Crikey writes: Re. “Mind control, psychosurgery and murder: the bizarre antecedents of climate study given to PM’s office”. Crikey mistakenly identified one of the authors of the report in this story as John Chalmers. It is John Chambers.

In twos 

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Andrew Taylor writes: Re. “Andrew Fowler to govt: ‘get the hell out of the ABC‘” (yesterday).  Crikey‘s subject line says the ABC “should grow a pair”. The intro of the same email says the ABC “should grow a spine” (says former journo). Yet neither comment is supported in the actual report of comments by former ABC journalist Andrew Fowler. I’m concerned by the inconsistency of these three parts of yesterday’s Crikey. Did Fowler actually say the ABC needs to either grow ‘a pair’ or ’a spine’ or was that editorial fabrication? I’m also troubled by the archaic view that testicles = bravery. In the same issue you report that former AFL great Graham Cornes seems uncomfortable about women playing football. Crikey needs to get with the times too. Apparently not all people born with testicles are heroes, and there are some people without testicles who have shown occasional courage.

Crikey editor Marni Cordell responds: Smash the patriarchy, Andrew! I was talking about ovaries.

Sue Howard writes: Andrew Fowler put the fears of his ABC colleagues well, but one small historical clarification. It was Russell Balding as MD who calmed the waters of the ABC after Jonathan Shier.

On Syria and military intervention

James Burke writes: Re. “Bombing in Syria: illegal, immoral, self-defeating and inevitable” (yesterday). Bernard Keane’s arguments about Syria are important and mostly hit their mark. (Though he omits one of the main causes of US fecklessness against Assad: that American leaders, for some reason, baulk at openly assisting Al Qaeda and its Syrian franchise.)

But Keane’s invocation of international law begs the question: what international law? Last year Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, sovereign territory of a fellow United Nations member state. Yet Russia remains a full and active member of both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. (Saddam Hussein would be ropeable … sorry.) The UN is dead, its zombie shuffle sustained only by habit, fear and denial. Absent the UN, what international law remains, and who or what enforces it?

These are not rhetorical questions. Bush Junior — and all those who enabled him, including our current hollow-skulled homunculus of a PM — tore a hole in the post-World War II international framework, and Putin drove his tanks right through it. We live in a different world now, and it would be nice to know what rules apply. If any.

Robert Johnson writes:  Whatever one thought of the Assad government prior to early 2011, the widespread and increasing deaths of Syrians and destruction of the country was given early impetus by externally fomented uprisings and incursions into such areas as Homs and Daraa, successfully drawing the intended Syrian government engagement. This reportedly included Qatari and Saudi Sunni involvement. (I question Bernard’s two claims in this regard: that “foreign fighters” didn’t enter Syria until 2012 and did so as a reaction to “Assad’s atrocities”.) It took time for rebel groups to widen the conflict into key cities such as Aleppo, with the spreading destruction and displacement as a price worth paying to engage the government on a widening front that led Assad to resort to increasingly desperate (and devastating) measures. It’s not entirely correct to conflate this with the so-called Arab Spring, even though that offered an incitement and ‘explanation’ at the time (now, admittedly, a mainstream narrative).

Media reporting has been overwhelmingly anti-Assad, arguably with good reason. However, as the report that Bernard linked to pointed out, “reporting on the numbers of casualties is often biased… [and] those numbers do not indicate that some are more guilty than others”. Nevertheless, it is clear that the government is responsible for a large number of deaths, mainly due to the use of air strikes. This underscores Bernard’s arguments as to why Australia would be ill-advised to itself join in air strikes inside Syria: US airstrikes that inevitably kill civilians carry heavy costs and durable legacies. That same article comments on the evidently larger fatalities caused by the Syrian government than by ISIS: “Lower fatality numbers for ISIS are not to be confused with a lesser degree of brutality”.

But most importantly, the widespread civilian deaths will only cease once the conflict ceases (leaving the ISIS issue to one side, except to note that keeping it going undeniably assists ISIS). But anti-Assad forces remain unprepared for a political solution, partly given Sunni-states’ demands that Assad — and Iran — be excluded from such dialogue (this is to be a “Sunni victory”), and partly to deny any validity to the Russian arguments from the outset for such an approach (this is to be a “Western victory”). As we’ve learnt well enough by now, the cost of “regime change” is enormous and rarely leads to an improved situation. In fact, it commonly leads to a worse situation, and this will almost certainly apply even more so in Syria than has even been the case in Iraq.

Surely with the current US Secretary of State’s improved engagement with Iran, the ‘regime-change-in-Syria-as-a-proxy-war-with-Iran’ basis of the original 2011 conflict (not the only basis, but certainly a primary one) can no longer be endorsed, even though Israel and Saudi Arabia are getting desperate to unleash a larger assault on Syria to get this thing wrapped up quickly. In my view, Saudi Arabia’s current military entry into Yemen (ostensibly to stop the Shi’a Houthi) is mainly a practice run for that country to militarily enter into wider regional military engagement.

Saudi Arabia is now the world’s largest importer of weapons and fourth-largest military spender from Western countries, so presumably that’s viewed as being OK. It has also been in secret dialogue with Israel on bringing about regime change in Iran. Saudi Arabia sights on Iran may well be via Iraq and, if (still) necessary, Syria. Israel, of course, is ready to take a more direct route (likely as a ‘cleaner’ way of bringing about desired outcomes in Syria and Iraq and …). Maybe the view is that “we” can then collectively wipe out the by then much stronger and established ISIS caliphate, with little global resistance, but that would be naïve in the extreme. (PM Abbott’s current scaremongering would then have full validity, but I doubt that he’s considering future scenarios in his current language.) To focus our analysis of Syria on the basis of “Assad is bad and must go” runs a very great risk of serving a much more dangerous scenario with much wider global consequences.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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