Remember this fateful sequence of events. It began on 21 August 2013, when Bashar al-Assad gassed 1500 of his own civilians. His deadly brother Maha al-Assad, and their Alawi loyalists, had just dumped a chemical cannonade in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, full of civilians but allegedly controlled by Syrian rebels. The leader of the Free World, US President Obama, swore that Assad’s Baathist regime had crossed ‘a red line’.
American warships nearby in the Mediterranean armed and pointed their conventional Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s chemical factories. And then the wrong Miliband – Ed – abrogated a promise he made to the conservative PM Cameron, that he would back military action against the brutal Assad thugs. Sadly, the British parliament narrowly voted down UK support for a response to the use of chemical weapons; the first victory of the Corbynites.
Inevitably this led to the Syrian regime remorselessly using its conventional, clumsy weapons to continue killing civilians.
Obama ‘lost his bottle’, going for a fateful walk with his accommodationist national security advisor. The Tomahawks returned to their silos. Syria’s chemical factories were preserved and the President cut a side deal with Putin. Serge Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, guaranteed to the international community that Assad would voluntarily hand over chemical weapons. He did, sort of. Not all of them. And not according to the schedule. Above all, in the two years since he was allowed to include conventional weapons, which he used to keep butchering his own civilian populations in cities across Syria.
Homs, Aleppo, Deraa, etc, all had weekly, sometimes daily, attacks from Syrian regime helicopters and aircraft, who, from high altitudes, dumped barrel bombs with high explosives and sometimes chemicals, including chlorine, on suburbs of those benighted Syrian cities who were vaguely thought to be bases for rebels. Little military purpose is served by these cowardly, undifferentiated high-altitude attacks. Eighty-five per cent of the civilian casualties in Syria this past year were caused by these barrel bombs, used by the Assad regime as conventional weapons.
Over 200,000 Syrian civilians, according to the latest UN report, have been killed in the revolution against Assad that emerged from the Arab Spring. Worthies, like former Foreign Minister Bob Carr, arrive at the Syrian–Jordanian border, and witness the human misery of the refugee outflow from Syria. They wring their hands, sometimes increase aid to those wretched people, but no one does anything effective about the Assad regime from whom the vast majority of these people are fleeing. In northern Iraq and Western Syria, the minorities, who, like their churches and shrines – which, as one Assyrian Christian Minister recently told me – were there before Islam, (ie. the 7th century), are the principal victims of the barbarism of the jihadists attracted from all over the world by the rapists, vandals and crucifiers of Daesh. Today, over 1.9 million Syrian refugees wallow in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon (in a country of 4 million!) and 630,000 in Jordan.
Australia will take 12,000 Syrian refugees. The Americans have announced a pathetic extra quota of 10,000. Saudi Arabia and the fabulously wealthy kingdoms of the Gulf have taken zero. Meanwhile, Mr Putin, and to a lesser extent, our ‘greatest trading partner China’ veto any action to resolve the conflict at the UN Security Council. For the last 5 years, since the Syrians naively rose against the Assad dictatorship in response to the Arab Spring, we have seen the displacement and largest mass movement and misery of people since WWII.
And as tens of thousands try to cross from Turkey, Greece and Macedonia, into Hungary, Austria and Germany, Mr Putin claps his hands at the chaos. Now he has a Russian air wing with accompanying Spetsnaz, that are installed to protect Assad’s remaining Alawi heartland around Latakia and Tartus, where the Russians have a naval base, (dwarfing anything American in the Eastern Mediterranean).
Putin’s gambit for a Russian/Iranian imposed solution in Syria follows the successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, in which Moscow also played a key role. Both countries have a huge investment in the Syrian regime, which along with being a client state provides Russia with its only remaining Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base in port of Tartus. Sadly, it looks likely to be meekly accepted by a neutered US and allies.
Now it is impossible for the Americans to agree to the Turkish proposal for a no-fly zone (no barrel bombs) over a humanitarian corridor inside Syria on the Turkish border, something advocated by Tanya Plibersek. This is what the Turks wanted more than two years ago: some safe haven for Syrian civilians.
Tough Turk Erdogan does not come to this humanitarian disaster with clean hands, having allowed his country to be used by the jihadists to infiltrate across the border into Syria, to say nothing about Turkey’s ugly treatment of the Kurds. It might have been a place where aid agencies could have safely provided assistance to Syrian civilians, who have filled the surrounding countries and whose overflow is now directly marching on Europe. 500,000 this year! We have over-learned and over-corrected for the Bush–Rumsfeld failures after Iraq in 2003.
As counter insurgency expert David Kilcullen has explained, the failure to leave a small American force in Western Iraq, and allowing Assad to cross the chemical weapons red line, gave rise to Daesh and to the tragedy unfolding in the lands around Syria, and in the pitiful refugee rush on Europe. Now the ground is being prepared post the Iranian nuclear deal, for America and its allies including Australia, to go along with a Pax Sovietica in Syria, a coup sees Assad removed, but the Baathist stooges stay and, under Russian/Iranian guidance, a regime is installed which guarantees Shiite power from Hezbollah in Lebanon to theBaathists in Damascus and onto the pro-Iranian government, backed by the Shiite majority in Iraq. Iran as principal beneficiary of this proposed arrangement meanwhile is about to receive a rush of $150 billion in reserves, freed up by the end of sanctions, fed like heroin to the unreconstructed regime in Tehran.
Putin will be pleased that the countries of Eastern and Central Europe raised the drawbridges on their borders. The refugee rush is unsustainable even for generous Germany. It cements in place increasingly right-wing regimes like Orban’s in Hungary, who share Russia’s hatred of the European project. Indeed, many of these far-right parties, including Mrs Le Pen’s National Front in France, are directly funded by Mr Putin’s FSB government in Moscow. I’m sure Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande think as I do: oh, for the days of Pax Americana!
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Michael Danby is MP for Melbourne Ports
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