Wednesday, September 30, 2015 

Syria: hell on earth, and made worse by each successive intervention.

When it comes to the great worst place in the world to live debate, there are many favourites that immediately come to mind.  Your North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Eritreas, Irans, etc.  All with highly oppressive authoritarian governments, all set on either outright killing their own people, or just making life as miserable as possible.  Then you have the places where plain old insecurity and crime are the main problem: countries like Honduras and El Salvador, currently battling over which has the highest murder rate per capita of population, while one of the BRICS, South Africa, is also averaging 49 murders a day.

Few though are likely to disagree (Islamic State supporting cretins excepted) that right now Syria is the closest equivalent to hell on earth.  Beyond argument is the root cause of the civil war was the reaction of the Assad regime to the protests that broke out as part of the wider Arab spring; less widely accepted is that the regime's almost immediate resort to violence was not wholly surprising considering events in Egypt.  There the Mubarak government pretty much surrendered without a fight.  It has since resurfaced in the form of the Sisi government, but whether the Ba'ath party would have been able to come back to power in the same way had Assad also quickly left the scene is dubious.

Besides, let's not indulge the view that had the initial uprising succeeded Syria would now be rivalling Tunisia in the Arab spring stakes.  That so many extreme Islamist groupings emerged as quickly as they did to fight the regime, not including either the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State, suggests there would have soon been a battle on the hands of the secularists and liberals to maintain their revolution.

In any case, the peaceful uprising quickly became an armed one.  These groups were soon funded by the usual suspects: the Saudis, the Qataris, Kuwaitis, etc.  Whether any Arab governments directly funded the most notorious jihadist groups is uncertain, but certainly the usual benefactors in their countries did.  At the same time, the Syrian government turned to its own allies, the Iranians and the Russians, both of whom have helped it to survive through direct aid, weaponry and in the case of Iran, fighters from Hezbollah.  Also helping out have been our good selves in the West: we quickly declared that Assad must go, his government was entirely illegitimate, and that the Syrian opposition, whichever group we've decided that is this week, are the only de facto representatives of the Syrian peopleAs well as helping to equip the "moderate" armed groups, it's fairly apparent that our approach throughout was to let the Arab states get on with doing whatever they felt like, even if that meant funding and arming jihadists, at the same time ironically enough as the Saudis and Emirate nations were helping with the overthrow of the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Confused yet?  We're only just getting started.  Ever since Islamic State took advantage of the Sunni uprising in Iraq against what they saw as the sectarian central government to take over vast swaths of the country, enabling it to also grab a massive part of western Syria, such was the collapse of government authority there, a veritable smorgasbord of nations have decided the best way to defeat them is to drop bombs from a great height on their general position.  This roll call of countries includes the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and France.  Technically we are yet to join in ourselves, but when you remember that British servicemen have taken part in sorties over the country and we felt the only way to protect ourselves from attacks on events that had already passed was to splatter some Islamic State morons across the Syrian desert via drone, you can basically include us also.

And now the Russians have joined in, only they are quite clearly intervening directly on the side of Assad.  For a few moments it looked as though the way was clearing for the sort of precursor to a peace initiative a few of us have long called for: to recognise that however terrible the crimes Assad has committed are, the only way to deal with Islamic State is to work with him and his forces, at least in the short term.  In exchange, Assad would be required to give up power once Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but be allowed to remain a free man.  With Assad gone, a peace deal would hopefully then be easier to broker with the other rebel groups.  Free elections would follow, and so forth.  Yes, it's a plan with myriad problems that almost certainly wouldn't work, but it's a far more realistic one than all the others offered so far.  It seemed as if the arrival of new Russian weaponry and forces was to help purely with a renewed offensive against Islamic State, as suggested by the Syrians bombing targets they previously felt unable to.  That the Americans appeared to be acquiescing to this rather than complaining about it in the usual incredibly hypocritical style looked a good sign.

That today's first attacks by Russian planes seem to have targeted rebels other than IS rather undermines any lingering hopes on that score.  It could of course have been faulty intelligence, might have been merely an opening salvo designed to minimise any potential threat to the bases where the Russians are operating from, or it may be those on the ground are lying; any statement by rebel groups has to be treated with great caution, so often have they resorted to falsehoods.  More likely however is that this is just the start of a wider Russian offensive against all opposition to Assad.  Considering very few of the remaining rebel groups are "moderate" in the true sense of the word, this isn't the greatest tragedy.  What is a tragedy is the Russians have the same sense of compunction towards civilian casualties as everyone else, i.e. none.

Putin's motives are fairly transparent, as are the arguments being deployed.  All his forces are doing is going the extra mile the Americans and the rest haven't: attacking Islamic State from the air hasn't worked, so the next step has to be to coordinate with forces on the ground.  The Americans have effectively betrayed the Kurds who were playing that role, leaving only the Syrian army.  It's been apparent ever since the US airstrikes began that there is low-level plausibly deniable cooperation between the Syrians and the Americans, hence why there have been no unfortunate incidents in over a year of missions.  Why not simply make this formal, the Russians ask.

They have a point. Of course, these motives are far from pure: as much as the Russians do have more to fear from Islamic State than the Americans do, their intervention has the exact same downsides as ours in the region have.  It will likely increase the terrorist threat rather than decrease it, while the presence of Russians in the country will provide a further rallying cry for the jihadi recruiters.  Putin hopes an intervention that brings the end of the war closer will somewhat make up for the on-going conflict in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an early lifting of sanctions.  It also re-establishes Russia's influence in the region, building on the role played in the Iran nuclear programme negotiations.

Were Russia merely stepping up in this way, there would be little to protest about.  Clearly the hope of the Americans was the Russians were going to do what they weren't prepared to.  Instead, it looks as though there is no plan beyond propping up Assad indefinitely.  If there are to be joint operations with the Syrian military, there is no indication of them starting any time soon.  For a long time the harsh reality has been that we and our allies have been happy with a murderous stalemate in Syria.  Even now, as the refugee crisis is not really directly affecting us as it is the rest of Europe, we're still not especially bothered.  The only logic behind joining in with the bombing is for the sake of appearance; there's certainly no military necessity behind it.

With the Russians deciding to join the list of nationalities determined to make Syria even less liveable, the case for our getting involved becomes ever weaker.  Rarely has there been a case of a country already going through hell being fucked over so utterly by so many others.  The argument that only more war will solve the conflict applies only if that war targets Islamic State exclusively.  Russia's intervention seems likely only to result in yet more suffering.  And sadly, our hands are just as dirty as theirs.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2015 

You only live twice.

Reyaad Khan is dead.  That much seems to be certain.  Apart from being distinguished by both the Sun and Mail publishing adulatory front pages celebrating his demise, he's also joined other jihadi luminaries in having been declared passed on prematurely.  Or at least that seems to be the case if David Cameron's statement is to be taken at face value.

For according to news reports that were only remembered late last night, Khan had already been reported killed in a drone strike back in July.  This was admittedly based on unconfirmed social media accounts, with jihadi watcher Shiraz Maher quoted, but it seems rather strange that no one in the media itself recalled they had already carried stories on the death of this immediately notorious first Briton to be killed by a UK drone strike.  Maher himself seems rather unconcerned by the discrepancy, referring to government briefings and apparently accepting he must have been misled.

It certainly would be odd for the government to say they had killed someone when they hadn't, and there seems little reason to have opened themselves up to the criticism and questions over the legality of the operation if it had been a mission carried out by a US drone.  Remarkable coincidence it might be that the Sun had been demanding Islamic State be "blitzed", only for Cameron to immediately declare not one but three IS British recruits had been splattered on Syrian soil, but worth the bother of sending out ministers to defend it? Probably not, although stranger things happened.

