Recent Middle East Articles
Last night President Obama delivered a speech on how the United States would tackle the threat of ISIS. It rightly deserves a lot of parsing and discussion.
There have broadly been two types of responses:
“Oh no, the USA is back to fighting a war in Iraq again! This won’t end well!” … or…
“Oh god, this won’t do anything to destroy ISIS. The President isn’t doing enough!”
Both are wrong and exaggerated. Here are a few thoughts.
1) The aim of Obama’s speech was primarily to reassure the American public that he was doing something about ISIS. It’s more right to say he isn’t doing enough, but that’s probably a good thing as I explain below. In fact his strategy now isn’t any different to a few weeks ago when he said he had no strategy. And there are good reasons why there is no clear strategy.
2) The President didn’t announce anything new other than the prospect of some air-strikes in Syria against ISIS (and possibly Assad). There was a mention of training moderate Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia, but there are some reports this is already happening in Jordan. That’s about it. He ruled out U.S. troops going back into Iraq or Syria, until he is President anyway.
3) There is some merit to the complaint that Obama isn’t doing enough. Air-strikes will dent ISIS but not destroy them, which will take ground troops in both countries. But the USA hasn’t been able to persuade any outside partners (Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Jordan) to commit to troops to destroy ISIS yet. This is why Obama’s announcements amounted to little; there is little the US can do by itself that won’t make the situation worse.
4) In the short and medium term I suspect the Islamic State will expand in size and strength. The Arab countries and Turkey are too scared to confront ISIS (militarily and ideologically) and are still hoping the US will do their dirty work for them. Obama, wisely, isn’t buying it. He has avoided falling for the ISIS trap.
5) I asked others what they would have wanted to see instead.
@sunny_hundal well, a time machine so a UN/int'l effort to stop Bashar before things spiraled out of control would be nice. ????????
— Hend (@LibyaLiberty) September 11, 2014
Well, I’m with Hend on that. Part of the blame for not intervening in Syria lies with those lefties and Muslims (across the US and UK) who opposed such action…but there’s little we can do about that now.
6) If a terrorist attack is committed in the name of ISIS in mainland Europe (most likely France) or the United States, then this will all change.
The Independent’s Partrick Cockburn writes: “West poised to join forces with President Assad in face of Islamic State”.
This is absolute rubbish. Not one British official is quoted saying they would work with Assad against ISIS. Not even anonymously.
When the British Foreign Secretary was asked on Friday by the BBC if the UK was planning to work with Assad against ISIS, he said “No” outright. He added that working with Assad would “poison what we are trying to achieve”. And said it was not “practical or sensible”.
The UK’s sole role in the Iraqi crisis so far has been to provide humanitarian aid. Military involvement would lead to demands for a vote in Parliament, and that’s not happened yet (and unlikely it will happen soon). So far, we are even refraining from air-strikes, let alone working with Assad.
Could it be happening behind the scenes? Also unlikely. The UK has been helping the (moderate) rebels against Assad for years. We have also continuously called for Assad to go. There is absolutely no trust between the UK and Assad. So the chances that we would suddenly start cooperating and trusting each other is remote.
Is the United States working with him? The sole evidence is the Independent’s claim that the US army passed on intelligence about the exact location of “jihadi leaders” through the the German intelligence service to Assad. But Assad has always known where ISIS are because he has been tracking their movements carefully.
One U.S. General has called for Obama to work with Assad against ISIS, but its not yet official US government policy.
We would be foolish to work with Assad against ISIS anyway
Doing so would be a monumental disaster for two reasons.
First, it would mean we neatly fell into Assad’s gameplan. We had always known from the start that Assad wanted to play on the west’s fears by portraying his opposition as Islamic radicals. When he failed in convincing people, he actively worked to build up ISIS.
As recently as 2012, Isil was a marginalised movement confined to a small area of Iraq. Then Mr Assad emptied Sednaya jail near Damascus of some of its most dangerous jihadist prisoners. If he hoped that these men would join Isil and strengthen its leadership, then that aspiration was certainly fulfilled. A number of figures in the movement’s hierarchy are believed to be former inmates of Syrian prisons, carefully released by the regime.
By 2013, Isil had managed to capture oilfields in eastern Syria. But to profit from these assets, they needed to find a customer for the oil. Mr Assad’s regime stepped in and began buying oil from Isil, thereby helping to fund the movement, according to Western and Middle Eastern governments.
Assad always knew that the west is more scared of Islamic militants than dictators. So he helped build ISIL / ISIS as his exit strategy, so we would reach a point where we’d work with him to defeat them, thereby ensuring Assad stays in power.
