Monday, March 16, 2015 

On not understanding the call of duty.

Call me an old softy, but I find it difficult not to recoil from war and conflict regardless of the circumstances.  It's not that I'm a pacifist, as I fervently take the position that armed struggle is permissible when every other method of getting rid of a tyrannical government has failed.  Likewise, sometimes a country operating an openly imperialist foreign policy has to be stopped from going any further.  I'm even prepared to accept there will be occasions when countries should intervene to prevent an imminent or already under way genocide from taking place or going any further.  There haven't been any past cases where it's been shown an intervention would have succeeded, but there's always the possibility.

Flying Rodent called it his "Mark-Off-Peep-Show Shame", and yep, I've read those same books, despite thinking it's reaching the time when rather than putting up new memorials to those involved in War I and War II (as Philomena Cunk would have it) we should instead begin dialling it down.  As the inestimable rodent said, "a world in which fewer people are willing to get bayonetted to death for God and country is likely to be a nicer place to live in than one with more", and it's a sentiment I can't demur from.

It does then fairly bewilder me when those who ought to know better start rhapsodising about how everyone should get behind this particular group fighting in this particular war, nearly always because they share their political outlook, or rather, think they do.  Without doubt, as I've written before, the Kurds fighting against Islamic State in Syria are taking part in a noble cause, and when compared with almost everyone else battling in that benighted country, they are probably closest in values to "us".  They are not quite though the revolutionaries Owen Jones wants to paint them as, claiming the still-banned as a terrorist group PKK (aka the Kurdistan Workers' Party) has moved from Stalinism to "the libertarian socialism of the US theoretician Murray Bookchin".  And the three bears etc.  All the same, he's probably right that if the Kurds were fighting against our good selves rather than Islamic State, they'd be hailed universally by the left rather than just the fringes.

Looking for a new angle now the "shock" of Westerners going to battle alongside Islamic State has began to fade, attention has instead moved to those fighting against IS, with the death of Konstandinos Erik Scurfield prompting tributes from his family and others.  Last week the news broke of the death of Ivana Hoffman, leading to the eulogy from Jones, ignoring the obvious similarities between someone who posed in front of a communist flag fighting for what she believed in with those who can't pose often enough with the IS flag, also fighting for what they believe in, their war or otherwise.  Before we get into the sterility of a debate centering on moral relativism, it's apparent that despite fighting for such very different things, and that the Kurds' battle is foremost a defensive rather than an offensive one, the idealism and naivety of both sides is not unrelated if still very different.

No surprise then at the anger over the charging of Shilan Ozcelik, accused of wanting to fight against IS with the PKK rather than it being the other way round.  As the PKK is still a listed terrorist group, in law the charge might well be justified.  Whether it should be enforced, however, is a different question entirely.  As we saw last week, the Met confirming the three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green would not be charged with terrorism offences if they managed to return from Syria, and with three other teenagers released today on bail after being returned from Turkey, there still doesn't appear to be anything remotely like a coherent approach to just who is and isn't likely to be charged if they decide to come back.  This is the umpteenth time I've mentioned Mashudur Choudary, and I'm going to keep on doing so until it's explained why someone who couldn't hack it in Syria was prosecuted on his return.  The same goes for the Nawaz brothers, who trained not with Islamic State but an unrelated jihadist group, the kind some felt, like the PKK, were fighting the good fight up until recently.  We're told hundreds of Brits have gone to Syria, and yet the number of cases brought numbers in the tens, if that.  As we're also told repeatedly of what a massive security risk these people are, either there's a lot of resources being used to monitor them, or else the gap year jihadis are only going to be boring everyone to death with their stories.

The other reason for my reticence is what we know about professional soldiers, some of whom fail to adjust to civilian life, some of whom just find out they enjoy killing.  Yes, they might genuinely share the Kurds' wider aims and loathe IS, but that doesn't alter their wider motivations.  There are perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of those who decide to fight in wars that don't, or shouldn't on the surface concern them.  A better approach, from the authorities at least, would be to either prosecute everyone who goes to fight in Syria, regardless of whom they join up with; or no one, excepting those where there's evidence they took part in attacks against civilians.  A better approach from ourselves might to be admit that however much we hate what those going to fight for IS believe in, in death those left behind always make the same claims for what it was they believed they were doing.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015 

Yes, Islamic State is Islamic. No, it isn't representative, and here's one way to counteract its propaganda.

This has been the daft and besides the point debate of the past week: is the Islamic State like, Islamic? The clue is there in the name people, and if you needed a fatuous piece in the Atlantic which quotes Anjem Choudary as though he's an authority on such matters to bring that home then you might not have been paying attention.
 

Yes, the Islamic State is Islamic.  It's Islamic in a similar way to how Pat Robertson, Stephen Green and Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, only with less door knocking in the case of the latter and a slightly more intense hatred of gays.  The people saying IS are not Muslims are nonetheless right in the sense they couldn't be more removed from your average Sunni Muslim, let alone from the Shia or Sufi traditions.  IS frankly take all the fun out of fundamentalism, as it's difficult to laugh at them in the same way as the cretins in Northern Ireland desperately trying to cling on to discrimination, when they're enslaving women and so insistent on slicing off the heads of anyone looking at them askance.

You can understand the reticence: if we accept Islamic State is Islamic, doesn't that make this a war on Islam?  Won't it encourage idiots to see Muslims in general as the problem rather than the 0.01% who adhere to this particular brand of Islam, the violently intolerant and hateful variety of the Salafi Wahhabi strand?  And doesn't this make a mockery of the whole Islam is peace stuff we hear so often?  Well, no; they were anyway; and no, not really.  The first two questions sort of meld into one, as jihadists depict everything as a war against Islam, everyone against them as crusaders and so on, the same way as people who just hate Muslims because they're brown and not white and over here are delighted by the likes of Choudary doing their work for them.  As for Islam being the religion of peace, every religion has its violent past, its extremists and fundamentalists, its martyrs and heretics.  Even a Buddhist sect in Burma is currently doing its level best to persecute the tiny number of Muslims there.  Yes, an extreme minority of Muslims with the veneer of theological backing would really quite like to bring about the apocalypse and they currently control a fair swath of Iraq and Syria.  This is though to give the fighters rather than the ideologues more credit than they deserve; they're just there for the killing, to imagine themselves as historical warriors and treat the people they're living among like dirt.

How then do we react when three London school girls decide they want to join up with such people?  To call some of the reaction shallow is to do injustice to paddling pools, and not just from those who instantly wrote the girls offHumaira Patel in the Graun suggests "something beyond religion is also playing a part" and she's undoubtedly right.  Almost certainly not right is her claim of it being down to everything being against these girls, being female, being Muslim, being victims of Islamophobia, living in the east end, and so on and so forth.  There's being alienated, getting angry about discrimination and then deciding joining up with an essentially supremacist group in a war-torn country provides the answers to those problems.

Nikita Malik from the Quill.i.am Foundation (as only I call it) meanwhile takes to Left Foot Forward and refers to push and pull factors.  More convincing are the push factors, the belief of not fitting in, of an interpretation of religion not shared by parents or friends.  Far less are the pull factors, when Islamic State's propaganda is relatively clear about what is expected of women: hardly any will be fighters, and they instead are to be wives to fighter husbands.  Aqsa Mohammed and others alleged to have played a role in recruiting other women have made no bones about their lives in Syria and the mundane, behold to men reality.  If this can really be considered a pull factor, as pointed out on Monday, there are serious questions to be asked concerning just what sort of expectations of life these girls had to begin with.

