By Thomas Walkom, national affairs columnist, Toronto Star, Tuesday, April 11, 2017 (updated on April 15, 2017)[The following commentary is re-published for the information of readers. See below two explanatory footnotes by New Cold War.org as well as weblinks to extensive, related analysis. And see further below five letters by Toronto Star readers published on April 15, 2017.]
The U.S. president’s foreign policy is becoming crazily incomprehensible. And dangerous.
In his approach to the Syrian civil war, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is consistent in at least one respect. He consistently supports the dangerously inconsistent approach of Donald Trump.
When Trump and his senior officials said, as they did just two weeks ago, that they had little interest in ridding Syria of dictator Bashar Assad, Canada was agreeable. But when Trump reversed himself, bombed a Syrian government airfield [on Apruil 7] and called for Assad’s removal, Trudeau gamely changed course too.
Assad and “his regime”, Trudeau said on April 10, must be held to account for war crimes against their own people. “We need to move as quickly as possible toward peace and stability in Syria that does not involve Bashar al-Assad.” Up to then, Canada had good reason not to support regime change in Syria. It wasn’t clear [sic] that the armed opposition, a collection of jihadists, rebel groups and ragtag militias, would be any better.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had declined to back any side in the Syrian civil war. Trudeau continued this policy. Even reports that Assad was still using illegal chemical weapons didn’t faze Ottawa. In August 2016, a joint investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that Assad had broken his promise to destroy chemical weapons and used chlorine gas at least twice.
No one much cared. Barack Obama, then a lame-duck U.S. president, was unwilling to go to war against Syria. Trump, at that point a contender for the presidency, was actively campaigning against such a war. Canada, which was focused on helping Syrian refugees, was willing to let the U.S. take the lead in matters military.
It still is. The problem Canada faces is that Trump’s military approach to the world has become crazily incomprehensible. Ever since Trump authorized missile strikes against Syria in retaliation for yet another alleged chemical assault on civilians, Washington has been a snake pit of conflicting explanations.
Some administration officials say removing Assad has become a priority. Others say it hasn’t. An anonymous senior U.S. official told The Associated Press that there is proof Russia knew beforehand about the latest chemical strike. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there is no proof.
Tillerson himself has given different reasons for the missile strike. At one point he suggested the U.S. was responding to a moral evil. At another he gave the implausible explanation that Washington attacked Assad’s forces to keep their chemical weapons from falling into terrorist hands. (In fact, as the Libyan experience suggests, terrorists would be more likely to get their hands on dangerous weapons if the Assad regime were deposed).
Trump’s only explanation to date is that he was horrified by the death of beautiful babies.
For Trump, all of this chaos may make political sense. He is up in the polls since the missile attack. He has effectively spiked the guns of those who accuse him of being too close to Russia. His decision to reverse himself and attack Syria may help him repair relations with hawks in America’s formidable national security bureaucracy.
But for Trudeau and Canada, it makes little sense to follow Trump down this particular rabbit hole. Regime change is a dangerous game, particularly when it is not clear what the alternative might be.
Syria has been destroyed by war. Threatening more is unlikely to help. The best chance for peace in that country still remains a political settlement acceptable not only to the opposition but to those whose interests the current regime represents.
Canada has differed politely with the U.S. before, most notably when it chose not to participate fully in George W. Bush’s war to oust the monstrous Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
I know Trudeau wants desperately to remain in Trump’s good books, particularly now that the North American Free Trade Agreement is about to be renegotiated.
But with a U.S. battle group steaming toward North Korea and America’s Syria policy in chaos, it might be a good time to remind the president of a legal and political truth: the U.S. is powerful, but it does not have carte blanche to make war on whomever it chooses. [See below letters to the Toronto Star editor published on April 15, 2017.]
Notes by New Cold War.org:
 The reports and investigations by the UN Security council-created Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW, Wikipedia) are a rabbit warren of complexity in which journalists can get lost or confounded. Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom muddies the waters in writing (above) that the Syrian government “used chlorine gas twice”. He does not state when or where such gas was alleged to be used and does not provide a weblink to a 2016 “joint investigation by the United Nations” which Walkom claims confirmed such use of chlorine gas by the government.
In August 2015, a special mission of the OPCW was constituted by the UN Security Council to investigate claims of use of chemical weapons in Syria. It submitted its third, general report on August 24, 2017. That report examined nine specific cases, including alleged use of chlorine gas by the Syrian armed forces in 2014 and 2015. An August 30, 2016 news report announcing the report was published by the UN Press Center but it did not provide a weblink to the original report in question. The website page of the OPCW titled ‘Fact-Finding Mission Reports‘ does not list the report.
The report (here, 98 pages) examined nine cases of alleged chemical weapon use. The investigative committee relied on second-hand observations and provision of evidence by parties in territory occupied by anti-government forces. The Syrian government cooperated with the investigation, including assisting with office space and other technical assistance in Damascus. The report explains, “The Panel maintained constant interaction with the Government, including through visits to Damascus in December 2015 and August 2016, through more than 20 bilateral meetings with the Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations and through the Mechanism’s liaison office in Damascus. The Mechanism’s investigators also undertook four technical visits to Damascus.”
