The mess that’s been created in Syria is extraordinary.
Syria is also definitively where international law died. Arguably, Iraq and Libya saw international law already collapsing: but Syria is where even all pretense of international law died. It is where borders, sovereignty and the right to self-determination got tossed out the window.
It is also where compassion, logic, reason, diplomacy, and truth, all seem to have died – along with journalism and along with probably the United Nations – their corpses rotting in the desert for all to see.
I want to explore here the subject of why international law is so important; why it is dead; and why I blame not just governments and military regimes, but journalists and the media.
This is not really an article about Syria – but Syria needs to be referenced to illustrate the nature of the problem.
In recent weeks (and in addition to any alleged war crimes carried out by the Syrian regime or Russia in Eastern Ghouta), US airstrikes have targeted Syrian government forces – it’s not the first time, but it is essentially an act of war. Alleged Russian mercenaries have also been struck by US forces in Deir Ezzor, while Israel has continued strikes against Syrian/Iranian targets – also an act of war.
And now, most recently, the Turkish and Syrian militaries were drawn into direct confrontation in Afrin, where the Turks are fighting US-backed Kurdish militias – and where the Syrian state forces had entered into an arrangement with the Kurdish fighters to help repel Turkish violations of Syrian territory. A number of Syrian pro-regime personnel have been killed by Turkish attacks.
Seasoned and respected Middle East expert and former al-Quds editor, Abdel Bari Atwan, recently portrayed the situation in these terms; ‘Warplanes from at least six countries crowd Syria’s airspace, including those of the American and Russian superpowers, while numerous proxy wars rage on the ground below involving Arab, regional and international parties. This testifies to a cold war that is heating up by the day and could have all manner of unpredictable outcomes… the potential to trigger World War III…’
All of these latest flashpoints and multi-player skirmishes in the passed months are in addition to the fact that Syria is routinely being bombed by multiple nations – most of which have no legal basis under international law to be doing this.
Every day, international law is violated all across Syria, as foreign-backed militias (on both sides, in fact) run rampage, and as foreign powers drop bombs with no legal right to do so, and as Syrian airspace is violated, and as Turkey, Iran, the United States, Israel and co all traipse about their Syrian playground.
It has all long since become a blur of confusion, agendas and proxies. Every ‘player’ has its justifications. In most cases, those justifications have some strategic validity: depending on your perspective, Turkey is right to be afraid of Kurdish groups, Israel is right to be worried about Iranian expansion, Iran is right to be worried about Sunni factions, Russia is right to want to prevent a collapse of the Syrian state, and so on and so forth.
And the situation now is that – now the floodgates have long since been opened – there is no international law, and no one can be put back in their place.
But all of it – except for, strictly speaking, the Russian intervention – is a violation of international law: or at least of what used to be international law.
But, as I said, Syria is where international law went to die.
The only country in this convoluted mess that hasn’t violated international law or attacked any other country is Syria itself.
Whatever else can be said about the situation in Syria (which is a hell of a lot), the situation has been used as the excuse (by multiple countries) to stop abiding by international law or international norms.
These are all things that these governments generally wouldn’t have been doing previously or in times when the rule of law was seen to apply, due to the constraints of international law.
Turkey waltzing into Syria to fight Kurds is a violation of international law. But no one seems to care, because it’s as if international law has been suspended and doesn’t apply to Syria. Likewise, Israel bombing Syrian targets without any formal declaration of war is in breach of international law. The United States seizing territory within Syria is a violation of international law.
All the countries bombing Syria, including the US, France, the UK and others, are violating international law.
In the place of where once was a least a pretense or semblance of international rules that held world order together by prohibiting certain actions (like flagrant violations of a nation’s sovereignty) and affording nations certain rights, there is now what simply looks to be cowboy geo-politics and adventuring.
It isn’t just Syria: much of what Israel has done or is doing in Gaza or the West Bank is in violation of international law. The Saudi campaign in Yemen appears to be in breach of international law too. But Syria appears to be the scenario that paved the way for these multiple states to openly discard international law without concern – as I said at the start, Syria is where international law died.
