30.07.2018 Author: James ONeill

As the Syrian War Draws to a Close, What Has Australia Learned

A reception in honor of the then President of Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli in Bangalore

A reception in honor of the then President of Syria, Shukri al-Quwatli in Bangalore

In August 2015 the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that the government was considering becoming involved in the war in Syria, some four years after that conflict had escalated to an all out assault on the Syrian government by a patchwork of opposition groups.

The government was ostensibly awaiting legal advice before making a final decision. What Ms Bishop failed to tell the public was that the government had had that legal advice for more than a year.  It was a typical example of the deception and lack of openness that marks Australian foreign policy.

What had begun as legitimate protests against the government of Bashar al Assad was quickly subsumed by the activities of extremist jihadist groups, including but not limited to, ISIS and Al Qaeda. These events did not occur in isolation, and to understand the current war in Syria it is necessary to briefly recap that country’s post-World War II history.

Syria had been part of the French colonial empire, Middle East branch, until 1949 when they were expelled and a secular democracy established under its first elected president Shukri al-Quwatli. One of al-Quwatli’s first decisions was to decline to approve the US project known as the Trans Arabian Pipeline. The project was designed to link the Saudi Arabian oilfields via Syria to Lebanese ports.

Al-Quwatli’s reluctance proved fatal, and he rapidly fell victim to a CIA organized coup, and was replaced with their dictator Husni al Zaim. He in turn survived only 14 weeks before being deposed. There followed a period of destabilization with several coups and counter-coups until 1955 when al-Quwatli was re-elected. Al-Quwatli understandably distrusted the Americans in the light of his experience, and his government’s foreign policy turned to what was then the Soviet Union.

That was intolerable to the Americans, who dispatched to Damascus a nephew of the former US president Franklin Roosevelt, named Kermit Roosevelt. The latter was the architect of the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the popularly elected President Mohammad Mossadegh (Operation Ajax) and installed the dictator Pahlavi. Roosevelt and his colleague Rocky Stone were unsuccessful in their attempt to overthrow the Syrian government. The Syrians invaded the US embassy in Damascus, captured Stone, and broadcast his televised confession.

The Americans retaliated by moving the Sixth Fleet into the Mediterranean and tried to persuade Turkey (a NATO ally) to invade. In another echo of the present, the CIA, with their MI6 colleagues from the Iranian coup, formed a ‘Free Syria Committee’ and also armed the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out assassinations of Syrian officials.

That second failed coup attempt led to widespread anti-American protests across the Middle East and North Africa. One consequence was a coup in Iraq that deposed Iraq’s monarch, Nuri al Said. Documents released after the coup revealed al Said to be a highly paid American puppet. Unsurprisingly, the new Iraqi government also turned to the Soviet Union.

Another CIA engineered coup in Iraq five years later installed a different Ba’ath Party leader named Saddam Hussein. As they were later to do in Indonesia, the CIA supplied Hussein with a murder list of persons who “had to be murdered in order to ensure success.”

The common theme to these events in Iran, Iraq and Syria, apart from CIA involvement, was that all three countries are either major producers of oil and gas or, in that case of Syria, a vital link in the supply lines of oil and gas to western markets. Mossadegh’s “crime” had been to nationalize the Anglo Persian oil company (now BP) so that Iran would benefit from its natural resources rather than western oil companies and their shareholders.

A key element in the war in Syria dates from 2000 when a pipeline for Qatari gas that would transit Syria was proposed. By far the most economic method of exporting Qatari gas was by pipeline.

This proposal was however, opposed by Bashar al Assad who saw Qatari gas as a threat to the interests of his Russian friends who in turn are major suppliers of gas to the European market. From the US point of view, a Qatari gas pipeline would not only support a US ally (there are two huge US military bases in Qatar) but also undermine the Russian economy.

