About two weeks ago United States President Donald Trump announced a vague commitment to largely withdraw US troops from Syria. As with many of Trump’s pronouncements the announcement had to be taken with a considerable degree of caution. What he says and what he does, or perhaps more accurately what he is permitted to do, often bear little resemblance to each other.
This proved to be the case yet again. The withdrawal of some US troops from a small part of northern Syria close to the Turkish border, appeared to be the limit of the claimed US “withdrawal.” Amidst the confusion and the contradictions in Trump’s announcements however, a number of significant issues were almost completely ignored by the western media.
This was not new. The western media have always been limited in their discussions of the Syrian war. This has been glaringly obvious in the reporting of the so-called “White Helmets,” a manifestly terrorist group under the command of a British “former” military officer, James Le Mesurier, whose recent demise allegedly by his own hand, briefly stirred some reporting of the White Helmet’s existence and actions but never ascending to the level of accurately describing their true role as part of the anti Assad western propaganda machine.
Mesurier’s demise and the reporting that briefly encouraged only tended however to obscure two far more important, yet constantly neglected by the western mainstream media, aspects of the war being waged in Syria. In my view there were two related events, each having their origins in the physical invasion by the United States and its Western allies in this Syrian endeavour, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, in 2015.
Attempts to undermine the Assad Government of course have a much longer history, but that is beyond the scope of the points I wish to make here. It is these points that are almost completely absent from the western media coverage of the Syrian war.
The first point is a legal one. The irony of having to raise this issue of course is that the western powers, and in particular the aforementioned United States, United Kingdom and Australian governments, are always quick to extol the alleged virtues of what they are pleased to describe as the “rules based international order” or some variation thereof. In this they claim a monopoly of virtue in respect of international law, against that of their enemies du jour.
China, Russia, Syria and Iran are the current objects of attack, and are said to be notably lacking in the aforementioned virtues. The relevant international law in fact is relatively straightforward and has been in existence for well over 100 years. Its current manifestation is found in the United Nations Charter. The central principle relating to military action by one country against another is that it is severely limited except to a small number of defined situations.
First, a country may use military force against another country in self defence. That is, if country “A” is attacked by country “B”. Manifestly, Syria has not and is unlikely ever to, attack the United States.
Secondly, the United Nations Security Council may approve the use of force by country A against country B. These situations are historically rare and manifestly the United Nations Security Council has never approved any United States military action against Syria, nor indeed the use of military force by the United States against virtually all of the 70+ countries the US has military engaged against since 1945.
That the absence of any United Nations approval has not deterred the United States from its internationally unlawful conduct over more than seven decades is of course another whole story in its own right.
It was therefore hardly a surprise that the United States, United Kingdom, France and Australia attacked Syria in 2015. That the Australian government lied about the decision at the time was also hardly a surprise revelation.
Syria, on the other hand, sought the assistance of Iran, Russia and Hizbollah of Lebanon, which they were legally entitled to do and which undoubtably saved the Syrian government from a violent overthrow and replacement by a regime compliant with United States and Israeli ambitions for the region. The role of Israel’s ongoing and wholly illegal bombing of Syrian targets is another huge topic the western media prefers to ignore.
With the apparent approaching defeat of the Western backed jihadist groups fighting the Syrian government, the latest moves by the United States would not have been a surprise. Instead of Trump’s falsely claimed “withdrawal” of United States troops from Syria, they have in fact consolidated their hold on Syria’s oil producing region in the north of the country. What was also totally lacking in surprise was Trump’s blatant threat of the use of force against anyone who tried to recapture the Syrian oilfields previously controlled by the Jihadist groups. “Anyone” obviously includes forces loyal to the Syrian government.
Such a move by the United States was not exactly a surprise. Control in one form or another of Middle East oil resources is a long-standing United States policy and their inability to control Iran for example, is one of the major factors in interpreting United States policy in the region ever since they and the British overthrew the Mossadegh Government in 1954.
The blatant threat of military force against anybody that sought to control the Syrian oilfields was more overt than is usually the case. That the threat of force obviously included being against the Syrian government was hardly a surprise to observers of US actions in the region.
Equally unsurprising was that this blatantly illegal threat that a nation unlawfully occupying the territory and vital resources of another nation could use lethal force to continue denying the rightful owners of the resource its legitimate right to access and utilisation of its own resources.
What was also unsurprising was that the western media completely ignored the blatant illegality of the US move.
This American action in Syria over the past few weeks needs to be kept in mind next time one hears or reads the allegations of the United States and its tame adherents about the importance of “upholding the rule of law.”
This is manifestly a self serving argument and the claimed policy should be treated with the content it deserves. There is nothing wrong with the principle. The huge and varied economic and other developments occurring in Asia’s multiple and multi country re-arrangements of the world economic, trading and investment structure amply demonstrates that there are alternative models available.
The actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East unequivocally demonstrates that the message of a changing world order requires a modification of their behaviour is yet to penetrate in some western capitals.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.