Such differences or oddities do though invite conspiracy theories.  Most of the saner, and by saner I mean only slightly less stupid allegations around 9/11 centre on the BBC mistakenly reporting that WTC Building 7 had collapsed before it had, and truthers putting much emphasis on a fire chief saying to "pull it", by which he meant get his men out of the building, rather than err, demolish it.  The complete lack of any further information in Cameron's statement beyond Khan was a very dangerous and naughty man and therefore fully deserved to die, coupled with the difference in the dates, hardly helps.  If Khan was killed in a UK strike, but not on August 21st as the government insists, it further undermines the already slim case put forward.

Khan dying sometime in early July would presumably mean he had little real involvement in the VJ Day plot (there seems some confusion over whether VE Day or VJ Day was a target, with there being little in the way of reports of an attack to be launched on VE Day) first "revealed" by the Mail on the Sunday, and since whispered by government briefing as being part of the reason why his annihilation by air was justified.  Like the imaginary plot the Sun "foiled" to attack Armed Forces Day, this too would have involved a pressure cooker bomb, as was used against the Boston marathon.  Despite the MoS's breathless reporting, just how seriously the security services were really taking the plot is open to question: unless the source was the same as the Sun's, i.e., Juanid Hussain, apparently on the same kill list as Khan and duly obliterated days later, albeit by US drone, quite why they would allow word of a plot they were still trying to disrupt to enter the press is unclear.  Indeed, that "no arrests had been made" at the time of the Mail's story and it seems none ever were, quite how serious the plot was is anyone's guess.

More realistic is that Khan was involved in more serious plots, none of which have made the press, with the briefings pointing to those already in the public domain.  If this is the case, it baffles as to why more cannot be disclosed unless it has the potential to affect upcoming prosecutions.  Except, if these other plots have also been disrupted, that rather undermines the legal justification given, which relies upon the attack being imminent or actual, per Article 51 of the UN Charter, or "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation", in order to meet the Caroline test.  The decision to kill Khan and others was, we're told, itself taken at a meeting of the national security council after the election, again raising questions about just how much of an overwhelming threat was being posed if it then took until almost the end of the summer for an opportunity to arise to act on it.

Comparing the strike against Khan with the US drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, only further underlines how far the decision to kill Khan has taken us.  Regardless of your views on assassination by drone, al-Awlaki has been definitively linked with a number of terrorist attacks and continues to inspire plots through the lectures and writings he left behind.  He was also the de facto leader of al-Qaida in Yemen.  Khan was a 21-year-old known previously only for appearing in a propaganda video.  He may well have been directly involved in plotting attacks that could have killed dozens, if not hundreds of civilians, but that he was not an apparently senior figure within Islamic State, nor a figure known on the level of Mohammed Emwazi demands that more information be disclosed.

And that information is almost certainly not going to be.  It comes down to, as Joshua Rozenberg has said in response to David Allan Green's piece doubting the legality, whether you trust the government or not.  Releasing the policy document and legal advice on which the attack was carried out is only going to take us that slight amount further, as will asking a judge, the Intelligence and Security Committee or the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation to review the decision after the fact.

If the government wants to kill Islamic State fighters of British origin, it should say so.  It should not hide behind specious legal justifications that fall apart under the slightest scrutiny.  Moreover, it should seek the authorisation of parliament for its apparent new policy.  Failing to correct previous inaccurate reports or to set out why this person was such a threat only leads to further questions, less trust, and more cynicism.  If the real aim is to further soften public opinion in advance of another attempt at getting military action in Syria through parliament, the government should just get on with it, and the arguments both in favour and against can once again be gone over.  That the government has done everything now except do that suggests it continues to regard its case as being just as lacking as it was two years ago.

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Monday, September 07, 2015 

Welcome to the Farmer Palmer era of international relations.

One of my better/worst traits (delete according to taste) is I'm naturally suspicious of mass movements, or seeming mass movements, regardless of agenda or politics.  Is it still going to be active in a year's time for instance, will it have burned brightly and then disappear as soon as it emerged, or will it, like the Stop the War coalition, still exist for reasons known only to the handful of individuals that serve on its executive committee?  Is it ever worth jumping on a bandwagon when so many end up crashing minutes later?  Why is it so often the same people, both at the heart of these movements and those in the vanguard of shouting about it, only for them to lose interest so quickly?

It would be easy to look at the groundswell of action for refugees since those pictures were published on Wednesday and be cynical.  There is little in the way of evidence to suggest that anyone opposed to immigration outright or merely suspicious of asylum seekers will have had their minds changed by the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, whether lying dead in the surf or in the arms of the Turkish policeman as he carried the child's body away.  Indeed, I've heard more than a couple of people complain in the same way as they always do about immigrants, almost always with the refrain about how every refugee we admit deprives one of "our people" of a house or a job.  They couldn't of course give a stuff about those deemed "our people" unless they're family members or friends, let alone do anything that might help, nor does it seem to occur that we should be able to accommodate the needs of both "our people" and those in need of sanctuary.   That our leaders lack the political will to do so is a personal failing, but they operate partly on the basis that a large number of people in this country go through life in their own bubbles, insulated from and ignorant of anything that might penetrate their own little safe haven.  Those same people demanding the army be sent to Calais and that dogs be set on those trying desperately to make their way here are just as opposed today to anyone being allowed in as they were then, if not more so.

No, what's happened over the last few days has been that other minority, also noisy but much rarer listened to setting the agenda.  When so much of political discourse of late has been about who can be the nastiest to the lowest, who can best project their own personal vision of the sensible and prudent to an already pampered and spoilt demographic, it's difficult not to be heartened by both the anger at the government's refusal to help with the refugee crisis and the action which that anger has galvanised.  That some of this has been led by newspapers that previously ran front page after front page fulminating against refugees, or comment pieces that dehumanised those on rickety boats to the same level as insects is less evidence of a reverse ferret than just utter hypocrisy.

Far more aggravating though is just how quickly this transitory mood of selflessness has been used to further settle old scores and also reignited the belief that the only way to solve a situation where both sides use tactics that would be considered dirty is to put yet more high explosives into the mix.  George Osborne, fresh from a couple of days back defending Cameron's not one refugee policy to the hilt, was on Andrew Marr, accepting that thousands would now be admitted, but also made clear that the vote in Commons not to intervene in Syria was "one of the worst decisions" parliament had ever made.  Matthew d'Anconservative in the Graun all but blames Ed Miliband for the last two years of the conflict in the country, the Labour leader's "gamesmanship" preventing our noble British bombs from knocking sense into Bashar al-Assad.  Both the Sun and Boris Johnson have pursued similar arguments, with the former also declaring all four Labour leadership candidates to be cowards on the basis they don't think our joining an already failing US mission in the country to be the best of ideas.  When the Sun runs a spread with the headline BLITZ EM TO HELL, where it isn't clear whether it's those fleeing or Islamic State fighters that are to be "blitzed", apparently not seeing the slightest irony or problem with its favoured response, you know the current mood is not going to last long.

