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Michael Ratner: Obama administration asserting the use chemical weapons by Assad feels like deja vu of the lead-up to the Iraq War

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of The Ratner Report.

Now joining us is Michael Ratner. He’s the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.

MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: It’s always good to be with The Real News and with you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Michael, we’re hearing a lot of talks about an imminent strike against Syria. What are your thoughts?

RATNER: I’ve been utterly shocked, really, watching this unroll or unravel, but really unroll over the last few weeks. And, of course, it has a déjà vu feeling. Here they are asserting chemical weapons again. They haven’t been able to prove that there’s chemical weapons. They certainly haven’t been able to prove that Assad has used them. And yet we’re seeing a replay of what we saw in Iraq with weapons of mass destruction: another pretext, in my view, for being able to bomb Syria.

And what’s sad to me about it is that most of the major media, the pundits and others, all talk about is this really about–is this really chemical weapons, who did it, how did people died, you know, what about the weapons convention, and they’re all focused on this question of did or did not Assad use chemical weapons, and, of course, most people buying that the Syrian government and Assad did use them.

But in my view, the whole issue of chemical weapons here is nothing but a pretext. I mean, we should just put to one side the fact that so far there’s no absolute concrete evidence that chemical weapons were used. And even were there such evidence, there’s certainly no evidence that they were used by the forces of Assad.

So I would like to ignore that for a second and say what’s really going on–and not really for a second, but that should just be ignored.

If you look at what’s happened in Syria, what you see is in the last couple of months in particular the U.S. has begun to fund and train covert action troops from Jordan and other countries that have crossed into Syria and are actually helping on the side of the opposition. So they’re beginning a process of their covert operations in Syria to support essentially the overthrow of Assad.

Then you read about the targets, the targets that the U.S. would hit if they went after and did the bombing that we expect in the next few days of so-called targets in Syria that might or might not be related to chemical weapons. And it’s really a surprise when you read what those targets are. The New York Times actually published what they said was the list of the targets. They can’t, obviously, hit chemical weapons sites, because that would spread more chemical weapons. So what they can do is hit military units, supposedly that have carried out a chemical weapons attacks. But they don’t know which ones did or didn’t or if any did. So they’re going to be hitting military units. Then they’re going to be hitting the headquarters overseeing the efforts and rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks. Again, they don’t know which ones they are, so they’re just going to be attacking essentially the Syrian army.

But then the article in The Times goes on to say they’ll also be attacking airbases where Syria’s Russian-made attack helicopters are deployed. Nothing to do with chemical weapons. The list includes the command and control centers, as well as a variety of conventional military targets.

So what is that telling us? That’s telling us that this is not an attack about destroying chemical weapons, but it’s about, quote, degrading, as The Times said, the Syrian military and trying to weaken Assad.

It then also points out in the Times article that some of the targets would be dual-use systems. Well, the dual-use systems is one that, yeah, could be used for chemical weapons, but it’s also one that is used for other purposes.

So the one thing I think we have to understand is this is not an attack for chemical weapons. This is an attack to weaken Assad, to weaken the Syrian military. And the purpose of that, of course, is because the Syrian military appears to be and doing pretty well in Syria in terms of taking back more of the land that they have lost, that they want to stop that. And they probably want to either bring Assad to the negotiating table to get rid of him or to actually finally destroy him.

The second purpose of what’s going on here, as people understand, is the Syrian opposition is made up of many, many groups, hundreds of groups, perhaps. Some of the key groups in it are related to al-Qaeda or militant Islamists who the United States does not want to support. And what you saw was a statement by one of the stronger groups, al-Nusra. Al-Nusra said–a group that, according to the U.S., is affiliated with al-Qaeda in some way–al-Nusra said that this attack or proposed attack will be on its forces as an attempt to destroy al-Nusra. And from the U.S. point of view, of course, that makes sense. They’ll weaken Assad’s forces on one hand and they’ll destroy the opposition groups they don’t want.

