Obama’s Novel Lawyering to Bomb Syria

Exclusive: The U.S. government likes international law when it serves Washington’s purposes, but not when it constrains U.S. desires to use military force. Then, the rules are bent, ignored or subjected to novel lawyering, as President Obama is doing with airstrikes into Syria, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The Obama administration has devised an extraordinary legal justification for carrying out bombing attacks inside Syria — that the United States and its Persian Gulf allies have the right to defend Iraq against the Islamic State because the Syrian government is unable to stop the cross-border terror group.

“The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself,” said the U.S. letter delivered by Ambassador Samantha Power to United Nations officials. “Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria in order to eliminate the ongoing ISIL [Islamic State] threat to Iraq, including by protecting Iraqi citizens from further attacks and by enabling Iraqi forces to regain control of Iraq’s borders.”

President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, a leading “liberal interventionist,” following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Yet, beyond the danger to world order if such an expansive theory is embraced by the international community (does anyone remember how World War One got started?), there is the hypocrisy of the U.S. government and many of those same Gulf allies arming, training and funding Syrian rebels for the purpose of preventing the Syrian military from controlling its territory and then citing that lack of control as the rationale to ignore Syria’s sovereignty.

In other words, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and other enemies of Syria covertly backed the rebels inside Syria and watched as many of them including thousands of the U.S.-preferred “moderates” took their newly acquired military skills to al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist organizations. Then, the U.S. and its allies have the audacity to point to the existence of those terror groups inside Syria as a rationale for flying bombing raids into Syria.

Another alarming part of the U.S. legal theory is that among this new “coalition of the willing” the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan only Jordan shares a border with Syria. So, this novel principle would mean that distant countries have the right to destabilize a country from afar and then claim the destabilization justifies mounting military attacks inside that country.

Such a theory if accepted as a new standard of behavior could wreak havoc on international order which is based on the principle of national sovereignty. The U.S. theory also stands in marked contrast to Washington’s pious embrace of strict readings of international law when denouncing Russia just this summer for trying to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine from brutal assaults by the U.S.-backed coup regime in Kiev.

In Ukraine, the Obama administration rejected any and all mitigating circumstances, such as the overthrow of an elected president and the coup regime’s use of artillery, airstrikes and even neo-Nazi militias to suppress eastern Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population. In the Ukraine case, the Obama administration insisted that national sovereignty was inviolable despite the fact that the Feb. 22 coup had violated Ukraine’s constitutional order and had produced a human rights disaster.

An entirely different set of rules were applied to Syria, where President Barack Obama decided that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go” and where Obama authorized the CIA to provide arms, training and money for supposedly “moderate” rebels. Other U.S. “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, supported some of the more extreme anti-Assad groups.

Israel’s right-wing Likud government also was eager for “regime change” in Syria as were America’s influential neoconservatives who saw Assad’s overthrow as a continuation of their strategy of removing Middle East leaders regarded as hostile to Israel. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the first on the list with Syria and Iran to follow. In those cases, the application of international law was entirely optional.

Before President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. government came up with another convenient argument, claiming the war was an act of American self-defense because otherwise Hussein might give his “weapons of mass destruction” to al-Qaeda for use against U.S. targets. As it turned out, Hussein had no WMDs and was a bitter enemy of al-Qaeda, which didn’t exist in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion.

The overthrow and subsequent execution of Hussein turned Iraq into a cauldron of bloody chaos, pitting Shiites against Sunnis and creating a fertile environment for a group of brutal Sunni extremists who took the name “al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Getting Assad

But Official Washington is slow to learn lessons. In 2011, the Obama administration’s “liberal interventionists” threw their weight behind a Sunni-led uprising to oust Assad, who runs a harsh but largely secular government with key support from Alawites, Shiites, Christians and other minorities who feared Sunni extremism.

As with Iraq, Syria’s sectarian violence drew in many Sunni extremists, including jihadists associated with al-Qaeda, particularly the Nusra Front but also “al-Qaeda in Iraq” which rebranded itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or simply the Islamic State. Eventually, al-Qaeda leaders rejected the Islamic State because it had become a rival of the Nusra Front and because its brutality was  too graphic even for al-Qaeda.

Despite the growing radicalism of Syrian rebels, Official Washington’s influential neocons and the “liberal interventionists” continued the drumbeat for ousting Assad, a position also shared by Israeli leaders who went so far as to indicate they would prefer Damascus to fall to al-Qaeda extremists rather than have Iranian ally Assad retain control. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Israel Sides with Syrian Jihadists.”]

