No one should be under any illusions that the attack on Syria which will take place shortly is illegal and is intended to prevent an impartial investigation by the UN inspectors of what actually happened near Damascus. In the light of the forthcoming attack on Syria and in view of the forthcoming meeting of the Security Council later today (Wednesday 28th August 2013) and of the parliamentary debate in Britain tomorrow (Thursday 29th August 2013) I have decided to post a number of comments I have made on various threads discussing this crisis on the Russia Debate and on Kremlin Stooge that explain this and which set out my views. I have also published a comment by Anatoly Karlin to which I have responded.
Friday 24th August 2013
The reality is that (NB: contrary at that time to claims by the US government and western media reports – AM) Russia has asked the Syrian government to allow an inspection of the area where the attack was committed and the Syrian government according to the Russian Foreign Ministry and from the tone of the reports carried by Syrian government’s news agency Sana seems to have agreed to this.
A point that western media demands for the Syrian government to “allow” the UN inspectors into the area of the gas attack wilfully ignore is that the area where the attack seems to have taken place is rebel controlled. It is therefore the rebels not the government who control access to it. The onus should therefore be on them and not just the government to allow the UN inspectors in.
I do not know who carried out these attacks but as many have pointed out if it was the Syrian government then the timing – a year apparently to the day after Obama’s “red lines” speech and just after the UN inspectors arrived in Damascus – would in that case be incredibly stupid to the point of being bizarre. As has also been correctly pointed out, an attack of this sort now when the government seems to be winning on the battlefield also appears to make little sense. By contrast one can see why the rebels at a time when they are coming under pressure might want to stage an incident of this sort that they can blame on the government. I would add that they might also feel a need to shift the spotlight back on them and away from what has been happening in Egypt.
What many people don’t of course know is that if one follows the accounts of the Syrian conflict provided by Sana then one would know that the Syrian government has been alleging incidents of use of chemical weapons by the rebels practically every week for the last few months. Obviously I have no idea how true these claims are. However I do find it depressing that the government’s claims of use of chemical weapons by the rebels get no attention whilst rebel claims (such as this one) get saturation coverage. There is no reason to give greater credence to any side in this war but there is at least some corroboration of rebel use of chemical weapons: not just the famous comments of Carla del Ponte but also an incident when some rebels were discovered in Turkey in possession of a sarin gas canister a few months ago. News of that incident was suppressed even though it was accompanied by stories that a gas attack on a Turkish town that would be blamed on the Syrian government was planned.
It also puzzles me why western commentators like Shashank Joshi (NB: In this article in the Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10259931/Its-hell-in-Syria-but-Uncle-Sam-isnt-going-to-come-riding-to-the-rescue.html – AM) seem so unwilling to accept that the Syrian rebels are capable of carrying out false flag operations even when these kill their own people. This is after all a rebel movement amongst whose commanders is a cannibal who still commands his unit and who has come in for barely any criticism from the rebel leadership even after his activities were broadcast in a film shown internationally, which uses suicide bombers and whose members cheerfully behead children if they discover them committing blasphemy. Given how utterly ruthless this movement is why assume they would stop at false flag operations involving sarin gas?
Given that the US and its allies have been “demanding” that Syria allow the UN inspectors into the area of the alleged gas attack (something which as I have said Syria has always said it would do) one might presume that they would welcome the announcement yesterday of an agreement between the Syrian authorities and the UN inspectors for the UN inspectors to inspect the area of the gas attack. Nothing of the sort. Instead the ether last night and this morning is full of statements about how this is “too little and too late” and how a strike can now be made against Syria with UN Security Council authorisation and how such a strike will now happen within the next 2 weeks.
My conclusions? Far from being happy that the UN inspectors are going to visit the area in Syria of the alleged gas attack, the US and its allies are alarmed about it precisely because Syria’s consent to such an inspection most likely means that the Syrian authorities were NOT responsible for the gas attack. The very last thing the US and its allies want in this situation is for the US inspectors to turn round and say that it was the rebels who were responsible for the gas attack. The result is that having called for the UN inspectors to visit the scene the US and its allies are now determined to prevent a proper investigation at all costs (no investigation of a crime scene can be completed within 2 weeks. Any investigators knows that is impossible). That is why plans for an attack are being brought forward and declarations are being made by people like Hague that the agreement of the Security Council is not needed before such an attack takes place.
Does this remind anyone of Iraq and of Hans Blix and the UN inspectors begging to be given more time? Truly history sometimes repeats itself and not always as farce but sometimes as still greater tragedy.
