Privileged Speech, House of Representatives of the Philippines, September 2, 2013


Rep. Walden Bello, Akbayan

In recent days, the Obama administration has movedinexorably toward an attack on Syria, for which it is currently seeking thesupport of the US Congress.

The rationale for the planned US strike is to punish theAssad regime, which Washington accuses of having used chemical weapons oncivilians in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, reportedly killing over 350people and injuring thousands more. Whether it was the Assad regime that used the weapons or the rebels,this reprehensible act violates international law and human rights and must becondemned in the strongest terms.


This criminal deed does not, however, justify an act ofaggression by one state against a sovereign country.  The only clear legal justification of an attack on asovereign country by another sovereign state is self defense, as provided forin Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reads:

“Nothing in thepresent Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defenseif an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations…”

Whether the culprit in the use of chemical weapons in Damascus was the Assad regime or the opposition, the crime did not constitute anact of aggression against the United States.


Self-defense is the strongest legal justification for amilitary response by a threatened state. But there may be instances where a regime may not directly threatenanother state but poses a threat to international peace or regional peace or isengaged in genocidal acts against its own people.  International law provides for action against such government,but in a very restricted way under the principle of collective security.  Article 42 of the UN Charter states thatshould peaceful means “be inadequate orhave proved to be inadequate, the United Nations Security Council may take suchaction by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restoreinternational peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations,blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of theUnited Nations.”

Deliberate Violation of International Law

The planned US action does not seek approval by the SecurityCouncil.  It is intended as aunilateral act that its author knows deliberately violates international law. 


Mr. Speaker, dear colleagues, the Obama administration saysthat in using chemical weapons the Assad regime has crossed a red line and deservesa punitive response.   Buthowever morally justified may be the world’s outrage, no one state can arrogateto itself the right to punish.  TheUnited Nations Security Council and its procedures provide the only legallypermissible process for initiating punitive action.  The United States must go to the Security Council and getits mandate for a collective response to the problem.


Senator Obama versus President Obama

Mr. Speaker, a unilateral strike against Syria now will havethe same illegal character as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the Bushadministration, an act that was not sanctioned by the United Nations.  Then Senator Obama saw the invasion ofIraq as an illegal act.  Yet, herehe is, in 2013, using the same rhetoric and methods of George W. Bush,determined to engage in illegal action against Syria. 


The US move is painted by President Obama as a humanitariangesture.  Yet it is likely to addto, rather than subtract from, the miseries of the Syrian people.  President Obama should listen to the wordsof Senator Obama in 2002 when he spoke about the consequences of a US invasionof Iraq: “I know that an invasion of Iraqwithout a clear rationale and without strong international support will onlyfan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best,impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”  Senator Obama was right.  Iraq is today a shattered countrywracked by sectarian splits, a democracy only in name, and the US invasion andoccupation ended up boosting the fortunes of Al Qaeda.


Cure Worse than the Disease

WithSyria as well, Obama’s proposed cure is likely to be worse than the disease. Withmore than 100,00 Syrians killed and millions more fleeing the ongoing civilwar, the last thing the region needs is another destructive militaryintervention by the West, which carries the real possibility of an irreversibledrift towards a large-scale regional war and the collapse of the Syriannation-state. 


The planned,“limited” strike against the command-and-control structure of the Bashar-AlAssad regime is neither consistent with the West’s own calls for ‘regimechange’, for it fails to significantly degrade the regime’s capability to wagewar, nor does it guarantee a deterrence against the further use of Weapons ofMass Destruction (WMD) against the civilian population, since both the regimeas well as the opposition will continue to have access to such heinous weapons.In fact, there are no detailed plans on securing or neutralizing Assad’ssignificant stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, nor there areparallel plans to ensure the non-transference of such weapons into the hands ofradical elements within the opposition. 


At best,we are talking about a military intervention against a sovereign nation withoutthe guarantee of avoiding another future chemical weapon attack againstcivilians, and at worse, we are talking about adding fuel to an alreadycombustible conflict with potentially unspeakable consequences. 