In February 2017, Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution targeting Syria for sanctions which was based on the conclusions of the August 2016 OPCW report regarding three specific allegations of chemical weapon use. A detailed examination of the original report was published by analyst Charles Shoebridge on March 1, 2017, at the time of the Security Council resolution which was vetoed. He concluded that the OPCW report is deeply flawed. Shoebridge wrote, “The information [in the OPCW report] is really very weak, and the investigators themselves confirm that.”
Here is an excerpt from the OPCW report which describes some of the conditions of its work (from pages 8 and 9 of report):
27. The lack of access to the locations under investigation owing to the dire security situation on the ground affected the manner in which the Mechanism was able to conduct its investigation. Visits to certain locations would have facilitated the ability of the Mechanism to confirm specific locations of interest , collect comparative environmental samples , identify new witnesses and physically evaluate the material of interest to it (e.g., remnants).
28. Notwithstanding the authority extended to it under resolution 2235 (2015), in particular under paragraph 7 thereof, the Mechanism could not compel the submission of information or documents to it. It thus relied on the voluntary submission of information by sources in possession of relevant information. Similarly, it interviewed only those individuals who willingly agreed to be interviewed without any remuneration. Given the voluntary nature of the information collection process, both parties had to agree to specific terms of cooperation, which addressed confidentiality, national security and the safety of individuals.
29. In addition, the following factors affected the investigation: (a) the investigation was being carried out, in some cases, more than two years after the incident ; (b) the lack of a chain of custody for some of the material received; (c) the source of information and material was of secondary or tertiary nature; (d) some of the information material, including that depicting the size and nature of the incident, was misleading; and (e) finding independent sources of information that could provide access to individuals and information material proved difficult.
30. The findings are based on information collected and corroborated by the Mechanism over a five-month period and are representative of the amount and quality of information that it collected in a highly sensitive political environment surrounding a continuing conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic. The conditions referred to above made the investigation exceptionally time consuming and required significant trust-building and finding ways of engaging with various sources of information…
The report confirmed what it called use of chemical weapons in three of the nine cases it examined. Here is what it reported (pages 13 and 14 of report):
- On April 21, 2014, the Syrian government released a “toxic substance” [unindentified in the report] when it bombed a building in the town of Talmanes.
- On March 16, 2015, Syrian government forces dropped a device releasing a substance “matching the characteristics of chlorine” on a house in the town of Sarmin.
- On Aug 21, 2015, Islamic State forces deployed a weapon containing mustard gas in the town of Marea.
Here is how an Aug 30, 2016 news report by Reuters explained these same “chlorine gas” findings, in its introductory paragraph: “Russia questioned on Tuesday a report by the United Nations and a global chemical weapons watchdog that blamed Syrian government forces for two chlorine gas attacks, saying the U.N. Security Council could not use the conclusions to impose sanctions.”
In September 2016, U.S. journalist Robert Parry published an analysis of a different UN report which concerned events in 2013 and was published in 2014. Parry explained in September 2016:
The UN report wasn’t officially available until the end of August [2016?], but even then it was extremely difficult to access at the UN’s Web site. This week, I finally reached a UN press representative who walked me through the maze of links required to get to the right page, but it turned out that the page had been off-line since last Friday, the press aide said. Finally, on Tuesday, I was sent a link that worked.
Though these technical glitches may well have been coincidental, the effect was to delay any critical review of the UN’s report. By the time its evidentiary and logical gaps could be examined by the public, the conventional wisdom had already solidified regarding the Syrian government’s guilt.
The weblink offered by Parry in his article does not lead to the report; it leads to a general website of UN reports. The Toronto Star is Canada’s largest circulation print newspaper and a key backer of the governing Liberal Party in Ottawa which now advocates ‘regime-change’ in Syria. An editorial in the Star on April 10 supported the April 7, 2017 U.S. missile strike against Syria, saying the attack was the “right and moral thing to do.”
Did Assad really use sarin?, by Paul Gottinger, CounterPunch, April 12, 2017
Trump withholds Syria-sarin evidence, by Robert Parry, Consortium News, April 12, 2017
To Russia with more Russia-bashing, by Nat Parry, Consortium News, April 12, 2017
Now that President Trump is bashing Russia, not resetting relations, the mainstream U.S. media has gone from pushing “Russia-gate” conspiracies to decrying doubts about U.S. government anti-Russia claims.
… There are also serious doubts as to whether Syria even possesses the chemical weapons in question, with the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons noting that since 2013, “all of the chemical weapons declared by Syria were removed and destroyed outside of Syrian territory.”