Nosheen Iqbal for her part makes a worthy intervention somewhat undermined by making it all about sex.  The comparison with grooming is legitimate up to a point, only it falls down again on the whole propaganda hiding the reality front.  There's not many 16-year-old girls who in their heart of hearts are yearning to get married for a start, let alone to someone they've never met and might find they have nothing in common with other than a world view.  This said, the emphasis she places on their age and the stupidity that so often goes hand in hand with being a teenager deserves repeating, and it's also the case they are undoubtedly being judged more harshly precisely because of their sex.  We expect teenage boys to get into trouble, and Islamic State is nothing if not teenage in so many ways: the belief of everything being against you, the ridiculous level of self-importance, the absurd claims of the next stop being Europe that only those both amazingly ignorant and arrogant could make with a straight face.  Girls though should be more sensible, regardless of being susceptible to the exact same pressures and influences.  They could well be already regretting their decision, we just have no way of knowing.

Which brings us finally to Shiraz Maher, who makes an important point but probably not in the way he intended.  Repeating an argument he's made previously about the callousness of allowing jihadis to go out to Syria, without explaining how we're meant to stop the most determined when as we've seen three schoolgirls can manage it, he refers to recently imprisoned Imran Khawaja, who faked his own death in Syria in an effort to return home without being picked up.  Khawaja it seems "couldn't hack it" in Syria any longer, just as Mashudur Choudary couldn't.  The policy of prosecuting some of those who return and not others, which has to be a policy considering the numbers we're told have been and since returned without facing court, doesn't make a lot of sense.  If there's one point of the Atlantic piece worth dwelling on, it's that those who have returned are considered "dropouts", and the vast majority are not likely to pose any sort of threat.  Prosecution then achieves precisely nothing. It certainly doesn't act as a deterrent when it will just encourage those who do go to stay if they know a prison sentence awaits should they decide they've made a mistake.  At the same time, as argued before, not letting those who want to go amplifies the risk at home.

If anything, those who do return could play the exact role needed to discourage others from making the trip: as much as Islamic State doesn't hide the reality of life under it, there's nothing like the testimony of someone who believed they were acting out of their duty as a Muslim to dispel the wider fantasies those disposed to such thinking may have.  Little can be done for Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum now, but it may well take a change in thinking on the part of us "kuffar" to prevent others from following their path.

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Monday, February 23, 2015 

Don't pity them? I can't even begin to understand them.

Too much can at times be drawn from something depicting the ordinary which subsequently becomes extraordinary in the light of subsequent events.  The CCTV grabs of Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum at Gatwick airport on their way to board a flight to Turkey show three young and fashionable women.  The clothes they're wearing give absolutely nothing away, or perhaps they do; maybe the entire point was not to look overtly religious.  Sultana is not so much as wearing the hijab, and yet she's apparently on her way to a place where she'll be required to wear the full veil most, if not all of the time.  To judge entirely by the two grainy images given to the media, only Begum looks even vaguely anxious, pensive at the journey they're setting out on.

There is, all but needless to say, little to add to what's been reported so far on the apparent decision by the three teenagers to go to Syria, seemingly to join Islamic State, other than speculation.  Everyone is assuming they've gone to become "jihadi brides", as the Mail tastelessly but at the same time probably accurately has put it.  It certainly seems doubtful in the extreme they really would have gone in an attempt to persuade their friend who left back in December to return home, not least because of everything that could go wrong.  At the same time, I at least cannot even begin to understand what possible attraction there could be for a 16-year-old girl to want to go and live in Syria at all, let alone in Raqqa, Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital and their most likely destination.

You can at least begin to fathom why a young man of about that age might want to do so, radicalised or not.  Islamic State has done its utmost to mostly presently the conflict as one not just of religious duty where the rewards outweigh the sacrifices, some of whom are travelling with the exact intention of making the biggest one possible, but of fun and excitement, with spiritual discovery thrown in.  Brought up on a diet of braindead action flicks, superhero movies and vacuous yet satisfying video games, why not go where the real action is and live your life, away from the kuffar?  Hell, IS will even do their best to get you a wife, and if there aren't fellow Western girls available, you can have your pick from any number of Syrian or Iraqi women, so long as you can get over how they're probably just making themselves available to keep their family alive, if they're not an outright slave.  Then again, such recruits might not even be shaving yet, so such thoughts are probably not high on their list.

All of which just brings us back to what possible kind of mindset these very young women are in.  It's not as though Islamic State hides what it expects of women under their yoke: if they must be seen, it's concealed by the veil, and a male guardian has to be present should they want to go much further than beyond their doorstep.  Western recruits are to be wives to their fighting husbands, do everyday household chores, look after children, make themselves available to their husband should he be home and not away fighting, and that's about it.  To most 16-year-old girls, even pious, dare it be said slightly repressed ones, bearing in mind most 16-year-old girls tend to be 20x more mature than their male counterparts, it would come across as a vision of hell.  And yet not only are some deciding this is the life for them, they go out of their way to encourage others to come and join them.

Reading the words of Aqsa Mahmood, aka Umm Layth, fingered by some as being potentially responsible for convincing the girls to make the journey is to be transported into her fantasy world.  To join Islamic State is comparable to the journey made by Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina, and indeed, those who have gone call themselves hijrah in the same fashion.  Her last post on her Tumblr blog, from the 22nd of last month, explicitly counsels women to know their rights in the event of their husband being killed, or "martyred".  She reassures anyone reading that parents of some of the women have despite everything come to accept what they've done, have even visited themselves, and not to take any notice of those calling it a "sexual jihad".

Making assumptions is a mug's game, and yet it's all we have in cases like this.  You can explain it as brainwashing, as some have, as though you can take a 16-year-old from London and in the space of two months convince them to go and live in a war zone.  You can blame the security services, as if they're meant to put every single person who contacts a known Islamic State propagandist on a no fly list.  You can point at the airport authorities, for not looking down the flight lists and treating young women flying to Turkey with suspicion.  You can wonder exactly what their home lives were like, and how the idea of becoming wives at 16 could possibly appeal unless their aspirations were that low, or the alternative so apparently bleak, achievements at school aside.  You can try and imagine the brand of Islam they ascribed to and were brought up in, and how it could have influenced them.  You look at the words of Abase's father, who said "she [wouldn't] dare discuss something like this with us, she knows what the answer would be", the kind of statement you could easily read too much into.

The Mail on Saturday described the girls as "naive", complete with scare quotes, while the Torygraph's women's editor says they shouldn't be pitied.  In a way, again, you can't really object: no one can say they don't know what Islamic State does or stands for when they set it out for all in their videos, when their atrocities and idiosyncrasies have been so well documented and reported.  To decide to go and join them is to abandon your life to that point, to make yourself complicit in the actions of a movement that has an ideology without a single positive aspect, completely incomparable with those few who've previously gone to live in the Soviet Union or even Nazi Germany, being far more akin to those who've been won over by cults.

All the same, you also can't for a moment imagine they know what they've let themselves in for.  Something has blinded them to the reality of their decision, whether it be religion, contact with their friend or others, a belief they're doing something for the greater good, however absurd or ridiculous that looks to us on the outside looking in.  Having made that decision, it's now going to be next to impossible to reverse it, whether unable to escape if they so wanted to or treated as potential terrorists on their return, regardless of what the police currently say.  Letting immature morons go and blow themselves up on their gap year is one thing; knowing how to stop those you would have thought had more sense, should have more sense, whom apparently defy everything we think we know about young people, is quite another.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015 

All in the name.

Ever pondered how different things might have been if Hitler's name had been something else?  Would he still have electrified the beer halls in the same way as Adolf Schicklgruber, as his father was originally known?  And what for that matter if rather than Churchill, the right man at the right time had been called Reginald Boggis?
 

