Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syria and The Fog of War

This shall probably be the last of the posts on this website; I have been asked by the editor-in-chief of the Warwick Globalist (an international affairs magazine on campus) to begin blogging for their revamped and rebooted website come the start of term in October. So after 8,000 hits and lots of positive feedback from people of a variety of political persuasions (or none at all) I am pleased with how the experiment has gone, and have enjoyed writing this blog. I will post a link to the new blog when it is up and running, and hope everyone will continue to read it over at the Globalist website.

It had been said that the first casualty of war is truth, and Syria is a perfect illustration of this fact. Deciphering and manoeuvring through the labyrinth of lies, distortions, agendas, secrets, deals, threats, and power politics that defines the Syrian civil war is no easy task. I have become somewhat sceptical of the possibility of achieving a substantial degree of knowledge about the conflict, at least for now. The historian often has a far easier task than the political scientist.

Having said that, it is the responsibility of citizens of this country, a country which maintains a disproportionate level of power and influence around the world, to seek to understand the conflict as far as is possible, since we have found ourselves once more faced with the possibility that our government will attack a country in the Middle East (correction- for now at least, they won't. Seconds before publishing this Parliament rejected a motion for military action against Syria, an astonishing event).

The Chemical Attack

There have been murmurs about the ‘ghost of Iraq’ casting a shadow over potential intervention in Syria, and quite rightly. We as a nation are far from coming to terms with and atoning for the devastation we wrought in that country, a ‘moral obscenity’ (to borrow Mr Hague’s description of the gas attack in Syria) that far outweighs the particular attack we condemn so vehemently today. And the uncomfortable fact remains that, despite Obama and Cameron’s rhetoric, we don’t know exactly what happened near Damascus on the 21st of August. We can’t even conclude which side carried out the attack for certain. If it was the regime, we aren’t sure whether it was merely a rogue commander or an institutionalised policy carried out from the highest levels. ABC News has reported that:

the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk," with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials saymultiple U.S. officials used the phrase "not a slam dunk" to describe the intelligence picture’.

This is highly significant given Obama’s assertions that the US ‘concludes’ that the Syrian government carried out the attack as a matter of government policy. Given the terrible record of botched and distorted intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War (and throughout ‘post-War’ history), we ought to be highly sceptical of government claims of this kind.

Why Intervention?

No one should have any illusions that the proposed intervention has anything to do with humanitarian impulses or the enforcement of international law. A brief survey of Western policy and history in the Middle East should put rest to that idea. America has frequently disregarded international law itself, often refusing to sign conventions (such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions) and ignoring international law even when it has formally agreed to it. Western politicians only speak of the crimes of the Syrian regime, and rarely if ever about the alleged atrocities carried out by factions of the rebel forces- for instance it has been reported in some foreign media that a massacre of hundreds of civilians was carried out at Lattakia by rebel Islamists. Little interest has been shown in these allegations.

Selective empathy should come as no surprise to students of international affairs, and the reasons underlying the distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims are rarely hard to find. In this case the Syrian government is considered ‘bad’ because it is Iran’s only major ally in the region, and there is a cold war being waged in the Middle East between two poles: Saudi Arabia, the Sunni states and the West on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria (and perhaps Russia) on the other. The US, UK and France have been hand in hand with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Qatar in their attempts to arm and fund the rebels. The CIA has long been involved in training favoured rebel forces at bases in Jordan, as well as helping organising the flow of weapons across the Turkish-Syrian border. They all hope to weaken and isolate Iran by knocking out its major ally; they would then enjoy the patronage of rebel forces who would partly owe their victory to Gulf and Western backers. That totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia are joining the US in backing the rebels should tell you something about the motives underlying the support given: it has nothing to do with democracy and freedom, but everything to do with power and interests, as is always the case with Great Power politics. [1] 

The Syrian story has got weirder and weirder as time has gone by- this article from Al Monitor purported to record a ‘diplomatic report’ from the Kremlin on a secret meeting between Russia’s Putin and Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence, the slimy Prince Bandar (who used to be the Saudis' ambassador to the US). This is how The Independent described Bandar:

His most recent travels, rarely advertised, have taken him to both London and Paris for discussions with senior officials. As ambassador, Prince Bandar left an imprint that still has not quite faded. His voice was one of the loudest urging the United States to invade Iraq in 2003. In the 1980s, Prince Bandar became mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in Nicaragua. Months of applying pressure on the White House and Congress over Syria have slowly born fruit. The CIA is believed to have been working with Prince Bandar directly since last year in training rebels at base in Jordan close to the Syrian border’

Al Monitor’s article, which was reported and expanded on in The Telegraph, claims that Bandar gave a thinly veiled threat to Putin that if he didn’t withdraw his support for Assad then Chechen Islamic terrorists would attack the 2014 Winter Olympics. He allegedly said to Putin that ‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future’. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I came across this- if true it’s an open admission from a senior Saudi official that they have a hand in Chechen terrorism, use Islamic terrorists against Assad’s regime in Syria, plan to abandon them if they win and most significantly an open threat to attack Russia if Putin refuses to comply. This was first reported in the Russian press, and then the Lebanese-based Al Monitor. Bandar went on to offer a grand deal which included ‘an alliance between the OPEC cartel and Russia, which together produce over 40m barrels a day of oil, 45pc of global output. Such a move would alter the strategic landscape’ according to The Telegraph. This is like something out of the 16th century; indeed the Saudi state does in many ways operate as if it were still in medieval times.

Putin was reportedly outraged at the threats and refused to back down from supporting Syria. Interestingly, The Telegraph claims that Bandar was ‘purporting to speak with the full backing of the US’. The EU Times then had an article about how Putin ‘Orders Massive Strike Against Saudi Arabia If West Attacks Syria’, but the online ‘newspaper’ has little credibility and the article fails to give substantial sources for its claims. Thankfully, this final part of the Putin-Bandar story seems to be a highly unlikely dramatization.

The Consequences

The repercussions of a strike by the West on Syria are impossible to predict accurately, but some inferences can be made. The International Committee of the Red Cross has claimed that ‘further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense’, a sentiment echoed by Christian Aid, which warned of ‘catastrophic effects’ if an attack is undertaken. Highly respected Middle East journalist Robert Fisk has said that an attack would be ‘the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world’, and warned that the US/UK would be on the same side as Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-linked forces, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, reminding one of the CIA programmes in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 80s. In Israel gas masks are being horded as fears of a retaliatory strike by Iran or Syria grow. If a strike goes ahead, the potential for a diplomatic solution will be severely weakened; already the US has unilaterally cancelled a meeting with Russia that was to set out plans for a grand conference to help end the Syrian crisis. Diplomacy is considered by most sane observers, such as former chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, to be the only hope for an end to the violence.

Furthermore public opinion is largely against ‘intervention’, with about 60% in the US opposed. A YouGov poll found that ‘77% of the British public support sending “food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies” to Syria. However, only 9% support sending British troops, while 74% oppose the action. Support is equally minor (10%) for sending full-scale military supplies or even small arms (16%) to the Anti-Assad troops’. One must further factor in the history of the West in Syria before we seek to appoint ourselves as global policemen. France is a former colonial master in Syria, and as this excellent article in The National Interest detailed, the US has a long record of overthrowing governments and imposing dictators in Syria. The article noted how a US government report even found that there is a ‘consensus narrative’ among the Syrian population that ‘foreign conspiracies’ had sought to control Syria in the past and that these were ‘associated with the United States’. We should bear these facts in mind when discussing what to do with Syria today- the West has the collective memory span of a fish, but in regions like the Middle East history holds great significance.

Thankfully momentum towards a strike seems to be slowing (as I write this parliament has voted against military action- a stunning, unexpected and happy result), although I fear that Obama is now too committed to back down. Ed Miliband has done one of the only decent things of his career so far in breaking the usual cross-party consensus on foreign policy and refusing to unconditionally back Cameron. He has called upon Cameron to wait for the results of the UN probe into whether chemical weapons were used, and to strictly abide by international law, very sensible proposals. The reaction from Downing Street has been one of outrage- how on earth could Labour be so reckless and oppose more endless violence and war from Britain?! A government source was quoted as calling Miliband a ‘fucking cunt’ over his decision. This reaction is unsurprising: Labour and the Conservatives usually fight it out over the most minute of policy differences, but if Labour dares to finally offer a break from the two-party consensus on fundamentals then he can expect to feel the wrath of Downing Street. Parliament, it seems, has just voted against military action, and credit needs to go to Miliband for this remarkable result.