Working with Assad against ISIS would make us absolute suckers who fell for his grand plan. There are even cartoons across the Middle East that say it explicitly.
Secondly, working with Assad would be the best recruiting agent for jihadis across the world. Assad is reviled across the Muslim world, having destroyed Syria and killed nearly 200,000 people. He has made millions homeless and forced them into refugee camps.
I can't imagine a better recruiting line for ISIS than: "hey look Muslims, USA and UK are working with the guy who killed 200k of you" #wato
— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) August 22, 2014
This sort of short-termist, idiotic thinking from the West helps the jihadis. By working with Assad the West would end up creating more Jihadis and threaten our security for generations.
If I had a penny for every time someone said this to me on Twitter, I’d have bought myself a min-island in the Bermuda by now.
Yes, the United States supports Israel with military aid every year. It also licenses American companies to sell Israel military equipment every year.
But Israel won’t collapse tomorrow if the US cut off their aid. Let’s just go over the numbers to explain.
The United States gave approximately $3.2 Billion to Israel last year. Here’s the breakdown
That includes a sum of $3.1 billion as military aid.
It provides another $504 million in funding: for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system ($235 million) and the joint US-Israel missile defense systems David’s Sling ($149.7 million)
And there are a few other systems that amount to around $100m. There’s a breakdown here (PDF)
As a proportion of Israeli spending that used to mean a lot – sometimes as much as a quarter of Israel’s defense budget.
It doesn’t any more, primarily because Israel has had a healthy and growing economy. In 2000, Israel GDP was $124.9 Billion. Last year it was more than double that – $291.3 Billion. In comparison, Egypt has a smaller GDP ($271 BN) even though it has 10x the population (more comparison: India’s GDP: $1.8 Trillion; UK $2.5 TR; USA $16.8 TR).
In other words, US military aid to Israel is now worth merely 1% of its GDP. It’s a bonus, not essential money.
The country is doing so well it has more cash than needs, thanks to the recent discovery of gas reserves. It is discussing setting up a sovereign fund and discussing where to invest that surplus.
In fact, this situation has even led some pro-Israelis to call for the military aid to be cut to Israel, on the basis that Israel would then have to rely even less on its ally. They don’t want Israel to be seen as subservient to US interests and clearly think Israel will do just fine without American money.
The point is, US military aid to Israel has largely become an irrelevant factor in this war or the future. Cutting it off won’t hobble Israel. If America abruptly withdraws it over illegal Israeli action, then it may force a change in behaviour but that is a highly unlikely scenario.
The Washington Institute recently published a note titled ‘The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement’ – on tensions between the two movements.
Its worth emphasising briefly that there are differences between the two, mostly that ISIS are even more brutal than AQ and freely break many rules that Osama Bin Laden set for his own people.
But I think al-Qaeda has effectively lost the battle for terrorism supremacy to ISIS / Islamic State already.
All the world’s focus, the momentum and the expansion is on side of ISIS, not al-Qaeda, which matters to the impressionable men who want to be on the side of winners not losers (like most people, really).
Plus ISIS is based in the Levant, which has much bigger symbolic value for Muslims than the mountains of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda militants have to hide from US drones or the Pakistani army. In Iraq and Syria, they have near free rein and their opposition is melting away (for now).
Most importantly, ISIS claim to have established an Islamic State – which has even more symbolic and religious value for the kind of impressionable men who want to get involved in jihad. I suspect more fighters will abandon Al Qaeda and join ISIS over coming months, effectively finishing off Osama Bin Laden’s brainchild.
But what prompted me to write this short note was news of heightened security warnings across US airports. I suspect that US Homeland Security officials have come to the same conclusion and know this infighting has grave consequences.
Al-Qaeda leaders will be making the same calculations about ISIS and will likely re-double their efforts to regain momentum and attention. And in the terrorist world there’s only one way to do that: by launching terrorist attacks in the West.
A group called ISIS, which even some in the al-Qaeda leadership have disassociated themselves from, are now rapidly taking over large parts of Iraq. There is a sense of panic in the air because it obviously means more conflict in the Middle East, and more refugees trying to escape their brutal control.
But it has also sparked an odd debate here in the UK.
In the Guardian, Owen Jones writes: ‘We anti-war protesters were right: the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos’.
But this has been obvious for a few years now. I opposed the invasion from the start and was at most of the demonstrations against it (including the big one in Feb. 2003). Only a few deluded idiots now believe the invasion of Iraq has gone well. In fact the invasion was a disaster from day one, despite attempts by Americans to stage a few stunts to pretend it was going OK.
