USA

Australian military action in Syria and international law

Four Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft in "echelon right" formation in the Middle East Region.

Four Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft in formation in the Middle East [image via defence.gov.au]

The decision that Australian forces were going to join the US-led bombing campaign in Syria was announced in early September 2015 and the first bombing was carried out over the weekend of 12 and 13 September 2015. No legal basis on which the decision had been made was ever given by the Australian Federal Government. There was next to no debate in Parliament, but even if there had been it is unlikely that the Labor Party (ALP) would have opposed it given their recumbent position on all matters relating to national security.

Of the few meaningful discussions that took place in the Senate, it was only Senator Richard di Natale, the Green Party (a minority party holding one House of Representatives seat and 10 Senate seats) leader, and Senator Scott Ludlum (Greens) the only ones to raise further questions over the actual legality of the proposed military action. It took two months for the Foreign Ministry to give any kind of reason at all. On 16 November 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop appeared on ABC National Radio to announce that the decision to join the US bombing was made in response to a request from the Iraqi government pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter.

The problem for the Australian government however, was that the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq issued an official statement on 3 December 2015 renewing the Iraqi government’s “emphasis on the lack of need for foreign troops in Iraq and that the Iraqi government is committed to not allowing the presence of any ground forces on the land of Iraq, and will not ask any side, whether regional or from an international coalition to send ground troops to Iraq.” The Prime Minister of Iraq’s statement went on to repeat the Iraqi government’s position that it had asked for air support for Iraqi forces operating within Iraq. It further demanded that no activity of any kind be undertaken without the prior approval of the Iraqi government. It would appear that the Iraqi government has a firmer grasp of the limitations on military actions imposed by international law than the Australian government.

That Julie Bishop claimed the military intervention was at the request of the Iraqi government, contradicted what the government had itself said in August and then again in December 2015. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald the government of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott had “pushed for Washington to request that Australia expand its air strikes against Islamic State from Iraq into Syria.” This was presumably to engender support for his coalition’s flagging popularity. In acknowledging in August 2015 that the “invitation” was solicited, there was no mention then of any legal considerations that the government would have to consider. The further issue of how it was legally possible, under international law, for the United States to have any basis of inviting any country to join its bombing campaign in Syria, was never mentioned.

It further exemplifies the arrogant characteristic of western foreign policymakers that continue to assume the right to bomb countries, and regularly invites other allies to follow suit.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop [image via 2gb.com]

In a radio interview of 16 November 2015 Ms Bishop never made mention of any US request for support, or that the former Prime Minister had prompted such a request. She instead claimed that the invitation had come from the Iraqi government of Haider al-Abadi. As we shall examine, this claim was spurious in nature.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2249 On 20 November 2015. Although widely reported is mainstream press such The Telegraph as the UN authorisation of military action to “…eradicate ISIS safe havens in Iraq and Syria,” it was, importantly, not an all-clear to attack any Syrian territory. The resolution still commits all member states to “take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular the UN Charter……on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Daesh, in Syria and Iraq.”

The issue for the Australian government is that, while it claims to operate within international law, Resolution 2249 did not authorise any action outside the terms of the UN Charter, and its use of military force in Syria falls outside of the conditions set forth in Article 51. That means that any action would have to be either in self-defence or by special resolution of the Security Council. So far in terms of Australia, neither condition exists. That leaves only the notion of collective self-defence. As the only semblance of legal respectability that the coalition government was able to come up with, the claim relied upon the fact that Australia was acting at the alleged request of the Iraq government.

A letter sent by the Australian government to the Security Council on 9 September 2015 confirms the Australian government’s reliance upon the purported request by the Iraqi government. Communication notifying the UN Security Council of military action against another sovereign State is required under the terms of the UN Charter. The Abbot government’s letter to the Council stated that the Syrian government was “unable or unwilling” to prevent attacks from inside its borders being launched on Iraq. A highly contentious claim, the argument seems to have no foundation in international law. The United States and the United Kingdom are the only States to have officially endorsed the “unwilling or unable” doctrine and it could be argued that their vested interests in doing so are apparent. Their bombing coalition in Syria is intervening militarily to vindicate Iraq’s self-defense interest as a case of individual or collective self-defense. The letter went on to say “in response to the request for assistance by the government of Iraq, Australia is therefore undertaking necessary and proportionate military operations against ISIL in Syria in the exercise of the collective self-defence of Iraq.”