PS: One thing I would say is that Ban Kyi Moon has rushed out a very strong statement this morning calling for the inspection to do its work without delay and without obstruction. The British media spin is that this is a criticism of the Syrian government. To me it reads more like criticism of the US and its allies. Ban Kyi Moon has been a loyal servant of the US up to now. Could this be the moment he has found his dignity?
PPS: It is very striking that one key US ally, Germany, is staying aloof from all the war talk. It is becoming a consistent pattern that Germany under any government is increasingly distancing itself from US policy and is quietly aligning with Russia and China on major international issues.
Sunday 25th August 2013
Amid all the fire and thunder of war preparations the Syrian government and the UN inspectors have now agreed the terms of the UN inspection of the site of the alleged gas attack.
What needs to be made clear is that as I said in the comment I posted on Friday 23rd August 2013 the Syrian authorities agreed to allow the inspectors access to the area several days ago. Demands that the Syrian authorities allow such access, which have been noisy on the ether over the last few days, are therefore completely misplaced. The reason the inspectors have not visited the site is because the area is rebel controlled and it is the rebels who therefore control access to it. I gather that the UN inspectors have themselves been unwilling to enter an area that is under rebel control and the sight of fighting and where they may be unsafe. What the agreement announced today suggests is that they have now been provided with the safeguards they feel they need.
All of this fuss over the UN inspection gives anyone with any memory of the Iraq conflict a dreary sense of deja vu. Then as now the US and its allies were shrill in their demands that the regime “cooperate” with the UN inspectors. Then as now the US and its allies nonetheless forthrightly anticipated what the UN inspectors would say before the UN inspectors had any chance to do their work. Then as one suspects now the failure of the UN inspectors to come up with any “evidence” implicating the regime in WMD activity was construed not as a sign that the regime was not undertaking WMD activity but instead as “proof” that the regime was “not cooperating” with the UN inspectors.
In the case of Iraq when it was all over it turned out that the regime had been cooperating with the UN inspectors after all and that its protestations that it was not engaged in WMD activity were true. One wonders what will now happen in Syria?
Sunday 25th August 2013
The latest news from Syria is that “unidentified snipers” opened fire on the convoy carrying the UN inspectors to the area where the gas attack is supposed to have happened. The convoy had to turn back to the safety of the government’s lines. Apparently a further attempt will be made to reach the area later today.
Though no one is saying so, this was clearly an attempt to prevent the UN inspectors from doing their work. Since it was the government that arranged to send the UN inspectors to the area the snipers were almost certainly rebels. That is exactly as one would expect. The Syrian government’s agreement to cooperate in full with the UN inspectors has caused panic amongst the rebels and their western and Arab backers because they know or guess that a proper, impartial investigation is likely to prove that what happened was indeed a false flag event staged by the rebels themselves. Thus everything is now being done to obstruct the UN inspectors so as to prevent an investigation from taking place whilst ridiculing the investigation (eg. by saying that the UN inspectors will be unable to say who carried out the attack – why not?- or that the crime scene has been “degraded by artillery fire” – really?) before it’s even started. This of course is the same investigation by the UN inspectors that the US and its allies pretended they were calling for.
As I think is fairly obvious, what the Syrian government’s agreement to cooperate with the UN inspectors has done, is actually hasten western preparations to attack Syria, this being ultimately the only way to prevent the UN inspectors from their doing their work.
Monday 27th August 2013
Before we discuss the implications of the attack that is now surely coming, it seems to me that it is important to clarify what is happening.
As I said in my comment on the specific thread about the alleged Syrian gas attack, it is simply untrue that the Syrian government refused the UN inspectors access to the site of the alleged gas attack. The area in question is controlled by the Syrian rebels and it is they and they alone who can grant or deny access to it. What has triggered the war talk of the last two days is (1) the discovery by the Syrian army of physical evidence that appears to link the gas attack to Saudi Arabia and the rebels and (2) the agreement on Saturday between the UN inspectors and the Syrian government for a full inspection and investigation of the relevant area to determine what actually happened.
In other words the purpose of the coming attack is not to punish or deter the Syrian authorities from using chemical weapons. It is to prevent a proper investigation by the UN inspectors that might find out what did actually happen.