International opinion also appears largely opposed, as one would expect. The Pope, Desmond Tutu, and Egypt have come out strongly against intervention. Even the Western-backed Jordanian state has refused to allow the US and UK to use Jordan as a launching pad for a strike, no doubt fearing the contempt it will receive from Arab public opinion and its own population, and perhaps even fearing that it could become the target of retaliatory terrorist attacks. The Arab League has refused to back an attack, despite being comprised mainly of Western-backed governments.

A protest has been called in London this Saturday by Stop the War Coalition to demonstrate against British involvement in Syria.Given that seconds before I posted this the UK backed out of intervention, it may not be needed, fortunately. Less happily, the US and France could still go for a strike. The last thing we need is another imperialist-driven war in the Middle East led by the US, particularly in a conflict so complex; the consequences are difficult to predict but it’s not impossible that this could flare up into a much wider regional or global confrontation with Russia and the US facing off. We haven't won this one yet.

[1] Some have suggested that actual Western policy on Syria is a ‘realist’ strategy to balance the forces within Syria and let them bleed each other to death- engage US enemies like Iran and Hezbollah in a protracted battle that saps their energy and resources whilst not giving enough support to the rebels to allow them to overthrow Assad, since that could lead to an even more anti-Western government. This has been suggested by Robert Fisk, Stephen Walt, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Drezner and Alan Berger, amongst others. It may have some merit to it, but space precludes the possibility of discussing it here.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The War on Whistleblowers (and the population)

Today, a little foray into more domestic issues.

The US and UK (in particular) are making very little effort to cover up the fact that they are running a thuggish campaign to intimidate, imprison, chase and even torture those who are motivated by conscience to reveal government actions and wrongdoing. It’s reaching levels only seen in authoritarian states, and observers with their eyes open (a tiny minority) are starting to say as much.

Barack Obama, the ‘liberal’ president, has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the obscure 1917 Espionage Act than all other post-war presidents combined. Bradley Manning, who leaked the ‘Collateral Murder’ video showing war crimes by a US gunship, and thousands of diplomatic documents which have provided a treasure trove of information for journalists and activists for the past couple of years, was today sentenced by a military court to 35 years for his leaks. He’s already been held for around 3 years, spending 11 months in conditions which the UN said amounted effectively to torture. Amnesty International has already called on Obama to commute the sentence. In the 70s Richard Nixon pardoned William Calley, one of the participants in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, after he had served a tiny amount of his sentence. One highly doubts that Manning will get the same merciful treatment from the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president. So this is American justice: reveal the crimes of your government and army, receive 35 years. Massacre for your flag, and get let off by the President. One probably shouldn’t be surprised by the Nixon pardon though; after all, Nixon was himself one of the great mass murderers of the post-war era.

It’s not just Manning who has suffered under Obama- John Kiriakou was put in prison for revealing that the CIA had been involved in the use of water-boarding. Again; reveal the severe international crimes of a previous administration, and the next government will come for you. Thomas Drake, who tried to reveal the extent of NSA spying operations before Edward Snowden came on the scene, was also charged under the act. The list goes on. Now the Obama administration is after Snowden for publicising the horrendous mass spying that the NSA and GCHQ have been carrying out on millions of people all over the world, not just in their own countries.

And it’s not only the US- terrifying claims by the editor-in-chief of the Guardian were made yesterday. The newspaper was the main publication to carry the NSA/GCHQ revelations, excellent journalist Glenn Greenwald having received the documents from Snowden. Coming shortly after Greenwald’s partner was detained at Heathrow for 9 hours, given no legal rights, and having all his electronic equipment stolen from him by ‘security’, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the newspaper, revealed that he was ‘contacted by a very senior government official claiming to represent the views of the prime minister. There followed two meetings in which he demanded the return or destruction of all the material we were working on. The tone was steely, if cordial, but there was an implicit threat that others within government and Whitehall favoured a far more draconian approach’. He was told that “You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more”, and then was made to destroy the hard drives containing the Snowden documents whilst the government’s thugs from GCHQ watched. It has since been claimed that this order came from David Cameron himself, and that the US was given prior notice that David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, would be detained at Heathrow.