In 2009 the Syrian government announced that it would refuse to allow the pipeline to traverse Syrian territory. Furthermore, Syria announced that they would support an alternative pipeline to carry Iranian gas via Iraq and Syria to European destinations. This was not only an alternative, it was a Shia alternative, guaranteed to outrage Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies in the region, but also Israel who saw it as strengthening Hezbollah and Hamas, two Shia groups in Lebanon and Palestine respectively who oppose the Israeli government.

We now know from leaked documents, that the plan to destabilize the Syrian government began immediately after Al Assad’s announcement. This plan included funding and arming opposition groups in Syria, and also foreign Jihadis that assembled under the umbrella of what came to be known as ISIS.

None of this should have come as a surprise. US think tanks regularly produce reports that are in effect blueprints for US foreign policy initiatives. Two in particular are noteworthy in this context, the 2008 Rand Corporation report “Unfolding the Future of the Long War” and the 2009 Brookings Institute report “Which Path to Persia.” These reports precisely set out the policies that the United States has followed in the region.

Almost none of this is ever reported or discussed in the Australian media. When Julie Bishop announced in September 2015 that Australia was joining their United States allies in the Syrian war, there was no mention that the legal opinion sought in this connection had been in the government’s possession for more than a year. Despite Freedom of Information requests, the government has refused to release that legal opinion.

When asked by the ABC what was the legal justification for Australia’s involvement in the Syrian war, she claimed that it was at the request of the Iraqi government, pursuant to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The ABC and every other mainstream media outlet omitted to tell their readers/listeners that the Iraqi government denied making any such request, and that Article 51 patently did not apply.

Some minuscule detail of Australia’s involvement in the Syrian war is found on the Department of Defence website under its codename Operation Okra. It records the number of sorties flown by Australian jet fighters in Syria, and the support role played by its surveillance and refueling planes. On the eve of Christmas 2017 the government quietly announced that the fighter jets would be “gradually withdrawn.”

The final fighter jet strikes were made in January 2018, but as of 26 July 2018 633 joint task force personnel we’re still engaged in Operation Okra, which covers both Iraq and Syria and the surveillance and refueling planes were still participating in the illegal “coalition” air strikes in Syrian territory.

Also completely missing from mainstream media accounts is any discussion that Australia’s involvement in Syria is in violation of international law. The general reporting of the Syrian war is equally lopsided, and not only by avoiding any discussion of the historical context set out above, or the legal issues.

An outstanding example of this are the reports, twice in the past 12 months, alleging that the Syrian government had used chemicals or toxic gas in attacks on Syrian civilians. These alleged attacks have been loudly condemned by Bishop. When subsequent investigations by the OPCW inspectors revealed those allegations to be completely false, there has been no apology or withdrawal of the condemnatory remarks.

The war in Syria is now reaching its denouement. The reason for that is overwhelmingly due to the efforts of the Syrian Armed Forces, supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Again there is no recognition of this reality by the Australian government or the mainstream media outlets.

The Americans, completely contrary to international law, are endeavouring to maintain a foothold of bases in the South, East and North of Syria. Whether or not they will be voluntarily withdrawn, as is reportedly Trump’s wishes, is uncertain. A refusal to go will certainly exacerbate the risk of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States.

US involvement in the Middle East, at least since the immediate post-World War II period, has brought coups, destabilization, invasions, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure, the displacement of millions of persons, and the deaths in Iraq and Syria alone of at least 2 million persons. A further one million Iranians lost their lives fighting Iraq in the 1980-88 war. Iraq was in that war supported and armed by the United States, a further illustration of perfidy and complete self-interest regardless of the cost to others.

It remains completely unclear how any of this remotely serves Australian national interests. Judging by the reported comments of senior government ministers, they have learned little or nothing from the history of the past 73 years.  Given the opportunity they will readily repeat the same policies, based on the same lies, half-truths and disinformation there is so much a part of the public record. The answer posed in the heading to this article would appear therefore to be: precisely nothing.

James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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