No, of course you haven't, because you're not an idiot.  All the same, names are important, especially for terrorist groups.  Boko Haram for instance, which isn't the group's actual title but is usually translated as western education is sinful/forbidden.  More literally though, it's books are forbidden.  The only book Boko Haram wants to suggest is of any worth is the Qu'ran, with the hadiths alongside, which tells you more about them than anything else.  Al-Qaida as you probably know translates as The Base, and in the beginning was a literal database of former mujahideen who had fought in Afghanistan.

Now there's Islamic State, and the name itself is enough to cause journalists to go weak at the knees and governments with ulterior motives to send in the bombers.  The group calling itself Islamic State in Libya has about as much connection with the self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as I would if I started flying a black flag from my roof and shouted Allah akbar every time I did anything.  All they've done is declared allegiance to everyone's favourite messianic loon Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but such is the fear the Islamic State name carries that it's the moniker itself which demands attention as much as their murder of 21 Coptic Christians.

We haven't after all shown the slightest interest in the Libyan civil war, despite the fact that it was Nato's fabulous intervention against Gaddafi that precipitated today's insecurity.  David Cameron's visit to Benghazi ought to be seen as his "mission accomplished" moment, except Cameron and Nato had sort of learned the lesson of Iraq: impose regime change, then get out as soon as.  Just like in Iraq, where the Ba'ath party effectively was the state, in Libya Gaddafi played a similar role.  And just like in Iraq, with the overthrow of a secular, vicious dictator, into the void have come various groups, some nationalist, some of a more moderate Islamist tinge, others like Ansar al-Sharia and our pals IS of the takfiri Wahhabi bent, and they're all fighting for power and influence.  The key difference is that unlike in Iraq, where the country has become riven due to the schism between Sunni and Shia, with the Kurds and smaller numbers of Yazidis and Christians thrown in for good measure, in Libya the vast majority of the population is Sunni.  Where others see Iraq as a lost cause as a state ruled from Baghdad, this should, according to them, make it easier to reach a political solution.

Only compared to Syria, Libya doesn't exactly strike most as being of the greatest urgency.  It's up there with Ukraine: it's not pleasant that cities are being made uninhabitable and thousands have died, but it rather palls in consideration with the however many hundreds of thousands killed in Syria and Islamic State declaring Sykes-Picot to be history.  With Islamic State duly rearing their ugly heads on the coast of Libya, deciding this time to film their latest atrocity on a beach, no surprises that both Italy and Egypt have decreed something must be done.

Italy's unease and anger is more than understandable: they along with Greece and Malta have become the new frontline of this latest wave of migration from Africa, with the rest of the European Union refusing to stump up the cash necessary to fund the operation to both save lives and turn boats around.  As for Egypt, beyond the anger and grief over the slaughter of Copts themselves looking for a better life, bombing an Islamic State grouplet is the kind of action designed to calm any remaining nerves the West might have over the military coup and subsequent massacres of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.  Facing an insurgency in the Sinai, the last thing Egypt wants is the another hostile force operating in a safe haven next door.  And even if it doesn't become anything more than a militia with a negligible amount of fighters seeking infamy by proxy through Islamic State, the very name and its professed allegiance means Egypt is hardly going to be criticised for striking against it.

Unfortunately for both Egypt and Italy, although whether the latter truly favours a reintervention in Libya isn't as yet clear, getting the team back together which did so much to cause this mess in the first place isn't going to happen.  Only France might be so inclined, and considering the French attitude to arming the rebels in Libya was to drop them from a great height and worry about the groups picking them up later, they have more to answer for than most.  Ourselves and the Americans however aren't interested, as we're both far too busy in Iraq and Syria, and for David Cameron there's the whole election thing to worry about.  Not even blood-curdling warnings from the Egyptians of Islamic State jihadis masquerading as refugees turning up on the shores of the Mediterranean ready to strike will change minds, although they do make for great quotes and clips in news reports.

Much as it feels a little churlish to criticise the media for the unbelievably one-dimensional and often plain ignorant coverage of Islamic State popping up in Libya, considering no one has expressed the slightest interest in the country since the death of Gaddafi, to give the impression IS is metastasing across the wider Arab world is simply wrong.  Nor is it just the usual suspects failing to provide context or make clear worrying about IS in Libya is even less a good use of time than panicking about Ebola was; the BBC have been at the forefront, and the Graun hasn't been much better.  Egypt is relying on just such a lack of knowledge for its own purposes, and its conflation of all varieties of Islamism as posing the same threat is being used to stifle the last remaining voices of dissent in the country.  The last thing Libya needs is further outside intervention; instead, a summit of the kind that could have worked in Syria if all sides had wanted it to is what ought to happen next.  Such things are boring sadly, especially when compared to a death cult's latest reprehensible crime.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015 

By their works they shall be judged.

The motives behind Fox News's decision to embed on their website the full 22-minute Islamic State video featuring the murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh are obvious.  Not only will it drive traffic to a site which is read far less than its channel is watched, nothing more epitomises just how depraved and evil these Muslims are.  Fox would of course never dream of showing the agonising death of an American citizen at the hands of terrorists, or probably anyone other than a fellow Muslim, a fellow brown-skinned Arab.  It's also a safe bet that had it been an American or British pilot shot down, Piers Morgan wouldn't have written quite such an abominable piece for Mail Online on watching it and how it means all Muslims MUST stand up against IS as this is THEIR war.  It would have rather undermined that completely specious argument for a start.

If there's one thing more distasteful than people watching the video and then boasting about doing so, it's those who say to watch it is to be complicit, to play into Islamic State's hands.  It's the exact same point as was made after the hacking of celebrities' cloud accounts, only slightly modified.  Not only is the message delivered invariably in a sanctimonious, holier than thou style, it also jars precisely because they're talking about something they don't want you to see, which in psychology terms rather defeats the object.  Suzanne Moore also wrote during last year's Gaza war that sharing graphic images of the conflict "devalued the currency of shared humanity".  Rather, it gave the lie to Israeli claims of only targeting Hamas.  The real hypocrisy is how sanitised the reporting of war is in the West, at least when our servicemen are involved.  The same injuries from bombing have been inflicted by British and American pilots in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only when journalists are directly caught up in it, as John Simpson was, do we see the true horror.

The fact is the media has an increasingly bizarre and idiosyncratic attitude to just what the public can and can't handle on their front pages or news channels.  The denouement of hostage crises, as we saw on a Friday last month, can be shown in real time and no one bats an eye-lid as long as there isn't any viscera in the frame.  Crazed killers who reacted badly to sensationalist media coverage will have their last moments recorded and played back as soon as possible for your delectation, and hardly anyone will speak up and say this is a new low.  Show the real, immediate aftermath of an airstrike though, and I don't mean the gray from the air footage released by the military, a raid carried out not by terrorists or murderers but a democratic state, and many will begin to squirm and come up with reasons as to why it shouldn't be viewed.

There is a line to be drawn, obviously, and on the whole the right decisions are usually made.  As yesterday's post likely made clear, I've watched a lot of jihadist video releases down the years, mostly from Iraq.  I could say I did so in order to be better informed, to know your enemy, and that would certainly be part of the truth.  Was part of it also curiosity though?  Well, yes, and I defy anyone to say they haven't sought out material that challenged them in some way at some point, whatever it may have been.  I'm not a gorehound by any means, and watching such things hasn't desensitised me in any way, shape or form.  If anything, it's furthered my loathing of cruelty, my suspicion of getting involved in wars where the realities are cloaked behind a curtain.  Often the attitude of dedicated researchers or experts, as voiced in the Graun's piece, appears to be only we are capable of analysing such videos and statements in a clinical manner, and to allow the hoi polloi to see them is unthinkable.  Indeed, anyone in this country who watches videos by Islamic State is likely to be committing a criminal offence.  To merely have in your possession a digital copy of Inspire magazine is to risk jail.