Possible reasons for its rejection as a doctrine in international law is the precedence for the extraterritorial use of force against non-state actors. The doctrine would effectively allow a back door pathway to avoiding restrictions placed on member states by Article 51 of the UN Charter that the use of force must be employed legitimate national self-defence or with the express consent of the Security Council. It is concerning to find the doctrine in an official letter from the Australian government to the UN Security Council.

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi [image via news.yahoo.com]

Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi

The Iraqi government statement of 3 December 2015 directly counters Ms Bishop’s claim of the Australian government bombing in Syria being at the behest of the Iraqis. The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi destroyed any potential legality for Australia’s military actions. There are however, further legal problems for the Australian government’s actions in Syria. The International Court of Justice has twice in recent years declared the concept of “collective self-defence” not applicable when the “defence” is against non-State actors. ISIS, while being an organized community living under a provisional government is not a sovereign state in any true sense, so if Iraq had asked for such help against ISIS in Syria, (which as we have seen it did not) such a request would have still had no legal basis.

Predictably, the Australian mainstream media had given only small treatment of Foreign Minister Bishop’s original announcement that Australia was intending to send bombers to Syria, and some light coverage when those operations commenced in September 2015. Almost no coverage was given to the legal questions of joining the bombing campaign, and no report of the government’s Security Council letter and and its dubious claims. The statement from the Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq was ignored also, as it would have undermined the editorial support for the government’s actions.

A significant development in the story was the extent of the actual bombing runs in Syria flown by the Australian Air Force. The Department of Defence issues the activities of the Air Task Group in Iraq and Syria. These reports show that the F/A-18 fighter-bomber contingent of the Australian Air Force flew 18 sorties in Syria in September 2015 for a total of 143 operational hours. This was the month the operations commenced but was also – interestingly – the month that the initial operations abruptly ended. The DoD figures show that zero sorties were flown in Syria in October and November and just 10 in December.

This development may, however, have something to do with the Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict. Clearly, for all parties involved in the conflict this has been nothing short of a game changer. Unlike the position of the US-led coalition, the Russians intervened at the specific request of the Syrian government. Therefore, there are no doubts about the legitimacy of such action under international laws. The Russian intervention, while on a relatively small scale, has been devastatingly effective. Not only have ISIS forces obliged to seek cover from air attacks, having enjoyed apparent immunity from the West and its allies during the preceding year, there has been a major disruption of their logistical support lines.

Through analysis of the subsequent Russian air reconnaissance and satellite imagery, it has been clearly established that ISIS had been transporting stolen Iraqi and Syrian oil across the Turkish border, that was then sold on the Middle East black market oil trade through a company with close ties to President Erdogan of Turkey. Weapons and vehicles were in turn being shipped back across the Turkish border into Iraq and Syria to support ISIS operations. Evidence also emerged that wounded ISIS fighters were being treated in Turkish and Israeli hospitals and trained in Turkish and Jordanian jihadist camps among other places. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have both pointed to the financial and material support ISIS and other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda in Iraq receive from other countries in the region.

Russian S-400 "Triumf" anti-aircraft missile system

Russian S-400 “Triumf” anti-aircraft missile system [image via rt.com]

After the Turkish shootdown of one of their Su-24 bombers, the Russians have also since installed the sophisticated S400 air defence system in Syria. This brings anti-aircraft capabilities to their forces and the Syrian Armed Forces, giving them the capacity to shoot down any unauthorized aircraft in Syrian air space. While a purely speculative assumption, it may also be a reason why the Australian Air Force bombing of Syria ceased abruptly for two months after the Russian intervention. It is unfortunate that the Australian government at the time had neither the moral fortitude nor sufficient faith in the Australian people to either provide clear information on the origin of the request for intervention in Syria or to inform of the decision to temporarily withdraw from a war there was no business in pursuing in the first place.

Perhaps a new Australian foreign policy direction is currently being sought, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has acknowledged that if “boots on the ground” are needed to defeat ISIS, local and regional troops are the key. This could be a signal that policy focus will shift from military action to pragmatism. In a speech at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the Prime Minister addressed the contentious issue of ground troops directly, having just visited Australian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The destruction of ISIL requires military action including boots on the ground but they must be the right boots on the right ground,” he said. Turnbull has also previously stated that he believes “pragmatism and compromise” are the keys to success in Syria, albeit the success referred to is still the ‘Assad must go’ goal of the US-led coalition.

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On Borrowed Time

When Squadron-Leader and Commanding Officer Geoffrey William Coventry of the 11th Squadron RAAF returned to base along with his crew after a raid on Manokwari Harbour in western New Guinea in early 1943, they had something for their Intelligence Officer’s narrative report. What they had was a frank admission that they were indeed back from their mission, but didn’t know how.

