Syrian crisis shows no major players should be trusted

Around lunch time yesterday (N.Z.T.), France, Britain and the United States launched strikes against chemical weapon targets in Syria. The strikes which come after a chemical weapons attack against defenceless citizens in Douma a few days ago, have inflamed the rhetoric from both Moscow and Washington. But as we wait to see what kind of response Russia will make, it is also clear that the major media agencies in both countries have been far from freely dispensing the truth.

The only thing New Zealand should be relentlessly pushing aside from a truce of some sort is a neutral set of inspectors not from any U.N. Security Council country, being allowed to go in, unfettered and report direct to the Secretary General. I am specifically thinking or Switzerland or Sweden, New Zealand, Brazil and maybe Singapore – nations that are known for maintaining original foreign policy, but also crossing a diverse geographical and ethnic divide.

I do not trust the White House or the Kremlin. Nor do I trust RT or Fox. All of these networks have a degree of bias that undermines journalistic integrity. RT is known – by its own admission to talk direct to Kremlin. Its blind support of the incumbent suggests to me it potentially faces consequences if it writes an original thought. whilst Fox is a neo-conservative  channel that was established by Rupert Murdoch as a sort of light entertainment/news channel. The company they keep in terms of viewers and commentators in their comments section suggest a channel that supports war against Iran and North Korea, ignorant of the consequences and dismissive of anyone who raises a counter argument.

The spiels that the media feed the people, sometimes with a clear government spin, as is the case with Russia should be checked by a fact finder first. In the case of the suspect chemical weapon facilities in Syria, the French, British and Americans should have given the inspectors a chance to confirm them as chemical weapon facilities. Governments by default have the means to hide information so that it cannot be released. All Governments – western or otherwise have an agenda. Some are corrupted by money. Some have huge monetary resources to tap into.

In some respects Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reminds me of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Mr Castro became well known for his staunch anti-American rhetoric. Mr al-Assad might not be so staunch, but he is becoming well known for his contemptuous regard international norms and human rights. All of this has led me to wonder if he quietly agitates for a major strike by the United States so that Russia is somehow justified in a massive military retaliation – in order to deter the Americans from attacking Mr Castro got the U.S.S.R. to place medium range nuclear missiles on the island knowing there was no way the Americans would tolerate that kind of threat so close by. This is what triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations tried to divert attention when confronted at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

New Zealand needs to stick to its instincts. As a nation the only assumption we should make is that this is far from over as a crisis and has the potential to get considerably worse.


New Zealanders want nothing to do with Syria

When the news broke that the United States had fired cruise missiles at Syria, my immediate reaction was to wonder whether Russia would return fire. With Moscow furiously denouncing the strikes and warning that the United States was only one step away from a direct Russo-American confrontation, the headline writers were asking whether we are watching the opening steps of a much bigger – and worse – war.

As the surprise wore off, and the diplomatic responses started coming in from around the world – American hawks were delighted; politicians around the world were mixed with some being delighted and others being openly hostile – the response coming out of New Zealand was surprisingly clear across the board: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!

Concerns about our involvement in the war against Islamic State in Iraq, and the Syrian Civil War on one hand is growing – the escalating tensions between the two main powers means more and more people are paying attention, even if it is a war they do not want the country involved in. The time for apathy is over. It is a simple fact that a large and growing number of New Zealanders want nothing to do with the U.S. intervention in Syria.

For the following reasons:

  1. It is not a war that New Zealanders feel they have or should have anything to do with
  2. Even if the aforementioned reasoning fails, New Zealanders are distrustful of America’s motives in becoming militarily involved – just because Washington D.C. says something is right does not any more make it right than if another foreign power says so
  3. The security risks that it exposes New Zealand to are unjustifiably high and the fact that we have not been subject to a major attack is largely because of our refusal to get involved
  4. There is no obvious plan for making peace – Mr Trump, like former President Barak Obama before him is changing like the wind

I have no desire to see New Zealand get involved in any way in Middle East wars in the future unless the operation is a United Nations Security Council sanctioned one. We need to get out of there and restrict the foreign aid we give to being humanitarian and legal aid only and at the direction of relief agencies on the ground.

There is a significant number of non-military things New Zealand can do to help Syria. One of these, which would ease the plight of refugees somewhat from Syria – and other nations – is by immediately raising the refugee quota to 1500. We should build a second resettlement centre in Christchurch to take the pressure of the Mangere facility in south Auckland. A second thing would be an “Adopt a refugee” or “Adopt a family” progrmamme, whereby a refugee agency matches people wishing to adopt with refugees and they assist them with settling in New Zealand – although these programmes most likely already exist, there is a significant case for expanding them. These refugees are likely to be nervous, certainly will not know anything about New Zealand or New Zealand customs or have met any New Zealanders except perhaps those working with relief agencies.

The second strand of help we can offer is to offer assistance with gathering evidence of war crimes, and use our contants in the United Nations to support resolutions that aid and abet a peaceful end to the conflict. New Zealand’s relatively neutral standing and the fact that we are known for our support of United Nations operations, means as opposed to Russian or American officials who will be perceived by one side or the other as probably working for people with an agenda.

But Prime Minister Bill English is dreaming if he thinks New Zealanders will tolerate being dragged into a war that more and more people are realizing there is no real plan to end. Mr English would be wrong to assume that New Zealanders would support deploying the New Zealand Defence Force in the Middle East.

Get out, and, unless it is a United Nations sanctioned operation, stay out.

What if Trump strikes Syria again?

