Obama, Damascus, and Manila


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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  • tadasolo

    Although I do not disagree with your logic about the USA engaging in another war the depth of my being says we got to stop this madness when over 1000,000 have been killed and counting and 2,000,000 refugees displaced and there is no end in sight. Continuing your logic will have allowed Hitler to kill more people numbering 50 million at the time of his death. These are crime against humanity and most of the countries bordering Syria and the European counties are waiting for the leadership of the USA. Being a Filipino American I do not like any more war especially in that part of the world where tribalism and religion predominates but doing nothing Is not an option. It is utterly ridiculous to frame this conflict as a superpower rivalry while millions are suffering. This war is a proxy war between two Middle East powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia and is already regional. I would love them to duke it out and exhaust all their energy in this conflict but the reality is we cannot let this happened as regional powers like Turkey and Eygpt and Israel will become embroil impacting all the Asian and European countries relying on middle east oil. As for the USA it has enough gas and oil and importation of oil is almost zero from the Middle East. After the death of Bin Ladin, there is a growing consensus to leave the Middle East and South Asia to regional players and the USA playing a supporting role. You see most Americans do want the USA to go to another conflict but your one sided leftist agenda cannot address the millions and millions of people dying and suffering due to the conflict. You mentioned the UN and other supra national bodies but these organizations are all impotent in resolving wider war without the leadership of the USA

  • ConnieLee90

    Walden Bello is spot-on in his analysis as far as US-Syria is concerned. US interest is not threatened. There is no reason to be there.

    Let the Syrians duke it out. Assad is supported by Hezbollah & Iran, and the rebel faction-al Nusra Front is al Qaeda affiliated. So, whichever side prevails won’t make Washington any happier.

    The danger of a punitive strike by the US is that Assad might be forced to strike at Israel, a staunch US ally. This act might enlarged the war and drag in the major players- Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, etc. Needless to say, an expanded war in the Middle East sure would wreak havoc upon the world economy.

    • slicenziuten

      Making the conflict (war) even larger in its scope is what weapons and military armaments manufacturers are so eagerly anticipating. It would be a sad and horrifying result indeed, but the greedy politicians, lobbyists and opportunist businessmen will stop at nothing to further enhance their goal and ambition.

  • FireEngine

    Your flowery writing isn’t true at all. Name one instance in the whole time that the US bases were here when we were attacked by a foreign power or even suffered from stupid territorial incursions by neighboring countries. And you also say that our countrymen are safer in Damascus now than when the US starts a war with Assad? You mean to say that Sarin gas really won’t kill Filipinos, only Syrians? What kind of reasoning is that anyway? Thirdly, you make it appear that the British are wholeheartedly opposed to the action in Syria, when in fact opposition passed by a narrow margin and that lawmakers were almost equally divided on the issue.

    I do believe that you aim to deceive us Walden but as usual, you can’t seem to do a good job of it no matter how hard you try.

    • rom

      Japan attacked US facilities here in Philippines during WWII.

  • Cano Manuel

    The only time when a US military concentration was attacked happened in 1941, and only a nation as strong and as treacherous as then-Japan would do so. There is no way Syria or Iran could reach or pose a threat to the Philippines no matter how the world has become small now, because first and foremost their military might can’t even make it beyond the middle east, and if in case they do so, such action would only make their already tarnished image look even worse. Having said so, I do believe that a US military base in the Philippines would boost our moves against chinese invasion of our west coast, for that will deter china – no matter how they thinks it is provocative.

    Furthermore, it is expected of Russia to condemn US intervention in Syria and Iran because they know that if the USA succeeds in its agenda, Russia is likely to lose influence in the Middle East to affect the political system in the there. China’s influence in the Middle East is parasitic to Russia, in that they both have a lot to lose when the USA succeeds there.

    As for the stubborn OFW’s in Syria, leave them there. How many times does the government have to remind and advise these people against working in that forsaken State amid all the recent developments? Let them have a taste of their own stubbornness.

    And lastly, Syria and Iran need to be disarmed once and for all, no matter what the USA’s agenda is. Their facilities for chemical and nuclear weapons are a testament to their intention to resolve to killings of innocent and helpless civilians should any deterrent pose a threat to their State or “throne”. They cannot be allowed to proliferate and continue. And how does Assad get a sleep when he could have just stepped down had he had the knowledge of doing not so would cause the deaths of a hundred thousand (and possibly a million more) and the collapse on his nation?

    By the way, Pakistani special forces have arrived in Saudi Arabia three days ago. I am not sure what it is for, but if that move is for the protection of Mecca, then I think we have a very good sign the looming war is going to be MASSIVE and devastating.

  • $14141131

    The broke US government is into another useless spending to the chagrin of the American people. Disappointingly, her allies don’t want to participate in the Syrian adventure of the US because most of them are cast strapped. This won’t stop until America is bankrupt which slowly but surely she is being drag into. Obama is leading the country into the hole.

  • kurakot

    When will America learn that to engage in Arabs war, you always lose. Look at the Bosnian, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we know that America’s intention was good because she was only trying to protect the millions of innocent Arabs getting affected by the wars (or was it to stimulate the dying American war industry?). Unfortunately the innocent people of the Arabs world do not call the shot there, its the extremists, clerics and religious fanatics and they all hate America because she had been supporting Israel. Remember when Obama was first elected to White House in 2008, he visited most Arab countries and by passed Israel to show that he is different from all other US presidents. And what was the outcome? They still did not believe him. So what if the Americans simply do nothing? Millions of Arabs will be displaced and a lot of them will end up going to the USA. Can you imagine the surge of Arabs in the USA and the number of new mosques being built there, as well as, the impact to the American economy? The answer will scare the hell out of every American.

  • rom

    Indeed proxy war of Israel against Arab neighbors. America will just ignore the clamour of its people and UN stand, will not care for people that will die, that is how powerful the Jewish interest run the US government. The same is only true with Afganistan and Iraq, their invasion of US has long been planned. Iran may be next and Saudi Arabia is being destabilized through their media… We cannot understand this unless we know the politics and agenda of the Jews.

  • tarikan

    Strong condemnation of the chemical attack on the civilian population which killed more than 1,400 people including some 400 children in the outskirts of Damascus would be enough. Strong condemnation is easy to give and it’s cheap. Assad is killing his own people so what’s the big deal? Moral high ground? BullS**t! Hitler did it to his own people and more dictators will do it in the future because some wise men elected to do nothing. Genocide, ethnic cleansing galore.

  • RedRose_13

    But the bullying of China is greater when Uncle Sam is not around.

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