Recent Middle East Articles

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?

The Pro-Palestine protests ARE standing up for free speech

by Guest     March 3, 2013 at 11:01 am

by Josiah Mortimer

Though billed as a ‘public’ event, Thursday’s controversial visit to the University of York by the Deputy Ambassador of Israel was anything but. Open to only students and staff, the lecture, ‘Israel and the situation in the Middle East’, was announced less than a week before the event itself, with the location itself given just a couple of days before.

So, contrary to Matt Hill’s analysis on this site, it was in the spirit of free speech that campaigners decided to protest.

The protest was lively, peaceful and upbeat, and never had the intention of shutting down the lecture. Instead, the aim of the dozens there was to ensure the Palestinian’s side of the story was heard, a perspective almost never heard in mainstream media debates or in lecture halls across the country.

Indeed, if the Israeli and the Palestinian causes were given equal treatment, there would be no need last week’s protest. But given no platform to debate with Roth-Snir, we created a platform to ensure the reality was heard – that over half of Palestinians are refugees, that Israel’s 230 illegal settlements devastate the livelihoods of millions of poor Palestinians, and that Gaza is still recovering from last November’s siege by Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 158 Palestinians, many of whom were children.

The true purpose behind the ambassadorial university visits over the past few months has been anything but transparent.

A University of York statement said the Deputy Ambassador “wasn’t invited. The Embassy contacted the University and asked if a representative could speak”. Since Operation Pillar of Defence – the 2012 War on Gaza – Alon Roth-Snir has been touring campuses – the last being the University of Essex, where students there too stood up to attempts to legitimise serious war crimes.

The Deputy Ambassador visits are never debates, are announced at late notice – self-invited – and there is no opportunity for Palestinians’ voices to be heard. The Palestinian Solidarity protest, then, was fundamentally a free speech issue.

Far from a desperate need “for supporters of the Palestinians to take a principled stand against attempts to silence advocates of Israel”, as Hill claims, there’s a much more urgent need for Palestinian supporters to take a stand against the gross freedom of speech violations Israel conducts, and its Ambassadors defend – the more than 4000 political prisoners – including nearly 30 Palestinian MPs, the penalisation of boycott supporters, and the victimisation of pro-Palestinian academics in Israeli universities, among countless more examples.

Pro-Palestinian activists wholly welcome debating with defenders of Israel’s actions. But the Deputy Ambassador’s campus visits come to put forward one side of the story, with little opportunity – save a few token questions – for engagement.

Josiah York is from University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society, and one of the main organisers of the protest.

Pro-Palestinian activists are wrong to shut down debates by pro-Israelis

by Matt Hill     March 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Last night pro-Palestinian activists tried to disrupt a lecture by Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UK, Alan Roth-Snir, at the University of York. According to a student newspaper, protestors from the University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society tried to break in to the hall where Roth-Snir was speaking, but were prevented by police.

And last month a talk by Roth-Snir at the University of Essex had to be cancelled, after protestors pushed their way into the lecture hall and drowned him out with chanting.

The incidents seem to be part of a coordinated attempt to prevent Israeli officials from speaking at university campuses in the UK. Protestors have been egged on by anti-Zionist activists like Ben White on Twitter.

Ironically, the protestors have justified their actions on the grounds of free speech, with one saying: ‘The university has argued that this is a case for freedom of speech. What we are concerned about is the freedom of speech and other human rights of the Palestinian people.’

For those in need of a recap, ‘free speech’ is supposed to apply to all kinds of views, not just those you agree with.

Free speech also covers the right to protest, of course. Which is why demonstrators are within their rights to protest a university’s decision to invite Israel’s deputy ambassador to speak, or its failure to invite a representative of the Palestinians. They are also within their rights to protest Israel’s policies in the West Bank, its obstruction of the peace process, or anything else they oppose.

But it’s time for supporters of the Palestinians to take a principled stand against attempts to silence advocates of Israel.

When pro-Israeli groups in the US tried to stop a talk by pro-Palestinian writer Judith Butler from taking place at Brooklyn College last month, their efforts sparked justified outrage. And significantly, some of the strongest condemnations of attempts to censor the talk came from those who stated their opposition to Butler’s views while supporting her right to be heard.

There’s a growing trend, on both sides of the Israel-Palestine debate, to try and silence the other side by presenting its views as not merely wrong but illegitimate.

