U.S. Criminal Hypocrisy At Work in Syria and Yemen
U.S. weeps for a city, all the while backing genocide for a country. On December 13, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, offered yet another stark exercise in imperial deceit, shedding crocodile tears for those suffering in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, while continuing her strategically amoral silence about much greater suffering in the country of Yemen. The basis for this unconscionable choice is simple. Russia, Syria, and Iran are attacking Aleppo. The carnage in Yemen is led by Saudi Arabia, allied with eight other Sunni Muslim states (supported by another seven countries including Canada, UK, France, and Turkey)—but this 16-state war of aggression would be impossible without the exceptional 17th enemy of Yemen, the U.S.: there would be no genocidal war of attrition on the poorest country in the region without U.S. approval, U.S. weapons, U.S. intelligence gathering, U.S. attack planning, and constant U.S. tactical military participation. Ambassador Power began her lengthy remarks to the Security Council with a litany of civilian sufferings, here representing Aleppo, but indistinguishable from the attacks on civilians in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Raqqa, or a dozen cities in Yemen. Her deployment of abstract and pitiable events was useless as evidence, but she wasn’t making an argument so much as an emotional appeal:
“This is what is happening in eastern Aleppo. This is what is being done by Member States of the United Nations who are sitting around this horseshoe table today. This is what is being done to the people of eastern Aleppo, to fathers, and mothers, and sons, and daughters, brothers, and sisters like each of us here….”
Referring to “Member States,” Power apparently misspoke, since the Russian Federation is the only Security Council member known to be supporting the Syrian government’s siege of Aleppo (later she added Iran and Syria, who were not at the table). Or perhaps Power, in a Freudian slip, was also obliquely referencing those Security Council members engaged in war crimes in Yemen: Senegal, France, UK, and U.S. Her remarks were not designed to take the moral high ground, but to execute a political hatchet job:
“It is extremely hard to get information, of course, out of the small area still held by the opposition. You will hear this as an alibi as a way of papering over what video testimony, phone calls, and others are bringing us live. You will hear this invoked—that it is hard to verify. It is deliberate….”
War in the Middle East is waged without much regard for the laws of warfare on any side. The norm is set by tribal customs of revenge, brutality, and extermination. What is happening in Aleppo is little different from what is happening in Mosul. Civilians get little special treatment, while the families of the fighters are targeted for execution. The patterns may vary. In Aleppo, the “rebels” (who are mostly from the ranks of al Qaeda or ISIS, even though the U.S. backs them) keep civilians from leaving the city, using them as human shields and, when killed, as political point makers. Civilians who do escape then face reprisal from Syrian forces, including arrest, imprisonment, and torture. The U.S. knows all about that, having shipped recalcitrant Guantanamo prisoners to Syria for “interrogation” by the Assad government (Power referred to “the same prisons where we know the Assad regime tortures and executes those in its custody,” but kept mum on how “we know” this). American rendition of victims to Assad’s care and feeding was official policy back in the days before the U.S. decided to demonize Assad (and, by so doing, make any political settlement in Syria all but impossible without the U.S. losing face). In Mosul, in northern Iraq, where the U.S.-backed siege of that city has ground to a standstill after two months, it is the U.S. playing the role of the Russians in Aleppo, as the U.S. bombs civilians in Mosul. Mosul is still partly held by ISIS, which kills civilians when it’s not holding them as human shields. Some ISIS fighters have reportedly fled Mosul, where they were enemies of the U.S., and gone to Aleppo, where they get U.S. support. Despite the chaos, Power asserted:
“It would be easy for independent investigators to get in along with food, health workers, and others; but instead, the perpetrators are hiding their brutal assault from the world willfully….”