Catalina Rescue by Dennis Hill Adams

‘Catalina Rescue’ by Dennis Hill Adams VX93486, Official War Artist (1944)

Coventry had flown in a Catalina on a bombing and reconnaissance mission over Manokwari Harbour. They came in across the bay at a very low altitude and were immediately met by a concentration of light and medium anti-aircraft fire. “There was tracer flying past us on every side,” his crew later admitted, “it was the hottest show a Catalina had ever come out of.” Coventry told the intelligence officer that he thought he was now living on borrowed time.

Since the days of the first battles around Port Moresby, Coventry had been flying a lone Catalina through the night across long stretches of sea. For a few months he was a watch controller at the fighter sector, and on many a night when Moresby was raided by the Japanese, he sat through the monotonous ‘Dog Watches’, waiting for the Japanese flying boats to come down from Rabaul and attack the seven-mile strip.

Back in the Catalinas, Coventry played an important role in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. On the night of March 2, 1943, he was stalking a Japanese supply convoy, radioing its position back to Bomber Command, whose great force of heavy and medium bombers was poised to strike its greatest blow the following morning provided the convoy came within range. Just before nightfall the convoy had turned toward Wewak from a point at the north of Vitiaz Strait. However, as night fell, it instead wheeled about and made full steam for Lae. Coventry hovered over the ships and sealed their doom, his wireless operator sending through regular messages. The staff chiefs at Bomber Command saw this new development to their advantage, as it meant that the convoy was entering the range of their medium bombers and Beaufighters. Coventry unloaded bombs at regular intervals during the long night and drew anti-aircraft from the destroyers, “just to give them a hell of a night”. He did not observe any direct hits, but his greatest contribution to the Bismarck Sea Battle was his regular plotting of the convoy’s course well into the dawn of Wednesday, March 3. Before lunch on that day most of the Japanese ships would be destroyed.

According to his RAAF colleagues, Coventry was always on top of his game and it was difficult to say which particular adventure was his greatest. His series of flights from Moresby across central New Guinea, for the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit (ANGAU), were perhaps his most outstanding. He and his group of Catalinas were the first to make a series of such flights, and they brought back a wealth of material and reconnaissance that was invaluable later to the ANGAU.

Shortly after the Manokwari raid on the 2nd May 1944, Coventry was called upon to deliver a pump to a small American ship which was in difficulties due to a leak. The ship was lying some distance out from Milne Bay in open water. In heavy weather, and against his better judgment, Coventry set down his flying boat on the rough sea and delivered the pump to the Americans.  Damage had been done to the Catalina on landing, and, when the flying boat attempted to take off, rivets were sprung and the aircraft crashed on its nose. Coventry was killed, but the rest of his crew escaped.

Squadron-Leader Coventry had used up his borrowed time.

R.A.A.F. Transport Pioneers

Aircrew and servicing personnel who travelled on the Lockheed Lodestar aircraft of No. 37 Squadron RAAF which escorted the Supermarine Spitfire aircraft of No. 452 Squadron RAAF during the move from Sattler airfield, near Darwin, NT, to Morotai Island in the Halmahera Islands, Dutch East Indies. They are seen here at Merauke, Dutch New Guinea, the first stop on the long flight. [AWM OG3059]

Aircrew and servicing personnel working on a Lockheed Lodestar aircraft of No. 37 Squadron RAAF seen here at Merauke, Dutch New Guinea, the first stop on the long flight. [AWM OG3059]

During 1943, an Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircrew pioneered the longest transport route in the world to be flown by a single crew, from Laverton in Victoria to the Kamiri strip in Noemfoor Island, Dutch New Guinea, a distance of over 3,200 kilometres (2,000 miles) across the towering unexplored mountain ranges of central New Guinea. The pioneer crew on this record-making run were Flight-Lieutenant R.W. Shore – captain; Flight-Lieutenant W.O. Francis – observer; Flight-Sergeant J. Caduch; Flight-Sergeant D. Sherton; and Sergeant N. Lazarus.

The route eventually became a regular run for the 37th Squadron’s aircrews who, flying Lodestars, linked Melbourne with the farthest RAAF outposts of New Guinea. Regularly flying 44 hours, these young Australians, most of whom had previously seen service in operational areas, delivered mail and service personnel at strips which had recently been under Japanese control.