But no one is enforcing this international law or properly holding any of its flouters to account.
Arguably the US/UK-led coalition that illegally invaded Iraq were the ones who set us down this path of international law being made redundant (I wrote a whole article on this here, envisioning an alternate timeline in which Iraq had never been invaded).
And why do I say I also blame journalists and the media? Because I am continually astonished at the extent to which most journalists or media outlets seem to not care about this discarding of international law or how serious it is.
It is immeasurably serious.
Without international law, where are we as a global community? What protections or rights does any given nation have? If international law is no longer in effect – or is somehow no longer absolute – then the answer must be that no nation has the rights it used to have; such as the basic right to not have foreign powers crowding your airspace without your permission.
This brings to mind, for me, Gaddafi’s angry UN speech in 2009, in which he warned “any one of us could be next: every year could be the turn of someone else.” What he meant was that “every year could be the turn of someone else” to be invaded or violated.
The question I ask now is whether this discarding of international law is by design.
And what I mean by that is this: in the same way that US drone warfare and extra-judicial killings in foreign countries – illegal under international law – was meant to get us all used to the idea of assassination without trial or evidence and get us used to the idea of certain states being allowed to assassinate people in any country at a whim, this multi-nation abandoment or violation of international law in Syria is meant to kill off the idea of international law entirely or at least create a dynamic in which international law can be violated without consequence.
Most people don’t think about it this way, but the United States’ drone warfare programme in places like Pakistan and Yemen was, all along, paving the way for the drone attack on Gaddafi’s convoy in Sirte in October 2011.
What happened was that, for a few years, they talked about drone strikes and extra-judicial killings in terms of ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’ – and everyone got used to that idea, to the extent that it just became a sanitised fact of life and barely a moral debate. And then, without batting an eye-lid, they moved onto targeting the leader of a country with a drone strike – not a terrorist, but a national leader.
That’s how this shit works. You start with one set of criteria for the illegal thing you’re doing (in the case of drone warfare, it was ‘killing terrorists’) and you let people get used to it: and then you shift the criteria to whatever later suits your purpose (the extra-judicial assassination of the leader of a country).
As with drone-based assassinations (again, illegal under international law), so too – I suspect – with all the flagrant violations of international law in Syria. You start by ignoring or suspending international law for the sake of one stated set of criteria (i.e: Turkey needs to fight the Kurds, the US-led coalition needs to bomb terrorists, or the US and Israel need to stop Iran’s expansion); but eventually you find lots of other ways to capitalise on the death of international law (which you’ve helped to create in the first place).
In other words, once the rules have been discarded, anything can happen.
But this may have been the point.
That’s why this subject is so serious – and this is why journalists and media organisations are almost criminal in their negligence for failing to address any of this.
International law should be seen as simply a macrocosm of ‘the law of the land’. We have laws and rules governing a country so that there is order. Everyone living in a country understands this, and so they either operate by the rules of law so that they’re not criminals or they violate those rules knowing – or fearing – that they will have to face legal consequences.
And meanwhile, victims of criminal behaviour have the security of knowing they have recourse to justice, that the crimes they’ve suffered will be punished and that they may even be due some kind of compensation.
Without a rule of law in a country, there would be chaos. Criminality, violence, injustice would be rampant, the streets wouldn’t be safe for anyone and only the most cut-throat, aggressive or powerful people would prosper (example – I give you Libya as it now is).
Also, crucially, in most societies the ideal (if not necessarily always the reality) is that the law or justice are blind: it doesn’t make exceptions or discriminate, but is designed (in theory) to protect and serve everyone equally, as well as the society as a whole.
Likewise, international law is (or was) basically the expanding of that dynamic to a world level. So there are laws governing international relations and things like war, sovereignty, aggression, the rights of a nation, etc.
Or at least there used to be.
