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Malcolm Fraser: Syria attack ‘illegal’

Will the US attack Syria in the face growing international condemnation and opposition? EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser has attacked American plans to launch attacks on the Assad regime in Syria, describing them as illegal and reminiscent of the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

US president Barack Obama has said the Assad regime must face “international consequences” after a chemical weapon attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus that the White House blames on Assad forces.

However plans to form an international “coalition of the willing” were dealt a severe blow when the UK House of Commons voted to oppose any British military involvement in an intervention in Syria.

Speaking after the vote, British prime minister David Cameron said:

It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.

With Australia assuming the presidency of the United Nations Security Council on Monday, the issue of Syria will dominate discussions. Russia and China have consistently vetoed American attempts to gain international approval for action against the Assad regime.

The Conversation spoke with Malcolm Fraser today about the legal and geopolitical implications of any possible US attack on Syria and how Australia should respond in the event of any such raids.

Would any US attack on Syria have any standing in international law?

An attack by the United States alone? Not at all. War is outlawed absolutely except for self-defence or except [in the case of] sanctions of the Security Council.

Now if every country is going to interpret, well say, “I have a right to go to war, why should America have the right to go to war, not Vietnam, not China, not somebody else?”, then the only way you can stop total chaos is by having pretty rigid rules. Now, the British parliament has voted (285 to 272) against going to war.

It’s a major slap in the face for David Cameron who’s been like a child with a new toy in promoting the benefit of a response. The trouble is, people aren’t always fools and politicians who try to take them to be fools, at some point, get caught out.

What does the Commons vote tell us about world opinion on attacking Syria?

I think it reminds us of Iraq. At the time of Iraq, there were many people who believed - no, not believed, who knew - that Britain and America were lying and that the Australian government was lying. Whether the Australian government bothered to find out for itself, or whether it was blindingly following America, I suppose you’d have to ask the government of the day, but there was enough evidence around to know that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and Syria so far bears a horrible resemblance.

They’re saying that Syria had used these chemical weapons. But in every statement I’ve seen from the White House and indeed from British intelligence, qualifications like this were used - “it’s highly likely; it’s probable that” - in other words, even those sources have not ruled out the possibility that somebody else used the chemical weapons and sought to blame the Syrian government for it.

UN representative Carla Del Ponte said earlier in the year there was evidence the rebels had used chemical weapons on Assad’s forces.

That does not surprise me at all because if you look at the straight, common-sense logic or interpretation, whose interests is this in?

Assad, presumably, is not totally stupid and he would know that in the current environment, where many people are against him anyway, that if he uses weapons of mass destruction against civilians – and nobody disputes that chemical weapons have been used, that part of it is not a dispute, or to me it should not be – he would know that that would give people like Cameron impetus. I think Obama has always been reticent, he’s always had some doubts, but there are people in America who’ve be putting enormous pressure on Obama, and hitherto he has been holding back. But that reticence certainly doesn’t apply to everyone in America or other people who have wanted action taken a long time ago.

Assad would know that if he uses chemical weapons, that gives those who want a war the perfect opportunity to have a massive attack against him, and that is a massive advantage to the rebels.

The rebels on the other hand know that if they can somehow use chemical weapons and blame the government of Assad, then that’s going to be of enormous advantage to them. So the common sense interpretation of the use of chemical weapons, there is an interest in the rebels using them, if they can do it and blame Assad and there’s also an equivalent interest in Assad not using the weapons.

Children pick their way through rubble in the city of Idlib, a centre of resistance to the Assad regime. AAP/Idlib

And that - coupled with the fact that the inspections team has not been allowed to finish its job, coupled with the fact that many will remember the lies in relation to Iraq - has created a great deal of doubt in many people’s minds.

Australia takes the Security Council presidency on Monday. What role should we be playing, as literally the missiles are ready to be fired?

We should play a role since we are chairman or president or custodian of the rules and laws of the Security Council. I happen to believe - I would like to think wrongly - that we will do what America asks us to do. We have not had an independent mind on serious foreign policy issues and it’s time we stopped being America’s lackey.

Given the House of Commons vote in the United Kingdom - and the UK has traditionally acted, as it did in Iraq and Libya, as the fig leaf for United States - if the US goes it alone, will they be acting as a rogue nation?

Well they’re certainly acting outside the law. You would do well in The Conversation to publish or provide a link to an article by Morton Abramowitz called How America’s Exceptionalism Dooms US Foreign Policy. He was one of the founders of the International Crisis Group.

America believes the rules established for ordinary mortals do not have to be followed by America because America is exceptional. These views have become all the more prevalent since 1990. For the first time we have an America virtually without restraint because even though America was the most powerful single nation, they treaded gently if they were touching the others’ basic interests. They avoided conflict and avoided undue provocation.

You know, people were talking about mutually assured destruction, but there was some kind of mutual restraint which each imposed on the other. Since 1990, America reigned supreme and has none of that restraint.

That makes America a quite different country to one that existed before and you’ve got a combination of the ideas of American exceptionalism, which have gained much more strength that they’ve ever had in America, although they’ve been there from the birth of the nation. There have been many presidents who’ve claimed they’ve had a direct line to God. We in Australia may think that’s improbable, but McKinley, when he was announcing America engaging in war to capture the Philippines, he was saying before going into the Philippines that God told him to take the Philippines.

Well you know that might sound ludicrous, but it’s actually what happened and now we have an America where the idea of the manifest destiny, America’s duty to persuade, if not force the rest of the world to be in America’s image, that’s not operating under any sense of restraint.

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