It has been said that compassion is ‘the only beauty that truly pleases’.1 While beauty ordinarily provokes the fiery itch of desire or the sullen shadow of envy, compassion is cooling, blissful, inspiring awe and wonder. It implies an ability to stand outside our own needs as observers, to perceive the suffering of others as of equal or greater importance. But like all forms of beauty, compassion can be faked, exploited.
On 4 February, Western politicians and journalists responded with outrage to the Russian and Chinese vetoing of a UN security council resolution calling for Syrian president Bashar Assad to step down as part of a ‘political transition’. UK foreign secretary, William Hague, said:
‘More than 2,000 people have died since Russia and China vetoed the last draft resolution in October 2011. How many more need to die before Russia and China allow the UN security council to act?
The authorization to protect civilians by ‘all necessary means’ transformed Nato planes from neutral monitors of Libyan airspace into a ground-attack air force for ‘rebel’ fighters
‘Those opposing UN security council action will have to account to the Syrian people for their actions, which do nothing to help bring an end to the violence that is ravaging the country. The United Kingdom will continue to support the people of Syria and the Arab League to find an end to the violence and allow a Syrian-led political transition.’
The corporate media took the same view. A leading article in the Independent commented:
‘Hillary Clinton described the vetoing of the UN resolution as a “travesty”. She is right. But this cannot be the international community’s last word.’
Curiously, while Hague talked of the West’s determination ‘to find an end to the violence’, and the media railed against the Russians and Chinese for failing to seek the same, almost no-one noticed that the resolution had itself subordinated the possibility of a ceasefire to the demand for regime change.
The draft resolution did call ‘for an immediate end to all violence’. But it specifically demanded ‘that the Syrian government… withdraw all Syrian military and armed forces from cities and towns, and return them to their original home barracks’.
This one-sided demand that only Syrian government forces should withdraw from the streets closely resembled the Machiavellian device built into UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, passed on 17 March 2011.
This also called for ‘the immediate establishment of a ceasefire’ supported by ‘a ban on all flights’ in Libyan airspace. But crucially, the determination was added ‘to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi…’
This clearly had nothing to do with the mere banning of flights. Indeed, the authorization to protect civilians by ‘all necessary means’ transformed Nato planes from neutral monitors of Libyan airspace into a ground-attack air force for ‘rebel’ fighters.
Far from bringing an end to the violence, UN Resolution 1973 unleashed overwhelming Western force in pursuit of regime change, in a war that was fought to the bitter end. To ensure the right outcome, Western and other powers supplied special forces and weapons, simply ignoring the resolution’s call for ‘strict implementation of the arms embargo’ and ‘excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory’. In short, the resolution resulted in a massive escalation in violence. Seumas Milne noted in the Guardian:
‘When it began, the death toll was 1,000 to 2,000. By the time Muammar Gaddafi was captured and lynched seven months later, it was estimated at more than 10 times that figure. The legacy of foreign intervention in Libya has also been mass ethnic cleansing, torture and detention without trial, continuing armed conflict, and a Western-orchestrated administration so unaccountable it resisted revealing its members’ names.’
The New York Times also reported: ‘The country that witnessed the Arab world’s most sweeping revolution [sic] is foundering’ with a government ‘whose authority extends no further than its offices’ and where ‘militias are proving to be the scourge of the revolution’s aftermath’.
Militia violence is rife – Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates 250 separate militias in the city of Misrata alone. Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director at HRW, said: ‘People are turning up dead in detention at an alarming rate. If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry.’
On 26 January, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced its decision ‘to suspend its operations in detention centres in Misrata’. Detainees ‘are being tortured and denied urgent medical care’:
‘MSF doctors had been increasingly confronted with patients who suffered injuries caused by torture during interrogation sessions… In total, MSF treated 115 people who had torture-related wounds…. Since January, several of the patients returned to interrogation centres were again tortured.’
MSF general director Christopher Stokes commented:
‘Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.’
As ever, violence for which the West shares responsibility has been met with indifference and quickly forgotten. According to the media database Lexis-Nexis, Stokes’ comments were mentioned once in half a dozen newspapers on 27 January, with no follow up. Ironically, Bouckaert’s comments on the absent ‘outcry’ have themselves been ignored.