Theplanned intervention carries the clear risk of further escalating the conflict,thus increasing the probability of more WMD attacks against civilians. Time andagain, history has shown that besieged regimes tend to resort to more violencein face of growing pressure, so a Western intervention will only embolden Assadto rely on more coercive measures to quell the rebellion. Internationally, anadditional military intervention by the West carries the clear risk of drawingin other external powers such as Iran and Russia, for Tehran is bound by a the2005 Mutual Defense Pact with Syria, while Moscow views Damascus as its loneally in the Mediterranean. This is precisely why both Iran and Russia havevociferously opposed the planned intervention, even threatening retaliation anddirect counter-intervention.  Mostfrightening is the likely entry into the fray of Israel, which could takeadvantage of the US move to hit not only Assad but his ally, Iran, which theZionist state sees as the strategic threat to its security.


Obama in2002 called the planned Iraq War “a dumb war.”  With all the likely consequences it will spawn, we would notbe unkind in branding his planned strike on Syria as a similar “dumb” gesturethat is likely to create the very opposite of the viable humanitarian solutionto the Syrian crisis.


Why the US Strike is not in the Philippines’ National Interest

Mr.Speaker, dear colleagues, what does all this have to do with the Philippines?


First ofall, as a responsible member of the international community, the Philippinegovernment must add its voice to the multitudinous official voices that haveexpressed opposition to the planned US strike.   Not only must President Aquino not repeat what hispredecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, did with respect to Iraq, which was tojoin George W. Bush’s notorious “Coalition of the Willing.”  He must forcefully register ourcountry’s opposition to Mr. Obama’s dangerous plan, and here he can take a cuefrom the British Parliament, which has repudiated Prime Minister Cameron’seffort to drag Britain behind the American strike.  


Secondly,a US attack on Syria directly contradicts the national interest of thePhilippines, which is bound up with the welfare of our OFWs.   It will put at risk the lives ofthe several thousand OFWs that remain in Syria.  I was in Syria last year in my capacity as Chairman of theCommittee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs. I accompanied the Department of Foreign Affairs Rapid Response Team inDamascus, Homs, and Tartus, looking for OFWs and urging them to returnhome.  Despite our best efforts,thousands of them have elected to stay. These workers would be in grave danger should Washington carry outmilitary action.


But weare not talking only about the Filipinos in Syria.  Washington’s action is likely to spark a wider, regionalwar, drawing in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and the Gulfstates.  We are talking about closeto 3 million Filipinos, 1.8 million of them in Saudi Arabia alone.  Not only would their physical securitybe at risk.  Evacuating even aquarter of these people from harm’s way would severely tax the organizationaland financial resources of our government.


Thirdly,the unilateral US declaration should give the administration pause in its plansto tighten its military ties with Washington by allowing more US troops to bedeployed to the country and giving US planes and ships greater access to ourmilitary bases.  We should be waryof allying ourselves closely with a power that has the bad habit of engaging inunilateral action lest we be drawn into conflicts and wars not of our making norin our interest.  Once we have asignificant US military presence in the country, we will not be free from thethreat of retaliatory action. Indeed, Syria and its allies may well decide to launch retaliatoryattacks anywhere in the world, especially in those places like the Philippines whichhost a US military presence.  Thereach of revenge is global these days, when the world has become a very smallplace.


Mr. Speaker,dear colleagues, Akbayan has supported the strong stance that theadministration has taken in defense of our national interests against theaggressive moves by China in the West Philippine Sea.  But we have also consistently and strongly opposed a policyof inviting an enlarged US military in the Philippines to counter China.  This effort to play balance of powerpolitics will only lead to the Philippines becoming a frontline state likePakistan and Afghanistan.  With thedynamics of superpower confrontation taking over, allying militarily with theUS will marginalize any solution to the territorial conflicts with China, thus beself-defeating.  With the USunilateral threat against Syria in full view, we have another commanding reasonfor not inviting a US military presence: this will invite retaliation from any force in the world that isthreatened by or has been subjected to the US unilateral action.


Inconclusion, Mr. Speaker, dear colleagues, a US military strike against Syria isnot in the interest of the Syrian people. It is not in the interest of peace in the Middle East.  It is not in the interest of thePhilippines.  The Aquinoadministration must aggressively assert its opposition to such a regionally andglobally destabilizing action, even as it rethinks its strategy of inviting agreater US military presence in this country.


*photo from Akbayan