That this is so is confirmed by the events of the last few days. When news of the attack first appeared Obama gave an interview to CNN in which he appeared to say that there would have to be an investigation of what happened. The US supported a decision by the UN Security Council that supported the Secretary General’s decision to carry out an investigation of the incident to obtain “clarity” about what happened. Concurrently Lavrov and Kerry both released a joint statement saying that there needed to be an “impartial investigation” to determine what happened. Contrast that with Kerry’s statement of yesterday in which, just as the investigation is about to start, he declares that it is “undisputable” that there was a chemical attack and that the Syrian authorities were behind it. What is the point of the UN and the US calling for an investigation if the US government has already declared in advance what the “truth” is? The UN inspectors might just as well pack their bags and go home.
What has clearly happened is that the US initially called for an investigation because it assumed that the Syrian authorities were responsible for the gas attack. The US accordingly assumed that either the UN investigation would confirm this or that the Syrian authorities to conceal their guilt would prevent the investigation from taking place. When it became clear that the Syrian authorities on the contrary were willing to cooperate with the investigation and when evidence started to come to light that if there was a gas attack it was most likely the rebels who were responsible, the priority abruptly shifted to stopping the investigation at all costs. That is why Kerry has declared the Syrian authorities’ guilt “undisputable”, why the US has cancelled its meeting to discuss Syria with the Russians and why an attack will now take place.
For the rest, let us also be clear that the attack that is now coming is a gross violation of international law. That this is so is clearly confirmed by the wording of the UN Charter. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter says
“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations”.
Article 39 of the UN Charter further says
“The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
Article 51 of the UN Charter further says
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the prese nt Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”
In other words the only body competent in international law to authorise military action is the UN Security Council except for the purpose of self defence. The so called “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine does not affect or limit the UN Security Council’s exclusive right to authorise the use of force in any way. Rather it simply set out certain criteria and procedures that need to be followed before the UN Security Council may authorise military intervention in the internal affairs of a Member State.
Not only will the pending attack be made without the authority of the UN Security Council, which renders it illegal under international law, but in this case the violation of international law and of the prerogatives of the UN Security Council is especially gross because the UN Security Council is already involved, having called just 5 days ago for “clarity” on this question by supporting the UN Secretary General’s intention to undertake an investigation, which is now underway. The attack is therefore being prepared in order to subvert a purpose authorised by the UN Security Council, namely to obtain “clarity” about what actually happened through an impartial investigation of the incident by the UN Secretary General’s inspectors.
Tuesday 28th August 2013
Anatoly Karlin said: According to this article, it really was the Syrian Arab Army that launched the chemical weapons attack. The information is based on an American interception of a panicked call from a Baath bureaucrat to the officer in charge of the CW batallion purportedly responsible.
If true, this changes things substantially. If it really was the SAA that was responsible, then public opposition in the West to a strike against Syria would not be so overwhelming than if it were unclear or a false flag (done either with or without the connivance of the US/UK/France). The Iraq comparisons would likewise fall away.
That said, it is rather sad that just as Assad was about to win he will be dealt a major setback, thus necessitating a further few months of fighting than would have otherwise been the case – assuming that it’s a limited strike, that doesn’t overspill into an outright drive for regime change on the Libya model.
If it does turn out that the Syrian army was indeed responsible for the gas attack then I agree. I would also add that the stupidity of this would be extraordinary.
However, I would again add a word of caution. If this telephone intercept is the only evidence that the Syrian army was responsible for the attack, then it is interesting that the US intelligence agencies that are undoubtedly responsible for planting this story have not yet told us what was actually said. All we are told is that on the day of the attack a panicked official in the Defence Ministry telephoned a Syrian army officer to question him about what happened. This might show:
1. That there was a planned use of chemical weapons, which however went horribly wrong thus eliciting the enquiries from the Defence Ministry official. If so then the international consequences would be as you say; or
2. That chemical weapons were used but without the authorisation of the civilian leadership. If so this would be important information and might actually sway opinion against an attack here in Britain; or
3. It might be that someone in the Defence Ministry was worried that there had been an unauthorised use of chemical weapons and urgently telephoned to find out what was happening and to ensure that this was not the case. If so, then that is not inconsistent with subsequent enquiries ascertaining that this was a false flag incident. Bear in mind that in that case an inquiry of some sort by the Syrian authorities on the day of the incident to find out in the aftermath of the attack what had happened is bound to have taken place. This telephone call might just be part of that.