As a result, the post-war disaster in Libya has given journalists little pause for thought on the merits of the West’s latest ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Syria. Facts have to be recognized as real and important to have an impact.
Returning to the vetoed UN resolution, the one-sided demand that Syrian government forces withdraw, but not anti-government fighters, was combined with the demand that the Syrian government ‘facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system’ – regime change by any other name – ‘in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation and extremism’. The draft text promised ‘to review implementation of this resolution within 21 days and, in the event of non-compliance, to consider further measures’.
The trap was clear enough – Syrian forces would have been ordered back to barracks. If the fighters had continued fighting and government forces had responded, this would have constituted ‘non-compliance’, opening the way for ‘further measures’, including foreign intervention leading to regime change. This would have given Syrian fighters every motivation to continue the violence in hopes of triggering the kind of Western intervention that destroyed Gaddafi and that they have been openly seeking.
As ever, violence for which the West shares responsibility has been met with indifference and quickly forgotten
None of this should come as a surprise. For the West, a peaceful solution in Libya (as in Iraq) was perceived as an obstacle to the actual goal, regime change. Milne observed last August: ‘If stopping the killing had been the real aim, Nato states would have backed a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, rather than repeatedly vetoing both. Instead, UN Resolution 1973 ‘has since been used as Nato’s fig leaf to justify the onslaught against Gaddafi and deliver regime change from the air.’
Consider, then, that we have strong evidence that the vetoed resolution on Syria would have escalated violence in pursuit of regime change (an illegal aspiration under international law). We have the clear example of Libya, from just last year, of very similar machinations producing regime change, a 10-times increase in violence, and massive post-war chaos and violence.
If this isn’t enough to question the ‘black and white’ portrayal of the Russian and Chinese veto as a ‘travesty’, we can consider the filmed testimony of former Nato chief, General Wesley Clark, when he recalled a conversation with a Pentagon general in 2001, a few weeks after the 11 September attacks:
‘He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” – meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office – “today”. And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”’
‘They wanted us to destabilize the Middle East, turn it upside down, make it under our control.’
He recounted a conversation he had had in 1991 with Paul Wolfowitz, then US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who told Clark: ‘We’ve got about 5 or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet regimes – Syria, Iran, Iraq – before the next great superpower comes on to challenge us.’
In response, Clark said he asked himself: ‘the purpose of the military is to start wars and change governments? It’s not to deter conflicts?’
‘The truth about the Middle East is, had there been no oil there, it would be like Africa. Nobody is threatening to intervene in Africa. There’s no question that the presence of petroleum throughout the region has sparked great power involvement’
Clark’s conclusion will be blindingly obvious to future historians, if not to contemporary journalists:
‘[T]here are always interests. The truth about the Middle East is, had there been no oil there, it would be like Africa. Nobody is threatening to intervene in Africa. The problem is the opposite. We keep asking for people to intervene and stop [violence]. There’s no question that the presence of petroleum throughout the region has sparked great power involvement.’
It is hard to imagine Clark being dismissed as a crazed conspiracy theorist lacking ‘insider’ knowledge – he was Nato chief, after all. But his account has been ignored – talk of a hidden agenda of realpolitik challenges the Manichean view of the world that makes ‘humanitarian intervention’ possible. We can find only one mention of Clark’s comments in all UK national newspapers – by Clark himself in an article for The Times in 2003.2
In light of the above facts and arguments, it is interesting to consider the comments of UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, who condemned the Russian and Chinese veto as ‘disastrous for the Syrian people’. The failure to agree on collective action, he said, had ‘encouraged the Syrian government to step up its war on its own people’.
But honest analysis suggests serious room for doubt – the vetoed resolution might itself have been disastrous for the Syrian people. With these words, the UN Secretary-General told us much about his own position. Indeed, the near-unanimity in outrage that has characterized so much commentary, despite obvious holes in the reasoning, is symptomatic of a widespread conformity that defers to ‘pragmatic’ considerations rather than to common sense.
- Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.305.
- Clark, ‘Iraq: Why it was the wrong war on the wrong enemy for the wrong reasons,’ The Times, 23 October 2003.