Whenever there was a chance to push Obama into ordering a U.S. military assault on Assad’s government, “the Assad-must-go crowd” pressed the argument. For instance, a still-mysterious Sarin gas attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, was immediately blamed on Assad’s forces. The neocons and the “liberal interventionists” demanded an air war to punish the Syrian government and possibly open the way for a rebel victory.

This pressure on Obama mounted despite strong doubts within the U.S. intelligence community that Assad’s forces were responsible. Some evidence pointed to rebel extremists trying to create a provocation to bring the U.S. military into the war on their side.

Partly because of those doubts, President Obama backed away from a military strike at the last minute and accepted a compromise arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin to get Assad to surrender his entire chemical weapons arsenal. Since then, additional evidence has emerged raising doubts about the government’s complicity and pointing more toward the rebels. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Collapsing Syria-Sarin Case.”]

Nevertheless, much of the mainstream U.S. news media, including the foreign-page editors of the New York Times who have increasingly fallen under the spell of neocon ideology, have taken to citing the Syrian government’s guilt for the Sarin gas attack as flat fact, rather than a point in serious dispute. It seems no journalism standards need apply when demonized figures, such as Assad or Putin, are facing accusations.

Israel’s Shift

Yet, with al-Qaeda-connected terrorists controlling part of the Israeli border along the Golan Heights, the Israeli government began to reverse its position on demanding Assad’s removal. As the Israeli investigative Web site, Debka Files, reported on Sept. 9, citing military and intelligence sources:

“The Israeli government has radically changed tack on Syria, reversing a policy and military strategy that were long geared to opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad This reversal has come about in the light of the growing preponderance of radical Islamists in the Syrian rebel force fighting Assad’s army in the Quneitra area since June. Al Qaeda’s Syrian Nusra front is estimated to account by now for 40-50 percent – or roughly, 4,000-5,000 Islamists – of the rebel force deployed just across Israel’s Golan border.

“Nusra Front jihadis fighting alongside insurgents on the various Syrian battlefronts made a practice of surreptitiously infiltrating their non-Islamist brothers-at-arms, a process which the latter’s foreign allies, the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, either ignored or were unaware of. These tactics began to pay off in the past month, when large numbers of moderate rebels suddenly knocked on the Nusra Front’s door and asked to join.”

I have confirmed this Israeli shift with my own sourcing. But it’s unclear whether Israel’s change of heart will cause any second thoughts among U.S. neocons who typically conform their policy recommendations to Israeli interests. However, on the Syrian case, the neocons and their “liberal interventionist” friends might be too dug in on ousting Assad to adjust.

Indeed, all of Official Washington seems incapable of admitting that its wishful thinking about Syrian “moderates” may have caused another major strategic error in the Mideast. The unrealistic “group think” about “moderates” contributed to a power vacuum in Syria that has pulled in some of the most vicious Islamic extremists on earth and turned parts of Syria into a new base of operation for international terrorism.

For his part, President Obama recognized the folly of training Syrian “moderates” just last month he dismissed the notion as a “fantasy” that was “never in the cards” as a workable strategy but he nevertheless resurrected it last week as a key part of his new Syrian initiative. He won solid congressional majorities in support of spending some $500 million on the training scheme.

The most charitable view of Obama’s strange flip-flop is that he feared being accused of aiding Assad if the U.S. bombing campaign against the Islamic State indirectly strengthened Assad’s hold on Damascus. So, Obama tacked on what he knew to be a useless appendage, a tough-sounding plan to “ramp up” the “moderate” rebel forces.

Similarly, Obama’s harsh rhetoric about refusing to coordinate the airstrikes with the Syrian government may be more a concession to the sensibilities of the neocons and the “liberal interventionists” than a reality.

I was told last week that U.S. intelligence had used Russian government go-betweens to clear the airstrikes with the Syrian government which gave quiet permission for the bombing campaign in parts of Syria. I was further told on Monday that U.S. military officials and their Syrian counterparts have met face-to-face to ensure that the U.S.-led airstrikes would encounter no Syrian air defenses.

That tacit approval from the Syrian government could be a sound legal basis for the airstrikes, much as other governments, such as Yemen and Pakistan, have tolerated or even encouraged U.S. air attacks on domestic enemies associated with al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Yet, Obama may find it politically impossible to state the truth that a “realist” approach to foreign affairs sometimes requires working with disreputable governments. So, instead of simply saying that Syria has no objection to these bombing raids, Obama has invented a dangerous new legal theory to justify the violation of a country’s sovereignty.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

14 comments for “Obama’s Novel Lawyering to Bomb Syria

  1. TestPilotDummy
    September 28, 2014 at 14:17

    A pair of protected people to claim TREASON.
    Then it’s all downhill for these oath breaking scum.

