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An Urgent Need for Military (Humanitarian) Intervention in Syria


September 3, 2013 - San Francisco, CA - PipeLineNews.org - "Western intelligence agencies believe Syria has amassed sizeable quantities of blistering agents, such as mustard gas, which was widely used in the First World War and in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, as well as nerve agents such as sarin and VX. These chemical agents are designed to be fitted to an array of delivery systems, from Scud missiles to artillery shells."

This quote is from an important editorial article on "Cache and Carry: Syria’s Chemical Stockpile Poses Regional Threat." This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review. It raises the alarm about weapons of mass destruction in Syria and the regional implications. "Syria today is the largest chemical stockpile in our region," Major General Yair Naveh, deputy chief of staff of the Israeli army told Israel’s Hayon newspaper in June (2012). "These missiles can reach every point in Israel, so we must not relax our vigilance."

"Of particular concern to Israel is the possibility that Syria will transfer its Scud-type short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to Hizbullah," the editors of Jane’s Intelligence Review write. Syria is estimated to have between several hundred and a few thousand Scud-type missiles, including the Scud-D variant based on the North Korean NoDong missile. Those concerns have strengthened with a series of news reports since May 2012, highlighting the possibility that Hizbullah may be in possession of Scud-type ballistic missiles."

Abject and Stalinist North Korea closely cooperates with the equally abject regimes of Iran and Syria. Claudia Rosett recently pointed "to seizures in years past of North Korean goods evidently destined for Syria’s chemical weapons programs." There is "a fat record of North Korean-Syrian partnership in the internationally taboo proliferation of weapons of mass murder – not only chemical, but nuclear."

"There are the reports submitted in 2010 and 2012 by the U.N.’s own Panel of Experts on North Korean sanctions. In their 2012 report, these U.N. sanctions experts included a fascinating section on the seizure by Greece, in november 2009, of four shipping containers bound for Syria, originating in North Korea, and stuffed with such military gear as 13,000 protective coats, ‘reported to have military use for chemical protection,’ as well as 23,600 gas indicator ampoules ‘to detect specific chemical substances.’"

It was last November that a series of cooperation agreements were signed between North Korea and Syria – allegedly on "environmental" issues – a code word for chemical warfare capabilities.

John Kerry’s statement on Syria: "It matters to our security and the security of our allies"

John Kerry’s belated "Statement on Syria" of August 30 was excellent. What he said reminded me of the warnings issued by Sir Winston Churchill on the eve of and during the Second World War. The only thing I do not agree with is that Kerry repeated president Barak Obama’s assurance that "any action" that will be taken "will be a limited and tailored response." It is wrong to announce to the enemy in advance that "any action" to be taken will be "limited" and "tailored." This will not really make a deep impression on "a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad" (Kerry’s own description of the Syrian dictator.)

One day later president Obama reiterated that "our action would be limited in duration and scope." This is interpreted by the Assad regime and Iran as a sign of weakness. So is Obama’s sudden and unexpected announcement that he will first seek authorization from Congress. There is no need to, and it results in a substantial delay. Assad will continue to perpetrate war crimes if he is not really stopped from doing so. And he can only be stopped by military force – just like Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. Secretary of State rightly pointed out that the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction is a matter that concerns us all. "It matters to our security and the security of our allies." "It matters because a lot of countries, whose policies challenge these international norms, are watching." "They want to see where the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk."

"It matters also beyond the limits of Syria’s borders. It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons. It is about Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use, or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?"

However, it will need a lot more than "a limited and tailored action" to stop the obnoxious Assad regime from using weapons of mass destruction again.

"Our concern is not just about some far off land oceans away," Kerry continued. "That’s not what this is about. Our concern with the cause of the defenseless people of Syria is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world." "This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of the international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us." "My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens."

The evidence

It is obvious that the Assad regime is lying about its recent use of chemical weapons (CW) which are prohibited by international law. The regime lamely claims that the American evidence has been fabricated. What is amazing, however, is that the Russians are fully backing the regime, also militarily, and thus are complicit in Assad’s war crimes. Russian president Vladimir Putin, a former KGB-officer, is playing a nefarious role. He reminds me of arrogant dictators such as Robert Mugabe and Alexander Lukashenko.

The Chairman of the British Intelligence Committee (JIC) wrote on August 29: "We have assessed previously that the Syrian regime used lethal CW on 14 occasions from 2012." "There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims of the possession of CW by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility."

The Times of London recently wrote: "Saudi-Arabia flew a Syrian victim of a suspected chemical weapons attack to Britain last Winter for tests, according the Wall Street Journal. Isopropyl methyphosphonic acid, a decisive sarin trace, was found in his urine. Israel’s national intelligence agency, Mossad, began reporting to its Western counterparts a nascent trend of chemical attacks by the regime. The West responded early this year by positioning scientific specialists near the borders with Syria to liaise with trusted medical staff on the ground. By the middle of spring these teams had succeeded in extracting soil and tissue samples from at least three suspected chemical weapons attacks sites in Syria – at Utayba, Khan al-Assal and Sheikh Maqsood – for analysis in the West. David Cameron admitted that samples from Sheikh Maqsood had tested positive for sarin at the Porton Down laboratories in Wiltshire."

Secretary of State John Kerry said in his recent Statement on Syria: "We know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year and has used them on a smaller scale, but still it has used them against its own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday’s attack happened. We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so.

We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations. And we know that Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods."

A recent U.S. "Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013" provides more details on intercepted communications involving top Syrian officials. Syria’s chemical weapons program is managed by the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), which is subordinate to the Syrian Ministry of Defense. "We have intelligence that leads us to assess that Syrian chemical weapons personnel – including personnel assessed to be associated with the SSRC?@– were preparing chemical munitions prior to the attack. In the three days prior to the attack, we collected streams of human signals and geospatial intelligence that reveal regime activities that we assess were associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack."

"We have a body of information, including past Syrian practice, that leads us to conclude that regime officials were witting of and directed the attack on August 21. We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence. On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations."

The Times of London reported on August 30: "In the case of last week’s Damascus attacks, Arab diplomats have described verifiable information from Israel detailing chemical weapons being moved from regime storage sites to launch positions near the targeted areas shortly before the strikes. U.S. intelligence officials have also leaked claims of an intercepted series of phone calls between a panicked official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense demanding answers from the commander of a chemical weapons unit after the attack on Wednesday."

John Kerry said that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. The U.S. Government Assessment says: "Three hospitals in the Damascus area received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure in less than three hours in the morning of August 21, according to a highly credible international humanitarian organization."

On September 1, Kerry was interviewed by David Gregory of NBC Meet the Press. He said: "In the last 24 hours we have learned through samples that were provided to the United States and that have now been tested from first responders in east Damascus and hair samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin." "Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war."

Hitler, by the way, did not use poison gas a means of warfare, but about 275,000 German citizens – most of them were mentally retarded people and childish adults – were gassed by the Nazis in the context of the so-called "euthanasia program." This was done after an explicit order from Hitler himself. This order was dated September 1, 1939, – on the very same day World War II broke out. Many German Jews was also gassed in the Nazi death camps after 1941. Hitler was also waging a war against the Jews and announced already in his book "Mein Kampf" that they were to be gassed.

The legal case for humanitarian intervention

The Russans and Iranians lamely claim that any military intervention by the West in Syria is against international law. However, the Russians themselves have a long and awkward tradition of intervening in other countries. And what about the equally hypocritical Iranians? Via Hezbollah do they intervene militarily in Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and they do so continuously.

Formally, the U.N. Charter does indeed prohibit military intervention without the consent of the U.N. Security Council. The problem, however, is that the Security Council often is unable to act because one or more so-called "permanent members" (Russia, China, the United States, Britain and France) can veto a resolution they do not like. Genocide and the use of weapons of mass destruction are serious crimes against humanity and war crimes. Occasionally, evil and brutal dictators who are slaughtering their own people are protected by their allies in the Security Council. This is the case with the Assad regime where the Council is unable to act. There were also dictators in Africa, Asia, Iraq and former Yugoslavia who could act with impunity – until they were stopped by military means.

Humanitarian intervention is an old doctrine in international law, a doctrine which is still valid today – "when employed under appropriate circumstances of necessity and proportionality" (Myress S. McDougal, Harald D. Lasswell and Lung-Chu Chen). The purpose of this kind of military intervention is to put an end to gross and shocking human rights violations by dictators. Ian Brownlie, a British expert on international law, cites the following and still highly topical example: "French forces occupied parts of Syria and policed the coast with warships from August 1860 to June 1861 to prevent the recurrence of massacres of Maronite Christians."