This is complete obfuscation from the U.S. Ambassador. Sure, it would be easy to send help into a city if there were no fighting. There have been numerous ceasefires. No one has honored them long. And this is only a medium-sized city, much easier to cut off and isolate than an entire country. But Yemen has been so isolated and cut off that the UN observers warn that more than half of Yemen’s population of 28 million is facing a near threat of famine. Currently, hunger in Yemen kills 1-2 people per 10,000 per day, while the official measure of famine is more than 2 people per 10,000 per day. Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and others have blockaded Yemen for almost two years. The Saudi-U.S. air campaign has targeted ports and docks, all but cutting off food supplies from a country unable to feed itself in the best of times. These are war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is collective punishment of the civilian population for no reason other than it happens to be there and can’t escape. The U.S. does not talk about this; the U.S. hardly admits its involvement in killing Yemenis; the U.S. hasn’t even succeeded in blocking the sale of cluster bombs (illegal in most nations of the world) to Saudi Arabia and its allies. Power is right: “The perpetrators are hiding their brutal assault from the world willfully.” And in a three-card monte move, she said:
“The regime of Bashar Al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and their affiliated militia are the ones responsible for what the UN called ‘a complete meltdown of humanity.’ And they are showing no mercy. No mercy despite their territorial conquests—even now, no mercy…. ”
On April 14, 2015, almost two years ago, while the Saudi-American aerial blitzkrieg was only weeks old, the UN Security Council voted 14-0 (Russia abstaining) to demonize the rebel Houthis, to impose sanctions, and to ignore the early war crimes being committed by Member States, including dropping cluster bombs on civilians and blockading Yemen from importing food, medical supplies, and other basic human needs. Not until December 19, 2016, did the Saudis even admit to dropping UK-made cluster bombs on Yemen. For almost two years now, no one has shown Yemen any mercy. Despite the territorial gains in Yemen by al Qaeda and ISIS, the UN, the U.S., the Saudis and their allies have yet to take responsibility for their war, much less consider any mercy. While Saudi-U.S. forces continue to attack the Houthis, the Saudi-backed overthrown government in Yemen continues to suffer attacks on its forces in Aden by ISIS suicide bombers (at least 52 soldiers killed December 18). The same day as that bombing, the U.S. State Department issued a vapid communiqué on Yemen expressing “condolences for the deaths of Yemeni soldiers,” without mentioning ISIS and without suggesting that a peace process might be promoted by stopping the bombing or lifting the blockade. But in the world of Samantha Power there is only one atrocity worth mentioning:
“Our shared humanity and security demands that certain rules of war hold, the most basic. And it is up to each and every one of us here to defend those rules. To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran—three Member States behind the conquest of and carnage in Aleppo— you bear responsibility for these atrocities. By rejecting UN-ICRC evacuation efforts, you are signaling to those militia who are massacring innocents to keep doing what they are doing. Denying or obfuscating the facts—as you will do today—saying up is down, black— is white, will not absolve you.”
In effect, Ambassador Power is saying something like “up is black here.” Aleppo was once a quiet, diverse, international city with a mixed, vibrant culture (official population of 2.3 million in 2004). That began to change with the rise of Syrian rebellion against the Assad government. Rebel fighters attacked Aleppo in 2012, but controlled only half of it. East Aleppo became a stronghold of “moderate” and jihadi fighters, who also fought each other. The civilian population began to flee, when it could. In mid-2016, Assad’s forces encircled East Aleppo, putting about 250,000 people under siege. By mid-December, much of East Aleppo had been re-taken by Syrian government forces working with Syrian Kurds, who work with U.S. support in eastern Syria. Allocating atrocities among these combat forces requires a more honest understanding of recent history and a finer moral intelligence than demonstrated by U.S. policy or its falsifying spokesperson, Power.
On December 19, the Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution “demanding immediate, unhindered access for observation of monitoring civilian evacuations from Aleppo.” The meeting lasted two minutes. The resolution appears to limit its concern to an estimated 150,000 Aleppo civilians (Power estimates 30,000-60,000). Syria had an estimated population of 23 million in 2013. The UN today estimates 13.5 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, including almost 5 million trapped in siege-like conditions other than in Aleppo, where the Russians are not involved and the U.S. is not much interested.
And when it comes to “denying or obfuscating the facts,” who has done that more defiantly and destructively for a longer period of time than the U.S.? Not only in Syria and Yemen, but Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Honduras, El Salvador, Gaza, Cuba, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam—how far back does one need to go? Bear River, Sand Creek, Wounded Knee? Further? Stono River, South Carolina?
The U.S. should have sought absolution years, decades, even centuries ago, but that has not been part of our national character. The U.S. has lived for a long time believing up was down, but not that black was white. And U.S. belief in “certain rules of war” has largely applied to others, but not to the U.S. if inconvenient. Over the top as that passage was, Samantha Power went still higher:
“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo…. It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
That is the passage most quoted in news reports, but only occasionally challenged. Ambassador Power’s list of “events in world history that define modern evil” is strangely tame despite its murderousness. Saddam Hussein’s Arabs gassing Kurds, Rwandan Hutus slaughtering Tutsis, Serbian slavs murdering Bosnian Muslims—these are brutal ethnic cleansings with almost no relevance to Aleppo, where the dividing line is more political than ethnic. And to the extent that the fight is between Shia extremists and a more tolerant mixed society (under a dictator, to be sure), the U.S. is on the side of the religious extremists.
As for events defining modern evil, one need not go back to the Holocaust, Coventry or Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki for mass slaughter of civilians. My Lai can stand for the myriad atrocities of Vietnam. Fallujah was one of the top war crimes in Iraq, along with the Blackwater slaughter in Baghdad. When Amnesty International documented 10 atrocities that killed 140 civilians in Afghanistan, the U.S. military did not deny it. The Pentagon merely restated its unenforced policy: “The Department of Defense does not permit its personnel to engage in acts of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of any person in its custody.” Not in custody? Well, good luck.
Samantha Power asked the Russians, rhetorically, “Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?” And the Russians mocked her for acting like Mother Teresa.
She hasn’t asked those questions of her fellow Americans. She likely knows the honest answers would be no, no, and yes. There is nothing official America will not lie about or justify. Isn’t that why we torture and imprison people more or less randomly? Isn’t that why we have presidential assassination by drone strikes? Isn’t that why we enjoy our proxy genocide in Yemen? Isn’t that how we make America great again?
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theater, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This article was originally published by Reader Supported News.