So here’s a radical idea for those of us who support Palestinian liberation. When we encounter views we oppose, how about countering them with reasoned debate rather than shouting them down?

George Galloway’s hypocrisy in boycotting an Israeli in debate

by Matt Hill     February 21, 2013 at 1:36 pm

I’m not sure there’s an awful lot to say about George Galloway’s astonishingly stupid decision to storm out of a debate at Oxford University when he discovered his opponent was an Israeli.

Not an Israeli government official, mind you. Not a spokesperson for the regime or a paid functionary of the occupation. Just a young man, called Eylon Aslan-Levy, with an Israeli passport and uncongenial views.

When challenged about his behaviour on Twitter, Galloway replied: ‘No recognition of Israel. No normalisation. Christ Church never informed us the debate would be with an Israeli. Simple.’

Galloway’s words echo the mantra of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Whether or not you agree with the aims or tactics of that campaign (and pro-Palestinian activists like Norman Finkelstein have criticised it heavily) it’s worth noting that BDS calls for boycotting ‘products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions’.

By personally extending the boycott to include anyone of Israeli nationality, Galloway has taken it to an extreme that is as baffling as it is nasty.

The irony is that when Galloway is criticised for travelling to Iraq in 1994 to salute Saddam’s Hussein’s ‘courage’, ‘strength’ and ‘indefatigability’, he claims, falsely, that he was addressing the Iraqi nation – and says his critics should be able to see the difference between the people and the regime.

It’s odd that Galloway is so keen on this distinction when praising a blood-stained dictator, but seems unable to make it in the case of a young student at a university debate.

But it long ago became clear that Galloway is prepared to discredit everything he claims to stand for in order to advance his one true cause: himself.

The current sanctions against Iran are an utter failure and only hurt the people

by Guest     February 18, 2013 at 11:01 am

by Luke Watson

As long ago as 2007, US diplomats were entertaining thoughts about dealing directly with the Iranian people, professing admiration for Iranian history and culture, and expressing a sincere desire to have a thriving and mutually beneficial relationship.

The current sanctions are widely held to target the people not the government and do little to hamper Iran’s ability to import fuel and other resources. The net result is that they have helped Ahmadinejad unite his people to resist intrusive US actions against its nuclear program.

The Iranian regime is relatively immune to sanctions and indeed may benefit from them by using them to engender something of a siege mentality amongst the population. During the Salman Rushdie affair, many argued for greater trade relations with Iran rather than the opposite.

Difficult as it was to make the case for dealing with a regime purportedly prepared to kill a British novelist, it was soon understood that the offer of improved trade relations with Iran would serve to increase economic cooperation between both countries, to the extent that Iranian dependence would prevent hardliners from jeopardising bilateral relations.

It is a strategy which would likely prove beneficial – it would at a stroke demonstrate our commitment to improved relations with Iran, and help to nurture the very middle class entrepreneurial spirit that would challenge Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

Ending embargoes would have benefits in many areas: they would remove the ability of right wing groups such as the IRGC to profit from the black market in hard-to-find goods. It would open the Iranian market to foreign companies, thus engendering a reduction in IRGC monopolies, and it would encourage the development of an emerging middle class which is traditionally closely allied to the presently restrained democratic movement.

Economic and business contacts would give the Iranian regime something to lose, and would be a motivation for continued good relations, and for further reforms.

The West’s reliance on confrontational and punitive rhetoric, rather than more constructive attempts to understand Iran and distinguish between the state and the nation, fails to take account of the complexities it represents. Britain and the West need to free Iran from ‘rogue’ status and come up with a better ‘idea of Iran’.

As Tam Dalyell put it some years ago, ‘The demonising of Iran should be something of the past […] the more locked in we are in commercial relations, the harder it will be for the hardliners to wreck relations’. Labelling Iran as ‘rogue’ and part of an ‘axis of evil’ demonstrably unites the population behind the leadership in defending Iran’s reputation.

In turn, punitive trade sanctions give Iran nothing to lose and serve only to strengthen the hand of the hardliners in the regime. If we continue to punish and to alienate the Iranian government with suggestions of an ‘Axis of Evil’ and the like, we risk strengthening the hand of the neo-conservative proponents of arbitrary rule.

We need to recognise the willingness of much of the population, and sectors within the polity, to pursue a path towards becoming a legitimate member of the international community.

Luke Watson tweets from here: @WatsonPolitics

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