Crews crossed 38° of latitude, used three changes of uniform and exchange the freezing cold of Melbourne winter for enervating heat a few miles south of the equator. The warm blue uniforms in they left Laverton were changed to shirt and shorts in northern Queensland and the trip was completed in the long-sleeved shirts and gaitered trousers which protected servicemen on duty in the malaria-haunted areas of the South-West Pacific.

Dutch currency was necessary if the crews wished to obtain anything at Merauke in Papua, the first stop outside Australian territory. This settlement, freed by the Allied offensive from the threat of Japanese occupation which froze civilian activity, had reverted to normality with a glimmer of the café life which lent a continental glamour to pre-war existence in the steamy, tropic Dutch East Indian empire.

Hundreds of kilometres beyond these faint flickers of returning civilization the Lodestars would touch down at tiny, isolated, steel-matted or gleaming coral strips amidst shell-shattered coconut palms and gaping bomb craters from where Australian and American airmen would carry retribution to the diminishing Japanese empire.

Red lines and dollar signs: the business of the Syrian War

A damning report on the conflict of interests in the Syrian Crisis debate identified numerous corporate and defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on potential military intervention. Much of the debate over Syria got underway in 2013, when not only were the conflicts-of-interest and military-industrial complex ties of these “consultants” and “experts” rarely disclosed, but the ideas they expressed were mere permutations of an ideologically narrow spectrum of U.S. and Western neo-conservative interventionism.

REPORT: Conflicts of interest in the Syria debate (An analysis of the defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on military intervention)

REPORT: Conflicts of interest in the Syria debate (An analysis of the defense industry ties of experts and think tanks who commented on military intervention)

As US official sources are now claiming that ISIS is developing chemical weapons, and those same experts and think tanks are back with a vengeance.

The conflict-of-interest report by the Public Accountability Initiative (http://public-accountability.org) offers a new look at an issue raised by David Barstow’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series on the role military analysts played in promoting the Bush Administration’s narrative on Iraq. In addition to exposing coordination with the Pentagon, Barstow found that many cable news analysts had industry ties that were not disclosed on air.

During the public debate around the question of whether to attack Syria, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to George W. Bush, made a series of high-profile media appearances. Hadley argued strenuously for military intervention in appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and Bloomberg TV, and authored a Washington Post op-ed headlined “To stop Iran, Obama must enforce red lines with Assad.” The phrase “red line” has been used numerous times in reference to Syria and its President Bashar al-Assad, particularly in attempt to establish the legal intervention of Russian forces in Syria as a crossing of those lines. It was also used in 2014 by those in favor of forcible ‘regime change’ in Syria when rockets with sarin filled warheads landed in rebel-held residential areas in Ghouta, Syria, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.  Each side naturally blamed the other, with western intelligence agencies providing evidence supporting the opposition, and Russian intelligence supporting the regime. Both sides issued biased reports with cherry-picked evidence, only adding to the confusion.  An analysis of all evidence relating to the August 21st chemical attack indicate it was carried out by opposition forces. According to the most likely scenario, they used looted incendiary rockets, refilled them with sarin they manufactured themselves, and launched them from a rebel-held territory 2 km north of Zamalka.1

Stephen Hadley’s television audiences was never informed that he serves as a director of Raytheon, the weapons manufacturer that makes the Tomahawk cruise missiles that were widely cited as a weapon of choice in a potential strike against Syria. Hadley earns $128,500 in annual cash compensation from the company and chairs its public affairs committee. He also owns 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock, which traded at all-time highs during the Syria debate ($77.65 on August 23, making Hadley’s share’s worth $891,189). Despite this critically important financial stake, Hadley was presented to his audience as an experienced, independent national security expert.

Though Hadley’s undisclosed conflict is particularly egregious, it is not unique. The following report documents the industry ties of Hadley, 21 other media commentators, and seven think tanks that participated in the media debate around Syria. Like Hadley, these individuals and organizations have strong ties to defense contractors and other defense- and foreign policy-focused firms with a vested interest in the Syria debate, but they were presented to their audiences with a veneer of expertise and independence, as former military officials, retired diplomats, and independent think tanks.