Oppenheim-Lauterpacht’s authoritative study on international law (eighth edition) states: "When a state renders itself guilty of cruelties against and persecution of its nationals in such a way as to deny their fundamental human rights and to shock the conscience of mankind, intervention in the interest of humanity is legally permissible." "The Charter of the United Nations in recognising the promotion of respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms as one of the principal objects of the Organisation (the United Nations, V.), marks a further step in the direction of elevating the principle of humanitarian intervention to a basic rule of organised international society."

Brownlie objects to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, but admits that "some jurists have continued to assert the legality of humanitarian intervention." He also admits that humanitarian intervention has not been expressly condemned by the United Nations Charter.

R.J. Vincent, author of a study on "Nonintervention and International Order" (1974), finds: "The argument for the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention against genocide has found support in recent years in view of the events in Burundi, Nigeria, Sudan, and Bangla Desh. If the goals is one of preventing wholesale slaughter, it may be seem but a quibble to object to intervention on the ground of its want of impartiality, or of the impurity of the motives of the intervening state or states. The legal case for humanitarian intervention can be made by drawing attention to those authorities who have promoted it as a right, however vague and amorphous, under international law. It can be strengthened by the argument that the protection of human rights was, with the maintenance of peace, a major purpose of the Charter of the United Nations, and by the ‘realist’ observation that in the absence of collective action authorized by the world body (the United Nations. V.), a humanitarian purpose might be achieved only by allowing unilateral intervention."

"Thus it might be argued that states had not only the right but a duty to overrule the principle of nonintervention in order to defend the Jews against Nazi persecution."

Myress S. McDougal, Harold D. Lasswell and Lung-Chu Chen, authors of a lengthy study on "Human Rights and World Public Order" (1980), argue that those who claim that humanitarian intervention is inconsistent with U.N. Charter Article 2(4) (prohibition of the use of armed force), are wrong. "Because of its overriding commitment to the protection and fulfillment of human rights, the Charter would appear, on the contrary, to have fortified the customary remedy of humanitarian intervention. The overriding commitment to the protection and fulfillment of human rights, coequal with that of the maintenance of peace and security, is made manifest throughout the Charter." "Because of its overriding commitment to human rights – a goal intimately interdependent with that of maintaining peace and security – the Charter prohibition of the use of armed force must be interpreted in a way to take this commitment into account." "When it seeks neither a territorial change nor a challenge to the political independence of the state concerned, an act of humanitarian intervention is not only not inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations but rather is in conformity with the major purposes and norms of the Charter."

Dominic Grieve, the British attorney general, writes that military action against Syria is legal under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. "If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention."

Some previous examples of humanitarian intervention

There are very good examples of humanitarian intervention after 1945. It was in November 1964 that rebel forces in eastern Congo seized and killed a great number of white residents. The majority of these civilians were taken hostage. The United States supplied air support for Belgian paratroopers who subsequently liberated the hostages. "Within four days, this operation had been completed and two days later all paratroopers had also been removed from Congo," Gerhard von Glahn writes. This operation, undertaken with the consent of the government of Congo, was not formally approved by the Security Council. The rescue operation was condemned by several African states and the Soviet Union as a violation of the principles of domestic jurisdiction and nonintervention. Eighteen African members of the United Nations unsuccessfuly attempted to have the Security Council condemn the rescue operation as "armed aggression."

Another African example is the military intervention by Tanzania in Uganda (1979). The purpose of this intervention was to liberate this afflicted African nation from the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin – a madman who used to throw his victims to the crocodiles. Here again, there was no formal endorsement by the Security Council, yet what Tanzania did was fully compatible with international law.

There were also several humanitarian interventions in Europe, notably in the Balkans. NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 is a good example. I myself reported on the huge flow of refugees from Kosovo when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosovic pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing by kicking all the Kosovar Albanians out. This badly needed NATO intervention was not approved by the Security Council where traditional Russian obstructionism blocked the decision making process.

There was also a successful intervention on behalf of the Kurdish population of northern Iraq in April 1991. The Security Council was notified but did not formally endorse the operation.

