Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1267, (22 - 28 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Humanitarian masks, imperialist intent

When it comes to Washington and its geopolitical outlook, beneath all talk of human rights and democracy is the old face of imperial interests, writes Bassem Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

The reaction of the United States and its allies to Russian air strikes on the strongholds of several jihadist groups in Syria should not be brushed aside as simply hypocritical. Make no mistake, they are indeed irked.

Taking into consideration the illegal air strikes that the US-led coalition has been carrying out in Syria for over a year now  not to mention the concerted efforts of the so-called “Friends of Syria” for the last five years to promote sectarianism and to train, arm and bring jihadists from all over the world into Syria  the United States and its allies are certainly in no position to accuse anyone of fomenting the conflict in Syria.

However, these reactions are more than just hypocrisy. For starters, they are also an expression of frustration. While it has become commonplace for the United States and its allies lately, especially in the wake of the recent influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, to stress the need for a political solution to the conflict, their actions on the ground have betrayed their commitment to the military option.

As shown in Idlib and other Syrian cities, jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, are the linchpins of the US-led coalition’s endeavour to oust the Syrian president. Hence, US dissatisfaction with Russian air strikes.

In this respect, David Petraeus’s recent advice to Barack Obama’s administration to cooperate with moderate elements in Al-Qaeda (an oxymoron in itself) is really unnecessary: the United States and its allies have been utilising Al-Qaeda and similar groups’ services, including cleansing the cities and villages they control of government supporters, for a few years now.

Actually, one can argue that the United States’ war on Islamic State (IS)  a war that, for the most part, has been more rhetorical than actual  is to a great extent a decoy to divert attention from other jihadist groups with strong ties to US allies, while pretending to fight Islamist extremism.

The United States also used IS’s presence to prop up Kurdish forces in Syria in the hope of creating a de facto Kurdish state, similar to the one established in northern Iraq, in parts of Syria. Most importantly, the Kurdish card has enabled Obama’s administration to sell its imperialist war to the American public, just like all its predecessors, as a noble attempt to support freedom.

Needless to say, Russian intervention at the request of the Syrian government threatens to foil or at least to complicate US plans for toppling the Syrian president as well as for turning Syria under the guise of federalism and power sharing to a dysfunctional state  a state incapable of ever presenting a threat to Israel.

In a broader perspective, Russian intervention presents the most serious challenge to date to the liberal world (dis)order that emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Within this (dis)order, the United States, as the self-declared champion of democracy and human rights, has reserved for itself the power to declare its opponents illegitimate regimes that should be removed from power.

Its allies, in contrast, have always been shielded from any serious critique and/or pressure to reform, regardless of how notorious their human rights records and dictatorial regimes. The Israeli government, as well as the Saudi, Qatari and Bahraini ruling families, are some examples that come to mind.

Taking advantage of the unipolar moment in the post-Cold War world, the United States also established a monopoly over the definition and the use of “legitimate”, albeit illegal, force in the international arena. The United Nations’ Security Council, which according to the organisation’s charter is responsible for preserving international peace and security, has acted often as a mere auxiliary of the United States.

On the few occasions that the United States failed to have its way in the council (Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, and Syria since 2011), the UN Charter was conveniently ignored. On these occasions, the United States made do with one or another “coalition of the willing”  to borrow George W Bush’s phrase  that was prepared to violate basic principles of international law purportedly to defend fundamental human rights.

Paradoxically, the US-led coalition in Syria that claims to take the rights and interests of the Syrian people to heart includes regimes that deny their own peoples the right to meaningful political participation, and do not hesitate to violently suppress peaceful pro-democracy movements in their own as well as in neighbouring countries.

This is particularly ironic since the coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003, a war that Obama opposed, while using bases in Gulf countries, consisted only of democracies. In his own “humanitarian” wars, however, it seems that Obama is not that picky when it comes to his allies’ democratic credentials. He takes anyone, even absolutist monarchies that deny women the right to drive and/or to travel without being accompanied by a male guardian.

It goes without saying that the abovementioned developments have been a clear departure from the notion of equal sovereignty that was at the heart of international law during the Cold War. They have been part of wider efforts for the reestablishment of a liberal international order in which  once again  some are entitled to sovereign rights while others are not.

In the previous liberal international order that emerged in the 19th century, the majority of the peoples of the world fell into the latter category. The passing of General Assembly Resolution 1514 in 1960 marked that order’s collapse. However, since the Cold War’s end, the world has experienced a movement in the opposite direction.

This shift’s apogee came in the form of the establishment of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” (R2P). Triumphant liberals celebrated R2P as a major step towards protecting human rights worldwide. Time, however, has vindicated its critics, who had warned that it would serve as a tool for powerful states. More tragically, where military intervention under the pretext of the R2P took place, it led to more losses of lives and to wider violations of human rights.

This is dramatically illustrated by post-Gaddafi Libya where people have been living for the past four years in the ruins of their cities at the mercy of rival militias. The cases of Libya and Syria clearly demonstrate that the United States and its regional allies usurped the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to revitalise the neoconservatives’ plan for regime change in the Arab world.

Rather than supporting Arab aspirations for reform, they took advantage of them to rid themselves of their opponents and to alter the regional balance of power in their favour. As for the rights of those victimised by their allies, the United States and European democracies paid them only lip service, if anything.

For instance, they turned a blind eye while Bahraini and Saudi forces were brutally crushing the peaceful Bahraini pro-democracy movement. Shortly afterwards, Bahrain and Britain announced the establishment of a British base in Bahrain, the purpose of which is to provide the Bahraini monarchy with further protection against its own people.

An even starker example of their glaring disregard for international humanitarian law is the Western democracies’ silence over what Amnesty International describes as “damning evidence of war crimes” committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

It is no surprise that Amnesty’s calls for an independent investigation of these crimes and for Western governments to suspend arm transfers to the members of this coalition fell on deaf ears. For Western democracies, petrodollars have always mattered more than the rights of the oppressed whose causes cannot advance their own interests.

As shown repeatedly, Western democracies put on their humanitarian masks only when it serves their economic and/or political objectives, Syria being the latest but unlikely to be the last country where alleged concerns for human rights are used to achieve imperialist goals.

As long as so-called opposition leaders in targeted states  who, based on the recent record, are no less power hungry than the incumbents  are willing to act as Trojan horses, the United States will never lack a justification to attack its opponents. Unfortunately for ordinary people, opportunistic politicians are not an endangered species.

The writer is a political analyst.

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