Hard Questions Must Be Asked In Syria


One glaring question has been avoided in the smoke surrounding the Ghouta video of chemical warfare: what if such an atrocity was committed by the anti-Assad forces, our de facto allies?

This taboo question poses many practical and political problems, especially with a fractured opposition without a clear leader who can be prosecuted. Human rights advocates such as Amnesty International have demanded that the United Nations Security Council refer this incident to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But war crimes need to be brought to trial without prejudice, regardless of the culprit.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged that “we get the facts absolutely right first”, evoking the 2003 Iraqi invasion that was “based on, frankly, a lie”. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wasn't as cautious, describing the attack as “the kind of horror that we’ve come to expect from one of the worst regimes in the world.”

Abbott’s pre-emptive comments echo British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who urged supporters of the Syrian regime to “wake up to … its murderous and barbaric nature". Such comments show contempt for the 20-strong team of UN chemical weapons inspectors, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, who arrived in Syria last Sunday and who have been granted access to visit the site — despite being welcomed by sniper fire, a hallmark of the rebels.

Haigh’s provocations were predictable, coming from the country that hosts the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad propaganda front which rarely reports on atrocities against Christian minorities and is run by a one man band, Rami Abdulrahman.

Rudd need not reminisce over the "weapons of mass destruction" propaganda of 10 years ago. Syria provides more recent examples. Three months ago, UN Commission of Inquiry investigator Carla del Ponte announced that “according to testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas.” To want to ask these hard questions about the armed rebels is not a cynical conspiracy, but a recognition of the historical reality of the Syrian conflict.

Del Ponte’s bombshell gave credence to the counter-narrative that the rebels were provoking US president Barack Obama to trigger his contingency plan, announced in August 2012, in the event that chemical weapons were utilised: “a red line for us … that would change my calculus.”

With the latest Ghouta story, could the rebels be yet again waving the red rag to the US to charge into Syria like a raging bull, as promised a year ago? Obama issued this ultimatum not only “to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground", but would he sanction an attack on the rebels, his allies, after granting the Free Syrian Army US$250 million in "non-lethal aid" in April 2012?

If the UN inspectors verify that chemical weapons were indeed deployed by the Syrian government, then president Bashar al Assad should be prosecuted for this crime against humanity in the ICC. If it was committed by rogue elements within Assad's army, or his Shabiha, they should likewise be held accountable, just as we have seen with rogue personnel within the Afghan and American armies. But if the UN inspectors incriminate the rebels, who exactly is taken to court?

What if the Free Syrian Army deny that it was them and blame one of the many armed anti-Assad jihadists, each following fatwas from different heads in different countries with different supply chains of finances and weapons? Would such a scenario incriminate the sources of the weapons even if this is Saudi Arabia, Turkey or America? How would the ICC prosecute the "head office" of al Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra, Liwa al Islam brigade or the cocktail of rebel groups and terrorist groups, some already fighting each other?

Clearly, this is far from a "civil war" and threats of international intervention ring hollow given the presence of foreign mercenaries already on the ground, some uploading their beheadings, cannibalism and infidel cleansing on YouTube for the world to see.

There are many reasons to be cautious of the amateur videos that have provoked global condemnation. Why are all the quoted eye-witnesses in the reports "opposition activists" rather than ordinary Syrian citizens? Why would the Syrian government ostensibly invite the weapons inspectors then flagrantly mock them with an act that is both genocidal and suicidal? Why are the carers not wearing protective clothing to prevent contamination? Why has Doctors Without Borders counted 355 deaths, while the rebels say more than 1300? 

Neighbouring Israel triggered the first chemical weapons alert in April using their satellite technology. Israel is concerned about both how Syria’s arsenal might be deployed in the current conflict, and the possibility of weapons falling into the wrong hands in a post-Assad regime. Israeli Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, is understandably critical of the UN: “probing the use of chemical weapons without investigating who used it (sic) is ridiculous”. However, this call for UN intervention is ironic, given Israel’s refusal to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, refusal to confirm or deny possessing nuclear bombs, and the UN General Assembly resolution 174 calling on Israel to open its own nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As Australia prepares to take our place in the UN Security Council in September, we have an historic opportunity to be a circuit breaker. We could push for unarmed dialogue among Syrian citizens, free from foreign intervention. We could engage with the newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who has joined the global condemnation, given his country’s experience of chemical warfare with Iraq in the 1980’s: “We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons.” Australia can clear the smoke by asking the right questions.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.