So in a couple of days the true face of the British state has revealed itself- one willing to try to enforce censorship on a newspaper seeking to release information detailing mass spying on citizens of Britain and the world, and willing to detain a journalist under section 7 of an ‘anti-terrorism’ law and steal all his belongings. Journalists are now apparently terrorist suspects. The whole story of the NSA/GCHQ leaks would be almost laughable if it weren’t true.  A while ago the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, had his plane pulled down over Europe because it was suspected that Snowden was on board, despite huge objections from Latin America. John Pilger rightly described this as an act of ‘air piracy’; can you imagine the reaction if Bolivia hauled down President Obama’s plane because it was thought that Obama was shielding someone fleeing persecution? The US would probably go to war with Bolivia if it did that- or else instigate a murky CIA coup. The imperial arrogance of Europe and the US is astonishing.

Jacob Heilbrunn in the conservative National Interest got it about right when he said that the detention of Miranda signified the day that ‘the UK took a fateful step toward a meddling government that tells its subjects what they may read and say’. Juan Cole, respected blogger and former editor of academic foreign affairs journals, claimed that we are moving towards a ‘STASI authoritarian state’. This isn’t merely unhelpful hyperbole. We are seeing the logical conclusion of the absurd policies of an elite that is at war with the whole world, including its own citizens. David Miranda is now considered a terrorist suspect- and one shouldn’t be too surprised, since the label ‘terrorist’ is generally used for people who are opposed to the government. The aim of this ultra-rich, ultra-powerful elite is to keep ‘the herd’ quiet, subdued, passive, and in the dark, whilst those who know best can go about running the world, as is their natural right. We need to realise who our real enemies are. 

Update: The Huffington Post summed up the Manning sentence perfectly- 'The only person going to prison for US war crimes is the guy who revealed them'

Friday, 9 August 2013

The US Against the People of Egypt

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot help but be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity”.
George Kennan, 1948[1]

I’ve just finished reading The Road to Tahrir Square by historian Lloyd Gardner, a decent account of US-Egyptian relations from around 1945 to the overthrow of Mubarak. It has helped me understand more clearly the current situation in Egypt, and has the odd fascinating piece of information about Middle Eastern relations in general. For Gardner, ‘there is a strong historical thread stretching from the agreements reached between the CIA and Nasser on Iraq in 1963 to the final days of Mubarak’s regime in early 2011’ (p.95).

To many, it is hard to contextualise the events of 2011 and see them relative to the historical ties between the US and Egypt. The US has invested around $50 billion in military and economic aid in Egypt over the past few decades, and this has given it no small say in Egyptian politics. During the 2011 crisis, ‘Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen had made phone calls to their counterparts almost every day’ (p.195). The Pentagon spokesman claimed that this was ‘just an example of how engaged we are with the Egyptians’. Gardner notes how the Guardian reported days before Mubarak’s downfall that the Obama administration ‘had refused to cut military aid to Egypt “and is instead working behind the scenes with the commanders of the armed forces on how to oust President Mubarak”’ (p.189). Indeed, as Kees Van der Pijl pointed out, the takeover of the Supreme Military Council was an outcome ‘announced to Congress by Leon Panetta, then head of the CIA, on February 10, the day before it happened’ (‘Arab Revolts and Nation-State Crisis’, New Left Review (70), p.27), something also commented on by Gardner. Earlier both Obama and Biden had refused to call Mubarak a dictator, or even authoritarian; despite, as an interviewer pointed out, the fact that 1000’s of people were tortured and imprisoned under Mubarak and his feared intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman. Obama even managed to duck the question with the astonishing claim that he tends ‘not to use labels for folks’. Indeed, for Obama, Mubarak was a ‘stalwart ally ... a force for stability and good’, a sentiment echoed by the laughably pathetic Tony Blair.

