Recent Middle East Articles

Dear Tony Blair, ‘trust’ still matters over Syria

by Sunny Hundal     September 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm

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.

The hawks who want intervention in Syria should be pleased by Ed Miliband’s actions last week

by Sunny Hundal     September 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm

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.

What we can do to help Syrians now

by Natalie Bennett     September 1, 2013 at 9:30 am

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.

Five thoughts on Cameron’s humiliation over Syria

by Sunny Hundal     August 30, 2013 at 12:37 am

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.

Western intervention in Syria? I wish it actually was

by Sunny Hundal     August 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm

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).

If Israel continues to target Palestinian families, what’s the point of a ‘peace process’?

by Ben White     August 27, 2013 at 9:01 am

Human Rights Watch this weekend released a must-read item on demolitions in Israel that they say are intended “to drive [Palestinian] families off their land”, part of a wider regime of “forcible transfer” and “discrimination”.

The report notes that some 3,800 Palestinians have been displaced by Israeli home demolitions since Prime Minister Netanyahu took office in 2009.

The continuation and even escalation of Israeli violations of international law during peace talks illustrates that the official “peace process” only serves to protect Israel from accountability over its policies. What Palestinians actually need is a protection of their basic rights and an end to the impunity enjoyed by the state of Israel.

Early yesterday morning, Israeli forces invaded Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah and shot dead three residents, wounding many more. The killings come a week after the IDF shot dead another Palestinian in Jenin.

Israel has now killed 13 Palestinians in the West Bank this year.

Even before the deadly raid, there was yesterday’s approval of the budget for an expansion of Ramat Shlomo settlement – along with millions more in government money for a “national park” operated by a right-wing pro-settler group in illegally-annexed East Jerusalem.

The country’s Housing Minister personally helped dedicate new settlement housing over the weekend, declaring a Palestinian state “will never happen“.

Soon after the announcement of the resumption of peace talks a month ago, the Israeli government put 91 Jewish settlements on a national priority funding list, while official figures showed three times as many settlement housing starts in the first quarter of 2013 compared to 2012.

And it is not just the settlements (Amnesty International points out they are a war crime): just last week, dozens of Palestinians were displaced by the demolition of their homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

That is why the British government and others need to go beyond support for the deeply flawed US-managed negotiations and mealy-mouthed disapproval, and instead use real leverage and sanctions against a state which, without meaningful consequences, will continue to colonise and kill with impunity.

The simple reason why international intervention in Syria is necessary

by Sunny Hundal     August 27, 2013 at 8:30 am

There are a lot of good arguments against military intervention in Syria – ranging from the view that any intervention would only inflame the bloodshed to criticising specific proposals and scenarios for intervention.

I’m not denying that many of them have merit, even if a direct comparison to Afghanistan and or Iraq is ridiculous (to wit: the terrain and size is vastly different; there is strong support from other Arab countries; there’s no oil there). Furthermore, Syrians have been trying to bring attention to their plight for years. Besides, there is almost zero chance of UN or Nato soldiers landing in Syria for a similar ground war.

So the key argument for limited intervention now is about the specific usage of chemical weapons, not the long-running civil war itself. President Obama’s limited options means he can’t decisively finish off Assad, but he can at least punish him strongly for the recent escalation.

As the Washington Post points out:

Any U.S. military action, Carney said, would be a response to “the prohibited use of chemical weapons against civilians.” Kerry emphasized repeatedly that “there must be accountability for those who use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” What he did not say at any point was that the United States would be entering the war to decisively end it or that the time had come for the world to remove Assad from power.

There is little reason to think that American cruise missiles or airstrikes will dramatically change the course of the war, much less topple Assad. The Assad regime has a huge military advantage over the rebels, and the fighting is city-to-city, neighborhood-to-neighborhood.

So let’s stop with the straw man that we are going for a full intervention in Syria.

The question for those against any intervention is: is it right to sit by and watch states use chemical or biological weapons against their people, setting a precedent for others to do the same?

Of course, the United States isn’t consistent on the matter since it kept silent when Israel has used them. But arguably, such united international condemnation makes it harder for the United States and Israel to use them in any form in the future too.

Either way, the case for united international action when a state use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons on people is powerful. For this simple reason alone there has to be strong action against Assad now or it sets a terrifying precedent for the future.

Why I support (limited) western intervention in Syria

by Sunny Hundal     June 14, 2013 at 8:45 am

I doubt this post is going to change many minds, but its worth explaining my position anyway

Imagine a situation where your neighbour is a drunk man who comes home and beats his wife every day. You can hear her screams and unsuccessful attempts to fight him off and feel powerless. The police are unable to intervene and she carries on getting beaten and raped. Do you sit by and do nothing because it’s not happening in your house? I wouldn’t.

Foreign policy isn’t exactly the same, but I’ve always believed we should intervene in other countries if a humanitarian crisis is taking place. I’m not an isolationanist though I recognise that governments don’t always have humanitarian concerns at heart when they interfere in other countries.

Syria is not Afghanistan, or Iraq or…
Would you support an arms embargo on the Palestinians and deny them the right to defend themselves against Israel? I wouldn’t. I bet most of you wouldn’t either.