So all of this talk about chemical weapons is really just a fig leaf, a fig leaf for covering over the real reasons why I believe and I think many other people who are knowledgeable believe the U.S. is planning to bomb Syria. And it’s of course one of the explanations why Obama is so vague about it. How many days are you going to do it for? One or two days. Well, you’re not really going to hit the chemical weapons sites. Well, we can’t, because it’ll spread them. So what’s the purpose? It’s really so that they don’t get the idea that if they cross that line that I said, the red line, that they’ll understand that there’s a punishment for doing that, and so they won’t do it again. I mean, it’s nonsensical. It doesn’t make any sense. The only thing that makes sense here is ultimately the overthrow of Assad and getting rid of some of the opposition groups that the United States doesn’t want in there. So that’s one, I think, important point.

The second point is the legality of it all. It’s shocking to me that in this day and age, after what this world has been through, that there can be any argument that what the United States plans to do is legal. For the United States to go in there, you need two sets of laws to be complied with. One is international law, UN law, and the other is our own domestic Constitution of the United States. Since the Second World War, there’s only two ways that you can make war on another nation. One is in self-defense. So if you’re being attacked by a missile or a rocket from that country, etc., you can use self-defense against that country to try and stop it. And the second one was under the authority of United Nations, the Security Council.

Number one, even United States, as many lies as it’s telling us, doesn’t claim that this is a matter of self-defense. No one thinks that. It’s not.

And it doesn’t–and the second pole of that, of the international argument, is the United Nations authority. And, of course, there is no authority from the United Nations. There’s no Security Council vote on making or waging war or using force against Syria. The United States will not get that. You have both Egypt and China will likely veto any kind of resolution on that. So you’re not going to have international authority to carry out this war.

In addition to that, you’re not going to have U.S. constitutional authority. Under the U.S. Constitution, the president, to make war or use military force, has to get the consent of Congress. He is not planning to do so. He’s not planning to do so, in part because he likes having executive power to make wars wherever he wants, and in part because he may not be able to get it. At this point, there may not be sufficient support in the U.S. Congress to authorize a war or the use of force against Syria. In that sense, the war is or the use of force will be unconstitutional as well.

So there’s simply no legal basis for this use of force, bombing of Syria.

The US has sort of indicated some other reasons they’ve given. They talk about, well, use of chemical weapons violates the Chemical Weapons Convention and other treaties, etc. But none of those treaties authorize the use of force on their own. You can either take a person to the International Criminal Court, you can take it to the UN and try and get enforcement, but there’s no such thing as a country doing it itself under those treaties. Bogus reason.

The second one, which they barely put forth, is the duty to protect, the claim that somehow, that the United States has to step in to protect a population from being killed. You know, that comes up mostly in terms of genocide. I’ve never seen it come up in a situation like this. And the question you have to ask–and I don’t think that there’s a doctrine that’s really established like that. Normally a duty to protect is done by big countries on a claim that they’re protecting populations in other countries. In fact, it’s normally a way of them intervening and finding a legal excuse. In this case, the U.S. isn’t really pushing that very heavily, and if it did, you’d have to ask yourself what happened to the duty to protect over the hundred thousand people that have been killed in Syria already, and what happened to the duty to protect when it came to Egypt.

So two big points. One, that this is not a war about chemical weapons or use of force. It’s a war about the U.S. weakening Assad, getting rid of perhaps some of the opposition people that the U.S. doesn’t like. It has no legality whatsoever.

And it has to be seen, really, historically and even the last decade, as what the U.S. has done in the world. The U.S. has made war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Tunisia–well, not Tunisia, but those countries in the Middle East. And it’s continuing to dominate those countries with war. And this war in Syria is an extension of the U.S. domination in that part of the world.

You know, what was shocking to me, as I close out this section on Syria, is that this week Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington honored Dr. Martin Luther King on the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And, of course, that was the same place that 50 years ago King spoke from.

And what’s terrible and what’s disingenuous and what I find to be outrageous about it is King in 1967, a year before he was killed, gave the famous Riverside speech breaking the silence about his opposition to the Vietnam War. And at that time, what King said is the United States–he asked himself, really, who is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. King said, who in 1967 is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. And he said, my own government; I cannot remain silent. And what’s outrageous here is the United States, as we’ve just listed all these wars and we’re about to drop bombs on another country, remains, unfortunately, as King said, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.

DESVARIEUX: Well, Michael, some really interesting points, and we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on the developments in Syria. Thank you for joining us.

RATNER: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.