By Farhang Jahanpour
September 1, 2013
In his most statesmanlike statement, a short while ago (31 August 2013) President Barack Obama announced that he would seek Congress’s approval before ordering military action against Syria. After all the hype about an imminent strike, this statement was a breath of fresh air, and it has renewed many people’s faith in President Obama. Not only would any other action have been against international law, it would have even been against the US Constitution that gives Congress the right to declare war, except in emergencies.
That right had been usurped by a number of recent presidents who exceeded their executive prerogative. The Congress will be back in session during the second week of September and this delay provides a breather and an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail, and hopefully the chance to find a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis.
However, it is important to give credit where it is due, namely to the British Parliament that led the way in imposing the views of the majority of the electorate on the government that was going to get engaged in a rash action.
The Syrian civil war has been going on for nearly three years, resulting in over 100,000 deaths, two million refugees and millions displaced internally. The movement that initially started as part of the Arab uprisings soon became violent and turned into an armed confrontation between President Bashar Asad’s government and the rebels, made up of some disaffected Syrians, as well as a large number of Al-Qaida-affiliated militants supported mainly by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, including thousands of jihadi fighters imported to Syria from Libya, Iraq, a number of Persian Gulf countries and even by a few hundred militant Sunnis from Europe.
On 21 August 2013, there was a devastating chemical attack in Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus, resulting in hundreds of deaths and casualties. Almost exactly a year earlier, President Obama had declared that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would constitute a red line, which would require a response by the international community. During the past year, there have been a few reports about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
After an earlier instance of a chemical attack in May, the United Nations independent commission of inquiry on Syria investigated the incident. Carla Del Ponte, a member of the commission and a former Swiss attorney-general who also served as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in an interview said: “… there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated.” However, she added: “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.”
Nevertheless, in a rush to judgment, after the incident in Ghouta, British and American officials blamed the Syrian government for the attack and called for military action. In an almost exact copy of what Tony Blair had done on the eve of the illegal Iraq War, the British Prime minister promised President Obama that he would join him in an attack on Syria. The West had put pressure on Syria to admit UN chemical experts to examine the incident, but before the team had carried out its work, David Cameron recalled Parliament, which was in recess, hoping to steamroll a decision to attack Syria.
Seeing the degree of opposition in the country to the repetition of the fiasco that led to the invasion of Iraq ten years earlier, the government changed its original motion, and simply asked Parliament to condemn the use of chemical weapons, and promised to bring another motion to Parliament if and when it decided to attack Syria.
In a flimsy case, the Prime minister admitted that he had no concrete proof of the Syrian government’s involvement, but asked the House to trust his judgement. After the precedent of Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossier”, and his claims that Iraq had possessed weapons that could menace Europe and could be deployed in 45 minutes, and telling parliament to trust his judgment, no one was in the mood to fall into the same trap twice.
David Cameron’s statement was followed by more than eight hours of in-depth debate in the Mother of Parliaments, and despite imposing a three-line whip the government failed to get its way. Even 30 Conservative MPs and nine Lib-Dem MPs who are in coalition with the Conservatives voted against the motion, which was defeated by 285 votes to 272, an opposition majority of 13. To his credit, David Cameron immediately said: “It is very clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.” It is at times such as this that one feels proud to be British.
Parliament’s decision went beyond the case of war on Syria, and conveyed a number of important messages that will change both the nature of politics in Britain and hopefully in the world. On the domestic front, it was the first time in over 200 years that Parliament had opposed a foreign policy decision by the government, especially on an issue of military involvement.
It reinstated the sovereignty of parliament and enabled it to perform its real task, which is to scrutinize and check the decisions of the government. It has given a voice to ordinary citizens, something that has been ignored by previous governments. Millions of British people took part in the largest ever demonstrations against the Iraq war and there was a big majority in the country against the war, but to no avail. This time parliament, and consequently the government, bowed to public demand.
Internationally, the decision of the British parliament could set a precedent and provide an example for other nations to force their governments to consult their parliaments on the issues of war and peace and to listen to public demands. The scourge of the two world wars gave rise to the UN and collective efforts to put an end to all wars. The hope was that powerful, macho leaders, such as Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt would not be able to drag millions of people into devastating wars on the basis of their own decisions, but that international organizations representing the will of the majority of the people would have the final word.
In the age of the information revolution and public awareness, it is time for decisions to be transparent.
The next important message conveyed by this vote is that it shows that the British people wish to put an end to the era of the empire and want to create a new international community with equal rights for all. After the end of the Second World War, the international arrangements favoured the victors.
A few Western governments took it upon themselves to shape the destiny of humanity. The victors of the war assumed permanent membership of the Security Council with the right of veto, while other countries were treated as second-class citizens. America, and three European countries, plus initially the Republic of China (from 1946-1971), were declared permanent members of the Security Council, while the two major defeated countries, Germany and Japan, were excluded; nor was there any place for India, Brazil, one and half billion Muslims or any African country. Parliament’s vote shows that the British people wish to draw a line under their imperial past and become an equal member of the community of nations.
It is now time for the American Congress and the French Parliament to examine the case for war and hopefully opt for peace.
It is important to bear in mind that at the moment, only France, Israel and Turkey openly support the US’s desire for military action against Syria. Apart from Russia and China that are opposed to war, Germany, Spain, Italy and many other European countries have said that they will not approve of a strike on Syria without a Security Council resolution. Caretaker Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok and President Milos Zeman have denounced President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria as illegal. Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk has firmly declined to be involved in any military action against Syria.
Syria’s neighbours, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, have said that they will not allow their air space to be used for an attack on Syria. Egypt has issued a strong denunciation of an attack on Syria. The Arab League has condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria but has opposed any military action.
In a letter to President Obama, a group of neocons urged him to take action against Syria. The list of names includes exactly those who urged President Clinton and President Bush to attack Iraq. They included Elliott Abrams, Fouad Ajami, Max Boot, William Kristol, Joseph Lieberman, Danielle Pletka, Elliot Cohen, Douglas Feith, Martin Peretz, etc. However, with the exception of a bunch of neocons, fewer than 10% of Americans are in favour of the war. The same applies to France where over 60% of voters oppose the war.
The case for the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government is very weak. There are a number of serious problems with the case against Syria.
First of all, the government has been winning the war against the rebels, and there would not have been any reason for the government to engage in such a provocative move just as the UN team of experts was visiting Syria.
Earlier on, the UN investigation into the matter had concluded that chemical weapons had been deployed by the rebels. Their findings were recently complimented by the Turkish government’s arrest of a group suspected of having ties to the Al-Nusra Front who were found with Sarin gas in their possession.
The Syrian government had provided videos of the seizure of some containers possessing Sarin gas from the rebels. On 31 August, BBC Persian reported that the Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that last December Iran had informed the United States through the Swiss Embassy (that represents the United States in Iran) that chemical weapons, of the type of Sarin gas, had been transported by the rebels to Syria. He said that Iran had informed America that extremist groups might use chemical weapons in Syria.
There is no military solution to this terrible civil war fought between a brutal government and barbaric militants who wish to establish an Islamic Emirate in Syria. Instead of threatening to fire a few missiles at Syria that would only compound the problems, the issue of Syria should be discussed in the G-20 meeting in Russia and hopefully a comprehensive solution should be found that will put an end to the bloodshed and will enable the Syrian refugees to return to their homes.
One possible solution could be to reactivate the Geneva II Conference with the participation of Syria’s neighbours, arranging for a ceasefire, followed by an election in the near future under international supervision, and all Syrians should abide by the results of the election. Before exhausting all these peaceful means, there is certainly no basis for military action.