A pentagonal network: think tank-defense industry ties [image via public-accountability.org]

A pentagonal network: think tank-defense industry ties [image via public-accountability.org]

If the recent debate around Syria is any guide, media outlets have done very little to address the gaps in disclosure and abuses of the public trust that Barstow exposed. Some analysts have stayed the same, others are new, and the issues and range of opinion are different. But the media continues to present former military and government officials as venerated experts without informing the public of their industry ties – the personal financial interests that may be shaping their opinions of what is in the national interest.This report details these ties, in addition to documenting the industry backing of think tanks that played a prominent role in the Syria debate. It reveals the extent to which the public discourse around Syria was corrupted by the pervasive influence of the defense industry, to the point where many of the so-called experts appearing on American television screens were actually representatives of companies that profit from heightened US military activity abroad. The threat of war with Syria may or may not have passed, but the threat that these conflicts of interest pose to public discourse – and democracy – is still very real.The Syrian crisis has indeed become a quagmire, with possible consequences far more dangerous than the European refugee crisis and the US anti-Muslim hysteria. As we have seen seen, the situation has led to increased Islamic extremist attacks in Europe, US and Asia and seen the the worsening of many international relations such as Turkey and Russia. British, German, French, US fighter jets and troops are gathered at Incirlik and Diyarbakir base. Spain has Patriot missiles in Turkey, Denmark and Germany are sending war ships to the Mediterranean Sea. These strategic deployments by NATO members are as much about protecting Turkey from Russia as they are about containing ISIS.The USA and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Some 200 nuclear warheads are stationed in the NATO members Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and Turkey. 20 new B61-12 nuclear bombs were brought to the Luftwaffe’s Buchel Air Base. Th B61-12 is a dial-a-yield bomb from 0.3 to 50 kilotons with GPS aided tail kit, which can be used as a tactical nuclear weapon. In a statement that hints not only of an agenda of conflict but also of chauvinism and orientalism, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas (R) hints at the use of tactical nuclear bombs, saying: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” This, however, is nothing new as Dick Cheney in 1991 was considering the use of tactical nukes against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Russian President Putin reminds the West, that Russia is also a nuclear power: “We know that high-precision weapons can be equipped with both conventional warheads and with special warheads, that is, with nuclear warheads. Naturally, in the fight against the terrorists, we hope that is something that will never be needed.”

The US military-industrial milieu that has surrounded the debate over the Syrian conflict has increased its propagandist stranglehold of the discussion in the US media and thereby providing a similar lens through which other Western nations and their conservative media and military institutions frame the issue and inform policy making decisions. We may yet, unfortunately, see weapons of mass destruction visited upon more civilian populations in the Middle East not at the hands of secular ‘dictators’ but from the so-called democratic nations of the West themselves.

Airscrews (Eric Thake)

Airscrews by Eric Thake.

Per Ardua Ad Astra

They were born to fly –
Fly upward to the stars;
To loop and turn and dive and climb
Around the throne of Mars.

This was their heritage –
The young Australian men –
To hold within their valiant hearts
A splendid cause; and then

To work, and fight, and die,
If this the cause must ask.
And we who hold their cause as dear,
We also have our task:

The desk, the store, the bench –
Far from the throne of Mars –
Yet these we know, because with them
We struggle to the stars.

– Section Officer D. M. Blakers

From The Library.

To The Parachute Section

  To The Parachute Section

Will you remember when you are folding
Each silken ‘chute and pack,
We who wore them for a little space,
Who smiling passed, not turning back.

Will you stay those nimble hands a while,
To see us in memory passing by,
Who passed here in our toiling,
Upward and onward to the sky.

For those who on their outward journey
Went beyond the far-off clouds,
Sleep softer ‘neath the far horizon,
Pillowed on those silken shrouds.

So when the last long day is passed,
Long after the last flight’s run,
After the last ‘chute is folded,
With peace and the setting sun,

Remember, we knew you in our passing,
For in the heart of everyone,
We knew you stood beside us
With each task a job well done.

 – ‘David’

Dedicated to our friends at the Pacific Paratrooper blog, check it out.

Before The Long Patrol (G.R. Mainwaring)

Before The Long Patrol by G.R. Mainwaring, showing what appears to be an RAAF Consolidated PBY Catalina being prepared for a patrol mission somewhere in the South Pacific. The Catalina was an American flying boat and later amphibious aircraft of the 1930s and 1940s produced by Consolidated Aircraft. It was one of the most widely used seaplanes of World War II, serving with every branch of the United States Armed Forces and in the air forces and navies of many other nations.

From The Library.

Kiriwina Rain (Alan Moore)

Kiriwina Rain by Alan Moore

This excellent painting shows a Douglas Boston on the Kiriwina airfield around 1943. The Douglas A-20 Havoc (also designated as DB-7) bomber and attack variants were usually known in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) service as the “Boston”. After landing on Kiriwina and Woodlark Island as part of Operation Chronicle on June 30, 1943, U.S. Army Engineers supervised construction of Kiriwina Airfield, including a 2,000 metre (6,000 ft) coral-surfaced runway. No. 73 Wing RAAF was based at this field.

