US Syria Strike Was Illegal, No Matter Who Carried Out Gas Attack
Trump is receiving praise for his swift decision to bomb the Syrian airbase allegedly responsible for carrying out Tuesday’s gas attack, but Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis says the President’s grounds for action are shaky at best
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The UN Security Council met in New York, on Friday morning, to discuss the gas attack in Syria. Here’s what the U.S. Ambassador had to say.
NIKKI HALEY: Our military destroyed the airfield from which this week’s chemical strike took place. We were fully justified in doing so. The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.
PAUL JAY: Just a few moments before, the Russian ambassador spoke to the United Nations, and here is what he had to say.
VIA: TRANSLATOR: We describe that attack as a flagrant violation of international law, and an act of aggression. Those who undertook this attack are in no way interested in the impartial investigation by a competent international authority, to find out exactly what took place in Khan Sheikhun. And I will say even more, you are afraid of such an investigation. You are afraid of a real, genuine, independent investigation. What would happen if the outcome of this investigation would contradict your anti-government paradigm?
PAUL JAY: Now joining us to discuss this issue is Phyllis Bennis. She joins us from Washington, D.C. Phyllis is a Fellow and Director of the New Internationalism Project, at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of many books, including, “Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror.”
Thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Paul.
PAUL JAY: So, let’s start with the first question. Like, who did it? The American media, the American intelligence agencies, we are told — although I’m not sure we’ve heard some official statement from them — certainly the White House, and the general chorus has said, “This is without question the Syrian government. Assad is the one that launched this attack.”
There is a counter narrative coming from, of course, the Assad government and from the Russians, who are saying that this was not a gas attack.
First of all, what do you make of what we know about what happened?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, what it seems that we know is that it was a gas attack. It was a nerve agent that looks very much like sarin. The first autopsy reports are coming in, and they seem to indicate that it was, indeed, sarin. Those autopsies do seem to have a great deal of credibility. They were conducted in Turkey, which, under some circumstances, would make them a bit skeptical, in terms of how objective they might be. But I understand that there were representatives of both the UN, and the Organization for the Preservation of Chemical Weapons, that were present during the autopsies, and the examination, who agreed with that.
So, it does seem that they were sarin gas. On the question of who carried it out, we don’t know for sure yet. It does appear that there’s almost no way it could have been anyone other than the regime, or regime backed forces, in terms of who actually has planes in that area. That’s one of the key questions.
There was the first western journalist on the ground today, Friday, in the town near where the largest number of people died, and he investigated the claim that it was actually a conventional strike. A bombing strike on a warehouse where un-named rebel forces were holding chemical weapons, and that that’s what exploded when they were bombed.
He said he found no evidence of that. He went to the building that was alleged to have been this chemical weapons depot, and found an abandoned barn that had one dead goat in it, and was very dusty as if it had not been used for a long time. That’s a little bit hard to manufacture. And all the people he spoke to in the area said that there was no evidence of that ever having been the case.
PAUL JAY: There’s also a report of a photograph from another western journalist, not a barn, supposedly an old warehouse that was, also looked empty. And you could see it in the wreckage, there doesn’t seem to have been anything there. But isn’t that the whole point, is one doesn’t know. And what–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, we don’t know for sure, but yes, that’s the point. And if we’re talking about real accountability, and not this kind of, lashing out accountability at the point of a bomb, which we know doesn’t work. If we’re talking about legal accountability, using the international criminal court, using international law, you need real evidence. You need to be able to prove what was there, how do you know who carried it out?
Assertion is not enough. But I think, the real key comes down to, even if, even if we knew that it was sarin, and had been carried out by the Syrian regime, the U.S. military response would still be illegal, both in domestic and international law.
PAULJAY: So, start with international law. If you watched the UN Security Council, only the Russians and the Syrians — I’m sorry I missed anyone that might have spoken earlier — actually raised the issue of international law. All the other countries essentially applauded the American attack. But what is the international law on this? Is there no UN resolution within, which this would have been allowed?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: This is not a UN resolution issue. This is the UN Charter. The UN Charter is very vague about a lot of things, but it’s very clear about one thing, and that is, when is it legal to go to war? When is it legal to use a military strike? There’s only two occasions according to the UN Charter, and the UN Charter, of course, is the law of the land in the United States.
