Shortly after the missile attack on Syria, US Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump bragged in his usual pompous way that it was “mission accomplished”. In Britain, there was no such display of hubris. Prime Minister Theresa May was, instead, forced to explain to parliament why she ordered the attack without consulting MPs.
Two explanations were given during the parliamentary debate: that it was in Britain’s national interests to bomb Syria; and that it was done out of humanitarian concern for the suffering of the Syrian people.
This begs us to stop and ask where we go from here. Will the interventionists stop at Syria, or turn their attention to other areas where there is appalling human suffering?
Will they spare a thought for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have been subjected to Israel’s brutal military occupation for the past fifty years? In the case of the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of its two million inhabitants live in poverty as a direct result of the Israeli-led blockade now in its twelfth year.
There is no moral indignation amongst interventionists about the fact that more than fifty per cent of the Palestinians in the enclave live below the official poverty line of $2 per day. Nor is there any call for meaningful action in the face of the killing and wounding of peaceful protesters by Israeli snipers or the avoidable deaths caused by the lack of electricity, medicine and frequent closure of hospitals. In fact, there has not even been a whiff of concern about UN reports which forewarn that the territory will become “unliveable” by 2020. Already, ninety-seven per cent of the available water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.
Similarly, in Yemen, Western-backed governments have waged a cold-blooded war against the Middle East’s poorest state. Yemen’s education and health sectors have been virtually wiped out. “The situation in Yemen — today, right now, to the population of the country — looks like the apocalypse,” said Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), recently.
After three years of indiscriminate killing and rampant destruction, the Saudi-led coalition has also left deadly epidemics in its wake. “The cholera outbreak,” explained Lowcock, “is probably the worst the world has ever seen with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017.”
Clearly unmoved by this man-made catastrophe, the US, France and Britain continue to sell state of the art military hardware to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) so that they can wage their senseless war. Instead of downgrading the military capabilities of their Gulf allies, the West is enhancing them. Why? It’s all down to “national interests”.
As for direct intervention, that is simply not an option due to the aforesaid interests, even though there are provisions for it in humanitarian law. Lassa Oppenheim reminds us in his treatise on international law that, “if a State which is a party to the Hague Regulations concerning Land Warfare were to violate one of these Regulations, all the other signatory Powers would have a right to intervene.”
Intervention, although prohibited as a rule, is permissible when exercised for the purpose of humanity to stop persecution or extreme acts of cruelty. Hence, as early as 1827, Britain, France and Russia intervened in the conflict between Greece and Turkey to end the atrocities being committed.
Notwithstanding the extent of human suffering, the Western intervention in Syria is also about maintaining the balance of power, so that Russia and Iran do not threaten Western interests or, tellingly, those of the West’s ally, Israel.
Israel, of course, is the direct cause of the humanitarian catastrophe in occupied Palestine and the Palestinian refugee camps in neighbouring countries. However, despite the immense human suffering therein, the most that the West is prepared to do is to “mediate” between the “parties”. In their distorted view, the issue is not about ending Israel’s military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, it is about containing a local “dispute” over the land.
Having been themselves subjected to a brutal occupation by Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, most Europeans are fully aware of what the implications are when the term is used, notably that there is a right, and duty, to resist the occupiers. Sadly, if the repeated calls by the pro-Western Palestinian Authority for “international protection” continue to be ignored, there is absolutely no chance of what international jurists call “dictatorial interference” to end the Israeli occupation. And Palestinians who exercise their right — duty — to resist will continue to be branded as “terrorists”.
When viewed in its widest context, human suffering plays a secondary role in determining Western policies in the Middle East. Politicians will, of course, only use the humanitarian case if it is to their advantage. At election time, they will remind voters that they supported intervention in Syria to prevent the use of poisonous gas against civilians; blowing them up with indiscriminate barrel bombs is acceptable, it seems, but chemical weapons are a red line.
Surely, if the principle of a common humanity is to have any real meaning in that part if the world, it must be applied across the board. After all, the blood that is shed in Syria, Palestine and the Yemen is all the same colour. Until and unless “national interests” play second fiddle to humanitarian concerns, the hypocrisy of Western intervention will continue to be exposed, and tyrannical governments across the Middle East — including Israel’s — will continue to get away with murder and much, much more.
Op-ed by Dr Daud Abdullah