G20 Verdict: US has Little Global Support for Syria Strike

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If the G20 summit in St. Petersburg was a barometer of international opinion on the impending American missile strikes on Syria, then the United States lost hands down.

Barring Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France, there were hardly any takers or willing participants for President Barack Obama’s coalition to attack Syria. This outcome would leave a particularly bitter taste for Obama because of his stated preference for multilateral consensus on international security and economic problems.

The American government’s ability to convince and persuade its international partners as well as its own citizens on the methods of managing world problems has hit an all-time low, and Obama has to blame himself for getting cornered like this. Why is hardly anyone buying the rationale of attacking Syria if the evidence of chemical weapons usage by the Bashar al-Assad government is allegedly “clear and compelling” (US Secretary of State John Kerry)?

Enforcing ego, not norms

At the G20 summit, Obama argued futilely that punishing Syria with force was necessary to defend the global “norm” of banning usage of chemical weapons. He warned that the price of inaction on Syria was “a more dangerous world” in which dictators like Assad could take it easy and commit mass murder. But this seemingly moral purpose of raising the costs for accused perpetrators who wield weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fell on deaf ears at the G20 summit, since the international community can tell the difference between strategic guile and genuine humanitarian purpose.

What is at stake with the Syrian question is the credibility of American warnings about ‘red lines’ and the concomitant prestige issue of the US’ words becoming cheap and non-consequential. The real norm that Washington fears being diluted is that its threats of the use of force will lose deterrent value if Obama does not walk the talk and demonstrate compelling military power. US allies like Israel, which are itching for the war on Syria to be broadened and deepened, are already on record that Washington must act tough and attack Syria so as to send a message to Iran that its disputed nuclear program can also be targeted and obliterated.

The chemical weapons charges are rhetorical devices manifesting the anxieties of a declining great power which believes that demonstrating military might is one way by which its relative fall in world politics can be stemmed.

National ego was a prime motive that held America back from realizing its follies in Vietnam until it was too late. But judicious presidential rescinding of prior ‘red lines’ based on reconsideration of the international situation is not unprecedented. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan pulled US troops out of Lebanon after a deadly Hezbollah bombing, despite vowing previously to stay on in that civil war-plagued nation. It is perfectly honorable to step back from a minefield after thorough rethinking, rather than stepping into a morass. America will emerge with greater applause if it reads the Syrian scenario with an open mind and heeds international governmental and public opinion.

The majority opinion of the G20 summit, as well as more widespread international public opinion, is calling for Obama to be prudent and rebuff his egotism.

‘Dangerous precedent’ of might is right

Russian President Vladimir Putin countered Obama at the St. Petersburg G20 summit by raising an entirely different “dangerous precedent” than the one which the Americans have been proclaiming – namely Assad getting away with alleged WMD crimes. The former raised the classic realpolitik issue of the security of small nations which should not be vulnerable to the whims and fancies of stronger powers. If there is an ‘international society’ at all with civilized laws and customs that are meant to protect the weak from the strong, how can Syria be left to the mercies of the US and Israeli militaries?

The Western counter to this question would be that the definition of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ is no longer confined to the inter-state dimension but applies to intra-state settings, thanks to notions like the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians from terrible harm by their own governments. But if one scans the horizons of armed humanitarian interventions since the end of the Cold War, who are the usual policemen setting out to ‘protect’ innocent civilians within some selected small nations? The Americans have been at the forefront of a liberal humanitarian imperialism that goes after strategic rivals who are not playing ball with Western interests in critical regions of the world like the Balkans, the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

That the so-called ‘humanitarian’ concerns for atrocities against civilians within states are highly selective and politicized goes without saying. The same Washington, which is now ratcheting up the pressure for an illegal attack on Syria on the grounds that its government gassed its own people, provided a convenient cover for chemical attacks by the former dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, in Halabja against Kurdish minorities in 1988. The Ronald Reagan administration of that time, which backed Saddam against Iran, went to the ludicrous extent of defending a crime against humanity by suggesting that Kurds were not deliberately targeted in Halabja, and that it was the government of Iran which was responsible for the horror.

The fact that Saddam had deployed WMD against Iraqi citizens was highlighted by the Western media and governments only much later, once he lost his tag as a strategic asset. The momentum for Western military strikes on Syria, which is being applauded by hawks in the United States and Europe as the only solution to alleged vicious chemical warfare, is clearly driven by opposition to his [Assad’s] political role in the Middle East as a patron of Hezbollah and a client of Iran. If Washington was really a fair judge and righteous upholder of the ‘norm’ of banishing the usage of chemical weapons, why did it not raise a hullabaloo over Israel’s deployment of white phosphorus munitions and shells in its 3-week war against Hamas in Gaza in December-January of 2008-’09?  

Some Western liberal humanitarians contend that selective justice is still justice, and that just because the US ignores crimes committed by its allies, it does not imply that crimes perpetrated by its enemies should go unchecked. But this is precisely the nub of the matter raised by Putin at the St. Petersburg G20 summit. If you are a small state and enjoy patronage of a great power by serving its strategic goals, you are exempt from all the pious ideals enshrined in international law. If you are a small state but a thorn in the flesh for a great power, does that make you fair game?