And without that international law, the world becomes less safe or secure for everyone – just as a country does when it is without the rule of law. Then, instead of just people or citizens, it’s nations that become victims at the macro level, with people and citizens being victims at the micro level.
What seems to have also happened is that the idea or perception of international law has become entirely reduced to conditions set by governmental agendas or national biases – when, in fact, the whole point of international law is that it is meant to be universal, applying to every nation without exception or bias.
The idea of international law is thus further devalued when it is applied to some parties for political or geo-political reasons and not to others.
A good, recent example of this would be the Salisbury ‘nerve-agent’ attack: because I’ve heard lots of references from politicians to Russia having violated the norms of international law by attacking a double-agent in a foreign country. What’s bizzare about all of this language is that it seems to be pretending that the likes of the CIA, MI6, Mossad and others have never carried out such operations overseas before.
Of course they have. To cite just one example among a great many, MI6 – as highlighted here previously – were paying thousands of pounds to an Al-Qaeda cell in Libya to assassinate Gaddafi as far back as the mid-1990s.
So the whole idea of one government calling out another for flouting ‘international law’ has become increasingly ludicrous – as everyone‘s been at it and almost everyone has lost all credibility. The fact that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is still wanted by the International Criminal Court, while something like the apparent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar is continuing unimpeded, proves how ridiculous it has all become.
What would have, in an ideal world, perhaps prevented all of this from escalating to this point is if the United Nations had any power – if a truly democratic international body had the power to enforce international law, investigate or punish all of the underhanded, covert warfare we’ve seen in recent years (which, just like overt warfare, consists of things generally illegal under international law), hold War Criminals to account for their actions, prevent illegal wars, and police the arms industry and the military-industrial complexes of this world.
And if it had prevailed as an objective, neutral and well-balanced institution that couldn’t be co-opted or over-dominated by warmongers or serial flouters of international law.
In order to do that, the UN would had to have been forced to undergo a reformation – just as Muammar Gaddafi had called for in 2009 when addressing the UN Assembly for the first and last time. “65 wars since 1945 have not been prevented by UN,” he told the assembly, complaining that the vested interests of the super-powers were dominating the institution at the expense of all other countries’ will or interests.
Essentially, Gaddafi was protesting (prophetically) against his own murder and the military intervention in his country which were to come two years later.
And what Gaddafi said about the “super-powers” and their “vested interests” dominating the UN and making it a pointless institution has been borne out in the Syria situation, where all that now happens in the UN is that one super-power bloc makes accusations against another super-power and vetoes anything the other super-power proposes, while that other super-power likewise blocks or vetoes the other side’s motions.
And nothing really happens.
Everyone just carries on doing whatever they were doing already. Syria, just like Libya before it, can’t even go to the UN and ask for it to stop the super-powers or other foreign militaries from violating its territory. “Just Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park,” Gaddafi had called the UN in that same 2009 address, “we talk, we make speeches, and that’s all.”
One might argue that it was when the US/UK-led coalition ignored the UN’s opposition to it and went ahead and illegally invaded Iraq that the UN itself was rendered impotent and irrelevant: and one might further argue that this was also where the idea of international law began its decline. This might be true – and I somewhat made that case in the article about what would’ve happened in the 21st century if Iraq had not been invaded.
Alas, that’s not where we are. In the past, we might say something like “hopefully, sanity will prevail”. But we’re beyond that now. Sanity hasn’t prevailed.
And international law – in real terms and not merely self-serving propaganda terms – appears to be truly dead.
Read more: ‘My Lai, Seymour Hersh & the Decline of Real Journalism‘, ‘A Final Word on UN Resolution 1973 – No, It Was Not Legal‘, ‘The Global State of Human Rights: And Why the Narrative Needs to Change‘, ‘The Story of Sirte – From Proud Libya to ISIS Caliphate‘, ‘In the Hands of Madmen: A Future Hiroshima & a Silent Media‘, ‘Aleppo, Libya & the Survival of Bashar Assad‘…