So that’s an old debate, while the one about ISIS is a new one.
Firstly, ISIS has grown out of the chaos in Syria, which we sat by and watched instead of working with Arab countries to end. We should have joined a military coalition with other Arab countries to bomb Assad’s military installations and weaken him – thereby driving him out into asylum in Iran or elsewhere.
I wrote about ISIS in January this year, saying: “as these groups become prominent, the fallout is being felt in surrounding countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Pakistan”.
Sitting by and watching has made things worse. We’ve gone from 20,000 dead in Syria (“if we intervene now, we’ll make it worse”) to nearly 200,000 dead (*silence*). The ongoing chaos has helped ISIS grow and destabilised surrounding countries. And all that is about to get worse.
As I said:
Intervention in Syria is not a matter of ‘If’, but a matter of ‘When’. Do we wait until the situation spirals further out of control, and Al-Qaeda re-establish a powerful base, or go for damage limitation earlier?
Secondly, are we meant to be against countries militarily intervening in other countries? I ask because Iran is now sending troops into Iraq (without official invitation) to fight ISIS. What if those troops are used to suppress Kurds? Will people on the left raise their voice then?
Basically, we are sitting around watching the situation get worse, as many predicted. ISIS hasn’t grown because we invaded Iraq (though we definitely wrecked the country and Saddam Hussain would have been better placed to quell them)… they’ve grown because Syria was allowed to spiral out of control.
Since we have now committed to sitting around and doing nothing, the situation in the Middle East is about to get much worse.
Addendum: in case it isn’t clear, I’ve given up on the prospect of any military action now. We’re now committed to sitting around on our hands and pretending it could be worse.
Former PM Tony Blair was on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, saying the Syrian conflict wasn’t about trust in the same way was Iraq, because we know that chemical weapons exist in Syria and were used on innocent people very recently.
Before I come to the issue about trust, it’s worth emphasising that Blair is right about the second part.
What we know, is that on 21st of August 2013, several canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead.
But after that the facts become hazy, because the UN inspectors weren’t given much time to gather evidence and didn’t take many of the local samples offered to them (see Section 3).
To my mind there is little doubt that the Syrian governement carried out this attack. Tony Blair said the same thing this morning. But where Blair still continues to get it wrong is that this is still very much about trust.
There is little trust in claims (by the US government and others) that chemical weapons were used.
There is little trust in announcements by US and UK governments that Bashar al-Assad is behind these chemical attacks.
There is hardly any trust in the ability of the United States government to intervene in the Syrian conflict constructively.
This lack of trust, built up in large part due to Iraq, is the reason why the public remains deeply unconvinced and our politicians so hesitant to act over Syria.
So, trust matters.
Which is why Tony Blair has it so wrong. And the aim of western government now should be to build up that trust again. Confirm use of chemical weapons with proper evidence for everyone to see, show evidence that Assad’s regime was behind it, make the case for intervention by explaining what exactly you want to do and the exit strategy. Only once that is done can there be any public trust in any decision to intervene in Syria.
It’s extraordinary that Tony Blair still thinks trust is irrelevant.
In the Times today, David Aaronovitch uses Ed Miliband’s Syria vote as a spring-board for criticism (£) about his leadership of the Labour party. “The Syria vote crystallised his failings. He waits for mistakes, then like a scavenger exploits them,” he says.
Put aside the fact that this is the job of opposition politicians, I think those hawks in favour of going into Syria should be pleased by what happened last week.
Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from Chuck Hagel and John Kerry on their position on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry: Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons, or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons, actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact. That can help to stabilize the region, ultimately.
Oh, so they want ‘regime change’… except the White House Press Sec said just last week: “The options that we are considering are not about regime change“.
And then, more confusion…
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: And this is about getting to an end game. That end game is a diplomatic settlement. It is driving this toward what we believe, the president believes is the only way out of this, if for no other reason than what Secretary Kerry has noted: We do not want to see the country of Syria disintegrate, result in ungoverned space, which I think the consequences would be devastating for our partners, for our allies, the entire Middle East. Then we would all have to respond in some way.
So the end game is regime change, or not… but it’s definitely a diplomatic settlement. Though if Assad doesn’t want to negotiate his own removal, then we’re not going to force him, because that would mean the collapse of Syria, which we don’t want.