From The Library.

Dowsett’s War, Part 6 – Changi Prisoner

Three prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [By courtesy Tim Bowden]

Three Australian prisoners at Shimo Songkurai in 1943. The effects of malnutrition can be seen in their skeletal frames and the stomach of the man on the right, distended by beri beri. The photograph was one of the last to be taken by George Aspinall on the camera he smuggled up to the Thai–Burma railway from Changi. [Photo by G. Aspinall]

“The place earned the title of Hellfire Pass, for it looked, and was, like a living image of hell itself.”
Jack Chalker, Burma Railway: Images of War, London, Mercer Books, 2007, 59

For the other chapters of Dowsetts War, click here.

Douglas France Dowsett, a driver with the 22nd Infantry Brigade Australian Army Service Corps Supply (AASC) Section was held along with roughly 15,000 other servicemen of the Australian Army’s 8th Division in the British Army’s Selarang Barracks, Changi. It was a prisoner of war camp holding some 50,000 Allied – predominantly British and Australian – soldiers captured after the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. From 1943 the prison also included Dutch civilians brought over by the Japanese from the islands from what is now Indonesia, then part of the Dutch East Indies. The name Changi has become synonymous in the UK, Australia, The Netherlands, and elsewhere with the horrific treatment suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the POW camps.

Extract from NX58454 D F Dowsett’s war service records. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

Doug’s army war records are notable in that the pages are bare of much detail, essentially just a few lines recording his status as “missing” and then POW. It’s as if the silence of his service record speaks loudly of the suffering in the prison camps, such a long way from home and long way from the protection of his own unit. What we now know as the history that occurred between the dates recorded on those cards haunts the unknown time in between.

Newspaper clipping from The Australian Women’s Weekly society pages, Saturday 29 June 1946 reporting the wedding of Doug Dowsett to Milicent Sutton in Randwick, New South Wales. The officiating minister was former army chaplain George Polain, who was a POW alongside Dowsett in Shimo Songkurai and would later go on to give evidence against the Japanese war crimes in the labour camps. [© Dowsett Memorial Library]

The conditions experienced in the Changi camps by Australian soldiers have been memorialised in poetry, books and film by the number. The very name Changi immediately conjures emtions of dread amongst all who know anything of the horrors lived by the wretched souls sent to build the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. In his 1980 book One Man’s War, Stan Arneil quotes from his diaries: “If ever I see home again …I want nothing more … than to forget these awful days—swollen bodies, bloated from beri beri, walking skeletons from dysentery, eyesight becoming universally bad, malaria rampant. Surely this cannot last..?”

The Thai–Burma railway was built in 1942–43 to supply the Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Once the railway was completed the Japanese planned to attack the British in India and the road and airfields used by the Allies to supply China. Begun in October 1942 and completed on 16 October 1943, the railway stretched 415 kilometres between Nong Pladuk in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma. It wound not only through gentle plains but also jagged limestone hills, interspersed with streams and gullies. During the monsoon season, the land became waterlogged and unstable. Where the railway met unavoidable hills, cuttings were dug to allow the line to proceed. Often the line emerged from a deep cutting onto a series of embankments, and bridges. In all, 688 bridges were built along the railway system.

In order to complete the works in record time, more than 60 000 Allied prisoners of war were employed in the construction of the Thai–Burma railway, including British Empire troops, Dutch and colonial troops from the Netherlands East Indies and a smaller number of US troops. About 13,000 of the prisoners were Australian. Over 12 000 Allied prisoners would die during the construction of the railway, including more than 2700 Australians.

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The isolation hospital area for cholera sufferers, Shimo Songkurai. The patients were housed under canvas to the left of the photo. In the centre is the operating table used for amputations, ulcer treatment and post-mortems. [Photo by George Aspinall, by courtesy Tim Bowden]

The required POW labour force was systematically transferred from the Changi barracks camps to various labour camps outside Singapore, including the Burma Railway and the Sandakan airfield. ‘D Force’, consisting of over 2220 Australians and some 2800 British, was sent from Singapore to Thailand in mid to late March 1943. ‘F Force’ was 7,000 strong; there were 3,338 British and 3,662 Australians and the first train left Singapore on the 18 April, 1943.