Without doubt, some of the reaction is down to the very fact you're capable of making the choice to click, rather than it being in the control of those judged to know better.  Whether such a video should be as easily available as Fox News has decided to make it is dubious, if only because the more clicks or searches needed to find something, the more likely those who in their heart of hearts don't want to see it will step back.  There have been times when I've thought long and hard about describing certain things on this blog, but often the decision I've reached is they need to be confronted and talked about, precisely because we all too often blanch from doing so.  Many seem to prefer not to remain ignorant, but to just not know.  My aim yesterday was to describe Muadh al-Kasasbeh's suffering as respectfully, accurately and calmly as I could, for anyone who did want to know but didn't want to see for themselves.  The very last thing I would say is anyone should watch it; as others who have done said, including the likes of Jeremy Bowen, it is without exaggeration among the most horrific things I have ever seen, if not the most horrific.
 

That's why it's not enough to just write Muadh al-Kasasbeh was burned alive and leave it at that.  To view what Islamic State did (as an aside, calling groups what they call themselves, regardless of their delusions of grandeur, is not to confer legitimacy on them) is not to be complicit in it.  I didn't feel rage, as I did watching the previous video of the mass beheading of Syrians, which was precisely what they wanted me to feel but was at their disgusting arrogance, how it distilled the sickening narcissism of all murderers.  No, I rather felt horror, sorrow and pity for their victim and all their victims.  This is why it is nonsensical to say videos of their crimes are "superfluous and risk distracting us".  No, they are documenting their own downfall.  By such chronicling they will be known and judged.  No one who doesn't want to see it has to, and no one should be judged for doing so.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2015 

The Islamic State will fall.

(Please take your trigger warnings and do one.  That said, this post discusses and describes some fairly distressing stuff, so you probably shouldn't read it.)

When the news came through Islamic State had captured a Jordanian pilot, my immediate thought was he was going to suffer.  Whatever indignities or torture both mental and physical IS's western prisoners have undergone, and if they were beaten, the group was careful not to leave injuries that would be seen on video, they have been nothing as to how the group treats other Muslims or groups deemed heretical.  The Yazidi women taken as slaves; the men crucified in the centre of Raqqa; the relatives of an Iraqi army commander made to dig their own graves before they were beheaded; Islamic State's brutality, much as it often appears an end in itself, is also meted out as a warning, just as other regimes have prospered in the short term through establishing a monopoly on violence.

For all the words expelled on why beheading and decapitation especially horrify, the most immediate reasons being our heads make us who we are, and to separate the head from the body is to dehumanise someone utterly, with the entire history of decapitation as a form of execution playing in the background as atavism, the main reason it became the favoured method of execution for jihadis is more prosaic.  Other than a bullet in the back of the head, it's relatively simple to carry out, and done "properly" it kills quickly, in a matter of seconds.  It also obviously provides an instant "trophy" that can be held aloft and displayed.  How soon brain death occurs is a matter of scientific debate, and how much pain the victim experiences can only be speculated upon, further depending on specific circumstances.  If the executioner isn't a sadist, or doesn't intend to make it as painful an end as imaginable, whether through using a blunt knife, not fully severing the windpipe or wrenching at the head when the neck has only been half cut, all things jihadis have done in executions they have filmed, there are worse ways to die.  Not many, but there are.

One such way is to be burned.  If beheading reminds of the guillotine, of masked executioners wielding axes, of seppuku, burning alive is even more primeval, archaic.  You think witches, Joan of Arc, women convicted of treason.  It's also more instantly associated with Christianity than Islam.

The murder of Muadh al-Kasasbeh has, all but needless to say, nothing whatsoever in common with Islam and instead everything to do with politics.  The cynicism of Islamic State is not so much over the method of execution, and instead the emotional torture of his relatives.  If the Jordanian government is correct, al-Kasasbeh was put to death exactly a month ago, yet his murderers spent the past week raising hopes in both Jordan and Japan that men they may well have already killed could be released in a prisoner swap.  It also means that IS has had the best part of a month to put together their most despicable and elaborate murder set piece yet, which is exactly what their 22-minute release is.

Back in December Will Self was correct in pointing out none of the videos of the western hostages the media said depicted their execution actually did, in as much as showing the act itself.  They all faded to black as the knife was put to their neck and the cutting motion appeared to begin; when the image came back in, the now severed head of the victim had been placed upright on the back of their now prone body.  This raised the question of whether the British jihadi who addressed the camera in each video was the person carrying out the murder, or whether someone else did once the camera stopped filming.  If there were any doubts, these were answered by the release of a video showing the execution of a group of Syrian officers which gloried in showing the act in full, the British man staring at the camera as he sliced open his victim's throat.

There is no cutting away either from al-Kasabeh's terrible ordeal.  Before the accelerant which trails from the cage he has been placed in is lit, and such is the ferocity of the fire it could well be jet fuel rather than mere petrol, he's led through bombed buildings.  Indeed, destruction surrounds the place chosen for the execution.  It's presented as pure revenge, as being eminently justifiable to IS's supporters, as well as for maximum impact.  Boris Johnson was rightly criticised for his idiotic remarks about jihadis all being porn obsessed wankers, but there are jihadis who do fit that description, only they have a bloodlust equal to that others have for naked flesh.  IS more than any previous jihadist group caters to this market, and it does so in the style of the most vacuous and disposable Hollywood action flick, al-Kasabeh's pained, terrified expressions as he awaits his fate sliced together in a montage over in less than 5 seconds.

What happens to al-Kasabeh isn't only as the broadcasters will say, too graphic to show, it's almost too horrific to describe.  If we have any knowledge of images of death by burning, it's probably of Thích Quảng Đức, or Buddhists in Tibet, either filmed at a distance or in poor quality.  Al-Kasabeh dies in agony, up close, and in high definition.  His screams seem to go on long after he stops moving, after his body has reached the stage at which it constricts, only ending not long before it topples backwards.  Almost immediately, but probably cleverly edited to look that way, a digger moves in and dumps rubble on to the cage, crushing it, al-Kasabeh's blackened hand left visible through the debris.  This is what you've done to us; if we capture you, it's what you can expect in return.

Some on previous occasions claimed Islamic State's releases have been meant to distract from their problems on the ground, not always with much credibility.  This time, it's far more apposite.  To be crude, and not entirely accurate, the butch men of Islamic State have just had their arses handed to them by a militia led by a woman.  Yes, they were helped massively by the airstrikes and backed up by other Syrian rebels and Iraqi Kurds, but let's not ignore that symbolism.  Islamic State seemed at one point unstoppable, or overexcitable media gave that impression.  They are now being pushed back in both Syria and Iraq, and the battle to retake Mosul is being planned.

The ever more elaborate and gruesome Islamic State's base propaganda becomes, the more it becomes clear it's fighting a battle for survival in its current form.  Exactly what shouldn't happen now is for Jordan to engage in tat for tat executions, rather to rise above such instant acts of vengeance.  Justice will be achieved for al-Kasabeh in other ways, just as it will for the western and Japanese hostages murdered, and the ordinary citizens of Iraq and Syria currently under their vicious yoke.  The real challenge, though, will be in ensuring the same mistakes that led to the rise of IS aren't repeated once they have been defeated.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014 

Syria: morals, and the lack thereof.