While some governments have claimed that Syria’s declaration about its chemical weapons program may have been incomplete, the OPCW stresses that it has adapted itself “in unprecedented ways” in efforts “to remove, transport and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile in the midst of an active conflict zone.” …
… In addition to the doubts that have been raised at the United Nations, a number of the U.S.’s closest G7 allies have refused to implement additional sanctions against Syria without proof of Assad’s guilt. As the BBC reported on April 11, “Sanctions against Russian and Syria will not be put in place until after an investigation into last week’s apparent chemical attack, British government sources said. Members of the G7 group of leading industrialized nations agreed to delay implementing sanctions until there was ‘hard and irrefutable evidence’ over the alleged chemical attack.”
Yet the New York Times and other mainstream U.S. outlets continue to report as undisputed fact that Assad’s government intentionally carried out this attack, and furthermore, that Moscow knew about it in advance…
Related letters to the Toronto Star editor, published on April 15, 2017 under the title ‘Trudeau’s support for U.S. action against Syria is astonishing’
Re: Trudeau following Trump’s dangerous path on Syria, by Thomas Walkom, columnist, Toronto Star, April 12, 2017
1. I appreciated Thomas Walkom’s clear insights into the crisis in Syria.
It is important to note that the U.S. missile attack was illegal. Unilateral attacks, without UN approval or without imminent fear of an attack, are illegal. But I have been astounded at the Trudeau government’s seemingly automatic approval of the U.S. action. While spokespeople for the U.K. government, the UN and even Trudeau himself had stated that the chemical attack required investigation, that cool-headed appraisal ended quickly with Trudeau’s supplication to the U.S. and his mind-boggling reference to supporting regime change.
Other attempts at regime change around the world have yielded many failures and led to the deaths of many innocent people. But it seems that, in order to appease an erratic and suddenly interventionist president, we have jumped in to support this ill-conceived and war-mongering U.S. position. Who would we install? How will this end? I doubt anyone can say, since Syria is a mess. There are many actors on this stage and none offer a palatable alternative to Assad.
I am outraged by Trudeau’s knee-jerk reaction. But, if I hoped that the loyal opposition might provide some balance, I was sadly disappointed. I watched Conservative Peter Kent on CPAC describe Trump’s actions as “courageous.” Disgusting.
–Bruce Van Dieten, Toronto
2. It is astonishing that a prime minister whose government has taken months to find a problem (Mali?) to match its preconceived solution (peacekeeping), only to halt that process due to uncertainty around the Trump administration, has taken a mere week to determine that the solution to the far more intractable and bloody conflict in Syria is for Bashar Assad to be deposed, based, it seems, on the certainty of the Trump administration.
–Kristian A. Kennedy, Toronto
3. It’s fascinating to watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s lightning change of heart. A few days ago, he was publicly cautioning that there still wasn’t firm evidence about who was responsible for the gas attack in Syria. Now, despite still having no firm evidence of culpability, he is stating that Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible and that his regime must go.
You wonder whether Trudeau’s Washington handlers yanked his leash, whether he just decided — after watching U.S. President Donald Trump in action — that hysteria is a good enough basis for conducting international relations, or whether he thought that playing the tough guy could rescue his sagging poll numbers, as it seems to have done for Trump. Whatever the case may be, how reassuring that bugbears like evidence aren’t tying his hands, even when it comes to fanning the flames in a conflict that could tip us over into a world war.
–Andrew Brooks, Toronto
4. Dear Prime Minister: I suggest that before you so quickly decide that deposing Assad is the way to go, take a lesson from what happened in Iraq and Libya when their leaders were deposed. Things ended up much worse than they were before. Deposing Assad is tempting, but could give Daesh just what it’s looking for: an Islamic state to call their own. At the very least, you should know who/what will replace Assad before diving in.
–Al Yolles, Toronto
5. My faith in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has nosedived after the blind support afforded to the Trump regime in removing the legitimate president of Syria, Bashar Assad. Trudeau should have learned from his predecessors about the horrific consequences of such an act. The aftermath of invading Iraq in 2003 on the wrong premise of weapons of mass destruction by then-president George W. Bush is vividly ingrained in our minds. Fourteen years later, history is repeating itself.
The most lucrative solution of peace in Syria is for the West and its allies to stop arming the opposition with arms, ammunitions and chemical weapons. On the other side of the coin, if it is proved beyond any doubt that Assad has used chemical weapons, he should be charged in the International Criminal Court.
–Raza Kara, Richmond Hill
6. Well said! Words of reason, few and little of which we have seen emanating from Washington or Ottawa on this serious humanitarian situation in Syria.
For all their faults, at least Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien stood firm against the Yankee imperialists, choosing to be on the side of caution and rationality, unlike their yogic-flying, Liberal Party protégé, the millennially altered Justin Trudeau now occupying the national premiership.
The situation is made worse by the Conservative and NDP caucuses jumping on board — an opposition showing no alternative critical capacity to argue for peace over war, choosing instead to blindly back the dark and deadly forces of corporate-inspired and American-led military-industrial opportunism.
So little is being said or argued against war in this nation these days, be it in its 100th-anniversary remembrance of Vimy Ridge or in its approach to the savage internecine civil war being waged in Syria. Only its glorification. Where has the peace movement in this country retired to?
–Mario Godlewski, Toronto
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