  2. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 20:06

    Operation Tomahawk The Caliph
    By Pepe Escobar

    Nobody is talking about collateral damage – although the body count is already on, and The Caliph’s slick PR operation will be certainly advertising them on YouTube. As for The Caliph’s goons, they will predictably use Mao tactics and dissolve like fish in the sea. The Pentagon will soon be bombing vast tracts of desert for nothing – if that’s not the case already.

    There is no “Free Syrian Army” – that Qatari myth – anymore. There are no “moderate” jihadis left in Syria. They are all fighting for The Caliph or for al-Zawahiri. And still the Obama administration extracted a Congressional OK to train and weaponize “moderate rebels”.

    US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power – Undisputed Queen of Batshit Craziness – at least got one thing right. Their “training” will “service these troops in the same struggle that they’ve been in since the beginning of this conflict against the Assad regime.” So yes – this “sustained campaign” is the back door to “Assad must go” remixed.

    People who are really capable of defeating The Caliph’s goons don’t tomahawk. They are the Syrian Arab Army (roughly 35,000 dead so far killed in action against ISIS/ISIL/IS and/or al-Qaeda); Hezbollah; Iranian Revolutionary Guards advisers/operatives; and Kurdish militias. It won’t happen. This season’s blockbuster is the Empire of Chaos bombing The Caliph and the ghost in the GWOT machine. Two tickets for the price of one. Because we protect you even from “unknown unknown” evil.

  3. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 15:00

    US Aggression Drags World into Age of Global Anarchy
    By Tony Cartalucci

    Unlike other campaigns of naked military conquest, the US appears to have foregone the facade of UN approval, moral or legal justification, and has instead applied a scatter-shot strategy of proposing multiple pretexts for its aggression – all equally implausible, many contradictory – hoping at least one will stick.

    After much hand-wringing and complaining about Russia’s actions in Ukraine – citing the violation of “international norms” and international law, the US has itself has clearly violated all the rules it has hypocritically held the rest of the world to under threat of sanctions, subversion, and outright military force. Without so much as a fig leaf of legality or legitimacy, and with criminal regimes as its partners, the US has committed the ultimate act of undermining the so-called “international order” it itself poses as creator of and arbiter over.

    Such reckless abandonment and unprecedented illegitimacy signifies that this “international order” may have already collapsed. Just as Adolf Hitler abandoned the facade of “national defense” in his conquest of Europe, the United States has now dispensed with international consensus and international “rule of law” in its pursuit of global hegemony.

    What unfolds next will be a zero sum contest between the West’s naked imperial conquest and those caught up in its path. The time for appealing to international law is over as America drags the world into yet another dark age of global anarchy.

  4. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 14:55

    United States Launches Airstrikes in Syria – Real Target Is Assad
    By Brandon Turbeville

    the reality is that the plan is nothing more than a plan to detect and destroy the Syrian government to benefit of ISIS and other fundamentalist groups that the United States has created, funded, trained, and directed since the very beginning of the Syrian crisis.

  5. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 14:29

    Syria becomes the 7th predominantly Muslim country bombed by 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate
    By Glenn Greenwald

    It was just over a year ago that Obama officials were insisting that bombing and attacking Assad was a moral and strategic imperative. Instead, Obama is now bombing Assad’s enemies while politely informing his regime of its targets in advance. It seems irrelevant on whom the U.S. wages war; what matters it that it be at war, always and forever.

    Six weeks of bombing hasn’t budged ISIS in Iraq, but it has caused ISIS recruitment to soar. That’s all predictable: the U.S. has known for years that what fuels and strengthens anti-American sentiment (and thus anti-American extremism) is exactly what they keep doing: aggression in that region. If you know that, then they know that. At this point, it’s more rational to say they do all of this not despite triggering those outcomes, but because of it. Continuously creating and strengthening enemies is a feature, not a bug, as it is what then justifies the ongoing greasing of the profitable and power-vesting machine of Endless War.

  6. Abe
    September 24, 2014 at 12:12

    Res ipsa loquitur (“The thing itself speaks”)

    “This is an illegal war.” – Law Professor Jonathan Turley
    Turley is an American lawyer, legal scholar, writer, commentator, legal analyst,
    and professor of law at The George Washington University Law School.