This double standard defeats the basic principle of equality before the law and reinforces the practices of the jungle where might is right. At the level of pragmatic foreign policy, the double standard also forces more and more small nations to relinquish their freedom of choice and become followers of liberal hegemons so as to avoid repercussions for impunity. The moral of the impending American attack on Syria is that kowtowing to the West is the surest guarantee of safety. Humanitarian imperialism is thus a means to impose foreign policy slavery on smaller states.

The geopolitical game in Syria

Since resort to high-sounding humanitarian language is mostly a smokescreen for geopolitical ambitions, it is necessary to uncover the real strategic purpose of the coming illegal American military attack on Syria. Firstly, it would be a mistake to overemphasize the missile strikes as the beginning of American military involvement in Syria.

US-trained and armed Sunni rebel fighters have been entering Syria from Turkey and Jordan for a long time without much media attention. The assurance given by Obama to hawkish Senator John McCain that a 50-man rebel cell trained by US Special Forces in Jordan was “making its way across the border into Syria” has been mentioned in the Western media as the “first tangible measure of support” from Washington to the anti-Assad coalition.

But the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US military’s special operations units have been arming and training Sunni rebels ranged against Assad in Jordan and Turkey since at least November 2012. The goal of this covert operation is to reverse the balance of power in the battlefield, which has not been going too well for the anti-Assad forces. There is no evidence that these trainees are hardcore jihadists, but America already committed one major mistake in the last two years by not forcefully dissuading its Arab and Turkish allies from turning Syria into another playground of jihad like Afghanistan.

Most of the weaponry and funding being delivered to the anti-Assad rebel forces from US allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been reaching hardline Sunni Islamist fighters, who are not only brutal in war but also imposing harsh Taliban-like restrictions on Syrian civilians in zones beyond government control. The internal dynamic of the war in Syria, with prospects of a fundamentalist Sunni regime replacing President Assad, looks too alarming to justify American military attacks. One of the reasons why Obama found war on Syria a hard sell at the St. Petersburg G20 summit is this recognition that a US attack on Syrian military installations will compound the current regional character of the Syrian war and convert it into a global war of epic proportions that can prolong the misery of Syrian people for years to come.

I asked a recently remitted member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff why Washington did nothing to stop its allies when they were arming and financing brutal killers in Syria. He responded with a shrug that “we have no leverage over Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to change their behavior.” Admittedly, the US is not its former omnipotent self in the Middle East. But surely, the Obama administration could have publicly embarrassed its allies who were compounding the crisis in Syria by injecting ‘jihad international’ into the cauldron. No such sanity emerged from Washington because of the obsession for weakening and overthrowing the regime in Iran via the fall of Assad.

Nadir of humanitarian imperialism

Much hinges on Iran to avoid escalation of the war on Syria. There are two overarching diplomatic solutions to the Syrian war which depend on Iran’s cooperation. Firstly, a US-Iran rapprochement through bilateral engagement between the Obama administration and the newly elected “moderate conservative” President Hassan Rouhani, can help bring closure to the war in Syria. Obstinate opposition from pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington and demonization of Iran in the Western media has blocked this tantalizing prospect. Assad’s will to fight to the finish comes from the confidence booster given by Iranian aid and military assistance. Iran can steer a moderate finale to the Syrian war if it gets guarantees and concessions from the West.

Secondly, intra-Arab disunity is the main cause of the terrible bloodshed in Syria. A diplomatic push from Washington to force Qatar and Saudi Arabia to stop internecine wrangling between themselves and terminate their reckless backing of Sunni jihadists in Syria can build confidence with Iran and limit further carnage in Syria. The tit-for-tat arming of opposite camps in Syria, which is leaving few chances for a peaceful settlement, is occurring due to the adamant attitude of Sunni Arab monarchies which are being tacitly egged on by anti-Iran elements in the US government.

It takes political vision and an acute reading of regional equations in the Middle East to realize that the Syrian imbroglio still has non-military solutions. All the fault lines that mark contemporary geopolitics, viz. US-Russia tussles over missile defense, influence in Eastern Europe, and human rights; US-China competition for global hegemony; the US-Iran Cold War on nuclear weapons; and the West vs. Islam dynamic that lurks beneath many illegal foreign military interventions of the past few years, are at stake in the Syrian tussle.

The import of Putin’s message at the St. Petersburg G20 summit was to remind the world that geopolitics and diplomacy are the main causal factors behind the tragedy of Syria. The moment the mask of liberal humanitarianism is taken off, naked power politics emerges as the true canvas on which Syria is being tossed around. The long public debate on whether or not Syria should be attacked has helped undermine humanitarian imperialism. St. Petersburg was the grand stage where the proverbial humanitarian emperor was confirmed to be wearing no clothes.

Reprinted with permission from Russia Today.

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