It's testament both to the scale of the disaster that has befallen Syria and the perseverance of the rebels' supporters in the West that even now, when by (conservative) estimate over 100,000 people have been killed and 2 million have fled, we're still getting fed stylised propaganda about the heroism of those on the ground.  Martin Chulov's piece in the Graun on Umm Abdu, the doctor who has a "steel pistol she holsters to her back", and who has used weapons and then "treated the people who were injured", is a great story, as the best propaganda always is.  It could be utter piffle, and it presents just the one side of the conflict, but that doesn't alter how compelling her bravery is, nor her determination to help those around her who are suffering.

Syria appears a unique case where all of the antagonists have failed in their aims, and where all bear some responsibility for the unending nightmare the civil war has cast so many into.  That is until you remember Iraq, where imperial hubris combined with the most base incompetence conspired to in part bring us here.  Had the Iraq war never taken place we can't say Syria would have been spared the full horror it has descended into, yet it's arguable there wouldn't have been quite so many on the rebel side completely opposed to any kind of accommodation with the Assad government, or indeed quite so brutal in their methods.  Ironically or more accurately, tragically, Assad for a long time played a role akin to Turkey's, allowing jihadis and foreign fighters to cross the border with impunity.  Some of those same muhajids have undoubtedly returned and made use of their acquired knowledge against their one time facilitator.

With the sole exception of Tunisia, where the Arab spring begun and was the most "free" society to begin with, all the various revolutions or uprisings have either been countered or collapsed into repression or worse.  Egypt has the worst of all worlds: the Mubarak state is back without the economic growth that underpinned it; Libya's own civil war continues while Benghazi, the city we sent the bombers in to "save" is under the control of a group allied with Islamic State; Bahrain's opposition movement has been comprehensively smashed without so much as a peep from ourselves; and when it comes to Syria, hell doesn't properly describe a country where beheadings, crucifixions and barrel bombings are the new normal.

Sadly, as has always been the case and will always remain, while money can be found to kill people whatever the circumstances, finding it to feed people never has quite the same priority.  You might have thought politicians would feel a certain sense of shame at how the UN reports it will have to suspend the voucher scheme it operates for Syrian refugees should the funding promised not materialise, considering how some of them have spent three years either providing "non-lethal" or very much lethal aid to the rebels, oddly in the case of ourselves and most of the coalition put together against Islamic State also without accepting our fair share of asylum seekers.  If they do, and some of them surely must have some compunction over how their policies on Syria have contributed to the situation, then so far they're hiding it.

Then again, to return to those still hankering after yet more war, the hypocrisy or sheer pigheadedness still has the power to shock.  For months the "moderate" rebels and some of the normally more credulous journalists have insisted there was either agreement between the Assad government and Islamic State or an unofficial pact whereby one side didn't attack the other.  It was always nonsense, Assad paying IS for oil as the Kurds also have aside.  When Assad does then bomb Islamic State targets, as the regime has over the past week in Raqqa, the exact same people cry over the "collateral damage", as the US would call it.  According to sources on the ground, we're meant to believe that while the US airstrikes against IS have been pinpoint, rarely killing civilians, the attacks by the regime have been anything but.  Indeed, last week State Department spokesman Jen Psaki declared the administration "horrified" at the "continued slaughter", in comments that frankly take the breath away.  Meanwhile over at Left Foot Forward, where anyone can seemingly get their bizarre opinions hosted so long as they're pro-bombing, Kellie Strom believes the failure to impose a no-fly zone at the same time as "degrading" IS is all down to appeasing Iran, and the potential deal on their nuclear programme.

This would of course be the same Iran it's rumoured the US is pressuring over the nuclear programme via Saudia Arabia and the collapse in the price of oil.  While some of the fall can be put down to the shale oil boom in the US, the continuing instability in the region would normally have the effect of pushing the price up, not down.  Equally strange is the other stated reason, that the US fears the Iranian-backed militias could attack US forces in Iraq, despite the numbers of US forces in the country remaining negligible and those militias keeping themselves busy wreaking much the same havoc IS has been.

Far more sensible is the explanation that, just as we've done from the beginning, ourselves and the Americans are still making it up as we go along.  This non-alliance with Assad is happening because of realpolitik: we spent the best part of 2 years sort-of and sort-of not arming the rebels, imagining they would quickly do away with the regime.  Instead what happened is the extremists quickly took over, thanks mainly to our pals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and a terrifyingly violent stalemate is the result.  As the "moderate" rebels either don't exist or are next to non-existent in the militarily capable sense, not doing anything to rile Assad when his forces will be the ones fighting IS on the ground is the best option; whether it is morally is a different question.  But then, as we've noted, morals have never exactly been at the forefront of our concerns for a very long time now.

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Monday, November 17, 2014 

Islamic State and the "glamour" of war.

If there's one thing war most certainly isn't, it's glamorous.  Only the truly chuckleheaded try and make it look that way, most of whom are by coincidence looking for fresh recruits.  All too often accounts of soldiers, defenders, even those on the offensive, fall into adulation and hero worship, any qualms about the hideousness of what those being chronicled are doing, for the greater good or not, forgotten amid the need to create a myth.  Those defending Kobani against Islamic State for instance are without a doubt fighting a noble cause, against an enemy whose inhumanity, barbarity and bloodlust is most certainly not mythical.  They are not however uniquely heroic, the best of humanity against the worst or any other hyperbole; they're still a militia, a people's militia or not, and turning your back on any militia isn't advisable.

Islamic State is hardly likely then to document how their fighters around Kobani will be shitting in dug pits, if of course they have enough food to be able to think about shitting, desperate for water or any liquid, constantly watching the skies terrified of a drone or US warplane getting too close for comfort.  No, instead they ramp up how a tiny minority when not on the front line are housed in seized properties where it's not all that different to back home, chilling with their Muslim brothers, truly living rather than merely existing, as they would have been had they stayed in Jeddah, Tunis or err, Portsmouth.

As Shiraz Maher says, the stuff IS does make available to the world is of "exceptional quality", at least in comparison to a decade ago when IS's predecessors were uploading videos depicting much the same thing, only it appeared to have been filmed with a potato.  It's also revealing in how it mixes the utterly banal with the unbelievably narcissistic, the most vapid and disposable of Western culture appropriated to promote a creed and cause antithetical to everything Hollywood holds dear.  Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's glorious caliphate, the message seems to be, even the executions will be choreographed and directed by someone with much the same talent as Michael Bay or McG.  Not for these poor bastards a bullet in the back of the head; whereas before IS eschewed all out gore, the screen fading to black as a Western hostage's neck began to be slashed, the camera on this occasion delights in the blood spilled onto sand, the vivid red deliberately set against the dull yellow for maximum impact.

It's not meant for me, of course.  This is your fate, it says to those in Syria and Iraq fighting against IS, whether it be government forces, the Kurds, Shia militias or rebel factions they might have once battled alongside.  This is what you could be doing, it says to the disaffected radically inclined Sunni youth of everywhere, whether they be psychopaths, the sexually frustrated or those with notions of doing good, all are invited and welcome.  Sure, our masked friend with the London accent is once again centre stage, promising to bring the slaughter he's about to lead to "our streets", but it's an empty threat.  After cutting the neck of the man who a second ago was kneeling before him, he then pulls his victim's head back, slow motion is deployed, and he fixes the camera with what is meant to be a stare of defiance.  All I see in those eyes is fear.  A supposed terrorist not at his most powerful but his most bestial, with the man he's just mortally wounded helpless, and still he's terrified.  The victims by contrast go to their deaths with a courage the killers are incapable of emulating.

The video also distracted, intentionally or otherwise, from how things suddenly aren't going the way of IS.  Whether al-Baghdadi was injured or not in the missile strike near Mosul, the group still hasn't taken Kobani and doesn't look as though it can.  It's also losing territory in Iraq, mainly thanks to the involvement of the aforementioned Shia militias backed by Iran, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility the Syrian government might soon win back control of Aleppo, with the obvious next target for Assad the IS capital of Raqqa.  A movement that previously looked unstoppable isn't going to attract the same numbers of recruits, especially those who aren't looking for martyrdom and instead have treated their journey to Syria as little more than a gap year.