Former President Bill Clinton blocked military intervention in Rwanda in 1994

The case of Rwanda dramatically shows what happens when the international community or individual states fail to act in the face of genocide or other serious war crimes. There, in Rwanda, between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus in 1994 and the world did nothing. Even more remarkable was U.S. President Clinton’s attitude during the Rwandan genocide. "Security Council members from African countries and other developing nations favored forceful action," Milton Leitenberg (University of Maryland) writes in the Dutch study "Contemporary Genocides" (1996). "But the U.S. opposed this option, no African nation actually volunteered troops, and the Security Council asked the Secretary-General to ‘consult’ with the OAU (Organization of African States) and to undertake new diplomatic steps. As could be expected, the now-desperate ‘diplomatic’ appeals from the Secretary-General to the parties in the Rwandan conflict produced nothing. The major reason for Security Council inaction was the criticism and opposition by the United States. Rwanda became the first application of President Clinton’s admonition in an address to the United Nations on september 27, 1993, that the U.N. must learn ‘when to say no.’ The U.N. needed to ask ‘hard questions’ before sending peacekeeping forces to any additional sites, and it must recognize that it ‘cannot become engaged in every one of the world’s conflicts." Madeleine Albright, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., fully supported this line. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved if Clinton would have approved military intervention by the U.N.

Keep this in mind when we see what is happening in Syria right now. A limited action will not suffice. More than 100,000 people have died already, partly because the hesitant and cautious President Obama failed to intervene by creating humanitarian corridors and imposing no-fly zones. Partly due to Western inaction Al-Qaeda’s influence has grown rapidly – most of the rebels were still relatively moderate a year ago. (See The Economist, London, August 31, 2013, p. 7 – "Hit him hard.")

In 2005 the member states of the United Nations unanimously signed up to a new doctrine, "responsibility to protect" (R2P), Rosemary Righter writes in The Times (London). "This asserts that states have duties to their citizens and that if they are unable or unwilling to stop war crimes or crimes against humanity, others have a responsibility to ‘assist’."

Maybe, President Obama had the Rwandan genocide in mind when he said in his Rose Garden speech on August 31: "But if we really do want to turn away from taking appropriate action in the face of such an unspeakable outrage, then we must acknowledge the costs of doing nothing."

The British parliament voted against British participation in military action against Syria on Thursday, August 29. A very unfortunate decision indeed! British opposition leader Ed Miliband’s performance during the debate was, as The Times rightly puts is, "miserably inadequate, as poor as any during his tenure." "In simple terms the vote on Thursday will have provided encouragement to despots and tyrants everywhere, dismayed the victims of repression and weakened the Western alliance." Let us hope the members of Congress are not going to make the same mistake when they will vote on Syria.

Emerson Vermaat is an investigative journalist in the Netherlands specialized in international law, crime and terrorism. He is also a law graduate from Leiden University, the Netherlands. He frequently covered, as a reporter, wars in Central America, Asia, North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.


Cache and Carry: Syria’s Chemical Stockpile Poses Regional Threat, in: Jane’s Intelligence Review (London), September 2012, p. 48-54.

Claudia Rosett, North Korean-Syrian Chemistry: The Weapons Connections, in: Forbes, August 19, 2013.

John Kerry, Statement on Syria, U.S. Department of State, August 30 , 2013.

Statement by the President on Syria, The White House, August 31, 2013.

Joint Intelligence Organisation, Cabinet Office (London), August 29, 2013.

NBC Meet the Press, September 1, 2013 (www.state.gov).

Myres S. McDougal, Harold D. Lasswell and Lung-Chu Chen, Human Rights and World Public Order (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 239-243. Also on the Congo case.

Ian Brownlie, International Law and the Use of Force by States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 339 (French intervention in Syria in 1860/61 on behalf of persecuted Christians), p. 341, 342.

L. Oppenheim and H. Lauterpacht, International Law. A Treatise (London: Longman, 1955; Eighth Edition), Vol. I, p. 312, 313.

R.J. Vincent, Nonintervention and International Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 346, 347.

Chemical weapon use by Syrian regime: UK government legal position, Prime Ministers Office, August 29, 2013; The Guardian (London), August 30, 2013, p. 7 ("Means of attack identified, but not motive"). Attorney general Dominic Grieve.

Gerhard von Glahn, Law Among Nations. An Introduction to Public International Law (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), p. 168 (Humanitarian intervention in eastern Congo in 1964).

P.H. Kooijmans, Internationaal Publiekrecht in Vogelvlucht (Groningen, Netherlands: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1966), p. 147, 148 (Humanitarian intervention in northern Iraq).

Milton Leitenberg, The Case of Rwanda: US and UN Actions result in Escalation of Genocide and higher Costs, in: Albert J. Jongman (Ed.), Contemporary Genocides: Causes, Cases, Consequences (Leiden, Netherlands: PIOOM, 1996), p. 133, 134 (President Clinton and the Rwandan genocide).

The Times (London), August 31, 2013, p. 21 ("Lessons of Defeat").

©2013 Emerson Vermaat. All rights reserved.


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