Ahhh, but Syria is different – you say. You’re right, it is. It is also different to Afghanistan, Iraq and other recent conflicts. Which is why I don’t buy the argument that this is like Iraq (which I was vehemently against) or other conflicts.

This is a minor intervention
The US is not invading Syria (I would not support that) – at most it is offering small arms and ammunition, and perhaps establish a No Fly Zone.

The aim isn’t to flood Syria but increase pressure on Assad and Russia. It is a warning shot with the aim of pushing them to negotiate. At the very least it would make it harder for Russians to feed Assad bigger missiles. This is a VERY limited intervention with support from neighbouring Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. I repeat: it is not Iraq.

Chemical weapons
There’s a reason why the ‘red line’ was chemical weapons, not the 90,000 dead. The UN (and US) aim is to demand action when chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are used, in the hope that it sets a precedent and dissuades countries from using them despite availability. If no action is taken at all and Assad sees this as a bluff, it could open the way for more chemical weapons being used.

How many is too many?
There is a real danger that unless Assad willingly abdicates or transitions Syria to a democracy, the civil war could go on for years. Another 100,000 could be dead. Instead, in an effort to end the stalemate, we have a limited intervention by Nato forces, working in conjunction with other Middle Eastern countries, to put pressure on Assad to step down. To compare this with the bombing of Iraq or Afghanistan isn’t just absurd but actually ignorant.

How many dead people is too many? A quarter of a million people dead? Half a million? A million? Would you oppose any intervention at any cost to human life? I wouldn’t. I think 90,000 is far too much. I also think it should be a limited intervention, and evidence of chemical weapon usage fully explained. I don’t think our govts should get a blank cheque, but neither should we sit by and watch tens of thousands get slaughtered.

Why Britain should play an active part in arming Syrian rebels

by Dan McCurry     May 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm

If the UK government is considering arming Syrian rebels, it should also consider embedding British personnel with rebel forces.

This arms supply method was developed by Fitzroy MacLean in his dealings with the Partisans in WW2. It is accounted for in MacLean’s famous book Eastern Approaches.

The reason for embedding personnel, with our equipment, is partly that we can then be sure who is using our arms, but also in order that we have a relationship and an influence, both now and in post-conflict Syria.

In WW2 the Balkans were just as bloody as Syria is right now, if not more. Whole villages were executed as Nazi punishments. Engaging the Partisans, MacLean would often dissuade them from responding in kind. “A modern country would not do that kind of thing.”

He was reminding them that after the war they would be expected to join the international community, as a nation, not a barbarous tribe. MacLean probably averted a considerable number of massacres and atrocities, but he was only able to do so because he was present.

British influence, of this kind, would be felt by the Syrian rebels, if we were arming and amongst them.

Most of the reports concerning the character of the rebels comes from Turkish and American intelligence in Syria. The problem with this intelligence is not that it is wrong, but that it paints a picture of the rebels unaffected by a relationship with us. They long ago gave up on the west as allies. We have little influence, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar has considerable clout.

My point in describing the MacLean system is to draw attention to the humanitarian benefits, which cannot be replicate by sitting on the sidelines and saying “Nothing to do with us. We’re not responsible.”

Do we achieve innocence through inaction? If a man is drowning and we stand by and watch, are we not responsible for his death, due to our lack of action? If a doctor watches a man die, knowing that the medicine in his bag which could save him, has that doctor done nothing wrong, by his inaction, of has he killed the man by his failure to act?

If the rebels demonstrate themselves as barbarous, while under the influence of the Saudis, are we not at least partly responsible, by our refusal to enter and engage?

By embedding our personnel, we can pick and choose which militia can use our technology.

We can encourage talks and cooperation between factions, acting as honest broker. We can influence a peaceful outcome and avert further tragedy. That is the type of player we should be.

Meet Israel’s new, supposedly ‘left-wing’, governing coalition

by Ben White     March 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Immediately following Israel’s election in January, some Israel lobbyists spun the results as representing a victory for the so-called ‘centre’ or even ‘centre-left’.

Now an Israeli government has finally been formed, let’s take a look at some of the views represented in the new cabinet:

Trade and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett supports the annexation of most of the occupied West Bank (he’s not the only member of the cabinet with this position).

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has said that “the Palestinian threat harbours cancer-like attributes”. The track record of his deputy minister includes a proposal for obtaining an ID card to be conditional on a declaration of loyalty to the state.

Another minister, Uri Orbach, wrote in a national newspaper in 2008 that “we, the Jews, have no intention to commit suicide and lose our Jewish State in the name of our democratic values.”

Minister Yair Shamir’s views on the West Bank: “The Arabs there who call themselves Palestinian, they’ll stay or go, but we’ll definitely stay. We need to keep building in the land.”

Minister Yuval Steinitz has previously backed legislation denying citizenship to Palestinian spouses in order to protect the “demographic balance.”

Those are just a few examples. In addition, note that the new speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, is a West Bank settler who believes the Arabs are a “damaged nation”. Which isn’t so bad compared with the Knesset’s deputy speaker, Moshe Feiglin, who was banned from entering Britain in 2008.

Remember the response of the EU to the participation in Austria’s ruling coalition of Jorg Haider’s Freedom Party? Or the current justified anger at what is happening in Hungary? So why should an Israeli government of racist, international-law defying ministers be exempt from diplomatic isolation and other appropriate measures?

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