Enter then David Cameron, who somehow confused parliaments, announcing new anti-terror legislation in Canberra rather than at Westminster.  A compromise has been reached between stripping citizenship altogether from those who go to fight and instead excluding them for two years, unless they accept they could be prosecuted, as well as subject to stringent monitoring.  Except in reality statelessness was never an option as it's illegal, and nor has it been explained whether someone who decides to wait out the two years will then be treated in the same way on return anyway, as you expect they would.  This rather ignores how the main threat comes usually from those who are stopped from travelling in the first place, as both of the recent attacks in Canada were carried out by men whose passports were confiscated, or from those chosen specifically for a plot, as the 7/7 jihadis were.  Most who head for Syria will end up dead extremely quickly, or left embittered and/or damaged by their experience rather than further radicalised.  It might seem blasé or irresponsible to let those set on jihad go to Syria, but it could be the least worst option, so long as combined with a policy of prosecution and heightened surveillance for those who do choose to come back.

Hyperbole is admittedly tempting when it comes to IS.  Their aim is to instil fear and hatred, and when you really could be next the effect is always going to be palpable.  The best way to respond here though is not to ramp up the panic or to scaremonger, it's to fight back against the narrative of their propaganda, to not give them almost pet nicknames but regard them as what they are: the lowest of the low.  They're not revolutionaries or religious fundamentalists (although they are) so much as murderers and rapists of fellow Muslims, and that is what they will remain.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014 

The war against IS: going just swell.

Compared to the previous execution videos released by Islamic State, their fourth "message to America and its allies" was almost apologetic in tone, as though even they realised the murder of Alan Henning was a step too far.  Gone was the more obscene bombast that had accompanied the killings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and David Haines, the lengthier forced testimonies from the men blaming their deaths on Western leaders, with Henning made to say just a couple of lines on the parliamentary vote that authorised British attacks on IS in Iraq.  He also looked calmer, not terrified as he obviously was in the Haines video.  Perhaps he was resigned to his fate, or perhaps this wasn't the first time IS had made him give a statement to camera, on the previous occasions not following through.

Lasting not so much as 90 seconds, the video gave every indication of being hurriedly produced.  The location clearly wasn't the same as it had been in all the previous videos, it wasn't as well lit, the British jihadi (I'm refusing from now on to refer to him in the same way as the rest of the UK media have decided to) was neither as menacing, coherent or arrogant in his speech.  The only things remaining much the same were the execution, the quick fading out, displaying of Henning's lifeless body and then parading of the next likely victim.  Jihadis have and always will invent specious, quasi-religious justifications for the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but even the hardcore will have struggled internally to convince themselves killing Henning was necessary: a man who travelled to Syria purely to help the very people IS claims to be defending, his life and compassion will be remembered long after his killer's banal hatred is consigned to history.

If there are crumbs of comfort to be taken from such an act of unconscionable cruelty, it's that even prior to the murder itself there had been an outpouring of condemnation from all sides, and the video itself suggests the airstrikes on the IS capital of Raqqa have already had an effect.  Elsewhere the war on IS doesn't appear to be going as planned, not that it's ever been apparent there is something resembling a plan.  In northern Iraq airstrikes, combined with the aiding/arming of the peshmerga, have stopped IS from advancing further.  This though seems to have been at the price of IS turning its attention both further south, with reports of IS consolidating its hold on territory in Anbar province, while more attention is being paid to the siege of Kobani on the Syria/Turkey border.

The same doom-laden predictions of an imminent massacre, of betrayal at the hands of the Americans and Turks, of demands for heavy weaponry to match that which IS took from the Iraqi army, all have been heard before and are now being aired yet again.  There is some truth in these latter complaints: the War Nerd points out IS took the small border crossing of Jarabulus (and in the usual grandiose fashion, declared it an emirate), 25km from Kobani in June 2013, long enough ago for all sides to have acted or prepared for just this eventuality.  It also speaks of the relative weakness of IS that it's taken over a year for the group to move the short distance from Jarabulus and try capturing the next obvious large settlement.  At work are the divided loyalties of President Erodgan's Turkish state: it doesn't especially want Kobani to fall to IS, but it doesn't want to empower the Kurds either, not least when the militias fighting IS are either allied with or directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still designated as a terrorist group despite the long-term ceasefire agreed last year.  Until recently the Turkish border with Syria was all but wide open, allowing foreigners to join up with the rebel grouping of their choosing with relative impunity; now it's closed, especially to those wanting to reinforce the Kurdish militias.

Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war has long been opaque, as demonstrated by leaked recordings which suggested the military could have been preparing a so-called "false flag" attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, in a bid to justify intervening in the country.  Erodgan today continued to demand a two-pronged strategy, to defeat both IS and Assad simultaneously, without explaining how this could possibly be achieved, only that air power alone couldn't do it.  Many Kurds for their part believe IS has received support directly from Turkey, while the Americans are understandably fuming at how a NATO member state has done little beyond place heavy weaponry along the border, despite Turkey's parliament at the weekend voting to support intervention.

For all the insults thrown at IS, including from the esteemed likes of the War Nerd, it's adapted quickly to the forces now ranged against it.  Partly this is down to how many of its fighters are relative veterans, either from Iraq or battling Assad, and so aren't strangers to being attacked from the air.  They've learned to dig in, scatter when they hear jets or blend in with the population.  The airstrikes have disrupted their ability to operate completely in the open for sure, but not to the point where it means they can't still take new ground.  Already we have the likes of Jonathan Powell urging everyone not to rule out talking to our new enemy, and he makes quite a few salient points.  Strangely, Powell doesn't so much as mention talking to Assad, something that would make far more sense and which even his former boss suggested was inevitable earlier in the year.  Powell it seems is more Blairite now than ever: not prepared to jaw-jaw with dictators when we could war-war instead, but perfectly happy to talk with the most brutal of armed groups.  One could bring up how Powell and Blair's war effectively created IS, but that would be frightfully rude.

Everyone knows IS can't be defeated through just air power.  At the same time, no one wants to admit they're wrong, and have been for the past few years.  For either Obama or Cameron to send ground forces (as opposed to special forces or military "advisers", both of whom are and have been operating in Syria and Iraq for some time now) in would be to go against their twin strategies of drawing down and back from prolonged, costly deployments in the Middle East.  To even reach a temporary accommodation with Assad would be a propaganda coup for the "illegitimate" gasser of women and children, and outrage the Saudis and Qataris whom are still keen on their proxy war against Iran.  To admit the Free Syrian Army doesn't exist and probably couldn't be trained in 8 years, let alone 8 months to a standard where it could take on IS would remove the one remaining illusion of influence we have on the ground. 

We could, of course, have chosen not to intervene; we could have told the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and all the other funders of IS and al-Nusra in no uncertain terms how they were risking the seeming advances made in Iraq; we could have pushed far harder for a peace settlement before the power of the Islamists became too great; we could have done almost everything over the past decade connected with Syria and Iraq differently.  In the same way, "boots on the ground" intervention is just a matter of time.  It's not that we haven't learned anything, it's not that we haven't had a choice, it's just that not repeating the same mistakes over and over is too difficult by half.

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Friday, September 26, 2014 

That justification for a third war in Iraq in full.

We have a slightly different missile in our arsenal to the ones used by the Americans.

Well, I'm convinced.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014 

Perpetually stuck in a sepia film.

Abu Qatada's acquittal on terror charges in Jordan is an all but perfect metaphor for the entire way we've gone about fighting the "war on terror".  For the best part of 10 years an innocent man was detained without charge, either in Belmarsh, Long Lartin or in his own home under onerous bail conditions.  He finally left the UK, not because he was forced to as the government would like us to believe, but as he decided he'd rather take his chances with the Jordanian court system than continue to be locked up.  So desperate were we to be rid of ol' bird-nest face we persuaded the Jordanians to somewhat reform their system, ensuring the torture tainted evidence that convicted him in absentia was made inadmissible, apparently unconcerned he could be found not guilty.  He can't return, so why should it bother us?

Qatada's detention was not just dependent on his awaiting deportation, but as he was judged to pose a threat in general.  He was, according to judges with access to secret intelligence Qatada himself was not able to see, a "truly dangerous individual", while a Spanish judge, since defrocked, described him as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe", something quoted ever after.  And indeed, Qatada is a supporter of al-Qaida.  He is without doubt an Islamist extremist, his writings and sermons read by those whom have gone on to carry out terrorist attacks.  Qatada himself though is not a terrorist, nor is he a takfirist; he made an appeal on behalf on Norman Kember, and most recently has denounced Islamic State's murder of three Westerners.  The other most respected Salafi ideologue, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, while calling for the release of Alan Henning, has also wrote on his website that Qatada had asked IS directly to release Henning, with the group denying at the time it was behind the kidnapping.

Dispensing with civil liberties at the first opportunity; exaggerating the real level of threat posed by jihadists; dumping our problems on the rest of the world at the same time as maintaining our actions have been in the interest of everyone.  All were characteristic to our approach to Qatada, and while as yet the coalition hasn't signalled it believes in further dilutions of liberty in the name of security, the other two have most definitely been in evidence as parliament gears up to authorise air strikes against IS.  One of the surest indications a policy is a terrible idea is when it has almost universal support, as accepting the Iraqi government's invitation to bomb their country has, with the exception of the usual stick in the muds.  No one seriously believes simply attacking IS from the air will destroy it, nor does the government have any faith either in the Kurdish peshmerga or Baghdad's ability to win back the territory seized by IS.  Nor are we filling a vital gap in the coalition put together by the United States, especially when the Gulf states have this time shown a willingness to actually use their own military capabilities.

No, we're about to go to war again because it would be almost rude not to.  Of little to no apparent concern is how damn familiar this seems.  Western intervention in the Middle East hasn't rid the region of Islamic extremism; rather, at every turn it has encouraged it.  Starting with the funding of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, almost every single policy decision taken has put fuel on the fire.  13 years of war in Afghanistan hasn't defeated the Taliban, who remain in wait for the long coming withdrawal of Western troops.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Iraq without a plan as to what to put in his place: the result was a sectarian civil war, the creation of IS and the empowerment of Iran.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Libya in the name of the "responsibility to protect": the result is a civil war between Islamist militias.  We've supported the overthrow of a secular dictator in Syria, recognising the opposition as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people; that "moderate" opposition has never existed in reality, and we either turned a blind eye or didn't object when our allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded and armed the self-same extremists we are now posed to obliterate from the air.

If we're concerned the targeting of both the al-Nusra Front and IS in Syria could help to repair the fitna between the groups, it's not apparent.  Nor does it worry us how Western bombing always kills civilians, always unites in anger those otherwise against the extremists.  Yet again we don't have an exit strategy, even an idea what the "degrading" of IS means in practice, nor a guarantee attacks won't be extended to Syria.  Once again it will intensify the otherwise low threat IS currently poses, ironically when that limited threat is being used as a justification for the attacks.  Once again our enemy is evil, uniquely terrible, a "network of death".  Forgive me if I recall just how many deaths the forces of freedom have been responsible for, how insulted I am at being asked to accept the same people who got us in this mess are now going to solve it, and all through once again lobbing high explosives at whichever brick shithouse in this particular area IS has set up shop.  The case for joining the truly unholy coalition stitched together by the US is, remarkably, even weaker than the one made for bombing Assad last year.  It's just it's too much trouble to say no again.  We'd rather history repeat, as it will.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 

It's that time again.

The interventionists have at last got their war in Syria.  It's not the war they wanted, the feel-good bombing the fuck out of anything that looked vaguely like belonging to the Syrian military in revenge for the gassing of children war, rather a not quite as feel-good but still pleasing bombing the fuck out of anything that looks vaguely like being an Islamic State stronghold war, but a war's a war.  It means the same old white guys in uniform presenting a salivating media with grainy black and white images of death from above, completely different from the pristine high definition snuff propaganda offered up by IS.  It means the ever willing servant of the United States, Her Majesty's Government, rushing to pledge the use of its own US-bought ordnance in the battle against the forces of evil, this completely new and unprecedented threat from the marauding, advancing, terrifying IS.  This is not just a battle for Britain, it is the battle of Britain: forget that mere skirmish with the Hun, when a true coalition of the willing fought in the skies against the Luftwaffe; this is the real deal.

Just to underline how completely insane the indirect intervention in Syria before now has been, also hit at the same time as IS was the al-Nusra Front, only the US has renamed them the Khorosan group for the duration.  According to the US they were in the final stages of preparation for an attack on the West, perhaps with those fabled iPhone bombs we heard about a few months back.  Al-Nusra is of course al-Qaida's affiliate proper in Syria, albeit one almost certainly funded indirectly if not directly by the same Gulf states now allied with the US.  One wonders if a strike on al-Nusra was a Saudi condition of getting their own jets dirty, intended as a message to Qatar, the Saudis having stepped back from supporting jihadists at the start of the year in favour of plain old Islamists, having realised its clients were getting out of control.

Such are the rivalries at work in the patched together US coalition.  Kudos must go to the Saudis and Qataris, whom having played a major role in fomenting the sectarian civil war are now bombing those they eulogised as their Sunni, Wahhabi brothers.  Luckily for them such contortions are easier to explain when they also control their media.  Our media by contrast is completely free and unafraid to ask the difficult questions, hence why they didn't inquire about civilian casualties given the opportunity.  Difficult as it is to comprehend, far more lies have been told about Syria than ever were about Iraq.  Back then we didn't have any equivalent to the Graun insisting there had been an unofficial truce between the Assad regime and IS, deals between the two over oil aside.  Whole sections meanwhile fell into believing there really was something equivalent to a Free Syrian Army on the ground, rather than an extremely loosely tied alliance of self-starting battalions, the vast majority Islamist if not jihadist.  There never was and never has been a "moderate" armed opposition, with even those the US is now supposedly training in what it all but admits is little more than a PR exercise fighting alongside the likes of al-Nusra.

Not that you can necessarily blame those on the frontline when reporting on conflict gets ever more dangerous.  It isn't just that the rebels and the Syrian government both care little for the lives of journalists, although they do, it's that media organisations don't want to pay the vast sums that go hand in hand with in-depth foreign reporting, and so the local guides who play such an important role in keeping correspondents safe walk away.  James Foley and Stephen Sotloff paid a price in blood as a result.  Quite what IS hopes to achieve with the videos featuring John Cantlie isn't clear when the message he's being forced to deliver is so one note, but it is undeniable he and the other British and American hostages have been abandoned to their fate.  The refusal to pay ransoms is certainly a morally righteous position, but combined as it is with the media blackout on their captivity it means their only real chance of escaping death is a special forces raid.  You have to hope the news that IS put Alan Henning before a Sharia court which cleared of him being a spy means they could still act with mercy towards someone who only wanted to help the Syrian people, yet when you start throwing cruise missiles around with gay abandon it's hard not to fear the worst.

Striking al-Nusra at the same time as IS also lays bare how the whole non-strategy takes its cue from the Libya campaign.  Once the UN resolution was passed, NATO's interpretation was it allowed them to do whatever the hell took their fancy.  With it as yet uncertain whether the UN will be involved beyond the passing of a resolution skirting the issue, not least as Russia will veto anything that looks remotely like 1973 again, there's not even the figleaf of legality being maintained.  While there's probably more contact between the Assad government and the Americans going on than is being admitted, there's not even the pretence that should IS be "degraded" the focus won't then switch towards finishing the job.  Why else would the "moderate" Gulf states as the BBC hilariously referred to them earlier join in unless they've received assurances that Assad won't in the long run gain from the destruction of IS?

This said, IS won't crumble under the weight of air power alone.  As Juan Cole writes, shock and awe has never worked, and won't this time.  The Islamic State survived in Iraq for years without anything near to the safe havens it's established over the past 12 months, and should it have to abandon Raqqa or anywhere else it will just be a return to what it's known before.  If the intention was to go all out against IS, rather than merely contain them, the kind of truce between Assad and the "moderate" rebels proposed by Patrick Cockburn would be high on the agenda.  It's not as IS is far too useful, as proved by the non-role of Israel.  A jihadist organisation that makes Hamas look like the girl guides rampages across Syria, getting ever nearer to the one true democracy in the region™, and how does it respond?  By, err, shooting down a Syrian jet.

What then is the aim of all this?  Just as we came within spitting distance last year of attacking Syria thanks to Obama's "red lines", so now the main reason why the US has acted is down to domestic pressure to do something, anything.  As soon as the president "misspoke" by saying he didn't have a strategy it doomed him into having to find one.  Thankfully for him, most commentators haven't noticed the new strategy is just the old one with knobs on, easily distracted as they are by explosions and the usual war porn.  Islamic State must return to its old ways of blowing up markets filled with Iraqis rather than cutting off the heads of Westerners is the mission in short.  Chase them back into the desert and away from minorities while still dropping the odd Hellfire missile, and everyone will be happy.  It's "worked" in Yemen.  This doesn't solve anything whatsoever you'll note, and at some point the Saudis and Qataris are going to return to their old ways, especially if this empowers Assad as it undoubtedly will, but we'll worry about that once it happens.

Any British politician with more than a modicum of sense would take one look at this mess and run a mile.  Appearances must though be kept up.  The bloody French have involved themselves for whatever reason, probably down to Hollande trying desperately to distract from the country's economic woes, and Labour, ever the hypocrites, made a lot out of those remarks from Robert Gates about our military capability not keeping up with theirs.  The Atlanticist headbangers on the backbenches love a good turkey shoot, so any worries that getting involved will increase rather than decrease the potential for a terrorist attack must be put to one side.  America expects, you know.  We might hedge our bets, attacking only Iraq rather than Syria lest this trouble Labour unduly, but make no mistake, the war party is going to be in full swing again.  Besides, we can't possibly make things even worse, can we?

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Thursday, September 11, 2014 

The new strategy is there is no strategy.

One thing is abundantly clear after President Obama set out his new strategy on "degrading and destroying" Islamic State: our politicians have been getting themselves in a tizzy for nothing.  Just as policy on Syria has long been to contain, if not actively prolong the civil war in the country, with the result being the rise not of moderates but the likes of the al-Nusra Front and IS, so now this will be extended into Iraq despite the containment strategy having singularly failed.  Got that?

There certainly isn't any other conclusion you can possibly reach after Obama's televised address.  The strategy he sets out is the same one his administration has long favoured, using drones and special forces while trying to empower the jihadists' foes on the ground.  This has "worked" in Somalia and Yemen, in the sense neither al-Shabaab or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have launched attacks on the west, despite the latter having made a number of attempts.  As for whether our allies in either country have been empowered, it's very much a secondary concern.  So long as the high-ups in the groups are thinned out every so often, as has just happened with al-Shabaab, it goes down as a success.

Why then all the rhetoric about destroying IS, it being a cancer needing to be cut out etc, when it's obviously a long-term aim?  Well, it's what he needed to do after he said previously there was no strategy, when he meant there was no new strategy.  There still isn't, it's just you can make it look as though he's proposing something different by ratcheting up the language, sending John Kerry round all the "friendly" American-allied despots and getting them to say they're going to do something when there's little evidence they will based on how some of them are just as much responsible for the rise of IS as the Ba'ath in Syria and the Americans themselves have been.

If this was the intention all along, it's not clear if the message got through to dear old Dave.  There he was declaring IS poses the greatest threat to the country since William the Bastard, with JTAC declaring it to once again be severe, and now it's not even apparent if the US wants us to help out by firing the odd Hellfire missile at a rag-tag bunch of wannabe headloppers.  Despite the media leaping at Obama saying he "will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria", that doesn't mean he's going to be authorising air strikes there any time soon.  Apart from the Russians making clear their displeasure, any sustained campaign against IS will only benefit Assad in the short-term.  If there really are "moderate" Syrian rebels currently being trained by the US, with Patrick Cockburn suggesting they amount to the last remnants of what was the Free Syrian Army, which was never an army in the first place, only now fully under the auspices of the CIA, the idea they can fight both IS and Assad at the same time is as ridiculous as it is amusing.  The US can't possibly imagine they'll make the difference either; the hope presumably is the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwatis etc will come round to the US approach and start funding their controlled rebels instead of the likes of the Islamic Front or IS itself.  This in turn will risk the non-IS jihadists going over to IS, but that apparently doesn't worry anyone.

The Syrian rebels are themselves still fixated on overthrowing Assad, not surprisingly considering that's err, why they rose up in the first place.  Sadly for them the mission's changed: once it was about getting rid of the Ba'ath, only the west soon realised the rebels weren't going to be any better than Assad, in fact probably worse.  Rather than admit we got all our predictions about the Syrian regime being doomed wrong, Assad "re-elected" and going nowhere, we settled on support for the rebels knowing full well neither they nor the government could strike a killer blow.  Only we didn't count on the apparently defeated and broken Islamic State of Iraq morphing into not just IS but also al-Nusra, or the Sunni Arab states using them in their proxy battle against Iran.  Or at least on IS becoming so powerful so quickly.

As for Iraq, the US is perfectly happy to send a few more units to the country, for allies to arm the Kurds and Iraqi government, and for neither to move all that quickly against the towns and cities IS controls.  Unlike the panic-mongers over here, Obama spelled out how IS currently doesn't have the intention of attacking the west, being far too busy in both countries.  No reason then to risk further unbalancing the fragility in Iraq; with the Yazidis mostly safe and other minorities having fled, the US is counting on IS once again outstaying its welcome amongst the Sunni tribes, just as it did back in 2007.

Moreover, Obama's reheated strategy is almost certainly the right one, despite its failure in Syria.  If the intention was to really deal with IS and right now it would mean temporarily allying with Assad, something we simply aren't prepared to do, both out of the sheer embarrassment it would involve and of course down to how he's a chemical weapon using tyrant.  Having morals is nice, but not losing face is far more important.

It would be great though if for once, just once, our leaders could admit how badly they've got things wrong.  We hold our hands up: we're just as responsible for the rise of IS as either Assad or the sectarian Iraqi government.  Now it's turned out this way, we're going to make it right by not making the same mistakes as we did before.  The Americans, against the odds and to their credit, have reacted in a far calmer manner than our politicians have, regardless of Cameron's rhetoric not matching the legislation proposed so far.  With the parties currently far more exercised by the little matter of Scotland potentially leaving the union, by the time parliament returns (assuming there is a no vote) the initial something-must-be-done stage might have passed.  Just don't count on it.

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