Doug Dowsett was transferred to Changi with ‘H’ Force in May 1943. This group consisted of nearly 3300 men including 600 Australians commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Oakes. Arriving at Ban Pong from Singapore in mid-May 1943, ‘H’ Force then had to walk to various work sites along a twenty-kilometre stretch of the railway between Tonchan and Hintok. Given the heat and the fact they were carrying too much equipment, men arrived at their destination in the last stage of exhaustion, staggering and swaying like drunks.

The bulk of the workforce arrived utterly exhausted in mid-May at Shimo Ni Thea, which became the local headquarters. Most of the Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel C.H. Kappe were then put to work at Shimo (Lower) Songkurai and Kami (Upper) Songkurai. In these remote and primitive camps, the acute supply problems were aggravated by the fact that F Force was under the administration of the Imperial Japanese Army Malay Command rather than the Thailand administration that controlled most other POWs in the region. The arrangements for these forces were inferior and the two administrations competed rather than cooperated in managing the workers under their control. Profoundly malnourished, overworked and ravaged by diseases, including cholera, F Force suffered one of the highest death rates on the railway: some 1060 Australians and 2036 British.

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

Working on a Thailand Railway Cutting, July 1943 by the official war artist Murray Griffin. This has become one of the most famous images of the hellish conditions experienced when constructing the Thai–Burma railway, though Griffin painted this from accounts by other POWs. He spent the whole of his captivity in Changi. [AWM ART25081]

What is now known as ‘Hellfire Pass’ is a dramatic cutting some 75 metres long and 25 metres deep. It was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. The name ‘Hellfire Pass’ came from the appalling working conditions at and around this site, some 150 kilometres from the start of the railway at Nong Pladuk. In mid-1943, when the Japanese introduced impossibly fast work schedules to meet tight deadlines for completing the railway, prisoners were forced to work long hours into the night. Their work site was lit by oil lamps and bamboo fires. This flickering light, the noise from the drilling of the rock and the shuffling of hundreds of poorly fed prisoners seemed the very image of hell.

“Our emaciated, cadaverous bodies were covered in rags, we were all barefooted with bandages covering our ulcers and we were almost all rotten with malaria and beri beri. … our own Black Jack Galleghan, the Iron Commander of the A.I.F. at Changi … was shocked to the point of silence and tears.” – Stan Arneil, describing the return of F Force to Changi in December 1943, One Man’s War, Sydney, Alterative Publishing 1980

Hellfire Pass was lost to the jungle in the years after the war when the railway was demolished. But it was rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now the site of Anzac Day ceremonies and the location of the Australian government’s Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and a walking trail for visitors.

 

The Hidden War: Saudi Arabia vs. Yemen

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Yemenis search for survivors under the rubble of houses in a UNESCO-listed heritage site in the capital, Sana’a, following an overnight Saudi airstrike, June 12, 2015. (Photo by AFP)

There’s a war going on and not everyone knows about it.

Not many here in Western nations like Australia and the US – for every day, Saudi Arabian cruise missiles and bombs are being launched into the country of Yemen. Homes, hospitals, schools, and mosques are being destroyed while at the same time United Arab Emirates and Sudanese ground forces have also crossed its borders. Over 7,000 people are dead as fighting continues. The war has been going on without cease since January of 2015, but the mainstream media is all but completely silent about it.

The current war in Yemen should actually be of great interest to the allies of the US-led coalition forces in their Middle East adventures — particularly because that government is actively involved, in effect taking sides in the conflict, as the Saudi cruise missiles and arms used by the Sudanese and Emirati troops are supplied by the United States. High-ranking Pentagon staff are also in Saudi Arabia advising king Salman bin Abdulaziz and the his military, with US defense satellites assisting the Saudi forces in reconnaissance and target selection. The general populations in the West need to be informed about a war that their governments are actively participating in, yet time continues to go by without our mainstream media corporations even making the slightest mention of Yemen or the extensive war taking place there.

One of the reasons western media is ignoring the war in Yemen is because the US position is indefensible. The United States is effectively aligned with the repressive monarchies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in their support of Sunni extremist terrorism, in this instance intended to oppress the Yemeni people and their aspirations for self-determination and desire for democracy.

The origins of the Saudi-Yemeni conflict go back to the Arab Spring of 2011. The streets of Sana’a and Aden overflowed in a mass uprising agitating for democracy against the Saudi-backed dictatorship of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemeni Sunnis, Shias, and secular forces stood together demanding control of their country. The Ansarullah forces, also called known as Houthis,’ a Zaidi Shia group from Sa’dah in northern Yemen, have military experience and discipline. They won the respect of many people in the country during the street battles of 2011.

