Obama, Damascus, and ManilaBy Walden Bello
In recent days, the Obama administration has moved inexorably toward an attack on Syria, for which it is currently seeking the support of the US Congress.
The rationale for the planned US strike is to punish the Assad regime, which Washington accuses of having used chemical weapons on civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, reportedly killing over 350 people and injuring thousands more. Whether it was the Assad regime that used the weapons or the rebels, this reprehensible act violated international law and human rights and must be condemned in the strongest terms.
This criminal deed does not, however, justify an act of aggression by one state against a sovereign country. The only clear legal justification of a military action on a sovereign country by another sovereign state is self defense, as provided for in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reads:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations…”
Whether the culprit in the use of chemical weapons in Damascus was the Assad regime or the opposition, the crime did not constitute an act of aggression against the United States.
Self-defense is the strongest legal justification for a military response by a threatened state. But there may be instances where a regime may not directly threaten another state but poses a threat to international peace or regional peace or is engaged in genocidal acts against its own people. International law provides for action against such government, but in a very restricted way under the principle of collective security. Article 42 of the UN Charter states that should peaceful means “be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, the United Nations Security Council may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”
Deliberate Violation of International Law
The planned US action does not seek approval by the Security Council. It is intended as a unilateral act that its author knows deliberately violates international law.
The Obama administration says that in using chemical weapons the Assad regime has crossed a red line and deserves a punitive response. But however morally justified may be the world’s outrage, no one state can arrogate to itself the right to punish. The United Nations Security Council and its procedures provide the only legally permissible process for initiating punitive action. The United States must go to the Security Council and get its mandate for a collective response to the problem.
Senator Obama versus President Obama
A unilateral strike against Syria now will have the same illegal character as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the Bush administration, an act that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. Then Senator Obama saw the invasion of Iraq as an illegal act. Yet, here he is, in 2013, using the same rhetoric and methods of George W. Bush, determined to engage in illegal action against Syria.
The US move is painted by President Obama as a humanitarian gesture. Yet it is likely to add to, rather than subtract from, the miseries of the Syrian people.
President Obama should listen to the words of Senator Obama in 2002 when he spoke about the consequences of a US invasion of Iraq:
“I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
Senator Obama was right. Iraq is today a shattered country wracked by sectarian splits, a democracy only in name, and the US invasion and occupation ended up boosting the fortunes of Al Qaeda.
Cure Worse than the Disease
With Syria as well, Obama’s proposed cure is likely to be worse than the disease. With more than 100,00 Syrians killed and millions more fleeing the ongoing civil war, the last thing the region needs is another destructive military intervention by the West, which carries the real possibility of an irreversible drift towards a large-scale regional war and the collapse of the Syrian nation-state.
The planned, “limited” strike against the command-and-control structure of the Bashar-Al Assad regime is neither consistent with the West’s own calls for ‘regime change’, for it fails to significantly degrade the regime’s capability to wage war, nor does it guarantee a deterrence against the further use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) against the civilian population, since both the regime as well as the opposition will continue to have access to such heinous weapons.
In fact, there are no detailed plans on securing or neutralizing Assad’s significant stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, nor there are parallel plans to ensure the non-transference of such weapons into the hands of radical elements within the opposition.
At best, we are talking about a military intervention against a sovereign nation without the guarantee of avoiding another future chemical weapon attack against civilians, and at worse, we are talking about adding fuel to an already combustible conflict with potentially unspeakable consequences.
The planned intervention carries the clear risk of further escalating the conflict, thus increasing the probability of more WMD attacks against civilians.
Time and again, history has shown that besieged regimes tend to resort to more violence in face of growing pressure, so a Western intervention will only embolden Assad to rely on more coercive measures to quell the rebellion.
Internationally, an additional military intervention by the West carries the clear risk of drawing in other external powers such as Iran and Russia, for Tehran is bound by a the 2005 Mutual Defense Pact with Syria, while Moscow views Damascus as its lone ally in the Mediterranean.
This is precisely why both Iran and Russia have vociferously opposed the planned intervention, even threatening retaliation and direct counter-intervention.
Most frightening is the likely entry into the fray of Israel, which could take advantage of the US move to hit not only Assad but his ally, Iran, which the Zionist state sees as the strategic threat to its security.
Obama in 2002 called the planned Iraq War “a dumb war.” With all the likely consequences it will spawn, we would not be unkind in branding his planned strike on Syria as a similar “dumb” move that is likely to create the very opposite of the viable humanitarian solution to the Syrian crisis.
Why the US Strike is not in the Philippines’ National Interest
What does all this have to do with the Philippines?
First of all, as a responsible member of the international community, the Philippine government must add its voice to the multitudinous official voices that have expressed opposition to the planned US strike.
Not only must President Aquino not repeat what his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, did with respect to Iraq, which was to join George W. Bush’s notorious “Coalition of the Willing.”
He must forcefully register our country’s opposition to Mr. Obama’s dangerous plan, and here he can take a cue from the British Parliament, which has repudiated Prime Minister Cameron’s effort to drag Britain behind the American strike.
Secondly, a US attack on Syria directly contradicts the national interest of the Philippines, which is bound up with the welfare of our OFWs.
It will put at risk the lives of the several thousand OFWs that remain in Syria. I was in Syria last year in my capacity as Chairman of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs of the House of Representatives. I accompanied the Department of Foreign Affairs Rapid Response Team in Damascus, Homs, and Tartus, looking for OFWs and urging them to return home.
Despite our best efforts, thousands of them have elected to stay. These workers would be in grave danger should Washington carry out military action.
But we are not talking only about the Filipinos in Syria. Washington’s action is likely to spark a wider, regional war, drawing in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulf states.
We are talking about close to 3 million Filipinos, 1.8 million of them in Saudi Arabia alone. Not only would their physical security be at risk. Evacuating even a quarter of these people from harm’s way would severely tax the organizational and financial resources of our government.
Thirdly, the unilateral US declaration should give the administration pause in its plans to tighten its military ties with Washington by allowing more US troops to be deployed to the country and giving US planes and ships greater access to our military bases.
We should be wary of allying ourselves closely with a power that has the bad habit of engaging in unilateral action lest we be drawn into conflicts and wars not of our making nor in our interest. Once we have a significant US military presence in the country, we will not be free from the threat of retaliatory action.
Indeed, Syria and its allies may well decide to launch retaliatory attacks anywhere in the world, especially in those places like the Philippines which host a US military presence. The reach of revenge is global these days, when the world has become a very small place.
I have strongly supported the strong stance that the administration has taken in defense of our national interests against the aggressive moves by China in the West Philippine Sea. But I have also consistently and strongly opposed a policy of inviting an enlarged US military in the Philippines to counter China.
This effort to play balance of power politics will only lead to the Philippines becoming a frontline state like Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the dynamics of superpower confrontation taking over, allying militarily with the US will marginalize any solution to the territorial conflicts with China, thus be self-defeating.
With the US unilateral threat against Syria in full view, we have another commanding reason for not inviting a US military presence: this will invite retaliation from any force in the world that is threatened by or has been subjected to the US unilateral action.
Time is ticking towards Obama’s strike on Syria. This dreadful act is not in the interest of the Syrian people. It is not in the interest of peace in the Middle East. It is not in the interest of the Philippines.
The Aquino administration must aggressively assert its opposition to such a regionally and globally destabilizing action, even as it rethinks its strategy of inviting a greater US military presence in this country.
*This commentary is adapted from a privileged speech delivered by the author at the House of Representatives on Sept 2, 2013.
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- Countering Beijing’s octopussy diplomacy
- Hot emerging markets? The curious case of the Philippines and Mexico
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