David Cameron has nonetheless been forced into making the government look like it's doing something, despite first having sent out Andrew Mitchell to repeat ad nauseum that in fact we've doing more than our fair share by funding the refugee camps in the neighbouring states.  These are the same camps that many have left precisely because conditions have deteriorated to the point where they prefer to take their chances with the traffickers.  That might not be in any way the UK government's fault, but when the scale of the problem is increasing so too must the nature of the response.  The figure of 20,000, much higher than the bandied about 4,000 we heard at the tail end of the last week, turns out to be the number of Syrian refugees to be admitted over the course of the next five years, and so doesn't even match Yvette Cooper's opening offer of 10,000 to be admitted this year.  The 20,000 are also to be plucked entirely from said camps, rather than any from the proposed EU quota system.  Cameron likened the decision to favour orphans and children especially as making the mission the equivalent of a latter day Kindertransport, only for it be made clear in the Lords that all such children are liable to be deported once they reach 18, the kind of self-defeating stupidity that only the last few governments could possibly have come up with.  The 20,000 figure also depends on the already operating scheme that has admitted a mere 216 Syrian refugees so far being rapidly expanded and working as planned, both things to believe only once documented.

The prime minister was at least not so crass as to make any bitter reference to the Syria vote in 2013.  Considering he did have the honour of announcing that the British state is now in the business of killing its own citizens so long as they are deemed to be plotting in a foreign clime whose government either can't or won't intervene this wasn't much comfort.  Extrajudicial assassinations are apparently entirely fine and dandy legally, whereas the Russians poisoning a defected spy now working for MI6 and in the business of propagating conspiracy theories is of course a complete outrage and the sort of action that marks out Russia as a rogue state.  To be clear, I am not for a moment comparing Alexander Litvinenko and Reyaad Khan, not least because Khan barely had two brain cells to rub together.  A terrorist mastermind like all those previous terrorist masterminds, the 21-year-old had to be killed in an entirely justified act of self-defence, lest he be involved in telling another newspaper journalist to bomb a public event.

Yep, apparently Khan was in the background when Juanid Hussain, also since killed by a drone strike, was telling the Sun to bomb the Armed Forces Day parade, an attack that was never going to happen and never could have happened.  He's also being linked to another "foiled" attack, this time aimed at the Queen on VJ Day, and which again was leaked to the press beforehand.  Still, Khan probably was in contact with other people who may not have been spooks or hacks, and who could have gone along with his mate Hussain's advice to spray the shrapnel inside their bombs with rat poison.  Clearly he was a threat, and in this day and age when politicians promise a "full spectrum response" to terrorist attacks only to then do sweet FA, killing a terrorist regardless of their nationality is not an opportunity to be missed.  That another IS fighter from the UK was also killed was merely unfortunate.  No one's going to miss such people or shed any tears over them, not least when they're involved in the latest most evil grouping since the Nazis, so frankly who cares about little things like the law or the precedent such an action sets?

For just as the attack on Syria which parliament refused to authorise was entirely legal because the attorney general said it was, so too was this.  It might be stretching both international and national law to breaking point to suggest the threat posed by Khan was so serious as to invoke the right to self-defence and to act pre-emptively, especially when generally an "armed attack" would need to involve a state rather than non-state actors, but the bar has already been breached.  Cameron went on to say that he would act in the same way in Libya also, so it would seem that we have joined America in all but declaring that we'll kill anyone in a country whose government is unlikely to co-operate, as long as we declare they were a threat after the fact.  We have therefore entered what ought to be known as the Farmer Palmer era of international relations.

Drone strikes on people like Khan are little more than a substitute for Cameron not being able to fully get his war on.  When Paddy Ashdown writes a sane article, pointing out that chucking around a few more bombs is not going to solve anything when he's usually first in line to call for intervention, there ought at least to be a flicker of recognition that something both smarter and more substantial is needed than further military action.  When however the prime minister opened his statement by once again dividing the "economic migrants" from the refugees, the precise distinction that has meant up until very recently we ignored what was happening on the continent, it's hard to believe thinking in Whitehall has significantly changed.  All the more reason why this particular moment's movement has to be kept going, regardless of doubts about fellow travellers.

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Friday, September 04, 2015 

The only solution to war is more war.

There's been a lot of this about the last couple of days, but the Guardian really ought to know better:

To begin restoring that hope will inevitably mean international intervention of some kind. The establishment of credible safe havens and the implementation of a no-fly zone must be on the table for serious consideration.

Except we've really gone too far now for this to be even approaching a viable solution.  Establish a no-fly zone and you undoubtedly help protect civilians, but you also give a massive advantage to the rebels, including Islamic State.  It's difficult to imagine how things could get any worse, but the bloodletting likely to follow the total collapse of the Syrian government and immediate battle for the spoils between the rebel groups will be immense.  Safe zones again sound like a great idea, but who on the ground is going to guard them?  The Kurds, the very people the Turks have launched 100x more air strikes on than IS?  The rebel groups other than IS?

Nor has there been any past argument for intervention that would have helped matters.  Unless it had evolved Libya-style into regime change, the mooted response to Assad using chemical weapons in Ghouta was to chuck a few more Hellfire and cruise missiles into the mix and hope that made clear just how serious we were about him killing people with explosives and bullets rather than more exotic weapons.

The only realistic option at this point is to push for a ceasefire between the rebel groups (excluding IS) and the government, with the promise being that once the fight has been taken to IS, Assad will depart and a settlement will be reached from there.  Even this would require a massive turnaround in current attitudes, such has been the amount of blood spilt and the belief on all sides that total victory can still be achieved.  This I'm afraid is the fault of all involved.  There are no clean hands.  And taking in an extra 4,000 refugees remains a completely pitiful gesture, considering the role we've played in Syria reaching this beyond grim juncture.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015 

Being right about the Iraq war has made Sarah Ditum insufferable.

I, like Sarah Ditum, was against the Iraq war.  I, like Ditum, focused on the potential for war to the detriment of everything else, with the exception of one thing.  I was a few years younger than Ditum, but otherwise the picture she paints is highly recognisable.  Perhaps I wouldn't go as far to say that it gave me an overwhelming sense of moral superiority, as it didn't, mainly because I'm rarely 100% certain about anything.  I definitely hoped that other people I admired would be anti-war too though.

Which is where we must separate.  I long ago reached the point of being bored senseless by Iraq; there are only so many times the same arguments can be regurgitated, the same realities ignored, the same mistakes repeated before you lose the will to carry on.  I might not feel morally superior for it, but I'm more convinced than ever that Iraq will come to be seen as the defining disaster of early 21st century foreign policy.  It's just that there seems little to no point whatsoever in acting high and mighty about it, or reminding everyone just how right you were, precisely because most other people who were also energised and enraged by the build up to the war are now also in a similar position.  Shutting the fuck up about Iraq is something I would have advised everyone to do, or at least would have done prior to the rise of Islamic State.

For the reason that you can't talk about Islamic State without recognising where the group came from.  Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war, even if its existence can hardly be wholly blamed on the West as some would like to.  Al-Qaida probably had at best a handful of members in Iraq prior to the invasion.  Afterwards, thanks to the Americans and our good selves deciding it would be a spiffing idea to carry on with an occupation that was doomed from the start, foreign Sunni extremists, domestic Islamists and nationalists/Ba'athists opposed to the foreign presence swiftly made common cause and so began the insurgency.  The forerunners to Islamic State changed name repeatedly, seemed on a couple of occasions on the brink of defeat, but thanks to mistakes by the Western-backed Iraqi government, were never degraded completely.  It's a very long way from the bombing of the UN building in August 2003 to the destruction of the Baal temple in Palmyra in Syria in August 2015, but the two outrages are connected.

No, what Ditum seems to be describing is, once again, and as Flying Rodent has also pointed out, her own private Idaho.  The left she's talking about and identifies is the same one trapped in the social media echo chamber, the one where as fellow New Statesman columnist Helen Lewis has recently identified, appearing right on is more important than actually being so when it matters.  I mean really, Media Lens?  I too quite liked them back between around 2003-2006, then lost interest once it became apparent they believed their real enemies to be the few mainstream outlets in this country that are even vaguely left-wing.  It's very easy to be snotty about Twitter, especially when you're someone who has always refused to have anything to do with it, but it undoubtedly can and has made some even more parochial in their interests and selective in precisely what information they rely on.

Ditum's real point, more really than Iraq, is about how this relatively small cross-section of people are among the most vocal in supporting Jeremy Corbyn.  They no doubt are, and considering that the SNP have long been some of the most noisy in making known their opposition to the war, despite having done very little at the time about it, it's not surprising that some of these same people were not like us marching around our miserable little town centres knowing full well it was pointless.  Mainly because plenty of them were, like Mhairi Black, not even into double figures age wise at the time.  That's how long ago it was, even if it doesn't feel like it.

Iraq does and at the same time doesn't matter.  It doesn't matter because the vast majority have long since grown bored of it, or if they aren't exasperated by its mere mention they don't base their decisions when it comes to voting on something that happened 13 years ago.  And yet, it does matter, not because there is this noisy minority that overwhelmingly supports Corbyn, some of whom regarded Iraq as the ultimate betrayal and have been holding out for a hero ever since, but because it's Corbyn's largely irrelevant attitudes towards foreign policy, at least from a Labour leadership standpoint, that have been where most of the mud thrown at him has been found.

The reason this especially seems to enrage his online opponents is that unlike them, he's been able to make common course with groups or individuals that are rightly controversial, in this instance ones that have either made anti-Semitic comments or are definitively anti-Semitic, and yet it hasn't damaged him.  It doesn't seem to occur this is because Corbyn himself is not racist in the slightest, and that the best explanation for his continuing to attend Deir Yassin Remembered meetings or speak at a conference organised by a front organisation for the LaRouche group is down to not checking out their credentials properly or naivety, alongside his general friendliness towards any organisation that seems on the surface at least to share his views.  Also, unlike them, his willingness to not instantly condemn any group in the search for peace, his experience with the IRA having informed this approach, rankles more than anything.  Ideological purity is always important regardless of whether it's the far left or the Labour right involved in the whatabouttery.

Except, of course, it's not Corbyn's anti-war position on Iraq that has led him to associate with most of these accused individuals and groups, but his stance on Palestine, as Ditum must know.  Iraq has very little to nothing to do with his rise in the contest; as Andy Burnham has recognised, the real reason for Corbyn's surge was the welfare vote.  As I related yesterday, only 2 people at the Burnham question and answer session mentioned Iraq, one of them a Tory, the other asking not about Iraq specifically but mentioning it in regard to conviction.  If anything, Corbyn telling the Graun he would issue a general apology for the Iraq war was a response to the Labour figures that have made so much of his views on foreign policy, pointing out the ridiculousness of such people lecturing others over what is and isn't acceptable.

Ditum is right that being right about Iraq is not a good enough foundation for political life, but Corbyn isn't relying on it as his foundation in any case.  The question ought to be what is preferable, knowing what we do now: is remaining an interventionist by instinct going to count in your favour when we have not just Iraq, but also Libya to judge by?  Is bombing in Syria as well as Iraq, as it is after all worth remembering that technically we are currently involved in the third Iraq war, really going to alter anything, especially when we seem to have just abandoned the Kurds in favour of the Turks?  Has in fact our belief that we have the "responsibility to protect" undermined both national and international security, making our protests against Russia's annexation of the Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine even easier for Putin and other imperialists to ignore?  And isn't much of the insufferable banging on about Iraq in any case not about what went wrong at all levels of government, what mistakes everyone involved made, but in fact about one man, who has become just as much the scapegoat for the failings of all concerned, driving force as he was?  Indeed, shouldn't we truly learn the lessons of Iraq, as we clearly still haven't, before condemning a small group of annoyingly self-righteous people whose politics have been defined by it?

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015 

Turkey PM: Syria no-Kurd zone needed.

The Turkish prime minister has told the BBC that Turkey will continue pushing for a no-Kurd zone in northern Syria, as the Turkish government is quite frankly that evil.

"It's fairly remarkable what you can get away with so long as you claim to be against Islamic State," Ahmet Davutoglu told yet another bloke called Jeremy.  "We've bombed almost precisely two supposed Islamic State targets since Islamic State killed a bunch of socialist teenagers that frankly we're better off without.  Once that was out of the way we've targeted the Kurds exclusively.  Yes, those are the same Kurds that have been the only truly effective ground force against Islamic State other than the Syrian army.  Confused?  You shouldn't be."

"You see, we're so utterly myopic that we fear the Kurds far more than we do Islamic State.  The Kurds are represented mainly by liberals, leftists, secularists, people that we in the AKP utterly loathe and detest.  Islamic State we can do business with, at least until they decide to extend their caliphate to Istanbul and Ankara, whereas the Kurds merely want their own state, not to go on expanding and subjugating everyone in their path.  You can see our way of thinking, right?"

"Not that it's surprising so many are still so utterly ignorant about all this.  Natalie Nougayrède (crazy name, crazy gal?!) in the Guardian is still pushing the line that if only Barack Obama had let Hillary Clinton arm the moderate Syrian rebels then Assad might just have been forced into peace negotiations.  This of course ignores the fact that Western governments from the outset said Assad had to go, that Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis were quickly funnelling money and weapons to jihadists and that still the thinking remains that a stalemate is preferable to either Assad or Islamic State winning outright, hence why nothing has changed on that score, but it's the kind of argument you've come to expect.  No wonder hardly anyone minds when we start killing the only people involved who aren't fanatical sectarians."

In other news:

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015 

Preventing "bad boys" from becoming dead boys.

Last week's horrific suicide bombing in Suruc, near to the Turkish-Syria border, looks to have been the last straw for both the Kurds and Turkey alike.  Blamed on Islamic State, although for once the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the bomber, believed to have been a 20-year-old Kurd, targeted a press conference being held by the Socialist Party of the Oppressed's youth wing.  The conference had been meant to publicise a trip by some of the group's members to help in the rebuilding of Kobani, the Syrian city Islamic State failed to capture despite it at one point seeming to have been abandoned to its fate by everyone other than the Kurds themselves.

As with the civil war in Syria as a whole, conspiracy theories and grievances about the Turkish authorities' seeming connivance with jihadists fighting in Syria have long circled among the Kurds, embittered by how Ankara has continued to see them as more of a threat than Islamic State.  Whether there was any kind of collusion with the Suruc bomber, or more likely a simple failure of intelligence, the PKK, the Kurdish separatist group, responded to the bombing by killing 2 police officers.  In turn, Turkey has launched bombing raids in both Syria and Iraq, attacking both Islamic State targets and those of the Kurds who just happen to be fighting IS.  A deal between Turkey and the Americans for the use of two military bases close to the Syrian border, long previously resisted, has also been struck.  Whether this amounts to an abandonment of the Kurds in favour of more active Turkish involvement as yet remains to be seen.  It does however underline the double games being played by so many of the actors involved, almost always to the detriment of either civilians or the very few groups that have relatively clean hands.

Much comment here has predictably focused on the news that of the five men who travelled together from Portsmouth in October 2013 to fight in Syria, only Mashudur Choudhury, who returned shortly afterwards, unable to adjust to life in a war zone, remains alive.  Just how ideologically inclined the men were really were remains difficult to properly ascertain; Choudhury certainly was less a committed jihadi and more a pathetic man with delusions of religious grandeur, soon brought back down to earth by the reality.  That the rest did stay, and one at least contacted the ubiquitous researcher Shiraz Maher, telling him of the mundane duties required of a lowly fighter with the Islamic State, while still believing in the group's cause, would suggest not just a belief in defending fellow Sunni Muslims, but also in the rest of the IS system.  When you then also think of how such men would have probably delighted in the slaughter in Suruc, where a group that believes in everything Islamic State detests was cut down for wanting to help their victims, it's difficult not to reach the simple conclusion that the only good jihadi is a dead jihadi. 

Except I also can't help but see the tragedy, the utter waste of life, the contradictions contained within those five men, the "Pompey Lads", the "al-Britani Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys".  Identity and the search for it is rightly pinpointed as being key to understanding why some British-born Muslims have gone to fight in Syria, and yet these men didn't want to dispense with their identity, they also embraced it.  They didn't call themselves lions, or apply any other self-aggrandising Islamic labels to themselves, but identified as being from a small town, from Britain and as having Bangladeshi heritage.  The "Bad Boys" part meanwhile speaks of their immaturity, as does how apart from Choudhury, who ironically despite being the oldest was the most immature, none of the other four had any real responsibilities.  All they had was either university to come or apparent dead end jobs to exist through.  It's less surprising to learn one craved martyrdom when the only other identifier he had was as a supervisor at Primark.

What they also had was each other, and it's well known how group dynamics and peer pressure play a major role in the reinforcing of thinking that would otherwise be questioned and challenged.  What also has to be remembered is that in October 2013 the myth of a moderate opposition was still being espoused, as was support for the rebels against Assad in general.  Whether the two who were killed in the fighting for Kobani believed in that cause as fervently as the one they travelled for we don't know; what we do know is the longer someone stays, the harder it is to return, especially when they must have known that Choudhury had been prosecuted and jailed for not much more than merely going to Syria.  If the family of Muhammad Mehdi Hassan are to be believed, the youngest of the group at 19 had wanted to come home when he was killed.

Too bad, you might think, and it is hard to have any sympathy for those who fought alongside or may themselves have taken part in mass killings or the almost beyond imaginable abuse of Yazidi women.  At the same time, there has to be some way for those who have gone to Syria and either want to return or have returned to reintegrate into society.  This is in everyone's best interests: not only are returnees potentially the best weapon against the radicalisers, able to argue that the reality is far different from the propaganda, but to exclude, jail and write off only entrenches the problem.  Identifying 3-year-olds as potential terrorists, as is now happening, while either simply monitoring or prosecuting returnees is the anti-extremism of fools, guaranteed to fail.  There has to be an alternative, however much it offends in the short term.

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Monday, July 20, 2015 

The strategy remains that there is no strategy.

In his speech on extremism today (speech in full), David Cameron said "Our freedom comes from our parliamentary democracy".  He's right.  Parliament can also dilute that freedom, and has within its power the means by which to end it all together.  Parliament can only maintain freedom as long as it is challenged through protest, and held to account by the courts and the press, to name but two institutions that play such a role.

When the will of parliament is then ignored by the government of the day, as it clearly has been in the case of British servicemen embedded with allied military forces carrying out air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, it does rather put into perspective the Tories' continuing obsession with promoting our supposedly indivisible British values as a counterweight against Islamic extremism.  Prime ministers have of course long wielded the royal prerogative, enabling them to make war without bothering to seek the will of parliament, but it's clearly bad form to engage in semantics when there has not been just one, but two votes directly related to Syria.  The first was defeated, while the second did not come close to providing authorisation to attack Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq.  In truth, it's likely that British special forces have long been operating in Syria, but such are the activities of the secret state: for ordinary soldiers to be taking part in military operations in the country is something else.

One of the best, or at least most inventive defences of the government's fuck you, we bomb what we want attitude came from perennial fan of liberal interventionism James Bloodworth.  Apparently those upset at parliament being ignored are "clinging to the outdated idea that Syria still exists as a state".  Bloodworth might have more of a point if the government wasn't itself clinging to that "outdated idea"; lest we forget, according to David Cameron, Islamic State is neither "Islamic nor a state".  The reality probably is that the rise of Islamic State has torn up Sykes-Picot, and that neither Syria or Iraq can return to their borders as previously recognised.  That is however the intention of all the state actors involved, with the exception of the Kurds, if anyone's counting them.  If we're going to ignore state borders because IS ignores them, it needs to be voted on.  It's not a hard concept to get your head round, unless of course you're being wilfully obtuse, something liberal interventionists can never be accused of being.

It might also be an idea to have a strategy for dealing with Islamic State that runs alongside the one for dealing with homegrown extremism, as the two things while not inextricably linkedcould just have a connection.  Launching Hellfire missiles at Toyota Land Cruisers, whether in Iraq or Syria, is not a strategy.  One such strategy worth noting was set out on Left Foot Forward (edited by Bloodworth), Kyle Orton arguing the only way forward was to commit to regime change in Syria, which would convince all the non-ISIS rebel forces just how serial we are, and therefore result in an uprising against IS in both Syria and Iraq.  This naturally wouldn't lead to the other jihadist rebels gaining power, or Syria descending even further into the abyss, just as regime change in Iraq and Libya didn't.  There are times when describing something as insane doesn't quite cut it, although in fairness to Orton he is at least proposing something other than maintaining a murderous, bloody stalemate.  It would be a murderous, bloody victory for the very forces behind the ideology of Islamic State, and result in years more of bloody insecurity in the most dangerous region in the world, but hey, you've got to start somewhere.

To give David Cameron some credit also, his anti-extremism strategy for here in the UK is not all bad by any stretch of the imagination.  If anything, it's probably the most enlightened we've had post-7/7, although that's hardly saying much.  Cameron did nonetheless get remarkably confused, if not express outright contradictions in multiple places in the speech.  He again insisted that Islamic State is not Islamic, or rather isn't true Islam, and yet at the same time it cannot be denied that err, the extremists are Muslims, and clearly do follow Islamic practices.  You realise that Cameron is trying his best to not to fall into the trap of either making this a war on Islam, or to give succour to those who try to paint all Muslims as extremists, but this really isn't working.  Islamic State is Islamic, there's no getting away from it, just as jihadists are Muslims; they follow a twisted, perverse interpretation of the Wahhabi-Salafi tradition, which is in fact a relatively modern tradition, but it's still Islam.  Islamism, or political Islam, is not inherently violent, nor is it necessarily incompatible with democracy; the Islamism of Hamas is very different from that of al-Qaida and IS despite descending from the same source.  Recognising the Islamic State is Islamic surely isn't that difficult a step, or too hard to explain.

Within a couple of paragraphs Cameron is then at it again.  It's only the extremists who divide people into good and bad Muslims he says.  Except, err, the whole basis of his strategy is to do just that, as he then says in the next line, as this new approach is designed around isolating the extremists from everyone else.  Either these extremists are Muslims or they're not; can we possibly make up our minds, please?  He then immediately goes on to lecturing broadcasters about recognising the huge power they have in shaping the debate, apparently oblivious, or rather not, to how this speech will have more effect than anything they produce.

All this distracts from the good, which is the section on why people are being attracted to the extremist cause.  You can quibble with Cameron's declaration that extremist voices overwhelm those of other Muslims, which I don't think is true at all, but his follow-up, that it's ridiculous the debate when the young have gone to join IS has turned into whether or not the security services are to blame is sound.  If anything, Cameron doesn't ask the hardest of questions: whether or not some Muslims are in fact in denial of where their interpretation of Islam can lead.  Radicalisation, as Cameron says, has to start somewhere, and for some it can be nothing more than ordinary religious observance.  This is not to say they are to blame, that their interpretation is wrong, or that Islam always lead to extremism; it does not, and all religions and political ideologies have their extremists.  There is however no getting away from how some are more susceptible than others, and the more conservative the interpretation of Islam, the higher the chances tend to be.  It's not a coincidence that converts tend to be over-represented among the extremists, for instance.

The problem then is that Cameron's proposed solutions are so woefully lacking.   There isn't really much point in once again going through why the emphasis on British values is chuckleheaded: suffice to say that when the leader of a party that has still has major problems with sexual equality, having so recently been converted to the cause, repeatedly insists that we all believe in such things and always have, the only reasonable reaction is to reach for the sick bag.  Cameron protests that the new Prevent duty for schools is not about criminalising or spying on Muslim children, and yet what else is putting that duty on both nurseries and primary schools about if not spying on Muslim children, then spying on their parents and what they might be teaching them by proxy?  It's certainly not seriously about protecting wider society from child jihadists.  He talks about the effect "passive tolerance" could have on young British Muslim girls, when if anything we've now reached the stage where those brought up here are imposing their traditions on their own children.  The "power and liberating force" of our values, and let's not pretend we haven't been debating these questions of identity for decades, don't seem to have had much effect.

Which is rather the point.  Traditions are ingrained in all our little subcultures.  Cameron boasts about the new diverse face of his party, and then within a couple of paragraphs is on to "It cannot be right, for example, that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths".  Well, no, it's not Dave, but then what does the rest of your cabinet of private school attending mates have to do with this?  Perhaps we finally get to where this is all leading when Dave suggests "the government needs to start asking searching questions about social housing" and also ask "how we can move away from segregated schooling in our most divided communities".  One answer might be the new lower benefit cap, which research for the Graun suggests will lead to an exodus from the south and cities in general.  Ah yes, it's all fitting into place.

The biggest hole by far in the strategy is on identity.  The Tories don't truly believe in the nonsense they're spouting about British values, but it's the only thing they can think of in a world where identity is becoming ever more fragmented.  This hardly affects just Muslims; in the face of seeming constant change it's natural to cling on to an ever more exaggerated sense of self, as we're seeing in the debate in the US over the Confederate flag.  Young people brought up in an austere religious environment see the world as it is and react in different ways: some might abandon their faith and rebel against their parents that way; others might go in entirely the opposite direction.  Identity has never been so fluid, exaggerated by mass immigration and access to wider culture unimaginable even 20 years ago.  Little wonder that some people, and I can include myself in this, don't feel like they belong anywhere.  Tackling alienation when individualism, or rather the marketed sense of individualism, is so prevalent is all but impossible.  Harping on about British values while not actually following those values, especially at the same time as preaching myths such as how this is a country "where in one or two generations people can come with nothing and rise as high as their talent allows" and that our "success is achieved not in spite of our diversity, but because of our diversity" is about as idiotic as you can get.  The strategy remains that there is no strategy.  That there probably isn't one anyway doesn't diminish that.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2015 

The banality of grief.

At times, it's interesting to note just what gets reported widely and what doesn't.  At the weekend, the BBC went fairly big on the release of a video from Islamic State apparently showing the execution of a group of Syrian soldiers in the ancient amphitheatre of Palmyra. The response from Syria's head on antiquities to a previous execution in the amphitheatre had been to stress how using "the Roman theatre to execute people proves that these people are against humanity".  I'll let you, dear reader, work through the various shades of irony contained in that short of a statement.

Reported to a far lesser extent was a video released by Islamic State at the end of last month.   This consisted of not one, not two, but three separate executions of men from the city of Mosul in Iraq, accused in the video of being spies for the government.  Attired in those orange jumpsuits that were originally meant to point to the injustice of the extrajudicial detention by the United States of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, individuals from these groups of men confessed to their "crime" on camera.  The first group were led to a car in a desert wasteland and chained together inside, unable to escape.  A masked man then fired a rocket propelled grenade at his unmissable target.  The second group were chained together inside a cage, similar to the one the Jordanian pilot was burned to death in.  This time, the cage was slowly lowered by crane into a swimming pool, as cameras underneath the water filmed the men struggling desperately for life.  The third group were led into an area of similar desert to where the first execution was carried out, and told to kneel.  Explosives were then daisy-chained around their necks.  The charges detonated, all but one of the men were decapitated, their heads flying in the direction of the camera.

Recording the committing of atrocities for both propaganda and terroristic purposes is not of course new.  Islamic extremists have been doing so since the early 90s, and Mexican drug cartels took up the practice more recently; Hitler had the prolonged, agonising execution by hanging with piano wire of some of those involved in the von Stauffenberg plot filmed.  Islamic State has however taken it to a whole new level; beheadings and shots to the back of the head have been relegated in favour of asking followers on social media for ideas on how to kill those whom have fallen into their clutches.  Whether the practice is in fact counter-productive is difficult to weigh: certainly anyone who isn't a conservative Sunni knows full well what possibly awaits them should IS continue their march in both Syria and Iraq.  It might further encourage those determined to resist to do so until the very end; alternatively, as we saw in Mosul itself, many will choose instead to flee at the first sign of an attack.

Why the Mosul video wasn't as widely reported as others we can but guess at.  There are only so many depictions of man's inhumanity to man that audiences can stomach in a short period, without either switching off in disgust or becoming desensitised to it.  Reporting of conflicts other than Israel/Palestine which we ourselves have little or no apparent stake in is often fragmentary at best, especially when budgets continue to decline and insurance premiums correspondingly increase; the war in Yemen, despite being an extension of the proxy war being fought in Syria between Saudia Arabia, Qatar and others against Iran has been practically ignored.  Massacres via Saudi airstrike like yesterday's are barely remarked upon.  Alternatively, it's also the case we long stopped caring about the people of Iraq, who have suffered through 25 years of various Western interventions, to which can be added another 10 if you include the initial support given to Saddam's war against Iran.

Today we remembered the horror of 7/7.  For me, at least, what followed cannot properly be separated from that day, and some of the statements from politicians and also members of the public smack frankly of either faulty memories or outright revisionism.  Perhaps the closest to the reality came from the then 14-year-old Emma Craig, who survived the Aldgate bomb: "Quite often people say 'It didn't break us, terrorism won't break us'. The fact is, it may not have broken London, but it did break some of us."  It's certainly nearer the truth than the fantasy vision some have conjured up or want there to be of this rainbow city, together grieving in solidarity, coming out stronger, "an international crossroads of diversity and ingenuity, tolerance and respect, challenge and opportunity."

Like it or not, fear pervaded London for quite some time, as did suspicion if not outright questioning, even loathing of ordinary Muslims going about their business.  Most of that fear was real and palpable; some of it was encouraged by a media that decided an attack had been inevitable, and by politicians who were ready to respond to it in the most inflammatory way they could.  An entirely innocent man lost his life as a result not just of the fear and paranoia the attack and then subsequent failed attack engendered, but also due to the incompetence and unaccountability of the Met, defended by all sides regardless of their failings.  Tony Blair declared the rules of the game had changed, and launched straight into trying to detain "terrorist suspects" for up to three months, amongst other reforms that diluted hard-won freedoms and liberties.  Blair's worst instincts about the threat were expanded upon by the previous government, which now requires nurseries to ensure children of pre-school age are not being radicalised.  The security services that fail, as they always have and always will to prevent attacks despite having previous knowledge of the perpetrators, continue to demand ever increasing powers while insisting that the threat is as high, if not higher than ever.

The awful truth is that ever since 9/11 the wrong targets have been chosen for the response.  Rather than confront the sources of extremist Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, something that would have required a complete change of mindset and allies, groups rather than the ideology was gone after.  You cannot destroy an ideology, but you can cut off its funding and affect how it is spread.  Little to no attempt was made to do so.  Al-Qaida has without doubt a been decimated, and poses little threat, but in doing so something worse has been established, thanks entirely to western intervention.  Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war, to the refusal to get tough with the Saudis over their double standards.  Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, if not more, have died violently since 2003.  Iraq would be little more than a country of memorials if every death as a result of terrorist attack, death squads or at the hands of the occupation forces was marked in the same way as the victims of the 7/7 attacks were commemorated.  I am not, I stress, saying there is an equivalence here.  There is not.  I do not believe, as some, that 7/7 would not have happened had it not been for the Iraq war.  Foreign policy is an excuse, not a reason.  It was however an influence, and remains one.  To not recognise our foreign policy since 9/11 has been a disaster and continues to help, rather than hinder the extremists, is at this point to be wilfully blind.

It's come to something when of all people, Bob Quick, with his suggestion of letting those who want to join Islamic State do so but effectively revoke their citizenship at the same time is the person closest to talking something approaching sense.  For all the scaremongering of recent months, of an attack being a matter of time, all highly reminiscent of what came after 7/7 and the other foiled plots, few have questioned that Islamic State's real fight at the moment is not to attack the west, although it will go after soft targets such as in Tunisia, but to build on its lightning success of last year and attract supporters.  The big fear, of those who have fought in Syria returning and carrying out attacks, is exaggerated massively.  We know this because those who return, or have returned, are thought of negatively.  The caliphate is here, it's real, and the battle is to maintain it.  Returning the world of the unbelievers is a personal failure.  By contrast, not letting those who want to go do so, even as we are baffled about why anyone would want to, runs the risk of the lone attacks now so dreaded.

Perhaps my opinion has always been shaded by how 10 years ago I didn't have any friends or past acquaintances living in London.  10 years on, I most assuredly do.  Helping to prevent terrorism is everyone's responsibility.  A decade on, it's hard to see precisely what's been achieved, whether we truly are stronger as a nation, more equipped to deal with the fallout if there was another mass casualty attack.  It certainly doesn't feel like it.  Our foreign policy makes just as little, if not less sense, than it did then.  We are it seems yet again reduced to gestures, to platitudes, to asking why when the answers are within our grasp should we choose to reach for them.  But by all means, #walktogether if it means something to you.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015 

Let's call the whole thing off.

Have you heard about the debate that's been electrifying Westminster the past few days?  No, it's not the Labour leadership contest, or the government's plan to abolish child poverty by deciding it henceforth doesn't exist.  And no, it's not the one about the Kim Kardashian flag at Glastonbury either.

Yep, the big fight in parliament this week has been over what the BBC calls Islamic StateThe fiends in charge of news at Auntie have been calling Islamic State Islamic State, with the reasoning that's what Islamic State is called.  Apparently though this name is deeply discomforting, not to Muslims who know full well they're not being tarred with the same brush by a broadcaster referring to a terrorist group by its actual name, but to politicians who instead insist on calling Islamic State Isil.  Which is an acronym of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Or there's others who insist on referring to Islamic State by the acronym Daesh, which is arrived at via Islamic State's literal Arabic name, al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa’al Sham.  Only this was mainly adopted in the first place because it sounds like the Arabic term Dahes, which means to sow discord, and so is meant pejoratively.

The debate is, all but needless to say, unbelievably fucking stupid.  All of the names have problems: calling the group by what it calls itself should be the obvious thing to do, but then the media have almost never done so previously.  IS originates from the group started by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which fairly swiftly pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, and so became known as al-Qaida in Iraq, the name it was almost always referred to as by the media up until last year.  It in fact went through two more name changes, becoming the Mujahideen Shura Council for a time, before changing to the simple Islamic State of Iraq at the height of its (then) control of Iraqi territory.  The Guardian, for instance, tends to split the difference and call it Isis, which makes something approaching sense as referring to Syria as either the Levant or Sham, both archaic terms, is exceptionally daft.

According to David Cameron, calling Islamic State Islamic State is misleading and potentially damaging as it is neither Islamic nor a state.  To which one response should be: how about you go and tell Mr al-Baghdadi to his face that his group isn't Islamic and the territory it holds doesn't amount to a state, Dave?  I envision a scene akin to the one from Mars Attacks, where President Jack Nicholson delivers a why can't we all be friends speech with such passion it brings tears to the Martian leader's eyes.  They shake hands, then a contraption pierces Nicholson straight through the heart and a little Martian flag pops out the end.  Even if you agree with Cameron, that doesn't alter the fact that if you use Isil or Daesh you're still calling it Islamic State, you're just not spelling the damn thing out.  If we're going to be precious about it, we might as well just call them Those Murderous Jihadist Cunts and be done with it.

Part of the reason our leaders have been squabbling about what the BBC is doing is, predictably, because they haven't gone the first clue about what to do to respond to the attack in Tunisia.  If you start claiming there's going to be a full spectrum response against a group that poses an "existential threat" while not actually doing anything new you are rather asking for it.  Hence the feelers put out today about extending airstrikes into Syria itself, which to give the government its due, isn't as cretinous an idea as it once was.  It's fairly pointless being opposed to ourselves chucking bombs at IS in Syria when the Americans have been doing it for nigh on 10 months now, especially when it's long been obvious they have been informing the Syrians of where they're going to be targeting.

It's also fairly pointless to be opposed because just chucking bombs at IS has been shown to be fairly pointless.  IS controls more territory in the two countries now than they did when the airstrikes began: the only times they've had an effect has been in Kobane, where the Kurds were effectively allied with the US and calling in strikes themselves, in breaking the siege on Mount Sinjar, and in softening up the IS forces on the ground ahead of advances by the Iraqi "army", i.e. the Shia militias that are now the de facto army.  As the new chair of the foreign affairs committee Crispin Blunt said this morning, joining in the strikes now adds up to nothing more than sharing the burden of attacks with the Americans, while putting the country into a legally grey area.  IS cannot be defeated from the air: the gains against it have only been won in partnership with ground forces.  Without a stronger ally in both Iraq and Syria, and neither the Kurdish militias or the Shia equivalent can be that ally, IS isn't going anywhere.

The Americans have been complaining for a while there is no strategy for defeating IS, and that's because the current stalemate seems preferable, terrible as it is to the alternatives.  If we swallow our pride and ally with Assad now despite everything, we risk driving the jihadis fighting IS back into their arms.  Even if IS was pushed back into Iraq solely, that won't change the fact the country's Sunnis in the main welcomed the jihadis because of the discrimination and contempt they faced under Maliki, which hasn't gone away.  Nor do they rate their chances of survival when faced with the militias that previously acted as death squads at the time of the all out civil conflict.  The only realistic solutions are federalism or complete partition, with three separate states, something that would be opposed by all sides (excepting the Kurds), all of whom still believe everything can return to how things stood this time last year without explaining how.  Faced with these options, it's not surprising politicians would rather chide the BBC than explain how desperate the situation is for the people in the region, if not in truth for us.  That Iraq war, eh?


Staying with that thought, here's some number crunching:

187 - number of Syrian refugees so far granted asylum in the UK under the Vulnerable Person Relocation scheme

664 - number of children Nicholas Winton, who died yesterday, helped to escape the Nazis in 1939

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Monday, June 29, 2015 

Terrorism and victimhood.

The family of Dr Sarandev Bhambra had a point last week.  If the murder of Lee Rigby was a terrorist attack, despite it failing to terrorise anyone other than those who wanted to be, then surely the attempted murder of Bhambra by Zackery Davies, which he claimed to be an attempt to avenge Rigby's death, was also.  Davies was almost your stereotype white supremacist: a loner who had the obligatory copy of the Turner Diaries alongside all the usual Nazi paraphernalia, that masturbatory genocidal fantasy which concludes with a suicide attack on the Pentagon, he also as now tends to be the custom admired the barbarism of Islamic State, despite the obvious contradictions.  He may though also be mentally ill, and the judge has requested psychiatric reports before he sentences him.  One of the killers of Lee Rigby, Michael Adebowale, has also since been transferred to Broadmoor for treatment, and is appealing against the length of his 45-year sentence on those grounds.