Well, that clears it up. Basically, the United States govt has no specific idea about what they want from their attack on Syria… or they’re not telling us. See this scathing post by Joshua Foust for more.
All this underscores an important point – even those who want action in Syria aren’t clear what the US govt is planning or wants from their intervention. I bet David Aaronovitch is unable to articulate what was the specific aim of the military action the UK and USA were about to rush into last week.
This is the point Ed Miliband was making. Of course, those who want ‘firm action‘ don’t care for such subtleties – they want a leader to stand strong regardless of whether the details have been worked out. There’s a certain amount of arrogance amongst some military interventionists that they don’t need to explain evidence, make a proper case, have a detailed plan or listen to public opinion. They want strong action and they want it now.
Such foolishness only helps isolationists because they’re right to then say that the US and UK are likely to make the situation worse. If we rushed into Syria without an exit strategy we can quite easily make that proxy war much worse.
Those who want intervention in Syria (like myself) should be pleased that President Obama was halted by what Ed Miliband set in motion, and demand more detail about what the US military intends to do, as Congress is now doing. That would be the best way to help Syrians. The ridiculousness of the criticism is further underscored by commentators such as Deborah Orr (who I have enormous respect for) saying he was right in what he did but should have done it differently. Err, how? It’s not the opposition leader’s job to help the Prime Minister avoid embarrassment because he failed to even convince his own side.
There are some really ridiculous criticisms out there of Ed Miliband’s leadership, but this really takes the biscuit.
UPDATE: This piece in the Atlantic makes a very persuasive case on why, a court would conclude that the case against the Syrian government was “not proven” – see Section 3.
When we are thinking today about Syria there’s only one place to start: the desperate situation of up to 8 million people in urgent need of help.
More than a million and a half are refugees in neighbouring countries, states that have their own problems, serious economic strains, and that need help to provide the homes, the blankets, the care, that these often traumatised refugees need.
Millions more are displaced, or at risk, within Syria. We need to ensure that every effort is made to get humanitarian supplies, medical supplies, to them.
And we need to find a way for the UN to protect them from future attacks of all kinds, to fulfil its responsibility to protect. The UN should be creating safe corridors through which they can escape – and eventually to achieve a ceasefire in the civil war.
I agree with President Obama on one thing: “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” Indeed, we – the international community, acting collectively under UN auspices — must save them from attacks of all kinds.
And yet the US focus, the French focus, is on what are clearly plans for a missile strike against the Syrian regime, a strike that no one is claiming is going to remove the dreadful President Assad, that no one claims is going to take any productive step towards helping to construct an alternative government for Syria, a strike that will, simply, take more lives, including, undoubtedly, lives of people, men, women, and children, who have nothing to do with the conflict, but are simply trying to survive in the middle of an awful civil war.
But there’s no evidence, no sense, in the claim that a US missile strike, covered with a fig leaf of whatever other countries beyond France can be persuaded, bribed or pushed into “participation” in the attack, is going to stop any future gas attack, from whichever side it might come.
And no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21. John Kerry says: “This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.” Well, we’ve heard that before, and we’ve good reason not to believe it.
The vote in Parliament this week was a big step forward – a step forward for British democracy, a step forward for our place in the world. And the impact has been found around the world.
It seems unlikely that this evening’s decision by President Obama to refer his plans for an attack to Congress would have occurred without the Westminster vote. But is for Britain this should be only the start. We could take three more steps – important steps.
1. Call off the world’s biggest arms fair planned for London next month.
2. Stop selling UK arms to abusive regimes. Our £12bn arms industry is a trade in misery, in death, in supporting regimes like that of President Assad, and the dreadful human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
3. Scrap Trident nuclear weapons, making us truly world leaders. So I say to Congress, I say to President Hollande, I say to whichever Arab regime the Americans are hoping to bribe, bully or persuade on board an attack, please, stop, think.
The combined UN-regional talks route to a ceasefire in Syria is a difficult route, strewn with obstacles. But it’s the legal route. It’s the route that can help the people of Syria and the region to together find a way forward – not have it imposed on them, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, had the route imposed on them, with continuing awful results.
The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”
The UN and the International Criminal Court are the right routes. But it’s time the world – America, Nato, the UK – took the right route.
This article is an adaption of a speech I made today at the No Attack on Syria demonstration.
Wow. It is extremely, extremely rare for a sitting Prime Minister to lose a vote on going to war.
Here are my five quick thoughts.
1) There is now almost no prospect that Britain will join the US in action against Assad.
