It should seem obvious that, as members of a political party dedicated to revealing the dirty truth about governments, getting your photo taken with a murderous dictator is a no-go. Apparently not.
It is anyone’s guess how the WikiLeaks Party thought their delegation at the end of December to meet Bashar al-Assad would look back home – presumably they thought it would go down well. The envoys, including Julian Assange’s father John Shipton, claimed they were visiting ‘to show solidarity with the Syrian people’ and to demonstrate opposition to Western intervention. But in spite of the anti-war sentiment the trip was supposed to express, the party ended up the regime’s patsy, copping a hiding from the Australian press for its misjudgement.
What we saw was not a bunch of peaceniks practicing creative diplomacy, but a group willing to be used in the white-washing propaganda of a man who has killed tens of thousands of his own people. Shipton even echoed the regime’s talking points himself: ‘I think that the Syrian people in their courage are an example to the rest of the world in how to resist this plague of terrorism which is sweeping the Middle East and Central Asia.’
Even WikiLeaks – which presumably means Assange himself – disowned the initiative.
The party misjudged not only the ‘optics’ of the trip, but also erred in its understanding of the Syrian conflict. The WikiLeaks Party claims it objects to military intervention
based on unsubstantiated reports of the Syrian Army’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Such claims that reminded us [of] the same excuses used to invade Iraq. Such claims that turned out to be no more than fabrications and lies.
This statement is misguided for a couple of reasons. Unlike in Iraq, there is no question that Syria has weapons of mass destruction in the form of chemical agents. The UN has confirmed that chemical weapons were used in Ghouta. Although nobody is certain it was the government who used the weapons, it seems likely. Moreover, calls for invasion based on chemical weaponry have died down because the Syrian government has already agreed to the destruction of those weapons.
But the focus on chemical weapons is slightly beside the point: the Assad regime is still killing, torturing and starving huge numbers of people. For this reason, Syria should be a possible candidate for intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine – that is, military action to protect citizens against an immediate threat from their own genocidal government. This is different to Iraq: although Saddam had a terrible history of abusing his people, at the time of the invasion there was no imminent danger to a large number of Iraqis, unlike in Syria today.
It makes sense to use force if you can stop a government massacring a population or allowing a preferred ethnic or religious group to wipe out another. We only need to cast our memories back as recently as the 1990s to remember ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But if America invades and everything goes pear-shaped (which it probably would) the US could be faced with another Vietnam or Iraq. Judging by the current situation in the Levant, where regional powers are funding a proxy war and differences between extremist religious and political creeds threaten to tear the social fabric, it’s pretty likely a huge expenditure of blood and treasure would lead nowhere. It could even make the situation worse.
A peaceful solution to the civil war is needed, and will only come through diplomacy. This will require dialogue including the rebels, Iran, Russia, the United States and the Syrian regime. A new round of talks dubbed ‘Geneva II’, scheduled to begin this week, could help.
In travelling to Syria and meeting with Assad, the WikiLeaks Party has demonstrated that it either doesn’t understand what is happening in Syria or is willing to misrepresent the conflict for publicity. It has also shown a poor understanding of Australian politics in thinking such a trip would translate into increased support. You really have to wonder what they were thinking.
David Donaldson is a Master of International Relations graduate who lives in Melbourne. He tweets at @davidadonaldson