After the 2011 uprising, Yemen went on to experience a period of social upheaval as people’s assemblies began to spring up and broad democratic debate took place. However, the hopeful moment abruptly came to an end with a rigged election. As the only candidate on the ballot the Saudi-backed Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was declared the president.

The Zaidi Shias in the Ansarullah organization, the socialists and communists of the southern independence movement, the Arab Spring party of the more secular urban demographic and even some Sunni religious factions all refused to accept the new paradigm and were determined not to surrender.

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Mohammed Abdulsalam, the spokesman of Yemen’s Houthi Ansarullah (AFP photo)

In response to the one-man election and the fraught transition process the Ansarullah organization formed a people’s committee to take up arms and continue the revolution. The transitional process was disrupted by conflicts between the Houthis and Islah, as well as the al-Qaeda insurgency. Islah is a loose coalition of tribal and religious elements with origins in the Islamic Front, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated militia funded by Saudi Arabia.

In the northern regions of Yemen Ansarullah carved out liberated territories in the countryside, built alliances and made compromises — gradually preparing to seize power. Former President Saleh, a rival of Hadi, was then able to reach a diplomatic agreement with them.

The Ansarullah forces marched into the capital city of Sana’a in January 2015 and seized power. The People’s Committee became the new government and called for a constituent assembly. The people’s assemblies originally formed during the Arab Spring 2011 uprising were restored and local community militias raised to defend the revolution. By February the ‘rebels’ were in control of the capital of Sana’a.

The barrage of Saudi missiles and bombs was launched in response to the gains made by the Ansarullah revolution. The Saudi royal family, the Israeli regime, and the United Arab Emirates are all seeking to restore Mansour Hadi to his position as their dictator of choice. Now still another force has joined this axis against the People’s Committee – ISIS.

The ISIS forces, who consider Ansarullah to be “shia apostates,” have set up shop in Yemen as well, seeking to bury the revolution with suicide bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings.

Currently, Shi’a Houthis are fighting against the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and Saudi Arabia. The US supports the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis, but many in US SOCOM reportedly favor Houthis, as they have been an effective force in order to roll back al-Qaeda and recently ISIS in Yemen.

As in Syria, the United States has allied with Saudi Arabia, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and a collection of autocratic Islamic monarchies against the Yemeni people’s Revolutionary Committee seeking to forge a constitutioal democracy.

Another important geopolitical consideration for the situation in Yemen is the fact that it has vast untapped oil resources. However, this oil remains in the ground, as Yemen remains under the stifling influence of Saudi Arabia. One of the key policies of the People’s Revolutionary Coalition is a commitment to begin extracting and refining Yemen’s oil resources under public control. Yemen is currently one of the poorest countries in the entire world, but this could rapidly change if it began exporting oil. Yemen has the potential for lucrative economic diversification similar to Iran or Venezuela, where public control of natural resources has laid the foundation for an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist government and a vibrant independent economy.

The revolutionary coalition maintains control of the capital of Sana’a. Despite their enemies having far more sophisticated weaponry, the people’s coalition has sunk Saudi naval vessels, launched homemade rockets across the Saudi border, and defeated the heavily armed US-trained troops from the United Arab Emirates in retaliation for the onslaught.

The Defense Minister of Iran, Hossein Dehghan, recently responded to the allegations that Ansarullah were nothing more than Iranian proxy warriors. When Ashton Carter stated in an interview with Atlantic Monthly that the war in Yemen was the result of Iranian influence, Dehqan responded, “US Secretary of Defense [Carter] had better go over his past record in this position of authority and reconsider his bully-like and aggressive stances and talk more sensibly and circumspectly.”

The Iranian angle is often presented in the rare instances Western media report on the conflict and recalls the US propaganda used during the Cold War. The ideological war between Marxist-Leninists and Western capitalism was supposed to have long been over. We are seeing now, however, that the world is rapidly re-polarizing and that one of the battles of the new century is a war between Western capitalism and those who reject it for independence and self-determination. In Yemen, those who demand independence, democracy, and control of their own natural resources are fighting and continue to prevail against some of the most well armed powers in the world.

The international financial cartel headquartered jointly in Wall Street, London, Geneva and Tel-Aviv has disillusioned much of the world. It has not delivered the utopia of abundance promised by Rand or Friedman. The neoconservative interventionist reality has led to violent social and economic devastation, as is obvious in the current state of the Middle East. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization are presiding over the bankrupting of the Western middle classes just as willingly as they are continuing to facilitate the exploitaton and impoverishment of the developing world. The Bretton-Woods cartels have no loyalties, even to their countries of origin.