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Ghouta gassing: waving a red rag to a bull

By Joseph Wakim - posted Tuesday, 27 August 2013

One glaring question has been avoided in the smoke surrounding the Ghouta video of chemical warfare: what if such an atrocity was committed by the anti-Assad forces, our de facto allies?

This taboo question poses many practical and political problems, especially with a fractured opposition without a clear leader who can be prosecuted. Human rights advocates such as Amnesty International have demanded that the United Nations Security Council refer this incident to the International Criminal Court (ICC). But war crimes need to be brought to trial without prejudice, regardless of the culprit.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd urged that "we get the facts absolutely right first", evoking the 2003 Iraqi invasion that was "based on frankly a lie". However, opposition leader Tony Abbott could not resist sinking the boot with "the kind of horror that we've come to expect from one of the worst regimes in the world."


Abbott's pre-emptive comments echo British Foreign Secretary William Hague who urged supporters of the Syrian regime to "wake up to … its murderous and barbaric nature." Such comments show contempt for the 20-strong team of UN chemical weapons inspectors, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, who arrived in Syria last Sunday and who should have been granted immediate access to visit the site to investigate the facts.

Haigh's provocations were probably predictable, coming from the country that hosts the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-Assad propaganda front which rarely reports on atrocities against Christian minorities and is run by a one man band, Rami Abdulrahman.

Rudd need not reminisce the 'weapons of mass destruction' propaganda of ten years ago in Iraq when we can remember three months ago in Syria: UN Commission of Inquiry investigator Carla del Ponte provoked many anti-Assad 'red faces' when she announced that "according to testimonies we have gathered, the rebels have used chemical weapons, making use of sarin gas."

Hence, the politically incorrect questions about the armed rebels are not based on cynical conspiracy but historical reality.

Del Ponte's bombshell gave credence to the counter-narrative that the rebels were provoking US president Barrack Obama to unleash his "contingency plans" that were threatened in August 2012 if chemical weapons were utilised: "a red line for us…that would change my calculus."

With the latest Ghouta story, could the rebels be yet again waving the red rag to the US to charge into Syria like a raging bull, as promised a year ago?


Given that Obama issued this ultimatum not only "to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground", does this mean that he could sanction an attack on the opposition, his allies, despite granting US$250 million in 'non-lethal aid' to the Free Syrian Army in April 2012?

If the UN chemical weapons inspectors verify that chemical weapons were indeed deployed by the Syrian government, then president Bashar al Assad should be prosecuted for this crime against humanity in the ICC. This accountability should still apply even if it was committed by rogue elements within his army, just as we have seen with rogue personnel within the Afghan and American armies. But if the UN inspectors incriminate the rebels, who exactly is taken to court?

What if the Free Syrian Army deny that it was them and blame one of the many armed anti-Assad jihadists, each following fatwas from different heads in different countries who supply different supply chains of finances and weapons? Would such a scenario incriminate the sources of the weapons even if this is Saudi Arabia, Turkey or America? How would the ICC prosecute the 'head office' of al Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra, Liwa al Islam brigade or the cocktail of rebel groups and terrorist groups, some already fighting each other? Clearly, this is far from a 'civil war' and threats of international intervention ring hollow given the presence of foreign mercenaries already on the ground, some uploading their beheadings, cannibalism and infidel cleansing on YouTube for the world to see.

There are many reasons to be cautious of the amateur videos that have provoked global condemnation. If the gas poisoning took place at 3:30 AM, why do we see no parents comforting their children? Why are all the quoted eye-witnesses in the reports 'opposition activists' rather than ordinary Syrian citizens? Why would the Syrian government ostensibly invite the weapons inspectors then flagrantly mock them with an act that is both genocidal and suicidal? Why are the carers not wearing protective clothing to prevent contamination?

As Australia prepares to preside over the UNSC in September, we have a historic opportunity to be a circuit breaker. We could push for unarmed dialogue among Syrian citizens, free from foreign intervention. We could engage with the newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani who has joined the global condemnation, given his country's experience of chemical warfare with Iraq in the 1980's: "We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons because the Islamic Republic of Iran is itself a victim of chemical weapons."

Australia can clear the smoke by asking the right questions.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Joseph Wakim

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