The other point to make is that this information has undoubtedly been shared with two people who have not been convinced by it. They are
1. Ban Kyi Moon. It is really very interesting that for the first time in his tenure as Secretary General Ban Kyi Moon has stood up to the Americans. He came under intense pressure from the Americans over the weekend to withdraw the inspectors but categorically refused to do so. He came under more pressure from them yesterday to do the same thing. Yesterday Carney the White House spokesman said that since Syrian government complicity in the gas attack was “undeniable” an investigation of the incident by the UN inspectors had become “redundant”. It is a virtual certainty that over the course of their discussions with Ban Kyi Moon the US will have told him about the telephone call which they say makes the case against the Syrian authorities “undeniable”. Notwithstanding these comments and this information a clearly furious Ban Kyi Moon has issued a further statement today making it clear that he is not going to withdraw the UN inspectors and that the UN Security Council cannot be by passed but must be involved. Incidentally as a result of Ban Kyi Moon’s comments I understand that a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the crisis will take place later today.
2. Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour opposition here in Britain. He had a meeting with Cameron last night in advance of the parliamentary debate tomorrow at which Cameron tried to obtain his support. Again it is a certainty that over the course of their discussions Cameron would have shown Miliband such intelligence information as exists and that would have been bound to include the telephone call. There are provisions for this in the British system whereby ministers can exchange information with senior opposition leaders under what are known as “Privy Council rules”, and this would be certain to have happened in this case. Miliband was however obviously unimpressed by this information because he made it clear this morning that he wants the UN inspectors to be given time to finish their work.
My own guess is that the US did think when they intercepted the call on Wednesday that they had got themselves the “smoking gun”. That is why they were happy up till Saturday to demand an investigation by the UN inspectors. They naturally anticipated that because the Syrian authorities were responsible for the attack they would either obstruct the investigation or would be found out by the investigation. When on Saturday the Syrian authorities on the contrary agreed to the investigation doubts set in, which is why we have seen such furious attempts to stop the investigation from taking place.
The way to establish the truth in this case is to let the UN investigation take its course. If necessary the remit of the UN investigators can be extended either by the Security Council or by Ban Kyi Moon himself. What is wholly wrong is for one party in this matter to try to impose its version of the truth on all others before the investigation has taken place and to use or threaten force in order to do that. That is clearly both legally and ethically wrong. If it turns out following a full and proper investigation that the Syrian authorities are indeed the guilty party then they will have to bear the consequences. Until then unilateral action is both illegal and unwarranted.
PS: Since writing the above, I have learnt from the British media that all this intelligence including importantly this intercepted telephone conversation comes from Israel. Obviously the mere fact that intelligence originates with Israel doesn’t mean it is untrue. However given that the Israelis undoubtedly have an interest in this conflict the fact that they are the source of this information means that it must be treated with caution. As I said, the only party competent to carry out a proper impartial enquiry are the UN inspectors and they must be given time to carry out their work.
29th August 2013
The British government has now released a letter from the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee setting out what it says is the assessment of its intelligence agencies in relation to the alleged chemical attack near Damascus last Wednesday.
This appears to be based on little more than YouTube videos that were uploaded by the Syrian opposition. We are told that there is classified evidence that supports the conclusions of the assessment but of course we are not told what that is. Presumably it is the evidence from the Israeli intelligence sources that were discussed previously.
On the strength of this “evidence” (such as it is) the British intelligence agencies can do not better than say that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian authorities were responsible for the alleged gas attack near Damascus last Wednesday. “Highly likely” is quite different from “undeniable”, which was the word used by Secretary of State Kerry on Monday. It means that the issue is open to doubt, which is a further reason to wait the outcome of the inquiry that is being undertaken by the UN inspectors, which is the only inquiry that is in a position to determine the truth.
The British government has also published a summary of what it says is the legal advice the Attorney General has provided that says that it is entitled to take military action without the authorisation of the UN Security Council. Supposedly this is provided for by the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine.
The summary refers to no authority or precedent for this proposition. This legal advice is wrong. That is not only my opinion. It is also the opinion of the UN Secretary General and of various foreign governments including most outspokenly the government of Russia.
The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was established by a UN conference in 2005 to set out certain situation where the international community might intervene in the internal affairs of a UN Member State. However it is quite clear in international law that the only body competent to authorise such action in those circumstances is the UN Security Council or, when the UN Security Council is deadlocked, the UN General Assembly under the “Uniting for Peace” mechanism. The “Responsbility to Protect” doctrine is most definitely not a device to circumvent the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly so that certain powerful states can take unilateral military action without properr authorisation. It is extremely worrying that the British government is now trying to argue that it is. If the British government truly believes the international community has a responsibility to act in Syria under the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine but is being prevented from doing so because of deadlock in the UN Security Council, it should demand a meeting of the UN General Assembly. That it is not doing so is the clearest possible sign that the British government knows that contrary to what it says there is no majority in the UN General Assembly for military action against Syria but rather overwhelming support for a proper investigation of the incident by the UN inspectors presently in the Syria.
Lastly, I would like to deal with a question many have asked, which is if the UN inspectors conclude that a gas attack took place and after their remit is extended determine who was responsible what should happen next? The short answer is that a deliberate gas attack on a populated centre is a war crime. The correct procedure is for the UN inspectors to report their findings to the UN Security Council, which in turn can refer the case to the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court would then investigate further and indict those it considered prima facie responsible. Though the persons so indicted might resist arrest, past experience shows that eventually such indictments are effective.
It is an unfortunate consequence of the way in which international law has become polluted in recent years that even the mechanisms of the International Criminal Court have been misused for partisan purposes so their impartial execution can no longer be relied on. However if the question is what should be done legally in this situation, that is the answer.
30th August 2013
The US government has now released its own intelligence assessment of the chemical weapons attack.
I find it scarcely more impressive than the British assessment, which failed to persuade the British Parliament yesterday. Some of the information it refers to is ambiguous to say the least. For example it refers to a Syrian military unit involved in chemical warfare being deployed in the area and gas masks being passed around. That is interesting but inconclusive and might suggest that the Syrian military feared a chemical weapons attack rather than planned one. Though the assessment says the Syrian opposition has not used chemical weapons, as I have previously discussed there is evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately it appears that the case against the Syrian government turns almost entirely on the intercepted telephone call between the senior Syrian military official and the Syrian officer, which I discussed previously. Significantly the intelligence assessment does not provide a transcript of what was said. We cannot therefore say how accurate the assessment’s description of the conversation is. Moreover, as is well known, telephone conversations overheard by outsiders can often be misunderstood.
Overall this assessment seems a very weak basis upon which to launch an attack even if such an attack was legal, which it is not. On Monday 26th August 2013 Kerry said that the Syrian authorities’ responsibility for the attack was “undeniable”. That is clearly wrong and the intelligence assessment concedes that it is merely “highly probable” not “confirmed”. In other words there is doubt, given which there is no reason to rush into action before an impartial investigation is carried out by the UN inspectors on the ground.
Monday 2nd September 2013
The French government is the latest to release its intelligence assessment.
Essentially, what it says is
(1) the Syrian government has chemical weapons;
(2) the Syrian government is known to have used chemical weapons previously in April;
(3) the rebels lack the capability to carry out the kind of chemical weapons attack that happened in Damascus on 21st August 2013;
(4) therefore the attack on 21st August 2013 must have been the work of the Syrian government.
This is a chain of inference not evidence. In fact I would go further and say that this is a case of piling one non sequitur upon another with the danger that the whole structure falls apart if any part of the chain is broken. That is by no means impossible. We know for example that there is fierce controversy about who actually was responsible for the chemical attack in April. Moreover there is circumstantial evidence that the Syrian rebels do have chemical weapons and have used them. Moreover as Yalensis on Kremlin Stooge has correctly pointed out, if amateur terrorists were able to launch a sarin attack on the Tokyo suburb that suggests that the capability for carrying out the sort of attack we saw near Damascus is not beyond that of a well armed rebel movement that gets help from countries like Saudi Arabia.
Let me say it again, I do not know what happened near Damascus on 21st August 2013. However it seems to me that the problem western governments (including I suspect some people within their intelligence services) do not understand is that after the repeated intelligence failures of recent years eg. the genocide in Kosovo that never happened, the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which never existed, the Russian “aggression” on Georgia which turned out to be a Georgian attack, the massacres in Libya which never took place and the Iranian nuclear bomb which is always some years in the future, in the absence of concrete evidence no one trusts these “intelligence assessments” any more.
What needs to happen in this case is for there to be an impartial, independent investigation of what actually took place by the UN inspectors Syria has allowed into the country and who are therefore in a position to do this on the spot. Their remit should be extended to allow such an investigation. China today said it supported such an investigation and I have no doubt Russia does too. In the absence of such an investigation all these “intelligence assessments” convince no one (I suspect not even those who want an attack) and are seen essentially as the propaganda that they are.