The UN Charter says, “A country can use military force under two circumstances: Number one, if the Security Council authorizes it.” Clearly that didn’t happen. Nobody asked. Number two, Article 51 of the UN Charter, which is about self-defense. But it’s a very narrowly constrained version of self-defense. It’s not just, “Oh I’d say that was self-defense, so I can do whatever I want. It says very explicitly, “If a country has been attacked.” We were not attacked. “Until…” another qualification, “until the Security Council can meet, immediate self-defense is allowed.” Neither of those two categories applied here.
So, it was clearly an illegal act. Now the U.S. claim, is that this was in the interest of a U.S. national interest. Something that does not permit the use of force, absent those other two things. In the interests of non-proliferation, a noble goal, but one that does not allow the use of military force, absent those other two provisions.
So, you can talk all you want about, it’s in our national interest; you can talk about how we were doing this to prevent the expansion of these terrible weapons. None of that authorizes the use of military force against another country. It’s simply not allowed. It is, as Representative Barbara Lee, from California, in a letter this afternoon, she said, “This is an act of war. There is no question about that.”
PAUL JAY: So, if it’s an act of war, one would think, according to American law, that needs to be authorized by Congress. Is there any exception to that, that’s allowed within the law?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, there are exceptions. If you have an existing authorization from Congress that you can rely on, this is what both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and for several weeks until now, the Trump administration have done, with one early authorization.
The one that was passed within a few days of the September 11 attacks, where as we know, Barbara Lee, the heroic Representative, was the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing the use of force, knowing that it was not going to work. That it was going to kill more people. That it was going to create more terrorism. She was the only one brave enough to vote against it.
But, at that time, they did authorize the use of military force against — and here it was again quite narrowly defined — against those who carried out the attacks of 9/11. Which was widely understood to mean the Al Qaeda, and those who have provided them with support. That was understood to mean the Taliban, in Afghanistan. That was used to justify the war in Afghanistan and it has been used since to justify the war U.S. war in Libya, parts of the U.S. war in Iraq, although there was later a separate one for Iraq, the U.S. bombings in Somalia, in Yemen.
All of this has been justified completely falsely, in my view, and the view of many international scholars, on this much earlier authorization for the use of force against Al Qaeda. You know, if you’re going to talk about using a justification for the use of force against Al Qaeda, to justify using force against, for example, the government of Syria, which is the sworn enemy of Al Qaeda and is bombing Al Qaeda and is killing Al Qaeda fighters whenever it can get its hands on them, it loses all meaning.
PAUL JAY: Well, the argument being–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: So, the answer is, there is no legal basis for this. It’s an illegal strike.
PAUL JAY: The argument that the U.S. Representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley made, essentially is, the use of chemical weapons on a civilian population rises to such a level, such a bar, in terms of a crime against humanity, as one of the other ambassadors used the phrase, I think he was a Ukrainian, that trumps other things. No pun intended. It trumps international law and national law.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The problem is, there is there is international law, and national law for a reason. There are specific violations that are involved with the use of chemical weapons. There’s a specific convention called the Convention for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And that was the big deal in 2013 that the Russians got the Syrian government to agree to. Not only getting rid of, what appears to not be all of their chemical weapons, but most of them, and to sign on for the first time to that convention.
But that convention’s violation, whether it was the government, or some non-governmental actors, who violated that convention, doesn’t give the United States or anybody else the automatic right to use force against them. International law doesn’t work that way. Nikki Hayley can get as outraged as she wants, but that doesn’t make it legal. It makes it outraged. It doesn’t make it legal.
So, that’s what we’re dealing with here. They’re hardly the first to use chemical weapons, as we know. You know, when the Israelis have used white phosphorus, which is illegal to be used against civilians, no one talked about accountability in the United States. Let alone using force against Israel to prevent them from every using it again.
The same as, frankly, with the Russians talking about international law, the U.S. talks about international law when Russia violates it. Russia talks about international law only when the U.S. violates it. When the U.S. was bombing Mosul, in the last two weeks and hundreds of people were killed, many of them babies, the same children that President Trump now claims to be so moved by their deaths, he wasn’t so moved when his forces were bombing Mosul and killing babies.
