT. White Helmets have been heavily promoted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (U.S.IP) whose leader began the press conference by declaring “U.S.IP has been working for the Syrian Revolution from the beginning”.
Apart from the PR work, White Helmets work in areas of Aleppo and Idlib controlled by Nusra (Al Queda). The video from a medical clinic on March 16 starts with a White Helmets logo. The next video of same date and place continues with the Nusra logo.
US and UK tax dollars pay for a program which has an appealing rescue component and is then used to market and promote the USA and UK policy of regime change in Syria in de facto alliance with Nusra.
The fake “independence and neutrality” of White Helmets is shown by their active promotion of a No Fly Zone.
MEDECINS SANS FRONTIERS (MSF) and other humanitarian groups no longer have staff in Syria. They rely on witnesses and videos provided by rebels. In a war zone it is difficult to ascertain when someone is speaking out of fear or intimidation or for payment. Witnesses in rebel-controlled territory may claim that helicopters dropped bombs with chlorine. But what if the witnesses are lying? The possibility for manipulation and deceit is huge.
PHYSICIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS (PHR) is also active reporting on the Syria conflict.. They make bold but sometimes inaccurate assertions. They recently claimed that ” people in Homs are facing serious health consequences as the medical system collapses, with only three doctors available “ This is inaccurate. I personally visited Homs one year ago and drove around the city for hours. Since the rebels departed the Old City last May it is being rebuilt and nearly all the city continues normally except for periodic terrorist car bombs.
A recent PHR press release is headlined “New Map shows Government Forces Deliberately Attacking Syria’s Medical System.” It looks slick and impressive but is inaccurate. For example, one of the most dramatic attacks on a Syrian hospital was the suicide bombing of Al Kindi Hospital in Aleppo. Yet the PHR map shows the attack having been carried out by “government forces.” Readers are encouraged to look at the 3 minute rebel video of the suicide attack which leaves no doubt who was responsible.
SUMMARY. Statements/documentation from the Syrian government and supporters tend to be dismissed or ignored; statements/video from opposition witnesses and activists tend to be accepted uncritically. That is bias.
The starting point for many criminal investigations is who has a motive? Who benefits from an action or event?
In order to prevail, the Syrian opposition needs foreign intervention. In order to prevail, the Syrian government needs to prevent foreign intervention.
Who benefited from from use of sarin gas that would cross Obama’s ‘red line’? The answer was always obvious. This received surprisingly little consideration as the US Government and humanitarian groups like Human Rights Watch argued that the Syrian Government was culpable without even considering who had motive.
Since that time, in-depth analysis of the August 2013 chemical attack in Ghouta increasingly points to the use of sarin gas by the rebels not the Syrian government. The “vector analysis” advanced by HRW has been discounted. The US and other countries almost began an international attack on the basis of false claims and analysis.
Similarly, who benefits from the use of chlorine gas that would violate the new UN Security Resolution? To ask the question is to answer it. Clearly it is the opposition rebels who benefit when the Syrian government is charged with using chlorine gas bombs. Clearly they are the ones who seek foreign intervention or imposition of a No Fly Zone.
A War of Aggression Against Syria
Supporters of intervention sometimes claim Syria has been “abandoned” by the international community. On the contrary, the Syrian conflict has continued primarily BECAUSE of foreign involvement.
The unholy alliance of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, USA, France and Britain (with silent partner Israel) have supplied, trained, provided weapons and salaries for Syrian and international fighters seeking to topple the government. They openly called themselves, with Orwellian chutzpah, the “Friends of Syria” as they divide the tasks of supplying the rebels and consider who should be the “legitimate political representatives”.
The crime has not been the absence of international effort; it has been the absence of enforcement of international law. The US and allies are doing to Syria what the US did to Nicaragua in the 1980’s. As the International Court at the Hague said in its decision on June 27, 1986:
Decides that the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the “contra” forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State.
The Nicaraguan Foreign Minister at that time was Father Miguel D’Escoto. He served as president of the United Nations General Assembly in the year 2008-2009. When recently asked his opinion on what is happening in Syria he responded:
“What the U.S. government is doing in Syria is tantamount to a war of aggression, which, according to the Nuremberg Tribunal, is the worst possible crime a State can commit against another State.”
The conflict in Syria continues primarily because foreign powers continue to “arm, equip, finance and supply” the equivalent of the Contras. Imposing a No Fly Zone in Syria would not make anyone safer; it would dramatically expand the war and lead to vastly more, not fewer deaths.
Those who genuinely want peace in Syria need to press for ENDING foreign intervention in Syria via proxy armies and ENCOURAGING reconciliation and negotiations without preconditions.
The humanitarians pushing for intervention in Syria are not R2P (responsible to protect). They are R4W (responsible for war).
Rick Sterling is a founding member of Syria Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org