This article is deliberately not very long. It does not need to be long, as the question it is going to pose can be asked effectively in just a few words. In those few words I believe I am asking a question that is on a lot of people’s minds now that Trump has launched a military strike in Syria:

What if there is another U.S. military strike in Syria?

It depends very much on who you talk to. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow on Thursday, where he will meet his Russian counter part Sergei Lavrov, who will presumably lay down the Russian stand point in no uncertain terms. Russia has been very plain in its language thus far, going so far in the immediate aftermath of the missile strikes on Friday, N.Z.T. to warn that the United States is one step away from a direct confrontation with the Russian military. Russia has substantial military assets in Syria, in support of its client, which include air, sea and ground forces. Given all the effort that it has made in support of Syria it would seem highly improbable that Russia would back away now.

The United States for its part appears totally uncowed by Russia’s anger. It does not seem to mind the fact that Russia has made the starkest, most ominous warning short of nuclear war possible. In ordering the strikes and suggesting that there might be more to come, U.S. President Donald Trump has escalated the conflict to a level of danger, not seen since the Cold War. The nature of future strikes would probably be the same – swift and surgical – as the United States would want them to end before Russia could retaliate.

The world is understandably nervous. Everything about Mr Trump and his administration has been hawkish from the get go. With a complete disregard for the finer points of diplomacy, which might have made the strikes just that much more tolerable to the rest of the world, Mr Trump might have put America’s rivals on notice. But how far can he go before they push back, hard?

Playing with fire in Syria

When the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, I had this vision that it appeared in a region like a small but potent fire just as various Balkan conflicts 100 years earlier appeared to and – until World War One – failed to take hold. The Syrian Civil War has not yet become the terrifying fire of geopolitical hell that the one which engulfed the Balkans and ultimately all of Europe, but it does not need to. In the 100 years since, the combination of vastly greater military firepower, vested interests and proxies in the region makes the current fledgling fire a far more dangerous beast.

The knee jerk reaction of Mr Trump in ordering yesterday’s missile strikes is alarming on one hand, but not surprising on the other. Mr Trump has shown little or no regard for the rule of law or legal processes. I have heard reliably that he bypassed Congress and the Senate to allow these strikes to happen. The reactionism is worse when one considers that by waiting another 24-48 hours, he would have given other parties an opportunity to show their side of the story. Instead by striking so rapidly before the full facts were known and analysed, Mr Trump implies by his actions that he had made a conscious decision to strike anyway.

So, why is this so alarming?

The Middle East has always been a volatile place on the best of days. With the so called “War on Terrorism”, the proxy wars of Russia and the United States being played out vis-a-vis their client allies (U.S. has Israel, Syrian rebels, Saudi Arabia, Iraq; Russia has Iran, Syria and Hezbollah). Since the War on Terrorism began the danger of a super power confrontation directly involving the United States and Russia has grown exponentially.

We have two very dangerous power brokers in United States President Donald Trump and his counterpart in Russia, President Vladimir Putin. The two now find themselves in a a game of poker that is rather high stakes and no one is quite sure how it will turn out.

One exists in his job because of a heavily rigged electoral system, has steadily ramped up military spending across the board in the last decade and has a vast surveillance network to find and deal with dissenters before they become a problem. He is a master at strategy, having effectively divided Ukraine by exacerbating local tensions to justify a Russian intervention in Ukraine; deliberately building up forces in Syria to see how far he can get with pushing the United States.

The other has no experience of political systems whatsoever, but hoodwinked a super power into making him President in an election he legitimately won. He plans to “Make America Great Again” by projecting hard power; investing in industries that other nations are shying away from. His instincts are not that of the calculating strategist who is his opposite number in Moscow; but rather that of a reactionary gambler seeing how far he can go before his house of cards and dices comes crashing down.

And how does this relate to the fledgling? Mr Trump and Mr Putin are playing around with Syria almost like playing with petrol near the fire: one wrong move by other could see it take off.


New Zealand’s shared guilt for failing Aleppo

The photos and video are horrendous. The conditions on the ground unimaginable to most. In buildings pock marked with shell holes, going into the Syrian winter with no electricity, water or sewerage people cower in fear from a brutal civil war. It is a war that has brought out the worst of international geopolitics with east and west using the misery of millions of innocents to advance questionable agendas about international power and prestige.

All nations must share some responsibility for the failure of the international system of law in protecting Aleppo from military aggression and war crimes. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have compiled credible evidence of chlorine gas being used by combatants in Aleppo. Observers have reported frequent and often indiscriminate targetting of civilian facilities such as hospitals or deliberately letting ordnance land on residential areas. Russia, the Bashar al-Assad Government and Iran must bear responsibility for enabling these incidents to occur.

New Zealand is not exempt from a portion of the responsibility for the failure of international law with regards to Syria. It is not exempt from the moral responsibility to enable unfettered humanitarian relief into the country and many will agree, a country that has in the past had a great record of daring to speak up when nobody else had the gonads to do so, seems to have lost its willpower. We might be in the middle of a change of ministerial portfolio’s in the Government, but it is true that Minister for Foreign Affairs Murray McCully could have used his leverage among international players to get the violations of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war to stop.

I am not asking – though I would certainly support it – that New Zealand take more Syrian refugees. I am asking for an immediate, indefinite ceasefire to enable the innocents trapped there to get out; doctors and nurses to provide immediate medical relief. If you wish to donate to the Syria appeal run by the Red Cross go here. If you want to donate to the Syria appeal run by Oxfam go here.