    • Gregory Kruse
      September 25, 2014 at 08:09

      Apparently, women with ironic names such as Sam(son) Power and Victoria NewLand must be promoted to high levels of foreign policy.

  7. Hillary
    September 24, 2014 at 10:39

    The US “INTERVENTION” in the Middle East and the subsequent chaos – is the gift that keeps giving for Israel and the US war machine.

    This “ War” on Arab countries along with its other Middle East policies has unleashed the furies that have given rise to the Islamic Jihad and “ISIS” as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s gift to the world

    Remember Tom Friedman saying ” I could give you the names of 25 people most of them Jews and all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office, who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”

    Has anyone heard that ISIS leader “Baghdadi, “according to sources traceable to Edward Snowden and uncovered by Iran’s intelligence services, is really Simon Elliot, a Jewish agent for the Zionist intelligence agency Mossad. The plan was to invade countries that constitute a threat to the Israeli entity in order to establish the biblical ‘Greater Israel.”

    Meanwhile the cultural heritage of the once proud Middle East is being destroyed along with its people, infrastructure and everything else…

  8. toby
    September 24, 2014 at 07:22

    Why doesn’t Russia make a deal with Assad, giving THEM the rights to Syrian airspace for control of ISIS?

    • onno
      September 24, 2014 at 09:08

      Unlike USA, Russia respects the sovereignty of nations and doesn’t like to interfere in domestic issues. Sectarian wars cannot be won by bombing and never will . Since WW II USA hasn’t won ONE war. Apparently defense lobbyists convinced the White House that USA needs a war to improve its economy.
      UN sponsors this week a conference concerning the environment for this long term problem there is NEVER money, but for wars,suffering and destruction there always is? How come?

  9. Hillary
    September 24, 2014 at 07:00

    The destruction of the Middle East seems to be following the Bible Prophecies .
    The G.W Bush Gog/Magog prophesy was unsuccessfully used to persuade the French to join the US invasion yet AMAZINGLY that CONVERSATION is off limits in the MSM .
    From the beginning of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan US armed forces were equipped with translated Judeo/Christian scriptures in their “knapsack”.

    The original “defense of the realm” plan for Netanyahu was revamped as the neocon “Plan for a new American Century” and slowly but surely the Middle East is being recreated to the likeness of the rulers in Tel Aviv and Washington.
    It is a wonder that these Christian , Muslim and Jewish “Gods” don’t fight it out up there in Heaven instead of getting the humans to do the killing and destruction down here on Earth ?
    General Wesley Clark: Wars Were Planned – Seven Countries In Five Years ..

  10. onno
    September 24, 2014 at 06:25

    USA does whatever it likes to do, they don’t respect UN, don’t obey decisions by the International Court of Justice, didn’t join the International Criminal Court in the Hague either. On the contrary it threatens this Court that USA would use MILITARY FORCE to free US war criminals. USA invaded Cuba (Bay of Pigs) to kill Fidel Castro, mined harbor of Nicaragua, used a toxic DIOXIN in Vietnam killing thousands of women and children, shoots down Iran Commercial aircraft killing all 290 passengers on board and never apologized and now covers up the downing of Malaysian M17 with 298 innocent people on board to blame Russia.
    Now USA is trying to repair its STUPID foreign policy in Iraq after it killed its dictator Saddam Hussein and installed a pro-American Shiite-government in Iraq. Again the Iraqi’s are suffering because of USA interference in their DOMESTIC affairs while monthly up to 800 civilians lose their lives because of its religious differences.
    This culture is more than 3000 years old and Obama believes he can control this by bombing! Indeed this is more stupid and he even graduated from Harvard. And now even more Iraqi’s and Syrian civilians will suffer, but what the heck they are only Arabs and that is ONLY COLLATERAL DAMAGE for US politicians.
    Soon we can expect another 9/11 attack on NYC, Washington, Boston or LA and then the American people will feel what ‘stupid’ politicians they have. I think NO American in his right mind is interested in having a Vietnam War number 2, but Iraq will be even more bloody and may even result in WW III

  11. jer
    September 24, 2014 at 03:17

    The US is bombing the alleged extremist Islamic hoodlum group in Syria even though it is aware that its ally Turkey is busily providing aid and shelter to that same bunch of people at the Turk-Syrian border regions. It is clearly the work of satan nothing more.

    • Abe
      September 24, 2014 at 15:08

      The accompanying photograph of Samantha Power, the UN Ambassador from Hell, fervently gesticulating as if she were Obama’s anima urging him to ‘do the right thing,’ is obscene.

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