Coalition airstrikes in Syria, 2016

Did the US, the UK and France actually fire 100 missiles at three chemical weapons sites in Syria on Friday night? They say they did. Russia says they did, and angrily denounced the strikes. Other countries say they did. Like Australia — both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten supported the attacks.

Or were they just fake news? Like tweets circulated by people purporting to show pictures of them that are in fact from other Middle Eastern countries decades ago, thus conveying (who knows? maybe deliberately?) the irony of the perpetual present of Western bombardment of the Middle East? Like Wag The Dog, in which an administration fakes an entire war to distract from a president’s sex scandals (made during the Clinton years, back when a president actually having even one sex scandal was considered grounds for impeachment — the past is another country, yada yada). Like those disgusting pro-Assad lefties on social media, who dismiss any accusation of war crimes by the butcher Assad as elaborately staged conspiracies by the US Deep State. Like Jean Baudrillard arguing that the Gulf War (#1, but he was writing before we had to number them) Did Not Take Place, that it existed for the West purely as propagandistic spectacle.

Would the same effect have been created if the whole thing had been faked up between the principals — some footage of missile strikes created, each side would have worked out in advance what they would say about the attacks; the Russians, ever more committed to the role of global troll, would have devised some eccentric word to use — in this case “hooliganism”. Trump could have had his distraction from the ever-tightening legal noose around him; May could have bolstered her fragile and bungle-prone government, Macron could have once again signalled France’s importance on the global stage, like Justin Trudeau but with a bigger country, and hey, have you seen the great weapons we manufacture in France? The critics clamouring for action against Assad would have been placated; what passes for concern about the welfare of Syrian people in the West assuaged; the Greens could have reflexively denounced the attacks and called for an end to the US alliance.

Honour satisfied all round, and for a far lower price than actually firing missiles.

What won’t happen of course is the end to genocidal slaughter of Syrians by the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian helpers. For the West, however, the slaughter isn’t the important thing. It’s how you get slaughtered. Dying from a chemical attack is apparently morally worse than dying from a barrel bomb dropped on a marketplace, or being tortured to death inside one of Assad’s dungeons. That is what draws Western intervention. Why? Well, chemical weapons are illegal under international law. “The use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances is illegal,” said Malcolm Turnbull when lauding the strikes. Problematically, however, the missile strikes were themselves illegal under international law. But it’s OK when we violate international law. Anyway, international law is a misnomer. There is no international law because there’s no way to enforce it consistently. It’s like when refugee advocates complain that Australia is breaking international law. It’s an entirely fatuous argument. So what? 

Inconsistency isn’t merely an annoying flaw in the Western interventionist impulse. It’s a core feature. China makes the Assad regime look like amateurs when it comes to systemic human rights violations. No one speaks of bombing them. Saudi Arabia is engaged in industrial-scale murder and war crimes in Yemen, and helped fund Islamic fundamentalist monsters in Syria, but no one speaks of bombing them. Israel persistently violates international law in expanding its illegal settlements in Palestine and murdering Palestinians, but the only people who talk about bombing them are fundamentalist lunatics in Tehran. Arab countries — as long as they’re not our oil-producing mates, in which their atrocities and human rights violations attract no interest — well, we’re always happy to bomb them. For years and decades.

As for ordinary people in the West, do they really care? They might have their consciences pricked by a child’s corpse floating on a beach but by and large they’d prefer the whole mess to go away and are correctly sceptical of their leaders’ claims that yet another intervention will do any good, or even reduce harm. Far better for everyone if it really was all just fake news.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey