On 7th April 2018 an incident occurred in the Syrian city of Douma, 10 km North east of the capital Damascus. It was alleged, initially by the jihadi extremists occupying the city that a nerve gas attack had been carried out by Syrian government forces.
On the basis of this allegation from sources with a well-known record of, at best, dissembling, and some photos provided by the MI6 front organisation known as the ‘White Helmets’, some western governments were quick to condemn the Syrian government and by extension its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
Before an investigation had been carried out, and in the absence of any reliable evidence, the United States led “coalition” embarked on a massive strike by missiles on Syrian targets.
On 9th of April 2018 the office of the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a press release, condemning the “reported chemical weapons attack by the Syrian regime (sic) which killed 70 civilians and injured hundreds more.” It went on to claim that Syria had used “chemical weapons on multiple occasions.”
Following the air and missile strikes by the United States, the United Kingdom and France, DFAT issued a further press release on 14th April 2018. The statement said that “today (14th April) the US, UK and France responded forcefully to the Syrian regime’s illegal use of chemical weapons on 7th April in Douma. Australia supports these strikes, which demonstrates a calibrated, proportionate and targeted response. They send an unequivocal message to the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.”
There was much more in the press release in the same vein. The dubious source of the information was totally disregarded, as was the relevant international law.
Just like the Mad Queen in Alice in Wonderland, Bishop wanted the verdict before the evidence.
The presence of United States, United Kingdom, French and Australian forces in Syria has no basis in international law, a factor disregarded repeatedly by the Australian government and by the Australian media since Australia joined the “coalition” attacks on Syria in September 2015.
The Australian government has refused to release the legal opinion it obtained about its proposed involvement in Syria. It would be a fair inference, in accord with the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion, that the opinion expressed in the suppressed document stated that the “coalition” government’s involvement in Syria was illegal under international law.
That was a view reinforced as recently as 28th of June 2018 in a report presented to the German parliament by one of its research committees. The German report (available only in German) rejects the principal arguments advanced by the United States and its allies (including Australia), namely, that Syria was “unable or unwilling” to defend itself against the attacks of ISIS and like groups; and intervention was possible under the self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Bishop had advanced both of these arguments in December 2015 on ABC National radio.
She also advanced the argument that Australia was acting in Syria at the request of the Iraqi government, something that government promptly denied. That denial went unreported in the Australian mainstream media.
As the German report reinforces, none of these arguments have any validity in international law. The Australian mainstream media, perhaps not surprisingly given its unquestioning support for Australia’s involvement in Syria, has been silent as to the existence of and conclusions of the German report.
When the United States and its allies attacked Syrian targets following the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma in April, it was not only the government that was supportive. According to The Australian of 12 April 2018, Labor’s defence spokesman Richard Marles said that he would support an American airstrike, as Labor had done with regard to the now discredited alleged chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
There has now been a further development. The OPCW, the organisation responsible for investigating allegations of chemical weapons use (among other things) has now produced its interim report on its investigation into the alleged Douma chemical weapons attack. The most important paragraph in the interim report reads as follows:
” The result shows no organophosphorus nerve agents or their degradation products were detected in the environmental samples or in the plasma samples taken from alleged casualties.”
This conclusion is entirely consistent with what the Syrian government and its allies said at the outset: there was no chemical weapons attack, and certainly not by them. They also said at the time that this was a public relations stunt by the White Helmets and their jihadist friends.
From the point of view of the jihadists, this stunt produced the desired result – a chorus of condemnation of the Syrians and their allies, and the added bonus of having the Americans and their allies bomb Syrian government positions. Not for the first or last time was an this example of the US and its allies assisting the terrorist cause.
What is also completely unsurprising is the studied silence of the Australian government and the Labor opposition to the OPCW report. Foreign Minister Bishop, so quick to condemn the Syrian government in unequivocal terms before the OPCW had conducted its investigation, cannot now bring herself to apologise for her premature rush to judgement.
That the attack by the United States and its allies was contrary to international law, as is their very presence in Syria, is also something that consistently escapes her attention.
For a government so fond of stating its belief in, and support for, the “rules based international order”, it is another example of the manifest hypocrisy of their position. A belief in the supremacy of international law demonstrated in actual adherence, as we have also seen in numerous other examples, is clearly something that is selectively applied by this government.
On the basis of past performance, including but not limited to Australia’s involvement in multiple illegal wars waged for and on behalf of its “joined at the hip” American ally, the silence from the Labor opposition is similarly unsurprising.
As Machiavelli said, “one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”
It is long past the time when Australia ceased its posturings on the international stage. Actually adhering to international law would be a good start. Acknowledging the findings of the German parliamentary committee that Russia’s presence in Syria is legal, but that of the United States and its “coalition” allies is not, and that they should accordingly leave would also be a step in the right direction.
James O’Neill is a Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org