“Out of her depth” is a phrase that I have heard applied more than once to Catherine Ashton. Yet I don’t believe the EU foreign policy chief is floundering about in the way her (usually male) detractors would have us believe. On the contrary, she has acquired the one skill that seems indispensable for a modern political leader: a fluent command of hypocrisy.
On her latest trip to Washington, Ashton was “absolutely clear” that Bashar Assad should “step aside” because “you cannot kill your own people”. Ashton conveniently neglected to recall how she had pledged not long ago to fully support “rebels” in Libya who, according to human rights investigators, committed war crimes. Has she told them “you cannot kill your own people”?
Ashton’s impudence was rivalled earlier this month by Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the UN. When Russia and China vetoed a motion condemning Syria at the UN Security Council, Rice was “disgusted” at how the duo “remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant”. Her sound bites glossed over her nation’s dense history of selling out entire peoples (the Palestinians, Timorese, Nicaraguans) and shielding craven tyrants (the names Hosni Mubarak and Augusto Pinochet spring to mind).
Like many leaders in his region and beyond, Assad is ruthless and authoritarian. Calls by Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights commissioner, for the Assad regime to be brought before the International Criminal Court must be taken seriously. Calls for “humanitarian intervention” by Angelina Jolie and other affluent “do-gooders” should, on the other hand, be vigorously opposed.
Euphemism for war
From Serbia in 1999 to Libya in 2011, humanitarian intervention has been a euphemism for wars of aggression. No matter how much those advocating it may boast about the surgical precision of Western firepower and how “collateral damage” can be minimised, the far more probable scenario is that “humanitarian intervention” would only increase the suffering of Syrian civilians. To get a taste of the problems it would cause, one should look at neighbouring Iraq, where the death toll is still climbing thanks to an invasion backed enthusiastically by Tony Blair, that unerring champion of “humanitarian intervention”, nine years ago. A total of 138 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first three weeks of February alone.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that some of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war have long had Syria in their sights, too. In 1996, the neoconservative intellectual Richard Perle produced a report for Benjamin Netanyahu during his first stint as Israel’s prime minister. Perle recommended that Israel attack Hezbollah and Syrian forces then stationed in Lebanon and – as an optional extra – targets within Syria itself as part of a strategy to weaken Assad.
Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that the US has been considering an assault against Syria for some time. In 2007, the former military general Wesley Clark revealed plans hatched during George W Bush’s first presidential term to “take out” seven countries within five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran (in that order). Apart from Sudan, all of those countries have been hit or threatened by US weapons (some of them fired by its client state, Israel) since then.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, has insisted recently that the alliance has “no intention whatsoever” of bombing Syria. His assurance is about as bankable as a Zimbabwean dollar. Didn’t Rasmussen use almost identical words about Libya in February last year? By the end of the following month, his words had been eaten, digested and forgotten and he was at war.
With the US bogged down in Afghanistan and a war with Iran to all intents and purposes already declared, the Obama administration might balk at attacking Syria for logistical reasons in the short term. Yet it’s entirely conceivable that US cruise missiles will be eventually be aimed at Syria or that it will arm one side in a civil war.
No matter how many crocodile tears are shed by Susan Rice, history should teach us that the only reason the West goes to war is to advance or copperfasten its interests. In 1925, France asserted its control over Syria by suppressing an uprising there, with a considerable loss of civilian life. In 2008 and 2009, the French oil firm Total signed contracts for exploiting three Syrian oil fields. Only the naive could view the EU’s decision to impose an oil embargo on Syria as a selfless act; more probably, it’s part of a ploy to ensure control of Syria’s energy reserves once Assad relinquishes power.
For all their invective against Assad now, it’s important to underline that most EU countries were courting him until recently. Over the past few years about 30% of all Syria’s imports came from the Union, making it the country’s largest trading partner. In 2008, the Union sought to boost its business with Syria further when an economic and political “association agreement” was initialled between the two sides. That step was taken despite how Assad had preserved a 45-year state of emergency, giving the security forces enormous powers to muzzle his opponents by throwing them in prison.
Regrettably, I don’t have a clear idea about how the bloodshed in Syria can be stopped. But I do believe that a war waged by Western hypocrites would exacerbate the problem. Humanitarian intervention is the last thing that genuine humanitarians should be demanding.
●First published by New Europe, 26 February – 3 March 2012.