As Tariq Ali pointed out, Washington tried desperately to maintain their influence in Egypt, clinging on to Mubarak until it was clear the pressure was too great and that the whole edifice upon which US influence had been devised in Egypt was being threatened. When they finally abandoned Mubarak, Obama was largely  lauded by liberal commentators as having been on the side of the people all along; another example of the standard ‘liberal’ contempt for facts. The brutal Omar Suleiman was even ‘at one stage touted as Mubarak’s successor’ (‘Between Past and Future’ New Left Review (80), p.63), before the decision was made that all the hated figureheads needed to be changed, and the army was considered reliable enough by Washington and popular enough with the people to be the ones to take over. 

David Wearing, a SOAS researcher and up-and-coming writer, wrote an excellent summary and review of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance by Jason Brownlee in February; Brownlee generally argues the same thing. Wearing quotes a passage to sum it up perfectly: ‘Official US-Egyptian relations have been at odds with domestic public opinion in Egypt. Rather than fostering democracy in an incremental fashion, US and Egyptian officials have promoted an autocratic security state that supports a US-led regional order built around Israeli security and US influence over the Persian Gulf. By contrast, public opinion in Egypt favours a regional security order less dominated by the United States and Israel, and a government that respects political competition and civil liberties’. Gardner compares the way the US provided for Sadat’s own personal security with the way they helped train and create the brutal secret police in Iran under the Shah. This is of course unremarkable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of US foreign policy, but it may seem odd to those accustomed to the standard line in the media and academia- that the US, whilst it may make the odd mistake, is fundamentally committed to democracy promotion around the world. This is no more true than the idea that the Soviet Union was fighting for the poor and oppressed around the world, or that the Roman Empire had any interest in the wellbeing of its conquered subjects (or the British Empire for that matter). Every power in history has been concerned with its own interests, whilst claiming to follow a higher moral cause, and the US is unremarkable in this respect. Its rhetoric about promoting democracy in Egypt should be disregarded; the quote from George Kennan at the start of the article is a far more honest and accurate portrayal of US policy, from the pen of a man who did so much to shape its direction after World War 2.

As Brownlee points out, US policy is heavily at odds with Egyptian public opinion. Gardner cites a Gallup poll which revealed an ‘“overwhelming tsunami of negative opinions” about the United States’; more than half opposed any US aid to Egypt, and three-quarters ‘opposed any aid to specific political groups’ (p.201). He quotes Gallup’s chief analyst of the poll, who believed that the reason was simply because US aid was perceived as only serving to ‘perpetuate the condition of the Mubarak years’ (p.202). The recent uprisings had far more of an anti-US government flavour to them than the 2011 uprisings- it seems the Egyptian people offered the US a chance to redeem themselves and have now tired of extending the olive branch. Perhaps there is a recognition that the US isn’t, and never will be, on their side.

Anti-US government feeling across the region is quite easily explained for those who are genuinely interested, and don’t just want to have an idiotic rant about why the Muslims ‘hate us because they hate us’. A review article in Foreign Affairs a couple of months ago detailed a study by Amaney Jamal who found that so-called ‘anti-Americanism’ was the result of a ‘deeper rejection of undemocratic political systems in Arab countries, which for decades have been underwritten and supported by the United States’; not to mention more immediate grievances like the CIA and Pentagon’s global assassination, torture and kidnapping campaigns, and the mass crime which was the Iraq War (‘The Persistence of Arab Anti-Americanism’, Mark Lynch, Foreign Affairs, 92(3), p.147).

Most interesting is Gardner’s claim that the crisis in Egypt has ‘portended far greater long-term dangers’ for the US government than the debacles in Iraq or Afghanistan, something he quotes Henry Kissinger (the most powerful National Security Advisor in US history and former Secretary of State for Gerald Ford) as agreeing with (p.204). Egypt has been described by US officials as a ‘cornerstone’ of US policy in the Middle East, and that certainly has a lot of truth to it; today it is second possibly only to Saudi Arabia as a US Arab ally in the region.  The latest upheavals could turn out to favour or harm the US; it’s too early to tell.

 I will continue to write about Egypt in the weeks to come.

[1] Quoted in The Road to Tahrir Square by Lloyd Gardner. George Kennan was one of the major US government planners in the Post-War period.