War loses its popularity


War loses its popularity

Article by Bunn Nagara  which appeared in The Star, 13 October 2013

Neither East-West nor North-South, different views on Syria arise from the contention between consistent principle and expedient opportunism.




AS work on the agreed destruction of Syria's chemical weapons proceeds, different international perceptions persist over President Bashar al-Assad and chemical weapons' use.

These differences arise not simply between countries or between ideologies. They result from differing psyches, essentially between consistent principle and passing expediency.


A recent track two Germany-Malaysia security dialogue organised by ISIS Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, which effectively became an informal trilateral with Turkish guest participation, was interesting and instructive.

The fact that both Germany and Turkey were both members of Nato, a US-led military alliance, added to the sparkle. However, the differing perspectives arose only between some German and Malaysian delegates.

There was no argument over the unreal nature of the threatened US bombing of Syria, especially if Damascus possessed innumerable chemical weapons as suspected. It would have largely been a symbolic gesture with more negative effects in practice, including atmospheric contamination.

Casualty figures from the Aug 21 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta would not have improved with a bombardment of Syria, regardless of the claimed accuracy of punitive missile strikes. Instead, external military hostilities can only add to civilian casualties, since the public are far less protected than political and military leaders.

The main issue of contention was Assad's alleged guilt in the Aug 21 attack, reflecting the same debate in the world at large.

Although all dialogue delegates agreed there was no "smoking gun” evidence against Assad, some apparently thought notional assumptions were enough to justify attacking Syria.

Historians, journalists and political analysts who deal in facts need to be certain about their sources and references before committing their thoughts in writing. Policy makers working in the public interest affecting people's lives need to be even more certain.

Above all, policy makers who decide on war and thus hold the lives of entire populations in their hands need to be most certain of their facts. Yet some generals and pundits were prepared to wage war against a sovereign nation based on some shaky circumstantial evidence against its leader.

The four-page reported US evidence against Assad was based on a classified 12-page report. This contrasts with a 100-page Russian intelligence report presented to the UN Security Council citing anti-Assad rebel forces for a March chemical weapons attack.

When Russia asked to see the 12-page US report to enable Moscow to support the US allegations, Secretary of State John Kerry refused, saying it was classified. Then US Congressmen from both Republican and Democratic parties who had read the report and opposed President Barack Obama's plan for war said the evidence was inadequate and could not justify war.

Meanwhile, practically everything known about the allegations against Assad were so riddled with doubts, inconsistencies and contradictions that the case for attacking Syria could not amount to much itself. Two instances cited as major pieces of evidence against Assad illustrate the point.

One concerned an intercepted telephone conversation between a Lebanese Hezbollah operative and an Iranian national talking about Assad and the use of chemical weapons. No Syrian "starred” in the conversation, let alone any Syrian government or military official.

The other instance of "evidence” involved the UN inspection team's discovery of a spent rocket fuselage believed to have contained sarin gas, without the gas or its warhead. The source of the missile was then said to be some 10km away, identified as a military base and thereby implicating the government.

Problems with this evidence, as raised by critics in the United States, included the poor accuracy of the M14 rocket as delivery system, and how it would have had to fly over the presidential palace grounds. The M14 is also fired in an artillery barrage of 16 rockets at a time, so accuracy is not a priority.

Besides, the M14 is almost never fired to its maximum range of about 10km, since that would increase its inaccuracy. When this was discussed at the dialogue, a German delegate simply rejected the doubts and said there was no need to question the dubious flight path since he was already convinced Assad was guilty.

Perhaps something in the much-touted Teutonic logic was "lost in translation”. How could an unquestioning acceptance of the location of the UN find, coupled with an insistence on the source (Syrian army base) of the rocket, deny the flight path which had to be a straight line connecting the two points?

Had the Syrians or the Russian manufacturers of the M14 invented a rocket that could be fired to go around corners, to "bend it like Beckham”? In the future perhaps, but not with the M14, a crude, unguided Soviet-era missile as old as the Cold War.

Another impractical feature of the US threat of attacking Syria was the unlikely prospect of obtaining full agreement among all the UN Security Council's five permanent members, since Russia and China were expected to veto the move or at least abstain. If Obama still insisted on an attack as Bush did with Iraq, it would have been an illegal war.

A German delegate then suggested there was no need to be so concerned with international law. This argument had less to do with flawed logic than with degraded morality.

What is the point of making laws at all if such an attitude existed? Whatever the perils of neglecting the rule of national law, the dangers of ignoring the rule of international law would be even larger and graver.

A Malaysian delegate noted that only international law protected smaller countries from the excesses of larger and more powerful ones. The alternative would be the law of the jungle where might is right, which surely cannot be the objective of the Western mantra of democracy and human rights?

It may be tempting to sideline international law whenever it seems expedient to do so, especially when one's power is unquestioned. Nato is the world's most powerful military alliance.

But to apply double standards only reveals neo-colonial invincibility, imperialist exceptionalism ("don't do as I do, just do as I tell you”) and arrogant disregard for UN conventions. It would also set a bad and dangerous example to rising powers that may one day acquire unquestioned global power.

Just days before, Kerry was at an Asean Ministerial Meeting in Brunei urging Chinese and Asean leaders to prioritise international law in their rival South China Sea claims. But to be credible and consistent, valuing international law must be universal irrespective of region.

Such doubts and inconsistencies have weakened the US-led Western argument for attacking Syria. However, it is not only non-Western countries – including Singapore, usually a US ally – that have refused to buy the case for an attack.

The British Parliament and public have also rejected the option of war. The same may hold for the US Congress and public, thus Obama was probably "saved” from an embarrassing defeat in Congress by the Russian-led proposal at the eleventh hour.

The same is true for the German public: as the country headed into an election, both governing and opposition parties rejected any involvement with a planned US attack for fear of losing votes. And if the Turkish public can stop their protests against the government for a moment to consider its support for the US attack, they might well say they are against it as well.

Mr. Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Please visit our website for more information: