Wednesday, June 18, 2014 

William's last words.

Who threw the first stone, if the stone is you?

First, thank you for all your kind words, thoughts and sentiments (including away from here).  They mean more than you can possibly know.  Perhaps in a couple of days I'll respond to them in more detail.  Forgive me for not doing that at the moment.

Second, back in the bad old days/best of days (as they honestly were, without wanting to echo Dickens) one of my favourite lines was that irony was smothering everything.  It is therefore wonderfully ironic that the exact same political backdrop we had then is still with us now.  See, just as I haven't moved forward, nor has politics.  How bitterly, hilariously fitting.  Or it could just be me.

As he almost always does, Flying Rodent has beaten me to it.  We tend to think of the Iraq war and the Gulf war as two separate conflicts when they were not.  The bombing didn't stop in 1991 and then start again in 2003.  It never stopped.  "Targets" were constantly being hit.  Sanctions that destroyed the actual economy and quality of life for the ordinary Iraqi while the Ba'athist elite continued to prosper were put in place and continuously ramped up.  Yet, for some inexplicable reason, once we had finally "finished the job" we found a society that didn't welcome the final act of "shock and awe" as the more fervent supporters of the war insisted they would.  Instead a decent number almost instantly began resisting.  Added to these were, as the War Nerd explains, jihadists just waiting for a new sanctuary after failing to gain a foothold elsewhere.  The two groups merged, and to make a much more nuanced and long story far too short and simple, we eventually ended up with ISIS.

So here we are.  Again.  11 years on, and the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (as he must now be known, considering how keen he is on muscular promotion of our values) is standing up in the Commons and saying if we do nothing then we will have carnage on our streets.  You know, I'm tired.  Really fucking tired.  I'm especially tired of politicians telling me that only if we keep on killing people abroad will it mean safety back home.  I don't care whether those people end up getting killed with missiles fired by British jets promoting our muscular values, or by American drones with "long term, hard-headed, patient and intelligent" intentions, at this point incinerating yet more Iraqis is about as likely to have the same effect on our security as sending a dog to the moon would.

Not much more really needs saying about the mess we've got ourselves in, supporting "moderate" Sunnis against Assad in Syria (there are no secularists in Syria says the War Nerd, they're all Islamists of one shade or another) as we now try and suck up to the Iranians to help save Maliki from much the same Sunnis, finally tired of the Shia dominance of the post-war years. But, but say the Blairs and the Bloodworths, had Saddam stayed in power he would most likely have faced the same protests as elsewhere in the Arab world, and if we'd acted against Assad earlier ISIS would have never gained such a foothold. Except ISIS would almost certainly have never established itself in Iraq to start with if it hadn't been for the war, and all out military intervention in Syria has never been on the table, only "punishment" strikes for the gas attacks. And why, principally, was that? It wouldn't have been down to how Iraq and Libya were such fabulous successes, right?

I'm also really tired of the left's failure to stand up for free speech. You expect the establishment to preach the virtues of tolerance and freedom of thought at the same time as the CPS prosecutes the likes of Jake Newsome for posting an offensive but what certainly should not be a criminal message on Facebook about the murder of Ann Maguire.  What you don't expect is for some to defend the outrageous six-week prison sentence he received.  Then again, when some, and I stress some of the left seem to think the real political issue of the day is their right not to be trolled and made fun of on Twitter, perhaps it's not that surprising.  I should be Jack's total lack of surprise.

Most of all, I'd love to fall asleep, and wake up happy.  And wake up happy.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014 

A (slightly) shorter John McTernan.

Aren't the Kurds fantastic?  Shame about the Sunni and Shiites, eh?

You see, the real reason why Iraq is currently descending into the abyss is because we left too early.  We were selfish.  We should have stayed for as long as was needed, as long as it took Saddam to destroy the place.  He did it all, you see.

We have a responsibility to go back there right now and start killing more Iraqis.  Let's face it, if there's one thing we've been world class at over the past decade, it's killing Iraqis.  To be fair, we can't take all the credit.  Most of the actual smiting has been by the Iraqis themselves, we just lit the torch paper by having not a solitary fucking clue of what to do after we completely and utterly destroyed the Ba'athist state for the sheer sake of it.

As for all you cynics and stoppers, muttering under your breath about how al-Qaida didn't exist in Iraq prior to our kicking the door in, you're bloodless, amoral cowards.  You might as well say "Saddam may have been a fascist who inflicted genocide on the Kurds at the same time as we supported his war against Iran and sold him weapons", oh, sorry, got a bit confused there.  Wasn't the war about WMD? I've forgotten.

The truth is if we don't act now, we will have to act later.  We have to go back to Iraq to rescue a democracy that isn't working because the politicians won't share power.  Isn't that right, Tony?

P.S. As a very special treat, here's a shorter Owen Jones:

I have encountered no sense of vindication, no "I told you so", among veterans of the anti-war protest of 15 February 2003 in response to the events in Iraq.  That's why I'm writing this.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014 

The taking of Mosul isn't our fault. Well, OK, partly it is.

The panic (by politicians and the media, not by the people of Mosul themselves, who know all too well what ISIS is capable of) at the seizing of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or al-Sham, or the Levant, or whatever you want to call them) is a little curious. After all, for a good couple of years between around 06 and 08 the then mere Islamic State of Iraq had the run of if not control of the so-called Sunni Triangle, with Mosul for a long time forming one of their strongholds.  Then though it was the Americans they were principally fighting and winning against. It was only once the Americans joined forces with the Awakening groups, formed after local tribal leaders grew tired of the brutality and fanaticism of ISI that the group was beaten back, and while never defeated, certainly brought to the brink.

Whether or not those who've taken Mosul and also now Tikrit are ISIS fighters in the true sense or a conglomeration of former jihadis including ISIS as some are suggesting, it does nonetheless signal the group's arguable usurping of al-Qaida as the world's pre-eminent jihadist organisation. This is all the more remarkable considering how earlier in the year Ayman al-Zawihiri removed ISIS's  affiliate/franchise status, following its refusal to patch up its differences with the al-Nusra front in Syria, itself originally an offshoot of... ISI.  Its success in Iraq and Syria also comes in spite of criticism from some of the most influential and respected jihadi thinkers, including Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, both of whom urged support for al-Nusra.

How far this is a victory for ISIS as opposed to a humiliation for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is as yet too early to tell.  ISIS without doubt has some battle-hardened, well-trained and deadly fighters, as is proved by their tightly edited and designed to terrify propaganda videos.  As for how many of their fighters in total have that level of experience and skill is anyone's guess, although it certainly doesn't come close to the 5,000 or so they are estimated to have in Iraq.  Something they do have both in Iraq and Syria is a constant stream of volunteers willing to become suicide bombers, regardless it seems also of whether the target, as in Syria, is their fellow jihadis.  The Iraqi forces, part out of fear, part out of lack of training and part out of lack of loyalty to a Shia-dominated government that has never tried to properly reconcile with the Sunni north since the civil war seem to have mostly melted away, leaving only a police force that soon also abandoned its posts.  Paul Mutter suggests the majority of the functioning Iraqi army is currently trying and failing to dislodge ISIS and other Sunni militias from around Fallujah, making it even less likely Mosul will be able to be retaken soon.

Indeed, as Maliki is apparently encouraging the arming of people's militias, he also seems to doubt whether it can be achieved.  The real key will be ISIS's strategy from here on out.  Where once the group was set on fomenting civil war, relying on holding just a few safe zones and then often under the hospitality of tribal groups rather than through strength, it now de facto controls swathes of both Iraq and Syria, with an even wider operational presence.  In the short-term the aim may well be to recapture some of the territory lost in Syria, with the materiel captured from the Iraqi security forces put into use against the rival rebel groupings there.  Also a major factor will be how the group intends to govern those who haven't fled their advance: promises given that they will not be looking to impose the kind of justice seen in Raqqa are wholly unlikely to convince given the group's propensity for killing first and asking questions later.

Where this leaves foreign policy in the region, or at least should is equally uncertain.  As Juan Cole writes, ISIS could not have survived without the wealthy benefactors in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf who have no qualms about the funding of murderous fanatics if it means the weakening of Iran's allies.  Correspondingly, both the United States and our good selves are now in the position of propping up and supplying a Shia-dominated government in Iraq in its fight against ISIS, while at the same time supplying "moderate" Sunni rebels in their fight against both Assad and ISIS.  We welcome the farcical election of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt (in the words of Patrick Cockburn, he couldn't even rig the vote properly), while denouncing the farcical re-election of Assad in Syria.  We try not to mention Libya at all, while politicians who have spent the past decade telling us we've been fighting in Afghanistan to prevent terrorism here can be safe in the knowledge a group too extreme for al-Qaida now controls much of northern Iraq and a good chunk of Syria, both of which are hell of a lot closer to Europe than Afghanistan is.  And of course, we can also be happy about how ISIS didn't exist prior to the Iraq war. 

Other than that, things seem to be going pretty well.  Sleep tight.

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Thursday, April 24, 2014 

Anne-Marie invites you to a mass slaughter.

Seeing as we so enjoyed our trip yesterday into the mind of Tony Blair, with its vivid reminder that there are plenty of people in the West who seem to thrive on exactly the sort of conflict they accuse others of seeking, it's worth bearing in mind he's something of a dove on Syria.  Here, for instance, is Anne-Marie Slaughter (nominative determinism quite possibly in action) on how Obama should go after Putin through Assad:  

It is time to change Putin’s calculations, and Syria is the place to do it.
...

It is impossible to strike Syria legally so long as Russia sits on the United Nations Security Council, given its ability to veto any resolution authorizing the use of force. But even Russia agreed in February to Resolution 2139, designed to compel the Syrian government to increase flows of humanitarian aid to starving and wounded civilians. Among other things, Resolution 2139 requires that “all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment, such as the use of barrel bombs….” 


The US, together with as many countries as will cooperate, could use force to eliminate Syria’s fixed-wing aircraft as a first step toward enforcing Resolution 2139. “Aerial bombardment” would still likely continue via helicopter, but such a strike would announce immediately that the game has changed. After the strike, the US, France, and Britain should ask for the Security Council’s approval of the action taken, as they did after NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. 

 ... 

Putin may believe, as Western powers have repeatedly told their own citizens, that NATO forces will never risk the possibility of nuclear war by deploying in Ukraine. Perhaps not. But the Russian forces destabilizing eastern Ukraine wear no insignia. Mystery soldiers can fight on both sides. 

Putting force on the table in resolving the Ukraine crisis, even force used in Syria, is particularly important because economic pressure on Russia, as critical as it is in the Western portfolio of responses, can create a perverse incentive for Putin. As the Russian ruble falls and foreign investment dries up, the Russian population will become restive, giving him even more reason to distract them with patriotic spectacles welcoming still more “Russians” back to the motherland.

It really doesn't get much more lacking in awareness, or rather, such is the way we've seen US officials repeatedly say you can't just walk into foreign countries on a false prospectus or words to the effect, charges of hypocrisy or not learning from the past just don't seem to have any impact.  Slaughter is proposing precisely the kind of abuse of the UN as was first put forward during the run-up to the Iraq war, relying on resolutions either years out of date or never intended to be used to justify force.  It also ignores how much of the Russian opposition to UN resolutions on Syria is linked back to the misuse of Resolution 1973 on Libya], which NATO interpreted as authorising regime change, something neither Russia or China believed it did.

Slaughter doesn't explain how only Syria's "fixed wing-aircraft" would be eliminated, or how this would be achieved without taking out the country's anti-air defences at the same time, nor what the point of a half-hearted intervention is when so much trouble would have to be gone through in the first place.  Surely Putin, who as Slaughter tells us measures "himself and his fellow leaders in terms of crude machismo", would be far more impressed with the US going the whole way instead of resorting to just more half-measures?  It also fails to take into account how Putin could do the exact opposite to what Slaughter expects when faced with such a direct challenge, annexing vast sections of the east of Ukraine at the precise moment when US military attention is on Syria.  At least when Nixon and Kissinger came up with the bombing of Cambodia they were fairly certain of the results.  Such is the disconnect with military reality on the part of the Kissingers of our day, they can't even be sure of how such a policy would work in Syria itself, let alone on Russia.

P.S. Anne-Marie Slaughter was last month named the 37th most prominent "world thinker" by Prospect magazine.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 

A dangerous Melanie Phillips.

If there's one thing you can rely on when a new pronouncement emerges from the Office of Tony Blair, it's that it will be taken very seriously by both devotees and critics of our dear former prime minister alike. The responses might not be correspondingly dry, but they amount to the same thing. It's therefore not true to say that Blair's sermons don't have influence, especially when there are still those within government who share his increasingly worrying world view.

For Blair has at last dropped any real moderating factors from his black and white vision of the Middle East (and much of Africa for that matter) and what we should be doing to encourage "change". The odd thing is that Blair's idea of reform post-Arab spring seems remarkably close to the world prior to 9/11. Tony has you see clearly been revisiting Iraq and where it all went wrong, probably in anticipation of the Chilcot inquiry passing judgement on him. The problem wasn't the intervention itself or the lies leading up to it, rather the fact that both Sunni and Shia extremists immediately rose up against their supposed liberators.  Where al-Qaida previously had barely existed, within a year the most powerful franchise yet was established and on its way to controlling vast swathes of the north of the country.

Apart from Blair not admitting it was his very intervention that played exactly into al-Qaida's hands and prompted the biggest surge in jihadi recruitment since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as numerous commentators have pointed out, and ignoring all the mistakes made by the occupying forces in the first few years, his analysis is reasonably sound. Where he then gets it spectacularly wrong is in taking this view of Islamist extremism being the main factor holding the region back and applies it across the board. Yes, he is at pains to say there are other forces at work and that Islamism is not Islam, but frankly it's becoming more and more difficult to take his protestations seriously.

Blair's solution is remarkably simple. The threat is so serious and affects both ally and ostensible rival alike that differences should be set aside to challenge it. We should work with both Russia and China as they have their own problems with Islamists. Even more dramatically, such is the danger posed by the extremists in the Syrian opposition that we should aim for a negotiated settlement where Assad stays in power, at least for the time being.  Only if he rejects such a generous offer would we then look to help the same opposition through imposing a no fly zone.  This would obviously mean something approaching war, although we would demand at the same time that the extremist groups get no help from the surrounding states.  You know, just like we have for the last couple of years now, and what an overwhelming success it's been.

This new thesis from the man who previously gave us the Chicago speech is riddled with contradictions, and Blair must realise know it.  To be sure, he had no objection to dealing with authoritarian states when in office so long as they either supported or didn't interfere with the West's wider foreign policy aims, hence why he brought Gaddafi's Libya in from the cold and had no qualms whatsoever about shutting down the Serious Fraud Office investigation into fraud in the al-Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia.  This new emphasis on realpolitik though suggests that despite continuing to support the Iraq war, given the chance to do things differently he most likely would.  Considering the more barmy neo-cons have insisted in the past that the Iraq intervention was one of the catalysts of the Arab spring, this is quite the Damascene conversion.

Then again, Blair clearly has no love for the Arab spring or for the values those who initially rose up had.  He says our ultimate principle should be support for religious freedom and open, rule based economies.  Note that he doesn't mention democracy, a word he only uses three times throughout his entire screed, one of those in reference to Israel.  Like so much of the speech, the reason is simple: democracy, as seen in Egypt and in Palestine, can lead to the people voting for the very Islamists he is so opposed to.  As Blair sets out, whether they be Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, and regardless of whether they eschew violence, "their overall ideology is one which inevitably creates the soil in which such extremism can take root".  He goes on to say Islamism's very implementation is incompatible with the modern world, yet apparently this is its very danger.  One would suspect that if this were the case Iran's theocracy would have long since departed the scene, yet still it remains with us, in spite also of the sanctions bearing down on it.  Perhaps its survival can be put down to its managed democracy, but again, doesn't this rather undermine Blair's case?

Well yes, but it sure doesn't stop him.  Egypt then, rather than Syria, is where the future of the region hangs.  Despite coming to power in what were widely regarded as fair elections, the Brotherhood simply had to be overthrown, as it was "taking over the traditions and institutions of the country".  It wasn't just an ordinary protest that led to the ousting of Morsi, it was "an absolutely necessary rescue of the nation".  Any concerns we have about the over a thousand Morsi supporters who were massacred in the aftermath, or the 500+ protesters sentenced to death we should put aside, as we help the country "cross over to a better future".  Blair in other words supports wholeheartedly the restoration of the Mubarak era, just with a different general in charge.  Nor it seems should we worry that supporting the coup might encourage the very belief change can't be achieved through the ballot box, leading to the exact violence Blair so abhors, or about the journalists imprisoned on false charges, the kind of actions we so condemn of other authoritarian states, or indeed the very people who demanded true democracy and who want neither the army or the Brotherhood; all these are by the by when defeating the true threat posed by the Islamists is vastly more important.

The countries that go unmentioned ought to speak just as loudly as those he goes through in turn.  Strangely absent is Turkey, again perhaps because it would otherwise undermine his case.  On the face of it Erodgan's AKP would fit the bill: a party that bit by bit seems to be undermining democracy, which supports Islamists in Syria and describes children killed by its forces as "terrorists".  It remains however as popular if not more popular than ever, and has also established precisely the open, rule based economy Blair favours, to the point where the Gezi Park protests started because of the proposed development of yet another shopping mall.  For all Blair's radicalism, he also still can't bring himself to criticise Saudi Arabia by name, instead only remarking on the absurdity of spending billions
 

of $ on security arrangements and on defence to protect ourselves against the consequences of an ideology that is being advocated in the formal and informal school systems and in civic institutions of the very countries with whom we have intimate security and defence relationships.

It's this cowardice, along with his rejection of what he calls the "absolutely rooted desire on the part of Western commentators" to "eliminate the obvious common factor in a way that is almost wilful" that gives the game away.  Just as he spoke after 9/11 of "re-ordering this world around us", his ultimate desire remains the same even if his methods are now different.  Regardless of how just the grievances of those who have turned to violence and/or Islamism are, they have to be defeated whatever the cost.  It doesn't matter if those doing the smiting are as tyrannical as those they are fighting against, like the Russians in Chechnya, or the Chinese against the Uighurs, both of whom Blair wants onside for his battle, such is the danger of the ideology that we must if necessary make uncomfortable bedfellows.  We shall go on pussyfooting around Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of the very people Blair proselytises against, while keeping the pressure up on the potential ally we could have in Iran.  We must hug Israel ever closer, as the real problem is with the divisions among the Palestinians, again caused by Islamism.  


This, remember, is the Quartet's peace envoy.  He is also a man who regardless of the criticism, retains influence.  He ought to be thought of after this as Melanie Phillips with a hotline to the world's leaders.  And if that isn't scary, I'm not sure what is.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014 

Scottish independence and "the forces of darkness".

The Better Together campaign against Scottish independence hasn't had a great time of it recently. Ever since the Graun quoted an unnamed minister apparently due to be involved in the negotiations should there be a yes vote as saying a currency union would be possible in exchange for Scotland continuing to host nuclear weapons at Faslane it's seemed more on the backfoot than usual. They must know "Project Fear" isn't working, but as yet they still haven't come up with an alternative. Last week instead saw a step-up in the complaints about online nationalists supposedly abusing their opponents, the internet equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

Lord Robertson wasn't speaking on behalf of Better Together at his Brookings Institution speech, although that won't stop everyone, myself included, from linking his ridiculous scaremongering to the No campaign's overall message.  As a paragon of the substrata of the political and military establishment seemingly unable to address any matter without seeing it through a prism of what's good for NATO is good for the world, he naturally thinks the United Kingdom breaking up would be the second great victory for dictators and annexers of the year. What's more, it will encourage all the other separatists in Europe, could undermine peace in Northern Ireland and also prepare the ground for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. To call it unhinged doesn't quite do it justice; the idea Scottish independence "could ... impact on the stability of the world" is only slightly less absurd than suggesting Colonel Gaddafi could rise from his grave and come back to power in Libya.

It doesn't even begin to make the slightest sense.  You could understand it more if Scotland were, as some would like, not intending to rejoin NATO or the European Union immediately, except that's precisely what the SNP is proposing.  Despite some on the no side comparing the SNP to the UKIPs, the differences couldn't be more stark: the SNP if anything wants to play more of a role in the EU than the UK currently does, and also favours immigration.  They might be similar in the way both insist that any problems with becoming independent/leaving the EU will be overcome as soon as the decision has been made, and in the personality cult surrounding their respective leaders, but that's about as far as it goes.

Robertson's argument is all the more mystifying for coming at the precise moment when such pleading to think about the consequences for everyone else appears to have lost the impact it once had.  Nigel Farage's man love for Putin is revealing for a supposed libertarian, and his claim that the EU has blood on its hands over Ukraine the most specious nonsense, yet one of his most telling blows against Clegg in the second debate was his attack on the deputy prime minister for being "hell-bent" on bombing Syria.  As exemplified by the coalition not crowing about what should be one of its crowning achievements, having now reached the point where 0.7% of gross national income is spent on international aid, going out of our way to "help" other nations is not currently in fashion.  While there's a world of difference between going beyond the bare minimum in helping developing countries and bombing those said countries, or at least there should be, the fact is the political class is no longer trusted when it comes to either.

This poses a problem when so much of the establishment still earnestly believes in interventionism.  We've just had the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, from which the notion of the responsibility to protect emerged, despite how peacekeepers were on the ground both there and in Serbia at the time of Srebrencia.  The same human rights organisations opposed to the Iraq war were practically cheerleading for an attack on Syria last year, with those of my generation who were in favour of removing Saddam Hussein now ensconced in positions of power in both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.  Despite the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there isn't the slightest indication that any lessons have been learned from the mistakes, hardly surprising when the Western media en masse celebrated Afghans "defying" the Taliban to vote last weekend, as though that was their main reason for casting their ballots, nor have any reflected on whether those interventions might just have influenced Russia's annexing of Crimea.  Instead we have Tony Blair (who we shouldn't be calling a war criminal apparently) once again given the time and space to say we will regret not acting on Syria, as though that isn't precisely what we've been covertly doing now for over 2 years.

Much as I loathe the moaning about the metropolitan elite, much of which ironically comes from those who are, err, a part of the metropolitan elite, they've started to have a point when it comes to foreign policy.  If we're to believe Seymour Hersh's latest report for the London Review of Books, the real reason Obama pulled back at the last minute from attacking Syria is it was discovered the sarin supposedly used by Assad's forces in Ghouta didn't match with the batches in Syrian government possession, and was instead part of a false flag attempt to force just such an attack by the Turkish government.  As incredible as that seems, there is evidence of other Turkish skulduggery in Syria, notably the conversation posted on YouTube, prompting the site's shortlived ban in the country, and which seemed to be between government figures discussing staging an attack the Turks could then use to justify intervening more widely themselves.  If the international community can come so close to being so spectacularly fooled, not to mention shown up over Crimea,  it takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to then lecture ordinary Scots on what they should consider before they cast their vote come the referendum.

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Monday, March 17, 2014 

Interventionists: the biters bit?

The more you consider recent Western foreign policy, the more it doesn't make even the slightest sense.  Or rather, it doesn't so long as you consider it from the viewpoint that within reason, we try and encourage the spread of freedom and human rights, a notion that has become fashionable over the past couple of decades.  One of the favourite arguments of interventionists when it came to Libya in response to critics saying why now and why not somewhere else was just because we can't act everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't take action when we can.

Our intervention against Gaddafi seems to gain ever more significance at the same time as the questions about why Libya increase with time.  How, when we have failed to intervene in Syria despite three years of brutal, horrific civil war, did we end up backing the Libyan rebels in the space of three weeks?  The stated reasoning, that Gaddafi was threatening a bloodbath in Benghazi seemingly carried enough cachet for both Russia and China to abstain on UNSC resolution 1973 and so allow what turned into NATO effectively acting as the air support for various militias.  Those militias duly summarily executed Gaddafi after NATO "protected" his fleeing convoy from the air, with the country remaining in utter turmoil a couple of years on, although it seems we don't much care any more.

The obvious answer is because we could.  Libya's military apparatus was in a far worse state than Syria's; we had significant business interests in the country whereas China and Russia had relatively few; Gaddafi had little in the way of actual support, relying on a hardcore of supporters backed up with hired mercenaries; and the military themselves it seems felt it was doable.  Despite seeming a success though, even if what actually happened went far beyond what UNSCR 1973 authorised, it also exposed a number of problems.  First, the Americans were not pleased at what they saw as having to do the heavy lifting when it had been the UK and France who had pushed for action with the most vigour.  Fatally for the Syrians perhaps, second is both Russia and China felt fooled by what NATO decided the resolution authorised, despite it calling for a ceasefire and negotiations.  While Russia would always have been more inclined to oppose action in Syria considering her long term ties with the Assad family, it emboldened opposition to any repeat.

My opinion remains that had we really wanted to intervene against Assad, we would have done.  By any measure there was a far stronger case for doing so as the civil war began in earnest, as compared to Libya when the action was meant to prevent a massacre, the Assad regime had already carried out mass killings.  It would have been far more difficult to be sure, and there has never been anything approaching a serious plan set out for how such an intervention would begin, but that has never stopped us in the past.  Indeed, as we came so close to doing something, although it was explained precisely what, there must have been contingencies in place.  The decision instead seems to have been made to do just enough not to invite the accusation of indifference while at the same time keeping up a false level of rhetoric: sort of arming the sort of moderates, and not a lot more.  Our real attitude was summed up by how the government had to be all but humiliated into allowing a tiny number of Syrian refugees into the country, the impossible aim of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands being far more important to the Tories than relieving incredible human suffering.

Which brings us to the Crimea and the truly laughable sanctions that have been imposed today after the weekend's phony referendum in the province.  For all the talk of illegality and standing in solidarity with the Ukraine, what it's amounted to is freezing the assets of a whole 32 people.  Taking the likes of Bill Hague at their word that more will follow if Russia continues to destabilise Ukraine or goes further and attempts to repeat the Crimean action in the east of the country, it still makes a mockery of how our leaders have puffed themselves up in ever greater flights of rhetorical fancy.  True enough, the media more than anyone else have tried to turn this into Cold War 2.0, but it doesn't excuse the nonsense we've heard or at times, the hypocrisy, even if the real hypocrites reside in Moscow.

It might be this is the best approach: Russia is isolated, China abstaining on the vote at the UN at the weekend, and the economy looks likely to continue to suffer.  The threat of far more stringent sanctions could well deter Putin from any repeat in the restive east, and the last thing we need at this point is an overreaction that would threaten the (slight) Eurozone recovery.  It does however stick in the craw: far from this being an example of what happens when we are weak, it's rather a perfect example of what happens when you abuse the sound in principle but unworkable in practice notion of responsibility to protect.  The west has spent the 2000s intervening wherever it feels like, most egregiously in Iraq, but has also had no qualms about violating national sovereignty across the entire globe under the pretext of rubbing out terrorists wherever they're to be found.  The US/UK actively encouraged Israel to decimate the south of Lebanon in 2006, and now have the temerity to complain when Russia stages an all but entirely bloodless annexation of a highly sympathetic area of a neighbouring state.  We also aren't averse to staging pointless referendums when it has come to both Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands: in the case of the 2002 plebiscite in the former, 98.48% rejected the notion of sharing sovereignty with Spain, an absurdly high percentage that obviously didn't come close to reflecting real opinion.

One suspects that in a genuinely free vote not held under such intimidation and where the status quo had been offered an an option, the result would have been far closer.  A poll last month suggested only 41% wanted union with Russia, but whether the number of respondents from Crimea was statistically significant enough to make that an accurate barometer of opinion is open to question.  When it comes down to it, we're right to impose sanctions, and right to denounce what is a flagrant breach of international law by an aggressor state made to look foolish by the people of a nation who want to take their own path.  Our politicians though would do well not to make promises they cannot keep, while they should also take a long look at themselves and think about whether the positions they have taken over the past few years have encouraged others to also see the treaties of the 20th century as there to be broken without consequences.  Our own interventionists however tend to see no such shades of grey.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014 

Exaggeration and British jihadis in Syria.

Much excitement, and it has to be described as excitement at how one of our very own has succeeded in blowing himself sky high (literally, in the whole "martyrdom operation" means instant entry to paradise belief of jihadists) in Syria, going where others have previously feared to tread.  It's difficult to know exactly whether it is the intelligence agencies that are so concerned at the potential for those who have gone to Syria to fight, the majority of whom it has to be presumed have gone to join up with the jihadis, to then come back here and plot attacks, or whether it's the media exaggerating those fears in line with how Michael Adebolajo had gone to Kenya looking to join al-Shabaab before returning here.

Whichever it is, and considering how proactive Theresa May has been in removing British citizenship from those of dual nationality who've travelled to Syria the former is just as plausible, it seems a little strange that much of the coverage has been on how those who do go out are likely to be further radicalised.  The obvious historical parallel most have reached for is the Spanish civil war, which I don't think is exactly analogous for the reason that whatever Syria is, it's not a fight about ideology.  The very reason those who joined the International Brigades went to fight was they saw the war as being about putting a halt to the march of fascism across Europe.  Although not universal, many of those who went to fight in Spain returned disullisoned, most notably George Orwell.

It's difficult not to think many will experience the same in Syria, especially as the infighting among the rebel groups has intensified.  Moreover, to have made the decision to travel to Syria in the first place suggests almost all will have been what we'd describe as radical in the first place.  Again, as most seem to be ending up with either al-Nusra or ISIS, the two most hardline jihadist groups rather than with the more "moderate" FSA battalions is indicative of that.  One fact that mitigates against the potential for those who have specifically gone to Syria to fight the Assad government to return and plot is that this is the first time in a decade that a British citizen has carried out a suicide attack in a foreign country.  There have been no such examples of a Brit going to Iraq and becoming a suicide bomber, or in Afghanistan or Pakistan for that matter.  Indeed, there is only one disputed case of someone linked with a group other than al-Shabaab or al-Qaida central returning and carrying out an attack, that of Bilal Abdullah, who had at the least a tenuous connection with the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq.

The reason for this is obvious: ISIS and other groups, including the Taliban, are far more focused on their own internal conflicts than on attacking the West, unlike al-Qaida central.  ISI did notoriously carry out an attack in Jordan, and it resulted in a backlash.  Those who are more inclined towards the belief that the whole world is a battlefield understandably gravitate towards the likes of al-Qaida, or the increasingly ambitious al-Shabaab.  This isn't a universal rule, as we know that the ringleader of the 7/7 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, travelled to Pakistan with the intention of training and fighting either there or in Afghanistan, only for his plans to change.

Without wanting to say the threat is being completely overblown, you can't help but feel the only reason the the head of counter-terrorism at the CPS is saying those who do travel will be charged on their return is precisely because they are Muslims, and likely to have fought alongside those we consider to be terrorists.  Fighting for a cause you believe in is despite Sue Hemming's reading of the 2006 Terrorism Act not illegal, nor should it be.  Some of those who have gone out to Syria have done so with the very best of intentions; the majority perhaps not so much.  They don't however deserve to be stripped of their citizenship without recourse, nor treated as criminals or terrorists universally.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014 

Syria, the abyss, and the least worst option.

To call Syria a humanitarian disaster doesn't even begin to do justice to the abyss the country has fallen into over the past three years. Millions displaced internally, 2 million more having fled, most to neighbouring states, estimates of over 100,000 killed; the Arab spring outside of Tunisia has long since become an apparently endless Arab winter. Any hopes that the Geneva II talks would lead to some slight opening, even just the lifting of the government siege on a couple of areas that have been blockaded for months were finally dashed with the face to face negotiations ending without agreement.  The deputy to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has since announced his resignation.

The great majority of the blame for having reached this point has to be placed on the regime of Bashar Assad. Having seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, those calling for reform, not initially the fall of the government, were shot down almost from the outset. The brutality of the military and security state is not in doubt, nor the continuing indiscriminate assaults on areas that have been taken by the rebels. The chemical attack on Ghouta, despite questions which still remain, was but a piece with the use of conventional weapons. The same goes for the report on the execution of prisoners compiled from the evidence provided by a defector. There are concerns over how the defector was interviewed, the fact it was funded by Qatar, which has long supported the rebels and is unworried over how hundreds are literally being worked to death building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, and how the authors didn't see the full cache of photographs the defector smuggled out, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if thousands had been tortured and then executed.

The rebels shouldn't however get a free pass as they so often do, both from the media and human rights organisations.  A case in point was the release last week of a report from Human Rights Watch, outlining the systematic destruction of 7 different areas in Damascus and Hama.  As with so much else in Syria, the demolition is undoubtedly a war crime.  Similar destruction has also been inflicted however in areas where the opposition has captured territory, most notably Aleppo, which was first taken by the rebels in a move civilians there criticised at the time.  Just as the evidence for the report was collected from satellite images, similar evidence of the destruction elsewhere where either responsibility is not as clear cut or where the blame is likely to lie with the opposition is also easily available, but clearly not of interest to HRW, which along with Amnesty was all but demanding military action after the Ghouta attack.

Part of the problem was inadvertently highlighted by the Washington Post, which mentioned in passing that the Syrian opposition groups in Geneva had been "aided by a posse of nearly a dozen mostly British media advisers".  Something few will have realised is that the group conducting the talks in Geneva with the Assad government continues to haemorrhage the little support it has in the country itself.  Juan Cole suggests the Syrian National Coalition, connected with but not in control of the Free Syrian Army, is strongest in only a third of the territory in the hands of the opposition in the north.  One suspects even that is optimistic considering the evacuation of Salim Idriss, who fled the country after the newly formed Islamic Front overran the area where he had supposedly been helming the FSA from.

The coming together of the Islamic Front brings into sharp focus just how fragmented and sectarian the fight against Assad has become.  Some of the groups which make up the Islamic Front were those described as moderate, which while not directly aligned with the FSA did fight alongside them and were meant to share their broader aims.  While there are reports the Islamic Front and the FSA have reconciled, the IF's charter makes clear its ultimate goal is a caliphate and Sharia law, not democracy.  Indeed, late last year we cut off even the non-lethal aid we had been supplying to the FSA due to the Islamic Front's emergence.  Had we started to supply weapons as some commentators had long been demanding, it seems certain they would have fallen into the IF's hands had they not already.

To get an informed impression of the current state of the civil war, you have to know that yesterday the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, finally condemned outright the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, effectively stripping it of its affiliation with al-Qaida central.  While the Islamic State of Iraq (previously al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura Council, etc) has never been under the true control of either Osama bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, not even during the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq which ISI did so much to foment was the group ostracised by those they were meant to ultimately answer to.  Confusing things further, Jahbat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which has also pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, was first set-up with the approval of ISI before the group decided it itself had to get involved in Syria.  The fitna between the groups was sparked by the murder of Hussein al-Suleiman, a doctor and fighter with the IF by ISIL after he had gone to the group in an effort to resolve a dispute.  With the alliances on the ground taken into account, even if unofficial, this essentially means that the British government is indirectly supporting al-Qaida, which is fighting a group that shares al-Qaida's ideology but which is too extreme for al-Qaida to affiliate with.  Did you get that? Hardly anyone does.

And yet, despite all this, we still have a few who while not putting forward what an intervention would entail, suggest that we will regret not doing so or will have to at some point in the future, when the same regrets will come to the fore.  To be fair to Hopi, he admits the current position of not doing a lot while pretending to care but still being involved enough to not be a neutral player might be the best policy, while bitterly denouncing the fact that we aren't admitting that we either don't really care or that the impasse suits us fine.  Sunny, though, really like him as I do, doesn't so much as outline what we should do that might make things better, while suggesting that we will probably have to fight on two fronts.  Do we then deal with ISIL first and then take on Assad, or do we attack the regime first then assault ISIL and then either come to an arrangement with Nusra and friends or fight them too?  Or perhaps we should take them all on at once?  Who knows?

What is more apparent that ever is that a conflict that started out simple has become intractable from the wider antagonisms playing out across the region, something to be expected when it long ago turned from being about the people against the government into being the Gulf kleptocracies against Iran, Sunni against Shia, jihadist against Islamist against moderate.  It's destabilising the nation states around it, inciting hatreds thousands of miles away, and there seems little we can do other than try and knock heads together around a table.  Truth be told, while the security services worry, and despite how close it seemed we were to taking part in a military strike on Syria, the amount we care can be summed up by the number of refugees the coalition said they'll allow in.  Hundreds, over the 1,500 that made their way here already.  The promise of getting immigration down to the hundreds of thousands is far more important, you see.  Doing nothing is an option, and is almost certainly the least worst option.  Trying to justify or humanise such a position is far harder.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014 

It's all multiculturalism's fault. Again.

Horror of horrors!  Britain becoming more multicultural is leading to a "growing reluctance" to troops being deployed on the ground in areas which some of the population either called home or has connections with, says the Ministry of Defence, via the Graun.  It's yet another example of the fallout following the failure of the Commons to go along with the plan to "punish" Assad for using chemical weapons in Syria, and also yet another example of ministers and the wider government failing to point the finger of blame at themselves.

While it's no doubt true that "war weariness" played its part in MPs opting to vote against the motions of both the coalition and Labour which looked set to lead to yet another strike on a Middle Eastern country, the main reason why the vote went against the government was because it didn't even begin to make the damn case for an attack on Syria.  All that was presented was shaky intelligence which pointed towards chemical weapons having been used, along with the argument that such an act could not be allowed to go unpunished, despite the fact that previous chemical weapons attacks on a far worse scale had been.  It wasn't explained how launching a few hundred cruise missiles at Syria would prevent further such attacks, or how doing so would prevent us from getting sucked even further into a civil war we have nothing to gain and much to lose from getting involved in.  Public opinion was firmly against, and MPs for once represented their constituents in rejecting it, at that point.  Whether David Cameron was right to then rule out any action whatsoever is another question entirely.

Rather than take a look at whether the case for war was as strong as they believe it was, almost everything else has been held responsible.  Only the latest is multiculturalism, with Alistair Burt having previously said the decision had left a "constitutional mess", as it seemed MPs could now declare themselves against something that was previously the prerogative of the executive, without it being considered a vote of no confidence.  Originally it was all Ed Miliband's fault, while now there's also much wailing and gnashing of teeth over how we might not be able to be a "full spectrum" partner to the Americans unless we join them in every such conflict and ensure our army has the very latest devices of mass death at its disposal.

All this ignores that if you put a case forward that's considered convincing by a majority of the public, have the support of most of the media and also know that you have can rely on most of your party and the opposition, wars which are opposed by a large, vocal minority can still be fought, as Iraq proved and would still be the case today.  Our participation in the NATO action in Libya went ahead as well after all.  If instead you try to bounce the country into a conflict because an especially barbarous crime is carried out in a country in which 100,000 have already died without such action being considered previously, mainly due to how the American president foolishly set a "red line" which he didn't expect to breached, then you should no longer be surprised that MPs won't just march through the yes lobby no questions asked.  That still the government seems to be ignoring what ought to be staring it in the face is far more concerning than any of the calamities our supposed sudden aversion towards war has thrown up.

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Monday, September 16, 2013 

The slightest of silver linings.

Much (including by yours truly) was written in the aftermath of the coalition losing the vote that would have led, supposedly, to a second vote on whether the UK should join potential military action in Syria.  This understandably focused on why it was that a government with a more than healthy majority by historical standards could manage to lose a motion on foreign policy, something that had the anoraks digging in their books to find the last example of, and what it meant for the main three parties.

Almost three weeks on, and with a deal having been reached between the US and Russia over Syria documenting and then handing over their chemical weapon stocks for destruction, the vote has become even more significant.  In their rush to get on board with what looked to be imminent US military strikes, the deadly duo of Cameron and Hague recalled parliament without so much as having the basics of a case for war.  True, they just about managed to get the joint intelligence committee and attorney general on their side, even if the reports from both were fairly pitiful, but as for why we had to intervene now and whether we could avoid being drawn into a protracted civil war, answers came there none.  Fingers of blame were pointed at Ed Miliband for his supposed preference for party politics over the "national interest", when the real reason the vote was lost was the prime minister's failure to convince his own backbenchers.

Thanks then to the miserable failure of Cameron, Hague and Clegg, you can make a reasonable case that another Middle Eastern adventure was avoided.  Without Cameron immediately granting a vote, apparently confident he would win it, there wouldn't have been the demands on Obama to consult Congress.  Obama, unlike Cameron, realised reasonably quickly that he was unlikely to win a vote, and unprepared to either ignore Congress or suffer the humiliation of such a loss, he and John Kerry sought out a Plan B.  Whether Obama ever truly wanted to get involved militarily in Syria is open to question; he had to be persuaded to act in Libya.  It would though have been an even bigger loss of face to not do something having seen his "red line" breached.  By focusing on chemical weapons rather than the removal of Assad or an increase in help for the rebels, there was always the possibility of a compromise, and that seems to have just about been reached.

As for whether or not Cameron will be thanked by the president is far more difficult to ascertain.  On the surface, it looks like a good deal if all goes as agreed.  Assad loses the weapons that sort of deterred Israel from interfering too heavily in the country, and which also struck a certain amount of fear into the rebels; it doesn't stop the US from increasing aid to the rebels, and there are reports that the long promised weapons have started to arrive; and the US avoids "owning" another sectarian conflict, having successfully engineered one that continues to rage in Iraq.  It could even lead to a break in the impasse over the Iran nuclear programme, if a splash in a certain liberal newspaper is to be believed.

Not everything looks quite so rosy, though.  Should the deal either fall through or Syria attempt to prevaricate, the US has all but boxed itself in to some sort of military action.  All the same problems with an attack on Syria as there were when it looked imminent will still apply.  Moreover, regardless of how it came about, backing down after it looked as though they were only days away from strikes will be seen as weakness at home.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the US public were against intervention, or indeed that the Republicans had just as much of a role as anyone else in making a vote seem unwinnable, we're already seeing the usual suspects whining, having believed they were going to get another notch on their "countries attacked" bedpost.  That it was done with the loathed Russians and while the even more despised Putin lurked in the shadows, having last week dared to suggest the US is anything but an "exceptional" nation, won't have improved their mood.

It feels especially incongruous when the UN inspection team has confirmed definitively that sarin was used in the attack on Ghouta in Damascus on the 21st of August.  Their report doesn't say it in as many words, but the inference is clear that the attack was carried out by the military, rather than the rebels.  This doesn't of course mean that the use of chemical weapons was ordered by Assad himself, or that the attack wasn't a "mistake", with those who prepared it getting the mixture wrong, although obviously the president is ultimately responsible.  It does though bring further into focus just how foolish the mad rush towards intervention was; why could the US, French and UK not wait until the inspectors had carried out their work?  The conflict in Syria has been so coloured with lies and propaganda from both sides that relatively unbiased evidence was crucial.  Like it or not, our own intelligence agencies simply aren't trusted any more, and for good reason.  It's difficult to believe that had any vote on action been delayed until now that a majority still wouldn't have been found, misgivings about another intervention in an Arab country or not.

In truth, it's a fitting sort of end to our entire policy on Syria.  From the very beginning William Hague and the coalition have been either unclear or deliberately misleading in what they've been trying to achieve, recognising the rebels, supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, all while refusing to put pressure on them to attend negotiations which the regime was prepared to enter into.  We say we want a diplomatic solution, yet we make no effort whatsoever to get one.  Instead, we allowed or tacitly supported the arming of the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, then acted surprised when they went to Salafists and other Islamists.  Now we seem to be hoping the "moderate" rebels will fight the likes of al-Nusra and the ISIS, and are training some to do so.  We cry crocodile tears about children and refugees, while seemingly not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.  The best that can be said is that thanks to the US-Russia agreement, things are unlikely to get any worse for the moment.  They won't however get any better.  Hague and Cameron have however succeeded in making themselves look like idiots, as well as the most unreliable of allies.  The very slightest of silver linings.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013 

A funny kind of isolationism.

Of those sympathetic towards liberal interventionism, Timothy Garton Ash is usually among the most eloquent and sound in his reasoning, and hardly ever resorts to the glib, emotional arguments of others.  He doesn't do so in his latest piece either, but he does rather misrepresent Democrat and Republican objections to intervention in Syria:

"Isolationism" is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

First off, I don't think the fear of decline has entered into the debate at all, or rather if it has, it's been used by those pushing for intervention as what could happen if they don't act.  Second, while some such as Rand Paul are classical isolationists in modern libertarian clothing, it's hardly the case that the majority of legislators are leaning in that direction.  It has to be remembered that over the past few years America has sent its drones into Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan; has intervened in Libya; withdrew from Iraq; and is in the process of drawing down in Afghanistan, although will most certainly retain a long-term presence in the country.  Obama and the Pentagon have done most of this with barely a murmur of disquiet from either the Senate or the House of Representatives, with the likes of John McCain and other hawks pushing for the military to go further in some instances.

Indeed, Obama has only stepped back in this instance because he faced a humiliation worse than the doing a deal with the Russians: losing the vote.  And again, this wouldn't be down to creeping isolationism or "withdrawalism" as much as the fact that the Obama administration has made a dreadful case for intervention, off the back of a red line that it's clear the president wished he had never drew.  To say it once again, this was never about chemical weapons; it was about politics.  Luckily, the Russians seem to have found a way to get him somewhat off the hook.  As Ash recounts, the real interest for the US is for the war to continue, hence why the rebels have never been put under any pressure to come to the negotiating table.  Letting the jihadis and US-trained rebels fight it out far away from any real strategic US interests makes sense, at least for now. What happens in the years to come we can worry about then.

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Monday, September 09, 2013 

The PPE approach.

From the inestimable Flying Rodent:
 

And we'll finish with a minor point - our politicians are so keen to cast their own actions as vitally important and historic that it's difficult to avoid concluding that they're victims of narcissism.

Without wanting to completely disagree, I'd argue that politicians constantly invoke yesterday's battles because it's one of the few things they do know about.  We get all the references to appeasement and the comparisons of today's dictators to Hitler not just because WW2 is the gold standard for the "good war", but due to how the PPE graduates who reign over us seem to imagine that such talk is impressive.  It doesn't matter how outrageous the allusions are when you examine them, with John Kerry daring to make a connection between Hitler, who was responsible for the deaths of millions, Saddam Hussein, who presided over the deaths of (probably) hundreds of thousands and gassed around 5,000 Kurds (with either US support or acquiescence) and Assad, who may have given the orders for the use of chemical weapons that killed either hundreds or in the region of 1,000, it's that you create the image in people's heads that the only way to deal with such leaders is force.

By the same token, to draw back or think again is to be pitifully weak, to set a precedent that every enemy or potential enemy will never forget.  To do nothing is to be Neville Chamberlain, to allow the destruction of a country far away of which we know little.  That this doesn't make even the slightest logical sense, especially when you set the "red line" yourself is rarely brought up in response because on the international stage we must always walk tall.  It's why David Cameron had to respond to a Russian minister referring to the UK as a small country with a Love Actually-esque riff instead of just dismissing it as unworthy of response.  As a letter writer in the Graun noted, the irony of claiming to have defeated fascism while in the nation that did the most to destroy the Nazi war machine couldn't have said more about the ridiculous way our politicians continue to puff themselves up.

It wouldn't be so bad if humanitarianism genuinely was at least one motivation behind the proposed US strike.  I was against intervention in Libya, but I always recognised that the desire to protect Benghazi was real.  With Syria, as Shuggy alludes to, what we're getting is pro-war moralism.  If you're against or undecided, dead children will be shoved under your nose.  I can remember during the Lebanon war the Evening Standard openly claiming that children were being used as shields; this time round, when we know for a fact that the rebels have used children as fighters, and when children's bodies are placed together for maximum effect (and I have no objection to that, but it should at least be recognised that's what's being done) we're meant to regard the use of chemical weapons as a unique evil that cannot be tolerated.  We could ask the average Vietnamese what he or she thinks about the United States suddenly discovering the inhumanity of the use of unconventional weapons, but they'd probably be too busy laughing.

In reality, this long stopped being about the plight of the average Syrian, and it's not about chemical weapons either.  In descending order, it's about Obama having to do something because of his dumb red line, about attempting to undermine Iran and about ensuring the civil war continues.  As Juan Cole writes, the concern is that Assad could fall too quickly rather than too late, with the jihadists amongst the opposition the beneficiaries.  Seeing as even some of those we consider not to be aligned with the ISI or al-Nusra want a caliphate, it's little wonder they apparently wish to repeat the Awakening experience of Iraq.  Far from wanting an end to the violence, we seem to be hoping the conflict gets bloodier.

Such is the low we've reached that this speech by Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, is described as being the case for intervention without moralising or confusion.  In her second paragraph she brings Iran and Hezbollah into it, and already you don't need to read any further.  While the overriding reason for public opposition to a strike is war-weariness, whether here or in the US, it also has to be the case that many are fed up with being taken for fools.  You don't have to so much as followed the conflict in Syria to know that Hezbollah intervened only after the conflict had been turned sectarian by the Qatari and Saudi funded rebels, in turn supported and funded by our good selves.  You don't need to be even slightly astute to see much of the coverage, including in the broadsheets and on the BBC, to be hopelessly biased or heavily influenced by the most base propaganda.  And when you've been lied to on such a scale as we were over Iraq and WMD, it takes a lot to convince that we should get involved in a conflict where it looks as those both sides are equally caked in blood.  The Russian/Syrian offer of being putting chemical weapons under international control offers very slight hope, but only that.  Our leaders might be able to spin war, but spinning a climb down after all this?  It would be the most abject display of weakness.  We can't have that.

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Monday, September 02, 2013 

Syria: the coalition is officially butthurt.

The coalition is exhibiting all the symptoms of what the internet has come to define as "butthurt".  Either unwilling or unable to bring itself to admit that the failure of the Syria vote was all down to them, whether due to the piss poor case they made, the apparent failure to detect massive opposition within their own parties or just plain old fashioned messing up, they've instead decided to pin all the blame on Ed Miliband.  Doncha know, if it hadn't been for the "cynical partisanship" of the Labour leader then Cameron and Hague could now be getting their war on.  According to George Osborne, Red Ed now looks even less like a future prime minister, and Osborne ought to know, considering he's about as likely to follow on from Dave as I'm to be next Pope.

It's fairly pointless looking to opinion polls now, as the results show the public to be as hopelessly confused as usual on who's come out of it well, meaning that they either don't know or don't care, but even before the vote there looked to be a fairly massive majority against any strike on Syria.  Taking this into account, it seems just a little bit silly to be presenting Miliband as the one who put a stop to our taking part in an intervention, as, err, that could just increase his popularity.  The whole partisan argument doesn't even stand up to the slightest scrutiny in any case: the motions were all but identical for goodness sake, just that Labour's asked for more time.  If the coalition had read the situation properly, they could have switched to the Labour motion and still gotten their war.  As it was, both were defeated.

The problem for Cameron and Hague, but Hague especially, is this shows that apart from the keyboard warriors online and the bomb flingers of Fleet Street, his approach to Syria is incredibly unpopular.  If there was widespread opposition to arming the rebels, as there was, why did either think that inconclusive reports of the use of chemical weapons, horrific images from the scene or not, would change people's minds so drastically?  Their policy hasn't made any sense for months, and it's actually got even more ridiculous as time has gone by.  As Simon Jenkins writes, you don't punish a country's government for using chemical weapons by killing more innocent people on the ground, as such an intervention inevitably would.  You either don't get involved at all and push for a diplomatic solution, or you plan an assault that will make a genuine difference.

Which is precisely why John Kerry's sermon last Friday was so incongruous.  There he was making this great moral case for how the world couldn't ignore a crime against humanity, when there isn't the slightest evidence that what's actually being proposed would prevent another such use of gas.  If he was personally persuasive, the intelligence released alongside his speech was almost identical to that produced by our own spooks, and raised just as many questions as it answered.  He also gave the game away when he brought Iran and Hezbollah into it, those other actors in Syria who were mentioned while Saudi Arabia and Qatar were ignored.  If Hezbollah did want chemical weapons, they most surely could have got them by now, while the JIC briefing last week said rebel groups did want to get their hands on them.  Personally, I'm far more concerned about what al-Qaida and its friends could do with Sarin or VX than I am Hezbollah, but then al-Qaida only kills anyone it feels like while Hezbollah, err, defends Lebanon against Israel.  Israel, meanwhile, continues to neither confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons, while it most likely has chemical/biological weapons programmes too.

One conclusion to be reached is that rather than wanting to bring the civil war to an end, we actually want it to continue.  Israel, we are told, remains ambivalent, not surprisingly considering the lack of trouble Assad has caused the country, in spite of the continuing occupation of the Golan Heights.  It doesn't like his support for Hezbollah, but he's probably preferable to either the instability of what would come after, or indeed the Islamist regime that would be the most likely outcome.  We ourselves might follow Saudi policy in the region, but we don't particularly want the jihadis to have another potential safe haven, even if it means a dilution of Iranian power.  The conflict might have led to around 2 million people fleeing, but for now they mostly haven't tried to reach our shores, instead going to either Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.  And as long as they're fighting each other, they're less concerned about targeting the West.

It would certainly explain why we favour only minimally striking Assad for the use of CW, when we went after Iraq not having the first idea how the war there would pan out.  It would also mean that despite all the rhetoric of how something must be done and the use of the most emotional language, we really couldn't care less about the Syrians themselves, something I've felt has been the case from the very beginning.

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Friday, August 30, 2013 

What the Syria vote does and doesn't signify.

Amid all the attempts to try and explain exactly what last night's government defeat on Syria means, there are two fairly fundamental reasons for why they lost, neither of which has much to do with Cameron's standing with his party or Miliband's change of tack 48 hours ago.

First, the government completely failed to make the case for intervention.  The evidence was inconclusive, the legal advice an utter joke, and no one advocating joining the US in striking Syria even began to explain how launching hundreds of cruise missiles at "military" targets was meant to either stop chemical weapons being used again, or improve the humanitarian situation in the country.

Second, the rush to make a decision to meet an arbitrary timetable was a huge mistake.  In the course of a week the government tried to bump the country into another military adventure without explaining why immediate action was so important, or couldn't be delayed until after the UN inspectors had delivered their report.  They wouldn't have apportioned blame, but it would have established beyond any doubt that chemical weapons had been used.  If there was any true echo of Iraq, it was in trying to force matters when waiting slightly longer may well have turned up the cliched "smoking gun".  The arguments a decade ago were so rehearsed that it became more and more difficult to say something new that could change minds; in this instance plenty of people had yet to come to a proper reasoned decision, and so erred on the side of caution.

Only then should we come to how party politics had an impact.  Looking down the list of Tory MPs who voted against the prime minister, there are some who are seasoned veterans of trooping through the no lobby, but fewer than you might imagine.  Cameron and the whips ought to have known from the numbers who were opposed to arming the rebels and were demanding a vote then that there was more than the potential for trouble and they seem to have ignored it, imagining that they would back the prime minister when his authority was on the line.  They also seem to have dismissed the level of press opposition, as well as the few opinion polls conducted that suggested little appetite for another conflict.  Whether you put this down to the Tories being on a high after signs of economic recovery and Labour's troubles during the recess or just ignoring what ought to have staring them in the face, for a party meant to be in tune with public opinion via Lynton Crosby, this is a remarkable failure.

Those on the coalition frontbench really ought to be looking at themselves then before lashing out at everyone else for their supposed perfidy.  It comes to something when it's Jack Straw acting as the voice of (almost) reason, pointing out that this wasn't about the country become isolationist, rather it was the abject failure of the case made by the government.  If it hadn't been in such a mad rush, another week might well have sufficed and the result could have been different. Nor did it help when even before the vote had taken place, words being put in people's mouths or not, Philip Hammond was agreeing that Labour's amendment gave succour to Assad, while others were yet again bringing the "national interest" and "national security" into play.  If the no vote really was as significant as some are making out, I and many others would be delighted. Having blindly followed the US into two disastrous wars of choice, as well as persuaded a hesitant Obama into intervening in Libya, making clear that we will no longer act as backup without exhausting all other options first would be a extremely welcome development.

Nor is this quite the triumph for Ed Miliband that some are trying to portray it as.  As others have detected, this wasn't so much educated, strong leadership as it was a whole lot of luck and Cameron/Clegg snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Miliband didn't know what he wanted and his confused speech yesterday said as much; he was playing for time, hoping that doing so would stop a significant number of his own backbenchers from rebelling.  The disaster for Cameron is that if he and his whips had read the situation properly, they could have swallowed their pride and gone with the Labour amendment, which was almost identical to their own motion except it asked for the government to wait until the UN inspectors had given their report.  Cameron and Hague would still have gotten their war.  As it is, Cameron can hardly now go on portraying Miliband as weak when he's suffered such a humiliation himself.

Most important of all though is that last night's vote firmly established that parliament has to be consulted before military action can be taken.  When it came to Libya, MPs voted after the intervention had begun, making it all but unthinkable that they would then ask for the bombers to be brought back.  Barring extreme cases, the royal prerogative has clearly had its day.  Likewise, one of the minor reasons for why last night's vote failed is that with the exception of a few especially egregious Labour MPs, the exact same people who thought Iraq was such a splendid idea were those most vociferous in urging action in SyriaMichael Gove shouldn't be calling others a disgrace, he ought to be reflecting on why it is we are now so resistant to intelligence briefings and the advice of government lawyers.  Not all of the blame can be put on Blair when so many others went along with it; the being misled themselves line simply won't wash.

Finally, the only message this sends to Assad is that Britain won't be joining in an attack.  If the US and France as planned want to make either a pointless gesture to prevent Obama being embarrassed over the breaching of his red line, or alternatively fully intervene on the side of the rebels, then bully for them.  All it signifies is that we won't be rushed into another potentially foolhardy conflict, nothing more.  Those who invoke the image of gassed or burned children as demanding action seem to have no such concerns as to our intervening on the side of rebels who use child soldiers or murder them in cold blood on video, nor are many of them similarly outraged when other states bombard heavily populated areas with no concern for human lifeAs Simon Jenkins writes, not intervening now takes more political courage than doing so, so skewed has the Westminster bubble become.

P.S. It's nice to see that last night has at the very least provided us with a new African euphemism: 


It is understood that Greening and Simmonds were in a room near the Commons chamber, discussing the situation in Rwanda, when the vote was called.

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