A week ago, on August 26, Secretary of State John Kerry made the case for military action against Syria. As we all know, a few days later, he made an even stronger statement, followed by his boss, President Obama, who is asking Congress to approve his authority to use force. Apparently this resolution will be binding if it passes, and only advisory if it does not.
There are many excellent reasons to oppose military action already discussed on Mondoweiss by Phyllis Bennis and Max Blumenthal. But what struck me when reading Kerry’s remarks was that his rationale would have paved the way for Russia to unilaterally attack Israel in the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-2009.
Kerry’s reasoning was as follows. First, the events in Syria “should shock the conscience of the world” and “defies any code of morality,” as it involved “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders.” He later offered the number of Syrian dead at 1429, including 426 children. Second, “the meaning of this attack goes beyond the conflict on Syria itself,” since “this is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all.” Third, “the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation.” Kerry “made it very clear to [the Syrian Foreign Minister] that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate: immediate transparency, immediate access.” Finally, as Kerry added in his August 29 statement, “because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should.”
In 2009, Vladimir Putin or Dimitry Medvedev could have made virtually the same speech about Israel. First, the IDF indiscriminately attacked Palestinian civilians during its onslaught, and the eventual death toll of about 1400, including 313 to 431 children, is quite similar to Kerry’s figures, which are far higher than those estimated by other sources. Second, the meaning of the attack was bigger than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, because it was about the use of indiscriminate military force upon a civilian population “that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all.” Third, Israel adamantly refused to cooperate in any capacity with the U.N. Commission headed by Richard Goldstone assigned to investigate the conduct of all parties to the conflict. Finally, any attempt to impose punishment or sanctions upon Israel through the U.N. Security Council was doomed to fail due to “guaranteed U.S. obstructionism.”
So Russia could have claimed the same “authority” to circumvent the U.N. Security Council, rendered powerless by an inevitable U.S. veto, and deal Israel the punishing blow it deserved for its “conscience-shocking” behavior in Gaza.
Like any analogy, this one is not perfect. There are differences, some significant and some less so, between today’s situation with Syria and Israel in 2009. But for the most part, those differences make a stronger case for Russian military action against Israel than for Kerry’s case against Syria. First, there truly is no doubt who was responsible for the killing of so many civilians, including children, in Gaza. While the general consensus among the political and media elite is that Assad is to blame for a sarin attack, Max Blumenthal has exposed the likelihood that Israeli intelligence has spoon-fed that conclusion to a willingly gullible audience. As for Israel’s excuse that the high civilian death toll in Gaza was due to Hamas militants hiding behind civilians, the Goldstone Report rejected the allegation. Moreover, it surely is true that Syrian rebels are physically intertwined with the civilian population, thereby endangering the lives of those civilians. Assad could make the same claim that Israel has relentlessly repeated ad nauseam for years.
While it is true that Israel’s slaughter of Gaza civilians was mostly achieved through conventional weapons (with the exception of white phosphorus for several dozen victims), both events were clear violations of fundamental principles of international law and military conduct: use of chemical weapons in Syria, and launching an aggressive war and failing to distinguish between fighters and civilians in Gaza. Perhaps the most important difference is that in Syria, the Assad regime and rebel forces had fought to a stalemate, while Israel always had an overwhelming military advantage in Gaza and essentially could inflict as much damage as it wanted while suffering a bare minimum of casualties. Indeed, when Kerry called Syrian civilians “the world’s most vulnerable people,” he offered no reason why they should be considered more vulnerable than the 1.5 million captive inhabitants of the tiny Gaza strip.
Of course, those afflicted with patriotic amnesia will contend that Russia has no moral authority to punish Israel for attacking civilians because of its history of even worse conduct in Chechnya. The notion that the U.S. (napalm, agent orange, white phosphorus, depleted uranium, millions dead in Southeast Asia and hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan with millions made refugees) has more moral authority act as global cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner is beyond absurd.
Though I think it should be obvious, I certainly am not advocating that Russia should have launched a unilateral attack against Israel. My point is that the US case for doing so against Syria is as morally bankrupt and legally vacuous as a hypothetical Russian case for attacking Israel, even more so. The fact that a Russian strike against Israel has never been contemplated as a remote possibility should make us all question why the Obama/Kerry plan should even be debatable.