President Obama plans to increase funding and training of “moderate rebels” in Syria while escalating air strike operations against ISIS in Iraq and into Syria. From Central America in the 80s to Syria today, the US has supported proxy armies in violation of international law.
Syria: Civil War or War of Aggression?
The conflict in Syria has caused staggering destruction and bloodshed.The death toll is approaching 200,000 out of total population of 22 million. Somewhere between 70 and 100 thousand of the dead are Syrian soldiers and militia. The conflict has pitted the Syrian government supported by a majority of the population (documented here and here) against domestic and international fighters, many on salary and actively supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, USA, France and Britain.
While Syria’s President is of Alawi religious background, the Defense Minister is Sunni Muslim and the Foreign Minister is Christian. The majority of soldiers are Sunni. In fact it is a secular country where it’s considered impolite to ask one’s religion. With changes in the Constitution the country is no longer a one party state although the socialist Baath Party is still dominant. Higher education and healthcare are free. While any Syrian can start his or her own business with modest restrictions and taxes, foreign corporations investing in Syria are limited to 49% ownership. Thus the country is not under the thumb of Wall Street or the International Monetary Fund, and you do not see Burger King/Pizza Hut/Bank of America or Bank of London in downtown Damascus. The country has lots of economic and social challenges but compared to other countries in the Arab world is a bastion of secularism and independence from Western domination.
The international opponents are not hidden. They are the active members of the “Friends of Syria” openly dedicated to overthrowing the Damascus government. Some of their plans and actions are public information. After one conference it was publicly recorded that US would provide communications and non-lethal equipment while Saudi Arabia and Qatar would supply and fund the weapons and arms. Meanwhile Turkey has provided logistical support and the base of operations of the external arm and rebel command. At the conferences these foreign powers have also taken it on themselves to decide who is the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. The assertion that the US has not supported the rebels is false. As just one piece of evidence: during the winter 2012/2013 three thousand TONS of weapons were delivered to the rebels.
An Earlier War of Aggression: USA vs Nicaragua
During the 1980’s the US funded, trained and supplied weapons to the Contra rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Nicaragua took the situation to the World Court, claiming the US was in violation of international law which prohibits countries from financing military forces to attack another country. On June 27, 1986 the International Court at the Hague issued its legal ruling:
Decision of the International Court at the Hague
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.
By “training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying” the military rebel groups waging war against the Damascus government, the US and “friends” are committing the same crime that the USA did in the 1980’s.
The Negroponte Connection
There is an additional connection between Central America and Syria: the creation and management of the “Contra” rebels was overseen by the US Ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte. In addition. he managed US policy supportive of the military dictatorships which used death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Ambassador Negroponte later went to Baghdad where he was US Ambassador and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004-2005, when death squads and sectarian bloodshed in Iraq began. His deputy in Baghdad was Robert S. Ford. Mr Ford went on to be US Ambassador to Syria in the period leading up to the outbreak of violence in March 2011. Later in 2011, US Ambassador Ford was expelled from Syria because he was considered an instigator of violence and protest. Ambassador Ford had publicly encouraged the protests and was suspected of much more. Since his expulsion from Syria and up until earlier this year, Robert S. Ford has been the lead American in charge of managing US policy of ‘regime change’ in Syria.
Ignoring the Most Serious Crimes
The violation of Syrian sovereignty should have been exposed and publicly criticized by international justice organizations and United Nations’ officials. Unfortunately the major rights organizations are guided by liberal interventionists and the United Nations has become dominated by US and Western interests. For example Human Rights Watch is significantly funded by liberal billionaire George Soros while Executive Director Roth is a member of the 1% club with annual compensation of nearly half a million dollars ($477K in 2011). That might not matter except that Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been good at documenting specific violations and transgressions but does not distinguish between major and minor violations of international law and ignores or minimizes the most extreme violations of international law by powerful countries. For example, 9 months after the US invasion of Iraq HRW reported that it was “not a humanitarian invasion” and explained why it did not support or oppose the invasion. More recently HRW does not distinguish between Israeli violations in maintaining the prison of Gaza and periodically massacring thousands of Palestinians versus the Palestinian response of random rockets which are largely harmless. They have prominently focused on war crimes of the Syrian “regime”, but ignored the fact that many of the rebels are mercenaries supplied with weapons and paid by foreign governments. HRW goes soft pedals the violations of the major abusers and comes down hard on the victims. They ignore the “supreme crime” of initiating war by the US and “friends” while vigorously denouncing the transgressions of the Assad government. By not differentiating between crimes, and favoring the powerful, they effectively use international law as another tool of the powerful.
Meanwhile the United Nations has come under the dominance of the United States. For example the head political authority (Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs) is the former US Ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman. When you see UN reports and statements on situations, consider the source. Another real world example of what this means: In Syrian refugee camps run by the United Nations Syrian youth are recruited to join the rebels while UN officials pretend not to see.
Violating Air Space of Sovereign Syria
Under international agreement “Every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over airspace above its territory.” President Obama is proposing to ignore the international agreement and to send military jets into Syrian airspace without authorization. The pretext is to attack ISIS but it’s likely this would simply be the foot in the door with attacks on Syrian soldiers to eventually follow. The rationale for NATO entering Libyan air space was to create a “no fly zone” to prevent a humanitarian crisis. But the emergency justifications turned out to be a fraud and the “no fly zone” quickly turned into devastating bombing attacks on the Libyan government.
ISIS does not recognize the Iraqi Syrian border but obviously there is an internationally recognized border, regardless whether it is recognized by a terrorist organization such as ISIS. Another legal fig leaf for the violation of Syrian sovereignty is that since ISIS has murdered American citizens in Syria, the US can intervene to attack the perpetrators. Again, this is without legal basis. Will Obama cook up a legal “justification” as the Bush Administration did to justify torture, rendition, etc etc?
Selective Use of American Deaths
In the past weeks the media have given extensive sensational coverage about the deaths of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Their beheading murders are being used to justify US military escalation and violations of international law. Ironically, both writers documented how unpopular the “moderate rebels” are and Steven Sotloff was reportedly sold to ISIS by one of the “moderate rebels” favored by President Obama. Unknown to most Americans many journalists have been killed in the Syrian conflict.
In sharp contrast, there was relatively little media attention when Americans were murdered in Central America by “our” rebel Contras and “our” Salvadoran dictatorship. Benjamin Linder was a young American engineer who went to Sandinista Nicaragua to help with development in rural areas. He was murdered by the US funded Contras. What was the reaction? Very little. In El Salvador four American nuns who were critical of the military dictatorship were murdered. The US reaction? Jeanne Kirkpatrick , US Ambassador to the UN, did not even express remorse let alone anger or outrage. Instead she remarked that “they were not just nuns”.
From Central America in the 1980’s to Syria and the Middle East today there is a consistency in US policy. Governments which challenge US domination are demonized. Surrogate armies to overthrow them are sometimes created. Bloodshed and mayhem follows. Individual American deaths are ignored or sensationalized depending on whether it benefits US policy. International law is ignored or used as another weapon against the victim.
It’s time for a realistic look at the Syrian government and rebels, including ISIS. It’s time to demand that the US start respecting instead of trampling on international law.
Rick Sterling is a founding member of Syria Solidarity Movement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org