In that context, Russia talked about international law, which was appropriate. When the Russians were bombing Aleppo, the U.S. talked about international law, which was appropriate, albeit hypocritical because they were also violating international law at the very same time. So, for the governments, international law is used in an extraordinarily hypocritical and tactical way. For those who want to stop wars, international law is a tool to use against all of this.
PAUL JAY: Let’s talk a bit about the political moment in the politics of this. While we’re still awaiting any serious investigation of this recent incident — and whether we get one or not, I guess is to be determined — but on the face of it, there’s a politics of this. The enormous pressure on Trump just days after he says, “Let’s not make overthrowing the Assad government the issue.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Forty-eight hours.
PAUL JAY: Yeah.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It wasn’t even days it was just some hours.
PAUL JAY: And right, at the time he’s under enormous pressure for all the connections between his campaign and the Russians, and soft on Russia and so on and so on. This happens, which is rather opportune for a lot of parties involved. Trump gets to cover his flank by standing up to Russia, standing up to Assad. Mind you they only bombed one air force base. It’s not like they–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: And they were very careful to tell the Russians where and when they were going to bomb, and urged them to get their personnel out of the way, so no Russians would be hurt or killed. And, indeed, none were.
PAUL JAY: And Trump has finally achieved something bi-partisan. Because, of course, all the Democratic party War Hawks love this.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Right. This is a non-partisan, or shall we say bi-partisan, love affair with war that is so much of an old story in Washington, and this is no different. I don’t know that Trump’s political goal was bi-partisanship at this point.
PAUL JAY: Oh, that was a joke. (chuckles)
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I know. But it’s not a joke that it worked. I think–
PAUL JAY: I think he was far more interested in appeasing people like McCain.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yes, in his own party, that’s–
PAUL JAY: And/or he was set up himself, and cornered into doing this. I wouldn’t rule that out.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: No, I think those are all possibilities. I think that the possibility of domestic political motivations playing even more of a role than emotion or, some tactical sense of what he was doing in Syria, is certainly possible. It does seem to me, listening to his very short speech, from his language, it does seem that for whatever perverse reasons he, for the first time, was somehow moved by this shocking horrific sight. That all of us were completely shaken to our core to see these children, babies killed.
Whether it was by white phosphorus in Gaza, whether it’s by U.S. bombs in Mosul, whether it’s by Syrian, or other sarin gas in Idlib Province. Whatever it is, it’s horrifying. Up until that moment, it seems Trump had never been very bothered by seeing dead children. It’s not as if they weren’t available on video.
But maybe because he saw it on television, and we know this is a president, this is a person who responds instantly to what he sees on television. It seems to be what determines his course of action moment-to-moment, hour-by-hour, day-to-day. He saw this on television and he responded.
PAUL JAY: All right. So finally, I listened to quite a few of the speeches at the UN Security Council, and virtually every representative, except perhaps the American, although the American said it in a somewhat different way, they all said, there needs to be a political solution. Many of them said there is no military solution.
As I say, I don’t think the American said that, but what’s stopping them from having a political solution if, supposedly, they’re all for it?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s political will. It’s one thing to say we want a political solution, but it means we want a political solution that favors our side. That favors our interests. That favors our military position, or our economic position, or our diplomatic, or political position. We don’t want any old non-military solution. That’s the problem we’re dealing with.
Until there is willingness, for example, to call for a weapons embargo on all sides, you can talk all you want about a ceasefire, but it will never hold as long as one or both sides are flooding the place with weapons. You can talk all you want about the need for a diplomatic solution, but if both sides on the global level, are supporting their regional allies in a military way. And those regional allies are supporting internal national allies within the Syrian war. Which is now at least 11 separate wars that are being waged there, that’s why this is not a situation where you can just say, “The Syrians need to decide for themselves.” That’s the goal, that’s not the means, because the war is not primarily a Syrian war any longer.
