RICHARD BUTLER. US Missile Attack on Syria

Apr 13, 2017

The US missile strike on Syria was an act of aggression the consequences of which could be immense. The facts of what happened at Khan Sheikhun must be established. 

In the absence from our mainstream media, of a even a shred of critical analysis of the motives for the US attack, Ramesh Thakur and James O’Neill, and Pearls and Irritations, have filled this disgraceful gap. (Pearls and Irritations: 10th and 11th April)

No evidence for the US claim that Syria bombed Khan Sheikhun with chemical weapons (CW) has been provided, anywhere. Our political leaders, from both sides, have fulsomely supported the US action.

Until evidence is provided, it is not possible to accept the claim. And, there are abundant reasons, from past experience, and a good deal of logic to support skepticism about it.

The action by the US was an act of aggression, violating international law. It is not excusable on such clearly factual grounds that: what happened at Khan Sheikhun was dreadful, the Syrian regime is appalling, etc. What’s been happening across Syria for over 6 years, with the use of all manner of indiscriminate weapons, has been dreadful. 500,000 people have been killed, 6 million made homeless.

It is not merely academic to refer to the provisions of international law. Those who truly want its standards upheld must themselves adhere to them. What has happened, in this case, was not simply illegal, but holds the prospect of a further deepening of the moral vacuum in Syria and the very real prospect of elevating the level of conflict, including between the US and Russia. Now, that would really make law and rules seem academic.

It is evident that the US’ decision was not motivated by what it claims was high-minded revulsion at the use of CW. President Trump’s statement on it was derived from his sight of television images. He said so himself, and, his statement was crafted for television, the world in which he reportedly lives. There could hardly have been a more superficial basis, for such a serious decision.

It has been credibly reported that US intelligence agencies doubted the claim that Syria had bombed with CW agent. They had insufficient evidence for this and they could not see why Assad would make such a dubious decision. The leadership of those agencies was then excluded from the presidential decision making deliberation: this was demonstrated by their absence from the group photo at the Mar-a- Largo “situation room.”

Trump’s decision was motivated by domestic concerns, including: his wish to appear resolute, militarily; to distinguish himself from Obama who had declined in 2013 to take a similar action even though his “red line” on CW use had been crossed; and, to draw attention away from the scandals and enquiries in which his presidency is mired.

The missiles fired cost $70 million, and the airfield they attacked was back in operation a few hours later.

It is not too late for the international community to demand that the events at Khan Sheikhun be investigated so that credible evidence of what, in fact occurred, is made public. It is thought, for example, that the Syrian bombing may have hit a warehouse on the ground that contained the chemicals, in their binary form, which were thus combined and dispersed. It may, indeed prove to be the case that it was the Syrians who bombed the site with CW.

Only if the facts are known can the politics of attempts to end the Syria tragedy be advanced, not retarded, by these events.

The wider consequences of failure to establish the facts will be truly significant. Such failure, as seen for example in the deceptions upon which the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified, could lead to further widespread destruction in the region and, as Ramesh Thakur has speculated, possibly of the United Nations itself, and the so called rules based system, of international law, of which it is the custodian.

In principle, Australia is exactly the kind of country, which could seek with others; Canada, Sweden, for example, to insist upon urgent action to determine the facts.

We did so over the shooting down of MH117 over Ukraine. Why not in this instance, when so much more is at stake?

Richard Butler AC was Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, and Ambassador for Disarmament.

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