Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A strike for humanity

Last week’s US air strikes in Syria were designed to send a message about US intentions to intervene in the country for humanitarian purposes, writes Yassin El-Ayouty

This article is not in praise of US President Donald Trump. Instead, it is a salutation for the doctrine of international humanitarian intervention.

This is easy to understand. When a state commits genocidal acts against its own citizens, it is lowering the walls surrounding it (called sovereignty) for the outside world to jump over them and say “enough”. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has used chlorine bombs, nerve gas, and now, in Idlib, sarin gas, against his people. On 3 April, about 100 victims, including dozens of children, were suffocated.

By doing so, Al-Assad has proved that for him and his supporters sovereignty means a fake licence in the hands of the state (Syria is no longer a state except in name) to kill en masse. It was obtuse for him to miscalculate that Trump’s search for an accommodation with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be a shield for his murderous regime; that the lack of action by former US president Barack Obama on “red lines” would still hold under Trump; that Trump’s support for that inaction before his presidency would hold; and that the justification used by him for Al-Assad’s war on the Islamic State (IS) group would save him from being considered a war criminal.

The launch of 59 missiles by the US navy on 6 April against the Syrian Shayrat Airfield from which the sarin gas attack on Idlib was launched demonstrates a general fault line in Arab thinking about America. That comprehension deficiency boils down to the non-understanding of the US as a compartmentalised state.

Because of the decline in education in the Arab world, the process of thinking about issues is very linear: things are either white or black; relations are based on being a friend or a foe; if you take from me, it is a zero-sum situation whereby I lose totally and you gain totally. There is no nuance and no compartmentalisation.

How is America compartmentalised? A modern state can do many things simultaneously, regardless of any surface appearance of contradiction. Actual examples from the recent episode of the US strikes on Syria, strikes which may lead to other strikes in the coming days, include the fact that the US National Security Council has just been reorganised, separating national security from politics, that professionals from the 17 US security agencies, together with the Pentagon and the military contracting industry, have chased away opponents of globalisation, such as media figure Steve Bannon, from meddling in war and peace issues, and that the “America first” slogan of Trump has been re-interpreted to mean yes to rebuilding infrastructure, but no to disengagement from the world.

Moreover, investigations into the possible connections between the Trump team and Russia will go on, while Trump is allowed to garner the glory of a tough America to himself,

the UN could be downgraded while Nikki Haley, the US ambassador, is upgraded to a seat on the US National Security Council, and the issue of human rights within states can be ignored as encumbering US diplomacy with those states, even as the Syrian attack on the UN Convention Against the Use of Chemical Weapons cannot be set aside.

While Trump was dining with the Chinese president at his private southern White House in Florida, the US navy was nullifying through its missile attack on the Al-Assad regime the presence of fixed Russian bases on the Syrian coast. All this is the essence of the American mixing of party politics, strategy, national interest and diplomacy in a composite whole whose facets rotate like a strobe light in a darkened night club.

As a result of this dynamic, the American strikes on the Syrian airbase are expected to be followed by others. For the message telegraphed by the American compartmentalisation was not aimed only at Al-Assad, who can no longer aspire to rule over a united Syria. The message is complex as it is directed not from the White House, which under Trump is a house divided in itself, but from a myriad of places which can only be deciphered by constant analysis. Deciphering here means being turned into ordinary writing whose impact may last only for a short period to be replaced by fresh analysis.

This is a message that says to the Gulf states that there is no American abandonment of their interests. Just pay for your own defence, it says, and America, with two huge navies in the Mediterranean and the Gulf, will keep its finger on the trigger. To Russia, it says that there is a difference between asserting power in your “near abroad” (the Ukraine) in the south and your pressure on the “near abroad” (the Baltics) in the north. The latter area is shadowed by NATO through Poland and Scandinavia.

To North Korea, the message says, watch out, Pyongyang, we are watching. We have 37,000 American troops in South Korea, and your emboldened nuclear missile technology is a threat to East Asia and America’s West Coast. The time has come for planting nuclear weapons in South Korea, it says. To the Islamic State (IS) group, the message says that you may live on as free-lancers of marauding hit-and-run attacks, but Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria) shall be overrun.

To strong Arab states such as the New Egypt, the message says that we can cooperate in specific well-defined areas. The war on terror and American private investment are examples.

The Russian thesis of “no intervention in internal affairs” has been well served by the Soviet and later Russian use of the veto in the UN Security Council as an apparently non-changeable assumption since 1945. But this doctrine draws its life from another doctrine, namely, sovereignty.

Moscow in its attack at the UN Security Council on the American strikes in Syria has ignored the growth of the doctrine of international humanitarian intervention. This doctrine has grown out of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (the protection of civilians in times of war) and has been augmented by the UN Conventions against genocide, on civil and political rights, against the use of chemical weapons, and on the non-resort to weapons of mass destruction.

Russia’s present resort to the UN Security Council will be of no avail, and if push comes to shove militarily in the eastern Mediterranean America’s military and economic power will overwhelm Putin’s Russia. In fact, Putin may have overplayed his hand, thinking that a Trump-Putin detente might pre-empt America’s military actions. Possible Putin blackmail of Trump for the latter’s presumed sexual indiscretions while in Moscow in 2013 might cause the Trump administration to look the other way, but this, too, is not likely to happen.

While Putin may be the sole actor in Russia, Trump is beholden to the complexity of a compartmentalised America, a country of 50 states stitched together in one. The economy of California alone is bigger than the economy of France. And the $0.5 trillion budget of the Pentagon makes America militarily ahead of the next 20 sovereign states of today.

Should America be the world’s gendarme? No — but in these times of disarray, swift military action by the US should be carried out for several purposes. High among these is the projection of US military power. This power is now being exercised without a Congressional declaration of war, as the enemy is diffuse, and terrorism has neither boundaries, nor uniforms, nor real faith. The unpredictability of a receding IS is being outmatched by the unpredictability of a constantly innovating American military machine.

Syria may thus be expected to be hit again and again. The Syrian representative at the UN may babble on at the Security Council about “criminal aggression”. But who is listening, and what could an enfeebled international organisation do, apart from record a hollow speech? The real action on Syria is now in Washington, Moscow and Brussels in the shape of the billions of dollars pledged for reconstruction.

In the era of universal jurisdiction, any state can act. Yet, in the Arab world, complexities are tiresome. Analysis is deficient, and the resort to vocalisation is a national pastime. The Arab media, for example, is nearly comatose.


The writer is a professor of law at New York University in the US.

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