Only one of those 11 wars is a Syrian war, a war between a brutal dictatorship, and a majority, although not all, of its population. The other wars involve other countries, other interests, other forces. And until they are prepared to negotiate, we’re not going to have that kind of a solution. That’s why we need a new investment of all of the time and money and energy and high-level attention, and whatever that we now are putting into the military, to be put into diplomacy. That’s the only way this is going to end.
PAUL JAY: And I think part of the problem, when you say it needs political will and diplomacy, is that the real strategy of the Americans so far, and Israelis, and people on both the Israeli and American side — various pundits and military analysts and others have said this openly — that the real strategy here is let the war go on as long as it can.
Let all sides kill each other. And then we’ve even heard articulated that if one side gets a little too strong, weaken it and let the other side pick it up. And in fact we’ve–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: We’ve seen that’s–
PAUL JAY: …sorry. And we’re looking at a situation just prior to this, where Assad was gaining strength.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I don’t actually believe that that is the current position of the United States in the Syrian war. There have been periods that was certainly the U.S. position during the Iran-Iraq war for an entire decade, where the U.S. goal was to keep both sides fighting to support the weaker side. Which was Iraq at that point, because they wanted to keep them fighting.
But I think in this case, we have other outside actors that have very specific national goals. The Russian goal is to maintain their naval base at Tartus, to maintain their sole ally that remains in the Arab world. To maintain their relationship with Syria, that includes the purchase of massive amounts of arms and trade, those are the Russian goals. The U.S. goals include a number of things, but one of them is to prevent Russia from meeting those goals.
So, that’s part of this fight that’s been going on, not just since Trump came in, but this has been going on for some years now. So, we have to look at this in the much broader regional arena, but this is not just about the U.S. or Israel. Israel is not, right now, playing a major role in the Syria role. It has bombed a couple of times, the occupation of the Golan Heights, of course, continues to destabilize everything. But Israel is not one of the major outside players.
The major outside players, of course, on the global level, are the U.S. and Russia. At the regional level it’s Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Jordan, it’s that set of countries.
Israel is a relatively minor player in this one. Their desires — of course, there’s a longstanding wish in Israel to keep all Arab countries weakened, divided, divided by sect, divided by region, whatever–
PAUL JAY: But Israel has a very deep interest in Syria. And that’s because Syria provides the arms for Hezbollah. So, the outcome of Syria is–
PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s the concern of Israel, is that Hezbollah not become stronger and better armed. The Israeli bombings in Syria have almost always been focused on preventing Hezbollah from getting access to some arms shipment that was heading to Hezbollah–
PAUL JAY: So, Israel would not like a situation where Assad really consolidates his power with Russia’s backing, and continues to back Hezbollah.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: It’s hard to know. It would depend on what the relationship between Russia and Hezbollah, or Iran and Hezbollah, was at that time. But keep in mind, Paul, remember — and you know this — that for many, many decades, since the occupation began in 1967 of the Syrian Golan Heights, Israel has had a perfect neighborly relationship with Syria, under both father and son of the Assad family. Neither side would acknowledge that publicly. And Syria, of course, pretends to act as the leader of the so-called resistance front in the region.
But throughout that time, it has attacked Palestinians; it has made sure that the occupied Golan Heights has remained pacified and largely quiescent. It has made sure that the border between Israel and Syria remains quiet. Syria was, of course, allied with the United States both in the Iraq war in 1991, where George Bush, the father, recruited Hafez al-Assad, the father, to send his planes as part of the U.S. coalition to bomb Iraq.
As recently as 2002, when Bashar al-Assad, the son, negotiated with the Bush White House to be a place where the U.S. could outsource interrogation and torture, of the people being picked up in the so-called global war on terror. And people were interrogated and held in Syrian prisons, and tortured by Syrians, asked and requested by the United States.
People like Maher Arar. So, you know, this is a long-standing relationship of convenience. Not a friendship, but a relationship of convenience. And unless something really changed in the role that Hezbollah played in Syria after this war, which I think is very unlikely; I think that Israel would be perfectly content to go back to that kind of a relationship with Syria.
PAUL JAy: All right. So, just to sum up about the most recent events: number one, we don’t know who did it. Number two; what we do know is the American attack was a violation of international law.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: That’s true.
PAUL JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Phyllis.
PHYLLIS BENNIS: Thank you, Paul.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.