‘Fake news’ seems unavoidably associated with Donald Trump. He insists on casting himself as the victim of fake news even as any resemblance between his compulsive tweeting and facts seems largely coincidental. Still, it seems a pity that the rumours proved false of the Pentagon having increased the nuclear launch codes to more than 150 characters in order to stop the president from tweeting them.
In any stampede to war, critical question marks regarding facts must be substituted for excitable exclamation marks alleging atrocities. Allegations deserve extra scrutiny if they provide the alibi for unilateral military attacks. And if the atrocities in question make little strategic sense from the point of view of the alleged perpetrators, the presumption of cynicism can only be overcome by compelling evidence.
The first edition of my book The United Nations, Peace and Security (Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 228), the chapter on the Iraq War contained the following paragraph:
Imagine if the government of any country insisted that someone was guilty and must be hanged. The evidence of his guilt would be produced only after his execution, and the nature of his offence (murder, rape, treason) identified only after the evidence had been collected posthumously. In the same way, Washington reversed the usual sequence of trial, conviction and punishment. The outcome was predetermined: a swift and heavy military defeat leading to regime change in Baghdad. The justification (WMD, involvement with international terrorism, humanitarian atrocities) came after the fact and was changed from WMD to liberation theology.
Somewhat despairingly, little seems to have been learnt. Emotional hysteria has been whipped up against Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad in a rush to judgment and punishment well ahead of independent, impartial and credible investigations being conducted, facts ascertained and culpability established. Once upon a time, the warmongers had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt. Today we are asked to prove to the powerful, to their satisfaction, why they should not go to war.
Law serves to mediate relations between the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, by acting as a constraint on capricious behaviour and setting limits on the arbitrary exercise of power. Some of the most important parts of international law restrict the right to go to war except in self-defence or when authorised by the UN. On 17 April 2003, in an article in the international edition of The New York Times criticising the Iraq invasion, I wrote: ‘It is difficult to be joyous at the descent from the ideal of a world based on the rule of law to the law of the jungle – though the lion will welcome the change’.
What if the lion is being displaced by the dragon as the lord of the jungle – is it not then even more in Australia’s interest to promote, consolidate and defend the mythical rules-based order? Or is that merely a convenient piece of rhetoric to use against others for propaganda purposes?
On 21 August 2013, a chemical weapon was used against civilians in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. The West did not help its credibility problem by jumping from the fact that they were used to conclusions that they were used by the regime. Seymour Hersh argued that Barack Obama cherry-picked facts and intelligence, presented assumptions as facts, implied a sequence that reversed reality, and omitted important intelligence pointing to the jihadist al-Nusra Front’s capability to make and mount a chemical weapon attack with sarin gas. The road to war was blocked then by sceptics in the US Congress and the UK Parliament.
In March 2017, allegations of a Syrian government use of chemical weapons to attack Khan Sheikhun provoked a US missile strikes on the air base held responsible for the atrocity. In a BBC interview, former UK ambassador to Syria Peter Ford warned that Trump had ‘given jihadis a thousand reasons to stage fake flag operations’.
‘Militants are preparing a provocation with the use of chemical agents in Syria to justify a massive US strike against Damascus’ government neighborhoods, Chief of Russia’s General Staff Valery Gerasimov said on Tuesday’. Noting that Russian military advisors are staying in the Syrian defence ministry’s facilities in Damascus, he promised that ‘in the event of a threat to our military servicemen’s lives, Russia’s Armed Forces will take retaliatory measures to target both the missiles and their delivery vehicles’.
On the evening of Saturday 7 April, reports started coming in of a chemical weapon attack on the besieged city of Douma in Syria that killed over 40 people. The attack lasted from Friday evening to Sunday morning. Led by the US, Western countries have alleged firstly that chemical weapons were used in Douma, and secondly that the perpetrator was Assad.
The timing is curious. The 2017 incident occurred within a week of America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley saying Washington would no longer focus on ousting Assad. The alleged Douma attack occurred a week after Trump’s announcement of a US withdrawal from Syria in short order.
Russia has rejected the fact of the attack having occurred at all. Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, suggest that the motive for a US missile attack could be to destroy evidence of the gas attack in order to prevent an independent investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). ‘Damascus has neither the motive to use chemical weapons nor the chemical weapons themselves’, she said.
Trump tweeted: ‘President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay’. He threatened reprisals against those responsible and Russia warned in response that it would shoot down any missiles fired at Syria and the source of their delivery. In characteristic escalatory rhetoric, Trump tweeted: ‘Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!’
Much as we have become accustomed to Trump’s kindergarten taunts, this elevates the threat level for world peace to infinitely greater heights compared to the tit-for-tat schoolyard language that Trump exchanged with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un just a few months ago. While Kim might have 20-60 nuclear bombs at his disposal, Russia has 7,000 and the means to deliver them to any target anywhere in the world. Trump’s incendiary tweet can easily be misread as a deliberate and visceral threat that leaves no room for compromise. Russia’s response was calm but firm: ‘We do not participate in Twitter diplomacy’, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Instead, ‘We continue to believe that it is important not to take steps that could harm an already fragile situation’.
With Russian troops deeply embedded with Syrian forces, and Russian geostrategic stakes in Syria higher than US, Trump has upped the ante to danger levels last reached in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Except on that occasion the generals were the crazies itching for a military showdown but were successfully restrained by President John F. Kennedy and his top civilian advisers. This time the military-civilian roles seem reversed and the chickenhawks are calling the shots.
Syrian planes are reported to have been flown to three Russian airbases and senior Syrian government officials have moved into safe houses in Damascus. A US naval battle group is positioned in the eastern Mediterranean. France has a missile ship and fighter aircraft in the region. The UK, already embroiled in sharply deteriorating relations with Moscow following the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, is under pressure to join in any military strikes.
In a BBC Radio Scotland interview on 10 April, Ambassador Ford made several pertinent points. He expressed fears that the cycle of escalation in Syria, driven by hysteria and distortion, is taking us ‘to the edge of Armageddon’. He doubts Assad is the guilty party on this occasion. Although the horrific videos are labelled ‘unverified’, the fact they are broadcast repeatedly by the mainstream media imbues them with some credibility. We know that Syrian rebels have access to chemical weapons. The Islamist rebels who are on the run had the greater motivation to stage a false flag attack precisely in order to provoke international military action against Assad. And they and their supporters (the Syrian-American Medical Society and the White Helmets), are the only sources for the allegation against Assad.
No one doubts Russian and Syrian willingness to resort to chemical agents and weapons if core interests are at stake and alternative means are not available. In both current cases behind rising tensions, Russia (Skripal poisoning) and Syria (chemical weapon attack) are the biggest losers rather than beneficiaries. In the Syrian case the biggest beneficiaries are the defeated rebels while the question is impossible to answer in the Skripal case.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.