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Unilaterally Striking Syria

It is happening, again. The grotesque similarities are haunting. Before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States, along with its faithful, evangelically led air craft carrier in the form of Britain, decided to treat the United Nations as a body of opinion rather than worth. Efforts made to bring to light Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (more totem than taboo), had not been successful. The reserved and ever cautious Hans Blix of the UN Weapons Inspectors team urged restraint in the name of empirical certainty. There was, as it were, no smoking gun. There were, instead, hallucinations and mirages.

Now, the imposition of inevitability in the Syrian conflict is gathering force. The illusion is going to be made a reality. Strike Syria, suggest the war loving cliques, because giving war a chance is worth doing. The UN General Secretary, the ever invisible Ban Ki-moon, prefers to see peace given a chance, but he is part of a rapidly shrinking number of policy makers to think so.

There is no getting away from the horrors of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), but that does note exonerate the use of chemical weapons against civilian and military targets. Conventions such as the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1925 Geneva Gas Protocol, which was ratified by Syria in 1968, suggest that the lawyers have taken a holiday.

This, however, is jumping the gun, and a whole myriad of shells. The rhetoric of those seeking a strike is already boxed and ready for the killing market. Intervention is to be sold as the package that Assad was responsible, that his forces were instruments of the state policy. Those who wish to see a religious restructuring of Syria, creating a Sunni bastion, have somehow been recoloured or disregarded.

It is also fitting to note that the legal vacation is also taking place in other countries. For one thing, the Australian foreign minister Bob Carr, erect at the prospect of Australia assuming the presidency of the UN Security Council, is dreaming of unilateral intervention. “Like-minded countries” would respond, irrespective of what those of different mind thought. “The sheer horror of a Government using chemical weapons against its people, using chemical weapons in any circumstances mandates a response” (ABC News, Aug 28). How fitting for those who speak of international law to violate it in the name of a violation.

What is the evidence that will justify the use of force against a sovereign state? “Our belief,” intoned Australian Prime Minister Rudd, “is that the Syrian regime is responsible for these chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian people.” Quickly, he emphasises that the “evidence in our judgments is now overwhelming” (The Australian, Aug 29). The western powers are jubilant that the 8200 unit of Israeli military intelligence, according to the German magazine Focus, provided the the evidence, centred on a conversation between Syrian officials regarding the use of such weapons.

Again, the WMD-blueprint is being trotted out, one that shows that anything overwhelming is bound to be underwhelming on closer inspection. There is no desire to wait for recommendations and hard evidence from any UN process. There is no desire to be empirical. What we are getting is speculation in hope of intervention. This will be war on an intercepted discussion; it will entail violence on a suggestion. Importantly, like Blix’s weapons team, the effort to actually identify what happened and who was behind it, will become irrelevant.

This symptom of the war making disease is characteristic of governments in trouble. War is the perfect escape, a retreat from domestic ills. David Cameron’s government struggles in ailing, austerity mired Britain. Australia’s Rudd is destined for ignominious defeat at the polls. President Barack Obama’s popularity has been frayed. They are horsemen who would rather travel than face the problems of the local harvest or deal with their unruly subjects. These signs bode ill for those who would prefer to avoid war.

Consequences of that intervention, for that reason, blur and even vanish. What matters is the here and now. This will be bloody adventurism, further maiming and killing those in Syria. But such interventions are magnets. They pull in the participant. It is the call of the sirens. As pro-imperialist poseurs like the historian Niall Ferguson suggest, the good empire builder is there to stay. One can’t build imperiums on the cheap. There will always be a decent amount of collateral in blood and material. Body bags are good investments.

The impression being given by the U.S., Britain and its supporters is that this intervention will be much like precise dental work, isolating the cavity and filling the problem. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf claimed on Tuesday that the goal was “not about regime change”.

Instead, what is envisaged is a limited strike intent on punishing the units responsible for deploying the chemical weapons. This will entail the use of Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, deployed by naval assets. Should the intervention assume the form of an airstrike, the participants risk a bruising at the hand of the Soviet-supplied S-200/SA-5 Gammon, along with the recently acquired SA-17 and SA-22 and a complex radar system.

All of this, however, remains a quibble about technics and application. Missiles are only the start. The moment a flower is bruised, it releases its fragrance. That fragrance may well prove toxic in this case, leaving the country at the hands of a vicious, counter-revolutionary force that is as varied as it is confused. Turning Syria into a territorial extension compliant with Western interests will not happen. The signs, in fact, point to the opposite of that.

Surely, the index of errors on the part of countries who decide that sovereignty is moribund is now so extensive it will make policymakers pause to think. War is always sweet to those who have not tasted it, but the gluttons may beg to differ. The U.S. is hostage to a policeman’s complex – intervene in the name of a morality that is undermined the moment weapons are deployed. It risks creating the uncontrollable, something countries in the Middle East can attest to.

Protesters against this insanity must find the switch to turn off the assembly line to war. The Syrian conflict, a regional conflict in all but name, risks getting out of the closet. The fact, of course, is that there may well be no such switch except the grimness of consequence.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently running with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party in Victoria. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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