by Joseph Klein
The end of "leading from behind."
President Trump displayed firm leadership in spearheading the multilateral military action taken Friday night against key facilities supporting the Syrian regime's chemical weapons program. He decided to take this action in response to the Syrian regime’s utter disregard of his red line against the continued use of chemical weapons against civilians. It not only sent a message to the Assad regime regarding the consequences of flouting a red line on chemical weapons of mass destruction set by President Trump. It was a shot across the bow of the Iranian and North Korean regimes in deterring their nuclear arms ambitions.
Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, delivered a blunt message at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Saturday that was convened at Russia’s request to discuss the military strikes conducted by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. It was the fifth meeting of the Security Council last week regarding the reported chemical attack by the Syrian regime on the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7th. All the meetings ended with no action against the Syrian regime. “The Security Council has failed in its duty to hold those who use chemical weapons to account,” Ambassador Haley declared. “That failure is largely due to Russian obstruction.”
Although the United States, the U.K. and France claimed to already have plenty of open source and intelligence evidence pointing to the Syrian regime’s culpability, the U.S. and its allies had called for the UN’s establishment of a new independent international mechanism to determine with reasonable certainty who was responsible for the Douma chemical attack. Russia, which had killed the extension of the mandate of the previous investigatory mechanism set up by the Security Council for such purpose of attribution of responsibility, blocked every effort made by several Security Council members, not just the United States, to come up with a credible alternative mechanism.
“A week has gone by in which we have talked,” Ambassador Haley said. “The time for talk ended last night. We acted to deter the future use of chemical weapons by holding the Syrian regime responsible for its atrocities against humanity.” Ambassador Haley also issued a warning to the Syrian regime and its patrons, Russia and Iran. “I spoke to the President this morning and he said if the Syrian regime uses this poison gas again, the United States is locked and loaded. When our President draws a red line, our President enforces the red line.”
The air strikes that President Trump ordered, in coordination with the U.K. and France, targeted three locations inside Syria said to be the “heart” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program. The first target included the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center at al-Mazzah Airport in Damascus; the second, an alleged chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs; and the third – an alleged chemical weapons equipment storage site and command post, also near Homs. There were no reported civilian deaths as a result of the strikes, as opposed to as many as 70 civilian deaths caused by the Douma chemical attack that had all the earmarks of Syrian regime origin. Care was taken in the planning and execution of the U.S., U.K. and French air strikes to avoid any Russian or Iranian personnel or facilities.
This is how a real commander-in-chief operates. President Trump’s action could not have contrasted more with the feckless “leading from behind” policies of the Obama administration. Most notably, former President Obama abandoned his own red line he laid down in 2012 against the use of chemical weapons in Syria when, a year later, Syrian forces killed over 1,400 people with sarin gas. Instead of striking Syrian military facilities to cripple Assad’s ability to repeat such a heinous attack when Russia had no military presence of any significance in Syria to help repel such a strike, Obama opted to trust Russia to guarantee the Syrian regime’s declaration of its complete stock of chemical weapons for removal.
“Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike,” Obama said while visiting the Philippines in April 2014. “With respect to Syria, we struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” Obama’s clueless Secretary of State John Kerry boasted during a July 2014 appearance on Meet the Press. How wrong they were! Russia failed to abide by its commitment to the Obama administration and the international community in 2013 as guarantor that the Assad regime would destroy or have removed from Syria its complete stockpile of chemical weapons. “The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” according to the New York Times, “says it has confirmed at least 34 chemical attacks since 2013, many of which it said used chlorine or sarin, a nerve agent, and were conducted by the Syrian government.”
Now, as Russia engages in an all-out diplomatic obstruction and disinformation campaign to protect the Syrian regime in its commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, President Trump and his team are reversing Obama’s retreat and reasserting America’s leadership in the world. Accompanying the Trump administration’s demonstration of an appropriate multilateral military response, the Trump administration has made sure that Russia is exposed in its efforts to manipulate the UN Security Council to its advantage. Instead of working towards a common goal of stopping the normalization of the use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere, Russia doubled down in its diversionary, obstructionist tactics. It used the Saturday meeting of the Security Council it had called to push forward its draft resolution condemning the U.S., U.K. and French air strikes that had successfully hit their targets, and to call for an immediate halt to such "aggression" and "any further use of force." The Russian gambit failed miserably. Only Russia, China and Bolivia voted for Russia’s resolution. Eight Security Council members voted no. Four abstained.
The resounding defeat of Russia’s draft resolution condemning the limited air strikes demonstrates that Russia's deceitful narrative has not fooled most members of the Security Council. With its successive vetoes protecting the Syrian regime from any international accountability, Russia perverted the essential purposes of the UN Charter it claims to revere. It obstructed the enforcement of Security Council resolutions against Syria’s continued possession and use of chemical weapons by killing the international investigatory mechanism originally established by the UN Security Council, with Russia’s own assent, to determine accountability for chemical weapons attacks since 2013. Russia did so after the investigators had found the Syrian regime responsible for some of those chemical attacks. Then Russia vetoed any attempt to revive the mechanism to determine accountability for the latest chemical attacks.
Russia’s UN ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzia, lashed out at the U.S., U.K. and France with a vengeance, charging that they had carried out “aggression against a sovereign state, which is on the front lines of the fight against terrorism.” They did so, he said, without proof that a chemical attack had even taken place in Douma, much less that the Syrian regime had perpetrated any such alleged attack. They conducted their air strikes, he complained, before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had even arrived in Syria to conduct a fact-finding mission to determine whether any chemical attack had actually taken place as alleged.
Ambassador Nebenzia neglected to mention that the OPCW lacks the authority to investigate further as to responsibility for any chemical attack that it concludes did occur. He also already pre-judged what Russia would consider to be an acceptable outcome of the OPCW mission by asserting that Russian personnel, who had previously arrived in Douma, concluded there was no evidence of a chemical attack. Moreover, the ambassador provided no assurances that the Russians or any Syrian forces entering Douma after the rebels' surrender had not removed or tainted any evidence of a chemical attack and of the Syrian regime’s culpability.
Ambassador Nebenzia also lectured that “the international code of behavior regarding the use of force is regulated by the United Nations Charter,” which, he claimed, the United States and its allies had blatantly violated. British UN ambassador Karen Pierce had a straight forward answer in her remarks to the Security Council. In view of Russia’s condoning of the use of chemical weapons, she said, “I will take no lessons…in international law from Russia.” Ambassador Pierce might have added Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in clear violation of the UN Charter and international law, as well as its shameless use of cyber warfare to illegally interfere with the election processes of democratic sovereign states.
While the Obama administration dropped the ball on repeated occasions, the Trump administration is leading the world from the front. As President Trump has already demonstrated, he will not hesitate to use the full range of American military, economic and diplomatic power, in concert with its allies, to curb the dangers posed by any outlaw nation’s use, or condoning the use, of chemical, nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
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