Cameron has been humiliated so badly I doubt he’ll go back to the House of Commons on Syria, especially as he will now have to take his cue from Ed Miliband. And he hates taking Miliband’s lead more than anything else. This has now become more about the politics in Westminster than the people of Syria. Besides, according to some tweets, he has dismissed any more action on Syria anyway. Defeat on a another vote would have likely to have led to a confidence motion.
2) It is too easy to say that Cameron lost because the isolationist wing of the Tory and Labour party are dominant. But people forget we went into Libya to take out Gaddafi not long ago!
No, Cameron lost because he wanted to rush into Syria and dismissed any caution or calls for proper evidence. He misjudged the mood on both sides of the House and assumed that no one would defy him on a vote of war. That’s why he lost.
3) This is clearly very humiliating for Cameron, but I’m also wondering where it leaves Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader abandoned the party’s traditionally anti-war or at least cautious position in favour of siding with Cameron. And now they’ve both been handed a defeat. At least if Clegg took a principled stand he would have gotten back some support.
4) To underline how complicated this conflict is, the Muslim Brotherhood chief in Syria has been criticising the United States for not intervening in Syria earlier.
5) I was for British intervention in Syria to warn Assad about the usage of chemical weapons. It’s unclear where President Obama stands now but I hope he will present the full evidence to Congress and militarily warn Assad anyway. If Assad steps up usage of chemical weapons now, part of the blame will lie on Cameron’s obstinate behaviour.
Update: I’m sick of sanctimonious people saying I should stop talking about Westminster and its implications, instead of what this means for the people of Syria. As I pointed out earlier – this was a feeble intervention that would have made very little difference. Even US action is not going to be about stopping the bloodshed or deposing Assad. I wanted the UK to join the USA in this but either way it would done almost nothing to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Update 2: If anyone still has doubts that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, see this short BBC film from last night.
There are some commentators who write about international affairs entirely through western eyes. Of course, The United States is the most powerful nation on earth and spends more on weaponry and defence than the next 10 countries combined.
But the US doesn’t always dictate events, and doesn’t always have its finger-prints on everything. I find this attitude a bit patronising and racist – other countries across the world have their own agendas and constantly interfere in foreign affairs for their own ends. ‘The White Man’ doesn’t control everything, much as many self-styled anti-imperialists like to believe.
In 1971 for example, India’s PM Indira Gandhi stuck up two fingers at the US and, with explicit guarantees from the Soviet Union, liberated Bangladesh from the murdering Pakistani armies. More recently, India and Pakistan meddled in Afghanistan along with Iran and the USA to help create instability before the invasion of 2001.
The civil war in Syria is a case in point. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have been intervening in the region for years to bolster Assad and keep him armed against the rebel army. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have lined up against Assad and have been helping the rebel forces.
Saudi Arabia is key here because it has also been funding the Egyptian army coup against the Muslim Brotherhood (which it sees as the real danger) – despite pressure from the United States not do so. Anyone who thinks the ‘Muslim ummah’ is united and speaks with one voice should come back to reality.
So the strongest argument against US, UK and French involvement is: why the hell should we get involved in this huge mess? Stay the hell out!
And that’s a strong argument. Except it’s a bit bogus.
The USA, UK and France aren’t actually planning an intervention. And this certainly isn’t a humanitarian one.
Sure, the news media is in overdrive and to most people it sounds like Iraq all over again. There is a lot of sabre-rattling and discussions about chemical weapons and UN resolutions. There are strong statements being issued by every major politician vaguely related to all this. Media commentators are salivating all over the media.
But most of it is hot air designed to rattle Assad. What we’ll actually see are a few missiles being dropped on Assad’s key military targets from warships stationed much further off. There will be some carefully targeted attacks on weapons shipments to deprive Assad of firepower. That’s likely to be it.
Unlike Libya, there aren’t even immediate plans for a No Fly Zone and nor demands for regime change. Many of you won’t believe it, but wait until this so-called intervention starts.
And why are we taking such feeble action? Because Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. This means we either make a big show so as to dissuade him and others, or risk usage of chemical weapons proliferating. And that’s it.
This isn’t a humanitarian intervention. Our politicians have dressed it up as such, and commentators are arguing against intervention on that basis, but we should stop pretending it is. (If it were me in charge I would have done something before 100,000 people got killed in Syria. I would have intervened in Congo and other places too). But ever since the lies over Iraq there is no appetite for foreign intervention and so we’re stuck with angry words and feeble threats.
Syria is already a battleground with lots of foreign players interfering in its affairs. The United States won’t even come close (if they wanted to, here’s what they would do).
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