Branding the murderous actions of individuals without any links to specific terrorist groups, and in some instances even those who do have such links is to give in to precisely the self-aggrandisement and narcissism that motivated them in the first place.  Davies posing in front of swastikas and the flag of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement is of a piece with the suspected Charleston church murderer Dylann Roof burning the Star and Stripes, waving the Confederate flag and as with so many previous mass killers leaving behind a "manifesto" attempting to justify the unjustifiable.  One line, and one line only is worth dignifying: "We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet," he wrote. "Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."  The exact same line of thinking is now espoused by the successors to the mantle of al-Qaida, the same one grasped by Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo.

Murder/suicide rarely excites any more.  How could it when the TV news in recent years has often seemed to be one long parade of atrocities?  If you're going to go down in a blaze of ignominy, the thinking seems to be, you might as well make it look good for the 24 hour news networks.  A case in point was the first of Friday's reported terrorist attacks, the apparent attempt by Yassin Salhi to cause a major incident at the Air Products chemical factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier.  The French president Francois Hollande instantly branded it a terrorist incident only for the situation to become more confused once it emerged that despite beheading his boss and the use of a flag with the Islamic profession of faith on it, Salhi told the police his motivations were personal more than political.  He might have been or still be a fundamentalist, having previously been on the police's radar, but the use of jihadi iconography and methods seems the excuse rather than the reason.  Nor have foreign connections been discovered as yet, pouring scorn on the media's grasping for a link between France, Tunisia and Kuwait.

Last week at times this country seemed to have descended into a self-pitying wreck, feeling sorry for itself as all around it burned.  The strike at Calais which gave hundreds of desperate migrants a better chance than usual of stowing away for the journey across the channel once again electrified the media at large, with the same old why-oh-whying about why do they come here rather than stay on the continent rearing its head for the umpteenth time.  I waited and waited in vain for someone to point out that the numbers in Calais wanting to come to Britain are tiny compared to the over 100,000 that have made it to Europe so far this year, most of whom have either stayed in Italy or Greece or tried to get to Germany or Sweden, the two main destinations for Syrian refugees in particular.  There was however no shortage of people convinced it was all down to how generous our benefit system is, the myth that refuses to die and never will so long as broadcasters and the press either push it themselves or don't bother to challenge it.

And there right in the centre was David Cameron.  While the big boys round the EU summit table tried and failed to agree on both sharing out said number of migrants more fairly and keeping Greece in the Euro, there he was pushing his pathetic little renegotiation agenda, to much sighing and eye-rolling from everyone else.  Britain has often stood out on its own, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, but rarely has it looked so self-absorbed and obtuse as of late.

This complete lack of apparent wider awareness has manifested itself just as it has in the past in the reaction to the massacre in Sousse.  Cameron promises a "full spectrum" response to the "existentialist" threat posed by Islamic State.  No one has the slightest idea what a full spectrum response entails, and Cameron apparently doesn't know what existentialist means or otherwise he wouldn't make such an utterly ridiculous statement, but that's the least of our worries.  How much of a role Islamic State truly played in the attack doesn't really matter; that they claimed it whereas they didn't the incident in France is evidence enough they pulled the strings.  Nor does it matter that there's very little you can do to prevent one fanatic from gunning down Western tourists on the beach when north Africa has been thrown into flux by the absence of effective government in Libya.  If anything, that's it taken this long for jihadists to realise that far too much can go wrong with bombings when a trained lone attacker armed with an automatic weapon and grenades can kill just as many if not more people is proof in itself of just how non-existentialist the threat is.

The point is our foreign policy, such as it is, seems deliberately designed to increase rather than decrease the threat.  Cameron isn't wrong when he says there would be a threat regardless of whether or not we were personally involved in bombing Islamic State in Iraq.  Theresa May was almost certainly right in saying Brits weren't deliberately targeted in Sousse; westerners as a whole were.  Nor does Islamic State care one jot about the effect the massacre will have on tourism in Tunisia.  All its cadres are interested in is the number of decadent westerners slaughtered for daring to feel safe in an Arab country.  Indeed, little is more likely to excite the always priapic IS devotees than white women in bikinis lying dead in pools of blood, as potent a mixture of the paradoxical motivations of your average teenage jihadi as it's possible to imagine.

I apologise for making this argument for what seems the thousandth time, as even I'm tired of it.  IS nevertheless only exists in its current form because of Syria, and owes some of its success to our refusal to, as the Times put it when demanding that we pal up with Sisi in Egypt "work with the political order as it exists in the Arab world and not as [we] wish it to be".  Regardless of how and why, the west as a whole came to the conclusion that Assad was doomed, that it was only a matter of time before he fell or fled.  It hasn't happened.  Rather than reassess the situation four years down the line, accept that regardless of his being a chemical weapon using killer of his own people that he's not going anywhere and that his army is the only reliable force on the ground other than the Kurdish militias, we'd still rather pretend to be achieving something by attacking IS from the air even as more westerners travel to join them and others launch attacks in their name.  IS exploited the vacuum in Syria, as well as the support from both the west and the other Arab countries that flowed to the "opposition" to undermine Iraq and make its comeback there.

Here in short is just how fucked western policy in the Middle East currently is.  In Yemen we're supporting Saudi Arabia's brutal and ineffective air war against the Houthis, backed indirectly by the Iranians.  In Iraq we're in effective league with Shia militias backed by Iran against IS, which is backed by the Sunnis who prefer the brutal regime of the caliphate to the discrimination they faced under the Shia-dominated Baghdad government.  In Syria we are variously backing the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, assorted other "moderates" and the Kurdish militias against both the Assad regime and Islamic State.  In reality this means we are in alliance with the Sunni states of Saudia Arabia and Qatar, who have gone back and forth between funding and supporting outright jihadi and very slightly more moderate Islamic opposition groups, against Assad, supported by Iran and helped by Hezbollah, also backed by Iran.  Despite claims of both IS and Assad being pushed back and so on, in truth we're in pretty much the same position as this time last year.  Libya meanwhile remains in turmoil and has turned into the conduit through which the refugees from these conflicts, along also with others from Eritrea and Somalia and your common garden economic migrants are making the trip across the Mediterranean.  We don't need to reiterate what went on in Libya, do we?  Good.

Cameron is thus reduced to the platitude of a "full-spectrum response" and the ludicrous claim that a rag-tag army of nihilist throwbacks threaten our very existence because he either can't do anything or won't do anything.  Further western intervention is precisely what IS wants and the Americans failed in any case to destroy al-Qaida in Iraq when boots were on the ground.  We refuse to accept that IS is more of a threat to regional stability than Assad, and so won't ally with the only army in either Iraq or Syria that somewhat functions.  We continue to ignore how Saudi Arabia funds the mosques and preachers that spread the Wahhabi precursor to Islamic State's takfiri jihadism.  Cameron talks of the struggle of our generation when western policy up to now has either targeted individuals rather than the ideology itself and where it springs from, or has made things worse through either incompetence, as in Iraq, or by choice, as in Libya.  We are apparently to be intolerant of intolerance, only without a countervailing narrative to rival that which appeals to a distinct minority, some of whom might as Roof put it "take it to the real world".  The vast majority won't.  That won't however stop ministers from reaching to the law, further restricting free speech in the name of protecting British values.  Anything other than admit our mistakes and change course, and think of ourselves as anything other than victims.

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